The Victoria Cross. Britain’s highest military award, has been won by a total of 14 Navy submariners in both World Wars. The VC, a bronze cross simply inscribed For Valour, compares with the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is Part 6 of an eight-part series.
The Victoria Cross has been awarded for exceptionally hard fighting over a long period rather than for a single act of valor. This was the case with Commander John Wallace Linton, 35 years old in 1940: he was a submariner of 13 years standing, and a commanding officer for five, when he brought the cumbersome 2000 ton P class submarine PANDORA-big for those days-from the China station to join the First Submarine Flotilla at Alexandria in May of that year.
He had been a first class rugby forward, often on the same side as Crap Miers of TORBAY fame (THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, July 1997). When he gave up serious rugger in 1937 he was soon tipping the scales at 17 stone (238 pounds): not being very tall his nickname inevitably became Tubby. Miers, who was himself held in awe, remembered:
“He looked, and was, a most fearsome man with heavy black beard; and most of us, with only slightly less seniority, stood in great awe of him. He was quiet but decisive in demeanour and speech, and when he expressed his disapproval he was generally right.
“His crew, as well they might, held him in great respect. They had complete confidence in him; and he was probably the most technically efficient of all our commanding officers as he was also about the oldest of us all. [Only two other COs in the submarine service were older.] His mathematical genius was such that he could generally do the attack calculations in his head more quickly than the instruments supplied for the purpose.” [In truth, however, mental aids to attacking were not hard to acquire.]
HMS PANDORA was well armed with six bow and two stern tubes and a four inch gun; but slow, reluctant to turn and unable to go safely below 200 feet-she was not suited to a brisk fray in the claustrophobic Mediterranean. In the Spring of 1941 she helped to inaugurate the magic carpet from Gibraltar to besieged Malta, embarking key RAF personnel, spares for fighter aircraft, and 102 bags of mail. Then she spent several months in the Atlantic, supporting convoys in the Biscay and Azores areas-a dull and unrewarding watch. However, Linton was allowed back into the Med for a morale-restoring patrol of Sardinia where he gleefully sank two Italian supply ships.
That was not much of a haul for a total of 251 days at sea before going to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for refit in June 1941; but on 3 July 1940 Linton had claimed a victim which he would prefer to forget.
When the armistice between France and Germany was signed on 25 June 1940 it became imperative, for Britain, that the fourth largest fleet in the world should not fall into German hands. The Royal Navy’s regrettable, and regretted but necessary, bombardment of French capital ships in harbour at Mersel-Kebir in 3 July is well recorded; but PANDORA’s reluctant role off Algiers is not.
PANDORA was ordered to attack any French warships encountered outside the port, and on 4 July Linton sighted the minelaying sloop REGAULT DE GENOULLY through the periscope at a range of three miles. He was already broad on the target’s bow, on an opposite course, and unfavourably positioned for a submerged snap attack with his non-angled straight-running torpedoes. Nevertheless he immediately increased to full speed, turned to a firing course, and brought the range down to 3800 yards before firing a hosepipe salvo nine minutes after the first sighting. Three out of four torpedoes hit-a remarkable result with rapidly estimated data against a smallish target at three times the optimum range (theoretically 1250 yards on about a 100 degree track). The approach was masterly; but Linton did not savour his success.
Towards the end of 1941 Linton took command of the new T class submarine HMS TURBULENT-a handier, sleeker, smaller, mechanically more reliable boat than PANDORA and less liable to suffer telltale oil leaks. She was armed with eight bow tubes (two of them external) and three external tubes firing astern: 17 torpedoes were carried. She also had a four inch gun and three portable bridge mounted .303 machine guns. There was no radar. Fire control remained rudimentary with no angling for torpedoes except for the option of selecting a preset 90 degree right or left on the six internal bow tubes: the latter wizardry had to be mentally added to, or subtracted from, the calculated Director Angle (DA or aim-oft): with the hosepipe salvo, the algebra was pretty well guaranteed to throw the fire control team. Endurance on the surface was as good as PANDORA; but the disappointing feature of the otherwise excellent T boats was speed-still no more than nine knots submerged for one hour and 14 or 15 knots on the surface. Linton was to suffer the frustration of pounding across the Tyrrhenian Sea to intercept a squadron of three Littorio class battleships only to find himself smelling funnel fumes from six miles in their wake: a German workhorse Type VD U-boat, let alone a U.S. Navy fleet-type submarine, would have had time and to spare for heading them off.
Tubby Linton brought TURBULENT into Alexandria on Friday, 13 February 1942. The Squadron Captain, Sam Raw, spin doctored the superstition-prone date to predict that it would be 11 an unlucky one for the Axis powers”.
During TURBULENT’s second war patrol six small vessels were sunk by gunfire; but minor damage was sustained from a counterattack after approaching a convoy until, maddeningly, ranges were too short for torpedoes to run true. Linton’s patrol report, telling of pretty close depth charges, assured Raw that: “this gratuitous and quite unprovoked [sic] insult will, I hope, shortly be avenged”.
Tubby Linton-stem, stout, caustic, physically and mentally tough-steadily added to his bag. Although he was never regarded with a newsworthy triumph his non-stop chipping away at enemy resources was praised as “outstandingly successful … the work of an astute and skilled artist”. But he was not an easy man to get along with; and he was vociferously intolerant of supposed inefficiency amongst shore or depot ship staff. Long coded messages, which had to be laboriously decyphered by hand in the wardroom, were a particular bugbear when he considered that their sense could have been conveyed in markedly fewer words: “a perfect example of cypher diarrhoea”, he growled.
If Linton sometimes seemed unduly tetchy it has to be remembered that he was nearing middle age; that much detail devolved personally on the captain in an RN boat with half the number of qualified officers available in a U .S.N. fleet submarine; and that operational routine was arduous-three weeks at sea followed by less than two weeks in harbour.
Fortunately, TURBULENT was blessed with a top notch First Lieutenant (Exec) in Tony Troup who left before the final patrol and later became FOSM and a Vice Admiral. Troup recalls that his captain became increasingly upset about the amount of bad language used on board; once, before sailing, be announced that there was to be NO SWEARING. Shortly after the boat dived the Engine Room Artificer at the panel dropped a wheelspanner on his sandalled foot. Obediently, he confined himself to “bother, bother, bother”. Overhearing this unaccustomed example of restraint Linton popped out of his cabin and shouted, “Right, one good (FOUR LETTER) all round and THAT’S IT!”
Linton was not averse to being a father figure. He was continually offering advice to all and sundry, evidently without it being resented-quite the contrary according to Miers:
“He was the most patient and lucid of teachers. Whatever I may have achieved myself I ascribe almost entirely to the time and trouble he took to indoctrinate me-albeit modestly-on my arrival in the Mediterranean [in TORBAY,April 1941].”
It is arguable that the First Flotilla boats, TURBULENT amongst them, were not employed to best advantage. The little U class submarines of the Tenth Flotilla at Malta, disposing amongst themselves some 30 torpedo tubes in all on average, and always needing reinforcements, were repeatedly flung against the main Axis supply lines to North Africa-to good effect, albeit at a heavy price; but the larger and faster T boats and S boats from Alexandria, with 80 tubes between them, were mostly sent to less distant and relatively unimportant areas, such as the Aegean, where targets were usually less strategically important and often trivial. It has been suggested that C-in-C Mediterranean, Admiral Cunningham (who disliked submariners for their reprehensible habits of dressing casually and neglecting naval niceties), did not recognise the worth of submarines operating as an independent arm, away from the surface fleet.
In any event TURBULENT’s early sinkings were in the main confined to minor victims, and the gun was much in use. Several opportunities that presented themselves for torpedo fire-small merchant vessels and two U-boats-were missed; but there was plenty of excitement, and from the late Spring of 1942 (possibly because of help from ULTRA intelligence which led to large prey and clues about target speeds) TURBULENT began to score more heavily with her fish.
On 18 May TURBULENT was on the surface at night off Benghazi when Linton sighted a convoy of two ships escorted by a destroyer. He slipped astern of them and shadowed to check their speed and zigzag pattern before drawing ahead to a beam position and turning into fire. It then became clear that the group was further off than he had estimated (on the German side Donitz was forever reminding his U-boat commanders that a ship in the dark always looks closer than it really is) and he patiently started all over again. At the second attempt he was well within range; and two out of the three torpedoes struck the 2385 ton BOLSENA. The Italian escort was commendably quick to counterattack, and TURBULENT dived in a hurry-but with the upper hatch refusing to shut properly. When the boat was able to surface Linton had to use one of the practical but smaller guntower hatches: “The designers of this hatch”, he complained, can not have visualised its rapid use by a CO of fairly advanced years who had not retained the slim figure of his early youth.”
During the still but intermittently misty night of 28 May TURBULENT, after failing to intercept three ULTRA-reported convoys, was on the surface charging batteries when at 2200 flares blazed into the moonlit sky not far away. An hour later lookouts briefly sighted the dim shapes of two ships accompanied by a pair of destroyers. Visibility at sea level was continually shutting down without warning although the moon was bright overhead. Precious torpedoes would be wasted unless the mean course and speed (within about 20 degrees and 2 knots) and, in due course, an aiming point could be established.
Linton decided to shadow, steal ahead, and hope to fire if and when moonlight or daylight broke through mist. He was an optimistic planner; and his hopes were fulfilled. By 0330 be bad worked into a position five miles ahead of the convoy where be dived at an estimated 3000 yards off its mean line of advance-copybook stuff. Seven minutes later he altered course on to what he calculated would be the firing track. Assuming a convoy speed of 10 knots, he then had ample time to manouevre into the best possible firing position at an economical no-feather three knots.
Periscope visibility now clamped, and sound conditions were bad. But Linton, sometimes criticised for not having the sixth sense that makes really great commanders, held on: be bad faith in his own judgement.
He was justified. Although for a long quarter of an hour he could neither see nor hear anything, he was finally able to distinguish two blurred shapes which could only be the merchant ships. They had undoubtedly zigged towards and he thought they were nearer than anticipated; but in fact they were nearly spot on the mean track he estimated, and probably about two miles away-just right!
This meant that TURBULENT would be firing a bow salvo from close range in eight minutes from that time. There was no sign of the escort; but four minutes later a destroyer materialised out of the mist, and after another two minutes its bearing had not changed. It was therefore on a collision course, and very close. But the DA for the leading target would not come on for yet another two minutes (oh, for American and German angling gear on the tubes!) and by that time…
Linton did not waver. Asdic bearings were far from dependable: only periscope aiming would ensure one or more hits. Slowly, dreadfully slowly, the merchantman slid toward the crosswire. When, thankfully, Linton gave the order to fire from the perfectionist’s 1200 yards 11 the destroyer looked revolting, and occupied the entire periscope”. Taking TURBULENT deep in a hurry the captain and, doubtless, the entire control room team were “extremely relieved to see 40 feet on the gauge and know we were safe from being rammed”. [Depths were measured from the surface waterline, not from the keel: thus 40 feet implied that the top of the periscope standards would have been eight or ten feet below the keel of a destroyer.]
The four-fish salvo bad been spread to cover both ships. One torpedo sank the 3172 ton CAPO ARMO and another, running wide and circling noisily over TURBULENT sent the troublesome large destroyer IMMANIULE PESSAGNO to the bottom while “repenting of the fright it had caused”. A third fish may have damaged the other ship in convoy. Not surprisingly, the Italian counterattack petered out.
By and large, though, Tubby Linton was not lucky. Fate was apt to intervene unkindly … blotting out a convoy with a rainstorm at the critical moment, for instance. It is true that fortune favors the brave, but not on a limitless basis; and Linton pushed bis luck relentlessly fur nearly three years of war. However, his dedication was not always appreciated by the crew: when he refused a day or so in harbour at Malta, which the program would have allowed, it was hard to reconcile his reasoning that it was “useless to be anywhere but at sea while the war is on: there are no targets here”.
All the same, men were proud to be Turbulents’; and a few discovered that their captain was subject to some human frailties. In a rare burst of confidence, Linton asked the First Lieutenant if he got crinkles in his fingernails after a depth charging: “I get them”, he admitted, “it’s because you’re scared stiff.” Nobody cared to examine his nails; but perceptive observers noted that if he twisted black strands of his beard between thumb and forefinger it was a sign that he was a trifle anxious.
He looked for humor, too. After being spotted submerged by an aircraft before he could approach a convoy-sheer bad luck-the consequent depth charges did a lot of damage, but: 11 the noise appeared to excite the amorous instincts of the rats. Throughout the afternoon there were shrill screams of satisfaction behind the three-ply above my bunk.”
Tasks assigned to TURBULENT included the landing of secret agents and shore bombardment. But why did Cunningham direct an expensive submarine, designed for attacking unseen, to come to the surface and pour a smallish flock of not very destructive four inch shells on to an enemy factory or a railway line or (hard to believe) a car park? Close inshore on the eighth patrol TURBULENT ran on to some wreckage-which emphasised the undue risks: Linton had to extricate the boat by diving out astern which Tony Troup, an expert trimmer, managed perfectly. (In British boats the First Lieutenant was responsible for the trim. Long afterwards, Captain Tony Troup-steadfastly supportive, like his former master, of juniors of whom he considered worth-while-teased some of us by demanding similar action when working up a newly commissioned boat).
TURBULENT destroyed a dozen merchant ships, a destroyer, and a number of small craft besides damaging several other vessels before succumbing to a mine off Maddalena, Sardinia on about 17 March 1943. It was TURBULENT’s 11th and Linton’s 21st war patrol. If TURBULENT had returned safely to harbour, after spending 254 days of her last year at sea and surviving 250 depth charges during 13 anti-submarine bunts, she would have gone back to UK for refit.
Commander J.W. Linton, DSO, DSC was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in May 1943. The citation concludes: “His many and brilliant successes were due to his constant activity and skill, and the daring which. never failed him when there was an enemy to be attacked.”