Developed by the Royal Navy during WWII, the X-craft were midget submarines manned by a crew of four – one of whom was the designated diver. Because of their limited range, the smaller X-Craft would be towed by a ‘mother’ submarine to their area of operation, usually ports or defended harbour areas sheltering enemy shipping.
Carrying detachable side cargoes of high explosive they would move in beneath an enemy vessel, release their cargoes onto the sea floor and then, theoretically, make their escape. In practice this often entailed penetrating well guarded seaways, anti-submarine nets and boom-defence obstacles, manoeuvres that frequently required the services of the diver who would exit the submarine through the small wet-and dry lavatory compartment (a space that – having been privileged to go aboard one of the remaining X-Craft during the very early 1950’s – proved a tight fit even for a then skinny nine-year old) and, standing on the submarine’s hull, cut a passage through the nets and barriers.
On 22 September 1943, six X-craft midget submarines set out from Scotland on ‘Operation Source’, their mission: to sink the feared German battleship, Tirpitz, sheltering in a Norwegian fjord. Three never reached the fjord. Both Lt Donald Cameron, in X6, and Lt Godfrey Place, in X7, placed their charges successfully, but were forced to surrender. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross. Although Tirpitz was not sunk, she was put out of action until April 1944. Lt Henty-Creer, the commander of X5, and his crew were never seen again. Neither he nor any of his crew received any posthumous gallantry awards and the fate of X5 remained a mystery.
In 2006, an expedition led by the late Carl Spencer together with Leigh Bishop, and supported by the British and Norwegian Royal Navies employing some of the most sophisticated sonar and ballistic imaging equipment available to the military, carried out an exhaustive but unsuccessful search for X5 in the hope of discovering whether it had been able to press home its attack and release its side cargoes of high explosive beneath the Tirpitz.
However, an underwater explosion close to the Tirpitz, and witnessed from the surface by crew members, has given rise to the belief that X5’s side cargo may have exploded prematurely, destroying all trace of the submarine and its crew.