Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice - William H. McRaven (1996)

Chapter 6. Operation Source: Midget Submarine Attack on the Tirpitz, 22 September 1943

BACKGROUND

On 27 March 1942, British commandos attacked and destroyed the Normandie dry dock at the French port of Saint-Nazaire. This action was undertaken to prevent the German battleship Tirpitz from sailing from her anchorage in Norway into the Atlantic and then seeking refuge at Saint-Nazaire. The Normandie dry dock was the only facility in the Atlantic capable of repairing the fifty-three-thousand-ton vessel, and the Germans would not risk exposing the Tirpitz to action without being assured of adequate repair facilities. Nonetheless, the Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck, still threatened the North Sea and required constant attention by both British and American forces to keep her in check.1

After the raid on Saint-Nazaire, several plans were formulated to sink the Tirpitz in Norway, but by early 1943 Winston Churchill was getting impatient and wrote to his chief of staff, General Ismay, “Have you given up all plans for doing anything to Tirpitz while she is in Trondhjem? We heard a lot of talk about it five months ago, which all petered out. At least four or five plans were under consideration. It seems very discreditable that the Italians should show themselves so much better at attacking ships in harbour than we do … It is a terrible thing to think that this prize should be waiting and no one be able to think of a way of winning it.”2

Unbeknownst to Churchill, the British admiralty had been working for two years on developing a midget submarine capable of penetrating the Norwegian fjords and winning the prize. In early May 1941 volunteers were recruited “for special and hazardous duty.” These men, including Lt. Don Cameron, who would later participate in Operation Source, were instrumental in the development and construction of the first operational X-craft. Originally conceived by Cromwell Varley of Varley Marine, Ltd., the X-craft midget submarine was constructed by three different shipbuilders who independently built the bow, center, and tail sections. Twenty other contractors were responsible for the internal workings of the craft. This distribution of effort resulted in a submarine whose “design was a little unsound in many respects.”3

The first submarine available for trial was the X-3, built under extreme secrecy and launched on 19 March 1942. Upon completion of X-3’s trials, the midget submarine was sent by rail to the submariners’ new base at Port Bannatyne, Scotland, subsequently renamed HMS (His Majesty’s Station) Varbel. In the meantime, additional volunteers were recruited and began to be screened for suitability. They were sent to the submarine base HMS Dolphin at Gosport, England, where they underwent six weeks of screening that included physical training, six one-hour dives in a nearby lake, and “theoretical” courses on the X-3 submarine. Most of the men were unaware of the nature of the operation.

In mid-January 1943 six more midget submarines designated X-5 through X-10 were delivered. The 12th Submarine Flotilla was formed under Capt. W. E. Banks to coordinate with RAdm. C. B. Barry (whose title was Rear Admiral, Submarines) on the “ ‘training and material of special weapons’; and to his flotilla X-5-X-10 were attached, with Bonaventure [Acting Capt. P. Q. Roberts, R.N.] as their depot ship.”4

The X-5 series was larger and better designed than the prototype X-3. It was fifty-one feet long and weighed thirty-five tons fully loaded. It had an external hull diameter of eight and one-half feet except directly under the periscope, where it extended an additional few inches. The internal space was significantly shorter and more cramped with a diameter of five feet, nine inches. The only place a man could stand up was underneath the periscope.

The craft was divided into four compartments. The forward space was the battery compartment that provided power for all electrical equipment in the X-craft, including the pumps, lights, and main motor. The second compartment was the wet/dry chamber and head (bathroom). This space was used to lock out the diver who would be tasked with cutting antisubmarine or antitorpedo nets. The third compartment was the control room. Inside this small space the crew piloted the X-craft by a simple system of wheels and levers that controlled the helm, hydroplanes, and main ballast tanks. The control room had two periscopes used by the conning officer; a short wide-angle periscope for night operations while surfaced, and a slender, telescopic attack periscope for while submerged daytime operations. The control room also served as the galley where the crew could heat up tin cans or boil a pot of water for tea or coffee. The aft compartment contained the main motor used for submerged propulsion and a London bus engine that normally propelled the X-craft on the surface but could be used for submerged operations at periscope depth.

Submerged, the craft cruised at two knots with a top speed of five and one-half knots. On the surface it could make six and a half knots depending on the sea state. Being a diesel submarine, the X-craft submerged only when absolutely necessary and spent most of the night surfaced to recharge batteries. When surfaced the captain would normally trim the craft so that it barely protruded above the water. This reduced the visual signature and radar cross section and allowed the captain to lie along the outer casing of the submarine and conn the craft from the surface. This technique, however, was seldom used for a variety of reasons.*

The X-craft was capable of conducting dives to over three hundred feet, but most of the submerged cruising was around sixty feet.* The midget submarine was equipped with two viewing ports that allowed the captain to observe the diver, who would normally stand on the X-craft while cutting through antitorpedo nets. These ports had steel shutters that could be closed during deep dives or depth charge attacks.

The X-craft was specifically designed to attack the Tirpitz at her berth in Norway, so it had no torpedoes, rockets, or surface guns. These weapons would be useless in a confined area like the fjord. The X-craft did come equipped with two side charges (referred to as side cargos), one on each side, each composed of two tons of amatol high explosive. The charges were contoured to the outer hull and made neutrally buoyant.

Thomas Gallagher explained in The X-Craft Raid that “when a side charge was released [by turning what looked like an ordinary steering wheel inside the X-craft], a copper strip between the hull and the charge peeled off, unsealing the buoyancy chamber and allowing enough water to enter to make the charge negatively buoyant.”5 The charge, now negatively buoyant, would sink to the bottom of the fjord below the Tirpitz. A timer was installed to allow the X-craft crew to dial in the desired delay and extract before the explosive detonated.

Admiral Godfrey Place, commander of X-7, was not completely satisfied with this configuration. “We at the time really thought … if we made the charge positively buoyant to go upwards it would stick to it [the Tirpitz] without any problem … we would really have preferred to have the charges floating upward, but the explosive experts claimed that it was better to send it [the side charge] down to the seabed to make the sort of tamping effect to create a vast explosion over a longer area. Our outlook was a little doubtful. We’d rather have blown a darn great hole in the thing.”6

The biggest drawback of the midget submarine was its limited endurance. The published specifications indicated that the range was fifteen hundred miles at four knots, but in reality the range was limited by human duration. Although a crew of four was able to exist inside the craft for extended periods, they were not able to actually operate the controls for much farther than three hundred miles while submerged. The conditions were just too physically taxing. This forced the Royal Navy to tow the X-craft (with passage crews inside that merely maintained the depth) for the first twelve hundred miles from Scotland to the release point off the Norwegian coast. This towing effort presented several problems during the actual mission, but it was still felt to have been an effective way of getting the X-craft from Scotland to Norway.

During the course of the next several months, plans were prepared for attacking German shipping in three separate operational areas of Norway. This would allow for any change in German berthing plans. On 11 September 1943, six conventional submarines would tow the six X-craft from Loch Cairnbawn, Scotland, to a position 75 miles west of the Shetland Islands and then follow routes 20 miles apart until they were approximately 150 miles from Altenfjord. At this point the submarines would navigate to their assigned release points off Soroysund (Soroy Sound) and prepare to detach the X-craft. A change from passage to operational crew was authorized for any time past 17 September when the weather and tactical conditions allowed. The entrance to Soroysund was extensively mined by the Germans. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy planned the following:

“The X craft were to be slipped in positions 2 to 5 miles from the mined area after dusk on D Day [20 September], when they would cross the mined area on the surface and proceed via Stjernsund to Alten Fiord, bottoming during daylight hours on 21st September. All were to arrive off the entrance to Kaa Fiord at dawn 22nd September and then entering the Fleet anchorage, attack the targets for which they had been detailed. These would be allocated by signal during the passage, in the light of the most recent intelligence.”7

The conventional submarines were to return to their patrol sectors and await the return of the X-craft. If no rendezvous were effected, the submarines were to proceed to one of the bays on the north coast of Soroy and attempt a link-up on the nights of 27–28 and 28–29 September. As a tertiary plan the X-craft crews were authorized to proceed to the Kola Bay in Russia, and a British minesweeper would be looking out for them between 25 September and 3 October.

THE BATTLESHIP TIRPITZ

The Tirpitz was commissioned in December 1940, but not actually completed until February 1941. She was the largest battleship of her time with an overall length of 822 feet and a beam of 118 feet. Fully loaded, the Tirpitzdisplaced fifty-three thousand tons with a draft of thirty-six feet. The ship was powered by twelve boilers in six separate compartments. These boilers produced 163,000 shaft horsepower, allowing the battleship to reach speeds in excess of thirty knots. Topside the Tirpitz was equipped with eight 15-inch guns and twelve 5.9-inch guns for surface action. For air defense she had sixteen 4.1-inch, sixteen 37mm, and eighty 20mm antiaircraft guns. Additionally, the Tirpitz carried four Arado reconnaissance and light-bomber aircraft.

Although the topside armament was impressive, it did not unduly concern the X-craft crews. What did matter to the planners of Operation Source was the Tirpitz’s hull, which was encased in twelve-inch steel at some locations. This steel band protected the battleship in strategic areas including her control room amidships, boilers and turbine rooms, gunnery control rooms, electrical controls, and magazines. This steel protection coupled with the interior steel bulkheads made the Tirpitz invulnerable to torpedo attack, and 5.9-inch steel decks protected her vital areas from high-altitude bombing. However, thirty-six feet below the waterline, the Tirpitz keel remained a soft underbelly. It was this weakness that the British hoped to exploit.

The Tirpitz and her battle group, which included the twenty-six-thousand-ton Scharnhorst and several destroyers, were berthed in Kaafjord, Norway, which was located well above the seventieth parallel and over twelve hundred miles from Scotland. Surrounded by steep, virtually treeless mountains, the fjord was fed by waters from the Gulf Stream, which kept it ice-free year around. For most of the year the ground was covered with snow, and the sun remained high on the horizon. When the snow did melt, it sent mountainous slabs of ice crashing into the water, creating a brackish environment of fresh and salt water.8

Using the terrain as a natural fortress, the Germans placed radar stations and antiaircraft batteries on the mountaintops and flew fighter aircraft to protect the fleet from British bombers. In the fjords, the three islands of Stjernoy, Altafjord, and Altenfjord funneled intruders into a channel where antisubmarine nets were placed and picketboats patrolled the waters. As extra protection in the unlikely event that a submarine negotiated the channel or a dive-bomber attempted a suicide run in the Kaafjord Valley, an antitorpedo net surrounded the high-value targets preventing any possible damage. The net, which completely surrounded the Tirpitz, was constructed of woven steel grommets and was capable of stopping a torpedo moving at fifty knots. Based on aerial photos and reports from Norwegian resistance, British intelligence believed that the net only extended sixty feet down from the surface. It was not apparent that the Germans had actually constructed three nets, one that extended from the surface to 40 feet beneath the surface and two more that reached to the seabed 120 feet below. To augment all these precautions, the Germans added smoke screen equipment to conceal the battle group and patrolled the surrounding roads and villages to prevent Norwegian resistance from conducting reconnaissance or sabotage operations.

Intelligence on the target area was difficult to obtain. Kaafjord was well outside the combat radius of British-based aircraft. Consequently, the Royal Air Force (RAF) arranged to have the Soviets construct an airfield outside Murmansk. From here Mosquito reconnaissance planes, flown by the RAF, could photograph the fjord and develop the film immediately upon return to Russia. The processed film was returned to England via Catalina long-range aircraft. Norwegian resistance based at Kaafjord collected detailed intelligence on the daily habits of the officers and crew. They were able to determine picketboat patrol routes, identify net defenses, watch general-quarters drills, and most importantly ascertain the maintenance schedules of the guns and sonar equipment. The two main Norwegian agents were Torstein Raaby and Alfred Henningsen. After the war Raaby joined Thor Heyerdahl and the crew of Kon Tiki on their famous voyage across the Pacific, and Henningsen later became a member of the Norwegian parliament. Together these men compiled an accurate description of the target area and secretly transmitted the information back to England.

LIEUTENANTS DONALD CAMERON AND GODFREY PLACE

There were several men who distinguished themselves throughout Operation Source, but the two officers who received most of the credit for the mission’s success were Lts. Don Cameron and Godfrey Place. Both men received the Victoria Cross for the actions against the Tirpitz.

Cameron, after serving a year with the merchant navy, joined the Royal Navy Reserve on 22 August 1939. He spent another year in general service and then on 19 August 1940 received orders to HMS Dolphin, the submarine school in Gosport, England. Upon completion of submarine training, he reported to HMS Sturgeon at Blyth, spending the next nine months conducting operations in the North Sea. In May 1941, a call for volunteers sent Cameron back to HMS Dolphin where he joined in the development of the first X-craft, eventually commanding X-6 during the attack on the Tirpitz.

Throughout Operation Source Cameron kept a personal diary that provides a chronological account of the training and actual mission. Cameron was exceedingly dedicated to the cause for which the X-craft were built and employed, and he worried that during the course of the mission he might somehow fail that cause. He wrote, “I have that just-before-the-battle-mother feeling. Wonder how they [the crew)] will bear up under fire for the first time, and how I will behave though not under fire for the first time … I can’t help thinking what the feelings of my next of kin will be if I make a hash of the thing.”9

His close friend Comdr. Richard Compton-Hall later said, “Like all of us, he was afraid of the unknown and especially of possible failure, of letting people down, rather than of being afraid of the enemy.”10

Cameron and his crew, Lt. W. S. Meeke and Chief E. R. A. Richardson, were caught during the operation and imprisoned in a German POW camp for the remainder of the war. Cameron was repatriated in May 1945 and was subsequently assigned to HMS Surf as additional lieutenant. Following duty on the Surf, Cameron was assigned to several other submarines before he received command of the HMS Tiptoe in May 1947. Three years later he returned to HMS Dolphin and in 1951 took command of another submarine, the HMS Trump. In 1955 Cameron returned to HMS Dolphin for the final time and was assigned as Commander, Submarines. Although Cameron served many tours after the war with the submarine service, he never fully recovered from his wartime internment. His health, which had been poor prior to Operation Source, deteriorated in the POW camps. He died unexpectedly in 1962.

Godfrey Place was graduated from the Royal Navy’s college at Dartmouth and commissioned in September 1938. He received posting to submarines after serving on the cruiser HMS Newcastle. His initial submarine training began at HMS Elfin and upon completion in 1941, he was assigned as the spare officer at Saint Angleo. Later in 1941, Place received orders to the Polish submarine Sokol out of Malta. Upon his departure from Sokol, Place was awarded the Polish Cross of Valor for combat service. After several short tours, Place joined the crew of the HMS Unbeaten in February 1942. While on combat patrol in the eastern Mediterranean, Place brought Unbeaten to periscope depth only to find a German submarine directly off his bow. He later recalled, “I called the Captain and we went to diving stations. I think it was something like 45 seconds from first sighting to firing the torpedo, under continuous wheel [constantly maneuvering] and in fact we got two hits.”11 German airplanes escorting the submarine converged on Unbeaten and began to pursue her. The submarine lay on the bottom for twenty-four hours before she escaped. Place was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.

In August 1942, he joined the 12th Submarine Flotilla and began training with the X-craft. One year later, as commander of X-7, he attacked and disabled the Tirpitz. Like Cameron, Place was captured during the action and was interned until May 1945. While in the POW camp, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Upon his return to England, Place left submarines and went on to become a pilot in the fleet air arm of the Royal Navy. He had a distinguished military career, being promoted to rear admiral on 7 January 1968. He retired in 1970 and was made a Companion of the Bath (C.B.).

X-CRAFT TRAINING

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

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

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

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

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

In late December, X-5 was launched at Faslane, Scotland, and X-6 arrived on 11 January 1943. These new production boats were built from scratch and were significantly better designed than the prototypes. By March, X-7 was finished, and the three X-craft were placed aboard the support vessel HMS Bonaventure and sent to Loch Cairnbawn to conduct tow training with the passage crews.12* Warren and Benson in The Midget Raiders observed:

It is not often realized how big a part these men [the passage crews] play in the success of an operation. Towing at high speed [it was sometimes as much as eleven knots] is far from being an easy or even a particularly safe job and it is very far from being a comfortable one. It calls for a high degree of alertness under trying conditions for several days [ten days] at a time. In addition it calls for constant attention to the vital routine duties of mopping up moisture, testing, and if necessary, repairing every item of equipment in the craft. To a considerable extent the success of an operation depends upon the condition in which the craft is turned over to the operational crew … The best analogy that can be given is that they correspond to a diving watch in a large submarine [except that they are continuously on watch for days, without a break] and like the diving watch of a big submarine they are relieved when the crew goes to action stations.13

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

What we never tried, though, really, was the length of tow, which was actually the best part of the mission. It was over a thousand miles and … the longest [tow] took nearly ten days. So that was our fault … We couldn’t really spare ten days just towing the boats out to sea to do the approach. But that was the trouble. In those small boats there are so many things that can go wrong. You have an odd valve or two go bad, or be unlucky, and it gets damp inside and you get shivering … It never occurred to us that the tows could part … we didn’t discover until afterwards … those [towlines] weren’t tow tested.14

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

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

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

Godfrey Place recalled, “I think we were quite confident. It seemed to be quite simple really. All six boats attacked the harbor in Loch Cairnbawn in the north of Scotland … and going through a fictitious channel … that more or less approximated the fjord—all six boats got into the harbor, attacked, and weren’t detected at all.”15

On 30 August 1943, all six X-craft, the Bonaventure, the Titania (submarine tender), and the six towing submarines arrived in Loch Cairnbawn for final training. Between 1 and 5 September, each parent submarine was paired off with its midget for towing exercises that included transferring the crews at sea and recovering the X-craft. Following these exercises the midgets conducted a final calibration of the compass and were then hoisted aboard the Bonaventure for loading of the side charges. While aboard the Bonaventure, the crews received their final briefings. As the official battle summary recounts, however, “At this stage of course, it was by no means certain where the enemy would be found, but the indications were that Alten Fiord was the most probable spot, and in order to reach this area by D Day it was necessary for the submarines to leave 11th-12th September.”16

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

like boys on the last day of term, their spirits ran so high. Their confidence was not in any way the outcome of youthful daredevilry, but was based on the firm conviction, formed during many months of arduous training, that their submarines were capable of doing all that their crews demanded of them, and the crews were quite capable of surmounting any difficulties or hazards which it was possible for human beings to conquer. It was in this spirit that they went out into the night in their tiny craft to face a thousand miles of rough seas before they reached their objective, which itself, to their knowledge, was protected by every conceivable device which could ensure their destruction before they completed the attacks.17

THE ATTACK ON THE TIRPITZ—11–22 SEPTEMBER 1943

The battle summary noted that “at 1600, 11th September, the Truculent towing X-6, and the Syrtis with X-9, sailed from Loch Cairnbarn, followed at intervals of about two hours by the Thrasher with X-5, the Seanymph with X-8, and the Stubborn with X-7. The Sceptre with X-10 did not sail till 1300, 12th September.”18

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

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

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

In addition to seasickness, the three men in each X-craft had to endure appalling discomfort during passage. Dampness penetrated their clothing, wet their hair, and seemed to narrow the already cramped space they shared. Able to sleep only in snatches, they had to work constantly to keep the craft in condition for the operational crew. There were electrical insulations to be checked, motors to be tested, machinery to be greased and oiled, bulkheads and hull plates to be wiped of condensation, records to be written, readings to be made on all the electrical circuits, and meals to be prepared.19

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

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

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

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

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

On the morning of 17 September, X-8 began to have difficulty maintaining trim. The starboard side charge was taking on water, and it was decided to jettison the ordnance and proceed with only the portside charge. At 1635 the commander of X-8 set the charge on safe and released the two tons of explosives. Fifteen minutes later, when the X-8 and Seanymph were approximately one thousand yards away, the ordnance detonated. The explosion damaged the seal between the port charge and the X-craft. This caused the midget to list to port. After agonizing over the decision, the commander elected to release the second side charge with a two-hour delay. Nevertheless when the charge detonated on time at 1840, the ensuing concussion badly damaged the X-8, flooding the wet/dry compartment, fracturing pipes, and buckling the watertight doors. The X-craft was finished. The crew disembarked on the morning of the eighteenth and the X-8 was scuttled. Earlier, on 16 September, when the fate of X-8 seemed precarious at best, “the Rear-Admiral, Submarines, had signalled to the Seanymph and Stubborn:—‘Should at any time you consider it necessary to sink X 8 in order not to prejudice the operation, this step would have my full approval. 162208A.’ Rear-Admiral Barry subsequently remarked:—‘I consider that the Commanding Officer of X 8 acted correctly in releasing the side charges when it became apparent that they were flooded, and that the Commanding Officer, H.M.S. Seanymph’s decision to sink X 8 to avoid compromising the mission was the correct one.’ ”20

On 19 September only four X-craft remained operational. During the transit Rear Admiral, Submarines, had transmitted their attack orders. The X-5, X-6, and X-7 would attack the Tirpitz, X-8 would attack the pocket battleship Lutzow, and X-9 and X-10 would attack the battle cruiser Scharnhorst. With X-8 scuttled, the Lutzow was no longer a viable target, and with X-9 lost, X-10 would have to attempt the Scharnhorst alone.

That evening the Truculent, towing X-6, arrived at its release point off Soroy Island, which was well inside the Arctic Circle. The poor weather subsided, and the seas were good for transferring the passage and operational crews. There was a sense of excitement and fear among the operational crew. John Lorimer, second in command of X-6, wrote, “I can almost remember losing my nerve. Then the dingy came alongside the stern of Truculent and … I felt much better, the seamen wishing me ‘Good luck,’ and ‘See you in two days’ time sir.’ ”21 When the operational crew boarded the X-6, they found that one of the ballast tanks was cracked, the starboard side charge was beginning to take on water, and the periscope gland was leaking. These “minor” problems did not unduly disturb the operational crew and after the transfer of personnel, X-6 began its two-day voyage toward Kaafjord. Two other X-craft, X-5 and X-10, also transferred their operational crews and began their passage up the fjord.

Stubborn, towing X-7, was delayed a few hours owing to the incident with X-8. While they were transferring the operational crew, a floating mine lodged on the bow of X-7 a few feet from the starboard side charge. Lieutenant Place exited the midget and made his way to the bow. Once on the bow, he calmly dislodged the mine by kicking it free. The commander of Stubborn later relayed this story to Admiral Barry, and it became a bit of submarine legend. Place, however, is quick to point out that he noticed the horn on the mine had been crushed, indicating it was inoperable.

By 2000 on 20 September, all four X-craft had slipped their tows and were proceeding to their assigned targets. The tracks for X-5, X-6, and X-7 were almost identical (X-10 proceeded along an alternate path toward the Scharnhorst), yet the midgets never caught sight of one another. The X-craft negotiated the minefield off Soroy Island and entered the Stjernsund Channel without much trouble. By daylight they were cruising on the surface toward Altafjord. The weather was bright and sunny with a light breeze, and the channel was free of traffic.

Intelligence indicated that the best place for the X-craft to lie up during the night of the twenty-first was Brattholm Island, a small isolated outcrop that was within ten miles of the Tirpitz. As the midgets approached the island, the traffic began to increase. The midgets were required to dive frequently to avoid detection. At 1630, X-7 sighted the Scharnhorst, and although he was tempted to attack, Place proceeded as ordered to Brattholm Island.

Fig. 6–1. Route of X-6 and X-7 from Release Point to Kaafjord

The X-6, which also made Brattholm by evening, was experiencing difficulties with her periscope. The packing gland was leaking severely and required maintenance throughout the voyage. This attack periscope would be essential during the final approach on the Tirpitz. Without it the crew was blind and any attack would have to be conducted by gyroscope alone. Additionally, X-6 had “a nasty list to starboard” compounded by a flooded side charge. The crew of X-6 attempted to repair the problems but had limited success. That night the two X-craft remained surfaced in secluded areas of the island and charged batteries before the final leg of the attack. Periodically, the midgets submerged to avoid detection, but it was more precautionary than required.

On 22 September at 0145, X-6 departed Brattholm and began the ten-mile approach on the Tirpitz. With a partially flooded periscope, the commander, Lieutenant Cameron, dived to sixty feet and dead reckoned toward Kaafjord, the site of the Tirpitz. The weather was perfect for an attack. There were low clouds and rough seas punctuated by occasional rain showers. The first obstacle was the submarine net located at the mouth of Kaafjord. Cameron planned to approach the net at forty feet, lock out his diver, and maintain his position there until the diver cut an opening. Once the craft was through, the diver would be retrieved, and the X-craft would proceed into the inner harbor.

As X-6 approached the antisubmarine net, the diver, Dick Kendall, suited up and prepared to enter the wet/dry chamber. Kendall had practiced this procedure dozens of times, but it was never a pleasant experience. He said later, “You’re shut up in a space about the size of a water main with a lid over your head. You sit there, cold and lonely, waiting for the water to come up. You long for it, but you can’t let it in too fast because there’s a limit to what the body can stand. It takes about four minutes, and then when you’re completely covered and all the air is gone, the force on your body terminates in a sudden, final squeeze as the pressure inside equalizes with the pressure outside. It’s like a nasty kick in the head from a mule.”22

It was now 0400 and the sun was just up. Less than half a mile from the net, Cameron ordered the midget to periscope depth to get one final look. As he looked through the periscope he realized his chances for success were diminishing quickly—the periscope was fully flooded. He wrote in his diary, “We had waited and trained for two years for this show and at the last moment faulty workmanship was doing its best to deprive us of it all. There might be no other X-craft within miles. For all I knew, we were the only starter, or at least the only X-craft left. I felt very bloody minded and brought her back to her original course … It might not be good policy, we might spoil and destroy the element of surprise, we might be intercepted and sunk before reaching our target, but we were going to have a very good shot at it.”23

Cameron dove to sixty feet. Inching his way along, he removed the periscope eyepiece and cleaned it once again. As he approached the antisubmarine net he brought the X-craft to thirty feet. The crew was prepared to cut their way through the net when Cameron heard the propellers of a ship overhead. In a very risky move, he ordered the X-craft to the surface and proceeded “full ahead on the diesel.” X-6 passed right through the parted net in the wake of a small coaster. No alarm was raised, and after-action reports indicate X-6 went undetected. Had Cameron come to periscope depth instead of surfacing, the X-craft would have been too slow to pass through the nets before they closed.

Earlier in the evening at just past midnight, X-7 had left Brattholm and by 0400 had slipped through a large boat passage in the antisubmarine net. Now both X-6 and X-7 had only one more obstacle to overcome, the antitorpedo net. Place and Cameron had two different plans for overcoming the net. Place intended to dive deep and go under the net. Cameron’s initial plan was to cut through the net.

Once through the antisubmarine net, X-6 was only three miles from the Tirpitz. Cameron slowed the boat to two knots and maintained a depth of seventy feet. A final check of the periscope showed it had flooded again. Cameron stripped down the lens and dried the prism for the last time. Unfortunately the leak was on the outer casing and no amount of cleaning would last for long. After refitting the lens, Cameron came to periscope depth. There he could see a tanker refueling two destroyers and beyond them the Tirpitz. He took a bearing on the Tirpitz and dove to thirty feet. The water in the fjord was a mixture of fresh and salt, and it made it difficult to maintain proper depth. Even with this problem the crew was reluctant to operate the pumps for fear of being detected by hydrophones.

From the submarine net to the stern of the tanker took X-6 over an hour. Coming up for one final look, Cameron almost collided with the cable connecting the destroyer to her mooring buoy. Diving quickly he avoided the cable and remained undetected. Moments later an electrical fire broke out in the control room, filling the small space with smoke. The crew reacted instantly and extinguished the fire. Cameron looked around the control room and took stock of his crew and X-craft. It had been almost thirty-five hours since X-6 had released from the parent submarine. The crew was physically exhausted from the cold and lack of sleep. The periscope was almost completely flooded, the hoisting motor was burned out, they were listing fifteen degrees to port, and a steady stream of bubbles followed them throughout their transit.

Cameron did not know the status of the other two X-craft assigned to attack the Tirpitz. If he decided to continue with the attack, it would have to be completed no later than 0800. This was the time when the side charges would explode if the other X-craft had succeeded. He realized that X-6 and her crew would not survive eight tons of explosives at close range. If he turned back now there was a chance of scuttling the midget and escaping across the mountains toward Sweden. The Royal Navy had provided escape and evasion equipment necessary to exist for a short while. This included boots, clothing, compasses, maps, medical supplies, handguns, food, and money. Cameron knew, however, that beyond the mountains lay a vast expanse of arctic wilderness in which the submariners would probably not survive. Cameron consulted the crew as to whether they wanted to continue the mission with the X-craft in such poor condition. There was very little discussion and the decision was made to continue on.

Godfrey Place, in X-7, had crossed the antisubmarine net and was proceeding toward the Tirpitz when the X-craft was forced deep by a picketboat on patrol. While avoiding detection, X-7 ran afoul of a discarded section of antitorpedo netting once used to protect the Lutzow. Place spent an hour executing a series of pumping and blowing maneuvers before X-7 finally broke free. Unfortunately, the actions damaged the gyroscope and trim pump, and within minutes the X-craft was caught again on a stray cable. Finally, by 0600 X-7 was free from the entanglement and heading toward the antitorpedo net and the Tirpitz.

At 0707 X-6 reached the northern end of the antitorpedo net and luckily found the small boat gate open. According to Comdr. Richard Compton-Hall, “This gate was guarded by hydrophones and a special guard boat but, unwisely, the Germans stood down the guard at 0600. At 0700 [actual time 0707] Cameron slipped through the narrow entrance, keeping just shallow enough to see the surface through the glass scuttles in the pressure hull.”24

Once through the gate the X-craft was within a hundred yards of the now-unprotected Tirpitz. Unknown to Cameron, X-7 arrived at the southern end of the antitorpedo net at 0710. Place, having been informed that the net only extended to sixty feet, dived to seventy-five feet and attempted to go under the obstacle. The intelligence estimates on the net defenses had been wrong. There were actually three nets, each forty feet long. In his after-action report Place wrote:

Seventy-five feet and stuck in the net. Although we had still heard nothing, it was thought essential to get out as soon as possible, and blowing to full buoyancy and going full astern were immediately tried. X.7 came out, but turned beam on to the net and broke surface close to the buoys … We went down immediately … and the boat struck again by the bow at 95 feet. Here more difficulty in getting out was experienced, but after five minutes of wriggling and blowing she started to rise. The compass had gone wild and I was uncertain how close to the shore we were; so we stopped the motor, and X-7 was allowed to come right up to the surface with very little way on. By some extraordinary luck we must have passed under the nets or worked our way through the boat passage for, on breaking the surface, I could see the Tirpitz right ahead, with no intervening nets, and not more than 30 yards away … ‘40 feet.’ … ‘Full speed ahead.’ … We struck the Tirpitz on her port side approximately below ‘B’ Turret and slid gently under the keel. There the starboard charge was released in the full shadow of the ship … ‘60 feet.’ … ‘Slow astern.’ … Then the port charge was released about 150 to 200 feet farther aft—as I estimated, about under ‘X’ turret … After releasing the port charge [about 0730] 100 feet was ordered and an alteration of course guessed to try and make the position where we had come in. At 60 feet we were in the net again … Of the three air-bottles two had been used and only 1200 pounds [less than half] was left in the third. X-7’s charges were due to explode in an hour—not to mention others which might go up any time after 0800 … In the next three-quarters of an hour X-7 was in and out of several nets, the air in the last bottle was soon exhausted and the compressor had to be run.25

Fig. 6–2. X-Craft Attacks on the Tirpitz

In the meantime, the watch aboard the Tirpitz had spotted X-6 and shouted the alarm. Fortunately for the X-craft, the Tirpitz was constantly conducting antisubmarine and antiswimmer drills, and the crew had become complacent. The chief of the watch questioned the crewman’s sighting, and it was not until 0712, when X-6 broke the surface eighty yards abeam of the battleship, that the Tirpitz’s crew was energized. Even with this sighting, the actual alarm did not sound until 0720. When the alarm was eventually sounded, the crewman on the bridge issued five short blasts. This signal was incorrect and called for the crew to man their watertight doors, as if the Tirpitz had hit an iceberg. This created considerable confusion and added to the delay in reacting to the X-craft. During the time between the second sighting and the alarm, Cameron maneuvered X-6 underneath the Tirpitz. The midget got entangled in wires dangling from the port side, and Cameron had to blow his way out. As X-6 shot to the surface, the craft was engaged by small arms and hand grenades from the crew of the Tirpitz.

Cameron submerged immediately and backed the X-craft underneath the Tirpitz’s hull, in the vicinity of B turret. There he jettisoned his two side charges, set the timers for 0815, then ordered the crew to destroy all the secret material. It was clear now that escape was impossible. Cameron surfaced for the last time, opened the sea cocks to scuttle X-6, and ordered the crew to abandon ship. A German picketboat captured the crew and attempted to tow the X-craft to the beach. Fortunately for the British, the sinking midget was too heavy, and the Germans had to cut the towline. X-6 sank to the bottom. Cameron and his men were taken aboard the Tirpitz. They felt certain the Germans would have them shot. Instead, however, the crew of the Tirpitz was relatively hospitable and offered the British coffee and schnapps. At 0812 when the charges detonated, however, the captain immediately ordered the four crewmen of X-6 shot as saboteurs. Fortunately, he changed his mind.

Meanwhile X-7 was attempting to escape. Lieutenant Place stated in his after-action report:

At 0740 we came out while still going ahead and slid over the top of the net between the buoys on the surface. I did not look back at the Tirpitz at this time as this method of overcoming net defenses was new and absorbing … We were too close, of course, for heavy fire, but a large number of machine-gun bullets were heard hitting the casing. Immediately after passing over the nets all main ballast tanks were vented and we went to the bottom in 120 feet. The compressor was run again, and we tried to come to the surface or to periscope depth for a look so that the direction indicator could be started and as much distance as possible put between ourselves and the coming explosion. It was extremely annoying, therefore, to run into another net at 60 feet. Shortly after this [0812] there was a tremendous explosion. This evidently shook us out of the net, and when we surfaced it was tiresome to see the Tirpitz still afloat.26

The explosion left X-7 “a bit of a mess inside” with water rushing in quickly, the compass and periscope broken, and only one light functioning. Place sat on the bottom of the fjord momentarily, trying to decide the best course of action. He wanted to beach the X-craft but was concerned about “giving the enemy full knowledge of the boat.”27 Place later recalled, “We all decided that we weren’t really going to do any good at all by going on. So I thought the safest thing was for us to try to [surface and] get out … If we were being shot at it was up to me to go outside [and risk being shot by the Germans].”28

Place exited the X-craft first, waving a white sweater to signal surrender. As he jumped from the midget into the water, the force of his weight pushed the small X-craft underwater. The inrush of water forced the crew to secure the hatch, and X-7 sank to the bottom. Place didn’t know why the midget sank. “Whether they, the first lieutenant took the boat down or whether it hadn’t got enough buoyancy lift, I don’t know.”29 Place was taken to the Tirpitz and fully expected the crew of X-7 to exit the craft using the emergency lock-out procedures.

“See,” Place told the author, “I’d briefed them carefully on doing an [emergency] escape … They’d practiced diving and things … We tried so many submarine escapes I think what went wrong was they were too slow flooding up and on oxygen if you’re slow flooding up you get oxygen poisoning.”30

Unfortunately, the deep depth of the fjord forced the crew to wait for forty-five minutes before the internal pressure could equal that of the sea. During that time, the oxygen in their breathing apparatuses was exhausted, and only one crewman, Sublieutenant Robert Aitken, escaped.

The eight tons of amatol that exploded underneath the Tirpitz did not sink the battleship, but it did severely damage all three main engines, all lighting and electrical equipment, one generator room, the hydrophone station, antiaircraft control positions, port rudder, range-finding equipment, and both B and X turrets. One German was killed and forty wounded as over five hundred tons of water rushed into the interior compartments of the battleship. As a result of the action, the Tirpitz never went to sea again. She was eventually towed to another berth off Haakoy Island where RAF Lancaster bombers sank her in place.

The surviving crews of X-6 and X-7 were imprisoned in German POW camps and eventually repatriated after the war. The fate of X-5 remains a question to this day. Cameron said he saw the Germans sink X-5 with their heavy guns, but a postwar search of the fjord only found X-6 and X-7. It is more likely that X-5 never made Kaafjord. To Place it didn’t matter. He said later, “It doesn’t to me make much of a difference whether he attacked or didn’t attack … Henty Creer [commander of X-5] was a jolly good chap and I know he did the best he possibly could.”31

X-10, whose target was the Scharnhorst, had mechanical difficulties and decided not to attack the pocket battleship for fear of compromising the rest of the operation. The crew of X-10 eventually rendezvoused with her parent submarine, scuttled X-10, and returned to England. The Seanymph and Sceptre remained in their patrol sectors until 4 October in the event that some of the X-craft crews escaped.* They returned to Lerwick, Scotland, on 7 October, and Operation Source was officially ended. Admiral Barry later remarked,

I cannot fully express my admiration for the three commanding officers … and the crews of X-5, X-6, and X-7 who pressed home their attack and who failed to return. In the full knowledge of the hazards they were to encounter, these gallant crews penetrated into heavily defended fleet anchorages. There, with cool courage and determination and in spite of all the modern devices that ingenuity could devise for their detection and destruction, they pressed home their attack to the full … It is clear that courage and enterprise of the very highest order in the close presence of the enemy was shown by these very gallant gentlemen, whose daring attack will surely go down to history as one of the most courageous acts of all time.32

ANALYSIS

Critique

The primary objective of Operation Source was to sink the Tirpitz, and although the battleship did not settle on the bottom of Kaafjord, it was disabled sufficiently to render it ineffective. One would have to conclude, therefore, that the mission was a success. The failure of X-5, X-8, X-9, and X-10 to reach their targets, and the inability of X-6 and X-7 to escape undetected, may have been due, in large part, to the Royal Navy’s not having conducted a full-mission profile during the preparation phase. If a ten-day towing exercise had been conducted during the preparation phase, the mechanical failures that manifested themselves during the assault (e.g., periscope leakages, ballast and trim problems, towline breakages, etc.) could have been identified prior to the mission and possibly corrected. This might have made the difference between escape and capture for the crews of X-6 and X-7 and life and death for the crews of X-5 and X-9. What eventually salvaged the operation was the professionalism of the crews, honed by months of repetitive training, and their boldness and perseverance in pressing home their attacks.

Were the objectives worth the risk? While the Tirpitz was in Trondheim, she had direct access to the Norwegian Sea and along with the Scharnhorst and Lutzow was capable of severing or damaging the maritime link between England and Russia. Just weeks before the X-craft raid, the Tirpitz and her escorts had attacked and leveled the entire 150-man Norwegian garrison at Spitsbergen, a strategically vital island east of Greenland. The Tirpitz’s guns had also destroyed a meteorological station, supply depots, thousands of tons of coal, shiploads of fuel, and a large port facility that supported the British fleet. This action caused concern, not because of the devastation, but because it meant that the British were unable to contain the Tirpitz and that it could sortie out into the Norwegian Sea and wreak havoc, apparently at will.

For almost a year the British, Russians, and Americans had been attempting to sink the Tirpitz. Even if she had never left her secure harbor for the rest of the war, the battleship would have presented a threat that could not be ignored. Although Operation Source cost the British seven dead and six captured, the Tirpitz never posed a significant problem again. The risks were clearly warranted.

Was the plan developed to maximize superiority over the enemy and minimize risk to the assault force? Operation Source began with one goal in mind—sink the Tirpitz. The air defense system surrounding Kaafjord was exceptionally dense, and even if a bomber had penetrated the antiaircraft guns, it would have had to drop torpedo bombs to pierce the hull where the ship was least armored. Both feats were highly unlikely. It became evident that there was only one way to deliver enough ordnance to destroy the battleship, and that was by submersible. Consequently, the X-craft was designed specifically for this mission. There were devices to counter the antisubmarine and antitorpedo nets, specially designed attack periscopes, and side charges with enough explosives to buckle the hull. Everything about the plan was aimed at maximizing the relative superiority of the X-craft. However, minimizing the risk in a submersible operation is difficult because to be exposed is to be captured or killed. Nonetheless, the British did everything they could to reduce this risk. They provided extensive intelligence to the planners, properly prepared the crews, and supported the effort throughout the operation.

Was the mission executed according to the plan? If not, what unforeseen circumstances dictated the outcome? The British were unable to fully execute the objectives of Operation Source due to the difficulties encountered while towing the midgets across the Norwegian Sea and owing to the defensive envelope that surrounded the Tirpitz.

On the open-ocean crossing, X-9 was lost at sea when the towrope between the parent submarine and the X-craft parted. X-8 had to be scuttled when she sustained damage, also related to a parted tow-rope. This meant that only X-10 would be available to attack the Scharnhorst and Lutzow. X-10 subsequently had mechanical problems and elected not to compromise the main objective (attacking the Tirpitz) by attempting to sink the Scharnhorst. Consequently, none of the secondary targets were engaged by the midgets of Operation Source.

The plan to sink the Tirpitz, however, was adhered to more closely. All three midgets, X-5, X-6, and X-7, were released approximately on time and began their transit without incident. Although the fate of X-5 is unknown, the other two X-craft arrived on time at the target. Unfortunately the Tirpitz was well protected by a massive antitorpedo net, and although both X-craft cleared the net and placed their charges, their inability to escape was almost preordained. The charges were set to explode less than one hour after placement. This provided no time for the X-craft to extract. The antitorpedo net, which had been relatively easy to enter (in both cases a matter of good fortune), was almost impossible to exit without exposing the midgets. Even if the two X-craft had escaped undetected, it is unlikely they would have gotten very far after the ordnance exploded at 0812. There were several hours of daylight remaining. The Germans could have sealed off the fjords, pursued the X-craft, and captured their quarry fairly quickly in the clear waters of the fjord.

What modifications to the plan could have improved the outcome? The major problem with the plan was having to tow the X-craft across the Norwegian Sea. Although this was unavoidable, it should have been rehearsed more fully and all the towropes should have been nylon or double-wrapped manila. To this day, Admiral Place also questions the viability of dropping the side charges underneath the Tirpitz as opposed to having the charges float upward against the ship’s hull. He wrote, “Why didn’t the Tirpitz sink? Several of us questioned the wisdom of releasing the [side cargos] to fall to the sea bed rather than having them float upwards to stick on the bottom of the target. The technical problem of ensuring they stick is easily solved. We were assured the ‘tamping effect’ would do more damage than simply blowing a hole—I remain unconvinced.”33 The Italians, who used a three-hundred-kilogram contact explosive, did more damage to the British battleships in Alexandria than the X-craft’s side charges of eight tons (total) did to the Tirpitz.* It would appear Place’s assumptions were correct. Had the side charge demolitions been positioned as desired, the Tirpitz and her crew would have quickly settled to the bottom of Kaafjord, and the X-craft might have escaped.

Relative Superiority

As Figure 6-3 shows, the X-craft (both X-6 and X-7) reached the point of vulnerability at approximately 0400 when they encountered the first of the German defenses, the antisubmarine net. Although the midgets had relative superiority by virtue of their concealment, they were now within the envelope of detection, and the operation hinged on maintaining that clandestine posture. Unfortunately, clearing the antisubmarine net did not dramatically improve their chances of success; the midgets were still three hours from the target and the sun was coming up. Even though the enemy was not aware of the X-craft’s presence, the area of vulnerability continued to expand because the midgets’ probability of detection was increasing, and time was beginning to take its toll on the submersibles’ subsystems (i.e., ballast and trim, electrical, periscope, etc.).

Fig. 6–3. Relative Superiority Graph for the X-Craft Raid on the Tirpitz

At approximately 0700 (three hours after reaching the point of vulnerability), the X-craft penetrated the final obstacle, the antitorpedo net, and their degree of relative superiority improved significantly. Once they were inside the net, there was nothing the crew of the Tirpitz could do. There were no weapons in the Tirpitz inventory that could stop the X-craft that close to the ship. The massive guns were not able to train down on the midgets, and the Tirpitz’s crew was equipped with only small arms and grenades, neither of which could penetrate the steel hull of the X-craft. Once inside the antitorpedo net, all the crew of the X-craft had to do was release their side charges and escape. Unfortunately for the X-craft crews, once their presence was compromised they were unable to maintain relative superiority to effect their escape. This inability to sustain an engagement when compromised is a characteristic of subsurface attacks. They are the only special operations that are designed to maintain stealth throughout the engagement. Ground and air operations use stealth only as a means to gain access to the target. Once ground forces are on target, speed, not stealth, becomes the dominant principle. If ground operations are compromised immediately prior to the engagement, as the gliders were at Eben Emael, it does not necessarily follow that the attacking force will lose relative superiority. By applying speed and purpose, the operation can be continued and relative superiority gained and maintained.

In the case of Operation Source, success was not dependent on maintaining relative superiority long enough for the X-craft to escape, merely long enough to detonate the charges underneath the Tirpitz. Even after the charges were set, the probability of mission completion was not 100 percent. The commanding officer of the Tirpitz attempted to move his ship away from the charges, and although he partially succeeded, it was not enough to offset the eight tons of demolition. However, had the crew of the Tirpitz had more time, they could have completely negated the effects of the demolition by sailing from their anchorage. Relative superiority was maintained at this point by setting the time fuse on the side charges for only forty-five minutes, instead of four hours (to allow ample time for the X-craft to escape). At approximately 0812 the eight tons of demolition exploded, and the Tirpitz was rendered inoperable.

What makes the outcome of Operation Source so unusual is that it succeeded in spite of the large area of vulnerability. What should be clear, however, is that given another thirty minutes of vulnerability, X-6 would not have reached its objective. It was also this large area of vulnerability that probably affected the fate of X-5. Had we constructed a relative superiority graph prior to the operation and viewed success as recovery of the X-craft aboard the parent submarines, we would have seen a significant problem with the mission. From the time we reached the point of vulnerability until the time we recovered, the area of vulnerability would have constituted just under 50 percent of the mission. That is not to say that reaching a certain percentage of vulnerability automatically constitutes failure, but it should be a warning to the planners that the greater the area of vulnerability, the greater the frictions of war and the greater the possibility of failure.

Principles of Special Operations

Simplicity. During the planning phase of Operation Source, the Royal Navy constructed six X-craft and assigned each to a single target. This allowed the crews to concentrate on one objective. When X-8 and X-9 were put out of action, the Royal Navy remained committed to limiting the objectives. Instead of requiring X-10 to conduct attacks on both the Scharnhorst and Lutzow, the navy struck the Lutzow from the target list and continued with a focused attack. Although X-5, X-6, or X-7 could have been siphoned off to attack the Lutzow, this would have deviated from the final plan, reduced the size of the force attacking the Tirpitz (the primary target), and created more confusion.

The intelligence available to the crews of the X-craft was sufficient for the task but could have been better. They had extensive overhead photos, charts, hydrographic and astronomical data, schematics of the targets, and information on the guard routines; and the X-craft crews also knew that the German ship’s hydrophones were scheduled to be down for repairs. This detailed intelligence picture of the objective area allowed the Royal Navy to devise a plan that minimized the forces, employed effective tactics to circumvent German defenses, and used technology specifically tailored to the objective.

The one intelligence failure was the inaccurate analysis of the antitorpedo net surrounding the Tirpitz. Intelligence estimates concluded that the antitorpedo net extended to a maximum of sixty feet deep. Consequently, Place planned to overcome this obstacle by diving to seventy-five feet and going under the nets. Although divers were trained to cut through the net, this was not a viable option. Place later recalled, “I personally never really visualized we were going to have to cut through the net. There was very little hope of cutting English antitorpedo nets [much less German nets] because it was hardened steel, and it’s such a confusion of chain mail there that knowing where to cut is almost impossible.”34

Place exercised good judgment in planning to go under the net. It was likely that the net would only extend to sixty feet. No “officer who possess a standard of judgement” would have assumed that an antitorpedo net would extend to the bottom of the seabed. Antitorpedo nets were designed to stop either air-dropped or submarine-launched torpedoes, neither of which were capable of diving under a sixty-foot-deep net and then homing on their targets. Therefore, even the best planner would probably not have foreseen this situation. This is a prime example of the frictions of war: poor intelligence sometimes combines with an unforeseen circumstance to create a situation for which one cannot plan or prepare. Even with perfect intelligence and the simplest of plans, one cannot foresee all the possibilities. Fortunately for the crews, they were able to overcome this obstacle and continue on with the mission.

Building on the intelligence picture, the Royal Navy created the X-craft for the purpose of defeating German defenses and sinking the Tirpitz. The use of new technology during Operation Source was essential to the mission’s success. Previous attempts by British chariots (manned torpedoes) to sink the Tirpitz had failed, primarily because the chariots (limited by range and diver exposure) required a support ship to insert them into the immediate vicinity of the target. This failure spurred the requirement for a longer duration, dry, midget submarine. The design of the X-craft considered all the operational parameters of this specific operation. The X-craft was small to negotiate the fjords and penetrate the antisubmarine nets. It was equipped with a wet/dry chamber to lock out the divers to cut the antisubmarine nets, and it had an assault periscope so slender that it barely rippled the calm waters around Kaafjord. Most importantly the X-craft carried two two-ton side charges specifically designed to destroy the fifty-three-thousand-ton Tirpitz. By limiting the objective to a single target, focusing the intelligence effort on that objective, and developing new technology to counter the defenses, the planners reduced Operation Source to its simplest form. When asked if he had any reservations about the plan, Godfrey Place responded, “No. I think we were quite confident. It seemed to be quite simple, really.” The planning phase, however, was just the beginning, and a simple plan does not equate to a successful operation without a great deal of preparation.

Security. Security was always a concern to the planners of Operation Source; however, it only mildly affected the daily operations of the X-craft crews. When they were training at HMS Varbel in Scotland, the operating area was relatively isolated. Precautions were taken to limit the exposure of the X-craft and their support ships, and the crews were provided a shallow cover story to tell the local townspeople. This notwithstanding, the Germans were fully prepared (antisubmarine and antitorpedo nets as well as daily anti-swimmer drills) to defend the Tirpitz against subsurface attacks from both conventional submarines and chariots.* The security for Operation Source, therefore, need only have concealed the time frame of the operation and the unique capabilities of X-craft. This is not to imply that additional security was inappropriate; the less the enemy knew about the forces and means of employment, the better the chance the mission would succeed. In Operation Source, however, security was secondary to proper preparation and the need for repetitive training.

Repetition. As we noted in chapter 1, John Lorimer, a crewman aboard X-6, when referring to repetitive training, said, “If you are going to do anything dangerous, the best way to accomplish it is to train, train, train, so that in the excitement of the situation you do the thing automatically.”35

Operation Source had an advantage not normally associated with special operations: the crews had almost eighteen months to train, from 19 March 1942 until 5 September 1943. Although some of this training was basic familiarization, the largest portion was mission-specific. In the early months X-3 and X-4 were rotated weekly among the crews to conduct individual training. With the arrival of X-5 through X-10 in January through March 1943, each crew conducted daily training in preparation for the mission. Each aspect of the mission was rehearsed multiple times. This included passage training, net cutting, ship attack profiles, emergency procedures, escape and evasion training, and several limited mission profiles against nearby port facilities. As stated earlier the only shortfall in the preparation phase was the lack of a full-mission profile including a full tow. Repetition is essential to the success of any mission; however, repetition based on unrealistic profiles builds a false confidence that erodes quickly during an engagement. Some of the confidence exuded by the X-craft crews fell victim to problems that could have been identified through a more thorough training program: for example, X-8’s and X-9’s towline breakage and X-10’s mechanical problems. Nevertheless, the philosophy of train, train, train insured that four of the six X-craft successfully transited the Norwegian Sea and commenced their insertion into Norway on time. Then it was a matter of reaching the objective and surprising the enemy.

Surprise. The four X-craft that motored into Soroysund on the morning of 20 September 1943 all knew that the element of surprise was absolutely essential to the success of the mission. It was for this reason that Lt. Ken Hudspeth, whose X-10 was mechanically unsound to operate effectively, decided not to attack the Scharnhorst. Hudspeth knew that if his X-craft were compromised prior to the other midgets’ arriving on target, it would destroy his companions’ chances. One of his crewmen reported later, “Ken Hudspeth asked each of us whether we wanted to go in and do the attack and we all said, ‘Yes.’ But after consideration he said that we would be bound to be seen and that this would not only do us little good but might also spoil the chances of the others, which was more important.”36

Hudspeth elected to remain on the bottom (at 195 feet) outside Kaafjord until the window for attacking the Tirpitz passed. If he heard no explosions by 0900, he intended to attack the Scharnhorst and attempt to complete his mission.

Place and his crew in X-7 achieved complete surprise, bypassing the antitorpedo net at approximately 0715 and releasing the side charges at 0730. It is conceivable that had X-6 not alerted the crew of the Tirpitz, X-7 could have escaped. Unfortunately, X-6 was spotted entering the antitorpedo swing gate at 0707, but confusion aboard the Tirpitz provided an additional five minutes before the crew began to react. Although surprise was not complete, the enemy was unprepared to react effectively, which provided Cameron in X-6 sufficient time to release his charges. Subsurface attacks have several advantages; however, as a rule, sustainability in the face of combat is not one. Once attacks are compromised, speed and purpose become everything and the opportunity for escape vanishes.

Speed. Speed in a subsurface attack must be balanced against the need to maintain surprise. If the attacker can remain undetected, then speed is only a function of the subsurface platform’s duration. This phenomenon is more prevalent in a swimmer or manned torpedo attack, where the duration of the diving rig and the temperature of the water directly affect the attacking element’s sustainability. In the case of Operation Source, however, speed was important because the mechanical difficulties (damaged periscope, ballast and trim problems, broken gyroscope) that plagued X-6 and X-7 became worse with time. Cameron, who had initially planned to cut through the antitorpedo nets, decided it would take too much time, time that would degrade his material condition and reduce the probability of success. Disregarding the risk, Cameron surfaced X-6 behind a picketboat passing through the antitorpedo net gate. What he lost in surprise he gained in speed. Once through the gate it took the crew of X-6 only ten minutes, from 0707 until approximately 0717, to reach the Tirpitz and release the side charges. The X-7, which remained undetected throughout the engagement, took only fifteen minutes to complete its mission once inside the antitorpedo net. Surprise and speed assured relative superiority, but it was the sense of purpose that assured success.

Purpose. In Operation Source, as in all special operations, the men involved in the assault must both understand the primary purpose of the mission and be personally committed to seeing it completed regardless of the costs. The primary purpose of Operation Source was to sink the Tirpitz. Everyone from the enlisted divers aboard the X-craft to Rear Admiral, Submarines, understood that, and they always remained focused on what was important. Beginning with the loss of X-9, the Royal Navy acted with the primary purpose in mind by not reducing the number of X-craft assigned to attack the Tirpitz. The Tirpitz was, after all, the primary target. Reducing the number of X-craft might have limited the damage sustained by the Tirpitz.

Later in the operation, Hudspeth showed he understood the primary purpose of the mission when he made a command decision not to attack the Scharnhorst. He had been ordered, as had the commanders of X-8 and X-9, not to compromise the mission before X-5, X-6, and X-7 had an opportunity to make their assaults on the Tirpitz. A compromise by Hudspeth would have alerted the nearby crew of the Tirpitz, and neither X-6 nor X-7 would have penetrated the antitorpedo nets. Place understood the purpose when he bypassed the Scharnhorst to remain on schedule to attack the Tirpitz. It was exceptionally difficult to pass up a sitting duck in favor of another target some miles away. Place, nevertheless, focused on what was important—the Tirpitz.

The men who volunteered for X-craft duty were screened to ensure they understood the hazards of the mission, and throughout training a sense of commitment to king and country was instilled into each man.* This was not by accident but by design. The British, probably more than any other people, fully appreciate the value of patriotism to encourage a man to fight. Encouraging this sense of purpose, or duty, eventually paid dividends when it became a choice of safety or mission accomplishment. When the X-6, badly damaged from the long transit, was outside the antitorpedo net, the crew had the option of turning around and attempting to escape or pressing home their attack on the Tirpitz. Without hesitation the crew decided to attack. This resulted in all four crewmen being captured and spending the next eighteen months in a POW camp.

The crew of X-7 also realized that if they made the attack, escape was unlikely, for when the side charges exploded underneath the Tirpitz, the Germans would immediately seal off all escape routes to the open sea. Nevertheless, X-7 proceeded ahead and dropped her charges. The crews thought about scuttling the X-craft and attempting to cross the snow and ice to Russia, but in reality this was not an option. All the X-craft crews showed from the beginning of training until the completion of the mission that being committed to a cause greater than oneself is necessary for success in battle.

Operation Source was a classic special operation even though the submariners were not classic commandos. There was a specific target whose elimination was a military and political imperative. Men were specially trained, equipped, and supported. A simple plan was developed by limiting the objectives, using good intelligence to identify the obstacles, and then using technology and innovation to overcome those obstacles. The plan was kept concealed, rehearsed numerous times, and executed with surprise, speed (after X-6 was compromised), and purpose. The frictions of war continuously impeded the progress of the mission, but both the decision makers at the staff level and the submariners in the X-craft showed courage, intellect, boldness, and perseverance. All of this helped achieve and maintain relative superiority long enough to complete the mission.

Notes

1. Thomas Gallagher, The X-Craft Raid (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 11.

2. Richard Compton-Hall, Submarine Warfare, Monsters and Midgets (Dorset, England: Blandford, 1985).

3. Adm. Godfrey Place, interview by author, Dorset, England, 18 June 1992.

4. “Attack on ‘Tirpitz’ by Midget Submarine (Operation Source),” Battle Summary—No. 29.

5. Gallagher, The X-Craft Raid, 43.

6. Place, interview.

7. “Attack on ‘Tirpitz.’ ”

8. Adm. Godfrey Place, letter to author, 19 January 1993. These layers of fresh and salt water made it “very tricky” to maneuver the X-craft in shallow water, particularly under eight feet.

9. Donald Cameron, personal diary, September 1942. Graciously provided by Comdr. Richard Compton-Hall.

10. Comdr. Richard Compton-Hall, letter to author, 7 January 1993.

11. Place, interview.

12. Place, letter to author.

13. C. E. T. Warren and James Benson, The Midget Raiders (New York: William Sloane, 1954), 272.

14. Place, interview.

15. Ibid.

16. “Attack on ‘Tirpitz.’ ”

17. Warren and Benson, The Midget Raiders, 138.

18. “Attack on ‘Tirpitz.’ ”

19. Gallagher, The X-Craft Raid, 63.

20. “Attack on ‘Tirpitz.’ ”

21. Gallagher, The X-Craft Raid, 82.

22. Ibid., 106.

23. Cameron, diary.

24. Compton-Hall, Submarine Warfare, Monsters and Midgets, 130.

25. Lt. Godfrey Place, Report No. Cmd. 38204/993, 107.

26. Place, report.

27. Place, letter to author.

28. Place, interview.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. “Attack on ‘Tirpitz.’ ”

33. Place, letter to author.

34. Place, interview.

35. Gallagher, The X-Craft Raid, 20.

36. Warren and Benson, The Midget Raiders, 162.

*Commander Richard Compton-Hall, the curator of the Royal Submarine Museum and a former X-craft commanding officer, stated in a letter to the author that the captain would only lie down on the casing when “in extremis.” The induction mast, which also served as a voice pipe to the control room, had to be lowered for the captain to talk with the helmsman. When this happened there was always the possibility of water going down the mast. Additionally, the captain was prone to being washed overboard in such an exposed position.

*Admiral Place, in a letter to the author, stated that the hull could withstand depths of 300 feet or more; however, the rate of blowing would make it fairly “dicey” to come up from even 150 feet.

*Varbel was actually a fabricated name derived from Commander Varley, who designed the original X-craft, and Commander Bell, the training commander.

*Towing training was done by any vessel that could be commandeered into service. This included the occasional submarine and the vessels Present Help and Fidele.

*Stubborn had radioed Rear Admiral, Submarines, and requested that they contact Seanymph. All messages to Rear Admiral, Submarines, were made in individual one-time pads and therefore could not be deciphered.

*The British were unaware of the status of X-5, X-6, and X-7 until several months later, and therefore Rear Admiral, Submarines, ordered the Seanymph and Sceptre to remain on station to pick up possible survivors.

*Two of the three Italian crews succeeded in placing their charges on the hulls of their targets. One of the crews, Durand de la Penne and Bianchi, left their charge on the bottom close to the hull. Nevertheless, the bottom of Alexandria Harbor was only a few meters below the HMS Valiant, whereas the bottom of Kaafjord was almost one hundred feet below the Tirpitz.

*Operation Arthur, the attempted attack by British chariots on the Tirpitz, failed when the two chariots broke free from their support vessel (Arthur) and sank in the fjords. Most of the charioteers and the Norwegian resistance escaped across Norway to Sweden. Unfortunately one of the British frogmen, Bob Evans, was wounded by German police and captured. He was subsequently interrogated and finally shot as a spy. This event occurred in November 1942, almost a year prior to Operation Source. In light of Evans’s capture and the success of the Italian manned torpedoes in the Mediterranean, the German defenses at Kaafjord were consistent with the probable threat.

*Although upon volunteering many of the men did not know that the Tirpitz was the objective, they knew that whatever the target was, their chances of survival were slim.