The Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award, has been won by a total of 14 Royal Navy submariners in both world wars: four of them operated in X and XE-craft-midget submarines. The VC, a bronze cross :simply inscribed For Valour’, compares with the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is Part 4 of an eight-part series on British submariner VCs.
The memory of General George Washington, Commander-in- Chief of colonial forces from 1775, is rightly revered; but he should be offered two more posthumous credits-one unfamiliar outside the United States, and the other seldom recognised within.
First, George Washington succeeded in beating the British despite his suffering from a raging toothache in battle: by 1776 he retained but one tooth of his own-a lower premolar which lasted him, solitarily, to the age of 64. Before that, though, he resorted to spring-loaded dentures, like a rat-trap in reverse. (Created for $15 a set by Mr. Greenwood, dental practitioner of New York, four doors down from the theatre, towards St. Paul’s Church, an elk furnished the upper set but the lower teeth were human. The false teeth were damnably uncomfortable: when Gilbert Stuart painted George Washington in 1796-the cherished portrait on dollar bills today-cadaverous facial hollows were filled with rolls of cotton.) Submariners who have endured oral abscesses on patrol will especially admire the fortitude of the pater patriae in this respect.
The second credit, more directly relevant to underwater affairs, is that George Washington fathered the concept of submarine warfare by his enthusiasm, albeit somewhat distant and belated, for David Bushnell and the one man TURTLE. Most history books are nonsensical in their accounts of the midget submarine’s abortive attempt on HMS EAGLE at New York on 5th or 6th September 1776, but myths are unimportant: it was the President’s publicised description of Bushnell’s wooden underwater warfare device as “an effort of genius”, some 11 years after the event, that helped to spur inventive engineers (with a few weirdos on the side ) to engage in submarine designs during the succeeding century.
Washington evidently understood the idea of deterrence linked with covert attack by an economical little submersible-a machine for the annoyance of shipping-against a vastly more powerful foe. In this instance TURTLE was intended to annoy Admiral Lord Richard Howe by sinking his flagship, and thereby frighten the British fleet out of New York harbor where the close blockading Royal Navy fleet was itself a great annoyance to the Revolutionary Army.
The admirable scheme did not work, and Black Dick Howe was not frightened: British warships continued to blockade; and, indeed, they soon shifted their anchorage even closer to the New York shoreline. But spindoctored versions of TURTLE’s brave attempt, with Sergeant Ezra Lee in the lonely cockpit, helped to inspire a coming generation of more or less real submariners; and it gave substantial food for thought to supporters of both intrusive and defensive submarine warfare-Fulton, Hunley and Holland amongst them.
In tum, it is quite likely that echoes from 1776 eventually reached the Italian Navy which, from 1918, continually took the lead in producing tiny underwater craft, and gallant crewmen, for making clandestine assaults on enemy shipping in defended ports.
On 21 December 1941 the explosive charges placed by three Italian two-man SLC human torpedo (Maiale) crews heavily damaged the 30,000 ton British battleships VALIANT and QUEEN ELIZABETH, the valuable tanker SAGONA and the destroyer JERVIS inside the port of Alexandria. Investigation revealed a hole 40 feet square under the foremost boiler room of QUEEN ELIZABETH: all steam was lost for 24 hours, and submarines had to be secured either side of the stricken battleship to provide electrical power. VALIANT’s damage extended over 80 feet and included the keel.
Six brave men had reversed the naval balance of power in the Mediterranean by means of a daring raid lasting a few minutes.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was justifiably upset by these and other sneak assaults submerged: after all, British propaganda insisted that Mussolini’s navy was cowardly-which most assuredly it was not, albeit disastrously hampered by lack of fuel.
In fact, it is pleasant to record that in March 1945, when the war was over for Italy, TV Luigi de la Penne, who had led the raid in Alexandria, was awarded the Medaglio d’Oro, the Italian VC: it was pinned to his chest by none other than the former captain of VALIANT, by then promoted to be Vice Admiral Sir Charles Morgan. A type of international chivalry, rather more than simple camaraderie,has often been apparent amongst midget submariners, human torpedomen, assault swimmers, British SBS, USN SEALs and equivalents in other navies: to an even greater extent than the community of standard submariners, they share exposure to the constant, implacable and most dangerous enemy of all-the sea.
In a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff dated 18 January 1942 Churchill irritably demanded: “Please report what is being done to emulate the exploits of the Italians in Alexandria Harbour and similar methods of this kind … “. But the Royal Navy bad already done a great deal in this downward direction-principally due to the intolerable threat posed against vital Russian convoys by the giant German TIRPITz holed up in a Norwegian fjord, where no regular forces could strike her, ready to pounce at any moment on shipping sailing up and down the Norwegian Sea.
Chariots, virtually duplicating Italian Maiali, were a possible answer; but the eventual solution for eliminating “The Beast”, as Churchill called the battleship, was a small flotilla of midget submarines.
Styled X-craft to maintain secrecy, the first midget was launched into the Hamble River, leading to Southampton Water, on the night of Sunday, 15 March 1942. HMS X3 (the names X1 and X2 had previous unconnected owners) was short, fat and ugly-the ideal shape for a submarine, never mind the appearance, as J.P. Holland had proclaimed half a century earlier.
Tests and evaluation quickly led to production models: the Twelfth Submarine Flotilla, based thenceforward in Scotland, was in business.
About 52 feet long, an X-craft with a crew of four, was shorter than the U.S. Navy’s first submarine USS HOLLAND, and less in diameter at 5.75 feet. Displacement was 29.7 tons submerged with 2.7 tons reserve buoyancy (10 percent) on the surface. Strapped to the sides were two streamlined side-cargoes-delayed action mines, each holding 4,480 pounds of Amatol-for releasing beneath a moored or anchored target. Limpet mines were available ad hoc as a secondary weapon system; but of course these required a diver to exit (and hopefully re-enter) the craft via an abominable Wet and Dry chamber which also housed the head: designed to avoid upsetting the extremely delicate trim the upright coffin was pumped full from an internal seawater tank below, and subsequently drained thereto. The pump, at the moment that the compartment filled, abruptly exerted full force on the body of the occupant whose tender appendages amidships, to say nothing of his eardrums, suffered correspondingly. The phenomenon was known, without affection, as the Squeeze.
The diver/swimmer-not the most envied of midget personnel-could also cut a way through anti submarine nets using a compressed air or hydraulic chisel gun. The technique, together with other relevant midget submarine hardware, is readily available to intruders today; but the long training, historically proven to be crucial, may not be so easy to come by.
The British X-craft crews trained arduously and realistically against alerted targets for the best part of 18 months, and critiques of these exercises were detailed and unsparing. (The training of German and Japanese midget-men took short cuts which were demonstrably counter-productive in the event).
The difficulties and dangers of the task that lay ahead were daunting: they involved threading a passage through a known German minefield and then up 50 miles of narrow fjord to a target whose defences were considered by the enemy to be impregnable-all that before commencing the actual attack. But the typical irreverence of special forces everywhere showed through, in the 12th Flotilla, with dry, understated humor. For example, the report by Cameron, captain of X6, on the final workup included:
“Night entrance to Port HHZ [codename for Loch Cairnbawn advanced base} in the face of ‘stiff’ opposition. We did this on the surface trimmed down, sitting on the casing … with water up to my middle, very damp but good fun …
“Sunday morning attack on MALAY A [battleship 1 with Flag Officer Submarines on board [X6]. This was quite funny as the gyro was misbehaving, but it gave the old boy a thrill and bis signal to MALAYA ‘Inspected your bottom at 1000 today’ made the captain of MALAYA [O’Donnell] a trifle annoyed.
“Operation Landing Agent by day in Lock Nigg …… the sight of Willy Wilson in his birthday suit, carrying his gear on his head and floundering through the shallows to the beach amid the cheers of the female population in surrounding crofts, the scouts sent out to intercept him wiling the hours away in the pub at Drumbeg.”
Lieutenant Donald Cameron, RNR, was older than his colleagues and arguably more mature. Moreover, a canny Scot, he was sensibly prudent; and be had the great advantage of knowing, from his years with the Merchant Navy, how to navigate: it may be difficult to believe today, but ordinary submarine officers (not only those in the Royal Navy) were quite remarkably lacking in navigational skills until around the 1960s-one of the reasons which can be conjectured for so many wartime out-of-position blue-on-blue incidents, missed RVs and groundings, whatever sundry politically tactful courts-martial may have concluded. (Anti- submarine aircraft were even further off track, often enough; but that is for Air Forces to comment.)
It is impossible to tell, in a short space, the full story of the X-craft raid on Germany’s mightiest battleship; but we can look at the scene from Cameron’s perceptive viewpoint, which has been thoroughly checked with official records on both sides.
On 11 and 12 September 1943, six T and S-class submarines separately took XS-10 in tow for the long passage to Northern Norway. Each craft was manned by three-man passage crews which would exchange with the operational crews, embarked in relative comfort in the towing submarines, when nearing the destination. Sympathy was extended, by all concerned, to the passage crews who bad none of the glory, but most of the appalling discomfort. Towing speed averaged between eight and ten knots: a craft remained dived throughout, at between 100 and 200 feet, except for a guff through on the surface to change stale air by running the (ex-London bus) engine for a few minutes every six hours-and rolling sickeningly in the process. Time ceased to have any real meaning; tins of food, occasionally heated in a carpenter’s glue-plot, rapidly lost their charms; and the cold, a damp gray almost tangible variety, was such that no kind of clothing could protect against it. Yet there was much work to be done to ensure that all equipment and machinery was in perfect order for the operational crew when they took over.
Cameron had insisted on a nylon tow-rope for X6 (towed by Robbie Alexander in TRUCULENT), suspecting the cheaper Admiralty hemp lines might part. He was right. The ropes for X-8 and X-9 both parted. X-9 was never seen again: the long, heavy hemp rope dragged her down to the bottom.
The four remaining craft arrived off the fjord on 20 September, and the operational crews paddled across in rubber dinghies to their craft. Between 1830 and 2000 tows were slipped; and the craft set off on their own across the mine-strewn Soroy Sound for what Godfrey Place, captain of X-7, described as The Great Adventure.
We can now glimpse what goes on in a brave man’s mind at such moments. Don Cameron kept a very private diary which, of course, omitted anything that might be of use to the enemy if captured. It was a way of communicating, albeit by thought alone, with his adored young wife Eve, soon expecting the birth of a first child.
The entries in that diary are brief but telling: “If I were a true Brit the job would be the thing, but I can’t help thinking what the feelings of the next-of-kin would be if I make a hash of it.” From time to time he felt in his pocket for Bunjy-a little wooden dog, Eve’s first present to him-and was reassured. He admired John Lorimer, the First Lieutenant at the hydroplane and trimming controls; Dickey Kendall the diver at the helm; and Edmund Goddard the Engine Room Artificer who had learned his engineering with Rolls Royce. They appeared so confident; but for himself he admitted (for Eve alone) a just-before-the-battle-mother feeling.
As Piker 11 (Don and Eve’s pet name for X6) surged up Alten Fiord towards Kaa Fjord at her full speed of six knots on the surface, Cameron watched the moon rising above the mountains, brushing them with silver: he wondered if Eve would be watching the moon too, far away in Lee-on-Solent. He “felt very homesick indeed … the elation of sitting in the middle of the enemy’s fleet anchorage vied with the feeling of a small boy very much alone, wanting to go home and be comforted. Was not conscious of fear, just of waiting someone to talk to … ”
By early morning on 22 September X-6 was submerged and nearing the lair of The Beast at the head of Kaa Fjord. But things were going wrong. Lieutenant Ken Hudspeth, RANVR, had selflessly retired lest defects in his X-10 jeopardise the whole operation. That left X-5, 6, and 7 .
The periscope in Piker 11 was of little use: despite stripping it down half-a-dozen times Cameron “might as well have bad a beer bottle” to look through. When the target eventually appeared around the top comer of Kaa Fjord, TIRPITZ was “fuzzy and indistinct”, looking “like a great haystack”.
Nearing the nets protecting the inner fjord at 0445 Cameron, nearly blind, seized a chance and boldly surfaced, in the broad light of a new day, to pass through the narrow net-gate astern of a small supply vessel. The risk -unimaginable if planned in cold blood-paid off, and it was probably less than sending Kendall out to cut a laborious way through the barriers of steel mesh while time was growing short. Miraculously, there were no indications that the craft had been sighted: the boom was shut as soon as Cameron had passed through.
Only three hours remained, in accordance with the Operation Order, before all side-cargoes-laid by all craft that reached the objective-were timed to explode simultaneously. It would not be healthy to hang around.
Cameron dived again, thankfully, at 0505; but confronting him was a double row of anti-torpedo nets, closely surrounding the battleship. A mere 20 metre gap on the port bow was guarded by hydrophones and a dedicated guard-boat; but, unwisely, the Germans stood down the watch at 0600.
At 0700 Cameron, by expert dead-reckoning, navigated through the slim entrance, keeping just shallow enough to see the surface through the 5-inch glass cuttles in Piker’s pressure hull. Seven minutes later he ran onto a rocky shoal and briefly broke surface. German lookouts thought the craft was a porpoise; but they did not make the same mistake at 0715 when the craft bit a net and Kendall was unable to prevent X-6 shooting fully to the surface out of control.
Disregarding the grenades and hail of bullets (“sounding like a rivetter’s shed”) Cameron carefully manoeuvered to scrape his craft alongside B turret while Goddard and Kendall spun the mine-release wheels. Four tons of high explosive, with time-clocks ticking, sank beneath the target. The job was done: quickly the crew scuttled X-6.
Cameron and his team “bated out just in time. Lost my pipe and tobacco-most annoyed … taken on board [TIRPITZ] to meet reception committee. Reception lukewarm … ”
Meanwhile Godfrey Place, in X-7, had an equally exciting approach, but also let slip his two massive mines in the right position. Sadly, when the order was given to scuttle, only be and one of his crew escaped drowning: the pair were brought aboard the doomed target to join the crew of X-6 all a trifle fidgety and apt to glance at their watches. The big bang came at 0843; and the side-cargoes did everything expected of them.
The fate of X-5 is not known: Cameron, from an extraordinary vantage point on the quarterdeck of TIRPITZ, sighted her, soon after the explosion, 650 yards off the stricken battleship’s bow “showing lots of periscope”. The craft, commanded by the Australian Henty-Creer, then disappeared, following gunfire from TIRPITZ and depth-charging by a destroyer.
TIRPITZ never again put to sea for action. The well-named Operation Source was not just a tactical win by eight men in two fragile craft (each costing £30,000-about $150,000 at the time) against a 42,000 ton monster sheathed in 15 inch armour and with a crew of 2500. The removal of a deadly menace to Russian convoys allowed the British Home Fleet and two USN battleships to redeploy where their heavy armament was urgently needed: that constituted a major strategic victory for midget submarines.
Doubtless Washington, Bushnell and Lee looked down with approval when the Victoria Cross was awarded to Cameron and Place.
1. The Strange Story of False Teeth, by J. Woodforde, Routledge and Keegan Paul. London: 1968, pp 98-108.
2. Inter a1ia Submarine Warfare Monsters and Midgets, by Richard Compton-Hall. Blandford Press, UK and Sterling Publishing Co., USA, 1985, Ch 7.
3. Ibid, with references.