The engineer on midget submarines who steered attacks on German warships hiding off Norway
Vernon Coles, who died on May 2nd 2014, was Master of the Theale on Holybrook Lodge No. 8663 in 1976. An active Freemason for much of his adult life, in 2009 (aged 89) he installed his grandson Stephen Ellner as Master of Theale on Holybrook Lodge. In addition to his Freemasonry, Vernon enjoyed speaking about his wartime experiences to schoolchildren and as an after dinner speaker.
Chief Engine Room Artificer Vernon 'Ginger' Coles, who has died aged 94, took part in the Second World War in several daring raids using four-man midget submarines, known as X-craft.
X-craft were 51ft long, 5ft 9in in diameter with internal headroom of 4ft 8in and powered by a reliable 42-horse power Gardner diesel engine giving a range of 1,800 nautical miles. Each carried two 2-ton explosive charges to be placed under the bow and stern of the target and detonated by a time fuse, set from inside the submarine.
For Operation Source, the attack using midget submarines on the heavy German warships Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Lützow, which were hiding in the northern Norwegian fjords, Coles was the designated engineer and steersman of X-9. He recalled: 'As the German fleet would not come out to fight, X-craft were the only means of sinking German ships that was likely to work.'
The craft, manned by passage crews, were towed by normal submarines into position off the Norwegian coast, where attack crews were to take over. 'During the training exercises,' Coles continued, 'it was realised that the manila tow-ropes stretched under tension and, after anything up to five days, snapped. The best tow-ropes were the nylon ones used by the RAF for towing gliders, however the RAF were only willing to supply three ropes.'
When, on September 11 1943, six X-craft left their base at Loch Cairnbawn, one of the suspect manila ropes was attached to X-9. 'The line snapped at the parent submarine end and the weight of 500ft of wet 4in manila rope attached to the bow of the X-craft dragged it down to below the safe diving depth and beyond. The towing crew, Sub-Lieutenant 'Paddy' Kearan, Able Seaman 'Darkie' Hart, and Stoker 'Ginger' Hollet were all lost.
'I honestly thought Tirpitz would have been blown sky high,' Coles continued. 'And if everything had gone to plan she probably would have been, what with 12 tonnes of explosive under her – that would have broken her back without a doubt. But the real problem was the tow ropes. I lost three very close friends. Three dedicated people – Ginger Hollett in particular. He and I were the only two engine room people in the crews and he was a bubbly fellow, full of life and always working, doing something for the betterment of the boat.'
As it turned out, three of the remaining boats, X-5, X-6, and X-10, (later portrayed in the film Above Us the Waves (1955) starring John Mills,) extensively damaged Tirpitz. But nine men had been lost (three in X-9) and six taken prisoner. Two VCs, four DSOs, one DSC, one CGM and three MBEs were awarded.
Next Coles teamed up with the Australian X-craft captain Lieutenant Max Shean, first lieutenant Joe Brooks, and diver Frank Ogden for Operation Guidance. A lesson of Operation Source was the potential for confusion during multi-craft attacks, so on April 14 1944 Shean’s X-24 was towed to Norway for a solo attack on shipping in Bergen harbour. Explosive charges were successfully laid under a German merchant ship, Barenfels, and 24 hours later, sick and suffering from headaches caused by the stale air in the boat, Shean and his crew rendezvoused at sea with the submarine Sceptre to be towed home. Coles had steered X-24 continuously for 19 hours. Shean was awarded the DSO for his courage, and Coles was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award then available to ratings for bravery and resourcefulness, barring the VC.
'Max [Shean] was the only captain I would sail with,' Coles said later. 'When we went into Bergen one would have thought we were going on exercise. He was cheerful, confident and pleased that we were doing something useful with no thought of not coming back.'
After D-Day the X-craft were deployed to the Far East for Operation Sabre. When the experienced submariner, US Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, first saw one of the midget submarines he declared it a 'suicide craft' which had no place in the Allies’ order of battle. But when orders came from Washington to cut two underwater telegraph cables off Japanese-occupied Saigon, he soon pressed them into service. Shean designed special grapnels to hook the cables and Coles manufactured these in the workshops of the depot ship before they set off, once more under tow, from Queensland to the Mekong river.
On July 31 1945 they began a submarine trawl for the cables, and after Coles had steered X-E4 across the river several times he snagged a cable and was suddenly brought to a halt. Just 13 minutes later a diver, Australian Sub-Lieutenant Ken Briggs, returned with a short length of cable as souvenir. Coles continued to steer underwater across the Mekong, and a second cable was found an hour later; this time Sub-Lieutenant Adam Bergius emerged from the airlock brandishing a length of cable as proof that it too had been cut. Coles was mentioned in despatches.
Vernon Coles was born on April 16 1920 at Tilehurst, Berkshire. Orphaned at the age of 5, he was brought up by an uncle and aunt. He left the local school at 14 to become an apprentice toolmaker at Huntley Boorne and Stevens, manufacturers of biscuit tins which are now collectors’ items.
Inspired by Sunday school outings to see the fleet in review at Weymouth, he joined the Navy in 1938. His first ship was the destroyer Faulknor, one of the hardest working destroyers in the fleet, which was the first ship to sink a German U-boat, and in which Coles took part in the Norwegian Campaign in 1940, served with Force H in the Mediterranean on the Malta convoys, and escorted convoys to Russia and across the Atlantic. He volunteered for submarine service in 1942.