- A.N. Other
- History - WW2, Book reviews, Submarines
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2015 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Sea Devils by Mark Felton. Published by Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2015. Softback, 320 pages with photographs, rrp $27.99.
A fascinating book on the exploits of the XE Midget Submarines towards the end of WWII. It held me riveted to the story wanting to know the history and facts, particularly the raid on Singapore harbour, not known to me and I assume many others.
The author has traced the history of the midget submarines after the great raid on Tirpitz in 1943 and the introduction of the new XE Class. The book is more than a historical record as it is written to include the human element and recounts the events through the thoughts and actions of the individuals involved.
From the selection of volunteers, training and preparation for a specific mission, we are led through the eyes of the combatants in their thoughts, concerns and difficulties, especially when casualties occur in a hazardous and dangerous occupation. They were without doubt a brave bunch to volunteers who ventured into the unknown and continued when they realised the small and dangerous type of submarine that awaited them.
As there were no suitable targets in Europe, on 21 February 1945, HMS Bonaventure, and six XE-craft submarines (they were only 35 tons) were despatched to the Far East under the command of Captain W.R. (Tiny) Fell, DSC, Royal Navy and they arrived in Australia in April 1945. At first the US Admirals considered them ‘suicide crafts” and were not interested. The Flotilla was almost disbanded in May as no suitable targets could be found. Following the tenacity of Captain Fell, who travelled far and wide to postulate the capacity and ability of the Flotilla, two potential missions were identified as ideal for the XE craft. This included the undersea telegraph lines in the South China Sea along with two heavy cruisers at Singapore.
The first mission was to sink the heavy Japanese cruisers, Takao and Myoko, which were anchored in the Johore Straits, near Singapore. They had been damaged but not totally disabled. There were plans for an Allied invasion of Malaya, led by Lord Mountbatten, and it was felt that their large guns could still be used to threaten this invasion. The attack was launched from Labuan on 26 July 1945 with the XE craft towed to the vicinity in Johore Strait. On 30 July 1945 XE1 and XE3 penetrated the Strait, through the submarine net which was fortunately left open, and both attacked Takao which was severely damaged. XE1 had been delayed and due to time constraints attacked the nearest target being Takao.
The second mission was to severe undersea telegraph lines being used by the Japanese in lieu of wireless transmissions which could be read by US Code Breakers. The US needed to monitor the wireless transmissions in order gauge the mood of the Japanese with respect to accepting Unconditional Surrender and consequences from the use of the Atomic bombs. On 31 July 1945, XE4 (LEUT Max Shean RANVR) cut the submerged Singapore-Saigon telegraph cable near Cape St. Jacques in French Indochina and XE5 cut the Hong Kong-Saigon cable close to Lamma Island, Hong Kong. It is noteworthy that the grapple used to snag the cables was designed by Max Shean.
What came through to me was the tenacity and dedication of the combatants. Endless hours of training, where mishaps occurred and lives were lost. The thought of being enclosed in the small submarines for hours or days on end would not appeal to most plus the inherent dangers of the sea and possible capture by the Japanese. During Operations they spent up to 50 hours without rest. Special mention must be made for the divers who had to exit and return via the wet-and-dry compartment to not only lay limpet mines but also to cut the cables of either submarine nets or the undersea telegraph lines.
The award of two VCs to XE3 CO (LEUT Ian Fraser) and Diver (LS James Magennis) for his efforts in securing limpet mines to Takao, is testament to their bravery, in one of the last courageous acts of WWII. LEUT Max Shean also won a Bar to his existing DSO.
A well researched book that would appeal to naval historians, though I am unsure of the impact that the cutting of the undersea telegraph cables had on the end of WWII. This is up to others to decide. There are a few minor errors that submariners may find but they take little away from the overall brilliance of the story.
Reviewed by: Geoff Anderson
President – Submarines Association Australia NSW Branch