Lieutenant Fraser (right) with Leading Seaman Magennis, who was also awarded the VC for the action.
The closing days of the war saw another extraordinary special operation. The British four-man midget submarine, XE-3, commanded by Lieutenant Ian Fraser, RNR, and with Leading Seaman James Magennis as the diver, had the task of blowing up the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao at Singapore in advance of a British invasion of Malaya which would lead to the liberation of the island. Following serious damage at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, she had been taken to Singapore and patched up to act as a shore battery.
At that part of the Strait where the Takao lay the water is shallow, with depths shown on Admiralty charts of from eleven to seventeen feet; but there is a depression in the sea-bed, which amounts to a hole, five hundred feet across, fifteen hundred feet long, and some five feet deeper than the water around. The Takao lay across this depression so that the first hundred feet of her length, beginning at her bow, lay in water which dropped to less than three feet at low tide; and the same conditions occurred at her stern. It was proposed that I should pass over this shallow patch and down into the hole where I was expected to manoeuvre my boat under the ship. As I have already said, I had made it clear that I thought this feat impossible.
‘Stand by for a bearing, ship’s head, now,’ I ordered. Then I translated the bearing into a true bearing and laid it on the chart. The attack had started.
From that moment, until I was back on board the Stygian, all fear left me.
I felt only that nervous tautness that comes so often in moments of stress. I let each of the others have a quick look at the Takao through the periscope, and then we were ready …
It was eight minutes to two when I finally decided that the position of XE-3 was right enough for us to start the actual run in. By this time the sun was high in the heavens, the sea was as placid as a Scottish loch early on a summer’s day, and visibility, both above and under the water, was excellent …
When, during a spell on the run in, I glanced through the night periscope, I was disturbed to find that I could see both ends of XE-3 quite distinctly, showing that the underwater visibility was ten feet or more. I reconciled myself to this disadvantage by thinking that I would at least be able to keep an eye on Magennis as he attached the limpet mines.
Later on, at eight minutes past two, the range was 2,000 yards, one mile away, about 30 degrees on our port bow.
‘Four hundred and fifty revolutions, steer 218 degrees, stand by to start the attack.’
‘Course 218 degrees. All ready to start the attack,’ came the reply.
‘Start the attack,’ I ordered.
Magennis started the stop-watch, and we prepared ourselves. ‘Up pe riscope.’
Magennis pressed the switch, the motor whirred. ‘Whoa!’
The motor stopped.
‘Bearing right ahead, range two degrees on her funnel, down periscope.’
Magennis changed the degrees into yards by means of the slide rule.
‘Length 1,600 yards, sir,’ he called.
I did not answer; there was no need to. Each of us was sweating profusely, and energy and air had to be reserved. In any case, we were only doing now the thing that we had practised time and time again when stationed in the Scottish lochs and when lying off the coast of Australia.
The only sounds in the boat were the whirr of the main motor, the hiss of escaping oxygen from the cylinder in the engine-room, and an occasional scraping sound of steel on steel in the well-greased bearings when the hydroplane wheel was turned. Ten feet, forty feet. ‘Up periscope’, range, ‘Down periscope’. So it went on until the range had narrowed to 400 yards.
‘Up periscope, stand by for a last look round.’
Click! Down went the handles: I fixed my eye to the eyepiece for the hundredth time, slowly swinging to port.
‘Ah, there she is, range eight degrees.’
Slowly I swung the periscope round to starboard.
‘Flood “Q”, down periscope, quick, thirty feet. Bloody hell! There’s a boat full of Japs going ashore; she’s only about forty or fifty feet away on the starboard bow. God, I hope they didn’t see us.’
So close had they been that I could make out their faces quite distinctly, and even had time to notice that one of them was trailing his hand in the water. The boat, painted white, stood out clearly against the camouflaged background of the cruiser. Similar to the cutters used in the Royal Navy for taking liberty men ashore, she was packed with sailors. The helmsman stood aft, his sailor’s collar and ribbon gently lifting in the breeze caused by the boat’s headway. She was so close that it seemed that her bow waves almost broke over our periscope. I could see the lips of men moving as they chatted away on the journey ashore. They should have seen us. I do not know why they did not.
‘Thirty feet, sir.’
My mind re-focused.
‘All right, Magennis, the range is 200 yards, we should touch bottom in a moment.’
To [Sub-Lieutenant ‘Kiwi’] Smith, RNVR: ‘Keep her as slow as you can.’
Followed anxious silence, then a jar and the noise of gravel scraping along the keel as we touched bottom. [ERA] Reid had to fight hard to keep her on course as we scraped and dragged our way across the bank at depths of only fifteen feet, which meant our upper deck was only ten feet below the surface.
Watching through the night periscope, I could see the surface of the water like a wrinkled window-pane above our heads, until it gradually darkened as we came into the shadow of the great ship. Something scraped down our starboard side, and then, with a reverberating crash, we hit the Takao a glancing blow which stopped us. I thought we had made enough noise to awaken the dead, and I was worried in case someone above might have felt the jar.
‘Stop the motor! I wonder where the hell we are?’ I said. I could see nothing through the periscope to give me a clear indication of our position in relation to the enemy ship, only her dark shadow on our starboard side. Obviously I was not underneath it, as the depth on the gauge was only thirteen feet.
I began to fear that we might be much too far forward, that the ominous-sounding scraping along our side had been made by an anchor-cable at the target’s bows.
‘We seem to be too far for’ard,’ I reported. ‘We’ll alter course to 190 degrees and try to run down her side. Port 30, half ahead, group down.’
The motor hummed into life again, but we did not budge.
‘Group up half ahead,’ I called, and we tried many other movements. The motor hummed even faster, the propeller threshed, but still no sign of movement. We were jammed, and, looking back on this afterwards, I am inclined to think that as the Takao veered in the tideway, the slacking cable came to rest on us. Then it lifted as she veered away again, or else we were jammed for the same reason under the curve of her hull at this point. It was only after some really powerful motor movements in both directions, and ten minutes of severe strain, that we finally broke loose and dragged our way out across the shingly bottom to the deeper channel.
I had attacked from too fine an angle on the bow, and after running out again I altered course and steered for a position more on the Takao’s beam, which would mean a longer run over the shallow bank, but I decided the risk was worth it, if I were to hit the ship amidships.
At three minutes past three we were ready again, a thousand yards away. Once more we started the run-in for the attack. This time we were successful. We slid easily across the bank with the gauge at one time registering only thirteen feet, and then blackness, as we slid into the hole and under the keel of the Takao. It was just as I had practised it so many times before, and I was surprised how easy it was.
The depth gauge began to indicate deeper water, 15 feet, 18 feet, 20 feet, and then a greying of the night-periscope and upper viewing window.
‘Stop the motor.’
Then blackness in the night-periscope and upper viewing window.
The bottom of the Takao showed dimly, and then suddenly it was distinct, encrusted with thick heavy layers of weed as it fell sharply to her keel.
‘Stop the motor!’
The hull stopped sliding overhead. We were under her.
We were resting on the bottom with the hull of the Takao only a foot above our heads. I wondered if we would be able to go straight through …
Magennis was ready: he must have been stewing in his rubber suit, and I thought, momentarily forgetting the dangers, how pleasant it would be for him to get out into the cool water. He strapped on his breathing apparatus. The only instruction I could give him was to place all six limpets in the container as quickly as possible and not to make a noise. I fitted in the Perspex window, patted him on the shoulder, and into the escape compartment he went. Reid closed the door on him; the valves were opened and shut, and the pumps started. Looking through the observation window into the wet-and-dry compartment, I could see Magennis breathing steadily into the bag as the water rose around him …
He shut the lid and disappeared over the side, and we settled down nervously to await his return.
We counted the limpets as he bumped them out of the containers and moved them one by one along the starboard side, and occasionally I caught a glimpse of him as he worked away under the hull above. Six limpets he took – three towards the for’ard end and three towards the after end. In all, the total time taken was somewhere round about thirty minutes. To me it seemed like thirty days …
The tide was still falling. Although the rise and fall in the Johore Strait is only eight feet, this was more than sufficient to allow the cruiser to sit on us in the shallow hole beneath her hull. High water had been at 1200, zero hour for the attack, and it was now nearly four hours later. I was very anxious to get away. Magennis still seemed to be an age, and just when I could hardly contain myself a moment longer, he appeared on the hatch. He gave the ‘thumbs up’ sign again and in he jumped. I saw the lid shut and the clip go home. He was back, and now at last we could go.
Quickly, we started to release the side cargoes. The fuses on the port charge, four tons of Amytol, had, like the 200lb limpets, already been set to detonate in six hours’ time, so that it was only necessary for us to unscrew the small wheel which started the mechanism, and then to unscrew the larger wheel which released the charge. The first ten turns of this wheel opened a kingston in the charge to allow water to enter the compartment, previously filled by air, and rendered the charge negatively buoyant. The last turn released the charge itself, which should have fallen away and rested on the bottom. In order to relish the full pleasure of placing four tons of high explosive under a Japanese ship, the three of us took it in turns to operate the wheels as Magennis was draining down his compartment. The port charge fell away – we heard it bump down our side, but we hung on for Magennis to re-enter the craft before finally letting the starboard limpet-carrier go. As a result of this delay, it became too heavy and would not release or slide away. Such an emergency had already been thought of by the designers of XE-craft, and an additional wheel had been provided. This operated a pusher to push the side cargo off, and between us we wound the wheel out to its limit, but with no effect. The bottom of the cargo swung out from the ship’s side, but the top was still held fast. By now I felt sure that the pins at the top were holding, but I thought to myself that the movement of the craft might shake it loose. We certainly couldn’t make headway very far with two tons of dead weight fast to our side.
In the meantime Magennis reported that he had found it very difficult getting the limpets into position; the work of attaching them successfully had exhausted him … The limpets themselves, clumsily designed (they were big awkward jobs to drag through the water, all angles and projections, and they caught and tangled in the weeds), had to be attached. Unfortunately, owing to the positive buoyancy of the charge itself and the angular bottom of the Takao, there was a tendency for the charges to break loose from the magnetic hold-fasts, which, for reasons unknown, had become very feeble, and to run up towards the surface, with Magennis chasing after them to bring them back into position in two groups of three charges. In each group he had secured the limpets some 45–60 feet apart – three away along the cavern to our starboard side, and three along the cavern on either side of the keel, so that they could not dislodge and slide off on to the bottom. He had set the firing mechanism working, but in his exhausted state had become unable to remove three of the counter-mining pins, which ensure that should one limpet blow up the rest will follow immediately, even if the clocks have been wound for the set delay. The counter-mining device, which was lethal after twenty minutes, also ensured that any diver sent down by the Japanese to render the mines safe, or to remove them, would blow himself to eternity should he give the charges the slightest blow …
‘Group up, half ahead – let’s get to hell out of this hole!’ I gave the order with a feeling of relief.
‘Main motor, half ahead, sir,’ from Smith. ‘May I start the fan, sir?’
‘Yes, start the fan.’
Magennis began to take off his breathing set and hood. ‘What is the course, sir?’ asked good, calm, cheerful Reid.
‘Two hundred degrees,’ I answered. ‘Let me know if you have any trouble keeping her on.’
I moved over to the sounding machine and switched it on, and then back to the night-periscope to watch as we moved out under the vast hull which was slowly settling down upon us with the fall of the tide, and through which we hoped our charges would blow a hole big enough to sink her for good.
But although the motor had been running for several seconds, there was no sign of movement.
‘Full ahead,’ I ordered.
Still no movement!
‘Stop, full astern, group up.’
Glancing at Smith, I sincerely hoped I was not becoming hysterical. I felt certain that the Takao must have settled down on us, thus preventing any movement whatsoever. We couldn’t go astern as the Takao’s keel was lower than the rear periscope standard. We must go ahead if we could go anywhere at all.
‘Stop, full ahead, group up, lift the red, stop.’
This gave us maximum power, the motors whirred and we could hear the propeller thrusting hard against the water, but it was useless. We seemed to be well and truly stuck, and for a moment I thought of hanging on until half an hour before the charge was due to go off and then abandoning the ship. After all, I consoled myself, it was only 200 yards or so from the shore, and we might be able to hide in the swamps and forests until Singapore fell into British hands again …
We tried pumping the water aft and then for’ard, out and then in, and finally, we even partially blew No. 2 main ballast tank to try to shake loose from what looked like being XE-3’s watery grave. I was in despair. Sweat poured into my eyes. But still that black menacing shape stood overhead. Then suddenly, with a final effort, she began to move.
‘Ship’s head swinging to starboard, can’t control her.’
Once again Reid’s quiet voice calmed my turmoil. We began to move slowly ahead, the flooded charge dragging like a broken wing on our starboard side. The black roof slid astern, and fresh pure welcome sunlight streamed through the water into my upturned eyes.
We had a bow angle of some five degrees, and slowly the needle of my depth gauge moved in an anti-clockwise direction until it steadied at seventeen feet. The weight on our right swung the ship’s head round until we were parallel to the side of the Takao, and I reckoned some thirty feet away on her port side.
‘Stop the motor, we’ll have to try to release the cargo. It’ll have to be very carefully done as we’re only a few yards away,’ I explained.
Magennis was still sweating away in his suit, and I felt he had done enough to make the operation a success. As Reid had little or no experience of underwater swimming in the frogmen gear, and Smith wasn’t particularly good at this either, I considered that it was justifiable for me to take the risk of leaving the boat for a few moments, even if I was the commanding officer. Should anything happen, I had enough confidence in Smith to know that he could get her out to rejoin the Stygian
‘Come out of the way, Magennis, I’ll go out and release it myself. Get me the spare set from the battery compartment.’
‘I’ll be all right in a minute, sir,’ said Magennis, ‘just let me get my wind.’
What a wonderful lad he was! He said this with a most hurt expression on his face, quite obviously meaning that since he was the diver it was up to him to do the diving. And so we sat quietly for five minutes, and when he was ready I replaced his hood and Perspex face. ‘Thanks,’ he said, and into the wet-and-dry compartment he went for the second time.
The wheels spun, the pumps started and the water began to rise. Reid had equipped Magennis with an elephant-size spanner, and as the lid of the hatch opened, I saw this come through the opening immediately behind a mass of air bubbles, followed by Magennis. Once again I wondered what he was thinking about only thirty feet away from a Japanese cruiser in seventeen feet of clear water, his only weapon being a spanner. The bubbles released from opening the hatch were quite enough to cause me a great deal of worry. Had anybody been looking over the side of the Takao – perhaps a seaman gazing idly into the water with his thoughts away at home in Yokohama, Nagasaki, or somewhere like that – he must have seen us. The water was as clear as glass, and Magennis in his green diving suit was sending out a steady stream of bubbles from the reducing valve of his set.
Inside the boat it was as quiet as death: none of us spoke. I could hear the ship’s chronometer ticking away, the anxious seconds interrupted by an occasional clank as Magennis used his spanner. It took some five minutes to release the cargo; five of the most anxious minutes of my life. Watching through the periscope, I could see the position of both securing pins at which he should have been working, but for some reason or other he was out of sight. I bit my fingers, swore and cursed at him, swore and cursed at the captain and all the staff on board Bonaventure who had planned this operation, at the British Admiralty, and finally, at myself for ever having been so stupid as to volunteer for this life, and, having volunteered, for being so stupid as to work hard enough to get myself this particular operation. I wished myself anywhere except lying on the bottom of Singapore harbour.
I don’t know what Reid or Smith thought of this little display, but as far as I know they never mentioned my temporary lapse.
I had told Magennis to make no noise, but his hammering and bashing, in what I thought to be really the wrong place, was loud enough to alarm the whole Japanese Navy.
‘What the bloody hell is that bloody fool doing?’ I asked no one in particular. ‘Why the hell doesn’t he come on top of the charge. Why didn’t I go out myself?’ Then I saw Magennis for a moment, and at the same time the cargo came away and we were free. He gave me the ‘thumbs up’ sign for the third and last time and slid feet first into the wet-and-dry compartment and closed the lid. Wheels turned, pumps started and down came the water.
Right, I thought. Then: ‘Starboard twenty, steer 090 degrees, half ahead, group up,’ I ordered all in one breath.
‘Aye, aye, sir.’
‘Twelve hundred revolutions.’
‘Aye, aye, sir.’
‘O.K.,’ I said. “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.’ I think we all managed a smile at that moment.
XE-3 achieved the difficult task of returning to her rendezvous with HMS Stygian, the submarine that had towed her from Borneo, and an explosion suggested the attack had been a brilliant success. It turned out, however, that the Takao had not been sunk: the explosion was, by strange coincidence, that of a crashing aircraft. The order to make a second attempt was nullifed by the dropping of the atomic bombs. Both Magennis and Fraser were awarded the VC.