Tuesday 24 January 2012

WW2 XT Class Submarine Wrecks, Aberlady Bay

Half a mile from the high tide line of Gullane Point out in Aberlady Bay on the Aberlady Nature Reserve here in East Lothian lie two wrecks of WW2, exposed at low tide on a sand bar and accessible to visit twice a day are two Royal Navy XT class midget submarines...

Drone Flight; XT Class Sub Wrecks from coastkid71 on Vimeo.

Here is the known history of them, on line and the local history;
They are two of six midget submarines class XT (T - Training) built by Vickers-Armstrong Ltd.
They were manned by a crew of 4. The ship`s were 52ft long and 5ft in diameter.
Their range was generally taken to be 500 nautical miles surfaced and 82 nautical miles submerged.
At a speed of 6.5 and 5.5 Knots and powered by a Gardner diesel engine (as was used in a London bus!)  on the surface and battery propulsion below the surface...

The Tirpitz was the flagship of the German Navy in 1942, sister of The sunk Bismarck it was a major threat to Allied shipping in the North Sea on route to Russia...

Using a secret hideout in a secure Fjord in Occupied Norway Tirpitz would lie in wait in the North Sea for convoys where it would pounce then retreat to its secluded hideout. Protected by shoreline anti aircraft and underwater anti-submarine nets and minefields made it a hard target from the air or sea.
In October 1942, an attempt to sink her using chariot 'human torpedoes' failed because of the bad weather but Tirpitz was out of action due to a maintenance overhaul over the winter.
In March she moved to a more remote hideout called Kaafiord in the far north of Norway.
In September 1943, RAF Spitfires based in the Soviet Union took Ariel pictures of the ship and the surrounding anti-torpedo nets in the fjord.
Kaafiord was out of bomber range, so the British would use the X-craft...

Operation Source...
Six X Class submarines named X5 - X10 would be towed 1000 miles across the North Sea by normal subs. If they survived this which would be a mission on its own then they would then detach and head into the Fjord evading minefields, listening posts and the anti-submarine nets surrounding the Tirpitz to drop 2 powerful side cargo`s under the target...

Each loaded with over a ton-and-a-half of Amatex high explosive...

Volunteers had already been training around Loch Cairnbawn on the west coast of Scotland using the XT class (training) versions of the X class submarines...

Training in these cramped craft was crucial for the mental and nervous endurance the crew would under go...

It was a seriously dangerous mission hence why it was crewed by volunteers...

On 11 September Six X-craft were used;
HMS X5, X6 and X7 were allocated the battleship Tirpitz, in Kaafiord.
HMS X9 and X10 were to attack the battleship Scharnhorst, also in Kaafiord.
HMS X8 was to attack the aged pocket battleship L├╝tzow in Langefiord.
The craft were towed to the area by conventional submarines,

HMS Thrasher towing X5...

All were manned by passage crews on the way then close to the target the operation crews would take over.
The crossing of the North Sea must have been cold and cramped and with the condensation pretty grim... not to mention extremely claustrophobic...

X9, probably trimmed heavily by the bow in the heavy sea for the tow, was lost with all hands on the passage when her tow parted and she suffered an abrupt plunge due to her bow-down trim.
X8 (passage crew commanded by Lt. J. E. "Jack" Smart) developed serious leaks in her side-mounted demolition charges, which had to be jettisoned, these exploded leaving her so damaged she had to be scuttled.
The remaining X-craft began their run in on 20 September and the actual attacks took place on 22 September 1943.

Scharnhorst was engaged in exercises at the time, and hence was not at her normal mooring so X10's attack was abandoned, although this was due to mechanical and navigation problems, and the submarine returned to rendezvous with her 'tug' submarine and was taken back to Scotland.

X6 and X7 managed to drop their charges underneath Tirpitz, but were unable to make good their escape as they were observed and attacked.
Both craft were abandoned and six crew survived to be captured. Although the fate of X5 is unclear, it is believed to have been sunk by a direct hit from one of Tirpitz's four-inch guns before having had a chance to place her charges.
In 2004, a saddle charge identical to those used by the X-class was found on the bottom of Kaafiord a short distance from the site of the attack.
Although it has not been positively identified, it is believed to be from the X5.

Tirpitz was lifted out of the water by the explosion and suffered damage and a slight list to port. Electronic and fire control systems were seriously damaged, and all auxiliary machinery either thrown off its housings or damaged internally.
Tirpitz didn't get the damage repaired by the X-craft attack so the midget subs succeeded in damaging the ship keeping her berthed at Kaafiord until 1944 and her sinking later by Royal Navy and Air Force attacks.

Map of Operation Source...

The commanders of the crafts X6 & X7, Lieutenant Donald Cameron (X6) and Lieutenant Basil Place (X7) were awarded the Victoria Cross,
Robert Aitken, Richard Haddon Kendall, and John Thornton Lorimer received the Distinguished Service Order and Edmund Goddard the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.
The commander of the X8, John Elliott Smart was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Today only one surviving X Class Submarine remains which is now restored in the Royal Navy Museum,


Here is a documentary film with interviews of some of the surviving crews...

After the war in 1946 two of the six XT class training subs were towed into Aberlady Bay and moored between 4 Anti Tank Blocks with a single block on top...

Then there were two live fire missions on the subs when they were afloat at high tide to test new experimental explosive cannon shells from aircraft,

One attack by a Supermarine Seafire-the aircraft carrier folding wing Spitfire...

And a De Haviland Mosquito...

Update August 2019;
This week the film of the live fire test has appeared on Youtube, i saw some of this, in black and white on BBC Coast and have searched with no results so to add this is great;

This event is documented on the RCAHMS Canmore website and many of the shells have been found on the reserve years afterwards.
I found many when working as a Green keeper on the Links there in the 1980s, here is one of the shells, or as it should be called a cartridge, not 20mm as were the usual Hispano cannon shells fired by fighters but a 1/2 Inch (.50mm) calibre as more common at the end of WW2 ,the smaller bullets are 303  cartridges shown for comparison...

Local History;
Now what does not seem to be recorded is after the exercise was carried out local fighters based at RAF Drem would strafe the subs for target practise,
How do i know this?- local knowledge, a tractor driver who retired when i was 17 was in the Royal Observers Corps here during WW2 and said there was a marker pole behind the 7th Tee up on the Hill of Gullane No3 Golf Course (base is still there in concrete) and fighters would line up over it and dive down towards the subs and fire once over the line of coastal Defence Anti tank blocks,

Mustangs from 309 Squadron while based at RAF Drem, Gullane hill in back ground...

We used to find the spent cartridges in winter time on what is now today part of the Nature Reserve while lifting turf on a mowed area west of the present No2 course `12th` Green. It is now an area protected for its rare Orchids. I picked up over 160 of spent cartridges in one afternoon while we lifted turf there in the winter of 1987, this was just a small area of i guess about 90 square yards. along with the 1/2" cartridges were the more common larger 20mm Hispano shells, like these two, again the smaller cartridges are .303 rounds...

Again evidence of regular aircraft from Drem using the subs as practise. I gave all the 1/2 inch casings away to friends and now only have the one left now!. There must be hundreds if not thousands of them between the Golf course 12th Green of No2 Course and out towards the sub wrecks.
No mention of further live fire on the subs is documented, but local people witnessed it.
This story seems fair enough as RAF Drem still had fighters stationed in 1946 and also the sheer amount of cartridge shells local folk have found out on the exposed sands at low tide- now grass covered lagoons and the Green keepers found lifting turf over the years in that line from the 7th tee, must be way more in number than fired by just two planes.
I have read that there is film of the munitions test which would be great to see. Some of it was shown on the BBC Coast series when they visited the sub wrecks...
If the sand bar the wrecks  lie on ever moves enough to reveal the base of the four anti tank blocks between the wrecks then you will see the rotting chassis of a Willys Jeep, i haven't seen it for about 10 years now.
Every year the wrecks deteriorate more, the wreck to the west of the Tank blocks is in better condition...
It is about a 40 minute walk out to the submarine wrecks from the Nature Reserve car park east of Aberlady village if you want to go and visit them at a low tide, or a 10 minute cycle on a fat bike...

If you do go, and when you see the size of them, have a think about what it must have been like for the men that operated these crafts, the transport crews, as well as the operational crews. They must have had nerves of steel.

Massive respect for there bravery...

Who knows how long they will be visible for at every low tide...

Collecting pictures and some documentary film of `Operation Source` in WW2 as well as pictures from the many times i visit Aberlady Bay, here is a wee film i made of the X and XT crafts...

If you found this East Lothian WW2 history post interesting you may want to read some other related posts;

Gin Head radar research and testing facility

WW2 German POW Cooler explore

Supermarine Spitfire & RAf Drem

Anthrax Island

East Lothian WW2 Royal Observor Corps

An old spoon, with a story

An old tin, with a story


  1. Excellent post. I always enjoy reading your posts and these ones on the subs are very interesting.

    I have looked out across the bay many times but never been out to the subs - perhaps I'll manage down this summer with my bike and take a spin along the beach and out to see the wrecks.


  2. It is only a 10 minute cycle out there Steven,
    I recommened a summer evening with sunset over the hills of fife, mid week you will probably have the Bay to yourself,

  3. Interesting bit of local history, there is the buried remains of a Bolton and Paul defiant in the bay which lie somewhere between the X craft wrecks and the nature reserve foot bridge. The aircraft which crashed in 1942, is a designated war grave....

  4. Hi, thanks for your comment. I never knew about that wreck site, very interesting, need to do some research and add it to the article. Thanks

  5. Great Post! I shared it with Reddit Fatbikes

  6. Great post,I'll have to go there now,Ill find out low tide times,Thanks Jack.

  7. Really enjoyed this wealth of information and gallery of the Aberlady bay submarines. I went to explore them last weekend and was keen to find out a bit more history on them, and this post had me gripped to their story. Fantastic! Thank you.

  8. Walked out this evening and took some pics on a beautiful summer's day....thanks for your extremely interesting background piece. I've shared it on my FB page with the pics - thanks.

  9. I spent a lot of time with Cmndr. Francis Douglas Fane, he was one of the original X-crafters, Lambertson Amphibious Respirator < rebreathers, SCUBA and Dew Line Black Bag Navy men.. This guy had so many amazing storys, I wish I had the strength to type them all out.. and, like everything, the tide rolls in and all is lost to history.. peace

  10. Thank you everyone for your comments and information,


  11. If it's of any interest, I grew up on Kingairloch Estate in NW Argyll. There's a little sea loch there, Loch Corrie, where the X-craft and Human Torpedo crews used to train: the depot ship there was HMS "Bonaventure", under the command of Captain "Tiny" Fell RN.
    Confirmation of that can be found in the book "Above us the waves" by CET Warren and James Benson.

    1. Hi Davie, thanks for leaving your comment and information,


  12. In 1968 give or take a year or two I found a full sized submarine not far from North Berwick. I had walked up Marine Drive around the edge of the golf course past the secluded beach and lying on the flat rocks right up from the water was a WW2 sub; upright completely intact.There was a ladder up the port stern quarter covered in seaweed almost to the top. It was leaning over a little to port and was so tall and thin to a silly little boy I thought if I climbed up the ladder it would've toppled over. Thinking it would be there for all time I returned with my pals about a year later and it was gone. I think now that it must've broken its tow on the way to the scrapyard further upriver.

  13. In 1968 give or take a year or two I found a full sized submarine not far from North Berwick. I had walked up Marine Drive around the edge of the golf course past the secluded beach and lying on the flat rocks right up from the water was a WW2 sub; upright completely intact.There was a ladder up the port stern quarter covered in seaweed almost to the top. It was leaning over a little to port and was so tall and thin to a silly little boy I thought if I climbed up the ladder it would've toppled over. Thinking it would be there for all time I returned with my pals about a year later and it was gone. I think now that it must've broken its tow on the way to the scrapyard further upriver.

  14. My father, Ron 'Tom' King was Chief Engine Room Artificer on HMS Truculent, which towed one of the X-craft (5 I think) to Norway on Operation Source.

    Bless them all.