X CRAFT IN WW2 by Gordon Newman
Sadly Gordon Newman has crossed the bar, however he did leave this article with a friend, I thought some would find it interesting. He was writing his own history for his Grandsons so references to Granny and Joan refer to his wife of many years.
At the end of the academic year and some pretty nasty exams we came down and before I knew where I was I was drafted on 1st June 1943 to HMS Collingwood at Fareham, the notorious initial training camp for Portsmouth ratings. My number was PJX 519174...something that you never forget! As a Y schemer I was put in charge of a hut of 30 new entrants from all over the country. Never having heard a Geordie, Scouser or Glaswegian before, there were initial communication problems from accent and frequent new swearwords, considering that many of them were from very rough backgrounds and older than I was, so treated me, a 'posh' southerner', with some mistrust.. .in fact, they disliked me intensely! I learned that in the services we had to get on with people we disliked and who couldn't stand me and cunningly would take every opportunity to win points against me.
All our 'civvies', were sent home and we had to get used to the rough underwear, heavy boots and serge bell bottomed suits of naval ratings, to say nothing of the complicated neckwear and lanyards that all trainees had to wear. For the first 10 weeks we were confined to barracks, so homesickness was a problem for many of them, especially the married ones. Having roughed it on the farm, this was no problem to me, where I had also suffered verbal abuse! Each hut had an 'upper yardsman,' (experienced ratings selected from the ranks for regular naval officer training at Dartmouth), allocated to it, as well as an old retired 'three badge' chief petty officer, recalled for wartime service. They were ‘father and mother' to us. I soon learned plenty of new foul language and what discipline really meant, but by the end of sixteen weeks there we had welded ourselves into a unit with great team spirit and camaraderie, as well as mutual respect. Thanks to my scouting background I'd been able to help many of the 'thicker' lads with their knots and seamanship, so we all worked together as a team by the end.
We left Collingwood as different men, each in his own way; some were more 'civilised', others like me, more worldly. We all had two things in common in that we were fitter, thanks to better food and plenty of physical activity, and also apprehensive of what lay ahead. I often wonder which of them survived the war, as after all, we were only cannon fodder. I was pleased to find myself, after a brief spell of leave, on a train to Edinburgh and Rosyth with two other Y scheme hut leaders, drafted to the cruiser HMS Dauntless. It turned out that she was an old cruiser, doing minor North Sea patrol work, but highly disciplined and used for selecting future RNVR officers who were OK at sea. This was our first experience of mess-decks, sleeping in hammocks and watch keeping, 4 hours on and 4 hours off. The first dog watch, 1600-1800 and the second dog watch, 1800-2000,facilitated a switch of timing, as the first watch, midnight to 0400 always seemed to be the long one. We were switched from various duties as gun crew members, look-outs, deck hands and mess keepers. It was extremely tough with poor food, in cold, rough, wet conditions and six months of that sorted out the sheep from the goats. Living in close quarters with rough characters taught me a great deal about tolerance and understanding why they had enormous 'chips on their shoulders'. We had some good runs ashore from Rosyth and I played rugby several times in Dunfermline. We had one long week-end leave and I remember travelling down on an overnight sleeper with a hammock slung across the compartment, two in luggage racks and two on the seats - the navy made us great improvisers
. Another short 10 day leave, when I chased Granny harder and more successfully, as I was now in uniform, was followed by drafting to King Alfred at Hove. This was the officer-training establishment for wartime service or Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, nicknamed the 'wavy navy' because the gold rank rings were not straight. We were also entitled to wear a coveted white band in our caps, identifying us as officer cadets in training. Our first port of call was a public school, which had been commandeered. Lancing College, situated on a hill in Sussex. We spent two months there and I was in Hood division, typically commanded by a regular officer who had been badly shot up and unfit for service. Naturally he did not hold us 'amateur rookies' in very high esteem, so constantly abused us and hit the bottle pretty hard.
We were divided into watches and classes and took it in turns to take charge of a party. Discipline was extremely strict and the course very intensive. Candidates included keen, well-educated 18 year olds like me, bank managers, ex-policemen and conscripts looking for an easier life. Although we were all pretty miserable, many were married with children, or in serious relationships, we built up a strange camaraderie, regarding the senior officers as our common enemy! I remember making a good friend of an ex-Lancing boy called Henry Fitter who lived in Hove and he took me to his home on several occasions. There was a small clique of ex-students and I remember Jack Laird who later became chairman of British Steel and John Middleton who became a doctor. No ex-Reading students were around at that time.
We then went down into Hove and lived in billets, all part of the training to become well-mannered officers. The training base was an ex-lido, much of it underground as I remember. Here the training included boat handling at Shoreham in a dock near the power station, which, I believe, is still there. The hours were long and the training hard and I seem to remember that several either dropped or were kicked out, but by now the incentives were high, as we all knew what going back to the 'lower deck' would mean. As we got to the final fortnight before passing out, we knew that we were 95% OK and had to be measured for and order our officer's uniform, which had to be paid for but for which we received an allowance. All the military tailors had offices there so it was easy.
The final passing out parade in February '44 was to be followed by 10 days as fledgling officers, when we went to better billets and learned how to behave in a wardroom. After passing out I had severe stomach pains and was put on to bismuth. As I was moving from one billet to another, carrying my case, I felt worse, so went back to sick bay but there was no doctor there. Just by luck the surgeon captain came in and saw me sitting there looking pretty ill and in a few minutes I was on my way to hospital for observation, in a bus! Surgery for a burst appendix and the inevitable peritonitis that followed led to an eight week stay in hospital as this was before the days of antibiotics (private ward in the Royal Sussex as I was now an officer!) and four weeks sick leave. During this time my affair with granny developed. As I was still only a midshipman and under 18, a policeman arrived at my parents' front door asking for permission for the hospital to operate on me. Little did they know that I had already been under the knife as an urgent case!
All this time the war had been progressing through a very critical time and I was out of it. When I returned to KA in June, I heard that they were asking for volunteers for special service, although I had been destined for motor torpedo boats in coastal forces. In order to catch up for lost time, as I had heard that one or two of my old mates had died in action, I decided to volunteer. Within a few days I found myself walking into the wardroom at HMS Dolphin at Gosport, now the site of the submarine museum, and who should be sat there but my old student friend, Johnny Latham. We soon found that we were two members of a six-man course learning to become commissioned oxygen divers.
We were taught by a guy named Jack Passey and every day for eight weeks went up to Horsea Island where, on an old torpedo range we did our diving, having first been subjected to the submarine escape tower to see whether we were able to breathe underwater. This soon brought our number down to four. Just at this time the invasion of France was inevitable, so when we had been passed out we were blooded by going to takes quick look at one of the Normandy beaches and getting some sand samples. There was a big boat alongside at Dolphin and two of us were taken on board with all our gear, together with an experienced marine frogman. He had organised an inflatable dinghy in which we paddled across the shallow water outside the breakers where we took less than five minutes to do the job and then got the Hell out! The big boat was waiting at periscope depth and when they saw our torch flashing they surfaced and dived immediately we were in the conning tower. The whole trip took about sixteen hours as I remember and we just regarded it as part of our training. This was nothing to do with the pre invasion work ofX20 and X23 who guided in the Omaha fleet, as we didn't even realise then that later we were going to be involved with X craft!
We had, of course, been sworn to secrecy and were also used as human experimental animals by some of the mad naval physiologists at Haslar hospital who were particularly interested in oxygen narcosis or 'Oxygen Pete', as we used to call this common cause of fatalities among our fraternity. The whole concept of breathing pure oxygen and taking out the exhaled carbon dioxide in soda lime was conceived to enable the diver not to leave any trace of telltale bubbles to the enemy. The Sladen suit, which we wore, named after the inventor, was as watertight as the various rubber cuffs and so on allowed. If an oxygen diver stayed at pressures above 1 atmosphere, below 32 ft., for more than a few minutes, he developed hallucinations and muscular spasms. The main school of diving was at Whale Island where there was a dry dock in 100ft of water and that is where we learned our symptoms by bitter experience of meeting 'Pete'. I can remember how awful we felt after a narcotic spasm. We all smoked, which today seems strange. I smoked a pipe, which made me feel and look older!
We also had some good times and we went to dances in Southsea, met various VAD nurses and Wrens and realised that, like everybody else, we should enjoy life while we could. There was virtually no sexual fun for lads of our age - .just heavy petting if you were lucky! The mess in Dolphin was excellent and the Wren stewards served all meals. As submarine officers before and after an operation used the mess, the food was excellent and an evening four-course dinner seemed to be quite inappropriate when food was so severely rationed 'ashore'.I remember that one of the quirky rules at breakfast time was that no conversation was allowed. On entering the mess we picked up a metal rack on which to put a daily paper, set the paper on it, a steward brought a menu on which we pointed to our choice and the meal eaten in silence. In theory everybody was suffering from a severe hangover!
We spent about eight weeks there and after passing our practical and theoretical tests all four of us were drafted to Scotland, travelling this time as officers, by first class sleeper! We went to Dunoon and then by road to a beautiful house called Ardtaraig at Loch Strivenhead, then requisitioned as the top secret base for training X craft crews. Until we got there we had no idea of what our job would be. We shared bedrooms and the wardroom mess was completely informal, a big change from Dolphin. Submarine sweaters and battledress trousers were the main mode of dress, in the evenings beer was drunk from a communal bucket and mess parties were pretty riotous affairs, singing rugby songs around the piano. The few wrens there looked after us admirably and were kept pretty busy by a very randy group of older officers who realised that their days were limited, whilst we younger ones tended to skylark around. There was an open-air swimming pool there and we used it at night, naked and drunk in Scottish winters! Oxygen diving was physically and mentally tiring and we used to sleep well, I remember.
One night we went into Dunoon, probably to get drunk. I had learned to drink 'chasers’ by then.. ..a pint of McEwans followed by a tot of whisky. We missed the bus and drove a steamroller, stoking up the boiler, back to Strivenhead, much to the consternation of the local council! I nearly got chucked out for that.
There were several XT boats there and our job was to learn to get out of the boat, cut through a net and get back in again, without anybody in the safety boat above us knowing that we were there from tell-tale bubbles. The exercises started on the surface and then at increasing depths down to our limit, which was 32ft. During my time two guys were lost to the bottom of the loch and their bodies never recovered. We were also taught the use of explosive charges. I learned what real fear was and also developed my delight in eating mussels, which then thrived on anti-submarine nets and had to be torn off, ripping our fingernails and permanently damaging mine, before we were able to use our hydraulic cutters.
Basically, the skipper would take his boat up to a net and keep the motors ticking over to keep a slight pressure on. The diver, having got dressed in the minute space, went and sat on the 'heads' (loo) and flooded up the wet and dry compartment. When the pressure equalised, he opened the hatch, climbed out, shut the hatch and then proceeded to the locker where the cutters were and carefully unwound the hose connecting them to the high pressure air supply in the boat. When the cutters worked, no air escaped leaving any tell-tale bubbles. After giving the 'thumbs up' to the skipper through the night periscope, the diver swam along to the bow and got through to the far side of the net, which then had to be cut in a particular fashion. The flap in the net fell down and the hopefully the hole was large enough for the boat to go through.
Once the stem was clear of the net the diver had to re-stow the cutters, open the hatch, get back in and pump out the W&D compartment. He then had to get out of his wet gear, which was very cumbersome and take on a role as part of the crew, performing whatever tasks the skipper wanted. We had to wear nose clips and a rather cumbersome mouthpiece and we were always recognisable by our inflamed nose lobes, which gave us the appearance of habitual boozers!
I can't remember how long this training lasted, probably about three months and, just at the time of the X craft attack on the Bismarck in September, I was drafted to Varbel II on Bute. Only a few miles away in the Clyde, this is where the operational boats were and I was introduced to my new skipper, Eustace Staples, who was a South African lieutenant, probably about 23 or so, and one of the best men I've ever worked for. He was one of a group of young RN lieutenants, some of whom were from the loyal Empire who had been brought in to skipper the new XE's and get some discipline into us RNVR types! Also there was my 'number one' Bill Morrison, a Glaswegian, and a year or so older and much more worldly than I was! Little did I realise that we were to become lifelong friends. He took me dancing in Rothesay, taught me how to pull the Wrens, drinking in Glasgow and so on. At this time, we realised that we might not have long to live so might as well enjoy life!
We worked hard and played hard but lived in relative comfort in an old hotel called the Kyles Hydro, staffed by wrens, WRNS. The operational crew also had an ERA, (engine room artificer), Les Swatton. There was much skylarking including one more serious event, which involved somebody lobbing a hand grenade down a lift shaft!
Our training was arduous, cold and wet and included dummy attacks on ships, many diving adventures, much seasickness, navigational errors and a lot of fun. We carried outmost of our attacks up in Loch Choire, to the north of Loch Linnhe, near Oban, with the secret code name of HHX. There was another base HHZ, on Loch Cairnbawm, which was identical to a Norwegian fjord, but further north. We used to take the boat (all submarines are boats), up through the Crinan canal in order to save going round the Mull of Kintyre. We moored up one night by the Crinan hotel and drank a lot of Drambuie, I seem to remember.
Loch Linnhe was up to 300 ft deep so we were able to dive deep and check our glands for leaks there, although I remember the hull used to creak and groan under the pressure - scary for the first time! We also took the boat bumping along the bottom in the rapids at Ballachulish.
RAF coastal command had a Catalina flying boat squadron in Oban harbour and they used to take us up spotting submarines to see what we looked like from the air. I remember sitting in the observation pods and feeling very airsick as coastal flying was very bumpy at these slow speeds. We used to have some good parties with them! One of our exercises involved being towed submerged at sea by a big submarine with the first passage crew in charge. We were then transferred in dinghies, continued the tow and released for the final dummy attack on our depot ship, the Bonaventure.
We were being listened and watched for by the 'enemy' and then I had to get out and cut through the double nets. After dropping our dummy charges we had to go back through the nets and meet the parent submarine, take up the tow and transfer to the second passage crew. It was exhausting, as I remember it, and we were given Benzedrine tablets to keep us going for the 20 hours that the operation took, the whole exercise lasting some three days.
We were now fully trained and tuned up for operations and went on leave prior to joining our depot ship. I remember Joan and I met Bill Morrison and the passage CO, whose name was McNair, who were staying in a bachelor pad in London with the prime objective of making it with the girls! We returned to Varbel I and started to tune up the boat, working hard on perfecting our routines.
I got flu, so no diving and was in bed when I heard about the tragedy of XEl 1 being sunk. XE11 was taken out to Loch Striven to recalibrate instruments. Unfortunately the skipper, had strayed outside his exercise area and, unbeknown to him, was below the boom defence vessel, Norina. Having completed laying a line of buoys, Norina had engines stopped. XE11, unaware of any other presence, was well-trimmed and stopping from 100ft to retrim at decreasing 10ft intervals. This was a delicate task and has been described as 'When on a big submarine the trim must be correct to the nearest cupful, in an X craft it would be to the nearest thimbleful’.
Later, one of the survivors, Bill Morrison who was 'number one' and had been in charge of the trimming, requested permission to go to the heads, which, because they were in the W&D compartment, undoubtedly saved his life. Squatting there, he was asked to stay put in order to maintain the 10ft trim that the skipper was trying to achieve and one person moving in that small boat could upset. The BDV only drew 9ft but XE11 banged and scraped aftwards along her hull. The skipper of Norina immediately started his engines and so the screw tore holes into the hull of the X craft.
XE11 sank quickly and settled at 190 ft, with the CO coolly distributing DSEA sets. As the pressure equalised Bill Morrison was able to force the escape hatch open and pulled ERA Les Swatton out in the bubble that took them to the surface. The South African skipper, Lt Staples, A/B JJ Can-oil and Stoker E Higgins all died, presumably from oxygen poisoning, with their DSEA sets on. They were buried in Rothesay cemetery, after the boat had been quickly salvaged.. .a few harrowing days for us all, that are fortunately dim in my memory.
After the accident, we were all sent on leave and subsequently drafted to other units but Bill Morrison, on record for the deepest unaided escape from a submarine, and I never lost touch. We have attended various reunions of the 12th flotilla and placed flowers on the three war graves, which, because of the then secrecy of X craft, have no record ofXE11 on them. Bill tells me that the local community is now negotiating to have this omission rectified. Details of the flotilla history can be found in 'The Tip of the Spear’, by Pamela Mitchell, (ISBN 1 872955 134). X24 has been restored and is in the Submarine Museum in Gosport, her successful operation being carried out just a few days after the XE 11 tragedy.
I was sent to Greenwich, then a naval college, to do a ten-week navigation course. This was a soft posting for me and I was able to go home, take Joan out in London and have her there for meals in the fantastic painted hall where the Wren stewards wore white gloves. By this time I was old enough to become a sub-lieutenant so got my single wavy ring! The Germans were still bombing London with VI 's and V2 rockets but that didn’t stop us going out in London. We decided to get engaged before I went out East.
The Far East
I was then drafted out East, having been kitted out with tropical uniform, to join a ship called HMS Kedah in Calcutta and so found myself on a troopship, the Empress of Scotland, enjoying the privileges of being an officer. We were able then to sail through the Med. in convoy, and Suez and the Red Sea were very hot. We disembarked in Trincomalee in Ceylon and we were all put into a transit camp where most of us got a dose of the 'squitters' from bugs to which we just weren't used. I then had to catch a train to Calcutta stopping in very hot Madras on the way. That was quite an experience! My eyes were opened by the tremendous contrast between the colonial white clubs, which were cool, clean and full of 'boys' who were summoned by the flick of a finger, and the Indian peasant who just died in the gutter from neglect. It certainly made me unsure about British colonialism and later a supporter of self-rule for India.
The naval ship to which I had been drafted turned out to be an old Straits Steamship boat, called the Kedah, which used to run from Singapore to Penang as a sort of ferry. She was coal fired but had been converted into the Admiral's flagship for Operation Zipper, the code name for the invasion of Malaya by British forces. On board we had Rear Admiral Morse who was in command of the operation. You can imagine the contrast for me from the informality of the 12th flotilla to the 'flannel' of the flagship. Anyway I was told that I should regard it as a compliment and was given the job of secret documents and signals and also watch keeping duties, none of which I enjoyed. I must confess that most of my colleagues were super guys and would have become personal friends in the long run.
We spent some time patrolling and exercising between Burma and India and ended up in Trincomalee harbour on VE night. I remember, as one of the foredeck party, being fed up at the difficulty in tying up to our buoy in the midst of celebratory fireworks! I was fed up with the whole business and decided on a whim to suggest to our skipper that as the only trained diver on board, it might be a useful idea to have some appropriate gear aboard. He acceded and a signal was sent ashore authorising me to draw whatever I wanted. What a boost it gave my morale to test the gear out and inspect the ship's bottom! It also gave me an opportunity to contact some other trained divers operating along the Burma coast. The Kedah was a happy ship with an Indian deck crew and Goanese stewards. On Sunday lunchtimes we had fantastic curries and I remember that a pink gin was 2d (old pence) in the mess but we went dry when operational.
To cut a long story short. Operation Zipper was stopped in mid-ocean, as the atomic bombs were dropped and Japan capitulated, no doubt saving thousands of allied lives. Kedah was the first ship alongside, with HMS Sussex astern of us. We had some of the Singapore pilots aboard who had got away before the Jap invasion and piloted us alongside. They were the first ashore with an armed escort and reoccupied their HQ reuniting with some of the old Malay tug skippers. My first job was to lead an armed patrol to Changi jail, where we were cheered in by ex-POW's in a terrible physical state, which made normal well fed whites like me feel very humble.
A motor cyclist arrived, asking for me to return to the ship as the admiral wanted me. It turned out that there were no port clearance or salvage people in the convoy and I was the only diver there! He explained that the dockside might be booby trapped and I should search for mines first. Then we started to lift and tow away all the sunken barges, which had been put there as a form of defence by the Japs. The job lasted three days and I had to find some more oxygen but it was all more or less within my depth limitation. The operation allowed many more ships to come alongside and unload supplies and also put me on very good terms with the pilots and the admiral was kind enough to recommend me to be mentioned in dispatches.
Best of all, I was introduced to the Fleet salvage team when they arrived and I was allowed to join them on orders of the admiral. This was the beginning of a very happy time for me as I was living ashore in a delightful bungalow in the naval base with several other officers, including the skippers of two boom-defence lifting vessels, called Bar Boats, who worked with us. We each had a bedroom and boys to do all the work, so lived in relative luxury and enjoyed civilian living conditions.
My job involved some of the happiest days in the Navy. I was in charge of an LCI, a small infantry landing craft, with a native crew, on which we fitted a large Ingersoll Rand compressor and an ex-Japanese decompression chamber, called a 'pot'. My assistants were two very experienced petty officer divers, Mac and Sandy, probably 15 years older than I was, and our job was to clear the harbour of wrecks and make it safe for shipping. They had done a fair bit of tropical diving and found that the best method in the heat was to blank off service respirators, connect them to the air supply from the 'pot' and tie the air line round the waist to take the strain. We wore swimming trunks under boiler suits with rubber boots on our feet and gloves as necessary and could go down to 150ft for short periods like that. We were responsible to the senior harbour pilots, who I knew well, because they had come across on the Kedah, and all held RNR rank. We had tugs on call when needed and access to plastic explosives, which we used with gay abandon. The water was clear and like a warm bath - it was heaven!
It was during this period that my 21st birthday occurred on 19/04/46 and they got me very drunk on 'pusser’s' rum. The privilege for divers and submariners was that they could have 'neaters' instead of 'grog' (diluted with water) and so were able to bottle their daily ration, in this case, for young Subbie's 21st. This was my undoing and resulted in 2days in sick bay and a lifelong allergy to rum!
One of our jobs was to cut down the jib of a large sunken floating crane with explosive. We managed the job after a week or two and plenty of fish for supper. The water was so clear and I remember a large friendly grouper, which we had to frighten away before firing. One day I was called to the admiral's office, (he was ashore by now), and expected a bollocking about something, instead of which he revealed a 'special project' which involved lifting an enormous tin dredger.
It was situated near Kuala Lumpur, which, in those days wasn't much more than a large village and terribly ravaged by the Japs. Tin and rubber were the main industries in Malaya in those days and we soon got used to the stink of refining latex in the air, which, of course, was tapped from trees in vast plantations. Tin was either shallow mined in quarries and washed away by large hoses before being separated out from the soil, or dugout by very large dredgers floating in their own shallow 'padangs' or lakes. We were given a large Humber staff car, into which we loaded all our diving gear, as well as an old-fashioned diving pump, driven by two hand-operated wheels. We also took a rifle and armour piercing bullets as were told that there were crocodiles there!
We arrived and were greeted by the British engineer who had been evacuated to UK during the Japanese occupation. He had returned to his large bungalow and was attempting to resume the old luxurious colonial standard of living in which he had lived before the war. Most of his loyal staff had returned and needed work as they had been badly treated by the Jap occupiers, who, in fact, had sunk the dredger, which was half the size of a football pitch but in about 10ft of water! There were plenty of pumps around the tin mines so we were on to a good thing. Having decided to make it last, because we had our own bungalow and servants, we spent over a month of 'going native' and enjoying ourselves. In the local dance hall there were some very nice Chinese hostesses, who were delighted to see British faces back!
It is important to mention that before the war nobody in Malaya had seen a white person doing any manual labour or menial job, so the sight of POW's working and, when we got there, us getting our hands dirty rather changed the relationship. This undoubtedly partly led to the communist revolt there in the 1950's.
After we had repaired a few holes in a couple of compartments, we successfully lifted the dredger and it soon started working again, thanks to good British engineering. We drove back to Singapore and I reported back to the admiral's office on the Thursday. He called me in and told me confidentially that as he had shares in the tin company and I had done him a personal favour, which he would like to return. I immediately retorted 'fly me home sir'. This meant that on the Saturday I boarded a Qantas Sunderland flying boat as a civilian, having said my goodbyes to all my good friends.
One of these was Cdr. Black, a well-known salvage expert, who had offered me a job in civilian salvage after I got my discharge. It was a very tempting offer as the pay was good but I was homesick and realised that the life was not for a married family man and I was desperate for a wife!
I clearly remember that we stopped in Penang for lunch and stayed the night in Rangoon. I think that there were only about 15 passengers and that we had to be taken ashore in boats at every stop. The second night was in Calcutta, the third in Karachi, the fourth on a houseboat on the Nile. We stopped for meals, so after breakfast in Catania under Mount Etna and lunch in Marseilles, we were in Poole harbour for teatime. I was soon on a train for Waterloo and thence to Purley so I knocked on the door and surprised everybody!