Saturday 7 June 2014

Operation Gambit: Preparing for D-Day.

Gambit: Chess opening in which player sacrifices pawn or piece to secure advantage (Concise Oxford Dictionary)

HMS X-23 (with George Honour amidships) returns after D-Day (

Following on from yesterday's immensely moving commemorations for the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, perhaps today is a good time to remember one of the lesser known but vitally important aspects of the operation; that of marking the beaches and clearly defining the extreme limits of the assault zone for the British and Canadian forces.

The task was given to the Royal Navy's midget submarines, the underwater answer to the British propensity for 'messing around' in small boats, although the missions for the X-Craft, as these cramped vessels were officially known, consisted of anything but messing around. Six months previously, six of these tiny vessels, powered by the same diesel engines normally used to propel London buses, had attacked the German battleship, Tirpitz, at her Norwegian fjord anchorage. The attack was a brilliant success with the giant battleship being crippled until the following April, but the cost was high. Out of the six craft sent into the attack, four had been lost or scuttled by their crews and those that had survived were to spend the remainder of the war in German POW camps. In April 1944, another submarine, X-24, attacked the Laksevag floating dock in Bergen, Norway but mistakenly placed her charges beneath a German merchant vessel, the Barenfels, which was alongside the dock at the time. The charges sank the merchant ship but only caused minor damage to the floating dock, which was capable of docking the Tirpitz and other large German warships. The operation was repeated in September 1944, again by X-24 but with a fresh crew. This time the operation was an unqualified success and the floating dock was sunk. X-24 returned safely, having been undetected by the enemy and survives to this day.

HMS X-24 preserved at Gosport (Geni)

When it came to the meticulous planning for Operation Overlord, as the Normandy invasions were officially named, it was almost inevitable that the X-Craft would be involved in those preparations. Starting in January 1944, X-20, under the commanded by Lieut. KR Hudspeth RANVR, together with Sub Lieut. Enzer RNVR and the Combined Operations Pilotage Party comprising of Lt. Cmdr. Nigel Willmott RN along with two divers, Major Logan and Sergeant Ogden-Smith of the Royal Marines, was tasked with providing sand samples in order to gauge the suitability of the various beaches for landing troops, tanks and the myriad of vehicles required to make a successful invasion. Each night, for four nights, the divers went ashore on what were to become Omaha and Sword beaches to conduct their surveys, literally under the noses of the Germans. The soil and sand samples were meticulously logged, so as to record which part of the beaches they were removed from, placed into condoms and returned to the submarine. X-20 returned with the booty on January 21st 1944 and from the samples obtained and the surveys conducted, two scale models of the beaches were constructed as well as a partial full scale reproduction so as to test the suitability of the beaches. The operation was a hugely risky one; discovery would have compromised the whole Allied plan but it's success was to assist in making Overlord arguably the best planned Allied operation of the entire war. For his actions in gathering this invaluable intelligence, Lieut. Hudspeth was awarded a bar to his already awarded DSC.

When the time came for the invasion proper, Hudspeth and the X-20 was to return to Normandy along with one of her sister vessels, X-23 way ahead of the main invasion fleet in the early hours of June 4th 1944, as part of the ominously named (for those taking part) Operation Gambit, the marking of the extremities of the British and Canadian landing areas. At the time of their sailing, D-Day was planned for June 5th and the prospect of spending the best part of two days submerged in the incredibly cramped and foetid conditions unique to a midget submarine was bad enough, but when X-23 surfaced at 01:00 on June 5th expecting to prepare for her marking duties, her commanding officer, Lieutenant George Honour RNVR, was dismayed to receive a coded radio message informing them that the invasion had been postponed for 24 hours and that he and his four man crew would have to submerge to spend a further day waiting for their task to begin, hoping that they would not be discovered in the meantime. In case of disaster, those manning the two X-Craft were all equipped with falsified French identity papers that would hopefully allow them to get ashore undetected by the Germans, evade capture and link up with the French Resistance.

All this was furthest from Honour's and Hudspeth's minds when they received their orders to wait. Once the word came that the invasion was on, their task was to surface, erect an 18 feet tall telescopic mast to which was attached a flashing searchlight shining seawards to the invasion fleet. If the approaching ships saw a green light, it meant that they were on target, if red, then they were not. Each submarine also carried a radio beacon that would be switched on the moment they surfaced as well as a sonar signal that could be homed onto by the approaching fleet. Furthermore, each submarine was to launch dinghies, each with a man in it which would mark the individual assault beaches. As a final visual aid, each X-Craft was to fly a large yellow flag, which would make them highly visible to the enemy as well as to the Allies!

George Honour was prepared for all of this but in addition to being a target for the enemy, he did not want to become an unwitting target for friendly vessels, so in addition to the yellow flag, he planned that X-23 would fly an extra-large White Ensign, of the size more usually flown by battleships or cruisers.

Aboard X-23, the delay was an opportunity to check and double-check that they were indeed in the correct position. The navigator, Lieut. 'Thin' Lynne took a series of bearings and quickly identified several local landmarks including Ouistreham Lighthouse, the local parish church, as well as the spires of two other churches in Langrune and St. Aubin sur Mer. Lynne's navigation had been faultless and X-23 was almost spot on her allotted position.

After what must have seemed an interminable wait throughout the long daylight hours of June 5th in conditions that were becoming steadily more uncomfortable, the two X-Craft surfaced in the early hours of June 6th to learn that the invasion was on and at 04:30, X-23 erected her mast and prepared to begin sending out her signals to the soon to be approaching armada. At 05:00, her ship's log recorded 'Commenced flashing green light.'

Later that morning, with the invasion successfully under way, the mines swept, bombardment ships in their allotted anchorages and with all manner of craft busily going about their business, the duties of the X-Craft were done. Off Sword Beach, as Lieutenant Honour conned his midget submarine through lines of landing craft streaming inshore in the heavy seas, all that could be discerned from passing vessels was the bizarre sight of what appeared to be two large flags flying apparently unsupported but moving steadily through the water. Honour took the X-23 out to the headquarters ship HMS Largs, there to await a tow back to Portsmouth and after 64 hours submerged off the French coast, no doubt for some breakfast as well as a very welcome shower followed by some equally welcome sleep!

George Honour was awarded the DSC for his part in the operation and after the war, returned to civilian life in Bristol, passing away in 2002 at the age of 84.

The X-Craft were to have one further brilliant success in the Far East, when two further craft, XE1 and XE3 successfully attacked the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao in Singapore Harbour in August 1945. This feat of arms earned Victoria Crosses for Lieutenant Ian Fraser RNR and Leading Seaman James Magennis into the process.

The two midget submarine stars of this story, X-20 and X-23 had a short life; built in late 1943, both were ignominiously scrapped in 1945 and after some brief experimental work, the remaining midget submarines, being essentially a wartime expedient, at least as far as the Royal Navy was concerned, passed into history.

Today, two wartime midget submarines are preserved; XE-8 forms part of the display at Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent, whilst the battle honoured X-24 is on display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. These survivors are testament to the brave men who fought aboard these vessels, which were once described by the Royal Navy's official wartime historian, Captain Stephen Roskill as being the "direct descendent of the Elizabethan fireship."

Published Sources:

D-Day - Anthony Beevor, Viking 2009
The Longest Day - Cornelius Ryan, Simon & Schuster 1959
The War at Sea - edited by John Winton, Hutchinson 1974
Warships of World War II - HT Lenton & JJ Colledge, Ian Allan 1973


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