By Richard Francis

 Today I managed to score an unexpected conducted tour of one of the RAN’s latest Collins Class submarines, HMAS Sheean, alongside the dedicated submarine berth at West Wall in Fleet Base East.

On first appearance the black, sleek submarine hull seems small but sinister. On boarding and being greeted by a smart and attentive quartermaster guarding the ship-to-shore brow access, the casing appears bereft of any fittings other than the canvas-shrouded sonar transducer right forward. A screen door provides access to the conning tower, which provides (actually) a streamlined housing for the suite of periscopes, snort and assorted masts, and atop the fin is a minscule bridge or conning platform with barely room for 4 men. Access to the interior is via either the forward or after hatch, although there is provision for other accesses such as the weapons loading hatch forward.

Descending carefully down the hatch though the upper casing, which floods on diving, one reaches the first of three decks, comprising the pressure hull, which is circular in cross-section and much wider than the upper casing would suggest. Space is at a premium and the passageways are very narrow, crammed with technical equipment at every bend and corner. The top deck comprises the senior sailors’ and officers’ cabin space and recreation messes. Further aft is the control room, the nerve centre of the vessel, much the same as in earlier submarines. Apart from the periscopes, the control room resembles similar operations rooms in surface ships, except that the banks of screens and arrays seem more densely packed around the bulkheads and deckhead. Everything is clean and efficient presentation. One apparent anomaly was the standard 35mm camera attached to the periscope for recording purposes. This will be replaced by a digital camera in due course. Surpringly, our guide was also the able seaman cook, a definite character with unbelievable knowledge of the submarine’s multifarious systems and equipment.

The (middle) deck below houses the crew’s bunk spaces, recreation messes, weapons space forward, galley and cafeteria, with machinery spaces right aft. The electric galley is compact with full range, but no deep fryer (as fitted in USN boats) for sensible safety reasons. Cold rooms, cool rooms and fridges are all adjacent. One setback encountered has been the risk of contamination of the fresh drinking water system which has imposed the alternative provision of spring water casks everywhere (embarked by hand daily in port), although the existing reverse osmosis FW system can still be used for washing and showering. The cook says he showers every day for hygiene needs but the remainder of the crew tend to routinely wash every third or fourth day from personal choice. This boat has an all-male crew – there are not enough trained female submariners to extend to all six boats. We are told that all men together provides happy, high morale, harmony and professional dedicated enthusiasm. (..and it shows..) There are bunks available for all normal 45 complement crew, and spare bunks for supernumeries and trainees, for a maximum of 55 souls onboard.

The weapons bay forward (fore ends) is surprisingly spacious, with the six torpedo tubes horizontal across the bow, with warshot reloads in racks and provision for alternative weapons such as Sub Harpoon and ground mines. Also in this space the crew stow their personal gear and sports equipment, even gym apparatus. Along all passageways are valises containing emergency escape breathing equipment for the entire crew. Two separate escape hatches are fitted, together with two small inflatable liferafts (left over from delivery days) and portable damage control and firefighting  gear in dedicated lockers. Comprehensive firefighting drench systems are also fitted throughout the boat.

NIUW8065726_050317_093_018.tifThe lower compartments comprise storerooms and stowage spaces, tanks, fuel , water and ballast. The machinery spaces are relatively spacious and very clean, with small compartments provided for tiny workshops and control positions. After an hour’s tour my mind was overflowing with facts, figures, demonstrations, explanations and solid good humour. These submariners are truly professional in training and outlook, and are all volunteers. They have to be – it is a very demanding life with few tangible rewards other than good food and generous submarine pay. Or do they? While in port, despite austerity accommodation and facilities provided in an adjacent building on the wharf, when not on duty the crew were being accommodated in the swank Boulevard Hotel ashore in downtown Sydney. (I wonder what the tourists made of these earnest young chaps clad in sinister black coveralls, with a submariner’s dolphin emblem on their baseball cap??!)

Submarine aircraft carriers

Submarine aircraft carriers

by Fred Lane

There has been a recent upsurge in interest, mainly on the internet and in journal articles, about submarine aircraft carriers. Most of these involve the giant Japanese I-400 class but they tend to neglect earlier attempts, going back to 1915, when a German submarine became the first to launch a seaplane on a bombing mission.


The Japanese Sen-Toku I 400 class submarines were the most capable submarine aircraft carriers ever built. They displaced 5223/6560 tons surfaced/submerged on a 122 x 12 x 7 metres (400 x 39 x 23 feet) hull. Propulsion was four 3000 hp diesels, giving 18.75 knots on the surface, while two 1200 hp electric motors could drive the boat at 6.5 knots submerged. They could carry three Aichi M6A1 Seiran seaplanes and were armed with eight 533 mm (for Type 95 modified Long Lance) torpedo tubes forward, one 140 mm (6.5 inch) gun aft and three triple-barrel 25 mm machine cannon plus one single .25 mm cannon. The aircraft loaded directly from the hangar onto a 37 metres (120 feet) long catapult. Complement varied between 144 and 220.


First wartime use: 1915

The German U-12 sailed from Zeebrugge, Belgium, on 15 January 1915 with a Friedrichshafen FF-29 seaplane armed with small bombs lashed down on its foredeck. They intended to close the English coast before launching the aircraft but the swell was too steep to ensure safe passage of the delicate aircraft. U-12 submerged shortly after leaving harbour, allowing the aircraft to float off and fly away. The FF-29 reached the English coast and returned safely to Zeebrugge without suffering or inflicting notable damage.

Other experiments were conducted by both sides. For example, on 24 April 1916, in an attempt to intercept raiding Zeppelins, the British submarine E-22 carried a couple of small Sopwith Schneider Scout seaplanes out to sea on the after-casing, then submerged to allow them to fly off. The seaplanes returned to Felixstowe after their launch but the E-22 was torpedoed the next day by a German submarine and the experiment was never replicated.


In 1916 the German U-12 carries a fragile Friedrichshafen FF-29 seaplane on its forward casing.

Limited all-weather application

This method of lashing an unprotected seaplane onto a submarine’s casing continued until at least the1930s, when the Dutch submarine K-15; performed the trick of flooding the forward ballast tanks until the deck was awash, then loading and getting under way with a Fokker C-VII-W seaplane tied down on her foredeck. Of course, dead calm seas are required for such an evolution.


The Dutch replicated the German 1916 experiment in the 1930s with this Fokker C-VII-W seaplane.

All these exercises aimed to help increase an aircraft’s range or extend the submarine’s scouting horizon, but they compromised one of the submarine’s greatest assets: the ability to submerge in an emergency. With an aircraft tied to its casing, this was grossly impaired. Logically, a number of attempts followed, chiefly by mounting a large submersible hangar on a submarine, while parallel development continued to construct a fold-up seaplane with good range, endurance and payload. Many navies experimented with different submarine and aircraft capabilities in the 1920s and 1930s. The USN, for instance, built a watertight aircraft hangar abaft the conning tower of their submarine S-1. This housed a tiny Martin MS-1, which was derived from a German WW I-era design.

British M-2

One (then) big British submarine, the M-2 (90.1 metres long, 1620 tons surfaced) was launched in 1917 with an enormous 12-inch (305 mm) gun but this submarine gun size was subsequently outlawed by the 1922 Washington Treaty. Around 1927, an aircraft hangar, a hydraulic catapult and a small Parnall Peto two-place reconnaissance seaplane re[laced the gun. The concept was proven, but it was a cumbersome arrangement. The delicate aircraft was easily damaged, and so was the hangar door seal. Additionally, the aircraft launch and recovery process was slow, requiring the submarine to remain on the surface for extended periods.

The big British M-2 submarine launches a Parnell Peto seaplane from its catapult.

M-2 foundered with all hands in 1932 and divers subsequently found its hangar door open with the aircraft inside. It was assumed that either the aft dive planes malfunctioned or the hangar was swamped, perhaps by a rogue wave, as an overeager crew opened the hangar door.

The Americans also experimented with the aircraft-carrying submarine concept.
S-1 carried a tiny Martin MS-1 in 1923.

French Surcouf

The French Surcouf commissioned in 1934 as the biggest submarine in the world. Measuring 110 metres (361 feet) long, Surcouf displaced 3304 tons (surfaced) and 4218 tons (submerged). The submarine combined both British M class initiatives by mounting two large eight-inch (203 mm) guns forward of the conning tower and incorporating a water-tight hangar aft that initially housed a two-seat Besson MB411 spotter/reconnaissance sea-plane. The spotter was desirable because the guns had a 24-mile range while the submarine’s rangefinder was only good for 6.8 miles. Surcouf sank with all hands in the Caribbean after a probable collision with a merchant ship in 1942.


The French Surcouf carrried twin eight-inch guns and a Besan411B spotter-reconnaissance seaplane.

The Italians also dabbled in the submarine aircraft carrier field in the 1920s, constructing a hangar in the submarine Ettore Fieramosca. A number of aircraft were constructed to fit this hangar, but they employed none operationally.

Japanese successes

The Japanese, meanwhile, persevered with productive research into the submarine aircraft carrier concept. Experiments began as early as 1923 with a small Heinkel seaplane. By 1935 the locally-built Watanabe E9W1 “Slim” aircraft had joined the submarine force. From 1941 onwards, a much improved Yokosuka E14Y1 “Glen” seaplane was frequently carried by the 44 submarines built for this purpose. It was a Glen from the Type B1 submarine I-25 that scouted Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart in February and March, 1942.

The aircraft type most carried by submarines in WW II was the Japanese Yokosuka E14Y1 “Glen” seaplane. These aircraft performed valuable reconnaissance duties.

Japanese wartime research culminated in the deployment of three big Sen-Toku I-400 class submarines, the type that arouses most interest in recent submarine aircraft carrier discussion. It was planned to build 18 of these monsters in 1942 but by 1943 this number was reduced to five and only three were completed. They were the largest of all submarines until nuclear-powered craft appeared in the 1960s. Importantly, two of the I-400s could carry three Aichi M6A1 Seiran seaplanes each, plus spares, aircraft ordnance and aircraft stores.

Advanced design

These Seirans were not the simple reconnaissance or spotter types carried in earlier submarines, but high performance aircraft designed to penetrate a defended war zone to deliver a useful load of torpedoes or bombs. Intending to attack the Panama Canal’s Gatun Locks from the east, the Seirans practised with targets constructed ashore in Toyama Bay. For the submarines, the Gatun Locks raid involved a non-stop transit from Japan, around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Atlantic. The I-400s had an amazing maximum range of 37,500 miles at 14 knots.


The Aichi M6A1 Seiran was unknown to Allied intelligence until after WW II. It had a crew of two and an empty weight of 3301 kg (7277 pounds). It could carry one torpedo or 1800 pounds of bombs over 642 miles. Its inverted V 12-cylinder engine developed 1400 hp. Seirans could fly at a handy 256 knots and they had a service ceiling of 32,000 feet. A total of 28 were constructed, but only one survives, housed in the Udvar-Hazy Centre, near Dulles airport, VA.

They also had a 98-foot (30 metres) catapult that could launch a heavily-laden Seiran. In the hangar, with the aircraft’s wings folded back, the floats detached and the elevators, fin and rudder folded down, the whole aircraft maintained a cross-section no greater than the aircraft propeller. The seaplane’s floats could carry extra fuel and be jettisoned, if necessary. It was claimed that a worked up crew of four could range, rig, fuel, arm and launch the first aircraft within seven minutes, and all three Seirans in about 45 minutes after surfacing. In a calm sea, the aircraft might be recovered and stowed from alongside using the ship’s folding hydraulic crane in about the same time, but not all Seirans were expected to return from high value sorties, such as the Gatun Locks raid. Instead, after using the fuel stowed in them, the floats could be jettisoned before the aircraft reached a highly defended zone.

Unique construction

These big submarines had a number of unusual construction features, apart from their huge size. The hull was essentially a pair of cylinders lain side by side. The pressure hull’s midships cross section was a figure eight but this tapered to a single cylinder aft and a vertical figure eight forward to accommodate the craft’s eight torpedo tubes in two compartments, one above the other. There was also a separate aircraft engine overhaul and test bed under the hangar.

One report said that underwater steering was difficult at slow speeds. This seems logical, given that the conning tower was offset two metres to port and the aircraft hangar, with its large frontal area, was offset to starboard. As may be expected from such a large submarine, it also tended to take more time than more nimble vessels to submerge.


The four diesel engines produced a total 7,700 hp but their arrangement was unique in the Japanese navy. Two diesels were coupled in pairs to each propeller shaft, which could also be powered by a 1200 hp electric motor when submerged. A rudimentary snorkel was added during construction, permitting limited underwater cruising on the diesel engines.

Starting with the Friedrichshafen FF-29 in 1915, the submarine aircraft carrier development concept executed a full cycle, from bombers through fighters and scouts and back to bombers. Nowadays, the I-400’s role has been usurped by missile-firing submarines.

Tiru and Vendetta

USS Tiru and HMAS Vendetta

by Pat Burnett and Sam Sakker. Footnote by Tom De Voil

On the night of  Thursday 3 November, 1966 the US Submarine Tiru, on passage north off the east coast of Australia, ran aground at a speed of about 12 knots on the southern edge of Frederick Reef, in the Outer Barrier Reef, about 300 nautical miles east of Mackay.

At the time I had recently assumed command of the Daring class destroyer HMAS Vendetta, which was then carrying out a maintenance period at Garden Island Dockyard in Sydney. On Friday 4 November we were ordered to prepare for sea and to embark several high-ranking USN officers, a clearance diving team and a Caribbean type motor cutter. Then we were to proceed at 24 knots early on the Saturday morning to stand by the scene of the grounding. This prompted the ship’s company wag to comment that we were now the USS Vendetta (usually sails Saturday).


USS Tiru, hard aground on Frederick Reef in a calm sea but appreciable swell.

Clearance diving team

We had an uneventful passage to Frederick Reef in good weather conditions and arrived there the next day to find Tiru firmly aground in a calm sea, but with an appreciable southerly swell breaking over the reef, which is barely covered at low water. We hove-to off the reef and lost no time in sending the clearance diving team over by boat to carry out an underwater survey of the submarine. The swell and the coral rendered boatwork and diving operations rather tricky, but the team did a fine job. They were able to report that, although Tiru had struck the reef at about 12 knots, she had ridden up over the edge of it and had suffered surprisingly little damage, her pressure hull still being intact.

We held a conference on board Vendetta with the diving officer, submarine officers and the specialist salvage experts we had embarked. After much discussion it was decided to attempt to pass a tow and try to refloat the submarine at the approaching high water. This was accordingly done. I found manoeuvring stern-to close to the edge of the reef quite difficult in the swell conditions, but eventually the ship was in the desired position and we succeeded in passing the towing hawser to Tiru by boat.

Once the tow was secured and all was ready, we gradually took up the strain at dead slow speed ahead and then increased the pressure on the tow by slow degrees as far as we considered it safe to do so. However, the submarine remained firmly aground and we were unable to budge her. After a prolonged effort we were obliged to abandon the attempt.

USS Taussig

Frederick Reef was steep-to and the adjacent area too deep for anchoring, so after the tow was recovered we steamed at economical speed in the vicinity overnight. We hove-to off the reef again on the Monday morning to check the situation with Tiru and render what services we could to her ship’s company. Later in the forenoon we were relieved on station by the destroyer escort USS Taussig, which was ordered to stand by until another rescue attempt could be made. After further discussion it was decided to send for a salvage tug from Brisbane to attempt to refloat the submarine at a higher high tide, which was shortly due. We transferred our USN personnel to Taussig and were then released to return to Sydney to resume our maintenance period after an unusual experience.

The operation attracted some publicity at the time and I had several radio telephone conversations with an American NBC correspondent who was covering it. We had also embarked an RAN public relations photographer who took some graphic pictures of Tiru aground on the reef. We subsequently learnt that after docking and minor repairs Tiru had been able to continue her passage. I understand that the USN later conducted an enquiry into the grounding and held a court martial, but we did not hear any details of their proceedings.


Three RAN Daring class destroyers were the first prefabricated all-welded ships built in Australia. One of the three, HMAS Vendetta (above), was constructed in Williamstown Naval Dockyard. Commissioned in 1958 and displacing 3600 tons, the destroyer carried a crew of 320 and measured 118.4 x 113.1 x 3.73 metres (388.5 x 43 x 12.25 feet). Her main armament included six 4.5 inch (114 mm) guns, 6 x 40mm Bofors and one 3-barrelled ASW Limbo mortar. Two boilers and two English Electric steam turbines developed 54,000 hp that could drive the ship at 33 knots.

Sam Sakker’s tale:

HMAS Sydney, under the command of CAPT Anthony Synnot RAN, was on a training cruise around the Barrier Reef near the Fitzroy River, and received a signal that the submarine USS Tiru had run aground on Frederick Reef at (contrary to some reports) 2037, Thursday 3 November 1966. Sydney arrived the following day and stood by to render assistance.

The submarine was hard and fast on the reef with huge waves breaking over her. Her watertight integrity had not been breached, but one of her sailors had been tossed by a wave while rigging safety lines. He returned on board, where he developed increasing abdominal pain. He was the biggest man on board, well over 1.96 meters (6 feet 5 inches), so the captain gave up his cabin. Even this was so cramped that a square was cut out of the bulkhead at the foot of the bunk to accommodate the sailor’s feet.

HMAS Vendetta was dispatched from Sydney. She picked up a US salvage team flown out from Hawaii, but no doctor was on board. I transferred to Vendetta on 6 November and Sydney continued her cruise. The seas had only slightly abated.

Wetsuit and flippers

I donned a wetsuit and flippers and was taken by the ship’s cutter to just beyond the line of breakers. A gun line was fired to the Tiru, where a heavier line was fixed while the cutter took the strain at the other end. A sailor and I pulled ourselves hand over hand in an inflatable liferaft, thankfully without going in the drink.

The injured sailor was unwell with a silent abdomen. He had been well looked after by a USN sickbay man, Ralph Mummey, and we formed a great team. We “sucked and dripped” him, keeping careful fluid balance and records in alternating four-hour watches.

The seas remained high. It was not possible for a warship to tow us off the reef. The ocean-going tug Carlock departed Brisbane and arrived early on Monday 7 November. Tiru was towed off on a rising tide at 1240 and proceeded to Brisbane under her own power.

We arrived in Brisbane early on 8 November. The next hurdle was to move this huge man out of the tiny cabin through a maze of dogleg passages and watertight doors. I gave him a very large dose of morphine.

Five strong sailors

Five of the strongest sailors lifted him out of the bunk and out through the door into the passageway, where he was strapped into a flexible stretcher. He was then manhandled to the forward torpedo space, winched out through the torpedo hatch and transferred to an ambulance.


USS Tiru SS-416 was launched on 16 September 1947 as a Balao class submarine and was completed as a Guppy II. Upgraded to a Guppy III between May and December 1959, the post-1959 craft displaced 1975 tons/2450 tons surfaced/submerged and measured 97.4 metres (319.5 feet) long by 8.33 metres (27.33 feet) beam and 5.2 metres (17 feet) draft. The submarine’s three Fairbanks-Morse 10-cylinder opposed piston diesel engines and G. E. electric motors provided 6500/2750 hp, which translated into potential maximum speeds of 17/14 knots or 6 knots snorkelling. Armament included 10 x 533 mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes, six forward and four aft, and the submarine carried a crew of about 85. Tiru was decommissioned 1 July 1975 and was sunk as a target 19 July 1979.

At the Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital, he was assessed, resuscitated and had 22 cm of necrotic small bowel excised. His recovery was swift and he was on his way home within a week.

“Aloha Dr Sam”

Towards the end of 1967, I transferred to HMAS Melbourne, to cross the Pacific and collect Skyhawks, Grumman Trackers and matériel for Vietnam. Our first port of call was Pearl Harbor. To my amazement and the crew’s delight, we were greeted at the submarine wharf by a large banner proclaiming “Aloha Dr Sam” held up by some members of the crew of the USS Tiru. Her XO took me sightseeing in Oahu, and ensured my short stay was both memorable and enjoyable.

To my great surprise, I was awarded the MBE(Mil) in the New Year Honours list 1968: The citation read:


1 January 1968. Appointed a Member of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire Surgeon Lieutenant Samuel Sakker RAN.

Citation: For exceptionally meritorious service in boarding the stranded United States Submarine in rough seas, and for outstanding devotion to duty in treating a seriously injured man in difficult conditions. On 3 November, 1966, USS Tiru grounded on Frederick Reef in the Coral Sea and HMAS Sydney was sent to assist on 4 November. It was learned that a USN Petty Officer had been flung against equipment in the submarine resulting in serious internal injuries. Rough seas prevented boarding the submarine that night and although there was only a slight moderation by the next morning SURG LEUT Sakker prepared to swim from the destroyer HMAS Vendetta to the submarine. In the event a hazardous boarding was achieved by liferaft.

On board the submarine SURG LEUT Sakker worked to keep the Petty Officer alive throughout the 6th and 7th November and until the early hours of 8th November when, after transferring the patient and a full case history to the General Repatriation Hospital, Greenslopes, Brisbane, he was finally able to rest. SURG LEUT Sakker’s conduct was in keeping with the highest traditions of the medical profession and the RAN.



Tom De Voil adds:

I was Senior Engineer of Vendetta at the time of this accident.  The XO was LCDR Eric Johnson (The Big E) and the MEO was CMDR George Laing-Schofield (who had been a mechanician in the previous Vendetta during WW II).

On Friday 4 November 1966, we were in a self maintenance period (SMP) alongside at Garden Island and doing boiler cleans.  One boiler had the external casings removed.  That forenoon, the MEO called on Fleet Staff in the old FHQ building “on the Hill” in Garden Island where he was asked why we were raising steam.  He replied that we were not and was promptly asked to look out the window from where he could see his ship making smoke from one funnel.

We sailed later that day on one boiler with the other being rapidly reassembled.  As I recall we went through Sydney Heads at about 18 knots having been ordered to make “moderate dispatch” to assist USS Tiru. When we were clear of the Heads we had revolutions for 27 knots rung on.  We achieved this as soon as the second boiler was connected later that afternoon.

Southerly swell

We sailed north with an enormous southerly swell helping us along.  In the boiler and engine rooms this was very noticeable.  Without changing the firing rate of the boilers the speed of the ship would vary from about 24 knots, and appropriate revolutions, as we climbed the rear face of the swell.  It would increase to well over 30 knots as we raced down the front of the swell and propeller revolutions would increase accordingly.  The boiler pressure would change in harmony, providing it didn’t get too close to the red line.  It was a fascinating scenario, from a technical point of view, to see how closely linked were ship speed, propeller revolutions, turbine stage pressures and boiler pressures.

The following day I recall being on the bridge during the forenoon and watching the pitometer log indicator approach the stop at 40 knots.  We were very close to surfing on a couple of occasions.  This in a vessel 118.4 metres (388 feet) in length.

The swell abated as we progressed north but nevertheless was still significant when we approached Frederick Reef, as the photograph in the article by Pat Burnett shows.  From my perspective the rest of the time was interesting, but routine, in particular making sure that the evaporators produced enough potable water to keep the ship’s company happy in the tropical weather.

Torpedo pistols

Torpedo pistols

Torpedoes have come a long way since the Ottoman submerged submarine Abdülhamid first fired a torpedo in 1886 and Russian torpedo boats sank the Turkish steamer Intibah on 16 January 1877. Englishman Robert Whitehead was one of the seminal contributors to torpedo design and it was his 1886 pendulum and hydrostatic bellows arrangement that first enabled the torpedo to maintain an accurate preset depth.

Maintaining a steady depth, however, was just one part of the intricate equation. First, the torpedo had to be launched, then it had to head off in the right direction. Finally, and most importantly, it had to explode at the right time.

Contact or magnetic?

Either a contact or magnetic pistol initiated most torpedo warhead explosions in WW II. The magnetic pistol, developed in the 1930s, was planned to fire as it passed close underneath a vessel. When working as advertised, this broke the ship’s back and ensured the target’s total loss with perhaps one shot. However, in the early days of WW II, it was not unusual for a magnetic pistol to explode prematurely, sometimes leading to the loss of the firing submarine by disclosing its presence to enemy escorts. More often than not, the early magnetic pistols failed to explode at all.

whitehead contactrn mk8
Torpedo pistol design advanced a long way from the original simple and reliable Whitehead contact pistol (left), although the British Mark IIIA (right) had one of the best reputations for reliability in WW II torpedo pistols.

British, German and American submarine commanders all reported operational difficulties with their magnetic pistols and sometimes even contact pistols in otherwise well-aimed WW II torpedoes. Maybe draconian commercial and national secrecy and funding shortages contributed to this situation. Limited peacetime testing protected torpedo designers and manufacturers and enabled them to assert greater faith in their products than was warranted. Only the Japanese, it seems, were ready with fully-tested torpedoes by 1939.

British response

The British were quickest to react to reports of defective magnetic pistols. They smartly reverted to contact pistols before discarding the old Duplex Coil Rod (DCR) for an improved Compensated Coil Rod (CCR) magnetic pistol.

The Germans, faced with similar reports from their U-boat captains, together with depth-keeping errors, first produced a series of complex correction tables, but took two years to produce a redesigned pistol. Four senior German officers were tried by courts martial, found guilty and punished (Döentiz 1990, Ch. 7, Newpower 2006, pp. 44-46).

A little later, shortly after America entered the war, USN submarine commanders reported serious problems with their torpedo depth-keeping mechanisms and both magnetic and contact pistols. The USN Bureau of Ordnance and the Newport Torpedo Station, true to form, initially blamed “inept submarine commanders”. It was not until operational submariners conducted a series of their own tests, for instance in Frenchman’s Bay, near Albany, Australia, around 20 June 1942, that they proved conclusively that American torpedoes ran maybe ten feet lower than set (Newpower 2006 pp. 171-173; Shireman, 1998).

They allowed for this error and reverted to contact pistols, but found that they, too, were defective. If an American contact pistol, originally designed for slower-running torpedoes, hit a target at right angles at the new torpedo speed of 46 knots, the pistol’s internal structure might deform before it completed its firing cycle.

The solution? Initially, submarine commanders were instructed to fire their torpedoes at oblique relative angles, then a simple modification corrected the malfunctioning contact pistols. By this time, newer torpedoes with homing and pattern-running capabilities were coming on line.


Döentiz, K. Memoirs: Ten years and twenty days. Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, 1990.
Newpower, A.J. Iron men and tin fish: The race to build a better torpedo during World War II. Greenwood Press: Westport, 2006.
Shireman, D.A. U.S. Torpedo troubles during World War II. World War II, Feb 1998. Cowles History Group: Leesburg.


RADM Fluckey USN

Fluckey and the Barb

RADM Eugene B. Fluckey USN, the most highly decorated American serviceman then living, died on 28 June 2007, aged 93, of Alzheimer’s disease complications.

He won a Medal of Honor (the nation’s highest award for valour), four Navy Crosses and the Legion of Merit. His ship, the USS Barb (SS-220), was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the Navy Unit Commendation and eight battle stars. Above all, he said, he was “most proud that no one who served under my command was awarded a Purple Heart for being wounded or killed” (Fluckey p. 421).

RADM Fluckey’s Medal of Honor citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the USS Barb during her 11th war patrol along the east coast of China from 19 December 1944 to 15 February 1945. After sinking a large enemy ammunition ship and damaging additional tonnage during a running 2-hour night battle on 8 January, CMDR Fluckey, in an exceptional feat of brilliant deduction and bold tracking on 25 January, located a concentration of more than 30 enemy ships in the lower reaches of Nankuan Chiang (Namkwan Harbor). Fully aware that a safe retirement would necessitate an hour’s run at full speed through the uncharted, mined, and rock-obstructed waters, he bravely ordered, “Battle stations torpedoes”. In a daring penetration of the heavy enemy screen, and riding in five fathoms (9 metres) of water, he launched the Barb‘s last forward torpedoes at 3,000 yards (2.7 km) range. Quickly bringing the ship’s stern tubes to bear, he turned loose four more torpedoes into the enemy, obtaining eight direct hits on six of the main targets to explode a large ammunition ship and cause inestimable damage by the resultant flying shells and other pyrotechnics. Clearing the treacherous area at high speed, he brought the Barb through to safety and four days later sank a large Japanese freighter to complete a record of heroic combat achievement, reflecting the highest credit upon CMDR Fluckey, his gallant officers and men, and the US Naval Service.


medal of honor
The Naval Medal of Honour

 USS Barb (SS-220) was a Gato class submarine, built by the Electric Boat Company, Groton. Launched 2 April 1942, she was initially employed in the Atlantic, conducting five patrols, chiefly out of Roseneath, Scotland. In September 1943, Barb transferred to the Pacific, operating out of Pearl Harbor.

After one war patrol as Barb‘s prospective commanding officer during her seventh patrol, LCDR Fluckey assumed command of the submarine on 27 April 1944. Until then, Barb had sunk only one ship. In very short time, Fluckey established himself as one of the greatest of all the American submariners.

radm fluckey
RADM Eugene B. Fluckey (1935-2007)

During seven war patrols between March 1944 and August 1945, the submarine was particularly successful. Under his command, Barb was credited by the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee, which tallied wartime losses, with sinking 16 ships, and sharing one more, totalling 95,360 tons. Fluckey’s own data, derived after ten years’ diligent post-war research including delving into Japanese archives, and now recognised by the CNO, makes this 29.3 ships and 146,000 tons.

uss barb
Barb (SS-220) seen here in May 1945, was a Gato class diesel-electric submarine, displacing 1525 tons (surfaced) on a 95 x 8.3 x 5.1 metres (311 ft 9 inches x 27 ft 3 inches x 16 ft 10 inches) hull. Her four GM Model 16-248 V16 diesels, delivered 5,400 SHP to twin propellers, that gave 20 knots surfaced, while electric motors drove her at 8.75 knots submerged. She carried a crew of 80. Barb had six 533 mm (21-inch) tubes forward and four aft, and carried a total of 24 torpedoes. Surface armament included one 75 mm (3-inch) gun and four machine guns.

 In one action, on 17 September 1944, he sank the Japanese 18,000-ton escort aircraft carrier Unyo and an 11,000-ton tanker Asuza Maru, with the same torpedo salvo. His oft-stated philosophy was: “We don’t have problems, just solutions.”

Barb was also was the first to launch five-inch rockets from the deck of a submarine when the vessel destroyed enemy targets ashore in Hokkaido and Sakhalin during her 12th and final patrol that commenced 8 June 1945. Later on, during that same patrol, on 23 July 1945, with Barb standing 900 yards offshore, Fluckey sent a raiding party of eight sailors ashore in two rubber dinghies to set a scuttling charge on a rail line near Kashiho, Sakhalin. As the party rowed back, a 16-car train set off the charge and was promptly derailed, as planned. This was the only time an armed American force deliberately landed on a Japanese home island during WW II.

Barb had a chequered career after WW II, characterised initially by long reserve fleet layoffs, leisurely dockyard upgrades and conversion to a “GUPPY” (Greater Underwater Propulsion Power Program) in 1954. Renamed Enrico Tazzoli (S-511) in December 1954, she was loaned to Italy and eventually sold as scrap for $100,000 in 1975.

CMDR Fluckey held a number of post-war appointments, including one as personal aide to FADM Chester Nimitz and others as commanding officer of a submarine, a submarine tender and a submarine flotilla. He also distinguished himself as a naval attache in Portugal, being awarded the first Medalha Militar ever awarded to a non-Portuguese officer.

Promoted RADM in July 1960, Fluckey served as Commander Submarine Force Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC) 1964-66. He retired in 1972 to run, with his wife, an orphanage they founded in Portugal.


Fluckey, E.B. Thunder below: USS Barb revolutionises submarine warfare in WW II. University of Illinois Press: Urbana, 1992.

Subsunk and Rescue

Submarine rescue: The Australian experience

In the last 100 years, more than 200 submarines have been lost by accident or error, usually with a large loss of life. Seven submarines were lost in the last 25 years, including the Russian Kursk, and there have been many close calls. In the early days, material or design failure was usually to blame, but collision or other human error has been a chief cause over the past 30 years.

In May 1995, the RAN contracted with the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) in Adelaide, South Australia, to provide a comprehensive submarine escape and rescue service as a means of rescuing survivors of a tragic disabled submarine (DISSUB) event.

If an accident should occur and a submarine sinks, those on board who survive the initial accident are faced with further complex threats from carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide or other toxic gas poisoning plus oxygen depletion inside the submarine, together with pressure and cold from the surrounding water.


Remora, the first Australian solution to the submarine rescue problem

If the pressure from the water depth exceeds the strength of the submarine’s hull, the hull collapses and the crew dies quickly. However, if the hull remains intact, it follows that the survivors must either escape by buoyant ascent, await rescue by external aid or experience a slow death through carbon dioxide poisoning or hypothermia.

Swedish option
The Swedish Navy rescue vehicle (USN photo).

Escape by buoyant ascent from a damaged sunken submarine is not simple. The system employed by many of the world’s navies, including Australia, evolved from the 1920s Momsen Lung and the USN’s 1953 Steinke Hood. The RN developed the Submarine Escape Immersion Ensemble (SEIE) Mk 10 in the early 1950s and it is used by 21 navies, including the RAN and USN. It has been successfully tested to depths as great as 600 feet (182 meters), with a theoretical potential down to 850 feet (259 meters), and provides full-suit thermal protection plus an integral one-man life raft. The SEIE, however, requires the disabled submarine’s internal air pressure and air quality to remain relatively normal. Otherwise, both the remaining crew and escapees risk death from decompression sickness or gas toxicity. Other limitations, such as the escape chamber hatch remaining within 45 degrees of the horizontal, surface rescue vessels being nearby and suitable surface weather conditions all contribute to the SEIE’s ultimate effectiveness. There are also risks of barotrauma due to Eustachian tube blockage during the pressure equalisation phase inside the tower and pulmonary overinflation syndrome due to survivors failing to breathe normally on the way up. Decompression sickness (bends), hypothermia, thermal stress, traumatic injury and drowning are additional considerations in real-life escape situations.

The British SEIE Mk 10 (left).

Exercise Sorbet Royal

A NATO exercise, Sorbet Royal in May 2002 (Cohen 2003), demonstrated the effectiveness of the system when four crewmembers and five others from Denmark, the UK and USA, both men and women, donned SEIE suits to simulate an escape from the Swedish submarine Vastergotland, down 115 feet off the coast of Denmark. The submarine’s escape tower had a four to six minutes recycle time, (determined chiefly the time it takes to drain the flooded tower) but they used a 15-minute interval for this demonstration. The exercise worked as briefed, with 18 seconds required for the pressure equalisation phase, the pressure doubling roughly every four seconds or so, and nine seconds required for the ascent. Rescue units, including a decompression chamber, were waiting in smooth seas on the surface.

Russian experience

Improperly conducted escapes can lead to the bends which, without immediate recompression, are generally fatal. Another real life factor is hypothermia. When the Soviet submarine Komsomlets sank in the Norwegian Sea in 1989, 34 of 69 crewmen escaped but died of hypothermia, heart failure or drowning (Polmar 2000).

The Kursk had escape-survival suits rated to 328 feet (100 metres). Like most other Russian submarines, it also had a built-in escape pod in the sail structure, big enough for the entire crew, but this was probably destroyed by the initial explosions. The Komsomlets also had a pod, which broke free as the boat plunged to the bottom at 5,500 feet (1,676 metres). Tragically, toxic gas entered the pod and only one of its five occupants survived.

Water depth may preclude a buoyant SEIE ascent, therefore the survivors must wait for rescue. Rescue is always preferable to escape but rescue systems are expensive.

Following the loss of USS Thresher in 1963, the USN developed two extremely capable 24-man Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles (DSRVs). The 30-ton DSRV can be flown to a convenient embarkation port from where it can be piggy-backed on a specially modified nuclear submarine or rescue vessel to the accident site.

The DSRV rescues survivors under pressure, theoretically down to 5,000 feet (1,500 metres), well beyond the collapse depth of any existing submarine. However it cannot transfer them under pressure without a special vessel fitted with decompression facilities. The USN has eight submarines, the British four and the French two that can operate the DSRV (Walsh 2000) but only the four British ballistic missile nuclear submarines have the additional recompression chamber (RAN 2000).

The USN also possesses two McCann “diving bell” rescue chambers, rated to 1,200 feet (366 metres). Developed in the 1930s, one featured in the successful USS Squalus rescue in September 1939. Unfortunately, the McCann Bell suffers from severe operational limitations in that a diver must attach a haul-down cable.

Several nations have rescue submersibles, such as the British LR5. However, they are launched from surface ships, so they too are limited by weather and ice conditions. Some are also limited by depth, such as the British LR5’s 1,312 feet (400 metres).


A British LR5 launching in flat calm seas.

After the Remora failure on 4 December 2006, when its main lift cable parted off Rottnest Island in heavy seas, the RAN has relied on the LR5. This “manned submersible” weighs 21.5 tons and operates to a maximum depth of 400 metres with its crew of three in wave heights of five metres. Its maximum speed is 2.5 knots and the LR5 requires a Vmax of one knot of bottom current to mate successfully with the submerged submarine.The LR5 requires a heel of less than 10 degrees and a 60 degrees bow up attitude on the distressed submarine, but this may be modified with 15 degree wedges. Its chamber will accommodate 15 survivors at a time. Australian support vessels have been modified to accept the vehicle and it employs the standard NATO rescue seat, with which our submarines are fitted.


The LR5 is air-transportable. For the annual Black Carillon submarine escape exercise programmed for late 2009, two standard containers of auxilliary equipment were transported by commercial airline and the submersible itself was carried by an RAAF C-17. (Navy News photo: LAC Benjamin Evans, 11 June 2009.)

RAN experience

In the early 1990s the RAN’s six Oberon class submarines were being replaced by the Collins class. The RAN, following UK procedures, built a modern submarine escape training facility at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. This included two air-portable recompression chambers nominally capable of treating six patients, and stocks of equipment to deploy to the site of a submarine accident.

However, the waters off Sydney, in which the Oberons generally operated, have a very narrow continental shelf. Therefore escape systems were generally regarded as existing chiefly for morale purposes. If a submarine sank more than a few miles off the coast it would fall quickly beyond its safe hull depth or to depths beyond which escape was impossible. In either event a quick death for the crew would be the likely outcome.

RAN submersible, 1987

The RAN required some sort of rescue system compatibility and as far back as the mid-1980s fitted a rescue flange on the casings around the Oberons’ forward escape towers. In 1987 the RAN acquired a small submersible and support ship but found the cost of refurbishing was prohibitive, so this was abandoned in 1992.

Next, the RAN commissioned a study that resulted in the 1994 formation of project group tasked to acquire:

  • recompression facilities for nine stretcher-borne and eight to ten seated patients;
  • a means of transferring emergency stores into a sunken submarine;
  • a means of transferring the seated patients under pressure to alternative re-compression facilities;
  • a submerged rescue capability, probably through a leased service from a foreign navy; and
  • significant improvements in the Australian submarine escape and rescue infrastructure.

Skills training

Analysis indicated only two viable rescue system options existed. Either the RAN could lease the Royal Navy’s submersible LR5 on a “stand-by fly-away” basis or it could build its own. The American DSRV, although highly capable, was impractical because it lacked support assets in Australia.

With the exception of the McCann Bell, all rescue systems used free-swimming submersibles. The skills to operate the systems are found in the offshore diving/oil industry or developed and maintained in-house by naval personnel. The USN employed 120 contractors and 210 naval personnel on a full-time basis.

In either case, skills maintenance required deployment of the rescue vehicles, every four to six weeks, at significant ship and personnel costs. Even when commercial resources were used, such as by the RN with a team of eight, industry could not be relied upon as a source of skilled operators. All mechanical sub-surface operations were carried out by saturation divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

The submersibles are also complex, heavy and expensive to maintain. Additionally, they require specialised support vessels, few of which operate near Australia.

Chartering the LR5 initially looked viable, but further analysis revealed problems. Although the standby costs for LR5 were insignificant, the only way to guarantee a support vessel (without purchasing one) would involve constant charter for an indeterminate period. Such a charter would use up several million dollars in only a few months. These costs would be overwhelming and would not guarantee vessel availability if it was needed for an Australian emergency response.

ASC proposal

With such prohibitive costs and the complexity of operating a submersible, the ASC concluded that some form of diving bell would provide a much more viable option. Accordingly, in January 1995 they proposed to the RAN that they supply and operate a Submarine Escape and Rescue Service (SERS).

The ASC proposed constructing the world’s first remotely operated rescue vehicle. This would be fully integrated with a new 12-man Transfer Under Pressure Chamber and recompression chambers that would create a decompression complex capable of accommodating up to 72 personnel. Two triple compartment, air-portable recompression chambers with a capacity for 36 seated or 22 stretcher-borne patients were designed and manufactured by the Australian Submarine Corporation. They were installed onboard the Royal New Zealand Navy diving support vessel HMNZS Manawanui in time for HMAS Collins‘ initial dive in late February that year.

Along with the supply of the recompression chambers, ASC devised and implemented a method of deploying Emergency Life Support Stores (ELSS) into a submarine using pressure-proof pods.
Under the proposal, the rescue vehicle could mate with a disabled submarine lying at extreme angles by utilising an articulated interface, known as a “skirt”. The entire suite, including the ELSS pods and deployment system would be operated and maintained by a small team. The service would be on call to the RAN 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and would be capable of deploying at 12 hours’ notice.

The RAN accepted the proposal and in May 1995 signed a $20 million five-year contract. Under the terms of the contract, ASC provided the rescue capability in early December 1995, before HMAS Collins‘ first deep dive trial.

The Australian Submarine Rescue Vehicle (ASRV) Remora was designed, built in Canada, tested in 1,800 feet (547 metres) of water with a target plate set at 60 degrees and air-freighted to Australia in 23 weeks.

It was a 16.5 tonne remotely operated vehicle built about a diving bell. It had room for seven people, the operator/attendant and six survivors. It could operate at more than 1,600 feet (488 metres) in a current of three knots and mate to sunken submarines lying at angles of up to 60 degrees from the vertical in moderate (one and a half meters) seas. Rescue and transfer under pressures of up to five Bar (approximately 150 feet, 45 metres) is achieved through mating to a special chamber connected to either of two portable 36-man recompression chambers carried in the recovery vessel.

Armoured cable

The vehicle was controlled by a 3,000 feet (914 metres) armoured cable that powered two 75 hp hydraulic power units. A team of three comprising a pilot, navigator and dive supervisor manned the surface van. In a separate compartment the Naval Coordinator, Rescue Forces, communicated with the sunken submarine via underwater telephone, with the shore-based authorities via INMARSAT, and with local rescue assets via VHF radio.

Accompanying the suite was a containerised workshop van. The entire suite was either housed in cargo containers or packed for carriage by aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules, or by road, rail or sea resources. It was ready to deploy within 12 hours of the alert being raised and could be anywhere in Australia within 36 hours. The suite could be deployed onboard a ship within a further 24 hours and the ship should be ready to sail 72 hours after callout.

The RAN’s contract with ASC includes the provision of two 72 metre Offshore Support Vessels in South Australia and Western Australia, respectively, for submarine trials and practice weapons recovery. Additionally, as well as operating Remora, each was capable of embarking and operating the entire SUBSUNK Rescue Suite.

New Technology

Around midnight 4 December 2006, a Remora main lift cable parted in moderate seas off Rottnest, WA, due probably to a manufacturing defect. The craft was conducting certification trials before an Exercise Black Carillon, a mating drill with the Collins class submarine HMAS Shean . After the malfunction, the operators lowered the Remora to the ocean floor, 130 metres below, with two civilian contract crewmen trapped aboard for about 13 hours. The umbilical cord to the mother ship, providing power and communications, remained intact. After two aborts, a gentle lift around midday the next day brought them to a depth of 15 metres, when two divers from the surface ship descended and opened the craft’s hatches. The two contractors inside swam out, buddy-breathing with the divers until they reached the surface. The Remora craft was then lowered to the bottom and secured, awaiting insurance and other decisions before determining recovery procedures. The vessel was eventually recovered by the United States Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving on 26 April 2007 and shipped back to Canada for repair and refurbishment.


Cohen, B.A. New sub equipment and training will save lives. UNSI Proceedings 129/12, December, 2003. pp 77-79.
Polmar, N. What if Kursk had been ours? UNSI Proceedings 126/10, October, 2000. pp 90-92.
Walsh, D. Submarine rescue: Ready for a worst case scenario. UNSI Proceedings 126/8, August, 2000. p 89.


X-craft: Australian-manned

Australians in midget submarines

by Ray Worledge

Japan’s midget submarines proved a failure during the otherwise successful attack on Pearl Harbour 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, despite having built dozens, 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.

kure midgets
More than 80 Japanese midget submarines of four types were photographed in a Kure dry dock 19 October 1945. The Japanese put considerable effort into constructing and deploying these midgets, but achieved much less that the more modest British X-craft project.

By contrast with the Japanese program, the British effort was belated and hasty, but objectively 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.

An early model X-Craft trial in Scotland (left) and an improved XE version under tow (right).

Early X-Craft displaced 27 tons surfaced and 29.5 tons submerged. They were 15.7 metres long and their 42 hp Gardner diesel gave them 6.5 knots surfaced while their 30 hp electric motor drove them at 5 knots submerged. They carried two 1,620 kg Amatol charges or limpet mines. Three crew were sufficient for towed passage but the operational crew was four.

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, LEUT Max Shean RANVR and SBLT 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.

tirpitz raid
The X-Craft attack on
Tirpitz, 22 September 1943.

On the night of 21/22 September the remaining four X-Craft, two captained by Australians, entered the fiord as planned. Plagued by equipment failure, LEUT Hudspeth in X10 was unable to reach his target area, but showed great skill in regaining the open sea and the towing submarine. LEUT 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, LEUT B. C. G. Place RN in X7 and LEUT 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 German battleship
Tirpitz displaced 51,800 tons and carried a crew of 2,608. She was 253.6 metres long and had a main armour belt 315 mm thick. She mounted eight x 38 cm, 12 x 15 cm, 16 x 10.5 cm and 17 x 37 mm guns, together with eight 53.3 cm torpedoes. She also carried four Arado ar 196 seaplanes. Her her 12 Wagner boilers and three Brown Bovery turbines delivered 163,000 hp that gave her 30.8 knots. The X=craft disabled her for six months.

 The next mission was to test the defences of the Home Fleet’s anchorage in Scapa Flow by a simulated attack. LEUT 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. LEUT 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, LEUT I. MacIntosh RN), Shean’s craft slipped the tow in darkness off the Bergen Leads on 13 April 1944.

Fellow Australians LEUTs Max Shean (left) and CO HMS Sceptre Ian McIntosh (later VADM Sir Ian McIntosh KBE CB DSO DSC RN) chat on Sceptre’s casing.

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, not 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.

With the invasion of Europe imminent, it had become necessary to get detailed data on the chosen landing beaches. In January 1944 LEUT 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 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 LEUT Shean.

Shean cuts cable

After appropriate training in a new technique and personally designing a special grapnel, Shean in XE4 did the job perfectly on 31 July 1945. One of his two divers was another Australian, SBLT 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, LEUT 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.

XE3’s target, the Japanese heavy cruiser
Takao (in 1940).

 The most spectacular operation was carried out by LEUT 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.