Operation Source - 70 Years On

Posted on Thursday 19th September 2013

Of all the acts of gallantry in World War II few were as audacious as the attack by midget submarines on the pride of the German fleet, the battleship Tirpitz, lying in her heavily fortified lair deep in a Norwegian fjord. Lieutenant Godfrey Place was in command of submarine X7 in September 1943 and travelled over 1000 miles, negotiating minefields and anti-submarine nets to place four tons of high explosive accurately under the hull of the Tirpitz. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1944, at the age of 22.

operation source - attacking the german battlefleet
Wednesday, 22 September was the day of the attack, and X7 left her overnight mooring early in the morning, diving at about 01.30, to make her passage through the anti-submarine boom to reach the Tirpitz at the head of Kaa fjord. Place recalled that it was a trip made with ‘seemingly all the time in the world; as the first explosion was due to be between eight and nine, we had five and a half hours to do the four or five miles.’ He went on to describe how ‘we hung about a little bit to make sure it was fully daylight before going through the opening in the anti-submarine boom across the neck of Kaa fjord.’ In the plan of operations the diver in the X-craft would be responsible for leaving the craft and cutting the anti-submarine nets. This was to have been Robert Aitken’s task and in 2004 he described the sequence of events:
Just before dawn we set off to the first challenge, the antisubmarine (a/s) net. This was the one the diver had to cut if the CO [Commanding Officer] couldn’t get through it in any other way (which all the COs were quite determined to find). As we approached, the CO saw the gate in the a/s net had been opened to let a trawler through. We dived underneath its wake and got through without having to cut the net. Having got through the gate the CO, looking through the periscope, saw another boat was about to cross our path. We had to dive below periscope depth and whilst unsighted hit a bunch of anti- torpedo (a/t) nets moored in the fjord. In the reconnaissance photograph these nets were protecting a German battleship which had gone to sea.
The nets stretched around an anchorage for the Lutzow, but this was now empty as she had departed on exercises. Place described how ‘in going deep to avoid a little minesweeper that was coming out of the anchorage, we ran into a boom, and got lodged in the anti-torpedo nets.’ He went on to relate how they freed X7: ‘it took quite a while to get out with quite a lot of pulling and pushing and blowing and so on, but I don’t think we broke surface, but I was a little bit cautious that we had revealed our presence.’ Robert Aitken recalled this challenge:
The bow had caught on something we couldn’t see and we couldn’t move. All we could do was to shuffle the boat forward and astern, making it alternatively more and less buoyant, hoping to shake off the net. With no success after about 30 minutes the CO told me to get dressed and go and see what the problem was. Getting into a diving suit in an X-craft without assistance took a long time and was quite exhausting. Before I was ready to dive the CO said, ‘Take it off. I don’t know how it happened, but we’re now free,’ and we were on our way again.
Although free of the nets, there was now a defect in a trimming pump and the gyrocompass was faulty. X7 proceeded towards the target and at about 05.45 Place caught his first sight of the Tirpitz, then submerged about 200 to 300 yards from the anti-torpedo nets. Just prior to reaching the nets, at 07.10, Place ordered the fuses on both charges to be set for one hour; there was now real urgency to the attack.

Passage route for midget submarines September 1943.

Based on the results of photographic reconnaissance, X-craft commanders had been told that German anti-torpedo nets consisted of two lines, supported by buoys, and that it was unlikely that they would be deeper than 70 feet. As the water in Kaa fjord was 120 feet deep Godfrey Place believed he would easily be able to pass under the nets. However, it soon became apparent that the nets were constructed of a very fine mesh and that they went much deeper than reported. The situation was even more complex as there were, in fact, three lines of nets, one of which was secured to weights on the floor of the fjord. Althea’s words to him about the nets a month earlier were ringing true. Passing through the nets took considerable perserverance and involved five minutes of ‘blowing and wriggling.’ After this, Place recalled, ‘miraculously when we came up to the surface there were no intervening nets and theTirpitz
The CO tried to find a way through the a/t nets protecting the Tirpitz. He tried one way after another and I don’t think Godfrey Place was ever absolutely sure how but he suddenly found we were inside the nets surrounding the Tirpitz. Without knowing it, the CO may have slid over the top, found a gap or the open gate.
X7 was now very close to the target, but a further problem had arisen since the gyrocompass had stopped working. Undaunted by the obstacles and setbacks encountered so far, Place ordered X7 to dive to 40 feet and then proceeded at full speed towards the Tirpitz. X7 made contact with the ship on her port side, below B turret, at 07.22, and then slid gently under the keel where the starboard charge was released in the full shadow of the ship, under B turret. As a result of the collision X7 had swung to port, and Place now found himself proceeding along the keel of the Tirpitz towards the stern. After 150-200 feet the second charge was released under X turret. With both charges released, Aitken recalled how, ‘the job done, the CO set a course for home!’
Slightly before X7 had laid her charges, X6 had attacked Tirpitz and laid hers. She had been dogged by problems, not least the flooding of one of her charges on 11 September, although skilled seamanship enabled the crew to maintain the trim of the boat for the next eleven days. On the passage to Alten fjord the periscope flooded and the crew had been forced to strip it down and re-assemble it at least three times. X6 passed through the opening in the anti-submarine nets approximately 90 minutes after X7. At 07.05 she passed through the boat opening in the anti-torpedo nets travelling on the surface, astern of a small coaster which was entering the enclosure. Donald Cameron then dived and made for the Tirpitz. However, X6 then ran aground on the north shore of the enclosure and broke surface. She was spotted by a junior member of Tirpitz’s crew, who informed a senior officer, but was advised that he had probably seen a porpoise. Undeterred, Donald Cameron manoeuvred the boat clear of the shore and in the right direction to make an attack. In doing so, X6 broke surface again about five minutes later; there was no mistaking her for a porpoise this time, and the alarm was raised on board the Tirpitz. By now X6 was totally unserviceable and Donald Cameron, realising escape was impossible, proceeded to destroy sensitive equipment and documents and scuttle the boat, releasing his charges next to B turret. He surfaced close to the Tirpitz where fortunately she was unable to bring to bear any of her main armament. X6 was met by a German patrol boat, commanded by Lieutenant Leine from the Tirpitz. Leine attempted to get a tow rope on to X6, but as he was doing so the crew were opening all the valves to scuttle the vessel. The crew then left X6, with Donald Cameron the last to leave and forgetting to pick up his pipe and tobacco. All four crew members boarded the patrol boat, barely getting their feet wet in the process. As they did so, X6 sank at 07.32, and the Germans were forced to release the tow rope to prevent their vessel being dragged under as well.
The attack by the midget submarines had caught the crew of the Tirpitz completely by surprise, and their response was both slow and confused, with some crew members believing that the alarm was another exercise. The first sighting of a submarine was recorded at 07.07, and ten minutes later the order was given to close all watertight doors. At 07.36 the ship was placed at action stations, and the order given to raise steam. However, it was apparent that it would take some time before she could proceed under her own power. At 07.40, recognising the seriousness of the situation, the Germans attempted to move the Tirpitz away from where X6’s charges were believed to have been dropped, by heaving on the mooring cables, causing the Tirpitz’s bows to move to starboard. This also moved her slightly away from X7’s first charge.
The four crew from X6 were taken on board the Tirpitz. As they arrived, John Lorimer asked Donald Cameron, ‘Skipper, shall we salute the German flag?’ To which the reply was, ‘Why, of course.’ And much to the Germans’ displeasure, they did. Strange as it may appear, the crew from X6 were not the first members of the Royal Navy to have gone aboard the Tirpitz that month. That distinction belonged to Coder Esmond Dabner, who had been injured and captured at Spitzbergen on 8 September and was taken to Norway on board the Tirpitz.
Godfrey Place, unaware of X6’s progress or fate, faced a further dilemma:
Being somewhat in doubt as to how we got in I thought we would go back to the point where we had penetrated the nets. But it was very difficult, the nets came to within ten yards of the Tirpitz and in that area it was very difficult to pinpoint yourself precisely. So in fact we spent most of the next three quarters of an hour trying to find the way out. I think we passed under the ship two or three times. Our charges were set for an hour and by then it occurred to me that we needed to take somewhat drastic measures to get out, so in fact we did a sort of flop operation of hitting the net, holding ourselves down, blowing the bow tank to full buoyancy as fast as we could, so we came up with a terrific angle and at the same time going full ahead on the motor, scraping the top of the net and got out.
In his report, Place described this as a ‘a new technique for getting out of nets,’ and at 07.40 X7 slid over them. He wrote that he did not look at the Tirpitz at this time as this method for overcoming net defences was ‘new and absorbing.’ X7 was not, however, free of nets; Place wrote, ‘it was extremely annoying to run into another net at about 60 feet.’ At this moment, X7 was seen from the Tirpitz as she broke the surface, and the Germans responded by dropping hand grenades and opening fire with machine guns.
At 08.12 the eight tons of amatol, which had been so carefully brought the 1,200 miles from Britain and placed under Europe’s largest battleship, exploded. On board the Tirpitz, the ship’s log recorded, ‘Two heavy consecutive detonations to port, at one-tenth second interval. Ship vibrates strongly in vertical direction and sways slightly between the anchors.’ At the time of the explosions John Lorimer was below decks being interrogated by the Germans. He later recalled that ‘the ship was lifted seven feet in the air, but only one sailor died.’ The Germans became very hostile and lined up members of X6 crew on the deck as if to shoot them. Lorimer remembered thinking, ‘I wouldn’t give a sixpence for my life right now,’ but was also ‘bloody furious’ that the ship was still floating. His colleague Sub Lieutenant Richard Kendall, the diving officer, who was on the quarterdeck, recalled his reaction to the explosion:
My knees buckled as the explosion hurled the ship out of the water. Steam gushed from broken pipes. Oil flowed from the shattered hull and covered the waters of the fjord. All around was confusion.
The explosion caused all the electric lights to be extinguished and doors became jammed. Broken glass was everwhere, and many of the fire extinguishers discharged, depositing white foam throughout the ship. Although electricity was restored quite rapidly, there was other, more serious damage. All four main turrets had been lifted off their supports and were out of alignment, and several armour plates of the hull had been breached, with water entering some compartments and oil leaking out into the fjord. The optical systems of the range finders and the sighting systems for the armament had all been smashed by the explosion. Both the port propulsion system and the port rudder were damaged, and the aircraft catapults were unuseable. All the bottles of schnapps on board were broken. One sailor was killed and about forty wounded as a result of the explosion. Captain Meyer, the Commanding Officer, flew into a rage and ordered the four prisoners from X6 to be shot at once as saboteurs, but he changed his mind when it was pointed out to him that they were just soldiers doing their duty.
The explosion also affected X7 and Place recalled: ‘A quite considerable amount of noise, really rather too close to us for any comfort, but by no means lethal. The aft hatch lifted and quite a volume of water came in and there were one or two small spurting leaks, but nothing too dramatic.’
X7 was backed out of the net and surfaced, and again he recalled that ‘we had a look around and it was galling that Tirpitz had not seemed to have settled in the water and in fact I had some doubts as to whether the explosion had been our charges going up or a depth charge from a surface ship.’ However, the explosion had freed X7 from the nets and Godfrey Place described the next stage as, ‘we went back to the bottom again and thought about it for a while and then decided we would have to get further away.’ By this time all the diving gauges and compasses were out of action, but there was little structural damage to the boat. He continued:
Unfortunately in the next half hour, we were unable to maintain any sort of depth, there was so much water inside the boat that as soon as you got a bow up angle it all swished down to the back end and you came up to the surface, and as soon as a bow down angle it swished down to the other end and went rocketing down to the bottom again.
Place was now worried that with the loss of the periscope and the compass they might run the boat up on to the beach and so present the enemy with a complete X-craft. At this point he decided that the crew ought to bale out. He recalled how they considered going out by Davis Escape, but concluded that it was better for one person to wave a white flag on the surface. By now there was a lot of firing at the surface, so Godfrey Place decided that he should go outside and wave a sweater. He went up through the W and D hatch, waving a rather grubby white sweater and saying to Robert Aitken, who was immediately behing him on the ladder, ‘Here go the last of the Places!’ Aitken remembered that the shooting stopped just as he left the boat. Place turned to shut the hatch in haste, concerned that with so little buoyancy the boat would be flooded, but at the same time Robert Aitken was trying to push it open from below. Unfortunately, enough water entered to cause X7 to start to sink. At 08.35 Godfrey Place clambered on to a nearby practice target and was then picked up by a small German vessel and taken to the Tirpitz. On the short journey Place said ‘Incredible.’ ‘What is incredible?’ replied an officer in the boat. ‘That the ship should still be afloat.’ Place gratefully accepted cigarettes from the Germans but the tobacco was not entirely to his taste. Feeling ridiculous in little more than underclothes, sea boot stockings and oversized boots, he was taken to the quarterdeck of the Tirpitz, where he found himself surrounded by chaos and received threats that he would be shot. He replied that he was ‘an English naval officer and expected to be treated with due courtesy.’

X7 crews. Standing, from left, Sub Lieutenant Robert Aitken, RNVR, Lieutenant Godfrey Place DSC, Sub Lieutenant Bill Whittam, RNVR, Lieutenant Peter Philip SANF. Front row, from left: Able Seaman James Mageniss, Stoker John Luck, ERA Bill Whitley.

Godfrey Place had taken the unusual decision for the commanding officer of a vessel to leave it first, naval tradition being that he should leave last. However, the fact of being under attack may have influenced his decision; by leaving X7 when he did there was a high possibility of his being injured or killed by enemy fire. As he was standing on the practice target, X7 sank with his three colleagues on board. Only Aitken escaped and events in X7 at this time can only be described by him:
The three left on board discussed what we should do. The two alternatives were to try to get the submarine back on the surface again, or to escape using the Davis Submarine Escape Equipment, which was an oxygen breathing set. We were apprehensive about trying to get the boat to the surface because it had been damaged and by running compressors and motors we were going to make noise, which we felt would immediately attract depth charges. We decided that it would be wiser to escape using the breathing apparatus. We all put one on and started to flood the boat (the hatch could not be opened until the boat was fully flooded to equalise the pressure inside the boat with that outside). Unfortunately this took longer than we anticipated because some of the valves couldn’t be fully opened. As the water crept up it reached the batteries which fused, giving off fumes, and we had to start breathing oxygen before the boat was fully flooded.
During that time there was nothing to do except wait. As soon as we went onto oxygen (after the fumes came) we could not talk to each other, the oxygen mouthpiece prevented that. There were no lights, we couldn’t see each other and we were left with our own thoughts. I remember throughout that I was very confident I would escape. ‘It couldn’t happen to me, I was going to survive,’ I thought, and that’s the way it turned out.
Initially we decided Bill Whittam should get out through the after hatch, he was very tall which made it more difficult for him to get through the W and D. Bill Whitly [sic], the ERA, would get out through the W and D and I would use whichever hatch became available first. However, when Bill Whitly and I tried to exchange places we found the oxygen bottles and the periscope prevented us getting past each other. Bill signalled, ‘It’s OK, you carry on.’ I went into the W and D to try the hatch, but the pressure hadn’t equalised and when I returned to the control room I couldn’t feel Bill until I stumbled over his body on the deck. I bent down and felt his breathing bag which had two small emergency bottles of oxygen in it. Both had been emptied which indicated Bill had run out of oxygen.
I went back to try the W and D hatch again. Fortunately the pressure equalised just after I’d broken my first emergency bottle. I opened the hatch, climbed out and jumped. As the pressure began to reduce, the oxygen expanded, leaving me with far too much. I made what I thought was a correct escape. I unrolled and held out the apron (provided with the escape kit for use as a brake) so I didn’t go up too fast and blow out my lungs.
When I surfaced I first looked around to see whether Bill Whittam had got out of the rear hatch and was floating about. There was no sign of him. Then I looked up and saw the Tirpitz. I didn’t get an awfully good view, bouncing about on the surface, but it was a great disappointment to see her afloat. She was very large, the pride of the German navy, and I had been very hopeful she had been sunk, but she looked intact from my limited viewpoint.
Aitken reached the surface at 11.15 and was picked up by a German vessel and taken to the Tirpitz. Bill Whittam’s body was recovered from X7 when part of it was raised from Kaa fjord in October 1943. His body was buried in Tromsø Cemetery, and later marked by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Bill Whitley’s body was not recovered; he is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.
As to the fate of the other midget submarines that entered Alten fjord, it is known that at 08.43 on 22 September a third midget submarine was sighted approximately 500 yards outside the anti-torpedo nets. This was X5 and was was seen both by Germans on board Tirpitz and by some of the British prisoners. X5 was attacked by gunfire from the Tirpitz as well as depth charges, was seen to sink and was never recovered. None of the crew was ever found. There has been uncertainty ever since as to whether X5 completed an attack on the Tirpitz.
X10 did not reach her target. Soon after slipping there was a major problem with a clutch, which was repaired whilst the submarine hid in a deserted fjord. On the run into Alten fjord one of the side charges flooded, there were severe electrical problems leading to a fire and failure of the gyrocompass. The magnetic compass flooded and the periscope failed. Lieutenant Hudspeth realised there was no way he could make an attack and made his way back to the rendezvous area and Stubborn. Despite transferring crews (the passage crew from X7 were transferred to X10) in an attempt to tow X10 home, there were further setbacks, with the tow rope parting and X10 colliding with Stubborn. On 3 October, with a gale forecast, orders were received to transfer the passage crew and scuttle X10. All the crew of X10 arrived back safely in Britain, although the journey home in Stubborn was far from comfortable after the heads failed.
The Tirpitz had caused considerable anxiety for Winston Churchill throughout the war, and his earlier correspondence indicated just how determined he was to ensure she was destroyed or at least crippled. On the day after the attack, 23 September, he received a copy of an intercepted German message dated 22 September, which reported: ‘A midget submarine was destroyed inside the Tirpitz’s net barrage at 07.30. 4 Englishmen were taken prisoner.’
More encouraging news was received on 24 September, from a second intercepted signal:
Heavy explosion 60 metres to port of Tirpitz at 10.12. (Submarine destroyed by time bombs) 500 cubic metres of water in ship. A second submarine was destroyed by time bomb; at 10.35 Commanding Officer was taken prisoner. A third submarine was fired on when 600 metres distant on the starboard beam, several hits being observed.
One week after the attack, Churchill met with his Chiefs of Staff and the Foreign Secretary to discuss convoys to northern Russia. He was now aware of the effects of ‘Operation Source’ and wrote:
There was an agreeable new fact before us. The Tirpitz had been disabled by the audacious and heroic attack of our midget submarines ...Thus we had an easement, probably of some months, in the Arctic waters.
Although the Tirpitz was not sunk, the damage inflicted by the midget submariners was considerable. The Germans decided to repair the ship in Kaa fjord, and several vessels were dispatched north, along with hundreds of workers. As early as October 1943, the German navy had accepted that it might not be possible to restore her to full operational activity. In November 1943 it was reported to the German Naval War Staff that ‘as a result of the successful midget submarine attack the battle cruiser Tirpitz had been put out of action for months.’ Tirpitz left Kaa fjord under her own power on 15 March 1944 for sea trials and was able to reach a speed of 27 knots. News of her departure was signalled to London by the Norwegian resistance. She was attacked on 3 April at anchor in Kaa fjord, where Barracuda aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm hit her with fifteen bombs; the damage resulted in her being out of action for a further three months. During July and August 1944 there were further attacks on the ship by aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, followed, on 15 September, by an attack by RAF Lancaster bombers. Dropping 12,000lb bombs, they inflicted severe damage to her bows as well as damaging her boilers. In response to this, combined with the Allied advances in Europe, Tirpitz was moved south to Tromsø to act as a coastal defence battery. On 12 November 1944 whilst at anchor she was attacked by Lancasters of 617 Squadron, which dropped ‘tall boy’ bombs. The mission was a success, and the ship capsized with the loss of over 1,000 men. Winston Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt on 15 November 1944, ‘it is a great relief to us to get this brute where we have long wanted her.’
Although the X-craft attacks had not sunk the Tirpitz, there is no doubt that the damage inflicted by Godfrey Place and his colleagues ensured that the threat she posed to the Allies was significantly reduced. After the midget submarine attack she never mounted offensive actions against the Allies, and to that extent ‘Operation Source’ was completely successful. Although there was loss of life on both sides, it is important to put this into the context of the large numbers of Germans who were later killed on board the Tirpitz when she was finally sunk.
The final words on ‘Operation Source’ are best left to Admiral Barry in February 1944:
My admiration for Lieutenant CAMERON and Lieutenant PLACE and their crews is beyond words.

The members of the 12th Submarine Flotilla who died in ‘Operation Source’ were:
X5 (Operational Crew): Lieutenant H.Henty-Creer, RNVR, Sub Lieutenant A.D. Malcolm, RNVR, Sub Lieutenant T.J. Nelson, RNVR, ERA R. Mortiboys,
X7 (Operational Crew): Lieutenant L.B. Whittam, RNVR, ERA W. M. Whitley
X9 (Passage Crew): Sub Lieutenant E. Kearon, RNVR, Ordinary Seaman A.H. Harte, Stoker G. H. Hollett
The Tirpitz at sea.

Passage at Kaa Fjord.

'The bow had caught on something we couldn't see and we couldn't move. All we could do was to shuffle the boat forward and astern, making it alternatively more and less buoyant, hoping to shake off the net. With no success after about 30 minutes the CO told me to get dressed and go and see what the problem was. Getting into a diving suit in an X-craft without assistance took a long time and was quite exhausting. Before I was ready to dive the CO said, "Take it off. I don't know how it happened , but we're now free'" and we were on our way again.'

Laying of charges by X6 and X7.

X-craft in Kames Bay, with the town of Rothesay behind.

X-craft departing from Loch Cairnbawn, 11 September 1943.

The fate of X7.

'X10 did not reach her target. Soon after slipping there was a major problem with a clutch, which was repaired whilst the submarine hid in a deserted fjord. On the run into Alten fjord one of the side charges flooded, there were severe electrical problems leading to a fire and failure of the gyrocompass. The magnetic compass flooded and the periscope failed.'

Godfrey Place and Sir John Smyth presenting a gift to the Queen, on the occasion of her fiftieth birthday, April 1976, Windsor Castle.

Godfrey Place VC.

Godfrey Place with Joe Lynch GC, and the Prince of Wales, Savoy Hotel, London, 1981.

Further Reading

Midget Submarine Commander
(Hardback - 244 pages)
ISBN: 9781848848009

by Paul Watkins
Only £19.99

Of all the acts of gallantry in World War II few were as audacious as the attack by midget submarines on the pride of the German fleet, the battleship Tirpitz, lying in her heavily fortified lair deep in a Norwegian fjord. Lieutenant Godfrey Place was in command of submarine X7 in September 1943 and travelled over 1000 miles, negotiating minefields and anti-submarine nets to place four tons of high explosive accurately under the hull of the Tirpitz. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1944, at the age…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...