The Real X-Men: The Heroic Story of the Underwater War 1942-1945
Review by Jock McLees June 2017
I would recommend this book by Robert Lyman to anyone wanting to know more about submariners and their world, whether a novice or already something of an expert. Or just someone who wants a rattling good read! Obviously, he’s picked a good subject because the first 50 years in the life of the Royal Navy Submarine Service contains a large number of exciting moments during – but not exclusively so – two World Wars. It was a time when the Upper Crust of the Royal Navy tended to look down their noses at those in The Trade, considering the use of underwater tactics fit only for use by inferior navies, not for the mightiest Navy on the planet. That attitude was of course short-sighted and, ultimately, downright dangerous.
Robert Lyman’s book, because it’s about the X-treme (!) end of our Trade, starts with the Italian Reggia Marina, for this is where the origins of successful operations by British small underwater craft lay – in the inventive minds of Italian submariners, designers and engineers. Their history goes back to WW1, but found renewed impetus in the early stages of WW2 as a way for the Italian Navy to strike at the Royal Navy’s capital ships in places the Admirals thought safe – the heavily defended ports of Alexandria, Malta and Gibraltar. After a number of false starts and failures, a partially successful Italian attack on ships at Gibraltar in September 1941, followed by the devastating attack by only three underwater chariots manned by six brave and determined men inside the port of Alexandria, which sank two British capital ships, finally shook the Royal Navy establishment to the soles of their highly polished shoes. Finally, they got it! - albeit, somewhat later than perhaps they should.
Helped by a personal nudge from Churchill himself, the British military establishment woke up to the possibilities for special forces operating small submerged craft to wreak havoc, which far exceeded the cost to the attacking side. People like Max Horton and others kicked the process off with a plan to build a ‘human torpedo’ from scratch, learning from the Italian experience, but drawing on the innovative ingenuity and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking of many others. Lyman goes on to describe how some designs really were from scratch, while others were developed from existing concepts, some already being explored by individuals on their own time and at their own discretion. And it should be remembered that some designs were for vessels that carried their crews internally, while others carried one or two men seated on them. In the 1940s, the science and engineering of underwater breathing sets was in its infancy, but developed rapidly. However, the effects of prolonged exposure to oxygen and carbon dioxide at depth were only at an experimental stage.
For me, the content of Robert Lyman’s book so far, whilst most interesting, is but a scene-setter for the main event … or events. The rest comprises tales of heroic failures and devastating disappointments, as well as eventual audacious successes; descriptions of endurance and perseverance, self-sacrifice and bravery, of doggedness and raw courage, of innovation and improvisation abound – these by not only the youthful crews of kayaks, chariots and x-craft, but also by the men and women of the SOE as well as Partisans and Resistance … and all those in support.
This is a well-written story of irregular warfare, developed by innovative designers with imaginative concepts of how ‘extreme submarining’ could be used to strike hard at the enemy by destroying and crippling their most valued assets, with apparent ease and total surprise, in seemingly impregnably defended strongholds. These designers and operators made the seemingly impossible possible.
By now you may have realised that I enjoyed this book. It tells a story of warfare conducted from beneath the waves in a way I believe we should emulate in our Museum, with the additional chapters of the Cold and Post-Cold War eras added.