- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Robert Aitken
- Location of story:
- West Coast of Scotland, Norwegian Fjord, Tromso
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 November 2004
Robert Aitken took part in a Timewatch programme that was broadcast in 2004. The following story was written, with his permission, using the transcript of his interview.
When I joined the Navy and still in civilian clothes, I had a medical examination and was told to report to my divisional officer, who told me I had defective colour vision and asked if I wanted to be a stoker or a steward. I said if I was not wanted as a seaman I'd try the Army. My divisional officer decided the best thing would be to allow me to complete my preliminary training as a seaman. In due course I'd find myself at sea and would then have to say that I had defective colour vision. When I eventually did so, the Officer of the Watch simply said, 'Nonsense, you wouldn't be here if you were.'
I was able to complete the minimum three months at sea before going on to officers' training. After that I had a humdrum job because no one knew what to do with a colour blind midshipman, until one day the appointments officer said, 'There's a job which might accept two colour blind people. Are you interested ?' I was interested in anything that would get me out of the humdrum job. It wasn't until I got to HMS Dolphin, which was the main base of the submarine service, that I realised I was going to have anything to do with submarines.
Summer of fun
You did as you were told in the Navy, but at age 19 and having been well disciplined at school, I didn't find that difficult. As far as we all were concerned it was a marvellous summer on the west coast of Scotland. We were kept active, our days were roughly divided into three periods of eight hours each - training, keeping fit and sleeping. What better part of the world to do those three things? Also if you give a teenager what is essentially an underwater motorbike that's great fun. Between the training exercises we could chase crabs and other fish. Life was taken light-heartedly.
When we were asked if we'd transfer to X-craft we said, 'No thank you. We volunteered for chariots.' That brought the Commanding Officer of the 12th Submarine Flotilla up from the Clyde, who charmed us by saying that he understood the reasons why we were refusing, but it did leave him with a problem. He wondered whether we could meet him half way by going down to the Clyde, where there was a mock-up of the Wet and Dry Compartment (W&D) of an X-craft - just to show his chaps how it could be done. As an afterthought he added, 'Well, if you're going all that way, you might like a few days' leave in Glasgow.' We said, 'Oh yes, we'll help you out.'
We did that, returned to our Depot Ship, HMS Titania, completed our chariot training, and were then told we were wanted on the X-craft. We said, 'Well, we'll agree to do one operation on the understanding that we return to chariots and won't lose our place in the operation list.'
Designed for a crew of three, the X-craft were very small - that couldn't be changed. We knew it would be cramped, and learnt it was also going to be very damp and cold.
We had a lot to learn during training. In addition to handling the boat, the divers had to practise cutting through antisubmarine nets (which protected the entrances to where battleships were moored). This meant getting into a diving suit, climbing into and flooding the W&D (which could be done by pumping water from one of the other tanks to avoid altering the buoyancy), waiting for the pressure to equalise before opening the hatch and climbing onto the casing. Then the cutter, which was connected to an airline hose, had to be taken from its locker in the casing, hooked onto a wire of the net, the valve opened and the first wire was cut. That was straightforward, as long as the bow was pushing into the net and the boat was at a right angle to the net. If the boat was alongside the net, which happened occasionally, a larger hole usually had to be cut and the boat manoeuvred through. This took much longer and was exhausting.
As soon as I joined X-craft I learned that they had been designed and developed specifically for the job of attacking the German fleet in Norwegian fjords, and we had to be ready to do so within weeks. Just by sitting in Norwegian fjords the Germans were a constant threat to the Russian convoys, which kept many of our battleships in home waters. While we were training we couldn't tell any of our friends or family what we were doing or where we were doing it. So we just had to talk about walking, sailing or other recreational activities, without mentioning which part of the country or the world we were in. Those restrictions remained even when we were prisoners of war.
Living on an X-craft
We slept in the battery compartment in the bow, on boards on top of the batteries. One, sometimes two men could rest there. Normally three positions were manned in the control room. Unless he was resting the commanding officer (CO) would be on the periscope and navigating, the 1st Lieutenant at the hydroplanes keeping depth and the ERA at the helm steering. Apart from relieving the 1st Lieutenant or the ERA, the diver had little to do but help with the catering.
We had what was really a glue pot to warm up food. That was the only source of hot food but I don't recall feeling hungry. Food was not an important part of life during the operation.
The night before the attack we surfaced alongside a small island to rest and charge the batteries. Just before dawn we set off to the first challenge, the antisubmarine (a/s) net. This was the one the diver had to cut if the CO couldn't get through it in any other way (which all the COs was quite determined to find). As we approached the CO saw the gate in the a/s net had been opened to let a trawler through. We dived underneath its wake and got through without having to cut the net. Having got through the gate the CO, looking through the periscope, saw another boat was about to cross our path. We had to dive below periscope depth and whilst unsighted hit a bunch of anti-torpedo (a/t) nets moored in the fjord. In the reconnaissance photograph these nets were protecting a German battleship which had gone to sea.
The bow had caught on something we couldn't see and we couldn't move. All we could do was to shuffle the boat forward and astern, making it alternatively more and less buoyant, hoping to shake off the net. With no success after about 30 minutes the CO told me to get dressed and go and see what the problem was. Getting into a diving suit in an X-craft without assistance took a long time and was quite exhausting. Before I was ready to dive the CO said, 'Take it off. I don't know how it happened, but we're now free,' and we were on our way again.
The CO tried to find a way through the a/t nets protecting the Tirpitz. He tried one way after another and I don't think Godfrey Place (CO) was ever absolutely sure how but he suddenly found we were inside the nets surrounding theTirpitz. These were antitorpedo (a/t) nets with wire too heavy for the cutter to cut. These nets are usually laid in sections which overlap. Without knowing it, the CO may have slid over the top, found a gap or the open gate.
A quick sighting through the periscope enabled the CO to order a course which took X7 straight to the Tirpitz - we actually banged into her - and were able to get underneath the after turret, where we dropped our first side cargo set to explode at an agreed time. We then 'crept' along the keel of the Tirpitz to the forward turret and dropped the other side cargo. The job done, the CO set a course for home! But we didn't get very far because we hit the a/t nets again. The CO decided to try and get underneath the a/t nets.
'Crawling' along the bottom a cable caught X7 across the bow and once again we were unable to move. We were all very apprehensive because we began to hear explosions. We thought some were depth charges - smaller ones may have been hand grenades but there was one much louder than the others. We looked at each other, thinking, 'Is that ours?' If it was we felt it should have been much louder and we would have been severely damaged. It blew the wire off our bow and we got under way once again, but the boat was uncontrollable.
Because the boat went to the bottom or the surface, the CO decided to abandon ship. There was no possibility of getting out of the fjord to rejoin our towing submarine. Each time we surfaced, bullets rattled on the casing but none penetrated the pressure hull. Fortunately we were too close to the Tirpitz to enable her heavy armament to fire at us. The CO opened the W&D hatch, waving a rather dirty white sweater to indicate surrender. The small arms fire stopped but as the CO climbed onto the casing he realised we were about to hit a moored target and with the hatch open the boat, with little buoyancy, would be flooded. He turned round to shut the hatch, which I was trying to push open from below and quite a bit of water came in before the hatch was closed. It was enough to sink the boat, which plunged to the bottom.
Escape from the depth
The three left on board discussed what we should do. The two alternatives were to try to get the submarine back on the surface again, or to escape using the Davis Submarine Escape Equipment, which was an oxygen breathing set. We were apprehensive about trying to get the boat to the surface because it had been damaged and by running compressors and motors we were going to make noise, which we felt would immediately attract depth charges. We decided that it would be wiser to escape using the breathing apparatus. We all put one on and started to flood the boat (the hatch could not be opened until the boat was fully flooded to equalise the pressure inside the boat with that outside). Unfortunately this took longer than we anticipated because some of the valves couldn't be fully opened. As the water crept up it reached the batteries which fused, giving off fumes, and we had to start breathing oxygen before the boat was fully flooded.
During that time there was nothing to do except wait. As soon as we went onto oxygen (after the fumes came) we could not talk to each other, the oxygen mouthpiece prevented that. There were no lights, we couldn't see each other and we were left with our own thoughts. I remember throughout that I was very confident I would escape. 'It couldn't happen to me, I was going to survive,' I thought, and that's the way it turned out.
Through the hatches
Initially we decided Bill Whitham, the 1st Lieutenant, should get out through the after hatch, he was very tall which made it more difficult for him to get through the W&D. Bill Whitly, the ERA, would get out through the W&D and I would use whichever hatch became available first. However, when Bill Whitly and I tried to exchange places we found the oxygen bottles and the periscope prevented us getting past each other. Bill signalled, 'It's OK, you carry on.'
I went into the W&D to try the hatch, but the pressure hadn't equalised and when I returned to the control room I couldn't feel Bill until I stumbled over his body on the deck. I bent down and felt his breathing bag which had two small emergency bottles of oxygen in it. Both had been emptied which indicated Bill had run out of oxygen.
I went back to try the W&D hatch again. Fortunately the pressure equalised just after I'd broken my first emergency bottle. I opened the hatch, climbed out and jumped. As the pressure began to reduce, the oxygen expanded, leaving me with far too much. I made what I thought was a correct escape. I unrolled and held out the apron (provided with the escape kit for use as a brake) so I didn't go up too fast and blow out my lungs, and thinking how pleased Chads (WO Chadwick, my diving instructor) would have been to see me doing what I was told.
When I surfaced I first looked around to see whether Bill Whitham had got out of the rear hatch and was floating about. There was no sign of him. Then I looked up and saw the Tirpitz. I didn't get an awfully good view, bouncing about on the surface, but it was a great disappointment to see her afloat. She was very large, the pride of the German Navy, and I had been very hopeful she had been sunk, but she looked intact from my limited viewpoint. (We now know a tremendous amount of damage was done during the attack and she was never able to be repaired for action. The turrets are thought to have been lifted six metres in the air and when they settled down their bearings were wrecked. They brought about a thousand men from Germany to try and repair her, but she was eventually taken at very slow speed to Tromso, where she was to become a defensive gun emplacement. Credit goes to the RAF, who dealt the final blow which put her on the bottom.)
Prisoner of war
Having surfaced, a motor boat picked me up, took me to Tirpitz, where all my clothes were taken away and replaced with a blanket in which I was interrogated. I think rather half-heartedly because the crew of X6 and Godfrey Place, my CO, had already been interrogated and put in separate cells. There wasn't one for me, I was put in a hammock store, a large steel cabinet.
The following day we were all put on what I think was a German mine sweeper to be taken to Tromso. We were kept in solitary confinement and all the ship's officers came to have a look at the prisoners. Later that morning, my door opened and an officer stood and watched while a rating placed a bowl of soup on the table. As he turned to go he flicked a packet of cigarettes behind his back, onto the table. That very friendly gesture reminded me of the comradeship of those who sailed the seas.
We spent, I think, two nights ashore in Tromso before boarding another small boat to take us to Narvik, where we were transferred to a train prepared for prisoners of war, staffed by guards from prisoner of war camps. They weren't such a friendly lot. We were taken by train to Germany and still in solitary confinement put in cells in an interrogation camp for six weeks before being moved to Marlag O, the POW camp for naval officers.
A successful operation
Operation Source was a major operation during the war because it was directed at the major German battleships, it involved a great number of people. Six midget submarines had to be designed, built, manned and developed from scratch and six large submarines had to be taken off normal patrols. The focus naturally falls on the survivors, but we must remember that the survivors represent a much larger body of men who were all essential to the attack on Tirpitz.
There is no doubt I was extremely lucky. Maybe because I had more experience as a diver than the two Bills who drowned and I may have used less oxygen. That is pure speculation. I don't know, but the loss of two members of the crew after the attack had been successfully completed was tragic. I had every anticipation of seeing Bill Whitham on the surface and it was a great disappointment when I couldn't see him.
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