Midget submarines have always been an enigma—a question mark. Are they worthless, an impractical toy, or are they a weapon from which great results can be obtained for very little effort? Midget submarines have never found favor in the United States Navy. Like the British prior to World War I, we tend to regard them as cheap weapons, the weapons of an inferior naval force which seeks to reduce disparity in naval power by desperate means and wishful thinking. The Royal Navy during World War I turned down the concept of a small submarine especially constructed to penetrate harbors and blow up ships. Both the First Lord of the Admiralty (Winston Churchill) and the First Sea Lord (Prince Louis of Battenburg) were against such a project because they believed it to be too dangerous for the operator and plainly the weapon of a weak naval power. But naval thinking on the other side of the Atlantic changed in World War II. England had its back to the wall, and no stone could be left unturned in the attempt to win the war at sea. As a result, midget submarines came into being in the Royal Navy, and they had their moments of greatness.
At 2300 hours on the 30th of July, 1945, the British submarine Stygian came to all stop. Men ran aft along her deck and began to haul in a manila hawser. The midget submarine XE-3 had just slipped her tow line. The attack phase of Operation struggle was underway.
In the blackness astern of HMS Stygian, the XE-3 looked more like a log floating in the water than a midget submarine, a log or a narrow raft on which the solitary figure of a man was standing. He was Lieutenant I. E. Fraser of the Royal Navy, commanding officer of the XE-3. He had for a crew, Sub-Lieutenant W. J. L. Smith, E.R.A. Charles Reed, and Leading Seaman J. J. Magennis. Four men including the captain had been given the task of penetrating the defenses of Singapore Harbor and blowing up the Japanese cruiser Takao, at her moorings some forty miles away.
The XE-3 which would attempt to penetrate the defenses of Singapore was the result of much research and experimentation. It did not come into being overnight. There had been many proposals for midget submarines in the Royal Navy. The first was probably an idea for a one-man torpedo put forth by Commander G. Herbert, R.N., in 1909. Then there was a design for a three-man midget submarine patented in 1915 by Sir Robert Davis. But none of the proposals were acted on until 1940. That year, Commander Cromwell Varley’s plan for a midget submarine fifty feet in length with an escape compartment and a crew of three was accepted by the Admiralty. Strangely enough, when this first midget submarine was constructed, she was given the designation of X-3. The final result after four years of design development and operational experience was the XE-3, the midget submarine that immobilized the Japanese cruiser Takao.
One thing must be remembered about the “XE” craft. They were specifically designed to penetrate harbors and attack ships within those harbors. They were ineffective at sea because they were not the replica of a large submarine made small. They were constructed with a singleness of purpose. They had no superstructure. They carried no torpedoes. The hull was divided into four compartments and displaced 36 tons. The most forward compartment was the battery compartment. Next came the “W and D,” or escape compartment, which the diver could flood and make his exit from the midget through the fore hatch. Aft of “W and D” was the control compartment which contained all the control mechanisms of the craft, steering, trimming, diving controls, and the periscope. The XE class even had a small air conditioning unit in this compartment. Finally, there was the engine and motor room which also contained the air compressor. The midget had three main ballast tanks plus forward and after trim tank, a compensating tank, and a “negative” or quick diving tank. In addition to the explosive charges which were carried externally in containers on the port and starboard side, the XE-3 also carried powerful net cutters for use by the diver to cut holes in anti-submarine nets so the XE-3 could pass through the nets.
All night long the XE-3 proceeded towards Singapore on the surface while Lieutenant Fraser sat on the casemate and conned her towards Singapore Straits. He deliberately left the marked channel and entered a known minefield to avoid the fixed hydrophones, listening posts which intelligence had told him were in the channel. Along the coast of Johore the XE-3 sailed, past the island of Pulau Tekong Besar, and finally, a little before dawn, the midget and her crew of four reached the entrance to Singapore Straits.
Lieutenant Fraser strained hard through his large pair of binoculars. There was something up ahead, something big coming down the Straits. He dropped through the after hatch and closed it. The vents to the ballast tanks opened. Air hissed out. All stop. The XE-3 was heading for the bottom of Singapore Straits until the tanker and the two escorts, which Lieutenant Fraser had sighted up ahead, passed by. There was a metal clank! The four men looked at each other. The noise came from directly underneath them. It sounded again, a noise like a mooring buoy makes when it hits the side of a ship. There could be no mistake this time. It was a mine. The XE-3 was sitting on top of a Japanese mine! The four men waited. The sound of the heavy, steady, slow beat from the tanker’s propeller kept growing louder. Two thin, high-pitched whines could barely be heard above the thump, thump, thump ... of the tanker. The escorts! The noise of the escorts drew abeam of the XE-3 and the tanker followed. Minutes passed and gradually the sound of the Japanese propellers became fainter. Fraser ordered the vents to the three main ballast tanks shut and the tanks blown. Would the mine they were sitting on explode? There was complete silence within the hull of the XE-3 as the little craft left the bottom and headed for the surface. Nothing happened. The XE- 3 continued up the Singapore Straits.
They were getting near now, near to the trawler which tended the anti-submarine net. They were proceeding submerged and Lieutenant Fraser was keeping a constant watch on the periscope. 1030 hours. Trawler ahead. Magennis, get in your suit and aqualung and get ready to leave through the escape compartment. You may have to cut a hole in the net. A hole big enough for the XE-3 to pass through! Wait! It looks as if the net is open. Slowly, the XE-3 proceeded past the trawler. Slowly and with periscope housed. Not a ripple must show on the surface above. Nothing must alarm the trawler a few yards abeam. Nothing did. The XE-3 passed through the opening in the net and continued towards the target. The channel was getting narrower. Narrower, and there was more traffic in the waterway. Small boats. The XE-3 was approaching the dockyard, up ahead off the port bow. All hands concentrated on their jobs. Fraser, piloting and at the same time searching for the target. Smith, doing the depth keeping, watching the depth gauge and the angle. Reed, steering the courses that Fraser ordered. Only Magennis could relax—as if he could —his job came later, the toughest of all. There she was! The Takao? The 13,000 ton, 8-inch gun cruiser, they had come forty miles alone to attack.
Lieutenant Fraser watched the Japanese warship through the periscope as the XE-3 got closer. A liberty launch full of sailors was pulling away from her side. He lowered the periscope and looked at his watch—1400. As good a time as any to attack. He took a last look through the periscope and ordered Reed to steer a course which would head the XE-3 for the Takao’s high turret forward and Smith to increase the depth until the midget was creeping along barely above the mud at the bottom of the channel. Fraser studied the face of his watch. Minutes passed. “All stop!” Magennis headed for the escape compartment. He never made it. The XE-3 was still sliding along the muddy bottom when she hit the rounded bilge of the cruiser. There was a noise which sounded like an empty steel drum being struck with a sledge hammer, and the midget heeled over. The water under the Takao was too shallow. The XE-3 had wedged herself between the hull of the cruiser and bottom. Fraser backed the midget off and tried again, this time further aft. For forty minutes he hunted for a place that was deep enough for the XE-3 to get directly under the Takao. Finally, he found one. Magennis flooded the escape compartment and started out.
When he tried to open the hatch, Magennis found it would open only half way. The XE-3 had found a place where she could get under the Takao all right, but there wasn’t any room to spare. The fore hatch, which Magennis had to go through to get out of the midget and place the charges, was prevented from opening more than halfway by the hull of the Takao directly above it. Magennis deflated the air sack to his aqualung so he could squeeze through the half-open hatch. He made it. For a half hour, Magennis crawled over the foul hull of the Takao, scraping barnacles from her bottom and placing the magnetic fastened limpet mines. Finally, he finished the job. He placed all six limpets on the Takao’s hull, spread over a distance of forty-five feet. Returning to the XE-3, his hands were so cut by barnacles that he had hard work operating the valves to drain the escape compartment.
The limpet mines which Magennis had so carefully positioned on the bottom of the cruiser had been carried in a limpet container on the port side of the XE-3. To balance this weight, the midget also carried a similar container on the starboard side, only instead of limpets, the starboard container was filled with a high explosive charge. As soon as Magennis drained the escape compartment, Lieutenant Fraser ordered both the starboard charge and the empty container dropped. Then, the XE-3 tried to back out from under the Takao. The midget wouldn’t move. XE-3 was stuck. For almost an hour, the crew flooded tanks and blew them, went full ahead and then full astern, rocked the midget and teetered her, trying to shake her loose from the bottom of a cruiser which was due to blow up. Suddenly, without warning, the XE-3 shot astern. She was completely out of control and porpoised to the surface, stern first. Still, the midget’s luck held. The Japanese didn’t see her. The crew flooded all the tanks and put her on the bottom again. They tried to get a trim and then they realized that the port container, the empty limpet mine container, had not fallen off when they released it together with the main charge. Magennis had to go out again. Fie had to go out the escape compartment and try to free the empty port limpet container. It took him just seven minutes. Seven minutes to free the bolts which held the container to the hull of the XE-3 and return to the inside of the midget. Then, the crew of the XE-3 got the trim, and the midget headed for sea. Towards the open sea she went, past the anti-submarine, past the loop detectors, past the hydrophones and the minefield and out to deep water where she made her rendezvous with the submarine Stygian. At 2130 hours that night, the explosive charges under the Takao went off. The charges blew a hole sixty feet by thirty feet in the hull of the Japanese cruiser!