Tin fish heroes

The most daring underwater attack of World War II took place in one of the most heavily defended harbours of Japanese-occupied territory. In the shallow water between Singapore and the island of Johore Peruh, British midget submarine XE3 made a successful assault against the 10,200 tonne Japanese cruiser Takao.

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An X Craft Midget Submarine, identical to XE3, tied up alongside its parent (towing) submarine.

Before dawn on the morning of 31 July 1945, the submarine Stygian towed the XE3 as close as possible to her target. Under the command of Lieutenant Fraser the midget submarine was then navigated on the surface for 65 kilometres along a defended channel, passing over Dutch, British and Japanese mine fields as she went. None of the navigation buoys were lit and direction-finding was extremely hazardous. At one point the captain steered towards what he thought was a buoy, only to realise at the last moment that it was a fishing boat with a crew of two. He managed to veer away in time to remain undetected.

The 11-hour passage required the greatest of concentration from the captain, who sat outside on top of the submarine and called orders down the ventilation shaft. Sub-Lieutenant Bill Smith – a New Zealander with the inevitable nickname of Kiwi – and Engine Room Artificer, Charles ‘Chief’ Reid, also needed to be fully awake the whole time to steer and operate the surface diesel engine. To keep them awake and aid concentration they took Benzedrine tablets. Leading Torpedoman Magennis, the Irish attack diver, was without a job while they ran on the surface but also took a tablet. To the amusement of the others and in true Navy tradition, he promptly fell asleep.

There was an anti-submarine net in the harbour that they had to pass through, and it was the job of Magennis to go out in his diving gear and cut a hole in it. In the light of dawn however, they saw through the periscope that the gate in the net was open. On half revolutions of the electric motor they stole quietly through and headed for their target around the corner.

Two hours later Fraser got his first look at the Takao. The huge cruiser was lying inshore with her stern well in towards Singapore and her bow pointing directly at Johore. Fraser knew from intelligence briefings that the ship lay astride a crater in the seabed. The bow and stern were in very shallow water but under the main part of the hull the water was deeper. The plan was to manoeuvre the little submarine into the hole under the Takao and drop a four-tonne Amytol side-charge under the keel. To improve the chances of completely sinking the cruiser, Magennis was to then fit six large limpet mines right on the hull, where they would do the most damage when they exploded.

At 2 pm the XE3 began the approach in such shallow water she was nearly run down by a Japanese liberty boat. It was so close that through the periscope Fraser could see the sailors’ lips moving as they chatted to one another. Miraculously, the boat did not hit them and none of the sailors noticed the enemy submarine in the clear water just metres beneath their keel.

XE3 struck the Takao with a reverberating clunk. Fraser realised with dismay that the encounter with the liberty boat had put them very slightly off course. They had ended up too far forward and the submarine had jammed under the bow of the ship. The controls were put to go astern but it took a full 10 minutes of manoeuvring on full power before Fraser managed to work them free. He then moved aft to the mid-section of the cruiser and by 3 pm the submarine was in position directly under the keel of the enemy ship. There was less than a metre of water between the two.

Meanwhile, Magennis had been preparing himself for the job ahead. In the confines and heat of the submarine, pulling on the tight-fitting frogman suit was a most difficult and exhausting task. He then entered the tiny wet and dry compartment and turned the valves to flood it. He was using an oxygen re-breathing set, designed to give off no bubbles, but as the water came up around him he realised the set was leaking quite badly. The continuous stream of bubbles could potentially reveal his presence to an observer on the surface, but his only option was to carry on and hope for the best.

Unclipping the top hatch, Magennis immediately met a second problem. The hatch would not open fully because it came into contact with the keel of the cruiser above. The diver knew full well that the tide was dropping and that the cruiser would gradually press down further on the hatch. Not really sure whether he would have room to get back in, he squeezed out and got on with the task of fitting limpet mines.

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Magennis exiting through the wet and dry compartment of  XE3 into the limited space between the submarine’s hatch and the bottom of the Takao and attempting to fit the limpet mines.

The XE3 carried six limpet mines in an external carrier on the starboard side, each one weighing 90 kilograms. They were so heavy that in order for them to be handled underwater they were designed to be slightly buoyant. The hull of the Takao was encrusted with seaweed and barnacles but the magnetic mines would only stick to bare steel. Magennis had to scrape away at the sea growth with his knife, knowing full well that if an alert sentry spotted the floating debris the alarm would be given. He fixed the first mine in position but it shortly afterwards broke loose and began to float towards the surface. Magennis swam after it frantically before it could be seen. Rather than risk this happening again, he decided to use the inherent buoyancy of the devices to secure them in position. He joined two mines together with a line and allowed them to balance each other, one on each side of the keel. He did this with the other two pairs as well, leaving all six explosives in place.

After half an hour of physical and emotional strain, Magennis was thankful to find there was still space to squeeze back into the submarine. He waited as the wet and dry compartment drained down, completely exhausted, while the others operated the mechanism to release the portside Amytol charge. The four-tonne explosive fell off onto the seabed right under the cruiser’s keel. This made the submarine unbalanced and it was necessary to drop the two-tonne limpet carrier from the starboard side. But it would not disengage, even though the crew spent valuable minutes winding out a special pusher device to free it. Fraser knew that he could not travel far like this, and hoped that the weight would fall away once they started moving.

The tide was still dropping and it was time to get out from under the Takao before it crushed them into the mud. Fraser ordered slow ahead on the electric motor. The submarine didn’t move. He ordered full ahead, then full astern, and even used maximum emergency power, but with no effect. The tiny submarine was well and truly stuck.

Fraser stopped the motor and considered what to do. The limpet mines had no time fuses but were designed to detonate sympathetically with the Amytol charge, the fuse of which had been set for six hours hence. In normal circumstances this would have given them plenty of time to move stealthily away from the area before the explosions. If they now chose to wait until the tide rose sufficiently to release them, they would have to remain inside until just before the explosion. Once the tide began to rise the submarine would be irretrievably stuck in the mud but, if the hatch would still open after being crushed by the Takao, they stood a chance of abandoning the submarine using their diving gear. It was just possible that they could swim ashore unnoticed in the half-light and remain undetected in the swamps and jungle until the British retook Singapore, which they hoped would happen quite soon.

The other option was to keep trying to manoeuvre the submarine out from under the cruiser’s keel, but the danger in that was the great volume of mud churned up by the thrashing propeller. An alert sentry on the deck of the ship could foil all their hard work and the Takao could be moved away from the Amytol charge before detonation. The six limpets mines would probably not explode without the shockwave from the explosion occurring in close proximity.

Despite the danger, Fraser decided on the second option. He ordered full ahead and started pumping ballast water from aft to forward to try and lower the bow of the submarine. With full power on the temperature inside the submarine soared. The crew poured with sweat as the motor screamed at maximum revs. Then slowly she began to move. Little by little she inched away from the shadow of the Takao. They were out, but their troubles were far from over. The heavy limpet carrier was still hanging down, dragging along the sea bottom like a broken wing and causing the XE3 to swing around to starboard. The captain called a halt about 10 metres from the cruiser’s bow in only 5 metres of water. To carry on would have risked detection from the trail of churned up mud.

Someone would have to go outside and prise the jammed side carrier off. Although Magennis was still in his diving suit he was obviously spent from his previous dives. It was unfair to ask him to go out again and the captain decided to go instead. But he had not reckoned on the obstinacy of the Irishman and his sense of duty. ‘If you don’t mind sir,’ said Magennis, ‘I’m the diver and I’ll do the diving. If you’ll just give me ten minutes to catch my breath, I’ll go out again and do the job.’

Armed with a giant spanner, Magennis went out for the second time through the wet-and-dry compartment and set to work on the dangling limpet carrier. They were so close to the enemy ship that Fraser had told him to make no noise. But the carrier needed a lot of persuasion and he was obliged to bang and crash with the spanner, knowing full well that a hand grenade thrown from the enemy ship would be fatal.

It took a mere five minutes to do the job but it seemed an eternity for the men inside the submarine as they listened to the horrible noise the diver was making outside. The temperature was cooking them slowly and their nerves were stretched to breaking point.  Eventually Fraser burst out in a stream of naval bad language, cursing Magennis, the Admiral, the navy, and himself for volunteering in the first place. Reid and Smith just smiled, content to let their captain curse and relieve the intolerable tension they all felt.

Magennis re-entered the submarine and the captain ordered ‘Half ahead. Steer 090 degrees. Home James and don’t spare the horses.’ The XE3 crept into deeper, safer waters, but even then they were not entirely out of danger. Less than two kilometres from the Takao they came into a patch of colder water, which forced the submarine to surface involuntarily, well within range of any keen-eyed sentry. The crew worked like demons to force the boat down again and prayed that the sentries had been looking the other way. They waited for cover of darkness before surfacing again and proceeding out to sea.

At 9.30 pm they paused to listen for the detonation of their mines. The bottom was blown out of the Takao and she settled down into the mud that had almost become XE3’s grave. Just before midnight they rendezvoused with Stygian. A towing crew was put aboard the little submarine and her exhausted crew transferred to the big submarine for a well-earned rest after 46 hours of constant tension.

After the attack, RAF aircraft flew over the site at high altitude to take photographs of the damage to the ship. Unfortunately, from the air the Takao appeared undamaged and still riding serenely at anchor as she had been before the attack. What the aerial photographs did not show was the large hole in the bottom of the ship and the fact that she was sitting on the sea floor with most of her hull flooded. British forces would soon attempt to retake Singapore and the Admiralty decided that the Takao might still pose a threat. It was decided that a second attack was necessary, not only to knock out the Takao but also her sister ship the Myoko, anchored not far away. The four-man crew of the XE3 was asked to make another attack. None of them were particularly keen to repeat the mission – especially now that the Japanese were alert to the threat from midget submarines – but they all volunteered.

Then the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. With this new, horribly effective method of warfare, there was no longer any necessity to attack from the sea. The submarine mission was cancelled.

For their bravery, both Fraser and Magennis were awarded Britain’s highest medal for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. Bill Smith was made a companion of the Distinguished Service Order and Charles Reid received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. The four then went their separate ways. Fraser left the navy to start a diving salvage company while Smith returned to New Zealand. Reid was a regular serviceman and remained in the navy while Magennis left the service to return to his civilian occupation of electrician.

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The Victoria Cross.

Some years later the name of Magennis was back in the newspapers, but this time the story was one of poverty, not bravery. Having fallen on hard times, the Irishman was reduced to pawning his precious Victoria Cross. Fortunately, the medal was retrieved by sympathetic benefactors and returned to where it belonged – into the possession of a very brave and worthy diver.

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