|The Takao in 1932|
This was a real David and Goliath type of mission, a battle-scarred Japanese heavy cruiser versus a British mini-sub without so much as a single machine gun or torpedo. Still, the X-craft had proven that, while the odds were long, they could achieve success and Fraser and his men were ready to try. The XE-3 was truly a “British Empire” submarine with a diverse crew. Alongside London-born Lieutenant Fraser was Lieutenant “Kiwi” Smith from New Zealand, their helmsman Charles Reed (the only other Brit) and an Irishman named J.J. “Mick” Magennis who would have to set the charges. All were hand-picked for the job and all but Fraser himself were veterans of mini-sub service. It was just after midnight on July 30, 1945 that XE-3, after being towed to the vicinity by His Majesty’s Submarine Stygian, crept toward the entrance to Johore Straits where the mighty Takao was waiting. Just after dawn Fraser sighted the island that marked the entrance to the strait and ordered the XE-3 to submerge. From then on, victory or death were the only alternatives.
|The XE-4 off Sidney, Australia|
Then, as the sub was surging forward as best it could, around another bend in the strait appeared another Japanese gunboat. Immediately, Fraser ordered them to dive and once submerged turned hard to starboard (that’s “right” in naval talk). Even if they were not spotted, they would be just as dead if the Japanese inadvertently rammed them. However, as it happened, they had turned right into a minefield. If they hit one of the mine cables, it would pull the explosive down on them and end their lives right there. Plus, if the gunboat had spotted them, just one depth charge, anywhere in the immediate area, would set off the mines and they would be blown into a million pieces. It was a desperate gamble, but if they hadn’t been spotted, the minefield would prevent them from being detected -the downside being that it could easily kill them with just one wrong move. They sat silent for what seemed like an eternity, all nerves jumping when the sound of a mine scraping against the hull reminded them of just how perilous their situation was. Luckily, it didn’t go off and eventually floated free. With plenty of time having elapsed for the ship to pass them by, Fraser ordered them to move slowly out of the minefield. It would have been nice to see what exactly was in front of them but raising the periscope could happen to set off a mine so, instead, they carefully and blindly crept forward.
Just then, Fraser spotted through the periscope a launch full of sailors, all smartly uniformed, coming out of a group of old fishing boats near a tangle of jungle. They had to be from Takao and as he looked more closely he finally spotted the carefully camouflaged heavy cruiser. The Japanese had made the ship as close to invisible as it could possibly get, however, once spotted, Fraser retracted the periscope and maneuvered in blind, unable to risk being spotted himself, while Magennis prepared to make his attack. They crept forward, bumping along a rise in the harbor floor that served as a natural anti-submarine defense. As the depth gauge moved higher and higher they finally clanged into the side of the cruiser. At that point, Fraser had to maneuver the XE-3 underneath the Takao to set the charges on her keel, otherwise the full impact of the explosion would be directed away from the ship. There was a shallow area on the bottom that seemed just large enough for the British sub. Finally, a terrible noise told them they had scraped the bottom of the warship and, halfway under the beast, Fraser stopped. It was time for Magennis to make the attack.
|The Takao at sea|
Fraser ordered the engines to full speed, forward and then back again, trying to dislodge the sub. It didn’t work. Desperate, he ordered the ballast tanks blown to lighten them, and tried again. Finally, the XE-3 pushed free but as the ballast tanks were empty, they immediately began to rocket to the surface. Immediately, Fraser ordered an emergency dive, re-filling the tanks. If they had popped to the surface right there, they would have been dead in the water. However, releasing the port canister while the starboard remained had made them lighter while throwing off their balance, the sub continued to rise and finally burst up on to the surface. The Japanese, somehow, didn’t notice them but in forty minutes and counting they would certainly notice the five bombs going off under the Takao. Fraser had to get that other canister off immediately.
|Magennis (left) and Fraser|
The men of the XE-3 returned to a well-deserved heroes welcome. Twelve hours later they were picked up in the Singapore Strait by HMS Stygian and His Majesty King George VI awarded Reed and Smith the Distinguished Service Order and for Fraser and Magennis the coveted Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for courage in the face of the enemy. Fraser was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and continued to serve in the Royal Navy and then Royal Navy Reserve until 1965. He died in 2008 at the age of 87. For this daring operation, all of them earned an honored place in the annals of naval history.