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The Real X-Men: The Heroic Story of the Underwater War 1942-1945

Robert Lyman

Reviewed by SIMON BELLAMY LIEUT. CDR, RNR

Robert Lyman has established a reputation for well-researched, accessible accounts of Second World War operations which have often been neglected by other historians. Purchasers of those books, and new readers, will not be disappointed by his latest work.

He tells the story of Britain’s development and operation of human torpedoes (“Chariots”) and midget submarines (“X-craft”). Some of their more renowned exploits, such as attacks on Tirpitz, have been covered elsewhere. However, by incorporating less well-known aspects, such as technical development and training, the author provides a comprehensive and cohesive account of these novel weapons and the extraordinary men who served them.

He begins with detailed analysis of Italy’s use of human torpedoes, notably the successful attack on Queen Elizabeth and Valiant in Alexandria. Credit is rightly given to the Italians for their foresight and courage in developing these weapons and launching such attacks – a welcome corrective to the common narrative of supine opposition to Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. Nevertheless, the author notes a failure to make such operations part of a coordinated Italian maritime strategy.

The Royal Navy’s response is also covered in a balanced account. First reactions focused on counter-measures, before the potential for offensive use was realised when Capt William Fell was ordered to develop a human torpedo. Volunteers for crews were quickly sought and came from a wide range of trades. This was also a multinational effort, with the roll of honour at the end of the book including personnel from Commonwealth countries. The crews’ courage is all the more remarkable for the risks involved in training, let alone operations against the enemy. Breathing apparatus was primitive and the effects of oxygen poisoning not fully understood, with losses all too frequent.

Despite these challenges, “Chariots” were used in the Mediterranean for attacks on shipping in enemy ports. Casualties were high and the diversion of conventional submarines to support these weapons was questioned. Undeterred, Flag Officer Submarines believed in the concept and invited theatre commanders to submit ideas for further operations. Ironically, after Italy’s armistice one of these was a joint Anglo-Italian assault on the naval base at La Spezia.

Turning to X-craft, among other operations the famous attack on Tirpitz is covered in detail. As throughout the book participants’ accounts are used extensively, demonstrating the tenacity and spirit of the crews; one X-craft CO remarked upon his “rather frigid” reception on capture after the exploit which would bring him and another commander a VC.

The midget submarines demonstrated their versatility in other roles, such as beach reconnaissance and navigational markers in Normandy. Less familiar, perhaps, is the full story of their work in the Far East. Mirroring their response to other offers of British involvement, US admirals were at first reluctant to accept X-craft, before agreeing to an operation to cut Japanese submarine telegraph cables. This change of heart was further vindicated by an attack on cruisers in Singapore which resulted in two more VCs.

This highly readable book supports the author’s contention that Britain was the only combatant to develop these novel weapons to full effect. With underwater force protection an important consideration today, the story is a timely reminder of how such threats can have a strategic effect.

There are a couple of factual errors (he has Taranto taking place in December, not November, 1940 and he is not the first author to confuse the titles of First Sea Lord and First Lord of the Admiralty). These do not detract from an excellent work which, for all its admirably wide scope, never loses sight of the courage and professionalism of a remarkable band of men.

Simon Bellamy LIEUT. CDR, RNR


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