TAKAO off Seletar Naval Base in late 1945.
MYOKO at Singapore.
XE-craft in Sydney Harbour during WW2.
31 July 1945
The successful X-Craft attack on the Tirpitz in September 1943 had paved the way for future midget sub operations. Although only one of the six craft that had gone to northern Norway returned intact, it did not deter the construction of newer and improved craft, with six more midgets built for the Royal Navy during the following year. The newer XEClass midget submarines were basically the same as the original X-Class. They, too, carried a crew of four, but in addition to the two side charges, each of which contained two tons of amatol explosives, the XE-Class carried six 20lb limpet mines, which were attached to the target by the crew’s diver.
The changing war at sea and the imminent end of hostilities in the West meant the new XEs were never used in the European theatre, but the prolonged war in the Far East provided the Royal Navy with an opportunity for the new midgets to go into action.
In early 1945 the submarine depot ship, HMS Bonaventure, sailed for the Far East with the six new midgets in her hold. They had been adapted for operations in the region by being tropicalized for the increased humidity and the side charges had been enlarged, which effectively doubled the amount of explosives.
On arrival in Australia during April, the captain of the Bonaventure, Captain William Fell, actively sought opportunities for the midgets to be used. Initially, there were no possible targets identified, but the following month Fell was given the opportunity to use his midgets to cut some telegraph cables off Hong Kong. By cutting the undersea cables connecting Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong and Tokyo, the Japanese would be forced to use radio communications and, therefore, open themselves to message interception.
Missions to cut the Hong Kong to Saigon telephone cables were carried out in July 1945 by two midget subs under Operations Sabre and Foil. The first, Sabre, was carried out by XE4 after she had been towed to a position 40 miles from the Mekong Delta: her divers succeeded in severing two cables. Meanwhile, the second part of the mission, Foil, had been carried out by XE5 at the Hong Kong end of the cable, again successfully.
Both midgets and their towing submarines then returned safely to their base. While this was at least a start, it was not the kind of mission for which the midget submarine crews had been trained. However, during the discussions and meetings that followed, Fell was offered an additional operation – one that was far more daring and exactly what the midgets could do best.
Called Operation Struggle, the mission was to destroy two Japanese heavy cruisers – the Myōkō and the Takao – anchored in the Johore Straits at Singapore. The Myōkō was the older of the two ships and displaced 13,000 tons. She had been damaged during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, damaged again while trying to return to Japan, and then sailed to Singapore to undergo repairs. The Takao was a newer ship with a displacement of 10,000 tons and had also been damaged during the same battle. She had been so badly damaged that there was no chance of returning to Japan and so she was now moored in the strait as an anti-aircraft battery for the defence of Singapore.
Although the two cruisers were damaged, it was felt that, if they were to be repaired, both would still pose a significant threat in the region; meanwhile, they continued to cause a threat as floating gun batteries. They still needed to be neutralized and so two midgets, XE1 and XE3, were allocated the task of carrying out a joint attack on the two heavy cruisers: XE1 was to attack the Myōkō and XE3 the Takao.
Late in the evening of 30 July, four days after leaving the Malaysian island of Labuan, the two midgets slipped their towing submarines. The XE1 was commanded by Lieutenant John Smart, an experienced midget sub operator. He had been the passage crew commander on board X8 during Operation Source nearly two years before, when he had been tasked to attack the German battleship Lützow, but the X8 had encountered problems during its passage when it developed serious leaks in its side-mounted demolition charges. These then had to be jettisoned, but they exploded near the craft causing significant damage and resulting in her having to be scuttled. Now commanding XE1, his crew consisted of Sub-Lieutenant Harry Harper, Leading Seaman Walter Pomeroy and Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Henry Fishleigh.
Commanding XE3 was 24-year-old Lieutenant Ian Fraser. Fraser had served on merchant ships before the war and had volunteered for submarine service after joining the Royal Navy in 1939. Awarded the DSC in 1943 for his bravery and skill during submarine patrols while serving in HMS Sahib, he had then volunteered for the midget submarines and was now in command of an XE-Class. On board the XE3, at the controls, was Sub-Lieutenant Bill Smith, a New Zealander, Leading Seaman James Magennis, the crew’s diver, and Engine Room Artificer 3rd Class Charles Reed. Magennis was 25 years old and from Northern Ireland. He was an experienced diver and had also taken part in Operation Source when he had been part of the passage crew on board the X7 bound for the Tirpitz.
The long approach up the Johore Straits and through the harbour defences of minefields, listening posts, a buoyed defence and surface patrols, took a great deal of skilful navigation and nerve. Many of the channel buoys were expected to be lit to make navigation easier, but this turned out not to be the case. It was now the early hours of 31 July and rather than risk being spotted in a designated safe channel, or being picked up by one of the many listening posts, Fraser elected to take the XE3 into a known minefield. Stealthily they pressed on, with Fraser sitting astride the sub gazing at the skyline through his binoculars.
The passage did not pass without incident. First, just before dawn, the XE3 had to crash dive to avoid an oncoming tanker with an armed escort. Then, having surfaced again soon after, the crew were alarmed to find they were sitting on a mine, which fortunately had failed to explode.
The temperature and humidity on board was almost unbearable. The crews were also getting very tired. They had been fortunate – and surprised – to find the gate of the anti-submarine boom open and the two midgets quickly slipped through. It had taken the crews eleven hours to cover the 40 miles to the target area. The crews now searched for their camouflaged targets but Smart could not find the Myōkō. However, Fraser had more luck and now sighted the Takao, exactly where he had expected.
Fraser commenced the attack in XE3 just before 2.00 pm. As the sub closed on the Takao, it was initially forced to take evasive action after sighting an enemy motor launch just yards away. Rather than risk being seen, Fraser continued towards the Takao blind and before long the XE3 crashed into the side of its hull. Fortunately, and quite remarkably, the midget sub had not been detected. Fraser then eased the XE3 back and tried again to get into a better position, but the Takao was nearly aground both fore and aft, and so there was little water space beneath the hull. Furthermore, the tide was beginning to fall and so there was now very little time. After trying for some forty minutes, the crew eventually managed to position the midget beneath the midship section; it was the only area where there was enough space to get the midget submarine into position.
It was now up to Magennis to attach the limpet mines. He first flooded the compartment of the sub known as the Wet and Dry, and then tried to remove the diver’s hatch, but so tight was the space that he found he could not open it wide enough as the lid was hitting against the hull of the ship. He knew that to try and adjust the sub’s position would add further delay and inevitably mean the sub would become trapped beneath the hull by the falling tide. Magennis, therefore, decided to remove his breathing apparatus and squeeze out of the gap between the partially opened diver’s hatch and the hull of the ship.
Once out, Magennis replaced his oxygen supply and quickly set about clearing the thick layer of seaweed and encrusted shellfish from the cruiser’s hull so that he could attach his limpet mines. In order to secure the limpets he also had to tie them in pairs by a line passing under the cruiser keel, and it took him half an hour to attach all six mines, about 50 feet apart, to the Takao’s hull.
This extremely tiring work was not helped by a steady leakage of oxygen, which was ascending in bubbles to the surface; fortunately, no one on the surface spotted these telltale signs of a diver below. A lesser man would have been content to place just a few limpets and then return to the craft. Magennis, however, persisted until he had placed all his mines before returning to the craft. By the time he managed to squeeze his way back on board the sub he was exhausted. His breathing apparatus had been damaged and his hands were nearly raw, having been repeatedly cut on the encrusted shellfish on the hull.
Fraser now went to release the two side charges, each of two tons of explosives, but only the port side fell away. The starboard side was stuck and, unbeknown to the crew of the XE3, the Takao had fallen further with the tide. The midget sub was now stuck and its crew trapped.
For nearly an hour the crew tried every trick they knew to try and wrestle the sub free. They were on the point of giving up when, almost miraculously, the XE3 suddenly swung to starboard and the corresponding force of water pushed them clear to one side. They were free, but their troubles were far from over, as the starboard charge was still attached.
Acknowledging that Magennis was exhausted, Fraser decided to go outside to try and free the charge, but Magennis would not have it. Recognizing his own responsibilities as the crew’s diver, he ventured outside once again rather than allow Fraser, who was much less experienced as a diver, undertake the job. Equipped with a heavy spanner, it took Magennis several minutes of further hard graft to eventually free the charge. With his diver back on board, Fraser set course to make their escape.
In the meantime, on board the XE1, Smart had given up trying to locate the Myōkō, and had left his charges next to the Takao instead. Then, at 9.30 pm, the charges exploded, ripping a massive hole in the Takao’s hull of some 60 feet by 30 feet, and causing significant damage to the cruiser’s turrets, while flooding a number of her compartments and completely immobilizing her. She would never sail again, and after the war she was towed out to the Straits of Malacca where she was used as target practice for the Royal Navy before she was eventually sunk.
The two midget subs withdrew safely, although it was a long and tiring journey back to their towing vessels. Fraser and Magennis returned to England as heroes and it was announced they were both to receive the Victoria Cross. The two other crew members of XE3 were also decorated: Bill Smith was awarded the DSO and Charles Reed the CGM. The crew of XE1 were also decorated for their part in the raid. John Smart was also awarded the DSO and Harry Harper the DSC, while the two other ranks on board, Walter Pomeroy and Henry Fishleigh, were both awarded the DSM.
Fraser’s citation for his VC included the following:
The courage and determination of Lieutenant Fraser are beyond all praise. Any man not possessed of his relentless determination to achieve his object in full, regardless of all consequences, would have dropped his side charge alongside the target instead of persisting until he had forced his submarine right under the cruiser.
James Magennis was the only VC winner of the Second World War to hail from Northern Ireland and he became a celebrity in his home city of Belfast. His citation concluded:
Magennis displayed very great courage and devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety.
The midgets had, once again, made their mark, and the heroic crews had performed one of the last courageous acts of the Second World War.