Australians in Midget Submarines

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History - WW2, Ship design and development, WWII operations
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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved) of June 2006

A short account of British midget submarine operations during WW2 in which Australians participated with considerable success. Previously published in ANWM Wartime Issue 19 and the Naval Officers’ Club Newsletter 2003, now reprinted by kind permission of the author.

Japan’s midget submarines proved a failure during the otherwise successful attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. They also failed in Sydney Harbour six months later, and enjoyed only very limited success in the simultaneous raid on Diego Suarez in Madagascar. As a result, midget submarines were hardly ever used again by the Japanese, and never successfully. But Japan was not the only power to deploy midget submarines during the Second World War.

Belated, Hasty but Effective

By contrast with the Japanese program, the British effort was belated and hasty, but finally more effective. Early in 1940, an Army officer proposed the use of midget submarines for laying magnetic mines in shallow water, even producing a preliminary design. An affronted Admiralty took over the project, but progress was leisurely until it became evident that the Germans could station their most powerful ships in the Norwegian fiords, strategically placed to attack Russian or Atlantic convoys.

July 1942 Contract

Now accorded a high priority, the midget submarine project went ahead with remarkable speed. In July 1942 an order was placed for six midgets, henceforth to be known as ‘X-Craft‘, while an appeal was made for volunteers (specifically, good swimmers and unmarried) to man them for hazardous service. The men selected were sent to Kames Bay, on the west coast of Scotland, where a depot ship was stationed, and trials began. Sadly, accidents during training cost several lives.

By the summer of 1943 it was possible to plan an operation. The approach of winter would initially provide the cover of darkness, but all too soon the accompanying bad weather would make the ocean tow too hazardous. Once inside the fiords some moonlight would help the four-man crews navigate the X-Craft.

Taking these factors into account, the period 20-25 September 1943 was chosen for the first attack. This was to be on the feared German battleship Tirpitz, which the Allies had made repeated but unsuccessful attempts to bomb, and possibly other ships, in Kaafjord in the north of Norway.

Australian Contributions

Of the six X-Craft participating, three were commanded by Australian Lieutenants:

  • X8 by Brian M. McFarlane RAN;
  • X10 by Ken R. Hudspeth RANVR; and
  • X5 by Henty Henty-Creer RNVR.

Two more Australians, Lieut. Max Shean RANVR and Sub. Lt. William J. Marsden RANVR, were respectively the diver in X9 and the first Lieutenant of X8. In the event, X9 was lost with her outward passage crew when the towing gear failed, and X8 had to be scuttled because of explosive charge troubles.

Attack Commences

On the night of 21-22 September the remaining four X-Craft, two commanded by Australians, entered the fiord as planned.

Plagued by equipment failure, Lieut. Hudspeth in X10 was unable to reach his target area, but showed great skill in regaining the open sea and the towing submarine. Lieut. Henty-Creer’s X5 was last seen breaking the surface 700 metres on Tirpitz’s starboard bow; it was fired on and disappeared, but his fate is still a mystery. Both of the other attackers, Lieut. B. C. G. Place RN in X7 and Lieut. D. Cameron RNR in X6, reached the Tirpitz and laid charges that put Germany’s greatest battleship out of action until March 1944.

Decorations Well Earned

Place and Cameron survived to receive their Victoria Crosses, but two of X7′s operational crewmen were lost. Hudspeth was awarded a well-earned Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). The removal of the threat presented by Tirpitz to Russian and Atlantic convoys was an immense strategic benefit, and in the heartless way in which these comparisons are made, nine lives was a small price to pay. The next mission was to test the defences of the Home Fleet’s anchorage in Scapa Flow by a simulated attack. Lieut. McFarlane in X22 was chosen to proceed in tow by HMS Syrtis, north from the Clyde. In a storm in Pentland Firth, the two vessels collided and X22 was lost with all hands. Lieut. Shean in X24 was chosen to continue the trial, which was successfully completed. He was also chosen for the next target, once again in Norway: a large floating dock in Puddefjord, near Bergen, known to be in constant use for U-boats and perhaps able to take the Tirpitz for repairs. Towed by the submarine Sceptre (commanded by another Australian, Lieut. I. Macintosh RN), Shean’s craft slipped the tow in darkness off the Bergen Leads on 13 April 1944.

Exemplary Style

The attack the following day was carried out in the exemplary style that was to distinguish Shean in war and later in peace. The long entrance channel was successfully negotiated, the charges were released under the target with unhurried accuracy, and after another long transit of the channel contact was made with the towing submarine in the open sea. A textbook operation was completed when X24 returned to base, but the jubilation was dampened when air reconnaissance showed that a German cargo ship (the Barenfels) had been sunk, instead of the floating dock.

Wrong Target

It was later found that since the printing of the chart issued to Shean an additional berth had been built nearby, with similar orientation. With accurate briefing, the story might have been different. Shean begged to be allowed to return to Bergen, but this was not possible. For his mistaken success, Shean was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), rarely given to an officer of his seniority.

Normandy Beaches

With the invasion of Europe imminent, it had become necessary to get detailed data on the chosen landing beaches. In January 1944 Lieut. Hudspeth was sent in X20, with specialist personnel, to survey and collect samples from beaches of particular interest. The mission was successful, earning Hudspeth his second DSC. For the invasion proper, Hudspeth was detailed to moor X20 as a navigational beacon off Juno beach, joined by another X-Craft off Sword Beach. His role in the landings won Hudspeth yet another DSC.

With the war at sea now focussed on the Pacific theatre, an improved type of X-Craft was built. Designated the XE series, they were slightly longer, with refined equipment and modifications aimed at improved habitability in the tropics. Transported from Britain in the mother ship HMS Bonaventure, the first task – the cutting of the submarine cables between Singapore and Saigon, off Cap St Jacques in Vung Tau province, near the mouth of the Mekong River – was given once again to Lieut. Shean.

Shean Cuts Cable

After appropriate training in a new technique, Shean in XE4 did the job perfectly on 31 July 1945. One of his two divers was another Australian, Sub. Lt. Kenneth M. Briggs RANVR. For this operation Shean received a second DSO, and also the US Bronze Star, while Briggs was awarded the DSC. In a similar operation at the same time, Lieut. H. P. Westmacott RN in XE5 attempted to disable the submarine cable off Hong Kong. Though he was uncertain whether he had succeeded or not at the time, it was found out after the war that he had indeed put the cable out of action.

Cruiser Takao

The most spectacular operation was carried out by Lieut. I. E. Fraser RNR in XE3. His main target was the Japanese cruiser Takao, anchored in the Johore Strait. In shallow water, the main explosive charge was laid under the cruiser, while magnetic limpet mines were attached to the hull. Both Fraser and his diver, LSEA J.J. Magennis, were awarded the Victoria Cross.

By the war’s end, Australians in X-Craft had won two DSOs, four DSCs and a US Bronze Star. Sadly, three of them lost their lives. Compared with the Japanese record, the British midgets had achieved very important successes and shown that it was possible to use these craft to strike enemy targets and return safely to base.

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