Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Monarchist Military: Attack on the Takao

One of the most daring exploits of World War II, or naval warfare in general, was carried out by a young Royal Navy officer from Ealing, London, Lieutenant Ian Edward Fraser. The son of a marine engineer, he worked in the merchant marine in the late 30’s and joined the Royal Navy in 1939, volunteering for submarine service. By 1943 he was serving on HMS Sahib with distinction and earned the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). The following year he became a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve at the age of 24 and transferred to the special ‘midget submarine’ service. These were the X-craft mini-subs which had already earned a page in naval history for crippling the mighty German battleship Tirpitz in 1943. Lt. Fraser was to command an XE-craft which was an updated version of the X-craft that would see service in East Asia. An important point, though, was that the XE-craft were unarmed. They were designed to be taken by a combat submarine to the area of operations, dispatched to stealthily approach their target and then one man in diving gear would attach mines to the hull of their target and destroy it. It took men of exceptional courage and nerve to carry out such missions.

The Takao in 1932
Lt. Fraser and his boat, the XE-3 were to take part in “Operation Struggle”, the plan for the liberation of the vital fortress city of Singapore which had fallen to the Japanese in 1942. Allied troops were, by July of 1945, back on the Malay peninsula but they dared not move against Singapore because of the powerful guard Japan had posted in the Johore Strait. That was the target of XE-3, the powerful Japanese heavy cruiser Takao. The lead ship of its class, the Takao was an awesome sight to behold. With 127mm armor, bristling with 8-inch guns, 5-inch guns, anti-aircraft guns, torpedoes and depth charges and with powerful engines giving her a top speed of just over 35 knots the Takao was a floating example of the excellence of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Stationed where she was, no Allied advance on Singapore was possible as the 8-inch batteries on Takao could decimate any Allied army that attempted to cross the causeway. The Takao was also a battle-hardened veteran which had been in action since the war began and had sunk or crippled numerous Allied warships and merchant vessels. Targeted by the Allies many times, the Takao had been subject to submarine attack twice but survived and was hit in air attacks numerous times but survived. Now manned by a skeleton crew, the veteran ship was placed to cover the causeway and provide protection from air attack with her formidable (and greatly enlarged) arsenal of anti-aircraft guns.

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
As the sub swam towards the entrance to the straits, Fraser looked through the periscope to a frightening sight. The way was blocked by two Japanese gunboats which, with or without sonar, would have an easy time spotting the sub in the clear, shallow waters. It was the only safe entrance to the straits but the Japanese, never lacking in thoroughness, had sealed it off. Still, Fraser was determined to make the attack and he ordered Smith to surface the boat. With only seven inches of hull above water, it would be hard to spot the sub in the low light of early dawn, but if just one Japanese gunboat happened to, the XE-3 would be a sitting duck. Fraser decided to go ahead and with just the top of his head peering out from the hatch he passed commands to steer the XE-3 past the watchful gunboats, doing his best to hug the shore. When the curving coast finally hid the gunboats from view, Fraser ordered the boat into the swept central passage and increased to flank speed, a mere 6 and a half knots for his little craft. It was risky, but if they didn’t strike fast the odds would be even greater that the Japanese would destroy them before they ever got near the Takao.

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.

The XE-8
Once clear, a quick look through the periscope showed them to be only 3,000 yards from the harbor where the Takao lay at anchor. But, between them and the harbor was a steel anti-submarine net with only one gate, operated by a nearby trawler to let friendly traffic in and out. Fraser waited and soon enough the trawler dragged open the gate to let out a tanker. As the big ship went through, Fraser ordered flank speed and the XE-3 surged forward, through the gate and into the harbor. Looking through the periscope, their wasn’t much to see but dilapidated old junks. By the summer of 1945 the Imperial Japanese Navy had been practically wiped out but that also meant that a powerful warship like the Takao would be all the more heavily guarded. Yet, while the XE-3 circled the harbor, searching and searching, the Takao was nowhere to be seen. It was as if an entire heavy cruiser had just vanished. Fraser and his men started to get rattled. Where could it be? Every hour that slipped by increased the odds that they would be detected and a heavy cruiser should have been the easiest thing in the world to find. A 10,000-ton battle cruiser is not something you just miss.

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
The intrepid Irishman in his diving gear exited the submarine, retrieved the limpet bomb from its compartment and tried to attach it to the Takao’s hull. However, the ship was so encrusted with barnacles that the magnet wouldn’t stick. Magennis had to use his knife to scrape away the crusty covering, cutting himself on the barnacles in the process, until he finally reached the hull and could attach the bomb. It took so much time that he almost exhausted his oxygen supply but he kept his cool and just in time managed to attach all five bombs and return to the submarine. Once back aboard, all that was left was for Fraser to release the two bow canisters of explosives and they were done. The port canister was released but something went wrong and the starboard canister remained stuck. There was no time to coax it, in one hour the limpet bombs would go off and if they were not well away the XE-3 would be hoisted on its own petard. Fraser decided to get out and release the other canister in the harbor. He ordered engines back full but, to the horror of all, the little sub didn’t move. They had been down so long that the tide had fallen and the Takao was now pressing down on them, pinning them to the harbor bottom. The clock ticked away to certain death.

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
“Mick” Magennis got his gear on and headed into the diving trunk again. Everyone waited, watching the minutes tick by till the bombs would explode. Magennis soon found the problem; the threads on the bolts attaching the canister to the sub were jammed. It took every ounce of strength he had but he finally got them off and the canister fell into the harbor. He raced back inside and Fraser turned the little sub for the harbor entrance with all the speed possible. They only had ten minutes before the bombs exploded. Just as the XE-3 got clear of the harbor gate they heard the huge explosion as the bombs detonated, raising the Takao up in the water and tearing a huge hole in the underside of the massive cruiser. Amazingly, the rugged ship still did not sink but it was certainly crippled and put completely out of action. Almost 1,800 Japanese officers and sailors lost their lives on the Takao, the formidable heavy cruiser was out of the war for good and the main defense of Singapore had been eliminated -and all by one tiny submarine and four Royal Navy sailors with nerves of steel. David had brought down Goliath.

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.

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