Battle off Cape Engano I

By dusk on 24 October, Ozawa had been unsuccessful in his main mission of luring the powerful TF 38 force northward and facilitating Kurita’s penetration of Leyte Gulf. Among many problems he had to overcome was his scanty information about the situation. Most sorely lacking was up-to-date information on the actions and movements of Kurita’s force. Such information was critical if Ozawa’s force would adjust its movements to facilitate Kurita’s advance toward Leyte Gulf.

What Ozawa Knew

Ozawa received some information in the morning and afternoon of 24 October about the enemy attacks on Kurita’s force. He learned that Nishimura’s force was advancing toward Surigao Strait as planned. At 1830 the same day, Ozawa received a query from Kurita regarding battle results east of Lamon Bay. At 2000, he received another message from Kurita saying that because of damage received during air attacks his force was temporarily retiring outside the attack range of enemy aircraft. His force would resume its easterly course depending on the results achieved by the Japanese air forces.

Shortly before 0500 on 25 October, Ozawa received a message from Nishimura saying that he had planned to penetrate the Dulag area at 0400 on 25 October. Nishimura’s force, he learned, had been completely destroyed in that effort. About 0530, Ozawa received a report from Shima that his force attacked enemy ships and was temporarily leaving Surigao Strait. Another message from Kurita came in the afternoon of the same day, informing Ozawa that he had sunk three or four enemy carriers off Samar. However, he did not say anything about coming north to help Ozawa’s force. At about 0630, Ozawa received a report from the Sixth Base Air Force concerning four separate enemy carrier forces operating east and north off the San Bernardino Strait. From the Combined Fleet HQ Ozawa also received a number of intercepted plain-text messages referring to the attack by Kurita’s Main Body against enemy carriers off Samar. One such message, received at about 0950, indicated that the enemy carrier force being pursued and attacked by Kurita’s Main Body had requested urgent assistance from the (carrier) task force assumed to be operating eastward of Lamon Bay.

Ozawa’s Initial Lack of Success

On 24 October, Ozawa focused on ensuring that his force was detected by enemy carrier groups operating east of Luzon. He obtained first contact with the enemy force at about 0700, when the distance was about 350 miles. Ozawa decided to close the distance to about 130 to 150 miles before launching his attack. By 1115, the distance had been reduced to 180 miles. His search aircraft reported an enemy force of ten ships, without clearly identifying any as carriers. About 30 minutes later Ozawa launched the first strike group of about 75 aircraft. The enemy force was then about 150 miles from his force. Because of bad weather, Ozawa’s aircraft were directed to land at Nichols Field, Manila, or some other naval air base on Luzon. The plan was to recover these planes later on in the waters east of Luzon.

By noon on 24 October, Ozawa, disappointed that the enemy had not taken his bait, formed Force A (2 BBs/XCV, 1 CL, and 4 DDs) to act as an advance guard. The latter’s task was to sail ahead of the Main Body and divert the enemy carrier force northward. This seemed to work—U.S. carrier aircraft detected both parts of Ozawa’s force. At 1650, Ozawa sent a message to all forces taking part in the operation that enemy carrier aircraft had detected his force. In fact, U.S. aircraft had detected the Northern Force ten minutes earlier, when it was about 130 miles off the northern tip of Luzon.

In conducting his estimate of the situation in the late afternoon on 24 October, Ozawa concluded that the enemy had “easily grasped the operational objective of the First Diversionary Attack Force and will make an all-out effort to prevent its accomplishment.” He assumed that the enemy carriers would move south the next day and take further decisive action against Kurita’s force. Ozawa evaluated his actions up to that point as being ineffective in diverting the enemy carrier groups. He believed that it was imperative to divert the enemy force, regardless of losses inflicted upon his own force. In the worst case, his plan was to use his newly formed Advance Guard Force in combination with attacks by the Base Air Forces to divert the enemy. Ozawa’s tentative plan was that if there was no prospect of carrying out a night attack and accomplishing his primary mission, the Advance Guard would rejoin the Main Body.

Ozawa was reportedly surprised that his force was not attacked during the day on 24 October. The reason for that was that Halsey’s carrier groups were busy attacking Kurita’s force in the Sibuyan Sea. However, Ozawa overly trusted reports of his pilots who claimed that they had damaged two enemy carriers. He then detached part of his force that night to carry out a surface night attack against the U.S. force, but the Japanese force was unable to obtain contact.

Halsey’s Fateful Decision to Move Northward

At about 1655 on 24 October, Halsey received reports from the northernmost carrier group, TG 38.3, and from land-based air searches that suspected that an enemy carrier force, later cited as the “Northern Force,” had actually been located. He obtained some clarification from CTG 38.2 at 1730, and finally received a full report from CTF 38 at 1925. The reports from aircraft indicated the presence of two groups of enemy ships; one consisted of two fast and one light carrier, three light cruisers and destroyers on course 270°, speed 15 knots at 18° 25′ north and 125° 28′ east (approximately 210 nautical miles east of Cape Engano) at 1640; the other group was composed of four battleships or heavy cruisers, five cruisers, and six destroyers, on course 210°, speed 15 knots at position 18° 10′ north and 125° 30′ east. One of the battleships was reported to have a flight deck aft. Halsey and his staff believed the Northern Force was composed of 17 and possibly as many as 24 ships. However, these reports were widely off mark because Ozawa’s force was much weaker (1 CV, 3 CVLs, 2 BBs/XCV, 3 CLs, and 8 DDs) than reported by the TF 38’s pilots. Halsey considered the Northern Force—as it turned out, quite wrongly—as the most formidable threat to Allied operations in the Pacific, both present and future. He also learned that Kinkaid was prepared to meet any enemy force that might try passing through Surigao Strait.

At 1950, Halsey made a tactical decision with potentially serious operational consequences to close in with all his carrier groups (minus TG 38.3) and proceed northward to attack Ozawa’s force. At that time Halsey with his two carrier groups was about 100 miles eastward from the entrance of San Bernardino Strait. At 2005, Halsey sent a message to Nimitz (and Kinkaid as information addressee) stating that “CTF 38.3 has scuttled Princeton and is closing 38.2 and 38.4 which are now concentrated off entrance to San Bernardino Strait. Night enemy air attack by enemy possible, more later.” He also informed Kinkaid about 2025 that the Central Force was heavily damaged and that he was proceeding north with three carrier groups to attack the enemy force at dawn. He provided estimated position of Kurita’s force as 12° 45′ north 122° 40′ east, course 120° and speed 12 knots but did not indicate that the enemy’s force in fact was heading toward San Bernardino Strait. Moreover, the wording of that message did not give any hint that any part of the Third Fleet was being left behind to cover San Bernardino Strait or that the composition of the three carrier groups had been changed.

At 2030 on 24 October Halsey directed Rear Admiral John S. McCain’s TG 38.1 to refuel, then after joining the other two carrier groups, to sail north to Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman’s TG 38.3 at 14° 28′ north and 125° 50′ east by 2400. After completing a new estimate of the situation, Halsey repeated his orders directing TG 38.2 and 38.4 to pass through the same reference position and proceed north at 25 knots. CTF 38 would take charge of all three groups and attack the enemy carrier force. CTG 38.1 would be advised of the movements of other carrier groups and then join TF 38 as early as possible. The message about engaging the enemy’s Northern Force was addressed only to his subordinate tactical commanders.

In his post-action report, Halsey insisted that “it was recognized that the Center Force might sortie and inflict some damage, but its fighting power was considered too seriously impaired to win a decision.” He also somewhat implausibly contended that the “Third Fleet forces could return in time to reverse any advantage that the Center Force might gain.” Halsey was firmly convinced that his decision would “contribute most to the overall Philippine campaign even if a temporarily tight situation existed at Leyte.”

Halsey was apparently much influenced by the reports of his pilots on the damages they supposedly inflicted on the Central Force on 24 October. In addition, there was much concern on the part of Halsey and his chief of staff that the enemy carrier aircraft might conduct shuttle bombing. Halsey believed that he had sufficient force to destroy the enemy carriers, and the battleships of TF 34 would be used to finish them off. Once the enemy carriers were annihilated the way would be open for the Third Fleet to operate freely off Tokyo. No one on Halsey’s staff had offered any alternative course of action. Admiral Carney in fact fully supported the decision; the plans officer was not present when the decision was made; the intelligence officer was not consulted; and the radio officer who listened to all radio traffic all day was not present either.86 One can only conclude that Halsey and his staff in making the decision to move the entire TF 38 north and away from San Bernardino Strait did not conduct a proper running estimate of the situation. The decision was precipitous and not all aspects of the operational situation were considered or properly analyzed.

In the morning of 24 October, Halsey, concerned with the security of his northern flank, had queried CTF 77 concerning the start of seaplane searches from Leyte. He learned at about 2030 that Leyte-based searches of three western sectors would start that night, and searches of two eastern sectors would start as soon as possible. At 2040, the light carrier Independence (from TG 38.2) relayed a report from one of its aircraft that the enemy force was off the west coast of Burias (between southern Luzon and Masbate). The aircraft report was sent at 2005 but the time of sighting was 1935 when the enemy force was at position 12° 45′ north and 122° 40′ east, course 120° and speed 12 knots and sailing on a northeasterly course. In another sighting at 2145 and transmitted 17 minutes later the Central Force was located at 12° 45′ north and 123° 22′ east, speed 12 knots and sailing on a northeasterly course. At 2124 Halsey transmitted the first report about the sighting of Central Force to Kinkaid, but sent no further information during the night 24–25 October.

Dissent from Halsey’s Decision

All three of Halsey’s carrier group commanders immediately grasped the gravity of the decision to engage the Northern Force and the possible consequences of leaving the San Bernardino Strait unguarded. After receiving information that the Central Force had resumed its easterly advance, CTG 38.2, Rear Admiral Gerald F. Bogan, planned to protest Halsey’s decision. He discussed the matter via TBS with his subordinate commanding officer, Captain E. C. Ewen, of the carrier Independence. Ewen confirmed the sightings of the Central Force. He also pointed out that all navigation lights in the San Bernardino Strait were brightly lit, although they were normally shut down. This was most likely a sign of unusual enemy activity. Bogan prepared a message for the New Jersey, then decided to call Halsey via TBS. He got a staff officer on the phone instead, who confirmed that the flagship had the same information. He reportedly planned to send another message recommending that only two carrier groups (TG 38.3 and TG 38.4) continue north, leaving one (TG 38.2) behind, but in the end he decided against it.

Admiral Willis A. Lee seemed to be the only high-ranking subordinate commander who correctly deduced that the Northern Force must be a decoy with little or no striking power. He also believed that the Central Force’s earlier reversal of course was only temporary. Just before sunset, he sent a message to Halsey about his views. He did not get any response, except for an acknowledgment from the New Jersey that the message was received. After the report from the Independence came in, Lee sent another message via TBS to Halsey, stating, among other things, that he was certain the Central Force would pass through the San Bernardino Strait. After that message, he did not offer any further advice to Halsey.

At about 2030, Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher received Halsey’s order to proceed northward. His impression was that it was a preparatory action for Halsey to assume tactical command of all carrier groups for the expected attack on the Northern Force the next day. A few minutes before Halsey’s order came in, TF 38’s chief of staff, Rear Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, received reports from the Independence indicating that the Central Force had reversed its course and was sailing on an easterly course toward the San Bernardino Strait. Both Burke and TF 38’s operations officer, Commander James Flatley, believed that it was critical that the battle line be detached from TF 38. They woke up Mitscher and urged him to send a message to that effect to Halsey. Mitscher reportedly asked, “Does Admiral Halsey have the report?” When he received an affirmative answer, he said that if Admiral Halsey needed his advice he would ask for it. Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.

Attack on Ozawa’s Force

By 2345, after all four TF 38’s carrier groups were concentrated, Halsey had with him a powerful force of five fast and light carriers each, six battleships, two heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, and 41 destroyers.91 During the approach phase Halsey’s greatest concern was not to allow Northern Force to place itself between TF 38 and Leyte. Expressed differently, TF 38 had to sail at the speed of advance to overrun the “daylight circle” (the boundary between day and night) of Northern Force.

By 2400 the TF 38 was about 165 miles away from the eastern entrance to San Bernardino Strait and 140 miles from the eastern coast of Samar. Allegedly, Mitscher was then surprised to find out that the battle line was not formed yet and all six battleships were sailing north as part of the carrier screens. Although he was nominally CTF 38 Halsey never gave Mitscher precise instructions about his future course of action. At about 0100 Halsey directed a search from the carrier Independence with radar-equipped aircraft to the north and northeast. Mitscher in contrast wanted a search-strike group to be launched. At about 0205 the first contact with the enemy force was established at the range of some 80 miles north of TF 38. The enemy forces were divided into two groups of six ships each and 40 miles apart sailing on 110° and at 15 knots. Based on that report, Mitscher believed that surface action would take place at about 0430. In fact, this report was false because the Northern Force was some 200 miles away from TF 38. Halsey then made a controversial decision by directing Lee at about 0255 to form the battle line about ten miles ahead of the carriers. This was a rather risky maneuver to pull out of three carrier groups six battleships, eight cruisers and 41 destroyers. This evolution was completed without an accident. Yet it required much more time because the ships had to sail at much-lower-than-cruising speeds. The fleet guide in TG 38.3 had to reduce speed to 15 knots in order to facilitate that evolution.

By 0710, the two opposing carrier forces were about 145 miles apart. Mitscher launched his first aircraft between 0540 and 0600, before he received all the results from his search aircraft. The first strike reached the enemy ships about 0800 (0830 according to the Japanese). The weather was excellent; there were only few clouds; the wind was from the northeast at 16 knots. The second strike reached the enemy ships at about 1000; the third at 1300; and the fourth and fifth strikes were launched between 1500 and 1710. The U.S. aircraft flew about 530 sorties, of which some 200 were fighter sorties. Japanese air defenses were poor; Ozawa had only 12 to 15 aircraft for air cover—his main defenses were AA guns. The Japanese were not overly impressed with the effectiveness of the U.S. carrier strikes that day.

At 0802 on 25 October, Kinkaid informed Halsey that his forces had won a resounding victory over the enemy’s Southern Force in Surigao Strait and that Allied light forces were pursuing the enemy. The situation began to change fast and dramatically after 0822, when Halsey received Kinkaid’s plain-language message (about the attack by the Central Force against TU 77.4.3 off Samar). At about 0830, Halsey received a plain message from Clifton Sprague saying that enemy battleships and cruisers had attacked his escort carriers from a distance of about 15 miles. The attacking enemy ships were apparently part of the Central Force.

Halsey was reportedly surprised by that turn of events, but not gravely alarmed. He wrote after the war that Sprague’s 16 escort carriers should have had enough planes to protect themselves until Oldendorf could bring his heavy ships. He was puzzled that Kinkaid and Sprague were surprised when they had search planes available to reconnoiter the approaches of the San Bernardino Strait. Nevertheless, shortly afterward, Halsey directed McCain’s TG 38.1 to sail at best possible speed to attack the Central Force. Yet he failed to detach Lee’s TF 34 at the same time to block the Central Force’s withdrawal through the San Bernardino Strait.

At 0900, Kinkaid sent a frantic message that the enemy’s force of four battleships, eight cruisers, and other ships had attacked the escort carriers. He requested an immediate strike by fast carriers, and asked Admiral Lee to proceed at top speed toward Leyte. About 20 minutes later, Kinkaid sent another message informing Halsey that TU 77.4.3 was under fire from enemy battleships and cruisers. He repeated his request for immediate air strikes and support from heavy ships. He also informed Halsey that his old battleships were low in ammunition.

Halsey’s Delay

At 1000, Halsey received a short, coded, but important message from Nimitz: “Turkey Trots to Water. From CINCPac. Where is, repeat, where is Task Force 34. The world wonders.” The padding was nonsense phrasing added by enciphers at the beginning and closing words. The communicators were supposed to remove all the padding phrases. TF 77’s communicator did that before handing the copy of the message to Kinkaid. However, Halsey’s signalmen on board the battleship New Jersey struck off only the first phrase. The closing phrase was incorporated into the meaning of the message. By his own admission, Halsey was so angry over the last part of the message, perceiving it as a sarcastic remark by Nimitz, that he was unable to talk after reading it. This mix-up led to more delay in deciding just how to deal with the critical situation off Samar. Halsey sent a message to Nimitz informing him that TF 34 “with me engaging enemy carrier force. Am now proceeding with TG 38.2 and all fast battleships to reinforce Kinkaid. One enemy CV sunk, two CVs dead in water. No damage own force. Enemy air group flying out from Luzon arrived too late. TG 38.1 already ordered assist Kinkaid immediately.”

A few minutes after 1000, Halsey received another message from Kinkaid saying that his situation was critical and that fast battleships and air strikes could prevent the enemy force from penetrating Leyte Gulf. Forty-six minutes later another message from Kinkaid said the situation had improved, that the enemy force was retiring toward the northeast. Nevertheless, the enemy still could return, and hence he needed assistance over the San Bernardino Strait. Kinkaid pointed out that there was a good opportunity for TG 38.1 to destroy the enemy forces.

At 1055 (other sources say 1115), Halsey finally (but reluctantly) directed a major part of TF 34 (except for two battleships left behind to finish off Ise and Hyuga), covered by TG 38.2, to proceed on a southerly course at top speed. At that time TF 34 was only about 42 miles away from the Northern Force. TG 38.3 and 38.4 (4 CVs, 3 CVLs, 2 CAs, 3 CLs, and 25 DDs) continued with their attacks on Ozawa’s force. Admiral Lockwood directed his submarines to take positions between 120° east and 128° east to cut off retreat by the enemy force.

Kinkaid sent a message at about 1320 informing Halsey that the Central Force was retiring toward the northeast, that the situation looked better, but that he still needed TF 38’s assistance because the enemy might return. A few minutes afterward he sent another message that the enemy was returning and Halsey’s assistance was badly needed. At 1412, Halsey intercepted a message from Commander Support Aircraft at Leyte that the enemy force turned away again and was headed toward San Bernardino Strait.

The part of TF 34 directed to the San Bernardino Strait consisted of only two battleships (including Halsey’s flagship New Jersey), three light cruisers, and eight destroyers. It was designated TF 34.5 and placed under the command of Rear Admiral Oscar C. Badger. TF 34.5 sailed at a speed of only 20 knots and had to slow down to 12 knots at about 1345 to refuel accompanying destroyers; the refueling was not completed until shortly after 1600. Badger’s task force would arrive off the strait’s eastern entrance at about 0100 on 26 October and afterward search the strait’s approaches, proceed along the eastern coast of Samar, and destroy all enemy ships on the way. However, by the time TF 34.5 arrived off the eastern entrance, the Central Force had slipped away. The only enemy ship left was one destroyer (Nowaki), which was quickly sunk by gunfire at 0110.

Halsey’s decision to release fast battleships to help the hard-pressed escort carriers and prevent Kurita’s escape through the San Bernardino Strait was made with inexplicable delay. His actions showed that he had never made up his mind to quickly release sufficient force to deal with the extremely dangerous situation. One explanation for this unusual lack of decisiveness on Halsey’s part was his obsession with completely annihilating the enemy Northern Force. He learned about the problem with the escort carriers at 0822, and one hour later he learned that the Seventh Fleet’s old battleships were not available to help escort carriers. He delayed making a decision for almost one hour after receiving Nimitz’s query at 1000. After the larger parts of TF 38 and TG 38.2 were released, they were unable to reach the San Bernardino Strait until 0100 on 26 October. TF 34.5’s two-hour refueling of destroyers further held up the schedule.

TF 34.5 was too weak to engage Kurita’s force in a night engagement unless it waited in an ambushing position, as Oldendorf had at Surigao Strait on 24–25 October. TF 34.5 had only two battleships, while Kurita, after all his losses in the Sibuyan Sea and off Samar, still had four battleships with him, including the powerful Yamato. Lee’s battleships had no experience with using heavy guns in night engagement, not even with radar. Hence, the U.S. surface forces’ chances in a night engagement with Kurita’s still-powerful forces were uncertain and could have been catastrophic. TG 38.2 had only one carrier (Independence) capable of night operations; the other four carriers in the group were capable of only day operations.

A Tactical Victory for the U.S. Navy

The Battle off Cape Engano ended as a tactical victory for the U.S. Navy, though not an operational victory. The TF 38 pilots had sunk four enemy carriers and one destroyer. In addition, U.S. cruisers and submarines sank one light cruiser (Tama) and two destroyers. Still, the Northern Force had escaped total destruction. Halsey and the Third Fleet were greatly disappointed that not all the enemy ships had been sunk. Moreover, the Central Force had escaped destruction despite all the damages inflicted on it by TF 38 aircraft on 24 October. Halsey not only greatly overestimated the strength of Ozawa’s force, he also allowed Kurita to move freely for almost 12 hours while he was pursuing the Northern Force with his entire TF 38. The U.S. carrier pilots had not been as effective at sinking enemy ships as in previous engagements. One likely reason was the fatigue; they had been in combat almost uninterruptedly since 6 October. Halsey in his post-action report added that the other contributory factor was the tendency of pilots to attack “cripples rather than undamaged ships and poor torpedo performance or too shallow depth setting.”

Ozawa wrongly claimed that his aircraft had sunk one and damaged another “regular” (fast) carrier, while more than 100 enemy planes had been shot down. He gave his losses as four carriers and one destroyer sunk, one light cruiser and one destroyer missing, and about 30 aircraft lost. His casualties totaled 4,500 killed.

In his post-action report, Ozawa stressed that a feint cannot be fully successful unless a diversionary force possesses a certain level of real strength. This is especially true when the enemy has a fixed operational objective and firmly maintains his “strategic” dispositions. Ozawa believed that his force would have been more effective if its attack had been launched jointly with the Base Air Forces two days before the planned penetration of Leyte Gulf. He believed that the Main Body suffered heavy losses because its best-trained air groups had been deployed to land bases. The surface forces, relying solely on AA weapons, were incapable of dealing effectively with air attacks. He recommended that in the future, in reorganizing the Mobile Force, the emphasis must be on the Base Air Forces. When tactically employed, surface forces should have minimum air search strength to ascertain the enemy’s position and movements. In his view, if his force had had aircraft to reconnoiter the enemy force on the afternoon of 25 October, he might have been able to destroy the enemy in a night battle.

Halsey’s Decision: Why?

Halsey’s decision, made at 1950 on 24 October, to move his three carrier groups north to join Sherman’s group off Luzon, was one of the most controversial decisions of the entire operation. It was a tactical decision, made by an operational-tactical commander, with negative operational consequences. The tactical victory off Cape Engano would have been essentially useless if Kurita’s force had been successful in penetrating Leyte Gulf. This was a case where the commander because of his exclusive tactical focus employed his forces in a manner unrelated to the accomplishment of the principal objective. It was only because of Kurita’s tactical errors that the U.S. Navy did not suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of a much smaller and poorly led force. The Japanese came close to accomplishing their mission, not because of their skills, but simply because of the mistakes Halsey made.

Nimitz was not pleased with Halsey’s actions on 24–25 October. In his 28 October letter to Admiral King, marked personal and top secret, he stated two “regrets.” The first was the loss of the carrier Princeton and the use of such a valuable ship as the cruiser Birmingham instead of a destroyer to assist the stricken carrier. His second regret was that fast battleships had not been left to guard the San Bernardino Strait. It had never occurred to Nimitz that Halsey, knowing the composition of the ships in the Sibuyan Sea, would leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, although reports indicated that the enemy force in the Sibuyan Sea had been seriously damaged. That U.S. forces had not been wiped out by the Japanese fleet was, in his words, the “dispensation work of the Lord Almighty.” The damage inflicted on the Japanese fleet in the Sibuyan Sea, he wrote, undoubtedly affected its ability to steam and shoot when it attacked Admiral Sprague’s escort carriers. Although privately critical of Halsey’s action, Nimitz was careful to avoid public criticism or allow critical remarks to be entered into CINCPOA records.

Halsey personally admitted to King in January 1945 that he had make mistakes in the Battle for Leyte. King reportedly said that he did not need to say anything more and “you’ve got a green light on everything you did.” However, his views on the matter apparently changed afterward, because in his autobiography King criticized both Halsey and Kinkaid for their actions in the battle.

For MacArthur, Halsey remained a true “fighting admiral” despite his actions on 24–25 October. He prohibited any criticism of Halsey by his staff. To MacArthur the near disaster off Leyte seemed to demonstrate the dangers of having a divided command. He said that such a policy could not be defended in logic, in theory, or even in common sense; other motives must be ascribed. MacArthur asserted that if he had been in supreme command of the entire operation, Halsey would have been kept back to protect the invading force. In his words, “this would not only insure my base but would insure his fleet being in the action, as the magnetic attraction of my point of landing would draw the enemy’s fleet there.”

Battle off Cape Engano II

The Japanese aircraft carriers Zuikaku, left, and (probably) Zuihō come under attack by dive bombers early in the Battle off Cape Engaño.

The four main actions in the Battle of Leyte Gulf: 1 Battle of the Sibuyan Sea 2 Battle of Surigao Strait 3 Battle of (or ‘off’) Cape Engaño 4 Battle off Samar. Leyte Gulf is north of 2 and west of 4. The island of Leyte is west of the gulf.

The Reasons for Halsey’s Decision

In Halsey’s first report on the battle, sent to Nimitz, MacArthur, and Kinkaid on 25 October, he tried to justify his decision to leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded. Among other things, he insisted that although it was apparent that the enemy planned a coordinated attack, his real objective could not be ascertained. The enemy carrier force was not detected until late afternoon on 24 October. Halsey’s claim that just to guard the San Bernardino Strait would have been a “waste of time” is hard to understand. Halsey explained that he decided to direct all three carrier groups to concentrate and move north and then use all his groups for a surprise attack on the enemy carrier force at dawn. He estimated that the Central Force was so badly damaged that it could not pose a threat to the Seventh Fleet. In his words, this was “a deduction proved correct by events of 25 October off Surigao.” Interestingly, he did not mention events off Samar on 25 October, which would not support his case. In the same report, he regretted that “just when his overwhelming force was within 45 miles of the crippled enemy” he got a call for assistance from Kinkaid. He had no alternative but to turn south in response.

Halsey believed until the very end that he had made a sound decision. Despite the facts to the contrary, he rejected all evidence that the Northern Forces had been bait and the enemy commander had deceived him. In his view, his only mistake had been the decision to turn south when on the verge of annihilating the Northern Force.

Halsey maintained that he had three courses of action open to him. He could guard the San Bernardino Strait with the entire force and wait for the Northern Force to attack first. He rejected that course of action because the enemy would have the initiative for when to attack. In addition, the enemy could use his airfields undisturbed. The second course of action was to leave TF 34 guarding the San Bernardino Strait while moving the three carrier groups north to attack the Northern Force. He rejected that course as well, explaining that the attack on TG 38.3 that day (resulting in the loss of the Princeton) indicated that the enemy still had powerful air strength. He noted, correctly, that his battleships should not be exposed to the possibility of an enemy air attack without adequate protection from friendly air. He also was correct in stating that it was a danger to have divided forces, as it allowed the enemy to beat them in detail. However, forces can be divided if each element is stronger than any possible enemy combination, or if each force is deployed within mutually supporting distance of the other.

In short, Halsey had an option of either leaving behind TF 34 and one carrier group, or leaving TF 34 off the San Bernardino Strait and moving with all three carrier groups north but staying at all times within supporting distance of TF 34. Halsey’s intent to attack the Northern Force at dawn to achieve a surprise does not seem terribly important, since, surprise or not, Halsey had overwhelming force to deal with Ozawa’s much smaller and less powerful force. The Northern Force, even with the full air complement on board, was no match for TF 38. As it turned out, the first strike by TF 38 did not take place until 0800.

Halsey had largely based his decision on the reports of his pilots. He apparently believed that the Central Force in the Sibuyan Sea was so badly damaged that even if it sortied through the San Bernardino Strait, Kinkaid would have adequate strength to defend against it. Halsey’s decision to leave Kinkaid’s covering forces to deal with both threats could not be justified. The Third Fleet’s mission of distant cover and support was to remove or at least neutralize any enemy threat to Allied shipping at Leyte originating beyond striking distance of Kinkaid’s forces. Halsey should have done the utmost to prevent the Central Force from reaching the open waters of the Philippine Sea. It would have been much better had the U.S. carrier groups dealt with the enemy’s heavy surface forces, especially when operating without air cover, than to risk losses to friendly forces in a surface engagement.

Halsey’s third course of action, the one he followed, was to leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded and strike the Northern Force with his entire force. In his view, this option provided the advantages of maintaining the “fleet’s integrity” and preserving the initiative, and it offered the greatest chance of achieving surprise. This was a clear case of a commander observing the principle of mass and surprise but violating the principles of objective, economy of effort and security. Not all principles of war are equally important, and none is more important than adhering to the principle of objective. Also, the principle of mass should not be applied to an extreme that, in the process, violates the principle of security. If Halsey had made a decision that fully observed the principle of objective together with the principles of security and economy of effort, the situation off Samar on the morning of 25 October would simply not have occurred.

Halsey insisted that even if the Central Force had slipped through the San Bernardino Strait and headed for Leyte, it could only have made a harassing hit-and-run raid. It was too weak to achieve anything more. Even so, a superior force such as the U.S. Third Fleet should not have left open the way for a much weaker force to enter a landing objective area and inflict losses upon Allied forces. This would have been an embarrassment to the Allies at a critical time in the Pacific war.

Despite all that did happen on 24–25 October, Halsey stubbornly insisted of his decision that, “given the same circumstances and the same information . . . , I would make it again.” This view was easier to defend on 25 October than many years after the fact, when the events and decisions on both sides were well known. Moreover, no decision can be considered sound if the commander does exactly what the enemy wants him to do.

Elements of the Decision

One of the most important factors in assessing a decision is the mission of the higher commander and the information available to the commander of both the enemy and friendly forces. Other factors include the commander’s personality traits, experience, command style, biases, and predilections; the experience and effectiveness of the staff; and the commander’s relationship with subordinate commanders.

Halsey’s mission of providing distant cover and support was clear and straightforward. However, he either intentionally or subconsciously misunderstood his mission. He apparently believed that his mission was offensive, even after he received orders to cover the Leyte landings. Halsey’s main tasks were to obtain air superiority over the Philippines, protect the landing at Leyte, maintain “unremitting” pressure against Japan, and apply maximum attrition by all possible means in all areas.

Nimitz gave Halsey full freedom to act in employing the Third Fleet. Halsey, he hoped, would draw out and fight the enemy fleet, thereby completing the task Admiral Spruance had started in June 1944. Nimitz reiterated Halsey’s mission to Admiral King at their meeting in San Francisco in late September 1944. He explained that, unlike Spruance, Halsey would not be given vague orders—hence the inserted part to Para (3), “in case opportunity for destruction of major portion of the enemy fleet is offered or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task.” Nimitz issued these orders allegedly without any consultation with MacArthur.

Both Nimitz and Halsey had almost identical views on the need to complete the destruction of the Japanese fleet. Halsey, like many flag officers in the Pacific Fleet, was critical of Spruance’s “mistake” in not completely destroying the Japanese fleet in the Battle in the Philippine Sea in June 1944. Nimitz found a personal letter from Halsey waiting for him after his return to Pearl Harbor from Washington, D.C., on 2 October. Halsey wrote: “I intend, if possible, to deny the enemy a chance to outrange me in an air duel and also to deny him an opportunity to employ an air shuttle against mc. If I am to prevent his gaining that advantage, I must move smartly. Inasmuch as the destruction of the enemy fleet is the principal task, every weapon must be brought into play and the general coordination of these weapons should be in the hands of the tactical commander responsible for the outcome of the battle. My goal is the same as yours—to completely annihilate the Jap fleet if the opportunity offers. . . . ” This letter is a reliable indicator of his state of mind at the time.

Halsey’s command style contributed to his unsound decisions. As the Third Fleet commander, he should have had Mitscher, the TF 38 commander, in charge of all fast carrier groups. Halsey, as the numbered fleet commander, should have exercised broad supervision over Mitscher, intervening only if actions by either Mitscher or subordinate carrier group commanders endangered the mission. However, Halsey consistently bypassed Mitscher. For all practical purposes, he took over the tactical command of TF 38. This was not a standard command style in the U.S. Navy of the day. Halsey defended his decision because his flagship, New Jersey, was already part of the force so it was supposedly natural that he be directly in charge of TF 38, even though Mitscher was formally CTF 38. The Third Fleet essentially consisted of TF 38 after the amphibious forces were temporarily put under the Seventh Fleet’s command. Obviously, it was difficult for Halsey to stand aside. Halsey insisted that by issuing orders directly to carrier group commanders he could reduce radio traffic and thereby enhance secrecy of the movements of his forces. Also, the communications facilities on the New Jersey were superior to those on the carrier Lexington, flagship of CTF 38. This was all true, except that operational or operational-tactical commanders should not constantly interfere with and even make decisions that are the responsibility of the subordinate tactical commanders. Halsey also preferred to exercise his command and control via radio rather than according to meticulously prepared plans.

For all his aggressiveness, Halsey often lost valuable time in making a final decision. At other times, he acted too quickly, without weighing all essential elements of a situation. His subordinate tactical commanders never knew what his plans were. Halsey apparently conducted running estimates of the situation, but one has to wonder whether that process was followed properly or whether, true to his character traits, it was too quick, omitting or perfunctorily evaluating many elements bearing on making a sound decision.

Halsey was not much helped by his staff. Ideally, a chief of staff should be someone who is willing to tell the unpleasant truth to the commander. This was apparently not the case with the chief of staff, Admiral Carney. Also, temperamentally he was similar to Halsey. Reportedly, he was unwilling to tell Halsey that he disagreed with certain decisions. This is just the opposite of what a good chief of staff should be or do.

Halsey was intensely loyal to his officers and men, and they were in turn loyal to him. He scolded in private and praised in public, and when errors were made, Halsey took full responsibility. Halsey’s staff argued a lot. All staff officers, regardless of their rank, were able to express themselves. However, all arguments ended after Halsey made a decision; then all the staff members had to carry out that decision as their own. When more time was available, he reportedly expected the staff to prepare studies and present the options available. He listened to the staff’s advice with little or no argument. At other times, his decisions were made rather quickly and based on his intuition. Halsey was highly respected as a leader by his subordinates, yet he was said not to have earned the high respect as a professional that Spruance or Mitscher did.

In contrast to Admiral Spruance who was very meticulous and methodical, Halsey did not pay much attention to written instructions to his subordinates. His staff never kept orders up to date as Spruance’s staff did. The Third Fleet staff was known for sloppiness and ad hoc planning. All too often, Halsey sent unclear and poorly written messages to both subordinates and superiors. Halsey was known for making decisions without waiting on all the information or weighing the information he had. He displayed that bad trait on several occasions during the Leyte operation. Moreover, his staff was not well suited to planning and conducting carrier operations. Both Carney and Captain Ralph E. Wilson, his operations officer, were nonaviators.

Halsey showed inexperience in fast carrier operations when he ordered TF 34 on 24 October to pull out and form a battle line ten miles ahead of carriers in the middle of the night. By contrast, all four subordinate carrier group commanders, with the exception of Vice Admiral McCain, had had a great deal of experience in carrier operations because they had participated in both TF 38 and TF 58 operations.

Other factors that influenced Halsey’s rash decision in the evening on 24 October included a number of assumptions later proven to be wrong. Halsey was under the impression that the attack on the Princeton and its subsequent sinking had been carried out by carrier aircraft from the Northern Force. In fact, the attacks against TG 38.3 were conducted entirely by the enemy land-based naval aircraft. Accepting the optimistic claims of his pilots, Halsey believed that the damage inflicted on the Central Force was much greater than it actually was. Similarly, exaggerated claims were made in regard to the size and composition of the Northern Force. This was not the first time Halsey had accepted his pilots’ claims at face value. He’d done the same in the air battle off Formosa.

Another probable reason for Halsey’s decision was his determination to fight and win the last carrier battle of the war. He missed the great carrier battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, and the Philippine Sea and was supposedly determined to destroy the Japanese carriers at the first opportunity.

Others’ Mistakes

Not only Halsey, but also the JCS, Nimitz, and Kinkaid share some responsibility for the course of events on 24–25 October. In the broadest sense, the divided command and the unresolved command relationships between supported and supporting CINCs were never satisfactorily resolved. The solution was in the hands of the JCS alone. Nimitz unnecessarily complicated Halsey’s mission by inserting an additional task that in fact seemed to supersede the task of distant cover and support assigned by MacArthur. This, in combination with Halsey’s distaste for providing distant cover and support, his aggressiveness and impatience, and his predilection for seeking out the enemy fleet, made the events on 24–25 October possible. Nimitz usually left his numbered fleet commanders wide freedom of action. However, in this instance he should have intervened and reversed Halsey’s decision, since it potentially endangered the success of the entire operation. Another option for Nimitz would have been to make clear to Halsey in most emphatic terms that MacArthur’s mission assigned to the Third Fleet had priority at all times.

Some highly respected historians think that Kinkaid’s responsibility was more a matter of inaction than bad decisions. He relied too much on Halsey to cover the northern approaches to Leyte Gulf. Kinkaid assumed in his operation plan that any major enemy naval forces approaching from the north would be intercepted and attacked by the Third Fleet’s covering force. Reportedly, Kinkaid was not overly concerned with Halsey’s decision to go north because he had intercepted Halsey’s message about TF 34 the previous day. He also assumed that Halsey had taken his three carrier groups with him but left TF 34 to guard the San Bernardino Strait. He notified Halsey about his plans for the battle in Surigao Strait. He did not need any help, provided Halsey took care of the Central Force.131 However, Kinkaid had sufficient forces to cover all the approaches to the landing objective area from both the west and the north and thereby prevent any nasty surprise. In short, he should have taken everything that was in his power to ensure protection of his forces from the enemy heavy surface forces.

Nimitz in his comments on the battle insisted that if Kinkaid had-correctly interpreted Halsey’s messages, he could have moved his escort carriers either farther southward or eastward where they would have not been so close to possible daylight circle of the Center Force. The daylight air search that Kinkaid had ordered would detect any approaching enemy force with a greater margin of time and distance. Such a force could have been kept at bay by air attacks before it closed to Leyte Gulf. Nimitz also argued that Kinkaid could have directed TG 77.4 to move inside Leyte Gulf for protection. He realized, however, that in such a case escort carriers would have had limited space for maneuver and would have had to reduce their speed. Kinkaid could have also stationed an adequate number of radar pickets to the north and east of the eastern entrance to Leyte Gulf to provide warning of the approaching enemy until daylight air search could take over.

Kinkaid also allowed too much freedom of action to Oldendorf and Thomas L. Sprague. He should have taken timely and stronger measures to use his own aircraft for conducting searches of Leyte Gulf’s northern approaches. Clifton Sprague, CTU 77.4.3, claimed that his force had never been assigned any responsibility for covering the San Bernardino Strait, either by reconnaissance or surface forces. Captain Richard F. Whitehead, Commander, Support Aircraft, Seventh Fleet, advised Kinkaid to launch searches covering the approaches to the San Bernardino Strait, but they weren’t carried out expeditiously.

Because of poor communications procedures between their fleets, Halsey did not obtain timely information on Kinkaid’s plans or actions. Kinkaid was unable to communicate with the Third Fleet directly. Messages sent by Kinkaid to Halsey had to be first encoded and sent to the radio station at Manus, Admiralties, which then retransmitted them on the “Fox” fleet radiobroadcast schedule. Operators on all U.S. naval ships copied the latter in its entirety. However, the communicators were expected to decode only the messages that carried the call sign of their ship or force.

Another problem hindering cooperation between the Third and Seventh Fleets was that radio messages weren’t properly prioritized, a reflection of the divided theater command. Many messages were graded “urgent,” so that truly urgent messages were unable to reach the addressees in a timely manner. The operators at Manus simply stacked urgent messages in the order they were received, or made a guess as to which one had higher priority. Consequently, it sometimes took hours for a message sent by Kinkaid to reach Halsey. Also, urgent messages often arrived out of the sequence. Kinkaid’s staff, in fact, violated orders and regulations just to keep track of what was going on. It listened to Halsey’s communications and decoded everything it intercepted, whether the messages were intended for Kinkaid or not.

The communications’ problem was greatly compounded by poorly worded messages, which were often misinterpreted by the recipients. Both Kinkaid and Halsey made several decisions based on misinformation. The lack of a common superior, combined with the failure of Halsey and Kinkaid to exchange information promptly, made it very difficult to achieve cooperation between their two fleets.

Not until 11 December 1944 did King ask Kinkaid what actions he had taken to ensure that the Central Force did not exit the San Bernardino Strait. Kinkaid responded that he had ordered a night search by aircraft from TU 77.4.4. He told King about intercepting Halsey’s message on TF 34. His assumption was that TF 34 had been left behind to guard the San Bernardino Strait. King was also told that searches by PBYs had not resulted in any contact, because the escort carrier searches were not carried out expeditiously. However, Kinkaid, in his typical fashion, did not put the blame on Thomas Sprague or Stump, CTU 77.4.2. (Admiral Wilkinson, in fact, advised Kinkaid to order CTG 77.4 to conduct dawn searches.)

In Kinkaid’s view, the real reason for the crisis off Samar was that Halsey had been unwilling to stick with his mission. He said that his own mission was different from the one given to Halsey. Halsey was supposed to provide “strategic (operational) cover,” while Kinkaid would provide direct cover and protection of landing forces. In his view, if both he and Halsey had carried out their respective missions, there would have been no confusion.

Kinkaid apparently did not keep MacArthur informed of the progress of naval battles on 24–25 October. This was most likely why MacArthur did not react on the worsening situation at the approaches to Leyte, not because of his supposed lack of interest in naval matters. On 25 October, he informed Kinkaid that the Navy communications center at GHQ did not provide any information about events at sea. He requested from Kinkaid to take necessary action so that he could be fully informed. The same day Major General S. B. Akin (GHQ Chief Signals Officer) informed General Sutherland that he personally delivered messages to Kinkaid on board the flagship (Wasatch). Kinkaid reportedly expressed regrets at the lack of flow of information to the CINCSWPA and promised that he would take immediate steps to correct it.

Two days later, MacArthur in another message expressed his annoyance that Kinkaid was not submitting operational reports to him. He reminded Kinkaid that standing orders provide “that such reports shall be rendered to the CINC with such information addressees as are pertinent in special cases. This procedure which has been in effect for the last two years has not been followed during the present operation.” He requested that Kinkaid’s operational reports to higher authorities continue to be addressed to the CINCSWPA. They should be of such frequency as to keep MacArthur informed about the situation. He reminded Kinkaid that the only report he had received was Kinkaid’s written memorandum. He requested to have a further report by 2001 on 27 October on which he could base his communiqué.

IJN Submarines – East Coast Australia

In the days after the Sydney raid, the Australian Department of Information monitored Japanese broadcasts around the clock, but picked up no public broadcast relating to the Sydney attack until 5 June.

The Imperial Navy made an attack on Sydney Harbour with midget submarines on 31 May. We have succeeded in entering the harbour and sinking one warship. The three midget submarines which took part in this operation have not reported back.

Although MacArthur’s headquarters issued a brief statement on 1 June, the first detailed reports of the raid came from American and British broadcasts. The Sydney press was particularly outraged when the initial news came from Melbourne, not Sydney. When the Minister for the Navy came under fierce fire in the House of Representatives for not allowing Sydney to release the news, Mr Makin replied: “It was thought undesirable to make an earlier announcement because enemy ships might still have been in the vicinity.”

In response to the Japanese raid on Sydney, the Deputy Prime Minister, Francis Forde, made the following speech in Parliament:

The public should not complacently count on this as the last attack in these waters. The attempted raid brings the war much nearer to the industrial heart of Australia. It should clearly indicate the absolute necessity for eternal vigilance by all services. It should act as a new stimulus to the whole of the people to co-operate wholeheartedly on a complete war effort.

Forde’s words were both true and prophetic. On 3 June, Sasaki brought I-21 to the surface 40 miles off Sydney and attacked the Australian steamer Age with gunfire. Unarmed, the steamer ran for safety and arrived in Newcastle the following day without further incident.

At 11:30 pm, soon after the Age was attacked, I-24 sank the Australian coaster, Iron Chieftain, which was on passage from Newcastle to Whyalla. Iron Chieftain had sailed from Newcastle at 10:00 pm but was only able to make good six knots against the heavy seas. Twenty seven miles from Newcastle Harbour, the submarine surfaced and fired a torpedo at the coaster. Laden with coke, Iron Chieftain sank in five minutes, taking with her 12 crew including the master and third mate who were last seen on the bridge.

One of the survivors, Naval gunner Cyril Sheraton, gave the following account of the Iron Chieftan attack in the Sydney Morning Herald:

I was in my pyjamas and watch coat beside my gun when the torpedo struck. I tried to get my gun into action but did not have a chance. The captain and third mate were on the bridge and were watching the submarine for five or six minutes before the skipper shouted “Hard a’starboard”. The torpedo struck before the ship could swing. I could see the submarine 200 yards away on the port side. As the ship sank under me, I was dragged onto a raft. After the ship sank, the submarine circled our raft and we thought that we might be machine-gunned so we laid still. The submarine finally left and we drifted in the darkness.

When news of the Iron Chieftain’s sinking reached Sydney, Rear-Admiral Muirhead-Gould closed the ports of Sydney and Newcastle to outward bound shipping, and ships at sea were warned to “zigzag”. The anti-submarine vessel Bingera sailed from Sydney to search for survivors and picked up some of the crew, including Sheraton. Another 25 crewmen were found 30 hours later after rowing their open boat ashore.

With Second Officer Brady in charge, the lifeboat picked up as many men as could be seen in the water. When no more survivors could be found, they began to row through the heavy swell, taking turns at the oars to keep warm. After some hours the sea abated and conditions became easier. The men began singing to boost their morale, but it was a dismal attempt and ceased after a while. They continued to row in silence. Thirty hours later they arrived about a mile off The Entrance, north of Sydney. Unfamiliar with the area, Brady fired distress flares into the sky, but local fishermen did not understand their meaning. When help failed to arrive, the men rowed slowly ashore, weary, drenched and cold. The exhausted Second Officer was reluctant to surrender his charge to the police and had to be threatened with violence before he would consent to go to bed and warm up.

At dawn on 4 June, six hours after Iron Chieftain was sunk, I-27, en route to Tasmanian waters, surfaced and attacked the Australian steamer Barwon 30 miles off Gabo Island. The submarine commenced the attack with gunfire, followed by a torpedo, which exploded prematurely alongside the steamer. Fragments of metal landed on the ship but there was no damage or casualties. Barwon was able to escape by outrunning her attacker.

At 4:45 pm on the same day, I-27 torpedoed the Australian ship Iron Crown, laden with manganese ore and bound for Newcastle. Iron Crown went down in one minute, taking with her 37 crew, including the captain. The submarine was forced to crash dive when an Australian Hudson aircraft suddenly appeared over the horizon.

Australian naval authorities became exceedingly jittery about the increasing Japanese submarine activity and frequent molesting of Allied shipping. On 4 June the Australian Naval Board decided to suspend all merchant sailings from eastern and southern Australian ports. However, merchant vessels already at sea before the Naval Board directive continued to fall victim to elements of the Third Submarine Company. In the absence of enemy warships, the Japanese naval authorities considered merchant vessels legitimate targets.

It was the Japanese Navy’s policy to limit the number of torpedoes that a submarine commander could fire at a particular target. Merchant ships and destroyers were allotted only one torpedo, cruisers warranted three, and battleships and aircraft carriers were allotted maximum torpedo firepower. Since this policy reduced the chances of sinking a merchant ship, Captain Sasaki ordered his submarine force to resort to surface gunfire attacks in an effort to economise on torpedoes.

While Sasaki’s submarine force waged its campaign of destruction, Allied aircraft continued to scour the sea in search of the submarine raiders. During this period there were many reported sightings of periscopes. However, to confuse the enemy, Sasaki’s force released decoy periscopes along Australia’s east coast. These decoys were made of long bamboo sticks, painted black, at the top of which were attached mirrors that would glint in the sunlight. Below the surface were two sake bottles lashed to the decoy periscope. The glass bottles were half-filled with sand and half-filled with diesel oil. The weight of the sand would cause the bamboo stick to float upright in the water, and the oil was to convince the enemy of a successful attack when it floated to the surface once the bottles shattered following a bomb or depth charge attack.

One of these decoy periscopes was responsible for a reported sighting by a Dutch aircraft eight miles south-east of Sydney on the morning of 6 June. The aircraft attacked and reported damaging a submarine at periscope depth after thick diesel oil was seen on the surface.

A decoy periscope was later recovered offshore by a commercial fisherman who turned it over to Muirhead-Gould’s staff for examination.

Also on 6 June, 22-year-old Flight Lieutenant G. J. Hitchcock taxied his Lockheed Hudson bomber across the tarmac at Williamtown, north of Newcastle, and, with only a scratch crew, took off to search for enemy submarines. The base medical officer had been invited to join the flight with the promise that Hitchcock would sink a submarine. Hitchcock’s promise almost became a reality.

Flying at 2,000 feet, the air gunner, Flight Sergeant A. T. Morton, sighted a periscope 80 miles east of Sydney. Hitchcock descended abruptly to 500 feet and commenced his attack. The Hudson accidentally dropped its entire bomb load, which fell astern of the periscope. Hitchcock recalled that the aircraft received an almighty thump from behind when the bombs exploded. The Hudson circled the area for half an hour. While bubbles were seen rising to the surface, there was no oil. Hitchcock considered his attack was unsuccessful, but newspaper accounts thought otherwise, crediting the Hudson with “the first Australian killing”. Hitchcock told the author that the newspaper accounts had the effect of lifting morale and he and his crew became temporarily famous.

In the days that followed the Sydney Harbour attack, residents had begun to settle back into their normal daily routines. However, they were not without foreboding as they read press reports of submarine attacks on merchant shipping along the coast.

Sydney’s apprehensive mood turned to panic when Sasaki’s submarine force interrupted their campaign against Allied shipping and turned their attention to frightening the civil population. On 8 June, shortly after midnight, I-24 surfaced 12 miles off the coast of Sydney and fired 10 high explosive shells.

The examination vessel HMAS Adele, which was responsible for challenging suspicious vessels attempting to enter harbour, sighted the gunfire flashes out to sea, as did the Outer South Head army battery, which probed the sea with searchlights. Five minutes later the air raid alarm was sounded and city and coastal navigation lights were temporarily extinguished. The submarine submerged before the coastal defences could return fire.

There were no major casualties reported from this unexpected shelling, although one resident – a refugee from Nazi Germany – was terrified when a shell crashed though his bedroom wall. According to newspaper accounts, the man leapt out of bed, fracturing his ankle, and the shell failed to explode.

The remaining shells exploded in the suburbs of Rose Bay and Bellevue Hill, shattering windows and causing only superficial damage. One shell exploded harmlessly in Manion Avenue, Rose Bay, where a large crater was formed in the roadway.

The main objective of the shellfire was to destroy the Sydney Harbour Bridge, however, the Japanese also wanted to frighten the population. Although they failed in their first objective, they succeeded in the second beyond their expectations.

During the shelling, panic broke out when confused residents ran screaming into the streets thinking the air raid siren meant that Sydney was under attack by enemy aircraft. Urban Australians did not react very favourably when, later that morning, harbour front and other wealthy Eastern Suburb residents put their houses up for sale and fled to the Blue Mountains and even further inland, fearing a Japanese invasion at any moment.

A steady trickle of harbourside residents had been leaving Sydney following the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour more than a week earlier; but with the shelling of the Eastern Suburbs, the trickle increased to a frenzied stream of panicky citizens. When every house, boarding house and hotel in the Blue Mountains was crammed, these “escapees” retreated further inland to Orange in the central-west of New South Wales. Some people fled from Sydney to the Hunter Valley – to towns like Singleton and Muswellbroook – but they were turned away when every available accommodation space had been taken. This is a good indication of how serious the belief was that Australia would be invaded by the “Yellow Peril”.

Compared with Londoners during the Blitz, these Australians behaved with less than Churchillian courage. Only after the war was over did many of them sheepishly return, some buying back their houses at vastly inflated prices.

Scenting an opportunity, poverty-stricken European refugees, many of them Jewish émigrés who had weathered far greater ordeals in Europe, quickly moved into the area. They shrewdly bought up the vacated real-estate at absurdly deflated prices and, after the war, many became millionaires overnight. One Eastern Suburbs real estate agent, Mr Karl Malouf, told the author that the exodus of the rich had been extensive. He remembers the harbourside suburbs of Vaucluse and Bellevue Hill were a forest of “For Sale signs.” Malouf‘s company went on to become one of Sydney’s best known realtors.

Just over two hours after I-24 shelled Sydney, I-21 surfaced three miles off Newcastle. The submarine fired 20 star shells over the industrial heart of the city, followed by six high explosive shells, only three of which exploded. Close examination of the unexploded shells later that day revealed that they had been manufactured in England in 1914! The nose sections were very rough, with some fuses bent and damaged, which explained why the majority of shells failed to explode.

The main Japanese target at Newcastle was the BHP steelworks. As with Sydney, however, the shells landed over a wide area, one shell exploding on the road behind Fort Scratchley, a coastal Army battery, and another some distance away near Nobby’s Head. Two star shells also exploded above the corvette Whyalla, which had recently arrived in Newcastle after searching for enemy submarines off the coast.

Fort Scratchley, overlooking Newcastle Harbour, was originally built during the Russian scare of the nineteenth century and was modified and reactivated for World War II. In the early hours of the morning, the duty sergeant at the Fort reported to the searchlight commander, Captain W. J. Harvey, that he could see flares in the sky and that something unusual appeared to be happening. Gun flashes were then seen and the searchlights probed the sea. At the extreme range of the searchlights, Gunner Colin Curie reported sighting a submarine. The battery commander, Captain Walter Watson, put the battery on alert and the guns were loaded ready to fire. Suddenly, Watson saw a gun flash and cried “Duck!” The shell exploded in Parnell Place, narrowly missing the observation post. Watson telephoned fire command for permission to open fire and, when he received no reply, opened fire anyway. The telephonist then reported, “Fire command says engage when ready, Sir!” Watson retorted, “Tell them I bloody-well have!” He then gave ranging corrections to his gunners and fired a second salvo.

The pilot steamer Birubi was at sea off Nobby’s Head when the shelling began. In her haste to run for the harbour entrance and safety, the pilot vessel emitted huge clouds of thick black smoke, which obscured Watson’s field of vision and he was unable to correct the range of fire. Sasaki submerged before Fort Scratchley could fire a third salvo. The pilot vessel later reported that the first salvo had fallen short of the submarine and the second had overshot.

Some remarkable escapes were made from the Newcastle shelling. Residents had heard an air raid siren shortly after midnight, followed by the “All Clear”, which actually signified the end of the shelling attack on Sydney. When, an hour later, firing commenced on Newcastle, residents were confused and caught unaware.

In Parnell Place, Mrs Wilson had decided to evacuate her two young children from their home above a shop: “I thought it was only air raid drill or practice. Then I realised it wasn’t… The shells were screaming across. The worst part was not knowing where they were going to hit.”

Scooping her two children from their bed, Mrs Wilson was making her way downstairs when a shell exploded on the road outside. It was not until daylight that the young mother realised how close she and her children had come to death. She discovered shrapnel from the blast had torn through a wire mattress base where the children had been sleeping and, when she rolled back the mattress, a huge, gaping hole was revealed in the wall.

There were only two casualties reported from the Newcastle shelling, both victims of shrapnel from the blast in Parnell Place. Bombardier Stan Newton had been on his way to Fort Scratchley when he was knocked unconscious by a piece of shrapnel that struck him in the forehead. Regaining consciousness, he was greeted by a surprised air raid warden. Newton then ran on to the Fort to take up his position, unaware the shrapnel was still lodged in his head.

Meanwhile, naval authorities ordered a total blackout of the Newcastle and Sydney coastal areas. HMAS Whyalla and the American destroyer Perkins were ordered to escort eight merchant ships from Newcastle to Melbourne.

Submarine bombardment of enemy cities was employed by the Japanese only on limited occasions. From the time of surfacing, often over a minute passed before the submarines could commence firing. Ranges had to be estimated from charts, and to score a direct hit was extremely difficult. The rangefinders they used were portable and inaccurate, making the whole operation a rather clumsy exercise. Also, only 20 shells could be stored at one time in the ammunition locker on the upper deck. If more ammunition was required, it had to be brought up from below, thus creating a dangerous situation, especially if the submarine had to submerge in a hurry.

After the shelling of Sydney and Newcastle, I-24 and I-21 turned their attention back to terrorising merchant ships off the coast. At 1:00 am on 9 June, I-24 pursued and shelled the British merchant ship Orestes 90 miles south of Sydney. Steaming independently from Sydney to Melbourne, Orestes presented a prime target for I-24, which chased the merchantman for five hours. During the running battle, Orestes suffered several direct hits, resulting in a large fire. Believing the merchant vessel was doomed, I-24 broke off the attack; but Orestes succeeded in extinguishing the fire and made Melbourne safely the next day.

Not so fortunate was the Panamanian vessel Guatemala. At 1:15 am on 12 June, I-24 intercepted and successfully sank the merchant ship 40 miles from Sydney. Guatemala had left Newcastle in the convoy escorted by Perkins and Whyalla, but soon found herself straggling behind the convoy. The Norwegian master, Captain A. G. Bang, heard two gunshots to starboard but saw nothing. A few minutes later, the second officer saw the track of a torpedo, which struck the ship before he could take evasive action. The crews took to the lifeboats and Guatemala sank an hour later without any casualties. Soon afterwards the Australian minesweeper Doomba picked up the 51 crew and transported them to Sydney.

The Japanese account of the Guatemala’s sinking varies slightly from official Australian records. In his book, Sunk, Mochitsura Hasimoto records the submarine fired one torpedo at Guatemala, which detonated prematurely. The submarine then surfaced and engaged the Panamanian vessel with gunfire, but found it difficult to score a direct hit in the darkness. The submarine intercepted an SOS from the ship announcing she was under attack and asking for assistance. Eventually, one of I-24’s shells hit its target, after which Guatemala’s crew stopped the ship and took to the lifeboats. The submarine then fired a second torpedo, which sank the doomed ship.

This was the last enemy submarine attack in Australian waters for about six weeks.

From the time of the Sydney Harbour raid until the sinking of Guatemala, the Third Submarine Company had sunk four ships with the loss of 73 lives over a period of 12 days. From mid-July until the beginning of August, three more large Japanese submarines – I-11, I-174 and I-175 – joined with I-24 to continue Japan’s campaign of destruction along the coast. They succeeded in sinking another four vessels before leaving Australian waters.

Thereafter, a period of calm followed until January 1943 when I-21 returned to Australian waters and sank six ships off Sydney over the following month. Then, in April 1943, I-26 sank two vessels off Brisbane, and a further six ships were sunk between April and mid-June 1943.

When Japan lost her forward bases at Rabaul and Truk, distant operations into Australian waters were rendered progressively more difficult. By the end of July 1943, submarine operations became almost impossible.

Between June 1942 and December 1944, a total of 27 merchant ships were sunk in Australian waters with the loss of 577 lives, including the 21 sailors who lost their lives on Kuttabul. Of the total fatalities, 268 lives were lost in one attack when the Australian hospital ship, Centaur, was sunk 40 miles east of Brisbane on 14 May 1943. The Centaur sank in about three minutes with only 64 survivors, who spent 36 hours in the water before rescue. The Japanese submarine thought responsible for the sinking was 1-177 commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Nakagawa, who was later tried as a war criminal and spent four years in prison for firing on survivors from a British merchant vessel torpedoed in the Indian Ocean. The sinking of Centaur was not raised at his trial.

The Duce’s Dolphins I

Italian Submarine “CAGNI”

When Benito Mussolini went to war against the Western Allies, he had at his disposal the world’s greatest submarine fleet in terms of tonnage. Only the Soviet Navy possessed a slight numerical edge. He was able to field 172 mostly modern, undersea warships, enough to simultaneously fulfill the numerous duties assigned to them: defending Italian coasts, intercepting enemy shipping, scouting for the surface fleet, transporting essential materials, and laying minefields. Nearly half of them could operate continuously for up to six months, ranging over 20,000 miles, far beyond the capabilities of any other contemporaneous submarines. Their torpedoes were among the best of World War Two; their all-volunteer crews, well-trained, skilled and spirited. If anything could truly make the Mediterranean Sea into Italy’s Mare Nostro, friend and foe alike believed the Duce’s submarines would effect the transformation.

Their expectations appeared to be confirmed just two days after his declaration of war, when the Bagnolini attacked two enemy light cruisers escorted by a destroyer squadron. A torpedo fired by Lieutenant Commander Franco Tosoni Pittoni struck HMS Calypso, sinking her about thirty kilometers southeast of the small island of Gavdo. In September, he escaped detection running submerged through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the North Atlantic. As a testimony to the skill of their operators, none of the Italian submarines that passed out and back into the Mediterranean from 1940 to 1943 were lost in the Straits deemed ‘suicidal’ by the Germans, who did indeed lose several U-boats around Gibraltar. Tight security in the form of vigilant corvettes and stationary hydrophones made movement through the narrow gauntlet hazardous.

Contributing to these military challenges was a powerful current that carried submerged vessels beyond their depth limits to sometimes collide with the rocky bottom. More than one boat was damaged by this navigational hazard, which was unknown until the first Italian submarine to leave the Mediterranean Sea for operations in the Atlantic Ocean successfully slipped through the Straits of Gibraltar on 13 June. Afterward, the British island-fortress was on high alert to prevent similar escapes. The Veniero had deftly infiltrated a formidable barrier of floating minefields and diligent patrols to team up with its U-boat comrades stationed at Bordeaux. British intelligence wrongly assumed she had sailed from Tobruk, where more submarines were supposedly lying in wait. Accordingly, the city was raided repeatedly by RAF Beaufort bombers, until a squadron of Italian destroyers sailed within range of the Egypto-Libyan border to shell British airfields at Salum, cratering the strip, blowing up repair stations, and inflicting irreparable damage on parked warplanes.

While sailing on the surface into the Bay of Biscay, the Bagnolini was attacked by a light bomber, but her accurate gunfire drove it away with the Blenheim’s starboard engine trailing smoke. On 11 December, Commander Franco Pittoni’s vessel joined German U-boats in action against Allied convoys, sinking the British cargo ship, Amicus, with a single torpedo. But the Italian submarine wallowed almost uncontrollably in North Atlantic weather, and returned suffering some damage to the Kriegsmarine base at Bordeaux. She sailed from there in early 1944, re-christened UIT-22 (U-boot-Italien, reflecting her Italo-German crew) commanded by Oblt.z.S. Friedrich Wunderlich. On 11 March, some 300 kilometers from Cape Town, UIT-22 was on her way to meet with U-178 for refueling, when she was attacked and sunk by pilots of South Africa’s 262nd Squadron. Their Catalina flying-boats were guided to the rendezvous by German radio messages of the kind British cryptographers had been intercepting the previous two years.

The fate of the former Bagnolini in some ways paralleled Italy’s entire undersea efforts during World War Two. Like that doomed ship, they got off with a successful start, but were soon hamstrung by a series of failings leading ultimately to disaster. These crucial faults were categorized and analyzed for the first time by Admiral Antonio Legnani, a veteran of the battles at Punta Stilo and Cape Matapan, where he successfully commanded his light cruiser, the Luigi di Savoia Duca Degli Abruzzi.

In “A Critical Examination of our Readiness and Results of our Submarine Warfare until early December 1941”, he pointed out that Italian boats were too slow: “This deficiency makes the reaching or passing (to then attack) of individual units or a convoy of them impossible.” Contributing to an inadequate speed was the drag produced by oversized Italian conning towers, which additionally slowed undersea maneuvers and, while surfaced, became large, visible profiles, unlike much smaller German versions. The U-boats also rode lower in the water, making them more difficult to see than the higher Italian free board. Italian engines were too loud, “with serious consequences in regards to detection by the enemy’s hydrophones.” Italian submarines were not designed to navigate through high seas, and therefore could not keep up with Kriegsmarine success against Allied convoys.

Germany’s Supreme U-Boat Commander, Admiral Karl Dönitz, originally had high hopes for augmenting his operational forces. At one time, “there were actually more Italian submarines than German U-boats operating in the Atlantic,” according to naval historian Robert Jackson. But the former handled so poorly in rough seas they achieved little. The final straw came on 25 May 1941, when Captain Giulio Ghiglieri was informed by radio that his submarine was the only Axis warship in the area where the German battleship Bismarck was immobilized and under attack by overwhelming surface forces. He tried to attack a pair of enemy cruisers, but the Barbarigo was unable to fire her torpedoes because the seas were too rough for her. Thereafter, Italian submarines were reassigned to the less turbulent Central and Southern Atlantic on solitary patrols.

Admiral Legnani wrote that Italian boats needed two to three minutes to submerge, more than twice as long as German submarines. Their turning radius was 300 meters, “thanks to the installation of a double rudder, where it is about 500 meters on our units.” U-boat torpedo-launchers generated no telltale air bubbles; Italian counterparts did. Italian torpedoes ran straight and true, but were sometimes diverted from the target by heavy swells. Worse, they only exploded on contact, when at least half of their blast potential was blown away from the target; German torpedoes were equipped with magnetic detonators that exploded with maximum effectiveness directly beneath an enemy vessel, breaking its keel.

The most distressful defect afflicting Italian submarines came to light at the very beginning of their operations. In early June 1940, serious problems with air-conditioning systems aboard the Archimede, Macalle and Perla were being attended to by repair personnel. But their efforts were interrupted by Mussolini’s declaration of war; a week later, the boats were ordered to the East African naval base at Massaua. During their first day at sea, crewmembers aboard all three vessels began experiencing debilitating nausea apparently caused by the air-conditioning units, which were partially shut down until cases of heat prostration continued to multiply. Conditions aboard Archimede were particularly severe, where some of the men, including two officers, suffered heat stroke. With the air-conditioning switched back on, many more exhibited extreme psychological disorders, including deep depression, loss of appetite, euphoria, hallucinations, and maniacal behavior.

On the night of the 23rd, a riot broke out among the crew, four men were killed, and Captain T.V. Signorini aborted his mission after restoring order, landing at the port of Assab. Mechanics rushed in from Massaua determined that methyl chloride–an odorless, colorless but highly toxic gas used as a coolant–had seeped into the ventilation systems and poisoned everyone aboard. It was replaced with relatively harmless freon, but most other Italian submarines continued to use methyl chloride for months thereafter!

A mid-1942 German newsreel documenting life inside the Barbarigo shows perspiring officers and crewmembers stripped down to their shorts, because they were reluctant to use the boat’s disreputable air-conditioning.

After the Archimede was restored to duty, she proceeded through the Red Sea, where she was on station for the next ten months. During that period, the few other Italian boats operating in this theater were virtually on their own, minus significant support from surface warships, with terrible consequences, as exemplified by the Torricelli. Enemy forces caught her on the surface outside Massawa during the dangerous daylight hours of 23 June, because malfunctioning ballast-tanks prevented her from diving. A pair of British gunboats and three destroyers converged on the partially disabled submarine, an apparently easy kill.

Hopelessly outnumbered and out-gunned, Lieutenant Commander Pelosi defiantly opened fire at 0530 with the Torricelli’s single deck-gun. A direct hit on the Shoreham’s deckhouse forced the gun-boat to disengage from the attack and make for urgent repairs at Aden. Taking advantage of the enemy’s astonishment, the suicidal Torricelli pressed forward at top speed, unloosing a spread of torpedoes at the destroyers. While they turned to avoid being hit, Pelosi directed his furiously firing deck-gun to concentrate its 100mm shells on the Khartoum, which erupted into flames.

So successful were the Torricelli’s maneuvers that the British were not able to score a hit until 0605, when its steering gear was knocked out and Pelosi wounded. He ordered the boat’s troublesome ballast-tanks manually forced opened, and she slipped beneath the surface of the Red Sea with the Italian tricolor still flying from her conning tower. In excess of 700 shells and 500 machine-gun rounds fired at the submarine in little more than half an hour had been unable to destroy her. Standing on the decks of Kandahar and Kingston, the destroyers that rescued them, survivors of the scuttled Torricelli witnessed the still-blazing Khartoum explode and sink. So impressed was Captain Robson with the Italians’ courage, he received Lieutenant Pelosi aboard the Kandahar with military honors.

Meanwhile, pressured between British forces descending from the north in Sudan and coming up from Kenya in the south, East Africa could not be expected to hold out indefinitely. Outside supplies and reinforcements could not reach the Italian defenders. Before the capture of Massaua, the Archimede and her fellow submarines made for the Italo-German base at Bordeaux, France. After passing south through the Gulf of Perim, evading enemy surface units and aircraft, they received enough supplies from a German tanker, the Northmark, to complete, in Jackson’s words, “an epic journey round the Cape of Good Hope”. The four submarines traversed 20,447 kilometers, eluding enemy interdiction and arriving in Bordeaux after sixty-five days at sea, most of them while surfaced, to great popular acclaim.

Their achievement was at least some compensation for the loss of East Africa. During the boat’s last cruise, she was under the command of Tenente di Vacello Guido Saccardo, prowling the Brazilian coast. On 15 April 1943, a U.S. Navy PBY Catalina piloted by Ensign Thurmond E. Robertson appeared 628 kilometers east-southeast of Natal. Each Italian submarine bristled with a quartet of 13.2mm machine guns, and Regia Marina crews often preferred to fight it out on the surface against attacking aircraft, rather than trust to the sluggish dive time of their boats. Saccardo’s men were no exception, and they put up such intense, accurate fire, Robertson had to abort a low-level, straight-in bomb-run, thereby affording the Archimede an opportunity to crash-dive. But she was too slow.

In desperation, Robertson put his lumbering ‘Gooney Bird’ into a sixty-degree dive, reaching a speed of 245 knots–far beyond the performance parameters for which the PBY had been designed. At 610 meters, five knots within terminal velocity, he pulled up to release four 160-kg Mk 44 Torpex-filled depth-charges. They exploded on either side of the submarine’s hull, smashing all light fixtures, disabling one of the 1,500-hp diesel engines, and blowing two forward hatches off their hinges. Unable to dive, the Italians were no less willing to surrender. For the next hour and twenty minutes, they fought off not only Robertson’s Catalina, but four other American flying-boats called to the scene. One of them piloted by Lieutenant Gerard Bradford, Jr. swooped in at a mere sixteen meters above the surface of the sea to drop four depth-charges on the Archimede. One tore through her aft hatchway, detonating torpedoes in the stern tubes, and she went down stern-first in a matter of seconds.

A pair of PBYs dropped three life-rafts for the survivors, Commander Saccardo among them. Of his fifty-four crewmembers, twenty-five were still alive, but not for long. Most were so badly wounded, they soon succumbed to their injuries. After twenty-nine days adrift in the company of his dying comrades, Engineer Giuseppe Lococo was washed ashore on Bailque, a small island at the mouth of the Amazon River, where he was found by local fishermen, who nursed him back to health. The twenty-six-year-old Sicilian coxswain was the only survivor.

The outcome of other encounters between attacking Allied aircraft and Italian submarine gunners mostly favored the latter. On 7 March 1941, look-outs aboard the Argo traversing the Bay of Biscay observed a Sunderland flying-boat in the distance. While any U-boat commander would have immediately crash-dived his vessel at the first sight of such a lethal threat, the Italians began communicating with the four-engine monster via signal lantern! Once they ascertained its identity, they allowed the Sunderland to approach to within 800 meters before opening fire, spoiling the pilot’s bomb run. By the time he resumed his attack, the Argo had vanished beneath the waves. A similar incident occurred exactly eight months later, when the Tricheco, attempting to make the Sicilian naval base at Augusta, was menaced by a Blenheim that veered away after having been hit by too many 13.2mm rounds. Off the coast of Brazil in early February 1943, gunners aboard the notorious Barbarigo caused an American Catalina pilot to prematurely drop his three bombs, which went wide of their target. The previous August 29th, she was attacked in the same waters by several PBYs. One was shot down and the others driven off, but after-gunner Carlo Marcheselli paid with his life for defending the boat.

He was not the only crewman to die in these sub-versus-plane duels, which usually saved the vessel, but not without casualties. Sergeant Michelangelo Canistraro was killed during a machine-gun attack carried out by a Sunderland against his submarine endeavoring to cross the Bay of Biscay on 15 February 1943. The Cagni escaped undamaged to complete 136 days at sea, the longest continuous mission undertaken by any Italian vessel during World War Two.

The Duce’s Dolphins II

The Torelli

But the Torelli experienced the most unique anti-aircraft action of its kind. Among the most successful Sommergibili Italiani, she sank seven enemy vessels totaling 43,000 tons, but incurred extensive damage from a British flying-boat on 5 June 1942 in the eastern Atlantic while under way to the Bahamas. Just two days later, while limping back to Bordeaux on the surface, unable to dive, she was attacked again by two more Sunderlands. Their bomb-runs repeatedly spoiled by defensive fire, they strafed the submarine, killing Sergeant Flavio Pallucchini, wounding Captain Antonio de Giacomo and another officer. During a low pass, one of the aircraft was hit, and both turned away.

The following 16 March, the Torelli was hunting along the Brazilian coast, when three Catalinas caught her on the surface. Failure of her main shut-off valve on the engine intake prevented the boat from submerging, so she was forced to engage in a ferocious gun battle with the American torpedo-bombers. One was destroyed and the other two driven off, but the deck was badly shot up, and there were casualties. The radio-man had been killed; wounded included the chief engineer, an engineer, and, once more, the captain, this time badly injured, who transferred control to his second-in-command.

Thereafter, the Torelli was made over into a long-distance transport. Stripped of all offensive weapons, save her four 13.2mm anti-aircraft guns, her torpedo tubes were used as extra fuel tanks to extend her range and interior extensively renovated. On 14 June 1943, she departed Bordeaux with 150 tons of mercury, steel, and munitions, including 20mm cannons and a 500-kg. bomb. Also on board was Colonel Kinze Sateke, a Japanese officer specializing in telecommunications, who had just finished advanced training in Germany. He was accompanied by a German engineer, plus two civilian mechanics. All of these personnel were to assist in technologically up-grading Japan’s war effort. Although Allied intercepts learned of the secret voyage before it got underway, alerted Sunderland and Catalina flying-boats patrolling from Gibraltar to Freetown failed to locate their prey.

The Torelli arrived in Singapore without incident on 31st August. Just nine days later, word came of the Badoglio armistice, and she was seized by German authorities, her officers and men interned in POW camps. But when Mussolini established his Social Republic three months later, most of them elected to fight for him again aboard their old submarine, re-named UIT-25 for her Italo-German crew. Assigned to the 12th and later the 33rd U-boat flotilla, she served in the western Pacific until the surrender of the Third Reich was learned on 10 May 1945.

But the vessel’s life was not yet finished. She received yet a third designation when drafted into the Imperial Japanese Navy as I-504. Some die-hard European officers and men stayed on board, and for the rest of World War Two, I-504 was manned by a mixed German-Italian-Japanese crew. A few days before the close of hostilities, their boat was approached by a Mitchell B-25 medium bomber. Forty-one years later, when Raffaele Sanzio was 66 years old, he recalled that attack as an engineer aboard the former Torelli:

“For the record, I can confirm that it was the 13.2mm Breda machine guns of my submarine that, on August 22nd 1945, shot down the last American twin engine bomber. It happened in Kobe, and it was us Italians who shot it down.” Theirs was the last Axis victory of the Second World War.

Although Italian submariners avoided surface combat with warships whenever possible, they did engage enemy submarines, not always by choice. The first such encounter took place on the night of 15 October 1940, when the Enrico Toti went full ahead on the surface to investigate a suspicious craft some sixty kilometers off Cape Colonne, Calabria. At about 5,000 meters, the enemy identified himself by opening fire and maneuvering for a torpedo run. A shell struck the base of the Italian boat’s conning tower, followed by one torpedo racing just passed the stern. The Toti’s four machine-guns replied by raking the stranger’s deck with 13.2mm rounds. The target turned, the Toti in pursuit, firing both of her 100mm guns at the slightly faster prey over the next thirty minutes. At 0140 hours, the 1,475-ton British submarine, Rainbow, went down with all hands.

The Toti was something of a sub-killer. The same month she sank the Rainbow, her torpedoes found the Perseus, near Zante.

The Sommergibili often gave Italian morale a boost when most needed. Just three days after 1941’s unfortunate Battle of Cape Matapan, the Ambra torpedoed HMS Bonaventure. A veteran of the raid on Taranto five months before, the battleship keeled over near Crete. That night, two freighters in a convoy bound for Greece were sunk by another Italian submarine, the Dagabur, with one, well-aimed torpedo apiece. These successes were broadly publicized to restore general confidence in Italy’s war at sea.

Italian submarines carried out less well-recognized but equally important missions. With Axis supply convoys being savaged by Allied interdiction, the Delfino transported more than 200 tons of ammunition and fuel to Italo-German troops in Libya from 13 November 1942 to 6 January 1943, shooting down a Sunderland in the process. Joining her was the Micca, formerly the flagship of the Italian submarine fleet. As such, she led a famous naval parade in honor of Adolf Hitler’s visit to Naples on 5 May 1938. When war came, the Micca was assigned to the 16th Squadron of the 1st Sommergibili Group, serving as a successful mine-layer off the Egyptian coast. In one such mission alone, on 12 June 1940, she daringly laid forty mines before the approaches to the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet headquarters at Alexandria. As a transport, the Micca delivered 2,163 tons of materials to Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

While Italian submarines took a beating in North Atlantic gales, their hull integrity was robust, perhaps even more so than their German betters. Crash-diving to escape the destroyer escort of a British convoy the Argo was just about to attack on 5 December 1940, she was battered by twenty-four well-placed depth-charges for more than four hours. A storm, not any damages incurred during the previous day’s underwater attack, practically swamped the boat and shorted out most of her electrical system, forcing Captain Crepas to make for Bordeaux. Three days earlier, the Tarantini endured 176 depth-charges hurled at her for twenty-four hours to emerge scarred but seaworthy. But the Smeraldo held the record for survival after escaping another round-the-clock barrage, this time in the Mediterranean, of more than 200 depth-charges between the 7th and 8th of July 1940, returning for minor repairs at the Regia Marina base in Tobruk. More impressive, the redoubtable Torelli survived an attack that would have broken the back of most other submarines, when two bombs launched at her from a Sunderland exploded under the vessel’s keel. Although badly damaged, on fire, with all her navigational aids knocked out, Commander Migliori brought her safely to the Spanish port of Aviles, where the Torelli was repaired and went on to fulfill her interesting destiny in the Pacific. Ironically, the Schnorchel, an extendable tube that allowed diesel-powered submarines to recharge their batteries without exposing themselves while surfaced, had been invented by an Italian major, Pericle Ferretti, as early as 1922. Like radar, another Italian invention, no one bothered to develop his Schnorchel.

These two neglected devices could have altered the course of military history in the Regia Marina’s favor. Mussolini’s envisioned navy had always included submarines, which received preferential considerations in fuel and production. Even so, Italy lacked the industrial capacity to keep up with attrition. German shipyards mass-produced more than 1,000 U-boats, while just forty new submarines were built by the Italians.

Far more decisive, however, was the unseen battle of military intelligence. An early gift to Allied cryptographers was a copy of the Sommergibili Italiani SM 19/S code book retrieved from the Uebi Scebeli. Described by Jackson as “among the best Italian submarines to be used during the war, giving good service in a variety of roles … strong and very maneuverable”, she was scuttled by her crew after having been depth-charged to the surface and subjected to the concentrated fire of five enemy destroyers on 28 June 1940. Over the next two weeks, eight more vessels of Italy’s sub-surface fleet were sunk in equally quick succession, until Regia Marina commanders realized the missing manual was being used to intercept their submarines, and revised all naval codes. Henceforward, Italian undersea successes resumed when a destroyer, HMS Escort, failed to survive her encounter with the Marconi off Gibraltar on 11 July.

But the power of code-breaking to sway the fortunes of war would return two years later, when the last impediment to the ULTRA secret and its capacity to render all Axis’ secrets transparent was removed with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, chief of security in the Third Reich. ULTRA code-breaking was in large measure responsible for most of the Italians’ eighty-two submarines lost during World War Two. That they were able to sink 724,656 tons of enemy shipping in just three years is a remarkable testimony to their courage and skill, operating as they did at distinct disadvantages not confronted by Allied submarines. The enemy read orders issued by Commando Supremo at the same moment they were received by Regia Marina captains. As such, virtually every Italian vessel–not only most submarines–was ambushed before it could locate an opponent. Whereas the Italian Navy depended on a few, slow reconnaissance planes of limited range to search the vast Mediterranean Sea for targets, cryptographers sitting in London knew in advance almost every move Axis commanders made.

The Sommergibili were additionally confronted by formidable anti-submarine measures, the like of which no Anglo-American boats need ever have feared. The fifty-two U.S. submarines lost in the Second World War escaped the almost invariably innocuous attacks by enemy destroyers to be far more often bombed while surfaced by Japanese aircraft. Britain’s Royal Navy Submarine Service lost seventy-five submarines, but sank 1,500,000 tons of merchant shipping, plus 169 warships in all theatres, although during a longer period of time (three more years). Moreover, the vast majority of these successes were made against virtually defenseless Japanese convoys in the South and Central Pacific. During the first half of World War Two, British submarines operated primarily out of Malta, protecting that besieged, strategically valuable island, and raiding Axis convoys to North Africa. In the course of fulfilling these duties, they were eminently successful, but had they been forced to operate in the North Atlantic, as the Italian submarines did, they would have suffered no less grievously. Hitler’s U-boats were true, ocean-going vessels, more advanced than any contemporaries, and Admiral Legnano perhaps mistakenly compared them to his own country’s submarines, which had been designed for the less navigationally-challenging Mediterranean Theater.

Had he juxtaposed his Sommergibili with American versions, he would have had cause for optimism, because the U.S. Navy’s ‘Silent Service’ was far inferior to Italy’s undersea fleet. Beginning after the attack at Pearl Harbor, throughout all of 1942 and most of 1943, American submarines ran up a virtually unrelieved record of failure. Its boats were plagued with stability and buoyancy problems. Their torpedoes ran too deeply and exploded harmlessly, if at all, against an enemy hull in the rare instance they could be made to hit a target. Of the first four torpedoes fired by the submarine Tinosa on 24 July 1943 at a Japanese whaling factory ship, two struck the 19,000-ton vessel, which suffered no damage. U.S. Commander Daspit launched two more torpedoes, both of which hit the Tonan Maru 111 and stopped but could not sink her. At close range, and at right angles to his stationary target, he loosed off nine additional torpedoes. All hit; none exploded.

Solutions were needlessly prolonged by Bureau of Ordinance bureaucrats, who steadfastly stood by the sacred design superiority of ‘American torpedoes,’ and blamed all failures on human error. An authoritative website additionally points out that “many U.S. submarine captains did not stand up to the rigors of war time command that was demanded of them; in 1942, 30% were removed for lack of fitness or lack of results, and 14% for the same reason both in 1943, and 1944. All were career officers, generally older and thus much more conservative and cautious in combat. Consequently, most of the early offensive maneuvers were made from the safety of deep water by sonar, with predictably dismal results.”

Another web site reveals that “the lack of a unified submarine command (in the U.S. Navy) compounded the challenges. Infighting between the Pacific Fleet based in Pearl and the Asiatic Fleet in Manila for manpower and materials accounted for a schism in command that lasted throughout virtually the entire war. But even with the ‘heads up’ intelligence information being provided (by ULTRA code-breakers), tactical positioning errors by top leadership continued to haunt the submarine fleet. Boats were continually given orders of deployment to stalk the entrances of harbors and ports, ignoring the fact that the bulk of the Japanese shipping was concentrated along established, high seas trade routes. ”

Immediately after the war, commanders of the ‘Silent Service’ announced they sank ten million tons of Japanese shipping, amounting to 4,000 enemy vessels. Subsequent U.S. Navy investigation of the record showed that the total destroyed tonnage was actually half as great, while the number of ships sunk was a third of the original claim. Investigators also learned that of America’s 16,000 submariners, 375 officers and 3,331 enlisted men perished at sea–a 22% casualty rate, the highest percentage in all U.S. armed forces.

Properly functioning torpedoes were not introduced until the close of 1943, long after the war had already turned decisively in the Allies’ favor. For the remaining twenty months of that conflict, Americans sank the most ships of any submarine service of the war, possibly because they were fighting an enemy whose ability to defend himself was severely hampered.

The Soviet Navy’s undersea fleet would have likewise encouraged Admiral Legnano. After having primarily distinguished themselves for most of the war by being sunk by German Stuka dive-bombers, the few Russian submarines that survived attacked unarmed passenger liners overcrowded with refugees during the waning days of hostilities. On 30 January 1945, Commander Alexander Marinesko sank the Wilhelm Gustloff with the loss of 9,343 wounded soldiers, medical personnel, Baltic families and other civilians–the highest loss of life at sea in recorded history. A similar Soviet ‘triumph’ was submarine L-3’s destruction of the Goya, carrying 7,000 Eastern Europeans the following 16 April. Only 183 survived.

The Italian submarine service made up for its deficiencies with some of the most outstanding commanders of the war. Among them was Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia. Kriegsmarine admirals were so impressed by him, they awarded Ursus atlanticus, as his crew members affectionately referred to their Captain, the distinguished Ritterkreuz, or ‘Knight’s Cross’, an honor infrequently bestowed on their own commanders, let alone foreigners. Among his many, perilous exploits, he eluded destroyers dispatched to intercept him, while sinking six Allied vessels, including the Empress of Canada, a large British troopship. Before he was killed in action on 23 May 1943, he sank 90,601 tons of Allied shipping, making his Leonardo Da Vinci the most successful Italian submarine, with 120,243 tons sunk. Fifty years later, the Italian Navy’s new S525 was christened the Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia.

The last hurrah of the Sommergibili Italiani was their desperate defense of Sicily against an overwhelming Allied onslaught. A few managed to get in some significant hits before most of them went down fighting, such as the Dandolo, when her torpedoes so badly wrecked HMS Cleopatra on 16 July 1943 the anti-aircraft cruiser would never see combat again. Thereafter, aside from a handful of Italian submarines that happened to be operating outside the Mediterranean on 8 September, those in harbor were immediately seized by the Badoglio authorities. All the rest still at sea were ordered, under protocols laid down by the Anglo-Americans, to strictly observe a cease-fire and proceed at once on the surface under a black flag to various assigned ports. A few submarines, such as the Torelli, ran for Axis-held territories or neutral havens elsewhere.

The Topazio was less successful. For two days, she accompanied three other boats, the Diaspro, Marea and Turchese, all of them headed dutifully for Allied-held Bona on the Algerian coast. But during the night of the 10th, the Topazio slipped away, and Lieutenant Pier Vittorio Casarini hauled down the disgraceful flag of surrender. Two days later, his boat was twenty kilometers southwest of Sardinia’s Cape Carbonara when it was attacked by a Sunderland. The Topazio sank almost at once, taking Lt. Casarini and his entire crew with her. By that time, all but forty-four of the Italian submarine service’s original 172 boats had been lost, most of them after June 1942, when the Allies finally and completely broke all Axis military codes. In thirty-nine months of combat, Italian submarines sank thirteen warships, amounting to 24,554 tons. Their primary targets were, however, convoys or individual freighters, and they claimed 129 merchant vessels, an impressive 668,311 tons, up until the day of the Badoglio armistice.

Italians everywhere were flabbergasted by the dramatic turn of events. Mario Daneo was a San Marco guard on duty at Bordeaux’s Italo-German submarine base when the news reached him. “Everyone was astounded and speechless,” he remembered. “The following day, we were called into the square, and our commanding officer, along with the general commander in charge of the city, gave us a long speech in which he said that those of us who felt like it could continue with their assignment, as before. My friend, Precis Palesano, and I–he was a 3rd class Chief–looked at each other, and decided to stay. Of the 2,000 personnel from the Navy, the San Marco Battalion, Carabinieri, workers and specialists, more than 300 stayed. The others had to pack their suitcases and back-packs. At 16:30, five or six Germans came in and began loading all those who did not want to stay, and they were brought to a camp outside Bordeaux; whatever was not needed was taken away. More than one felt guilty and came back.”

A man who felt particularly guilty was Carlo Fecia di Cossato, among the most able of Italian submarine aces. Beginning on 15 April 1941, he commanded the Tazzoli in the western Atlantic, adding sixteen sunken ships to the boat’s first two under the previous Captain Vittore Raccanelli for a total of 96,553 tons, plus another damaged ship of 5,000 tons. The Germans respected Di Cossato, and bestowed several awards on him, the most distinctive having been the Iron Cross First Class, presented in person by Admiral Dönitz. From his fellow countrymen, Di Cossato received the Gold Medal, the Italian Armed Forces’ highest decoration, and two silver medals for military bravery. He was also a popular commander with fellow officers and enlisted men, who admired his intelligence and compassion.

On 2 February 1942, Di Cossato was given leave of absence, while the Tazzoli was placed under new command, stripped of armaments, and modified into a transport. As such, she departed Bordeaux for Japan with 165 tons of special cargo on 16 May, but was sunk the next day with all hands in a depth-charge attack carried out by the destroyer, U.S.N. Mackenzie. By then, her former commander had been transferred to the Aliseo, patrolling the Ligurian coast. It was while on station here that he learned of Badoglio’s surrender, and received orders to attack German naval forces evacuating Corsica. There, he destroyed several German landing-craft outside Bastia, and went on to perform escort duty for Allied ships in the Adriatic throughout most of 1944.

But these operations weighed heavily on di Cossato, until he spoke openly of his deep disappointment with the post-Mussolini regime for the first time in mid-summer, and requested dismissal from active duty. When word spread to Taranto, crews at the naval base demonstrated angrily on his behalf, and the Gold Medal recipient was punished with a six-month suspension. Sometime thereafter, he received offers for a lucrative commission in the U.S. Navy. He turned it down without explanation.

Unable to join his family residing in Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic up north, Di Cossato wrote to his mother on 21 August, about his “revolt toward the meanness of this period … For the last nine months, I have reflected upon the extremely sad moral position in which I found myself, following the ignominious surrender of the navy to which I resigned myself only because it was presented to me as a direct order from the king … You understand what is happening in Italy, and how we have been unworthily betrayed, and committed an ignominious act without any result. It is from this gloomy realization that I have developed a deep sadness, a disgust for what surrounds us. For months I have been thinking about my sailors of the Tazzoli, who are honorably on the bottom of the sea, and I think that my place is with them.”

Six days later, Captain di Cossato took his own life.

Death on the Equator – Khedive Ismail 12.02.44

HIJMS Submarine I-27: Tabular Record of Movement

SS Khedive Ismail

The Indian Ocean was at its best, the sky a flawless blue, the sea mirror-calm, the wind a gentle breeze from the north-east. An eerie quiet lay over the ocean, with only the measured thump of the engines and the swish of the bow-wave disturbing the silence of the early afternoon. Lunch was over, and most of the passengers were below enjoying a concert party in the main lounge. On deck, a few dedicated sun worshippers were stretched out in steamer chairs. At any other time the Khedive Ismail might have been a cruise liner of the 1930s carrying the privileged to their next exotic destination. But the year was 1944, and the world was at war.

By December 1943, after a long and hard-fought campaign, British forces in Burma had at last turned the tables on the Japanese invaders, and a major offensive aimed at regaining lost territory was about to be mounted. Fresh troops were being brought in from bases around the Indian Ocean, among them 996 men of the 301st Field Regiment of the East African Artillery, who made up the majority of the Khedive Ismail’s passengers. Also on board were 271 Royal Navy personnel, 54 nursing sisters, 19 Wrens and 9 drivers of the Women’s Transport Service. The ship’s crew consisted of 22 British officers, 5 medical staff, 12 DEMS gunners and 144 Indian ratings. With a total of 1,536 passengers and crew on board, the ship’s accommodation was fully occupied.

In her long life the Khedive Ismail had served many masters. Built on the River Clyde in 1922 for the Chilean Campania Sud Americana de Vapores for their Valparaiso to New York service, she had been launched as the Aconcagua, named for the highest mountain in the Andes. In l931, following heavy losses sustained by CSVA in the depression years, she had been sold to Lithgows of Port Glasgow and returned to the land of her birth. A few years later, the Lithgow yard sold her on to another shipbuilder, William Hamilton of Belfast, who in turn found a buyer for her in Egypt, the Khedivial Mail Line of Alexandria. She was then renamed Khedive Ismail and employed ferrying cargo and passengers between Alexandria and ports in Greece and France. Egypt was then under joint British and French control, and in 1940 she was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport and converted for carrying troops in the Indian Ocean under the management of the British India Steam Navigation Company.

On Sunday, 5 February 1944 the Khedive Ismail sailed from Mombasa, East Africa with Convoy KR-8, bound for Colombo. The convoy consisted of five fast British troopships, Ellerman Line’s 10,902-ton City of Paris and four others operated by British India, the Ekma (5,108 tons), the Ellenga (5,196 tons), the Varsova (4,701 tons) and the Khedive Ismail. Between them, the five ships were carrying a total of 6,311 military personnel.

Commanded by 49-year-old Captain Roderick Macaulay, who had been appointed convoy commodore, the Khedive Ismail led the way out of Mombasa, and once clear of Mackenzie Point the ships formed up in three columns abreast. At the head of the port outer column was the convoy’s ocean escort, the heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins.

Built in 1917 and a veteran of the China Station, HMS Hawkins was a formidable looking warship armed with seven 7.5-inch and eight 12-pounders; but she was severely lacking in anti-submarine capability, which in this war was the main requirement of any convoy escort. She had no Asdic or any other underwater detecting equipment and was in reality far more vulnerable than any of the merchant ships she was charged with protecting. Fortunately, KR-8 also had a local escort comprising the Flower-class corvette Honesty and the two Banff-class sloops Lulworth and Senna, all fully equipped and well experienced in submarine warfare.

As the convoy formed up off the East African coast, 3,000 miles to the east the Japanese submarine I-27, which had sailed from Penang twenty-four hours earlier, was rounding the northern end of Sumatra and entering the Indian Ocean. In her conning tower was Commander Toshiaki Fukumura, who had orders to seek out and attack Allied shipping in the Gulf of Aden. The Suez Canal, which for some time had been inaccessible to the Allies, was once more in business, and it was reported that many ships were sailing unescorted in the Gulf.

I-27 was a 356ft-long cruiser-class submarine with a displacement on the surface of 2,584 tons, almost twice the size of the Type IX, her German equivalent, and considerably larger than the average British destroyer. She was armed with six torpedo tubes in the bow, a 5.5-inch deck gun and a twin-barrelled 25mm AA gun in the conning tower. Housed in a hangar forward of the tower was a small reconnaissance seaplane, and she was also equipped to carry a midget submarine on deck when required. With a surface speed of 23 knots and an underwater speed of 8 knots, I-27 was undoubtedly fast, but she had an Achilles heel: largely because of her size, she was slow to manoeuvre and slow to dive, two characteristics that could prove fatal to a submarine at war.

Thirty-nine-year-old Toshiaki Fukumura was a long-serving member of the Imperial Japanese Navy, having entered the service as a midshipman in 1927. After sailing in the battleship Matsu he had joined the submarine arm in l933 as a navigator, advancing quickly through the ranks until in November 1939 he was given command of the small coastal submarine RO-34. Since taking command of I-27 in February 1943 he had had considerable success, sinking ten Allied ships of 54,453 tons and damaging three others. In the course of these sinkings he had earned the reputation of being a ruthless foe, prone to machine-gunning survivors in the water.

Four days after sailing from Mombasa, when crossing the Equator north of the Seychelles, KR-8’s local escort returned to port, leaving the cruiser Hawkins in sole charge. The voyage so far had been without incident, and with the Admiralty reporting no German or Japanese submarines in the area, the indications were that it would continue so. Some forty hours later, on the morning of the 11th, HMS Hawkins was joined by the P-class destroyers Paladin and Petard, two of the Royal Navy’s best. Less than three years off the stocks, they were 37-knotters equipped with the latest in anti-submarine gear. The two destroyers took up station 3,000yds on either bow and began zigzagging, their Asdics sweeping ahead for any sign of an underwater enemy. KR-8 was then only 270 miles west of the naval air base on Addu Atoll, and with air cover expected soon it seemed that, to quote an old adage, ‘it was all over bar the shouting’.

Dawn on the 12th saw the convoy approaching the One and a Half Degree Channel, the 80-mile-wide gap in the Maldive archipelago, and making 13 knots. During the course of the morning, Captain Whitehorn, as convoy commodore, suggested to the Senior Officer Escort, Captain Josselyn in HMS Hawkins, that the merchant ships should now commence zigzagging. His suggestion was noted, but no action was taken. No air cover had yet arrived, but with Addu Atoll only just over the horizon to starboard and Colombo less than two days steaming away, Josselyn appears to have been content to leave things as they were. The convoy continued on its serene way, seemingly oblivious to any dangers that might still lay ahead.

Aboard the Khedive Ismail noon sights had been taken and the course adjusted appropriately. Normal afternoon routine was being followed. Below decks, the concert party was in full swing, with Nursing Sister Edith Bateman giving a spirited rendering on the grand piano of the Warsaw Concerto, while on deck the sunbathers sipped their post-lunch gin and tonics contentedly. The war seemed to be on some far-off planet. Then, without warning, this peaceful scene was cruelly shattered.

I-27’s periscope was sighted simultaneously by the leading ship of the starboard column, British India’s Varsova, which was slightly ahead of her station, and the destroyer Petard. Aboard Petard, zigzagging on the starboard bow, the Officer of the Watch, Lieutenant R. de Pass, happened to be looking astern when he caught a glimpse of the periscope as Fukumura took a quick sweep around the horizon. At the same time, three DEMS gunners, standing to at the 4-inch on the Varsova’s poop, saw what they described as ‘A dark green periscope protruding some 3ft above the water and travelling towards the Khedive Ismail at about 4 knots’. The gunners tried to bring their gun to bear, but it would not depress low enough.

Fukumura had been approaching the One and a Half Degree Channel from the east when he sighted the smoke of the convoy, which was then on a reciprocal course. Remaining on the surface until the sighting was confirmed by the appearance of mast and funnels on the horizon, Fukumura submerged and waited. KR-8 continued on course in complete ignorance of the danger it was steaming towards.

As the convoy drew nearer, Fukumura sank deep, and with motors stopped and observing silent routine, he allowed the two destroyers to pass over him. Once inside the convoy, he came back to periscope depth and took another quick look around. I-27 was then about 50yds astern of the Varsova, but Fukumura had eyes only for the cruiser Hawkins. He took careful aim and fired a spread of four torpedoes.

I-27’s spread bracketed the British cruiser, one torpedo passing ahead of her, another astern. The Khedive Ismail, which at the time was partially overlapping Hawkins, was the unlucky recipient of the other two torpedoes. Second Officer Cecil Munday, who was on watch on the bridge of the troopship at the time, later stated:

I am of the opinion the submarine fired a fan of torpedoes from the starboard quarter of the convoy; I was on watch at the time, talking to one of the signalmen, when I saw the wake of a torpedo pass our stern and miss the stern of HMS Hawkins by 50 feet. Immediately afterwards we were struck by a torpedo in No. 4 hold on the starboard side, followed five seconds later by a second torpedo, which struck in the boiler room, on the starboard side. No one saw the track of either of these torpedoes, but I sighted the U-boat’s periscope about 400 feet away between the centre and starboard columns.

There was a loud explosion with the first torpedo, which caused the vessel to list 12° to starboard; the second explosion, which was more violent than the first, may have caused one of the boilers to explode. There was no flash with either explosion, but I saw flames rising outside the funnel through the fidley gratings. No water was thrown up, but a great amount of debris was flung high into the air. The second explosion caused the main stairway and troop deck to collapse, thereby trapping a great number of people. The vessel continued to heel over to starboard, until she was on her beam ends, and then disappeared.

An unnamed eyewitness described how, when the first torpedo struck, he saw the mainmast collapse and much of the after part of the superstructure cave in, while the hatch covers of the after hold were blown high in the air. When, five seconds later, the other torpedo hit directly below the funnel, there was a major explosion inside the vessel, resulting in the Khedive Ismail breaking in two. The stern sank first, then the bow section up-ended and corkscrewed below the surface. One minute and forty seconds after she was first hit, the ship was gone.

Acting Petty Officer Percy Crabb, one of the Royal Navy contingent on board the Khedive Ismail, in later years recorded his experience:

I was in the POs’ mess with seven other petty officers when the troopship was torpedoed between 1400 and 1500 by, I believe, two tin fish, one in the engine room and one aft under the counter. I was asleep at the time. Immediately she listed over; everyone made a dash for the companionway except yours truly and PO Harper; we both made for the two portholes, which were open. I remember scrambling through and hobbling down the ship’s side, stepping over the rolling chock and diving into the sea, by the time I surfaced the ship had gone. I swam to a green smoke canister some thirty yards away, hanging on to this I looked around me, there were several survivors either swimming or hanging on to whatever floated.

Soon after the second torpedo hit, Captain Whiteman, realizing that his ship was mortally wounded, gave the order to abandon ship, informing Second Officer Munday that he would remain on board until everyone else was off. This was a brave gesture that would cost Roderick Whiteman his life; the Khedive Ismail capsized and sank only seconds later.

Second Officer Munday later said:

There was no time to launch any boats, but many rafts and four lifeboats broke away as the ship sank. The Chief Officer and the Troop Officer ordered everybody to jump overboard as the ship was turning over. The Chief Officer jumped, but fouled some ropes and was pulled under with the ship; he eventually came to the surface, found a raft onto which he climbed and managed to pull on board a Wren who was struggling in the water. He said that he felt no effect of suction on the low side of the ship as she sank. I went along to No. 2 boat and saw a Wren officer lying on the deck; as she was unconscious and frothing at the mouth, I did not consider anything could be done for her, so I climbed over the high side and walked down the ship’s side into the water.

I swam some half dozen strokes from the ship when a big wave overtook me, and as I was drawn under I saw many bodies and wreckage floating past; I momentarily surfaced and managed to take a few deep breaths before being again drawn under. I was then on the port side of the ship, but on surfacing again I found myself off the starboard bow. I therefore must have passed completely under the ship.

The reaction of Paladin and Petard to the sighting of the periscope by Lieutenant de Pass was immediate. Both destroyers turned outwards under full helm and raced back to the rear of the convoy, where it was thought the attacker might be. Asdic contact was established, and with Petard directing, Paladin dropped two patterns of depth charges. There was no visible reaction, Fukumura having already moved out of range. Now the hunt had to begin in earnest.

At this point, as Senior Officer Escort, Captain Josselyn in HMS Hawkins intervened. Having in mind the possibility of more than one enemy submarine being involved, he called for one destroyer to return to the convoy, leaving the other to deal with the attacker. Petard being the senior ship, Commander Egan ordered Paladin to rejoin, after first picking up survivors sighted in the water. Among those survivors was Petty Officer Crabb, who later wrote:

The convoy had dispersed by this time and it seemed we were left to our own devices; some 200 yards away were two lifeboats from the ship, one upside down, survivors were all making for them so I decided to do the same.

I am almost certain the submarine passed under me, as there was quite a turbulence of water and a wake left behind. This was the scene when the destroyers Petard and Paladin arrived at high speed, the submarine must have been picked up on their Asdics, because they started depth charging some 300 yards away. I distinctly remember one charge from the thrower exploding just above the surface of the sea. It was a very strange experience to feel shock waves coming through the water and the almighty thump in the stomach. Luckily, I was still hanging on to the smoke float, which took most of the concussion.

Paladin had dropped off a motor boat and sea boat to pick up survivors. I eventually made it to the troopship’s lifeboat and got aboard, we managed to row towards Paladin, which was slowly circling us, while Petard was still depth charging further away. We got alongside Paladin and hastily scrambled aboard, among us three nursing sisters, two Wrens and one South African WTS; this was all that was left of their contingents. I remember a seaman throwing me a pair of sandals, as I was barefoot, because the steel decks of the destroyer were very hot.

HMS Paladin was in the act of sending away her boats to pick up survivors when I-27 appeared to give away her position. Commander Egan, on the bridge of Petard, saw a sudden eruption in the water about 1,000yds to the east which had the appearance of a submarine blowing its tanks. Egan carried out an Asdic sweep in the area but could get no contact. He then concluded that the disturbance must have been caused by a sudden rush of air escaping from the submerged wreck of the Khedive Ismail and decided to join Paladin in the more urgent business of rescuing people from the water. It soon became obvious that there were not many of them. To quote Commander Egan, ‘Survivors were regrettably few and concentrated in a small area, with barely half a dozen up-turned boats and a few rafts.’

As Petard approached the survivors with her boats swung out ready to lower, another large bubble of air broke the surface close to the wreckage marking the last resting place of the Khedive Ismail. Egan immediately abandoned the rescue and made for the spot at full speed. Once again he was disappointed, for no Asdic contact could be made. He was about to rejoin Paladin when, to his great surprise, a submarine suddenly shot to the surface about 1½ miles on Petard’s starboard quarter. Egan’s report reads:

By this time Paladin had recovered all survivors and both ships turned simultaneously to the attack, firing with all weapons and scoring many hits. I then proceeded to pass as close astern of the U-boat as practicable, firing three depth charges from the port throwers and trap, set to 50 feet, when close aboard, which fell reasonably near but were not lethal.

Meanwhile the U-boat got under way but attempts by the crew to come out of the conning tower were frustrated by the combined fire of both ships. At least two of the crew were blown to shreds. Petard now opened from the target while Paladin closed at high speed to the attack, signalling that she intended to ram.

Although there was a possibility of the U-boat re-submerging, I did not wish to take this action, except as a last resort, I therefore ordered Paladin not to ram.

Egan’s signal came too late. Paladin was then only 600yds from the surfaced submarine and bearing down on her at full speed. The Khedive Ismail’s second officer, Cecil Munday, who had been picked up by HMS Paladin, described the action:

All the survivors in the Paladin were ordered to lie flat on deck. We then proceeded at full speed and steamed straight for the submarine with the intention of ramming. When only a few feet away the Senior Officer in HMS Petard signalled, ‘Don’t ram’. Immediately the helm was put over in an attempt to clear, but as she shot past the submarine’s hydroplane guard caught in the Paladin’s side, below water, and ripped her side from amidships as far aft as the 4″ gun. Water poured into the ship and everybody was ordered on deck.

Damage parties reported that the Paladin’s hull had been sliced open for some 80ft just below the waterline. Her engine room was awash, and two fuel tanks and the after magazine were flooded. The destroyer slowly lost way, until she was lying dead in the water and listing to starboard. Paladin was out of the fight.

Petard now took up the sword, and there followed a bizarre running action lasting nearly an hour, in which destroyer and submarine circled each other like two prize fighters in the ring, each looking for an opportunity to land the killer punch. I-27 appeared to be unable to dive, and because of the hail of machine-gun and cannon fire sweeping her decks her gunners were unable to man her 5.5-inch. However, her six torpedo tubes were a menace not to be ignored. If she were able to manoeuvre into a position to fire, Petard would be in great danger. As it was, the destroyer smothered the submarine with shot and shell, firing a total of 300 rounds of 4-inch and a constant stream of smaller shot. I-27’s deck gun was blasted over the side and her conning tower riddled, but due to Petard’s lack of armour-piercing shells, she failed to hole the submarine’s hull. Commander Egan wrote in his report:

The problem of tackling a U-boat under these conditions was vexatious. Gunfire inflicted no apparent damage to pressure hull and running up alongside sufficiently close to lob depth charges to a lethal distance, with the U-boat under helm, at the same time keeping clear of bow and stern tubes, was hazardous. These tactics were finally abandoned due to the danger of collision and it was decided to sink her by torpedo.

Here again the target appeared simple, but only the seventh torpedo found its mark and she finally blew up at 1153 (GMT). When the column of water subsided, nothing was visible except an oil patch. Another violent underwater explosion occurred seven minutes later, which only brought more diesel oil and a few pieces of wreckage to the surface.

Paladin now reported she was in danger of sinking. Her engine room was flooded and it was feared that the forward engine room bulkhead would give way under the weight of water. Her remaining torpedoes were fired off, and everything moveable and not essential was thrown overboard, while her survivors were transferred to HMS Petard. Fortunately, by the time the sun went down Paladin had stopped taking on water and appeared to be out of danger. Petard then passed a tow line, and the two destroyers set off for Addu Atoll, leaving HMS Hawkins to look after the remaining four ships of the convoy. The destroyers arrived safely at the base t 0740 the next morning.

The sinking of the Khedive Ismail with the loss of 1,297 lives, including 77 women and 137 of her crew of 183, will go down in history as one of the worst shipping disasters of the Second World War. There are conflicting reports as to why so many people died, when the weather was so favourable and other ships were close by. It has been said, although never officially confirmed, that I-27 was hiding under the survivors in the water and that HMS Petard made at least one depth charge run through them, causing many deaths. If this was so, then Commander Rupert Egan was only following Navy protocol, the safety of the other ships in the convoy taking precedence over the lives of survivors in the water.

Kenneth Harrup, who was serving in the repair ship HMS Lucas at the time, in later years wrote:

Our orders were to join the Khedive Ismail and convoy KR 8 but when they learned that our maximum speed was only 9 knots they departed without us at 15 knots on the 5th. We left on the 8th and sailed through the wreckage and empty lifeboats before arriving at the Maldives where we carried out first aid repairs to the damaged destroyer. Apart from this our voyage was completely uneventful, but only now do I realize how close we came to disaster.

If that raider had not been disposed of in that terrible moment of decision by the Petard captain, my ship and the lives of some 500 navy men would almost certainly have fallen to that Japanese submarine. We had so little in the way of defences – just a 12 pounder gun and a few depth charges, we would have been a sitting duck. With that thought in mind, perhaps those dozens of poor souls did not die in vain on that most tragic day 61 long years ago, when swimming hopefully towards their rescuers only to find that they were their executioners.

Operation Source: Midget Submarine Attack on the Tirpitz, 22 September 1943 Part I


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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.” 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.”

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.”

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 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 Tirpitz displaced 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.

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.


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.”

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.”

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.” 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.).

Operation Source: Midget Submarine Attack on the Tirpitz, 22 September 1943 Part II

Makin, Johne; Operation ‘Source’, 22 September 1943; Royal Navy Submarine Museum;


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. 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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.


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.”

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.

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-7 had 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-8 managed 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.’ ”