XE-CRAFT SUBMARINES
OF THE 14TH SUBMARINE FLOTILLA
IN EXERCISES OFF SYDNEY, NSW AND
OFF MON REPOS BEACH
NEAR BUNDABERG, QLD
DURING WW2

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visits since 14 December 2003

 

On 21 February 1945, HMS Bonaventure, and six XE-craft submarines (35 ton) were despatched to the Far East under the command of Captain W.R. "Tiny" Fell, DSC, Royal Navy, who was the Commanding Officer of the 14th Submarine Flotilla. The 14th Submarine Flotilla was formed from the 12th Submarine Flotilla.

They travelled via the Panama Canal, Pearl Harbor, and the Admiralty Islands and arrived in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia in about June 1945.

When they arrived at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Nimitz of the US Navy indicated that he thought the X-craft were "suicide craft" and he was not at all interested in using them in his theatre of operations. Nimitz was under the impression that the XE-craft had a very limited range. When he arrived in Brisbane, Captain Fell went to the Philippines on military transports to talk to Rear Admiral James Fife US Navy, who had once been the Commanding Officer of the large US Navy Submarine base in Brisbane at Capricorn Wharf, New Farm. Fife initially had similar views to Nimitz but eventually relented when he realised that he had two missions which would be ideal for the XE-craft.. 

One mission was to sink the heavy Japanese cruisers, "Takao" and "Myoko" (or was it the the Nachi), which were anchored in the Johore Straits, near Singapore. They had been damaged but not totally disabled during earlier attacks. There were plans for an allied invasion of Malaya and it was felt that their large guns could still be used to threaten this invasion. The other mission was to cut the undersea telephone cable between Singapore and Tokyo which runs via Indochina and Hong Kong.

The Six secret XE-craft submarines trained on a lonely part of the Queensland coast about one hundred miles north of Brisbane. The location was chosen to avoid the possibility of being spotted by any Japanese reconnaissance aircraft.

XE-craft in Sydney Harbour during WW2

 

XE-craft in Sydney Harbour during WW2

 

XE-craft on the surface in Sydney Harbour during WW2

 

The controls of an XE-craft

Here they practiced placing limpet mines on imaginary Japanese cruisers and strengthened their team work. The submarine depot ship, HMS Bonaventure, was anchored nearby. The XE-craft were involved in simulated attacks on enemy shipping. Captain "Tiny" Fell, the Commanding Officer of the 14th Submarine Flotilla was keen to have the unit fully operational via this training.

HMS Bonaventure in Sydney Harbour during WW2

One of the tasks to be simulated was to cut the underwater cables used by the Japanese for sending and receiving High Command messages. The exercise was in readiness for an attack on the underwater telephone cables from Singapore and Hong Kong. They simulated this task off Mon Repos near Bundaberg, by attempting to cut a disused submarine telegraph cable that ran between Mon Repos and New Caledonia. It was originally laid in 1893 and abandoned in either 1895 or 1898. 

NOTE:- In his book "Frogman V.C.", Ian Fraser describes this exercise as being located one hundred miles north of Brisbane at a location between Brisbane and the Great Barrier reef. He then mentions that the exercise took place at Cid Harbour, which is actually located in the Whitsunday Islands, about a thousand kilometres north of Mon Repos. Perhaps the XE-craft had also done some other exercises at Cid Harbour and he had confused the locations. At this stage, based on information that I have seen I've assumed that it was off Mon Repos. Can anyone please confirm the true loaction.

The XE-craft would submerge to a depth of 15 - 20 feet. One of the divers would go into the wet-and-dry compartment. This is a hatchway in the submarine into which a man can crawl from inside the submarine. This compartment is initially dry. By opening various valves the compartment fills with water and then the diver can open a lid to exit the submarine into the open sea. 

The diver then retrieves a grapnel from a storage container on the outside of the XE-craft. This grapnel remains attached to the submarine by a 50-foot length of stout manila rope. The grapnel is then dropped to the ocean floor in the direction of the undersea cable. The diver then renters the submarine by the wet-and-dry compartment. The XE-craft then submerges to a position 10 feet above the sea bed. The Commander if the XE-craft maintains this depth by the sounding equipment in front of him. As the submarine moved forward the grapnel would catch on to the undersea cable and as the slack in the manila rope takes up the XE-craft would come to a stop.

The commander of the XE-craft would then settle his submarine on the bottom and the diver would again exit the vessel vi the wet-and-dry compartment. This time he would take with him some special hydraulic cutters to cut the cable that they had located with the grapnel. The diver would then renter the XE-craft  via the wet-and-dry compartment.

Ian "Tich" Fraser had chosen Leading Seaman Magennis on 21 June 1945 as his crew member in XE.3 for a training session in cutting an undersea cable. They were anchored about 3 miles of the mouth of the Burnett River. Captain Fell landed in a rubber dinghy through the rolling surf and after a while eventually found the disused submarine telegraph cable. He followed its course to the shore line and estimated its location offshore. It was heavily armoured near the shore for protection from boat anchors etc.

A motor boat was to be used to follow them on the surface in case the diver needed help while he was away from the submarine. Magennis was unavailable that day, and Fraser then contacted the spare diver. Unfortunately the spare diver reported a defect with his breathing apparatus. Fraser tested it himself and thought it was OK, but the diver was still not happy and returned to the HMS Bonaventure on the motor-boat. 

Crew of XE.3 Left to right: Able Seaman Magennis, Lt. Ian E. Fraser,
 Lt. David Carey and Engine Room Artificer Maughan

 

Close-up of the crew of XE.3

Fraser then decided that this would be a good opportunity to test the "free" diving equipment during this cable cutting exercise. The diver wears a sort of oxygen apparatus plus a regenerative fitment. 1st Lt. David Haversham Carey, Royal Navy and Ian Fraser were both familiar with this equipment and they agreed to give it a try. 

David Carey put on a pair of overalls and the "free" diving apparatus. He went through the wet-and-dry compartment and activated the grapnel. Meanwhile Ian Fraser watched Carey through the periscope. He saw David go down to see what had happened to the Grapnel. He returned to the XE-craft and gave Fraser the thumbs-up as the manila rope tightened. Fraser then watched Carey go to the stowage compartment and then descend to the cable with the hydraulic cutters which were linked to the submarine by a long tube. 

Commanding Officers L. to R.:-

XE.1  Lt. J. Smart, R.N.V.R.
   XE.3  Lt. Ian E. Fraser, R.N.R.
      XE.2  Lt. H.P. Westmacott, R.N.
       XE.4  Lt. Max Shean, R.A.N.V.R.

Fraser noted that Carey had used the cutters 3 or 4 times to cut the cable by noting the pressure in the tube. Carey then returned to the XE-craft and again gave Fraser the thumbs-up. Carey then went back down to retrieve the grapnel. Carey stowed the grapnel in the submarine and entered the wet-and-dry compartment and pulled the lid closed. Fraser then heard the valves opening. All of a sudden the lid of the wet-and-dry compartment flew open and Carey remerged form the compartment. Carey then gave Fraser the thumbs-up again. Not knowing what had happened, Fraser gave the order to surface. As they surfaced Fraser saw Carey jump over the side and disappear. That was the last time that 22 year old David Carey was seen. His body was never recovered.

Fraser returned to the HMS Bonaventure in "Sigyn". He felt he had been in some way responsible for the death of his best friend, David Carey. Captain fell ordered Fraser to repeat the exercise the following day with a different diver. The other XE-craft were also involved. Bruce Edward Enzer, R.N.V.R. was the diver in the XE.2 commanded by Westmacott. Enzer activated the grapnel and went through the cable cutting exercise. Enzer was in the wet-and-dry compartment when Westmacott realised something was wrong. He immediately surfaced near the accompanying motor-boat. Enzer exited the wet-and-dry compartment wearing his "free" diving equipment. The officer-in-charge of the motorboat pulled alongside the submarine and asked Enzer if he was alright. Enzer then punched the officer on the jaw and then jumped overboard and was also never found again. Two divers had now been killed in two consecutive days.

Upon investigation it would appear that both divers had gone too deep. 30 feet was the safe working depth for the "free" diving equipment. David Carey had gone down to 47 feet and had worked very hard against the tide during his dive. The "free" diving apparatus was a closed circuit system which was used to avoid any air bubbles coming to the surface during dangerous missions in enemy held areas. The carbon monoxide that the divers breathed out passed through an alkaline chemical known as Protosorb. This chemical would partially regenerate the carbon monoxide back to pure oxygen. If divers worked below the safe depth of 30 feet and were involved in very energetic activities, the risk of oxygen poisoning increased. Oxygen poisoning affects an individual's mind such that they believe they are not in danger and able to cope with anything.

David Carey was the son of Colonel Peter Dudley Carey and Dorothy Madeleine Carey, of Lymington, Hampshire. There is a Memorial Panel for Lt. Carey at the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Hampshire, Panel 88, Column 3. A Memorial for Bruce Enzer is also located at Panel 90, Column 2.

NOTE: - The National Shipwreck Database Australia states that an X-craft had sunk at Cid Harbour as follows:-

"One of the 'x' types surfaced and one of the two crew members lept out. The submarine then sank taking the other crew member with it. It was never re-located."

This story seems to differ from the account by Ian Fraser, who lived to write the book "Frogman, VC". According to Fraser, the second death was the following day, and there is no mention in the book, that a submarine sank during either of these incidents.

The XE-craft continued their training for a further seven days. HMS Bonaventure then left for the Philippines. XE.5 commanded by Lt. H.P. Westmacott was chosen for Operation Foil to cut the Hong Kong Cable in Subic Bay. 

The Crew of XE.5 was as follows:-

Lt. H.P. Westmacott, RN
1st. Lt. Beadon Dening, RNVR
ERA Clifford Greenwood
Lt. B.G. Clarke, RNVR
Sub-Lt. D.V.M. Jarvis, RNVR

The Hong Kong cable was successfully cut.

XE.4 was chosen for Operation Sabre, to cut the Saigon - Singapore and Saigon - Hong Kong cables.

The crew of XE.4 was as follows:-

Lt. Max H. Shean, RANVR
ERA V. "Ginger" Coles
Sub-Lt. Ben Kelly, RNVR
Sub-Lt. A.K. "Jock" Bergius, RNVR
Sub-Lt. Ken. M. Briggs, RANVR

Both cables were successfully cut. Some sections of the cable were also recovered as souvenirs.

XE.1 and XE.3 were chosen for Operation Struggle, which was designed to attack the Japanese cruisers "Takao" and "Nachi" near Singapore Harbour.

The crews of XE.1 and XE.3 were as follows:-

XE.1 XE.3
Lt. J.E. Smart, RNVR Lt. Ian E. Fraser
  Sub-Lt. W.J.L. "Kiwi" Smith
  ERA Charles Reed
  Leading Seaman J.J. "Mick" Magennis (diver)

XE.3 under the command of Ian Fraser left Labuan Island on 26 July 1945 headed for Singapore Harbour. The crew of XE.3 stayed awake for 52 hours during this dangerous mission. Charles Reed was at the helm of XE.3 for about 30 hours. They were able to blow a hole 60 ft by 30 ft in the hull of the "Takao" which was immobilised for some time. Most of her guns were put out of action. The gun rangefinders were also destroyed and a number of compartments flooded inside the large cruiser. 

As some of Takao's guns were still operational, the crews of XE.3 and XE.4 volunteered for a second attack on the large cruiser. The Operation was cancelled half an hour before they were due to leave with the news that Japan had surrendered.

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

Frogman V.C.
by Ian Fraser

"Above Us the Waves"
by C.E.T. Warren and James Benson

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank John McNamara for his assistance with this home page.

 

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 Peter Dunn 2003

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This page first produced 14 December 2003

This page last updated 15 October 2006