World War Two: X-Boat Heroes

Dicover the secrets of one of the most heroic missions of the second world war with the story of the courageous attack, carried out by 24 British servicemen, on the massive German battleship, the Tirpitz in September 1943.

The mission

On September 11th 1943, a small band of British seamen set out on one of the most courageous missions of World War 2. The secret mission pitted this handful of men against an enemy, thousands strong.

They were crammed into four-man midget submarines and battled their way through perilous Arctic waters to reach their destination, an impenetrable Norwegian fjord and an adversary 1,400 times their size, the Nazi battleship Hitler called "The Beast", the formidable Tirpitz.

The Tirpitz was the Nazis largest battleship and proved itself to be a constant menace to British naval convoys during World War Two. It's crew believed the ship to be indestructable, but "The Beast" would be slain by three revolutionary new X-Craft.

The odds were hugely stacked against the men from the beginning, incredibly crews from two of the boats survived to tell the tale, but mystery has surrounded the fate of the third boat, X5, and it's crew, for over 65 years.

50,000 Tonnes Of Terror

The Tirpitz was Hitler's pride and joy and Nazi Germany's most powerful naval weapon. It weighed in at 50,000 tonnes, was 823 feet long and posessed eight, 15 inch guns. It was stationed in the Norwegian fjord of Kaafjord in Northern Norway to be able to intercept British shipping on their way from Scapa Flow in Scotland to Mermansk in Russia.

In the July of 1942, the Tirpitz and it's battle group was responsible for the greatest shipping disaster of World War 2. A particular convoy of Allied ships, like so many before it, lost 24 out of 36 ships that were heading for Russia. Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared the Tirpitz as his number one target.

The problem was that the Tirpitz was hidden away inside the heavily fortified fjord in Norway. RAF bombing campaigns had proved fruitless and, because it was so heavily defended, attack by ships was impossible. It was even protected below the waves, as it was surrounded by anti-torpedo nets, so conventional torpedos would be useless.

Coming Up With The Plan

The British admiralty were secretly developing an experimental weapon and in August 1942, notices went up around Portsmouth Naval Base for volunteers to undertake hazardous, special duties.

Hidden away inside the base was the revolutionary X-Craft, a midget submarine powered by a London bus engine. It was so top secret that it was built in three sections in three separate shipyards around Britain, before being assembled at Portsmouth.

Each of the three X-Craft would posess a diver, who could crawl out of the submarine to cut a hole in those underwater torpedo nets surrounding the Tirpitz. Two massive bombs called Saddle Charges were also carried by the submarine and would be dropped directly underneath the hull of the battleship.

Five of the X-Craft commanders, 1942
Five of the X-Craft commanders, 1942

Training The Saboteurs

The three submarines which would take part in the mission codenamed "Source" were built by the Vickers company. There was initially six of these X-Craft, transported to a secret destination in Scotland.

In September 1942, the volunteers for the mission arrived at the secret base in Scotland in preparation for their task. Some of the men were in the Navy, others were from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. They all accepted that this mission would be unique and extremely dangerous. It would require the highest order of bravery and daring to achieve the desired success.

To prepare for the attack on the Tirpitz, all the volunteers had to train as divers and learn how to cut through anti-torpedo netting. they would have to climb out of the sub, pick up a pneumatic cutter and cut around the net while the sub slipped through, finally the diver then had to get back into the boat and not get left behind.

The men's diving equipment was also experimental and the diver breathed in pure oxygen. At a depth of 30 feet, he would have around 3 hours of oxygen, but at a depth of 50 feet this time fell to just 30 minutes. At a depth of 100 feet they could only realistically breathe for 2 minutes or they would die from oxygen poisoning.

A couple of the volunteers died in training for the mission, because of this dilemma, others couldn't handle the extreme conditions and were shipped out back to general service.Another problem to overcome was how to get the submarines to Norway 1,200 miles away from the secret base in Scotland.

Various suggestions were put forward until it was decided that the X-Craft would be towed by larger submarines, but this had never been attempted before. Trials of this method began in Scotland as time began to run out.

Locating The Target

Success in the mission meant it's completion had to be achieved before the end of autumn 1943, as the Arctic winter would make the mission impossible. So it was decided that the X-Craft would have to leave Scotland by no later than September 11th.

Intelligence on the exact position of the Tirpitz was vital and on September 7th, a reconnaissance flight of RAF Spitfires flew from Russia over the anchorage of the Tirpitz in the Norwegian fjord.....but the Tirpitz wasn't there.

Unknown to the Allied admiralty, the Tirpitz and it's battle group had left their base to attack an Allied radio base in Spitzbergen.

On September 10th, 1,200 miles away, the British servicemen planning to destroy the Tirpitz, sat down for their last meal ashore together. They were all perfectly aware that there was a very real possibility, that they may never return.

X-Craft head for Norway, September 1943
X-Craft head for Norway, September 1943

Heading For Norway

On September 11th, the towing submarines pulled the X-Craft from their secret Scottish base and for the next 11 days towed them 1,200 miles through the most inhospitable seas in the world. The X-Craft crews stayed on board the towing submarines until they reached the Norwegian coast, before climbing into the X-Crafts.

On September 14th, the aerial reconnaissance photographs arrived at HQ in Britain and they clearly showed that the Tirpitz was back in the fjord. This new intelligence was signalled to the towing submarines to show them exactly where the Tirpitz was, which was a welcome distraction for the men from the boredom of the voyage.

But six days into the crossing, tragedy struck when X9's tow rope broke, dragging the sub and the three men on board to the bottom of the sea and to their death. Technical problems with boats X8 and X10, meant that they too would not be able to make the attack on the Tirpitz, meaning that their was now only three boats left to complete the mission.

On the 9th day of the voyage, the X crews said farewell to the towing crews and climbed aboard the X-Craft. They were detached from the larger subs and were now on their own with around fifty miles to go to their target destination. They would now have to travel for two days through heavily occupied enemy waters.

The Tirpitz behind her anti-torpedo nets.
The Tirpitz behind her anti-torpedo nets.

Entering The Beast's Lair

They now had to make their way through a German minefield which they successfully navigated. All they had to do now was the small task of making their way through the most heavily defended German naval base in Norway!

They passed directly below massive German guns, manned by hundreds of German soldiers and between them and the Tirpitz, there were many thousands more.

After sundown on September 21st, the X-Craft surfaced to recharge their batteries. the three tiny submarines were now in sight of Hitler's enormous battleship and the 2,400 men on board her had no idea of what was to come.

In the early hours of the morning of September 22nd, the midget submarines dived. they had no means of communication with each other, so would attack individually. When they moved inside the fjord, X6 and X7 approached the Tirpitz from the eastern side of the fjord and X5 from the south.

But they still had to get through those anti-submarine nets, but then X6 got a massive helping hand. When they dived at around 2:00am they spotted a german tug going through the gate to the enclosure where the Tirpitz was moored.

The wreck of the Tirpitz being broken up
The wreck of the Tirpitz being broken up

Taking Her Down

The quick thinking of X6's commander went into action and they followed the the tug right through the gate, now there was nothing between them and the Tirpitz. They must now put their experimental Saddle charge bombs to use, not knowing if they would work as they had never been used in combat operations before.

All of a sudden, just as they were almost up alonside the battleship, they struck an uncharted rock. The crash had badly damaged X6 and forced it to the surface.The German's had noticed the submarine and raised the alarm. Worse still, X6's periscope caught fire and she was now blind as well as mortally damaged.

In a daring move they forced their way right up alongside the battleship out of sight of the ship's crew and laid their Saddle charges. The commander of X6, knowing that the sub would not be able to escape, decided to scuttle the X-Craft and surrender.

The second submarine, X7, had also got through the nets and had laid her Saddle charges underneath the Tirpitz, but having primed them, could not find their way back out through the nets to safety.

Badly damaged by exploding charges, it too had to surface, but it's commander, realising it was about to flood, shut the hatch of the sub and the X-Craft descended to the bottom of the fjord. The crew decided it best if they stayed down there and bided their time to see what might happen next.

The only chance of survival for the crew was to flood the submarine, so they could re-open the hatch and escape to the surface using emergency breathing apparatus. However, the submarine would take an hour and a half to flood and oxygen was at a premium.

After the long 90 minutes had passed, only one of the crew managed to open the hatch and escape, the other two crew members died on the bed of the fjord. By now the crew of X6 were prisoners on the deck of the Tirpitz, the Germans were stunned just to see the British seamen standing there and couldn't believe that they had gotten through their defences.

The Tirpitz captain ordered the ship to be moved away from the remaining Saddle charges, but the volunteers knew that the explosives were about to go off and the German's had no time to escape. A gigantic explosion rocked the Tirpitz and it lifted out of the water before crashing back down again.

The force of the impact left many of the German sailors with broken legs and suddenly the British servicemen found themselves in front of a firing squad on the deck of the battleship with one of the German officers threatening to kill them all. But a German Admiral who had come rushing when he heard the explosions, ordered that their lives be spared under the laws of the prisoner's rights, as stated in the Geneva convention.

The Tirpitz was so badly damaged that it was never fully operational again, the Saddle charges had done their job. The commanding officers of X6 and X7 were awarded the Victoria Cross and their crews received the Distinguished Service Order.

But what of the fate of X5?, did it too complete it's attack?, one of the crew members of X6 recalled seeing the periscope of a sub that he is sure was that of X5. Unfortunately at the same time, a German seaman also saw the periscope and the submarine was attacked, the crew of X5 were never seen again. As a result they were not decorated for their part in the mission.

The Lost X-Craft

Modern day teams of divers and historical researchers have been searching for the lost submarine for nearly 30 years, 300 miles inside the Arctic circle in Northern Norway. After many years of diving in the fjord, they are convinced that they finally know where the wreck of X5 is located.

Their sonar equipment has identified an unusually shaped object resting on the fjord bed, close to where it was last seen in 1943. They decided to send down an underwater camera, 130 feet to the bottom of the murky waters of the fjord. The difficulty they had though was identifying the submarine, as the fjord was once home to the major German naval base and is therefore littered with wrecked ships.

It is even harder to fathom then how in 1943, three midget submarines could have crept their way in there to plant the explosives that would destroy the massive Tirpitz, and get out again to tell the story.

The researches believe that an image picked up by the underwater camera shows the sub's hatch. They are also looking for evidence that X5 had successfully planted it's share of the charges that destroyed the Tirpitz.

If this is proven, then there would be a strong argument for it's late commander Henty Creer, to receive a posthumous Victoria Cross, which he never received, as proof of their successful endeavour has neveer be proven before.

Ever since his death, Henty Creer's family and the families of X5's other crew members have sought recognition for the crew's role in the attack on the Tirpitz.

In Kaarfjord, the chances of the researchers finding the lost X-Craft X5, took a turn for the worse. They received bluprints for the X-Craft and found it was different to the boat they had spotted on the bed of the fjord.

So the diver's turned their attentions to looking for pieces of an X-Craft instead of a whole boat. Then amazingly they came across a real find, a piece of an X-Craft is found and brought to the surface. Then another breakthrough, 140 feet down in the fjord, they came across an astonishing and sinister discovery. They had found an unexploded two tonne Saddle charge, which could only have come from an X-Craft.

The question was, was this one of X5's saddle charges? with the assistance of military software, the exact position of the Saddle charge was fixed on an admiralty chart, which was then matched with an RAF reconnaissance photograph of Tirpitz taken the day after the raid.

The results showed that the unexploded Saddle charge was outside of the torpedo nets, but just 90 metres from the Tirpitz. This confirms that the unexploded charge could only have come from X5. Experts believe that X5's other Saddle charge must have been placed beneath the Tirpitz and contributed to it's serious damage.

Wether the X5 craft is ever found or not, there is surely a good argument for recognising the crew of X5's bravery, the likelyhood of it's contributing to the Tirpitz' damage and confirming all three commander's exceptional determination to destroy the Tirpitz in September 1943

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Comments 6 comments

libby101a profile image

libby101a 6 years ago from KY

Great, informative hub! Thanks!!!


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 6 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Thankyou libby101a glad you enjoyed it, thought they achieved a remarkable feat and thought it was worth sharing, thanks for stopping by!


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

I'm glad that I "met" you, Sir-when I was a child I was reading all about the sinking of the Bizmark, and couldn't understand really, why HMS Rodney wasn't match for her. I loved those stories, and would really hit some nostalgia re-reading them. I'd probably start building plastic model battleships all over again too.


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 6 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Thanks Wesman, much appreciate your comments and I think you and I are probably on the same wavelength here. I am fascinated by all the heroic feats of the Allies during World War Two and I believe their stories should be remembered, thanks for reading!


Dillan Cullifer 5 years ago

realy liked it. this helped me do an esay on the x-craft


Dave Harris profile image

Dave Harris 5 years ago from Cardiff, UK Author

Hi Dillan, that's great, glad my artcles are being of use to people, thanks for commenting!

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