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Admiral James Fife, USN and British XE-Craft in the Far East

The Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award, has been awarded to a total of 14 Royal Navy submariners in both World Wars. Four of them were midget submariners which (as they would doubtless wish to emphasise) does not allude to the physical stature of the gallant quartet, but to the dwarfish submarines themselves-X and XE-Craft~n which they served. 1he VC, a bronze cross simply inscribed For Valour, compares with the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is Part 5 of an eight-part series on British submariner VCs.

There is a published view to the effect that midget submarines are no more than unworthy, secretive and dangerous toys. The disparagement is not applied to short-range and generally wet chariot-like vehicles employed by special forces such as SEALs and the SBS: it is the independent midgets with fairly long range and powerful weapons-true miniature submarines-that seem most subject to snide comments.

Perhaps such remarks arise from vague recollections of midget crews’ irreverence towards the surface navy’s pomp and circumstance. It was the Australian Reservist Lieutenant Maxie Shean, commanding the midget HMS X24 in Scapa Flow, who duly rendered passing honors to the Home Fleet flagship HMS DUKE OF YORK but followed the piping (which to Shean’s joy brought 1000 men to attention on the battleship’s upper deck) with the signal, flashed by light, “What a big bastard you are”-and then quivered with apprehension when Admiral Bruce Fraser, Commander-in-Chief, invited him to dinner. However, the Admiral had a worldly-wise Reservist Flag Lieutenant who withheld the signal from his master’s eyes.

Impious occasionally, yes. But playthings, no. Let us remember what mini-marauders have done in the past and reflect what, in hostile hands with improved technology, they could do nowadays. Modern anti-submarine measures are not designed to trap mini-marauders; and defences against them have largely been neglected in the past 40 years.

In the United States it may be that there still ain’t enough profit for shipyards in building the inexpensive little beasts: this was the commercial argument at the tum of the century against creating successors for USS HOLLAND (SS 1) which was bigger than the most successful type of WWII midget, the Royal Navy’s four-man X-craft. All the same, it is a fair bet that there are current shipbuilders scattered around the world who perceive midget sales as highly profitable-given cash-customers and no questions asked.

British midgets, more successful than Japanese or German equivalents whose crews were, for the most part, inadequately trained, achieved remarkable results at very little cost during the war-and their varied triumphs tended to be strategic rather than tactical. At the top of the scale they virtually ended the major threat to Russian convoys posed by the German battleship TIRPITZ holed up where no other kind of units could strike at the monster (October 1997 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW); and at the impudent (but extremely hazardous) lower end X-20 (Lieutenant Ken Hudspeth, RANVR) left two of her own crewmen behind and took three members of a COPP (Combined Operations Pilotage Party) team on Operation Postage Able to reconnoiter proposed Normandy invasion beaches.

Preparations for Top Secret Postage Able involved a covey of resourceful Portsmouth Wrens unwrapping and expanding (with the aid of broom handles} a sufficient number of condoms for the collection of comprehensive soil samples. When the invasion itself became due, X-20 and X-23 (Lieutenant George Honour, RNVR) sailed in advance of the fleet to mark, precisely, critical landing points for amphibious tanks and other vehicles at SWORD and JUNO beaches.

Honour grandly flew the red and white international flag H from a specially rigged mast on his diminutive command, meaning “I have a pilot on board”. This was not strictly accurate; but it announced, together with a White Ensign of the size normally issued to battleships, that Her Majesty’s midget submarine X-23 was unmistakably on the side of the incoming armada, and therefore, not to be savaged by Allied ASW enthusiasts.

The best X-craft COs were prudently brave. George had looked in a dictionary for the meaning of Operation Gambit-the codename for his part in the invasion-and found gambit defined as “a move in chess where a pawn is sacrificed for position”. That figured: he was not about to risk friendly fire.

When X-23 and X·24 eventually made their way back to HMS DOLPHIN, the submarine base at Gosport, Honour and Hudspeth were indignant to find that nobody would believe that a pair of midget submarines had spearheaded the Normandy invasion on D-Day.

Let us hope that the Wrens were constructively redeployed when they disposed of the broom handles; but midget submariners, all of abundant juniority, needed to fight for their future. They had operated so secretly that their abilities were not generally known. For example, General Eisenhower’s staff for Operation Overlord politely declined the offer of an X.craft to act as an exact navigational marker for Utah beach: a U.S. Army battalion, driven westwards by strong winds, was thereby wrongly deposited, on the morning of 6 June 1944, at the foot of steep cliffs from which a German enfilade was devastating.

Lieutenant Pusser Percy Westmacott now took command of X· 24 for another attempt-Operation HECK.LE-to destroy the big Laksevaag floating dock.cum.communications center at Bergen which Maxie Shean (in the ubiquitous X·24) had missed in the Spring, sinking the 7800 ton BARENFELS instead by mistake. This was not such a stupid mistake as it sounds. It was (is) sensible to go deep and navigate blind when inside a watchful enemy harbor; but when the DR depended entirely on the commanding officer’s personal sense of position, possibly assisted by a stop watch (unlike now when excellent navigational aids, such as miniature Doppler sonar devices, are available), one vast dark shadow seen overhead through the topside viewing port looked very like another vast dark shadow.

Tragically, X-24’s diver, Sub-Lieutenant D.N. Purdy, RNZNVR, was washed out of the Wet and Dry (W&D) compartment (the water-cum-air-lock access both on the surface and submerged) and lost in heavy weather enroute to Norway. He had been ditching gash during one of the customary six-hourly ten-minute periods on the roof refreshing air on passage.

The craft was being towed (the normal method of deployment) by HMS SCEPTRE from the Shetlands to a point off Bergen, and it was a reasonable decision to get rid of smelly garbage in stormy conditions which made everyone seasick. Purdy wore his shallow water diving dress although he was evidently not harnessed when a ton of water crashed through the open hatch into the W & D and forced the craft down to 20 feet. When X-24 resurfaced Westmacott sadly recorded “Ye Gods! … No Purdy”.

There was no choice but to press on without a diver. The gale lasted for 80 hours; but by 10 September it had moderated, and Sub-Lieutenant Robinson was transferred from SCEPTRE to take Purdy’s place. The tow was slipped at 2000 with the black outline of the Norwegian coast ahead.

It was not long before the gyro chose to fall over, but Westmacott set course by eye, on the surface, through the first of two known minefields until the recalcitrant instrument had been repaired. A faulty compressor was less amenable, and only enough air remained in the bottles for two more surfacings; Percy, optimistically, reckoned one would be enough-when the job was finished and they were on their way to rendezvous with SCEPTRE.

Westmacott dived at 0330 on the 11th, well up into the harbor. Obediently, he kept to 2.5 knots when passing the protruding mast of the sunken BARENFELS, which had a sign “Langsam Fahren” (go slow) hanging from it. He laid his two two-ton delayed action side-cargo mines beneath the dock between 0930 and 1015. The target was destroyed together with two merchant ships alongside.

Westmacott was rigidly RN in an X-craft community whose officers were mostly reservists, many of then from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand-Commonwealth countries not noted for reverence towards ultra-British attitudes. He was sometimes known as Pusser Percy, the nickname reserved for an officer who adhered unswervingly to King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions. (Pusser is, of course, a corruption of Purser, although why old-time Paymasters should represent strict adherence to the rules is historically inexplicable.) Painstaking would have been a better adjective for Percy who neglected no detail in the planning and execution of an operation.

Westmacott was undeniably efficient, and gallant to the point that in only slightly different circumstances he would have merited the Victoria Cross. As it was, his next exploit-commanding XE-5 in the Far East-was scarcely noticed: it was to cut the Hong Kong to Singapore seabed telephone cable (XE-4 having severed the Saigon-Hong Kong and Saigon-Singapore cables) and Percy, after days of trying by two divers, thought he had failed. But in fact his persistence had succeeded in damaging the cable beyond repair; and the Japanese were thereby obliged to communicate entirely by radio-which permitted their mail to be read.

Appropriately, Westmacott became one of the first commanding officers in a full-size submarine to mount a COMINT and general intelligence operation in the Barents Sea at the start of the Cold War: the preface to his subsequent report was aptly extracted from the Victorian novel Handley Cross by R.S. Surtees, about foxhunting: a. … the image of war without its guilt, and only five-and-twenty percent of the danger.” Not a bad description for an intelligence-gathering operation.

Midget excursions, invaluable though they were, did not become well enough known to people who mattered, not least because of tight security. Anyway, who cared about dwarfish underwater warfare when the war in Europe ended and United States Navy fleet submarines were finishing off Japan in the Pacific?

However, the Royal Navy was endeavouring to make its presence more widely felt in the Far East. The elderly old depot ship HMS BONA VENTURE was therefore despatched to Pearl Harbor via the Panama Canal, with XE-craft (X-craft marginally modified for a hot climate) embarked on the upper deck. There was no shore leave enroute, a security precaution which did not assist morale. Unwanted at Pearl, BONA VENTURE and her siblings were diverted to Brisbane with their tails right down.

Nevertheless, the little flotilla’s ruggedly determined Captain William J .R. Fell flew to Subic Bay and sweet-talked the relative pro-British Admiral James Fife, Commander Submarines Seventh Fleet, into considering some kind of action for his small flock.

One result was the cable cutting. But, unexpectedly, Fife’s staff suddenly became fired with enthusiasm for the harborpenetration capabilities of the new arrivals. Perhaps some officers were aware of the highly successful Italian (misnamed) human torpedo raids on the heavily defended harbors of Gibraltar and Alexandria between 1941 and 1943. And the crippling of TIRPITZ in 1943 bas been familiar to many.

In July 1945 Fife’s staff proposed an XE-craft operation against the Japanese cruisers TAKAO and MYOKO lying in the Johore Strait between Singapore island and the mainland. TAKAO had been badly damaged by American air attacks in February and evidently the Japanese did not value MYOKO highly: thus the pair were believed to be relegated to floating AA batteries. However, Allied Intelligence reckoned that both cruisers were still seaworthy if needed, hence the decision to write them off by means of midgets.

XE-1 (Lieutenant J.E. Smart, RNVR) and XE-3 (Lieutenant Ian E. Fraser, RNVR), towed by HM Submarine SPARK and STYGIAN respectively, left their advanced base in Brunei Bay, North Borneo, on 26 July 1945. At 0600 on 30 July passage crews exchanged for the operational crews, and at 2300 the craft slipped their tows near Horsburgh Light, at the eastern end of the Singapore Strait, some 40 miles from the two targets.

Each man carried an escape kit which, besides maps and useful phrases (e.g. “I am hungry” in four languages) included a compass disguised as a fly-button and a rubber-sheathed hacksaw blade for concealment in the rectum-“with some discomfort”, complained Fraser who was built on the small side. There was also a cyanide pill which could be held between cheek and teeth in the event of capture by the Japanese: if torture proved unbearable the capsule was to be bitten; but, if the prisoner felt he could hold out, he opted for a swallow and recycle procedure and awaited the next interrogation. James Bond was an amateur compared with WWII midget submariners.

At 0900 on 31 July 1945 Fraser slipped through the boom at the entrance to Singapore Harbor and stealthily steered XE-3 to TAKAO lying very close inshore at the north end of Singapore Island. The craft carried one releasable side-cargo (two tons of Amatol) on her starboard side and six powerful limpet mines in the port container.

Fraser drove XE-3 beneath TAKAO; but when the diver, Leading Seaman Mick Magennis, climbed out to plant limpets he was only able to open the W&D hatch partially. There was too little space between the cruiser hull and the seabed, and it was impossible to raise the folding antennae which were supposed to ensure a clear three feet between the top of a craft and the bottom of a target. The tide was still falling.

No X-craft diver’s job was easy; but Magennis had the toughest task of any. The awkwardly sloped hull was thickly coated with weed and barnacles: these had to be scraped off with a knife before the magnetic pads of the limpets would stick. That took half an hour of hard work; and by the time he squeezed himself back: into
the craft he was near to collapse. A slow leak from his oxygen set did not help, and he was barely able to shut the hatch behind him.

Fraser turned the handwheel to release the starboard side-cargo which duly fell away under the cruiser; and he assumed that similar action had freed the now empty port container. But the craft was claustrophobically wedged beneath the bard sea-bottom and a bilge keel above. Increasingly desperate efforts at the controls by the Kiwi first lieutenant, Sub-Lieutenant Smith, working the motor full ahead and astern while flooding and blowing tanks, were at last successful after a long 50 minutes.

Fortunately the Japanese did not hear the commotion, nor notice the midget break surface momentarily when XE-3 pulled free. Fraser was unaware that the only personnel on board comprised an unconcerned care and maintenance party: the cruiser had been deammunitioned, and posed no risk to the Allies. So much for Allied Intelligence.

However, so far as the crew of XE-3 were concerned there was an antagonistic enemy overhead; and it was a matter of considerable concern when it became apparent that the port container had failed to jettison, making the craft impossible to control. Magennis, despite his exhausted condition, at once volunteered to go out again, and seven minutes hard work with crowbar, chisel, spanner and a bigger hammer (the midgets were well equipped to deal with eventualities) he persuaded the side-cargo suitcase to fall clear.

XE-3’s men were in action continuously for 52 hours before they regained the towing submarine STYGIAN. Operation Struggle was well named!

Meanwhile, XE-1 (Smart) was delayed by tidal streams and patrol craft enroute to MYOKO. The craft arrived late off the naval base. Smart had a problem. If he made an attack on MYOKO he would risk destruction by XE-3’s charges on the way out. He chose to hasten back and deposit bis main charge alongside T AKAO, doubly to ensure her sinking. Smart was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, quite possibly with Jimmy Fife’s backing. Fife probably also pushed for Fraser and Magennis to receive the Victoria Cross. After all, he had greeted the blushing XE-craft men as “Little guys with a lotta guts”.

It seems that neither of the big charges detonated although TAKAO settled on the bottom, albeit with upperworks well above water, at 2130 on the evening of 31 July as a result of the limpet mines attached by Magennis: they blew a hole in the hull 7 metres by 3 metres between frames 113 and 116. The cruiser, though, was not written off.

XE-craft operations in the Far East were not attended by spectacular successes; but they again demonstrated a midget submarine’s extraordinary versatility and cost effectiveness. Today, they are operated not only by Russia and (soon, almost certainly) China, but also by much less navally renowned countries-Pakistan, Iran, Croatia, Libya, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Colombia and possibly Iraq amongst them. The list may not be exhaustive: without the world noticing, a midget can so easily be dismantled and stowed below decks in a modest merchant ship.

It is relevant that a modern midget submarine can be converted to carry crude (i.e. quite large) atomic weapons. Perhaps we should recall the intended Italian midget raid on New York planned for the late summer of 1943 by CA-2, a two man Capronibuilt craft of 16.4 tons dived, but delayed and finally aborted by the armistice in 1943. Maybe we should hearken to George Savile, Marquis of Halifax: .. To the question, What shall we do to be saved in this World? there is no other answer but this, Look to your Moat.

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