Between 1942 and 1945 the Royal Navy engaged in a type of warfare so secret that very few people knew about it at the time, and few people have heard about since. It was extraordinarily tough work, and demanded unusually high standards of personal courage, physical fitness, determination, training and leadership from those engaged, not merely to get through training, but to survive a live operation against the enemy.
It was concerned with using tiny sub-surface craft to take the war to the enemy. The two main types were manned torpedoes, known in British Service as ‘Chariots’, and 4-man 30-ton ‘midget’ submarines, known as X-craft, which were designed in the first place to take on the mighty Tirpitz in 1943, but whose use extended to other strategic targets in the Far East in 1945.
Mini-submarines were an idea that had been long in consideration by navies around the globe, but which was applied with success by only a few. The Japanese experimented with this concept, but no other belligerent during the Second World War developed it as thoroughly, or enjoyed as much success with it, as the Royal Navy.
The two-man teams who operated the Chariots, and the four-man crews who operated the X-craft, were a breed apart from normal mortals. The physical and moral courage required to sit astride 60 pounds of high explosive, in a cold, dark and claustrophobic underwater environment in which there was but sketchy science in terms of the effect of oxygen on the body at more than two atmospheres (rudimentary oxygen re-breathers were worn); or to sit cramped within a 30-ton submersible coffin across many hundreds of miles of hostile ocean, to enter a heavily guarded enemy harbour and then to exit the craft to lay anti-ship (‘limpet’) mines on the hull of an enemy vessel, were men to whom the otherwise largely devalued title of ‘hero’ can properly be given.
In the make-believe world of children’s cartoons the X-men are made to be super-powerful, but we know that they are the figments of a creative imagination: the X-men are not real. However, the men who crewed the X-craft and Chariots in Lyman’s story were real – real ‘X-men’ even. They willingly took on the challenge of mastering entirely new skills in an often hostile natural environment, pushing the boundaries of physiological science, military technique and human endurance in their effort to carry out their missions, and to defeat their enemy. The Royal Navy was enabled to do this by the quality of its men, a mixture of professional sailors and part-timers from across the Commonwealth – Britons, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans – mobilised for the duration of the war, together with conscripts and volunteers whose military service – they hoped – would end at the cessation of hostilities, when they could return to their peacetime civilian occupations.
The numbers of men and women involved in the successful deployment of these weapons was tiny, but a measure of the demands made on the men who operated these contrary and often dangerous devices, and their success on operations against German, Italian and Japanese targets can be seen in the extraordinary proportion of men awarded medals for gallantry: 68, including 4 Victoria Crosses; 11 Distinguished Service Orders; 17 Distinguished Service Crosses; 6 Conspicuous Gallantry Medals and 12 Distinguished Service Medals. It was a truly incredible medal haul, and reflective of the courage of the men who operated these dangerous craft, and the physical, mental and emotional demands made on them by their country. It is hard to consider any similar field of military service in Britain’s military past that has generated such a flood of the highest awards for gallantry. These men were truly the real X-men, vastly more exciting and attractive than anything created in cartoon about the heroes of another, unreal, world, their heroism heart-stoppingly authentic.
This is not the story of high strategy. Nor is it a detailed account of the technology associated with this innovative branch of warfare, or the tactics required for mounting a successful attack. It is the story, rather, of the extraordinary achievements of small, well-trained and committed groups of men who faced immense dangers and overwhelming odds to bring their nation’s enemies to heel. Never did they doubt that their tiny role – amidst all the noise of the big battalions and the large ships – was in any way less significant than those fighting the battles that made it into the press. As Pericles once said, they were content to do their duty. Many did this to the death, paying the ultimate sacrifice. They, and those who survived to carry the flame of their achievements to a new generation, achieved, as Pericles asserted, ‘imperishable praise.’