Operation Source: Midget Submarine Attack on the Tirpitz, 22 September 1943 Part II

Makin, Johne; Operation ‘Source’, 22 September 1943; Royal Navy Submarine Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/operation-source-22-september-1943-23973


By August 1942, most of the volunteers had been screened, and those that met the standards were sent to HMS Varbel at Port Bannatyne, Scotland, to begin training. Varbel was the old Kyles Hydropathic Hotel and shooting lodge. Prior to the war it was a health spa with numerous baths for rheumatic patients. Although Loch Striven, which formed Port Bannatyne, had always been restricted for submarine use, there was some concern about the lack of security surrounding the X-craft training effort. There were no guards or barbed wire, and the X-craft were moored in plain sight of local townspeople. This business-as-usual approach seems to have prevented tourists or townsmen from becoming overly curious as to the base’s operations. Nevertheless, the submariners tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible. The locals thought the X-craft was a newly designed, high-speed craft, so during daily operations the crew would wait until they were completely out of sight before diving the X-craft. Their support ship, initially the HMS Alecto and then the HMS Bonaventure, remained anchored in Loch Striven away from prying eyes, and while in town all the officers and crew stayed in civilian attire. Additionally, a cover story was developed to coincide with their daily routine. The X-craft crews were instructed to tell the townspeople they were testing a new rough-water speedboat.

Within a few months HMS Varbel began to be filled with prospective X-craft crews, including four Australians and two South Africans. The trainee officers learned how to conn and navigate the craft as well as to simultaneously operate the hydroplanes, wheel, pumps, and main airline. The conditions inside the X-craft were so cramped that from the control room the captain could touch any of the four crewmen without taking a step in any direction. Navigation was exceedingly difficult as condensation built up inside the midget and the charts became soggy. The captain learned to navigate based on time and used shaft revolutions to determine his speed and distance. Although all of the crew learned to use the wet/dry chamber, an enlisted man was assigned as the primary diver. The diver practiced exiting and entering the two-foot hatch, and he learned to cut every conceivable antitorpedo and antisubmarine net known to the British. This procedure required the diver to exit the midget and, using a hydraulic cable cutter attached to the X-craft, begin cutting the net from the bottom up with the final cut done while standing on the bow of the midget. After extensive practice, the crews could cut a net in under seven minutes.

During the early months, X-3 was the only midget available for training, and she was used by all the crews to conduct day and night dives. In November, John Lorimer, one of the first X-craft volunteers, was conducting a day dive with two new officers when the snorkel jammed open upon diving, allowing water to rush in. The wheel spanner used to blow the main ballast tanks was accidentally dropped into the bilges, and the X-3 immediately began to fill with water, taking on an eighty-five-degree down angle. Within a minute the X-3 was at the bottom of Loch Striven in 110 feet of water. The flooded battery compartment began to give off chlorine gas and soon after, the midget submarine lost all electrical power.

Lorimer, who was only twenty years old at the time, quickly directed the two officers to don their emergency breathing apparatus. The oxygen in the breathing apparatus was limited to forty minutes, and at one hundred feet it would be some time before the X-craft flooded completely and the three men could exit. With only minutes to spare the aft hatch was forced open and the men escaped. On the surface the diver-support vessel, Present Help, picked up the three officers. Upon returning to HMS Varbel, the two new officers involved in the accident requested orders back to the regular navy. Later that evening, the HMS Tedworth, a salvage ship, arrived and raised the X-3.

The X-3 was sent off for repairs, and X-4 arrived soon after with Lt. Godfrey Place as the commander. In December 1942, Place was conducting endurance trials in Inchmarnock Water, to the north of the Isle of Arran. Topside was Sublieutenant Morgan Thomas, X-4’s first lieutenant. Without warning, an ice formation broke off from the cliffs surrounding the loch. The resulting wave washed Thomas overboard and he drowned. Additionally, the wave flooded the escape compartment, causing X-4 to take on a ninety-degree down angle. Although almost perpendicular in the water, the X-4 remained afloat with Place and the other crewman, W. M. Whitley, separated by the wet/dry compartment and unable to communicate. Four hours later at the routine communication time, Place managed to transmit an emergency signal to the Present Help, located nearby in Loch Ranza. It took another two hours before the Present Help could tow X-4 to safety, bail out the wet/dry compartments, and release Place and Whitley. As a result of the accident, several modifications were made to the X-craft, including a buckle for the topside watch stander and a device for closing the hatch from inside the control room.

In late December, X-5 was launched at Faslane, Scotland, and X-6 arrived on 11 January 1943. These new production boats were built from scratch and were significantly better designed than the prototypes. By March, X-7 was finished, and the three X-craft were placed aboard the support vessel HMS Bonaventure and sent to Loch Cairnbawn to conduct tow training with the passage crews. Warren and Benson in The Midget Raiders observed:

It is not often realized how big a part these men [the passage crews] play in the success of an operation. Towing at high speed [it was sometimes as much as eleven knots] is far from being an easy or even a particularly safe job and it is very far from being a comfortable one. It calls for a high degree of alertness under trying conditions for several days [ten days] at a time. In addition it calls for constant attention to the vital routine duties of mopping up moisture, testing, and if necessary, repairing every item of equipment in the craft. To a considerable extent the success of an operation depends upon the condition in which the craft is turned over to the operational crew … The best analogy that can be given is that they correspond to a diving watch in a large submarine [except that they are continuously on watch for days, without a break] and like the diving watch of a big submarine they are relieved when the crew goes to action stations.

The tow training was exceedingly arduous and therefore rarely extended beyond a day or two. The procedure called for the passage crew to submerge and then level out at about forty feet below the parent submarine’s keel depth. Unfortunately the speed of the tow and the size differential caused the midget to porpoise constantly and made life inside the X-craft miserable. The way to avoid this constant depth change was to set the hydroplanes at the correct angle and ballast the craft a little heavily. However, if the towline broke, the ballast and the weight of the towline could cause the X-craft to plunge before the passage crew could correct the problem. Throughout all the extensive workups the X-craft were never towed for the full duration of the expected mission. Admiral Place later regretted this oversight.

What we never tried, though, really, was the length of tow, which was actually the best part of the mission. It was over a thousand miles and … the longest [tow] took nearly ten days. So that was our fault … We couldn’t really spare ten days just towing the boats out to sea to do the approach. But that was the trouble. In those small boats there are so many things that can go wrong. You have an odd valve or two go bad, or be unlucky, and it gets damp inside and you get shivering … It never occurred to us that the tows could part … we didn’t discover until afterwards … those [towlines] weren’t tow tested.

During every six hours of a tow, the midget would surface to replace the stale air and recharge the air bottles. This normally was limited to about half an hour. Depending on the sea state, the time on the surface could be more unpleasant than porpoising. In either case, the tow would be an exceptionally challenging aspect of the mission.

In April, the newly launched X-8 through X-10 replaced X-5, X-6, and X-7 in Loch Cairnbawn. X-5 through X-7 returned to Port Bannatyne to continue training new crews and conduct advance exercises with the designated operational crews. In May, the crew of X-7 was conducting net-cutting training when Sublieutenant David Locke was lost at sea while attempting to cut through an antisubmarine net. Locke was a submariner but not a qualified diver. After this incident the decision was made to add a fourth man to the X-craft crew, specifically for this task.

Throughout the summer of 1943 the passage and operational crews continued training. All six midgets were now fully incorporated into the plan and exercises were conducted simulating the actual mission. Success during these exercises bolstered the confidence of the crews.

Godfrey Place recalled, “I think we were quite confident. It seemed to be quite simple really. All six boats attacked the harbor in Loch Cairnbawn in the north of Scotland … and going through a fictitious channel … that more or less approximated the fjord—all six boats got into the harbor, attacked, and weren’t detected at all.”

On 30 August 1943, all six X-craft, the Bonaventure, the Titania (submarine tender), and the six towing submarines arrived in Loch Cairnbawn for final training. Between 1 and 5 September, each parent submarine was paired off with its midget for towing exercises that included transferring the crews at sea and recovering the X-craft. Following these exercises the midgets conducted a final calibration of the compass and were then hoisted aboard the Bonaventure for loading of the side charges. While aboard the Bonaventure, the crews received their final briefings. As the official battle summary recounts, however, “At this stage of course, it was by no means certain where the enemy would be found, but the indications were that Alten Fiord was the most probable spot, and in order to reach this area by D Day it was necessary for the submarines to leave 11th-12th September.”

Rear Admiral Barry, Commander, Submarines, arrived at Loch Cairnbawn on 10 September to conduct an inspection of the X-craft and parent submarines. It was not a cursory inspection but an exacting look at the midgets and their crews. Barry concluded that the midget submariners were

like boys on the last day of term, their spirits ran so high. Their confidence was not in any way the outcome of youthful daredevilry, but was based on the firm conviction, formed during many months of arduous training, that their submarines were capable of doing all that their crews demanded of them, and the crews were quite capable of surmounting any difficulties or hazards which it was possible for human beings to conquer. It was in this spirit that they went out into the night in their tiny craft to face a thousand miles of rough seas before they reached their objective, which itself, to their knowledge, was protected by every conceivable device which could ensure their destruction before they completed the attacks.


The battle summary noted that “at 1600, 11th September, the Truculent towing X-6, and the Syrtis with X-9, sailed from Loch Cairnbarn, followed at intervals of about two hours by the Thrasher with X-5, the Seanymph with X-8, and the Stubborn with X-7. The Sceptre with X-10 did not sail till 1300, 12th September.”

As each craft departed Loch Cairnbawn, cheers from the support vessels Bonaventure and Titania encouraged them onward. Barry, his staff, and the commanding officer of the 12th Submarine Flotilla, Capt. W. E. Banks, were also on hand as the X-craft set sail. This launch culminated eighteen months of training—training that had resulted in the death of three men. But if the X-craft were successful, it could save thousands of Allied lives.

After departing Cairnbawn, the submarines traveled independently until they were approximately seventy-five miles west of the Shetland Islands. Once at the Shetlands they proceeded on parallel courses ten miles apart. They were to maintain this relative position until 150 miles from Altenfjord.

The first four days of the transit were relatively uneventful. The weather remained clear and the seas calm. The parent submarines had paid out about two hundred yards of towline, but even with this separation the X-craft ascended and descended as much as sixty feet on a routine basis. The passage crew had to keep a constant vigil on the midget to ensure it did not lose control and suddenly plummet downward. As Gallagher recounted in The X-Craft Raid:

In addition to seasickness, the three men in each X-craft had to endure appalling discomfort during passage. Dampness penetrated their clothing, wet their hair, and seemed to narrow the already cramped space they shared. Able to sleep only in snatches, they had to work constantly to keep the craft in condition for the operational crew. There were electrical insulations to be checked, motors to be tested, machinery to be greased and oiled, bulkheads and hull plates to be wiped of condensation, records to be written, readings to be made on all the electrical circuits, and meals to be prepared.

The X-craft surfaced three or four times a day for periods of fifteen minutes, during which time the parent submarine would slow to three knots. Communications between the midget and parent was maintained (usually at two-hour intervals) through a telephone cable inserted into the towline. This unique feature required the towlines to be handmade. Consequently, when nylon lines were introduced late in the workups, there was not enough time to outfit each midget with a nylon tow. The older manila towlines were attached to X-7, X-8, and X-9.

On the fifth day of the transit, 15 September, at 0100, the manila towline separated and the crew of X-8 lost communications with their parent submarine, the Seanymph. X-8 immediately surfaced but was unable to locate the Seanymph. At 0430, the commander of X-8 decided to proceed on the original course of 029 degrees. The Seanymph did not discover the parted line until two hours later when she surfaced to allow X-8 to ventilate. At 0600 the Seanymph reversed her course in an attempt to find the missing X-craft.

The Stubborn, towing X-7 and running on the adjacent parallel path with Seanymph, surfaced around noon to ventilate. After several minutes on the surface, the watch sighted a “U-boat,” and both parent and midget submerged to avoid detection. Unbeknownst to the Stubborn, the U-boat was the lost X-8. An hour later the Stubborn surfaced and the U-boat appeared to have departed. At 1550, the watch aboard Stubborn noticed the manila line used to tow X-7 had parted as well. Fortunately, the passage crew noticed the break and surfaced. Although the weather was “rough to very rough,” the crews had trained for such a contingency, and the towline was quickly refastened.

After securing the line and testing the tow, Stubborn prepared to submerge. But moments before diving, the watch spotted X-8, “flogging around on the surface.” Stubborn proceeded to the midget’s location and directed X-8 to follow. By 1900 the weather was too bad to remain surfaced, so the three submarines, X-7, X-8, and Stubborn, submerged and began to transit to Seanymph’s location.* Before submerging, the commander of Stubborn had shouted the course to X-8. Unfortunately, the commander of X-8 misunderstood the course and steered 146 degrees instead of 046 degrees. At dawn, when Stubborn surfaced, X-8 was nowhere to be found. Fourteen hours later, however, X-8 managed to effect a rendezvous with Seanymph, ending their troubles for a while.

Meanwhile the Syrtis and X-9 were conducting an uneventful passage, even though they had lost communications the previous day. Every six hours the X-craft would surface and pass or receive any vital information. At 0920 on 16 September, when Syrtis surfaced, the X-9 was not attached to the towline. Syrtis executed a search for a day, but X-9 was never found. Although the cause of the accident was unknown, it was suspected that the crew ballasted the X-9 too heavily. When the towline broke there wasn’t enough “spare boat-blowing capacity” to bring it to the surface. The tow-line, which was exceptionally heavy, was attached to the bow of the X-craft and very difficult to release from the inside, particularly during an emergency descent. Although the midget was never found, the Syrtis sighted a “well defined” oil slick paralleling the track the X-9 had been steering. For years there was some hope that the crew had made the Norwegian coast and rendezvoused with the resistance. This, however, was not the case. Syrtis signaled Rear Admiral, Submarines (Barry), with the news and was directed to proceed in company with the other parent submarines to assist where possible.

On the morning of 17 September, X-8 began to have difficulty maintaining trim. The starboard side charge was taking on water, and it was decided to jettison the ordnance and proceed with only the portside charge. At 1635 the commander of X-8 set the charge on safe and released the two tons of explosives. Fifteen minutes later, when the X-8 and Seanymph were approximately one thousand yards away, the ordnance detonated. The explosion damaged the seal between the port charge and the X-craft. This caused the midget to list to port. After agonizing over the decision, the commander elected to release the second side charge with a two-hour delay. Nevertheless when the charge detonated on time at 1840, the ensuing concussion badly damaged the X-8, flooding the wet/dry compartment, fracturing pipes, and buckling the watertight doors. The X-craft was finished. The crew disembarked on the morning of the eighteenth and the X-8 was scuttled. Earlier, on 16 September, when the fate of X-8 seemed precarious at best, “the Rear-Admiral, Submarines, had signalled to the Seanymph and Stubborn:—‘Should at any time you consider it necessary to sink X 8 in order not to prejudice the operation, this step would have my full approval. 162208A.’ Rear-Admiral Barry subsequently remarked:—‘I consider that the Commanding Officer of X 8 acted correctly in releasing the side charges when it became apparent that they were flooded, and that the Commanding Officer, H.M.S. Seanymph’s decision to sink X 8 to avoid compromising the mission was the correct one.’ ”