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X-Craft Diver 1943 - Part 2

by Roland Hindmarsh

Contributed by 
Roland Hindmarsh
Location of story: 
Scotland/Norwegian Waters
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A3827388
Contributed on: 
24 March 2005

HMS Varbel

Three hours later Alecto was behaving herself decorously as we proceeded smoothly past Rothesay and headed towards Port Bannatyne, where HMS Varbel — the shore base headquarters for the XII Submarine Flotilla — was located. A skimming dish came out from there, and two RNVR lieutenants climbed nimbly up the companionway that had been lowered for them. They were in submarine sweaters, like us. They lost no time in assembling us charioteers in the wardroom to instruct us in what was to happen that day. We were to proceed up Loch Striven on board Alecto to a kind of offshoot of the main headquarters called Varbel Two, where we would exercise getting out and in of X-craft. Excitement grew in us when we were told we would soon joined up with one of these creations, and try out our diving skills.
‘What do we have to do, actually?’
‘Get in the X-craft on the surface, and do a dummy run of getting out.’
‘While she’s still on the surface?’
‘Right. And get back inside again.’
‘Just get out on the casing, is that it — and then down into her again?’
‘Correct. And then the same thing again, only underwater.’
‘How deep?’
‘On the bottom of the loch — at twelve feet.’
We smiled. That was kid’s stuff, as regards depth. ‘You got the gear for us, then?’
‘The suits.’
‘The full kit?’
‘Not the bottles. Just the DSEA kit will do.’
‘And then?’
‘Get inside the chamber and pump the water in till it’s full, then swing the arm, press the equalising cock, and lift the hatch. Get out, crawl around on the casing, and then back in. Reverse drill.’
‘Do we control the pump?’
‘No, that’s from inside. You signal to the skipper through a porthole covered with thick glass.’
‘So we need to learn the signals.’
‘They’re quite straightforward. It only took us a morning to learn the whole drill.’
We looked at the officers. ‘So you’re X-craft crew too?’
‘We’re part of the whole outfit, but put on to training others.’
We nodded; that was familiar. These two had jobs like Hobby and Jock Shaw.
‘So it’s a dry run first, and then in the wet?’
‘Correct. One man at a time.’

The X-craft

On the way up Loch Striven we were all on the look-out for the midget submarine, and had been told it lay ahead of us, having set out from Varbel One an hour beforehand. But what we saw first, far ahead, was the erect figure of a man, in some kind of weatherproof materials, moving along on the surface of the water, and holding on to a piece of metal piping that protruded almost vertically. Not until we had come up much closer were we able to make out some stout metal brackets near his feet, and perceive that they were there to protect the periscope housing. Once he was within a few hundred yards we could see that he was standing on a flat casing, which rose only a few inches above the calm waters of the loch. For rougher weather we could see the value of the waterproof suiting he was wearing, with a towel round his neck, in genuine submariner style.

We were full of questions about the craft’s performance, but the two lieutenants would only answer what related to diving, on the grounds that we had not yet acquitted ourselves in the necessary skills and might therefore simply have to return to Tites. The fewer in the know, the better. Alecto drew ahead and anchored at the head of the loch, and a few minutes later the X-craft chugged past and drew up further inshore. A skiff pulled out from a jetty, behind which a large house showed from amongst trees. That place, we were told, was Varbel II, a training headquarters.

We studied the strange craft, only fifty yards away. A hatch opened forward of the periscope guard, and a head appeared and vanished again. The engines coughed and stopped, and two men climbed out of the hatch and looked back at Alecto.
‘Ready for the dry run!’ One of them called out.

A skiff took us divers across in twos, to take a look inside the X-craft. When my turn came round, I was astonished to see that the space below the forward hatch was so small. There was a loo seat, but it was almost flush with the metal floor of the escape chamber, which we now learned was regularly called the wet-and-dry by midget submariners. I dropped inside and crouched in it. Looking forward I saw planking stretching about eight feet towards the bows; the space there smelt of battery acid. Looking aft I saw into the control room. Nearby was the helm, a wheel mounted horizontally, and further aft was the hydroplane wheel, set vertically. One of the officers was touching the things in rapid succession as he explained, but his bulk often obstructed a proper view of the equipment. I could see there was little room for movement, and wondered how we would be able to manage to dress into full diving rig in so restricted a space.

But it was time for the dry run: that was what we had come for.
‘My name’s Jack,’ he said, sitting on the loo seat; I watched him from inside the control room, and Geordie from the battery space forward.
‘Your controls are only three, apart from the door clips fore and aft. There’s the flooding lever -’ he operated a large handle behind him ‘- the hatch clip above your head, and the equalising cock.’
We soon learned the drill for flooding and emptying the wet-and-dry — on a dummy run, and then had to go through the sequence, first with our eyes open, then closed. When submerged we would be operating in the dark, apart from the faint light that would show through the thick glass giving on the control room. Geordie and I did the actions four times in all. I noticed how low I had to crouch to see through the glass into the control room. It was going to be very cramped, in a diving suit, and I realised there would be no possibility of getting the air properly out of the suit, until you were out on the casing underwater.

The two X-craft lieutenants came on board Alecto for lunch, and were ready to answer the many questions we found to ask.
'Where do you sleep, when you're out at sea?'
'Forward, over the batteries,' came the reply. 'Fine for stretching out.'
'And how about eating?'
'There's a primus. Always rustle something up - soup. or eggs, from powder you know. And have a brew of tea.'
'Are you crouched, and crawling about all the time, then?'
'No, you can almost stand by the periscope. At least you can if you're short.’
‘Where do you keep the diving gear?’
‘In the battery compartment, I suppose.’
‘You haven’t got a place assigned for it? And the protosorb tins?’
‘The what?’
‘Protosorb. To absorb the carbon you breathe out, and send the rest back as oxygen.’
He shook his head. ‘Don’t know what you’re on about.’
‘Have you ever dressed a diver inside the X-craft?’
‘We’ll do it this afternoon. Or rather you will — you know how, I take it?’
‘Of course! We’ve done it dozens of times.’
‘There you are. That’s why we need divers.’
‘To cut through the nets, Tiny Fell told us. Have you done that?’
The lieutenant looked shocked. ‘Good God, no! But they’ve been practising that up in HHZ.’
‘In whattee?’
‘HHZ. Top secret operational base up in the far north.’
‘In the Hebrides, you mean?’
‘No, mainland. If you can say that about some godforsaken loch. Haven’t been there, myself. But Maxie Shean is up there and working at the techniques of cutting an X-craft through the nets.’
‘Is he a diver, then?’
‘You could say that, I suppose.’
‘Can we meet him, then?’
‘You will — that’s if you get through the escape and re-entry drills this afternoon.’
‘How come?’
‘Alecto will take you up there, lickety-split.’
My stomach lurched. A sea passage probably twice as long as the one we had just done.
‘So we’ll be able to practise on nets up there?’
‘That’s the plan, as I understand it. Our job here is simply to take you through the motions. And I have to say that most of us X-craft people don’t like being in the wet-and-dry, and have the water rise up around us. It gets bloody dark in there. Dark and tight. Till the equaliser finally works.’
‘Sounds as though it takes its time.’
‘Too bloody long, for my liking.’

Wet-and-dry

The idea for our drill was clear enough. The diver would board the X-craft on the surface, settle himself in the escape compartment, close the entrance hatch, and wait for the craft to submerge and settle on the bottom, in about fifteen feet of water. Then he would put himself on oxygen, and signal to the crew through the glass port for the compartment to be filled with water. Once it was full, he would press on the equaliser and wait till he could open the hatch above him manually. Then he would exit from the midget submarine, crawl aft to the end of the casing, then forward again, and finally re-enter the craft, shutting the escape hatch above his head. He would signal to the crew to pump the chamber dry with the vessel still submerged, and then make direct verbal contact with the crew through the inner hatchway. Finally he should wait for re-surfacing before re-opening the hatch, and then get out on the casing and step across to the skiff. The sequence of actions was thus similar to that adopted for the exercise with the large submarine some weeks earlier: the contrary to what it would be in action.

My turn came quite early. As I stepped on the X-craft casing I noticed that the whole vessel yielded slightly to my weight. I was also very conscious of how little freeboard there was between the deck and the water. If the X-craft were on the surface in a seaway, the waves would be breaking over the casing, and threaten to sweep overboard the officer in command.
The training officer preceded me into the X-craft, and squatted at the hatch giving on the control room, while I manoeuvered my body, now enclosed in the diving suit, but with the visor open, on to the loo-seat in the wet and dry.
'When shall I go on O2?'
'That'll have to be later on, just before we flood the compartment you’re in.’
I nodded, but thought how restricted it would be when wearing the full breathing kit; normally we had to do three full forward bends to rid our lungs of all the nitrogen.
He turned to the skipper. ‘Ready for the exercise.’
‘Close the forward hatch!’ came the order.
I reached above my head, and found the edge of the circular lid, and drew it down over my head. Then I swung the locking arm through ninety degrees to secure it.
‘Forward hatch secured shut!’ I reported.
‘Stand by to dive!’
I half listened to the commands to vent the ballast tanks, but ran across the few controls with my hand, first looking, and then with my eyes shut. I would have to feel my way in the dark.

I heard the hiss of air escaping from the saddle tanks on both sides. The craft began to settle, very gently. The small waves stopped slapping against the casing. The light through the observation dome dulled, becoming greenish.
'Five feet!' called out the first lieutenant, sitting at the depth gauges. There was a faint bump as the keel touched the bottom. The whole craft settled with a slight nose-up angle. ‘Ten feet!’
The training officer looked at me. 'All right?'
I raised a thumb.
‘Then break your oxylet and go on to O2.’
It snapped easily, and heard the hiss of transmission, I felt the bag; it was inflating. I put on my nose-clip, and settled it firmly into place. Leaning forward as far as I could, I emptied my lungs, and breathed in the slightly sweet oxygen from the bag — three times.
‘All right?’
Thumbs up.
The glass observation hatch swung shut, then the heavy metal hatch. I was in total darkness. Two thumps came from within; I answered with another two. Now I was on my own.

I yanked the lever beside my hips. At once a great gurgling of water and hissing of air began, reverberating in the confined metal box in which I sat. I felt the cold water grip my calves, encircle my loins, crawl up to my knees, finger up my chest, envelop my neck. It swished around my visor. Now I was fully underwater, and bouncing around in what space I had, for I had been unable to vent my suit in the way we normally did on the shotrope. I did what I could to release the trapped air, then searched for the equaliser and pressed. No sound could be heard. Was it working? Had it clogged up? But I could just feel that there was some outflow through the lower end of the narrow nozzle. I pressed and pressed. I tried opening the main lever to see if the hatch would now open. But a minute more was needed before suddenly, quite easily, it lifted. The familiar green light of the sunlit shallows beneath the surface streamed over me.

I raised the hatch on its hinges to open fully, and stretched upwards to be erect, and just managing to arrest my ascent by hooking my toes round the lip of the hatchway. Now I was able to vent the rest of the air from my suit. Then I crawled aft, hooking my finger in the holes made in the casing, and acknowledged skipper’s wiggle of the main periscope at me. I reached the end of the casing and looked out over the stern of the craft; The rudder and hydroplanes were clearly visible, as were some of the blades of the propeller. The X-craft looked more purposeful below the surface, where its shape could be properly made out; on the top it looked like a short and ineffectual piece of casing, with a hump in the middle.
I turned round and pulled myself along the top of the casing, and swung down again into the wet-and-dry. This time I was able to settle myself much more naturally on the seat, and lowered the hatch over me, eclipsing the daylight again. Carefully I pulled it tight down over my head, and swung the locking arm through ninety degrees, housing it firmly shut. My two knocks on the control room hatch brought an immediate response: I heard the pumps working; the water level was already crawling down my headpiece.

Once the gurgling had finished, the hatch opened.
'All right, then?'
I grunted a Yes.
‘You can come off O2 then. Stand by to surface!'
'Stand by to surface.'
'Shut main vents!'
'Main vents shut.'
'Blow main tanks!'
'Blow main tanks.'
The hiss of air was powerful, like the noise of a train in a tunnel. The X-craft began rising, and in a few moments bounced slowly as if broke surface. The bright sunlight broke through the glass setting shafts of light dancing inside the control room, reflected off the water.
'Open main hatch!'
I did so, and stood up, then clambered out on the casing.

The skiff engine was already puttering, eager to carry me back to Alecto, and bring the next man out to go through the same drill. Back on board the luxury yacht, I found Geordie Nelson waiting for me at the top of the companionway, his eyes dancing with eagerness..
‘We’re gannin’ … We’re gannin’!’
He took it for granted that I would be as enthusiastic as he.
‘Getting out and in’s all right,’ I observed, this time not slipping into Northumbrian dialect so as to give myself the distance I needed. ‘But we have no idea what is involved in getting these monsters through the nets. And that’ll be the main task, surely.’
‘Whativer it is, I’m for it!’ he asserted.
His mind was made up. But I would have liked to practise cutting through an A/S net and seeing the X-craft follow, before making a decision. As so often in wartime, it was a case of hanging around for months, and then having to rush at the last minute, ill-prepared for the task. And Strugnell’s words about being left stranded on the nets, while the X-craft disappeared on its way, kept reverberating in my mind. That would mean making my way ashore, climbing out of my suit, and then trying to make an escape along one of the routes we had heard about, with the help of local patriots - a pretty chancy business, surely.
Yet I knew I was going to say yes. So I re-assured Geordie that I was still for the X-craft action. As the evening advanced it gradually became clear that no charioteers had given it the thumbs down.

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