Freemason Bruce Graham Clarke’s military career saw him serving on a midget submarine in 1945, wading through thick mud in a bid to cut vital telegraph cables running under Hong Kong harbour
In 1944, a small fleet of six XE class midget submarines was built. Typically, each would have a crew of just four men: a lieutenant in command with a sub-lieutenant as deputy, an engine room mechanic and a seaman. They carried 20-pound limpet mines that were attached to the target by the qualified diver in the crew.
Bruce Graham Clarke was on one of these submarines, XE5, which included a fifth crew member (a second diver), when it was deployed in 1945 as part of Operation Foil. The mission: to cut the Hong Kong to Singapore telephone cable west of Lamma Island that ran under Hong Kong harbour. The result would be to force the Japanese to use radio and leave themselves open to message interception.
A public servant, dedicated Freemason and talented artist, Clarke was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his role in the operation. He was born in Edinburgh on 9 September 1922 into a military family; his father was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy serving on HMS Pembroke. Educated at Tower House preparatory and University College Schools in London, Clarke volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1941.
Clarke initially served on destroyers, escorting convoys in the North Sea and in the Mediterranean. He later saw service during Operation Torch, the invasion of Northwest Africa. In 1943, he volunteered for service aboard the Royal Navy’s midget submarines and, after training in Scotland, was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
A DIFFICULT MISSION
In July and August 1945, Clarke took part in Operation Foil, with XE5 towed into position by the submarine HMS Selene. Lurking beneath the waves off Lamma Island, XE5’s divers, Clarke and Sub Lieutenant Dennis Victor Mark Jarvis, were forced to work in thick mud and under the constant threat of oxygen poisoning. Meanwhile, Operation Sabre was targeting the Hong Kong to Saigon cable, which had been tasked to XE4. This sub was towed to within 40 miles of the Mekong Delta by HMS Spearhead.
After a number of repeated attempts, the divers were still not completely certain that the cable had been cut. It was not until after the Japanese surrendered on 2 September 1945 – following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – that it was confirmed the telephone cables had indeed been severed.
In the book Above Us the Waves, Charles Warren and James Benson recall the mission: ‘Hong Kong was supposed to be blessed with clear water. It was most galling, therefore, for the crew of XE5 to arrive in the defended waters of Hong Kong after a very rough trip… and for the best part of four days... the two divers, Clarke and Jarvis, were working up to their waists in mud…’
In a report of the operation, the commanding officer, Lieutenant H.P. Westmacott, added, ‘Whilst trying to clear the grapnel, S/Lt Clarke had caught his finger in the cutter, cut it very deeply and fractured the bone. It is impossible to praise too highly the courage and fortitude which enabled him to make his entry into the craft in this condition. Had he not done so, apart from becoming a prisoner, it is probable that the operation would have had to be abandoned for fear of being compromised.’
NATURAL DIGNITY AND POISE
A month later, the war ended, and Clarke was posted to Minden in West Germany and put in command as physical and recreational training officer of the Allied troops. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in Operation Foil and subsequently demobilised.
After brief spells working in India and Africa, Clarke joined the Overseas Civil Service and, through a series of promotions and secondments, forged a successful career in Kenya. In 1955, Clarke married Joan in Nakuru, Kenya. The family moved to Aden in 1957; this posting for Clarke included a period as labour commissioner.
In 1962, Clarke retired from Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service. After a three-year contract as personnel manager for the East African Power & Light Company in Tanganyika, Tanzania, Clarke returned to the UK, settling in Boscombe in Dorset in 1967. A long-time Freemason, Clarke was a member of Winston Churchill’s lodge in London, United Studholme Alliance Lodge, No. 1591, and in 1986 joined the Lodge of Meridian, No. 6582, in Dorset, becoming its Chaplain for many years.
One of the last surviving crew members of the XE midget submarines, Clarke passed away aged 95 in Dorset on 7 December 2017. During his last years, Clarke maintained the natural dignity and poise that he had demonstrated throughout his entire life.
Letters to the Editor - NO. 42 SUMMER 2018
Having just returned from my annual sojourn to Portland, I thought that I should drop you a line regarding the article in the summer 2018 edition of Freemasonry Today relating to the history of Bruce Graham Clarke and his experience in the X class boats.
I always go to Portland on the 15-16 June for the annual remembrance service for those who lost their lives on the submarine HMS Sidon when a high-test peroxide-fuelled torpedo exploded on 16 June 1955. I am one of the very few remaining survivors. I took Freemasonry Today with me on the visit and discovered the very interesting and informative article.
I, as a UW2, having loaded four torpedoes at 5:30am, had left the fore-ends to report that all the fish (torpedoes) had been loaded successfully and all secured, when one exploded, killing all those who were forward of the control room.
The captain of the boat was Lt Hugh Verry, who served in X class (midget submarines) during the Second World War. I feel sure that he would have known Clarke, as Verry was one of the crew that stuck limpet mines on the German battleship, which was in harbour at the time.
Verry died a few years ago, and I attended at the burial and interred his ashes in the RN Cemetery on Portland with those who died in 1955. I was able to relate to his wife and son the circumstances that led to the explosion and what happened at that time.
Bryan J Simpson, St John’s Lodge, No. 279, Leicester, Leicestershire & Rutland