Reviews 14

CIAO Review

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

Robert Lyman

Review September 2016

Nicknamed “chariots”, they were in effect torpedoes astride which two men sat. Each “chariot” was armed with a detachable warhead. It’s October 1942, and a small fishing-type vessel is sailing to Norway. She looks like a fishing vessel but she conceals a strange cargo. Once reasonably close to their target, “chariots” will be launched. Travelling stealthily underwater, the hope is that they will be able to attach charges to the hull of the dreaded “Tirpitz” and sink her, or at least badly disable her. She was the last remaining German battleship, and has already been subjected to several attempts to sink her.
The tiny “chariot” is designed to submerge and is operated by its two-man crew.

It’s September 1943. The legendary German battleship “Tirpitz” is anchored in a Norwegian fjord. She poses a massive threat to Allied convoys and a near-obsessive campaign commenced some time ago to destroy her.

A handful of mini-submarines, “X-craft” are being towed across the sea to Norway, tasked with penetrating the anti-submarine nets surrounding the monstrous ship, laying time-delayed charges on her hull below the waterline, and rendezvousing again with their tow-craft of submarines for the homeward journey. It’s a stealth mission with few to rival it.

Only three nylon towropes are available; the others are “manila” and the constant cycle of tautening and slacking in the rough seas cause several of the latter to snap. Inside the cramped mini-submarine (designed to carry four crew members) the men are violently seasick. Their vessel corkscrews in the water repeatedly.

It’s a sunny afternoon in Singapore harbour in July 1945. In just twenty feet of water under the hull of the Japanese “TAKAO”” an X-craft sits on the seabed. A crewmember leaves the craft with difficulty – the water is so shallow that the hatch can only be partly opened before it strikes TAKAO’s underside. The charges he needs to attach are magnetic, and he must hold one at a time in one hand, while scraping barnacles off the ship’s hull so that they will adhere. He must repeat the process several times.

Time is of the essence. Not only does each passing moment bring the risk of detection (his breathing equipment is faulty and trailing air bubbles to the surface. The tide is ebbing, too, and the drop in water level will cause the mini-sub to be crushed by the Japanese vessel. The commander of the X-craft will then have a dreadful choice: should he and his men perish under the water, or abandon ship and face almost certain capture and ritual beheading? The other possibility would be for he and his companions to take the suicide pill that they each carry...

The tale

This book tells the true story of the development of the “chariots” and X-craft. The idea came from the Italian’s devastating deployment of a manned torpedo in 1941 in Alexandria harbour. Its success struck a blow at British morale as well as at British shipping.

It’s a combination of narrative and first-hand account which I feel increases the interest and empathy for those men who served on the various missions. It deals in detail with particularly strategic missions such as those to which I have referred already.

In my opinion, it’s a well-told tale that focuses on bravery and determination, tragedy and triumph, as well as on technological innovation. Books about the Second World War interest me because my father served as an RAF groundcrew-man; it’s a conflict that is recent enough and personal enough for me to relate to. Books about individuals caught in one way or another in this conflict particularly fascinate me; I find them a lesson in human nature. I am gripped by how men found themselves able – or unable – to cope in the most extreme circumstances, how ordinary men achieved extraordinary things, and of course any well written book doesn’t gloss over the fear, dread, and loss of lives, either.

The book tells the tale from early training through to the final days of the Pacific war.

The style

I found the style easy to read, with little technical jargon. He explains in his “Note and acknowledgements” that he has made a conscious decision to avoid use of the twenty-four hour clock in his narrative, in favour of the “a.m.” and “p.m.” abbreviations.

It’s well-written grammatically and written in a fairly lively style.

The author

This is the first book I have read by this author, but I note that he has written a number of books on Second World War battles and campaigns. These include the legendary raid on St Nazaire harbour (“Into The Jaws Of Death”), and the remarkable “cockleshell” commando raid on Bordeaux harbour (“Operation Suicide”).

The contents

The book deals with the Italian development of manned torpedoes and Churchill’s determination to equal or better their achievements. I found the accounts of the training truly fascinating and moving. At the time little was known about the safe depths at which men could breathe pure oxygen, and training and scientific tests took place side-by-side. Mistakes were made on the way, and a number of men had near misses in their encounters with what they nicknamed “Oxygen Pete”; some died.

Such tiny vessels were of course difficult to control in turbulent water , and the chariots in particular were prone to sudden changes of buoyancy. For example, they were “trimmed” for seawater operation; when approaching any inlet – or invisible current – of fresh water, the buoyancy of the craft changed instantly and it threatened to sink rapidly. I found it very moving to read some of these accounts.

This is obviously the main focus of the book. I liked the way that many operations are described, with more detail given to the more strategic. Rightly, in my opinion, the “success” of one mission or another isn’t judged by whether it achieved its stated goal. Rather, the difficulties faced are factored into the evaluation.

I found it moving to read of disappointments by men who had risked their lives, overcome huge problems (including the craft being stuck for a time on the seabed, with little apparent chance of extricating itself) and lost comrades.
I found it equally moving to read of one crewmember hearing that he had been awarded a Victoria Cross. He was a Prisoner Of War at the time, and heard the news illicitly on a radio. He was quite indifferent to the news given his predicament.

Photographs and maps
The book contains 8 pages of contemporary photographs. I like the choice of glossy paper for these, as they optimise detail and definition. There are also 4 pages of maps. Three of these deal with operations in Norway (though that is hardly surprising given the extraordinary skill and dedication required to mount them).

In Memoriam/Citations
The author includes a list of the men who died operating the miniature craft, and a separate appendix listing military awards granted. I have very mixed feelings about military decorations, as it is beyond doubt that many worthy candidates are completely overlooked whilst certain high-profile operations result in a glut of awards for men – and, especially officers! – who took part. Nevertheless it is heartening to read of the numbers of awards given to the young men mentioned in this book.

Concluding comments

The genre of this book won’t appeal to all, of course, but given that I rate it 5 stars because I honestly can’t find anything to DISLIKE and because I positively LIKE:

  • the individual-based nature of the subject and the way it is treated. By that I mean that individuals rather than numbers stand out in the narrative
  • the intermingling of first-hand accounts, even when at length. This makes the details more striking, adds empathy and a sense of immediacy, and makes it a far more engaging read.
  • the photographs are a combination of “in action” photographs and portraits/group photographs. I especially like the photograph of an X-craft crewmember that shows the cramped, claustrophobic conditions.
  • the author’s easy-to-read, pacey style
  • the balancing of derring-do bravery with descriptions of disappointment, terror and loss of life

“The Real X-Men” is available from Amazon for £9.98 (new paperback), from £4.40 (new) through their Marketplace suppliers. Kindle edition is available for £4.99.

Note that if you go to Amazon and enter this title without specifying “books” as the department you will get some rather different products branded “X” !!
Better value by far – yes, I know, you can tell where I am going with this! – is “The Works”. They are offering it new for £3, either on-line or through their stores. This suggests to me that the book may be, or may soon become, out of print and harder to source before long.

© 2mennycds 17 September 2016

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