The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 8 No 2 - December 1989


by J H A Speir

Amongst his other inventions, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) wrote of an idea for submarine warfare which he refused to detail for posterity 'on account of the evil nature of men who practice assassination at the bottom of the sea'.(1)

However William Bourne, a British naval officer in the service of Queen Elizabeth I had no such inhibitions and in 1578 published a book Inventions and Devices in which he detailed his ideas for an enclosed boat of leather and wood designed to be submerged and rowed underwater.(2)

In 1620 - the year of the voyage of the Mayflower to America - a Dutchman Dr Cornelius van Drebbel was a guest of British King James 1. Something that he saw whilst strolling along the River Thames gave him an idea which led to a diving machine that could be submerged at will and propelled along under water.(3)

Diving bells chiefly used for salvage operations followed, but it was not until the American Revolutionary War that the first submarine attack on an enemy ship took place. The fleet of the rebellious American colonies was bottled up in harbour by the British and a former Yale student, David Bushnell, was working on the design of a device to clear the British ships from American waters. He undertook several unsuccessful experiments with floating mines which led him to look at a controlled method of delivering his gunpowder charges underneath the British ships. His Turtle, piloted by a volunteer, Sergeant Ezra Lee, made the first submarine attack in the early hours of 6 September 1776 on Admiral Howe's 64-gun flagship the Eagle. The Turtle was a small egg-shaped wooden vessel armed with an outside charge of gunpowder in a wooden case fitted with a time fuse driven by clockwork. The vessel itself was powered by a propeller turned by the operator with another propeller fitted vertically for up and down movement. A boring auger was attached to the top of the submarine and the operator would propel his craft under the wooden hull of the enemy warship, bore the auger into its underside and then make his escape leaving the blasting charge of 150 pounds of gunpowder attached to the auger by a rope.(4) On the first attempt, Sgt Lee was unable to make the auger bite into the hull of the Eagle due, probably, to the copper sheathing designed to discourage boring insects. The Turtle was in a state of positive buoyancy with a tendency to rise and Lee's efforts with the auger caused it to surface alongside the Eagle when it was chased by a British patrol boat. Lee released his gunpowder charge which exploded on the surface and effectively scared off his pursuers.(5)

First photo

Bushnell's Turtle

In 1800 a young Irish-American, Robert Fulton, fired with hatred for the British, approached the French Government with his prototype three-man-submarine - the Nautilus - which had the unusual feature of a fan-shaped sail mounted on top for propulsion when on the surface. The sail was folded down before submerging. The Nautilus used the same method of attack as the Turtle with an auger attached to a floating charge. His offer of the submarine was turned down by the French Ministry of Marine as being 'fit only for Algerians and pirates', so he crossed the Channel to offer his invention to the British where he was more favourably received.(6) His test explosion blew the 200-ton brig Dorothea out of the water and gave a convincing display of the force of underwater explosives. The absence of a suitable means of propulsion doomed many other attempts to produce a workable submarine but the concept continued to inspire inventors in many countries. A German artillery corporal, Wilhelm Bauer, constructed a submarine boat, the Brandtaucher, with a crew of three and powered by two treadmills. It carried an explosive charge which was to be attached to the hull of the enemy craft by the commander who had to reach from the conning-tower through a pair of long rubber gloves attached to holes in the top of the tower. The mere appearance of this boat in the vicinity of the Danish fleet outside Kiel Harbour in 1850 was enough to send the Danes scurrying away to the safety of deeper water. A later voyage by Bauer resulted in the first successful escape of a submarine crew when the Brandtaucher dived head-on into a deep hole in Kiel Harbour from which it was only to emerge some thirty-six years later. It now rests at the Naval Museum in Berlin.(7)

By now submarines were growing in size and required larger crews; both factors taking them out of the midget submarine class. Several designers were experimenting with steam power which necessitated their vessels travelling just below the surface with a pipe or conning-tower projecting above the surface of the sea for air, so they were not true submarines.

Up to this time submarines were armed with detachable charges, charges fastened to the tips of long booms or primitive torpedoes fired by compressed air but without any internal means of propulsion. In 1870, a British engineer, Robert Whitehead, successfully produced a torpedo powered by compressed air and, encouraged by the British Admiralty, opened a torpedo factory some two years later. With steady technological progress and the introduction of new features such as a gyroscope to maintain an accurate course, the Whitehead torpedo became a menacing weapon and was adopted by the world's navies for use in fast surface craft. Several years were to pass before the association of the torpedo with the submarine was to enter anyone's thoughts.(8)

The American Civil War produced the so-called 'Davids', built for the Confederacy by several designers to differing plans. One of these, the Hunley powered by a hand crank turned by eight men and armed with a 90-pound keg of gunpowder fixed to the end of a 22 foot pole on the bow of vessel, succeeded in sinking the US sloop-of-war Housatonic outside Charleston Harbour on 17 February 1864, the world's first victory by a submarine.(9)

Experiments continued in many countries despite the indifferent attitude of the major powers to the value of the submarine. Indeed, the British Royal Navy only purchased. five American boats in order, initially, to test their anti-submarine tactics. The successes of the submarines soon altered the thinking of the Admiralty and the submarine come to stay as a weapon of war.

Midget submarines were largely ignored until the middle of 1918 when the Allied High Command in the Mediterranean were faced with the problem of the Austrian fleet holed up in the fortified port of Pola on the Adriatic. After several unsuccessful attempts to attack this fleet, two Italian officers, Rossetti and Paolucci, volunteered to breech the seemingly impregnable barriers of the port. These two men were highly trained underwater saboteurs - an art of war so new that only Italy had so far established a school to train men in underwater demolition. They built a 23-foot [7m] long miniature submarine powered by compressed air which they could ride astride - the first 'chariot' in submarine warfare - with two detachable warheads containing 350 pound [159 kg] charges of TNT. In late October 1918 they were slipped into the water from a parent ship outside the harbour of Pola and, dressed in waterproof suits equipped with breathing apparatus, rode their chariot up to the first nets which proved too thick to cut. The chariot was lifted over the net which manoeuvre had to be repeated over a total of eight nets and a boom of huge logs with 3-foot [0,9m] long steel spikes. Trimmed down in the water, only the tops of their helmets appeared and these were wrapped in shiny cloth in the hope that if spotted they would be taken for floating Chianti bottles.

Second photo

Italian human-guided torpedo

When they finally approached their target, the huge dreadnought Viribus Unitis, they were surprised to see it ablaze with lights with some sort of major celebration taking place on board. Thankful for the diversion they attached their charges, set the timers and sought to escape, only to be spotted by the occupants of a liberty boat, as it was now full daylight. Taken aboard the very ship that they had attacked, they were surprised to find themselves in the hands of Yugoslavians and not Austrians as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed on the very night of their attack and revolutionary Yugoslavs had taken over all the Austrian warships. In the chapter of comedies that followed, the unfortunate Italians were first believed and then disbelieved and finally forced to stay on board the ship until their charges went off and they were able to escape in the subsequent confusion.(10)

Between the two world wars, the Italian Navy experimented with several small submarines for the defence of their ports but none were actually placed in service. However, as a result of this work, they were well ahead of other navies in midget submarine research and were the first fleet to employ these devices in combat. The first Italian midget submarine, designed by two engineering officers Lieutenants Toschi and Tesei, was an improvement on the original 'chariot' concept using electric power. Their 'Maiali' or 'Pig' carried two operators in diving suits and was armed with explosive charges that were to be affixed to the hulls of enemy vessels by clamps. They had a very short range and so were carried to their targets in watertight containers fixed to the upper deck surface of specially converted large submarines.(11)

A special unit was established at La Spezia to train underwater naval crews and on 18 August 1940 the Italian submarine Iride was located and sunk near Tobruk by British ships whilst carrying three 'pigs' and their crews. On 30 October 1940 another Italian submarine - the Gondar - was successfully attacked by British forces some 22 miles [35 km] off Alexandria and sunk with her complement of three 'pigs' and their crews including, Lt Toschi, one of the inventors of the 'pig', who was taken prisoner.(12) On the same night a sister submarine - the Scire - launched three 'pigs' off Algeciras in an attack on Gibraltar harbour. Due to mechanical defects, two 'pigs' sunk but their crews were able to swim to the Spanish coast and were repatriated to Italy. The other crew got to within 100 yards [91 m] of the British cruiser 'Barham' before their 'pig' also broke down and they were forced to give themselves up. The British Navy were able to salvage one of the 'pigs' which was subjected to a very detailed examination.(13)

Another attack delivered from the same submarine took place at Gibraltar on 6 May 1941 but all three 'pigs' sank without reaching their targets.

In July 1941, two 'pigs' accompanied by eight motor torpedo boats succeeded in penetrating the harbour at Valetta, Malta, but all were destroyed before they could attack, and the other inventor of the 'pig', Lt Tesei, was killed.(14)

On the night of 20 September 1941 the Scire was back at Gibraltar with yet another complement of three 'pigs' and this time all successfully penetrated the defences and placed their charges under two tankers and an ammunition ship, all of which were sunk. Another large merchant ship was badly damaged by the blast and all six crewmen reached their 'safe house' in Algeciras after scuttling their craft in deep water.(15)

The next attack which was directed at Alexandria harbour in Egypt on the night of 18/19 December 1941 was the most successful. Three two-man chariots were able to slip through the gate in the net by following a British cruiser as it entered harbour. They planted their delayed action charges under the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant and the tanker Sagona. When these exploded both the tanker and the destroyer Jervis which had been anchored alongside were badly damaged. Damage to the Queen Elizabeth was so severe that she sank to the harbour bottom from which she was raised and temporary repairs effected which allowed her to proceed to the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia, USA. The damage kept her out of action for a total of seventeen and a half months. The Valiant suffered less severe damage and was able to steam south to Durban after temporary repairs had been made at Alexandria. She returned to service at the beginning of July 1941 having been out of action for almost seven months.(16)

Determined to continue their attacks on Gibraltar harbour, the Italian Navy took over the tanker Olterra which had been sunk in Algeciras harbour. Her Genoese owner agreed to offer her for sale in Spain and an Italian salvage crew were authorised to begin raising her under the supervision of Lt Visintini, one of the 'pig' crew members from the successful raid of 20 September 1941. In the course of the salvage, the Italians cut a large hole in the forepeak of the ship beneath the waterline and from this they were able to launch 'pigs' unobserved to attack Gibraltar. A large British convoy escorted by three battleships and two aircraft carriers was anchored off Gibraltar on the night of 6 December 1942 when three 'pigs' were launched. None were able to make an attack and only one crewman returned to the Olterra. Two were taken prisoner and the other three killed.

Three more 'pigs' were launched on 7 May 1943 at another large convoy and were completely successful in sinking three cargo ships. All the crews returned safely and were immediately sent out of Spain and back to their base in Italy. They returned to the Olterra in August and again succeeded in sinking two cargo ships and a large tanker but lost one of their members who was wounded by gunfire and taken prisoner. However the British at last realized what was happening and, with the consent of the Spanish authorities, they seized the Olterra and towed her to Gibraltar where her secrets were revealed.(17)

Italian midget submarines were developed for two different purposes. Some of the early boats in the CA class were modified for the carriage of frogmen, who would leave the boat under the target ship and attach explosive charges or limpet mines to the hull of an enemy vessel. A later model, the CB type, was successfully operated in the Black Sea against Russian submarines. Five of the six CB boats railed to the Black Sea were eventually captured by the Germans after the Italian surrender and were ceded to the Rumanian Navy.(18)

The last types to be built were the CC and CM submarines which, with a crew of eight and displacements of over 90 tons marked a halfway stage between the true midget and a small full-scale boat. Both types carried a conventional submarine's armament of torpedoes and machine guns. None of these boats reached operational status due to the Italian surrender although one was actually completed by the German Navy and ceded to the puppet Italian regime nominally ruling part of Italy after the surrender.

Following the attack on Alexandria Harbour, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, immediately despatched one of his famous 'ACTION THIS DAY' memo's to the Chiefs of Staff Committee demanding to know why the Royal Navy had not produced such a weapon. This resulted in the design and construction of a British version of the 'chariot' which was conceived as stop-gap weapon pending the successful completion of work that was already in hand on a four-man midget submarine to be known as the X-craft.(19)

A British naval officer, Commander Geoffrey Herbert, had conceived the idea of a 'human torpedo' as far back as 1909 only to have it turned down by, amongst others, the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr Winston Churchill. Two- and three-man submarines were designed by several British engineers in the inter-war years and a retired naval officer, Commander Cromwell Varley, finally succeeded in having his ideas accepted by the Royal Navy in 1940 which ideas were developed into the X-craft.(20)

The modern version of the Elizabethan fire-ship

British midgets were designed exclusively as carriers of explosive charges. The main charges were in the form of 'side cargoes' - shaped containers of two tons of high explosive contoured to fit against each side of the submarine - which could be released from inside the boat and fitted with a time clock to detonate the charge which could be set from inside the boat. An alternative load to a side-cargo could be a container of limpet mines which the diver in the crew would affix with magnets to the hull of the target ship - a method which required the diver to leave the midget through the 'Wet and Dry' compartment. They had a crew of three officers and one petty officer, weighed 35 tons and were 51 feet [16 m] long. The operating range of these midgets allowed about 36 hours of submerged travel which was far too short for the journey to reach suitable targets from the British Isles so it was decided that they should be towed to within a short distance of their targets by a large submarine. Since they had to be steered and maintained during such a tow, a so-called 'passage' crew would take charge of the midget during this transit and the operational crew would travel in the large submarine where they could enjoy comparatively comfortable quarters. The crews would be exchanged just before the tow was slipped as close to the target as possible. It became a matter of great pride to the passage crews to hand over their charge to the operational crew in perfect condition.

Third photo

The X5 before the Tirpitz operation. Note the port side cargo.

Development of both 'chariots' and X-craft as well as the training of their crews continued simultaneously. The first British 'chariot' operation was aimed at the German battleship Tirpitz which was anchored in Asenfjord near Trondheim in Norway. Two chariot teams with a third as 'dressers' and back-ups were sent across the North Sea in November 1942 with their chariots on a Norwegian fishing boat the Arthur which had escaped from German-occupied Norway some time before. Under the command of Lief Larsen who was to become the No. 1 hero of Norway, this small vessel carried two chariots concealed under a cargo of peat. Threading her way through the islands of the Trondheimfjord and running a successful gauntlet of the German patrols and checkpoints, the Arthur made her way with many difficulties to within 10 miles of her target. The chariots had been removed from her deck and slung under her hull for the final stages of her journey and a violent storm which came up in the last hours tore the chariots loose from their mountings and left the party with no way of attacking their target. The Arthur was scuttled in the fjord and the crews made their way over sixty miles of difficult mountainous country to the safety of neutral Sweden from where they were flown home to Scotland. One member of the chariot team was lost in a brush with German frontier patrols. Able Seaman Bob Evans was wounded and left for dead by his companions. Revived and nursed back to health by the Germans, he was interrogated as a spy and although proving his status as a combatant, was shot by direct orders of General Keitel. Evidence of this act contributed to the death sentence passed on Keitel at the post-war Nuremburg trials. For this action Larsen received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal - the highest award other than the Victoria Cross that can be awarded to a naval rating - becoming the first non-British national to receive it.(21)

First map

Second map

After the abortive attempt on the Tirpitz, a number of chariots and their crews were sent to Malta, at that time under severe attack from all sides. On 28 December 1942 eight chariot teams were embarked on board three large submarines for an attack on the Italian fleet base at Palermo in Sicily. Three teams were lost en route to the target with their mother submarine but the others made a successful attack sinking a cruiser, the Ulpio Traiano and badly damaging two merchantmen and three submarine-chasers. One crew was picked up by a British submarine, six men were taken prisoner but the rest were lost.(22)

On 18 January 1943 the two remaining chariots in Malta were despatched to attack the blockships that the Germans were known to be preparing to block the harbour at Tripoli in the face of the Eighth Army's advance. Making their way on the surface past a German E-boat whose crew must have been fast asleep, the submarine Thunderbolt successfully launched the two chariots close to the harbour under cover of a spectacular air raid staged by the RAF. One chariot's controls were so damaged that it could not be submerged and its crew decided to abandon it rather than risk attracting attention which would j eopardise the chances of the other crew. The crew made their way ashore and cheered themselves up by using their diving knives to cut every telephone wire and cable that they found in the course of several days spent behind enemy lines. During their third day ashore they were unfortunate enough to find their selected night's resting place to be also the choice of a German armoured column who took them prisoner, fed them well and loaded them on to a truck. During the following night, the two charioteers Lt Geoff Larkin and Petty Officer Conrad Berey, were able to slip away from their guards and were given refuge at an Italian orange farm outside Tripoli where, after receiving excellent hospitality from the farmer as well as several of his neighbours, they were overtaken by the advancing Eighth Army on the seventh day of their adventure behind enemy lines.

The other crew, Sub Lt Stevens and Chief Petty Officer Buxton arrived at the harbour just too late to stop one of the blockships from being scuttled in position but attacked a small merchantman before scuttling their chariot and making their way ashore with some difficulty. They were less fortunate than their comrades being immediately captured and treated very harshly until they arrived in a prisoner-of-war camp at Palermo, Sicily. Later transferred to the Italian mainland, they made a daring escape at the time of the Italian surrender disguised in Italian uniforms and finally sought sanctuary in the Vatican City until the Allied forces took Rome and they were repatriated to England in July 1944.(23)

During preparations for the invasion of Sicily, several chariot teams did extensive reconnaissance of the beaches measuring depths of water and testing sea bed conditions. Once the invasion was in progress the charioteers, tiring of their new duties as divers to clear fouled landing craft propellers, looked for other operations and ideas put forward included mining the Corinth Canal in Greece as well as full-scale attack on the battleships of the Italian fleet in Taranto Harbour, which latter was only halted two days before launching when the Italian ships arrived off Malta to surrender.

At this point all personnel were sent back to the United Kingdom from the Mediterranean to prepare for service in the Far East against Japan.

In September 1943 the first operation by the British X-craft (four-men midget submarines) was successfully carried out in Kaafjord on the coast of Norway. The principal target was the German pocket battleship Tirpitz which was anchored in the farthest part of the fjord necessitating an approach through a declared minefield some 15 nautical miles [30 km] deep followed by a journey of over 60 nautical miles [120 km] through narrow coastal waters. On arrival at the target, a series of patrols, submarine nets and booms had to be negotiated to place the explosive charges right underneath the battleship. Six X-craft left Scotland Under tow of fleet submarines on a journey across the North Sea in poor weather that was to take up to eight days to complete. Three X-craft were to attack the Tirpitz, two the battle cruiser Scharnhorst, whilst the sixth would seek out the heavy cruiser Lutzow, all of which had been located by photo reconnaissance in the same fjord system.

One midget submarine, the X-9, was lost during the tow when the towing cable parted, apparently sending the little craft into a dive to depths that her hull could not survive. The X-8 had to be scuttled after both her side-cargoes had developed leaks and had to be jettisoned. The remaining four craft entered the fjord system to find that both the Scharnhorst and the Lutzow had left their berths. X-10 developed so many defects that she was unable to make an effective attack and her crew wisely, though unwillingly, withdrew to a rendezvous point off the coast and were eventually picked up by one of the towing submarines and brought safely back to their base. X-10 was towed for a considerable distance, but finally had to be scuttled when the weather deteriorated to a stage where the lives of the passage crew (commanded by Lt Peter Philip of the South African Naval Forces) were becoming endangered.

The X-6 and X-7 were able to penetrate the nets surrounding the Tirpitz using the passage of small surface vessels to get them through the outer nets and forcing their way through or over the inner defences. Both were able to lay their charges under Tirpitz before being forced to surface. Two crew members of X-7 were drowned whilst trying to escape from their sunken craft but the others together with the whole crew of X-6 were rescued by their target ship and taken aboard Tirpitz where they were able to experience first hand the results of their work. They watched the frantic efforts of the German crew to raise enough steam to move their ship from its position directly over some eight tons of amatol high explosive. However, the only action that could be taken in time was to veer the ship slightly sideways by adjusting the mooring cables. Two of the charges that had been placed under the forward part of Tirpitz finally exploded some sixty yards away, to the intense disappointment of the X-craft crews. Nevertheless, Tirpitz was severely damaged - all three propeller shafts and one rudder were unusable and tons of water had entered her bottom compartments.

Half an hour after the explosions, X-5 was sighted outside the nets and was attacked by gunfire from Tirpitz and depth charges from a destroyer. No trace of her or her crew was ever found. The commanding officers of X-6 and X-7, Lieutenants Place and Cameron were both awarded the Victoria Cross with other awards going to all the surviving members of the operational and passage crews of the whole operation.(24)

After the Tirpitz attack, the X-craft were reduced to two servicable units, X-3 and X-4, with no possibility of new craft arriving for some months. Many trained personnel were, therefore, posted to other duties. The charioteers, however, were busy with several experiments including an attempt to carry two chariots under the fuselage of a Sunderland flying boat. A motor torpedo boat MTB 675 was fitted with davits to carry two chariots and a rather complicated operation, involving the landing of an agent on a small island overlooking the harbour of Askvoll on the Norwegian coast, was mounted. The chariots were unable to be used but two German aircraft were shot down and a merchant ship torpedoed during the operation which provided the participants some consolation. A new design of chariot was introduced where the crew sat back to back with their legs inside the structure of the machine.(25)

Believing that the German Navy had captured one of the X-craft used on the Tirpitz attack, the Royal Navy carried out a series of dummy attacks on ships in their base at Scapa Flow to train their boom-defence crews in the methods of midget submarines in case the Germans decided to mount such an attack. This exercise caused a few worried men amongst those responsible for the safety of the fleet anchorage but culminated in the X-craft officers being royally entertained aboard the flagship!(26)

On 9 April 1944 X-24 sailed on tow to attack the Norwegian harbour of Bergen, which contained one of the largest floating docks then available to the German Navy. Negotiating over 35 nautical miles [70 km] of busy coastal water packed with shipping and including several German anti-submarine vessels, the X-24 successfully entered the harbour. Forced to limit his use of the periscope to brief glimpses, the commander laid his charges under a 7 500-ton merchantman, the Barenfels, which was lying alongside the dock instead of laying them under the dock itself. The ship was sunk and the force of the explosion damaged jetty and harbour installations whilst the X-craft was able to make a successful rendezvous with her mother submarine and was towed home to a hero's welcome. Under a different commander, the X-24 repeated her successful voyage to Bergen in September 1944 and succeeded in attacking and sinking the floating dock as well as a small merchant ship.(27)

In June 1944, a joint chariot operation was under way with the Italian Navy providing the transport for British charioteers to attack two Italian heavy cruisers which had been taken over by the Germans after the Italian surrender. Two Italian motor launches filled with frogmen of the Italian Navy under the command of Count de la Penne, the victor of Alexandria, were despatched to support this operation. Both launches and men disappeared without trace. The ships, the Bolzano and the Gorizia were in the former Italian human-torpedo base of La Spezia. One chariot developed steering problems which precluded its making an attack and it was scuttled. The other successfully attached its charge to the Bolzano and the subsequent explosion resulted in her destruction. Both teams of charioteers got safely ashore and after numerous adventures were reunited in the camp of a party of Italian partisans where they were regaled with large plates of steaming stew and quantities of Chianti - both most welcome after some days of wandering without food or water. Petty Officer Berey successfully crossed the German lines some six weeks later and rejoined the British forces but his three companions were taken prisoner at the same time.(28)

X-craft reconnoitred the landing beaches before the D-Day invasion and two of them acted as navigational markers for the first units of the invasion fleet thus becoming the first Allied forces to be present on the French side of the Channel on the morning of the landings.

The final chariot operation was a successful attack on two large merchantmen in the Malayan harbour of Phuket in October 1944. Both chariots performed well, both ships were sunk and both crews recovered safely.(29)

New X-craft were then coming into service with many advanced features especially designed for operation in tropical waters against the Japanese. These bore the designation 'XE' and soon a complete flotilla was on its way, with its mother ship, to the Pacific War. Here the American naval authorities refused to use the X-craft and the flotilla moved to Australia to disband. However, the need arose to cut the underwater telephone cables that ran from Singapore to Tokyo and the flotilla commander immediately offered to undertake the task which to that date had seemed insuperable. After some experiments with grapnels to locate the cables, a mixed operation was put together starting on 26 July 1945. Two teams were to cut the cables at Saigon and Hong Kong whilst others were to attack two Japanese heavy cruisers Takao and Nachi in Singapore Harbour. Due to delays in passing through a minefield, XE-1 was unable to attack her target, the Nachi, which was some distance further into the harbour than the Takao so added her charges to those of XE-3 under Takao which resulted in very heavy damage to the 10 000 ton Japanese cruiser. XE-3 was trapped under the hull of the Takao due to the falling tide and only freed by the extreme gallantry of her diver and the expertise of her captain. Both the captain - Lt Cdr Fraser and the diver Leading Seaman Magennis were awarded the Victorian Cross.

XE-4 successfully cut both the Saigon-Singapore and Saigon-Hong Kong cables but XE-5 could not locate the cables at Hong Kong despite spending four days dragging the sea bed. All craft returned safely to base and were preparing for another strike on the cruisers in Singapore Harbour when the Japanese surrendered, and the Pacific War came to an end.(30)

British chariot and X-craft crews earned between them four Victoria Crosses, 64 other decorations and over 100 Mentions in Despatches. Two South Africans - Lieutenants Peter Philip and J V Terry-Lloyd - both received the MBE, and two others, Sub-Lt Grogan and Lt J J Carroll lost their lives whilst serving in this branch of the Royal Navy.

The Japanese Navy had also been busy with the development of one- and two-man submarines, which were originally intended to be carried by surface vessels for use as offensive weapons during encounters between battle squadrons. Only later came the idea of using them for attacks on enemy warships in their home bases and fInally the concept of last-ditch defence on the Japanese homeland. (31)

The first offensive by Japanese submarines was a total failure when 27 large and five midget submarines formed part of the attacking force at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Expected to deal a much heavier blow to the unsuspecting Americans than would the aircraft, the submarine attack came to nothing with all five midgets being destroyed and the large boats failing completely in their task of sealing off the entrance of the harbour.(32)

Thus the first American shot fired in the Second World War was against a midget submarine; the first casualties of the Pacific war were the crews of the Japanese midget submarines outside Pearl Harbor and the first prisoner-of-war in the Pacific was the captain of a Japanese midget submarine.

Further types of midget submarine developed by the Japanese Navy fell into two classes - a genuine submarine armed with torpedoes and, in the latter days, a suicide manned torpedo, the naval equivalent of the Kamikaze aircraft.

Fifth photo

X21 and her commander, Lt J V Terry-Lloyd.

Sixth photo

Japanese 5-man midget submarines at Kure at the end of the war.

Some of the former were very advanced designs with up to five crew members and two propulsion systems giving speeds of up to 19 knots submerged and 23 knots on the surface and ranges exceeding 1 000 nautical miles [2 000 km].(33)

In May 1942 a task force of submarines sailed from Japan to attack Sydney Harbour in Australia. Two large submarines carried reconnaissance aircraft (I-21 and I-29) whilst three others (I-22, I-24 and I-27) had midget submarines secured to their after decking.

Captain Arthur Phillips of the Royal Navy was one of the first Europeans to drop anchor in what was to become Sydney Harbour. In 1788 he wrote of it in his journal as the 'finest harbour in all the world wherein 1 000 sail of the line could safely be accommodated'. On the night of 31 May 1942 this huge harbour was filled to the brim with warships, transports, military freighters and auxiliaries anchored at every berth.

The harbour was openly and freely reconnoitred by the seaplane of one of the large Japanese submarines, the I-21, and the aircraft was clearly observed by several Allied personnel who took it for a friendly plane from one of the warships in the harbour. Drawings were made of the exact location and method of operation of the defensive boom across the harbour entrance and details noted of the patrols covering the gaps in the boom.

Around 20:00 on 31 May, an Allied patrol discovered one of the Japanese midget submarines entangled in the boom nets and attacked it with depth charges which caused the crew to destroy themselves and their craft with explosives rather than face the possibility of capture.

A second midget was spotted in the inner harbour by sailors on board a ferry. It was attacked and the alarm sounded. Warships in the harbour began to raise steam and to prepare for action.

A third midget fired two torpedoes at the cruiser Chicago both of which missed and exploded against the retaining wall right next to the old wooden harbour ferry Kattabul which was now being used as a depot ship. The force of the explosions lifted the old ship right out of the water and broke her back. Nineteen of the men sleeping aboard her were killed or drowned and a Dutch submarine moored close by suffered heavy damage. The only other damage to Sydney Harbour was caused by shells from defending warships landing on shore installations. All three midget submarines were sunk in the attack - two were recovered from the bottom of the harbour and their four crew members cremated with full naval honours, their ashes being sent back to their families in Japan through neutral sources.

Admiral Muirhead-Gould, who was responsible for ordering the last rites for the Japanese crewmen, was much criticized for his action. His reply to this is worth recording as a sailor's evaluation of the bravery of midget submarine crews:

'I have been criticized for having accorded these men military honours at their cremation, such honours as we hope may be accorded to our own comrades who have died in enemy hands; but, I ask you, should we not accord full honours to such brave men as these? It must take courage of the very highest order to go out in a thing like that steel coffin.... Theirs was a courage which is not the property or the tradition or the heritage of any one nation. It is a courage shared by the brave men of our own countries as well as of the enemy and, however horrible war and its results may be, it is courage which is recognized and universally admired. These men were patriots of the highest order. How many of us are really prepared to make one thousandth of the sacrifices that these men made?'(34)

A similar Japanese submarine task force set out from Penang (north-west Malaya) also in May 1942 for the French island of Madagascar. During the time of their passage towards their target, British forces had landed on Madagascar and taken over the island from its Vichy French garrison. A large fleet of naval vessels of all types was anchored in and around the port of Diego Suarez.

The Japanese force was under the command of Rear-Admiral Ishizaki with his flag in I-1O, a large submarine of 2 919 tons recently completed in 1941 and carrying a reconnaissance aircraft. She was accompanied by I-30, a similar and even more modern vessel of 2 589 tons and three 2 000 ton vessels, I-16, I-18 and I-20 each carrying a midget submarine on its after deck.

All three 'mother' submarines had engine trouble during the long passage across the Indian Ocean and only two were able to reach the rendezvous point off the northern tip of Madagascar. The I-16 and I-20 launched their midgets on a bright moonlight night on 31 May and at about 20:15 one of their torpedoes struck the old British battleship Ramillies in the middle of her four-inch gun magazine. A second torpedo also intended for the Ramillies struck the British tanker British Loyalty in the engine-room and she sank almost immediately.

Several sightings of periscopes and conning-towers were reported in the harbour and attacks were made by various British warships following these reports. Two Japanese naval personnel were sighted by villagers of the Oronja Peninsular on the East Coast. Pursued by British troops for two days, these Japanese sailors resisted to the last and were both killed. Documents and uniforms identified them as the attackers of the Ramillies and as members of the I-20's midget crew. The body of a third Japanese sailor was washed up on the beach outside Diego Suarez on the same day and a wrecked midget submarine was found beached nearby on 17 June.

Ramillies was able to make her way slowly under escort to Durban for temporary repairs and then returned to the United Kingdom where she spent a year undergoing a complete overhaul before returning to sea.

Naval divers were able to salvage much of the cargo of the British Loyalty which subsequently saw out the war as a storage hulk and was finally scuttled in l946.(35)

American ships landing troops and supplies at Guadalcanal were attacked by Japanese midget submarines on 17 November 1942 when the transport ship Majaba was severely damaged by torpedoes and had to be beached. She was salvaged subsequently. The midget submarine was attacked with depth charges and was abandoned by her crew who were picked up by a large submarine - presumed to be her 'mother' ship - so becoming the first Japanese midget submarine crew members to return safely to their base.

A further attack was mounted on the same targets on 28 November 1942 when a 6 200 ton American freighter the USS Alchiba laden with gasoline and explosives was successfully attacked and set on fire. Two further torpedoes which had reached the end of their runs, settled on the bottom of the harbour right under the stricken freighter and exploded several hours later causing further damage. The crew of the midget were never found, but their ship was salvaged some seven months later and found to be equipped with a special shield round the propellers to protect them from anti-submarine nets.

Many claims of effective attacks by Japanese midget submarines were made during the war but most have been discounted as propaganda. However, an authenticated report of an attack made on 5 January 1945 has been published by both Japanese and American sources in which the cruiser USS Boise carrying General Douglas MacArthur and his staff was attacked in the Mindanao Sea. Thanks to the alertness of one of their escorting warships, the light cruiser USS Phoenix, two torpedoes were successfully evaded and the attacker was sunk by the destroyer USS David W Taylor. The USS Phoenix survived the war only to be sunk later in her new role as the Argentine warship General Belgrano in the Falklands War of 1982 amidst great controversy. It is impossible to evaluate the effect on world history which a successful attack on the USS Boise could have had in the event of General MacArthur failing to survive.(36)

From April 1945 onwards, as the Americans and their allies moved inexorably towards the Japanese homeland, many submarines were fitted out to carry several 'Kaitan' human torpedoes in addition to their conventional armament. A planned attack on the locks of the Panama Canal was abandoned because the activities of American submarines all round the Japanese islands made proper training impossible. Submarines carrying up to six 'Kaitans' each went on offensive patrols and sank a number of smaller ships and destroyers. On 29 July a submarine engaged the US heavy cruiser Indianapolis and sank her with conventional torpedoes despite the anguished pleas of her 'Kaitan' pilots to be launched against such a tempting target. The Indianapolis had recently delivered parts of the first two atom bombs to the US Air Force base at Tenian in the Marshall Islands and the ground crew remembered her when they chalked their messages on the side of the bomb dropped at Hiroshima. In total over 80 Japanese naval personnel died serving in 'Kaitans' and other types of midget submarines.(37)

Although the German Navy was arguably the largest and most active operator of submarines throughout both World Wars, it only started developing midget submarines late in the Second World War. These were specifically designed to attack invasion fleets and there were six varieties - Molch (Salamander), Hecht (Pike), Seehund (Seal), Biber (Beaver), Marder (Marten) and Neger (Negro). Three other designs Hai (Shark), Delphin (Dolphin) and Grosser Delphin (Larger Dolphin) were still in the experimental stage when the war ended.

Their first design, the 'Hecht', was based on salvaged British chariots although the 'pilot' was totally enclosed inside a protruding hatch fitted to the torpedo-like vessel. 'Neger' and 'Marder' were one-man types consisting of a. torpedo with a crew compartment instead of a warhead that controlled a weapon torpedo slung underneath it. The 'Marder' was an improved version of the 'Neger' and about 500 of the two types were built. 'Hecht' was a similar 'two torpedo' craft that appears to have been chiefly used for training. Both 'Neger' and 'Marder' craft operated off the Anzio beachhead. 'Molch', 'Biber' and 'Seehund' were all midget submarines carrying two torpedoes, one on either side. 'Molch' was a one-man craft and the others had a crew of two. Their use was restricted to attacking ships of the Allied invasion fleets and a few 'Biber' craft were operated off the Russian port of Murmansk from a base at Harstadt in Norway.

In Germany, Kapitänleutnant Bartels had made himself somewhat unpopular by circulating a memorandum suggesting that a number of special weapons would one day be needed to defend the German-held coasts from the Allies. At the time the Battle of the Atlantic was turning in the Germans' favour and nobody was interested in the possibility of a land battle for Europe.

Seventh photo

The German 'Biber'.

However by 1944 the tide had turned in favour of the Allies and Bartels, now promoted to Korvettenkapitän, was able to produce the prototype of the 'Biber' (Beaver) two-man submarine which immediately went into production. Volunteers were called for crews and on 29 August a fleet of 29 Bibers put to sea from the harbour of Fécamp, between Le Havre and Boulogne, to attack Allied shipping. Only two transport ships were sunk and the Bibers were withdrawn to Rotterdam. A spectacular attempt was made in November 1944 to attack the road bridge at Nijmegen. Both the road and rail bridges at this important crossing of the Waal River had been captured intact by the American forces who were guarding them so well that the Luftwaffe were unable to demolish them. However, frogmen had succeeded in blowing up the rail bridge but could not get to the road bridge. The only approach from German lines was from the up-stream side and here the Allies had doubled security and placed four sets of anti-submarine nets. The only feasable method of attack involved blowing up these nets first and to do this 240 aerial land-mines were converted so that they would just float in the river. These were lowered into the river in batches of sixty at half-hour intervals and allowed to float downstream. Time fuses had been set to allow a few minutes more than the calculated time to reach each set of nets and, in addition, a number of Bibers were employed to fire their torpedoes at the nets. Since the Americans guarding the bridges had orders to fire at anything in the river, the periscopes of the Bibers were disguised with grass and weeds to look like clumps of vegetation floating naturally down river. The attacks on the nets were partially successful and were followed by another task force of Bibers this time towing large tree trunks. Three ton explosive charges were slung under the tree trunks set to be detonated by photo-electric cells which would operate once the shadow of the bridge fell on them. The tree trunks were towed by the Bibers to within 1 000 metres of the bridge and then left to drift.

Waiting with bated breath, the German observers listened to the sounds of gunfire and explosions close to the bridge but nothing happened to bring it down into the river. Aerial photography next morning revealed that three of the four sets of nets had been breached but that the fourth had held and effectively contained all the mines and charges.

From Rotterdam, the Bibers made attacks on the Allied supply lines on at least twenty occasions, being forced to leave only when tidal conditions permitted them to augment their feeble four knot underwater speed and between December 1944 and April 1945 they succeeded in sinking some 90 000 tons of Allied shipping in the Schelde. Senior Midshipman Langsdorff was able to enter the harbour at Antwerp and fire two torpedoes into the lock gates which put the docks out of action for some three weeks. However, with casualty rates of 60% to 70% their activities could not be maintained.

In January 1945 a flotilla of thirty Bibers was destroyed when a torpedo was accidentally fired in the harbour of Hellevoetsluis and many personnel killed or wounded. A second similar incident occurred in March at Rotterdam. The crew of a 'Seehund' two-man submarine had an uncomfortable experience when operating from Ymuiden in Holland. Sighting a British destroyer in exactly the right position for an attack, they fired their port torpedo which failed to release itself from the submarine. The torpedo's engine pulled the whole submarine along at high speed directly towards the destroyer and only the greatest efforts of the crew managed to divert it from a collision course at the last moment.(38)

Although hundreds of the various types of midget submarine were built, few were successful in operations and large numbers were captured intact in German ports and shipyards. The basic design using torpedoes instead of time-fused charges militated against successful escape after an attack. The tracks of the torpedoes could be observed by alert lookouts and the problems of trimming the craft following the discharge of such a large proportion of their total weight were also factors which weighed against successful attacks. On the positive side it was found that the small size and light weight of most German midget submarines made them difficult to distinguish from fish shoals and other similar underwater objects when located by 'Asdic' and they were not crushed by the force of depth charges but rather just swept aside by the effect of an underwater explosion. Five 'Seehund' craft were taken into service with the French Navy after the war and were used for training and experimental purposes.

The story of midget submarines and chariots is one of incredible human tenacity and endurance. The men who rode the chariots faced the almost certainty that the end of their mission, at best, would be the start of a long period in a prison camp, whilst the midget submarine crews faced lengthy periods under appallingly cramped conditions in craft that were often unreliable and which required the use of the utmost ingenuity to bring about a successful attack. The men of all the navies involved displayed courage of the highest order in undertaking missions where the chances of success were marginal and depended to an unusual extent on their personal bravery and resolution.

The current total superiority of air power coupled with the escalation in the sophistication of modern weapons has rendered the midget submarine and the chariot obsolete and it seems unlikely that this type of courageous warfare will again form part of a modern battle scenario. Nevertheless, the proliferation of small conflicts and guerrilla wars could yet produce the need for this form of stealthy attack and it is not impossible that similar operations may once again be carried out if the men and the craft become available. Many hundreds of small submarines of all kinds and nationalities were scuttled or buried at the end of World War II and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some well-informed guerrilla leader in the future could disinter some of these and resume this form of warfare against the coasts of his enemy.


1. R Burgess, Ships beneath the Sea, (London, Hale, 1975), pp. 2, 3.
2. Ibid., p. 1.
3. Ibid., pp. 3-7.
4. E Horton, The Illustrated History of the Submarine, (London, Sidgewick & Jackson, 1974) p. 10.
5. R Burgess, op. cit., pp. 27-31.
6. E Horton, op. cit., p. 19.
7. B Gunston, Submarines in Colour. (Poole, Blandford, 1976) p. 20; R Burgess, op. cit., pp 52-57.
8. E Horton, op. cit., pp. 36, 37.
9. R Burgess, op. cit., pp. 64-77.
10. Ibid., pp. 133-141.
11. A Preston & L Casey, Sea Power - a modern illustrated Military History, (London, Phoebus, 1979) p. 237.
12. W Brou, The War beneath the Sea. (London, Muller, 1958) p. 16. p. 16.
13. Ibid., p. 15.
14. Ibid., p. 17.
15. Ibid., p. 19.
16. Ibid. pp. 20-23.
17. Ibid. pp. 24-31.
18. E Bagnasco, Submarines of World War Two, (London, Arms & Armour Press, 1977) pp. 167.
19. C Warren & J Benson, Above us the Waves, (London, Harrap, 1953) p. 15.
20. Ibid., pp. 240, 241.
21. Ibid., pp. 53-73.
22. Ibid., pp. 76-83.
23. Ibid., pp. 94-103.
24. L Kennedy, Menace - the life and death of the Tirpitz, (London, Sidgewick & Jackson, 1979).
25. C Warren & J Benson, op. cit., pp. 150-152.
26. Ibid., pp. 158, 159.
27. Ibid., pp. 158-169.
28. Ibid., pp. 171-194.
29. Ibid., pp. 202-208.
30. Ibid., pp. 228-233.
31. E Bagnasco, op. cit., pp. 200, 201.
32. F Horton, op. cit., pp. 140, 141.
33. E Bagnasco, op. cit., pp. 200, 201.
34. P Warner & S. Seno, The Coffin Boats, (London, Secker & Warburg, 1986) pp. 97-132.
35. Ibid., pp. 133-156.
36. Ibid., pp. 165-175.
37. M Hashimoto, Sunk - the story of the Japanese Submarine Fleet 1912-1945, (London, Cassel, 1954) pp. 140-175.
38. C D Bekker, Swastika at Sea, (London, Wm. Kimber, 1953?) pp. 136-141.

Other Sources

Garrett, Richard. Submarines. (London, Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, 1977.)
Hammerton, John (ed.). The War Illustrated. (London, Amalgamated Press, Volume 71944, Volume 9 1946.)
Fukui, Shizuo. The Japanese Navy World War II. (Greenwich Conn., WE Inc., 1947.)
Watts, A J Japanese Warships of World War II. (London, Ian Allen, 1966.)

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