The Midget Submarines of Aberlady

Close-up of wreck in Aberlady Bay (Image by StartAgain)

Close-up of wreck in Aberlady Bay (Image by StartAgain)

Aberlady Bay is an area of outstanding natural beauty skirting the windswept Scottish coast, near the town of North Berwick.  A walkers’ paradise and wildlife haven, few people know the history behind the only man-made objects to punctuate the sand at low tide, or their crucial role in sinking one of World War Two’s most formidable battleships.

Main superstructure (image by StartAgain)

Main superstructure (image by StartAgain)

The rusting remains far out in the bay belong to two XT class submarines (training variant of X class) built by Vickers-Armstrong Limited during 1943-44.  Known as “midget” submarines, these particular vessels carried four people and were certainly not designed for the claustrophobically challenged.  In cramped compartments, their range was generally taken to be 500 nautical miles surfaced and 82 nautical miles submerged, at an earth-shattering speed of 6.5 and 5.5 knots respectively!

But despite these figures, the true range is said to have been dictated by the physical and mental endurance of their crews, which must have taken quite a toll on the faint of heart.  And in a time of limited resources where ingenuity was critical, the propulsion system of the 51 feet long craft was a 4-cylinder Gardner 42 hp diesel engine – converted from the type used in the beloved London bus!

The better preserved of the two (image by StartAgain)

The more southerly of the two (image by StartAgain)

The two vessels in Aberlady Bay were used for training purposes only, but the men who acquired their skills and determination within these hulls went on to cripple one of Germany’s most feared instruments of war – the mighty battleship known as Tirpitz.  With their task accomplished, the old subs were towed to Aberlady in 1946 and moored to a large concrete block close to the low tide mark.  For many years they served as targets for aircraft bombing practise.  Today, their corroding superstructures can be found semi-submerged at low tide.  Take care when visiting though, as the turning tide can be treacherous.

Sinking of the Tirpitz

Tirpitz, launched in 1939, was the largest battleship ever built in Europe, being fractionally longer than its equally feared sister ship, the Bismarck.  At that point in history, the great battleships – by virtue of the iconic status they commanded – were seen as enormous morale boosters to the fleets and countries they fought for.  But this worked both ways and losing one was both physically and symbolically catastrophic, with a devastating impact on morale.

X24 - only one to see service and survive! (image by Geni)

X24 - only one to see service and survive! (image by Geni)

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

For that reason, rather ironically, battleships were often kept in reserve by the great naval powers – including Great Britain and Germany – seeing little action.  It’s even more astounding to consider the huge amount of resources and time put into sinking something that barely ever crept out of hiding (Tirpitz never even fired on an enemy ship; her presence alone was enough to strike fear into the hearts of allied commanders).

But just when you thought the German U-boat was an unsporting invention wreaking havoc among allied shipping, enter the midget submarine!  During its first deployment (Operation Source) in September 1943, six X class submarines were tasked with neutralising heavy German battleships based in northern Norway, including Tirpitz.

Interior of X24, Royal Navy Submarine Museum (image by Geni)

Interior of X24, Royal Navy Submarine Museum (image by Geni)

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

In a risky and daring mission, two subs managed to place explosive charges beneath the mighty ship, after being towed 1,000 miles from base, negotiating a minefield and dodging nets, gun defences and enemy listening posts, in perhaps some of the most unpleasant naval surroundings imaginable.  Not surprisingly, Lieutenant Basil Place commanding HMS X7, and Lieutenant Donald Cameron commanding HMS X6, both received the Victoria Cross for their efforts.

The four 2-ton charges detonating beneath Tirpitz lifted the entire ship an incredible two metres out of the water, causing servere damage.  It took six months to repair the mangled hull, by which time the British had poured an inordinate amount of manpower into her demise and she was finally sunk by a force of heavy Lancaster bombers in November 1944.

Want more?  Why not check out these incredible above-water shipwrecks?

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