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ANTONY PRESTON, JOHN BATCHELOR
British X-Craft. These four-man midgets were designed to attack warships such as the Tirpitz in heavily defended anchorages. They had a "Wet and Dry" compartment to allow a diver to leave and re-enter. Their greatest exploit was the successful attack on the Tirpitz in Altenfiord in September 1943. Displacement: 27 tons (surfaced). Armament: Two 2-ton side charges (released beneath the target). Speed: 6,5 knots (surfaced), 5,5 knots (submerged)
The attack on the Tirpitz on 22 September 1943 was a great success, for although the charges did not sink hers they inflicted such damage on her that she was eventually moved south for repairs. Here she was at last within range of bombers, and she was: finally eliminated little more than a year later. All six of the X-craft were lost, including one which broke down on the way out, and the surviving one, X10, which was scuttled afterwards, A slightly enlarged version, the XE-craft, was built for the Far East. They had more stowage space and had the blessing of air-conditioning to reduce the strain on the four- or five-man crew. There was also an air-lock to allow a diver to leave the midget and place limpet mines on the target's hull, and spring-loaded legs to make it easier for the midget to rest on the bottom.
Before the Normandy invasion in June 1944 midgets were used to reconnoiter landing beaches, and to provide information on tides and obstructions. On D-Day itself several acted as navigation beacons well inshore to guide the first assault wave. In the Far East they revived Simon Lake's ideas of fifty years earlier by sending out divers to cut submarine cables. Chariots were used in Norway, but the water proved far too cold for the crews, and they proved better suited to the Mediterranean where they sank the Italian cruisers Gorizia, Bolzano and Ulpio Traiano.
British "Welman" Type Midget. A one-man craft capable of fixing a 560-lb charge to its target by magnetic clips. It is not known how many Welmans were produced, but they proved unreliable
The submarine war that the British had feared in the Mediterranean when Italy entered the war in June 1940 did not take the form expected. This was partly due to the inertia of the Italian Navy whose few energetic submariners were shortly to be sent to Bordeaux, but particularly because Admiral Dönitz was so reluctant to the U-Boat offensive in the Atlantic by sending boats to the Mediterranean. For the British submarines, however, there were tempting targets in the form of Italian shipping taking supplies to the Italian and German troops fighting in North Africa. On the other hand the Mediterranean was dangerous for submarines: land-based aircraft were within a short flying distance at any time, and they could spot a submarine at a depth of up to 50 feet in calm weather, as against the North Sea, where a submarine is virtually invisible at periscope depth, or the Atlantic, where visibility extends only 30 feet down in ideal conditions.
Reverses to British fortunes, both on land and at sea, made it very hard to exploit the weakness of the Italians. The Luftwaffe had reinforced the Regia Aeronautica, which gave the Axis Powers as air superiority over large areas of the Mediterranean and thus made the British submarines' job very difficult. Losses were heavy among the large submarines of the "O", "P" and "R" Classes, not least because of their leaky external fuel tanks.
Nevertheless, in the early months of 1941 there were many successes. It is odd to note that British submarines were still forbidden to sink merchant ships without warning, and it was not until February 1941 that the Cabinet removed the restriction, on assumption that all shipping; found south of 35' 40'' N was hostile. By May over 100,000 tons of German and Italian shipping had been sunk by submarines operating out of Malta, Gibraltar and Alexandria.
In mid-1941 British submarine activity reached a new peak, when the three flotillas sank a further 150,000 tons of shipping. It was a repetition of the Sea of Marmora campaign of 1915, with the gun being used as much as the torpedo, and coastal targets such as bridges and railway lines coming under attack. Quite apart from the loss of supplies to the Italians and the German
Africa Korps, which was described by the Germans as "unendurable", these widespread activities strained a naval organisation which had never been very strong. Had this situation continued the British were heading for an impressive victory over their enemies at relatively small cost, but just when they seemed unstoppable, disaster struck.