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Chariots

No history of submarine warfare in World War Two could be complete without a mention of the "Human Torpedo" or "Chariot". The sheer drama of their story, which could not be revealed at the time, introduced a unique level of selectivity into naval warfare. The target was chosen and plans made well before the actual deployment, when they, just as their bigger brothers the X-Craft, were delivered into the area by a full-sized submarine.

The Chariot was a British designed manned torpedo used in World War II. The Chariot was inspired by the operations of Italian naval commandos, in particular the raid on 19 December 1941 by members of the Decima Flottiglia MAS who rode "maiali" manned torpedoes into the port of Alexandria and there placed limpet mines on or near the battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth (and an 8,000-ton tanker), causing serious damage which put both out of operational use until 1943.

Official development of the Chariot began in April 1942, primarily led by two officers of the Royal Navy's submarine service: Commander Geoffrey Sladen DSO, DSC and Lieutenant Commander William Richmond 'Tiny' Fell CMG, CBE, DSC. Training of crews was based out of the depot ship HMS Titania initially stationed at Gosport and later in Scotland at Loch Erisort (known as port "HZD"), Loch a'Choire (known as port "HHX") and Loch Cairnbawn (known as port "HHZ") and out of HMS Bonaventure in the same region.

Chariot Types

Two models of the Chariot were produced. Both types were made by Stothert & Pitt, crane makers at Bath, Somerset.

Chariot Mark I

Length22' 4"
Width2' 11"
Height3' 11"
Speed2.5 knots
Weight1.6 tonnes
Max Depth27m
Top Speed3.5 knots
Endurance7 to 8 hours at 2.9 knots
Payload600lbs of Torpex in detachable warhead
No. Made34

Produced from 1942, The Mark 1 had been hastily built as a direct response to the Italian SLC (Siluro a Lunga Corsa, Long Running Torpedo) which had sunk two British battleships in Alexandria on 20th December 1941. Churchill famously reacted:

Please report what is being done to emulate the exploits of the Italians in Alexandria Harbour and similar methods of this kind. At the beginning of the war Colonel Jeffries had a number of bright ideas on this subject, which received very little encouragement. Is there any reason why we should be incapable of the same scientific aggressive action the Italians have shown? One would have thought we should have been in the lead. Please state the exact position.

The immediate response was to copy the SLC in its entirety, albeit using British components throughout. However work soon started on a completely fresh design which became the Mark II

Chariot Mark II

The two crew, who had to wear breathing apparatus (rebreathers), sat back-to-back
The two crew, who had to wear breathing apparatus (rebreathers), sat back-to-back
Length30' 6"
Width2' 6"
Height3' 3"
Speed2.5 knots
Weight5.2 tonnes
Max Depth27m
Top Speed4.5 knots
Endurance5 to 6 hours at full speeds
Payload1200lbs of Torpex in detachable warhead
No. Made30

Produced from early 1944, the Mark II is easily visually distinguishable from the Mark I in that the crew would sit fully enclosed within the hull save for their heads which would protrude. The two crew, who had to wear breathing apparatus (rebreathers), sat back-to-back to reduce drag with the second crewman facing backwards. The hull had a larger diameter to allow for this. More significantly, the Mark II was much more strongly built. This allowed it to be carried externally instead of requiring sealed containers to be bolted onto the outside of the host submarine. It was also much longer and carried a larger 1200lb warhead on the nose.

The cockpit of the Mk.II Chariot. The frame could be raised to protect the crew while passing through anti-torpedo nets and boom defenses.
The cockpit of the Mk.II Chariot. The frame could be raised to protect the crew while passing through anti-torpedo nets and boom defenses.

Chariot Mark III

There were several attempts at a follow-on Mark III chariot but none came to fruition.

One was design by the men responsible for training Charioteers aboard the submarine depot ship HMS Titania and involved reducing the diameter by 3 inches to 2.25ft, and length by 5ft to 25.5ft which was still noticeably longer than the Mark I. The seating arrangement was also changed so that both men faced forward.

Another variation was a single-seat Chariot with a completely changed aft section and multiple charges instead of a single larger charge.

Operations

A Chariot's limited range meant that it had to be transported relatively close to its objective before its crew could ride it to the target under its own power. The warhead, which was detonated by timer, would be detached and left at the enemy ship. The crew would then attempt to ride the Chariot to a rendezvous with a friendly submarine or be forced to abandon the Chariot and escape by other means.

Arguably, British operations with Chariots were not as successful as the Italians' operations had been. Nevertheless, interspersed among a number of technical equipment failures, and sheer bad luck, there were some notable successes, which are set out below. Later deployment of the Chariot was made by carrying the machines to their point of departure by submarine. In early attempts, tubes were fitted to the deck of a submarine to contain the Chariots. The tubes were 24 feet 2 inches long and had an exterior height of 5 feet 4 inches. The Chariots sat on wheeled bogeys inside, strapped down until needed. Ten tubes were built in all, three fitted to HMS Trooper, two to HMS P311 and HMS Thunderbolt and one each to HMS L23 and HMS Saracen.

Later in the war, due to problems encountered with this method, chariots were instead secured to the deck of the submarine using chocks.

October 1942 - Operation Title

The first attempt to use Chariots operationally was to put the Tirpitz out of action using chariots. It took place 30-31 October 1942.

Operators: J Brewster, J Brown, R Evans, M Causer, W Tebb, Craig.

'Human torpedo' divers train in 1942 for their mission to sink the Nazi's Tirpitz battleship
'Human torpedo' divers train in 1942 for their mission to sink the Nazi's Tirpitz battleship

A Norwegian, Leif Larsen, who escaped from Norway to Britain earlier, was put in charge of the operation. The idea was to tow 2 chariots using a newly completed Norwegian fishing boat "Arthur" until they were close to the target (Tirpitz). On 26th October 1942 Arthur left Lunna Voe in the Shetlands with two chariots strapped to the underside of the hull to avoid detection by the Germans. The fishing vessel was on a course for Trondhjemsford in Norway, the anchorage of their target, the giant German battleship Tirpitz.

During the afternoon of Wednesday 28 October as Arthur was approaching the entrance to the fiord the engine stopped. It was 3 hours before they could get it going again.

During Thursday 29 October the generator was started to recharge the Chariots' batteries but after a quarter of an hour it broke down, damaged by the rough crossing. There was nothing to do but to throw it overboard and hope that the Chariot batteries had retained their original charge.

On 30 October at 1400 near the entrance to Trondheimsfjord the engine of the Arthur failed again and at 2300 Arthur anchored off Hestvik for repairs getting underway again at 0900 on Saturday 31 October.

With 15 miles to go to the slipping position before the final approach by the Chariots. The east wind increased steadily and Arthur began to pitch into the steep sea set up in the fiord. There was nothing to do but press on at reduced speed in the hope that the sudden storm would blow itself out before they reached the entrance to Åsenfjord. Their luck was out. The Chariots could be heard bumping erratically against Arthur's keel and just after 2200 they heard a loud, grinding, tearing noise and then a jerk and a shudder as something hit Arthur's propellor. One of the Chariots had broken adrift.

Arthur was eased into sheltered water and one of the crewmembers went over the side and inspect the remaining chariot. It too was gone. Both chariots had broken adrift and were lost, the towing lugs torn from them and still shackled to the wires secured to Arthur's keel. They had come undetected within 16 kilometers of their target and their disappointment was intense.

They could only scuttle the boat and make their way to Sweden as planned. At about 0100 on 1 November, in flat calm water in the lee of the land, they went ashore in two parties by dinghy and scuttled Arthur by opening the sea-cocks and boring holes in her bottom. They were in the wrong place for help from the Norwegian resistance movement as arranged and so had to walk to the Swedish frontier.

January 1943 - Operation Principle

On 3 January 1943 a number of Chariots launched from the submarines HMS Thunderbolt and HMS Trooper attacked and sank the Italian Capitani Romani-class cruiser the Ulpio Traiano in Palermo harbour, and severely damaged the Italian troop ship Viminale.

Operators: R Dove, J Freel, A Ferrier, R Greenland, H Stevens, Worthy, H Cook, Milne, W Simpson, Carter

The Italians had their own weapon turned against them when three British chariots attacked Palermo. The British T Class submarine Traveller (Lt Cdr D StClair Ford RN) had been lost on 4th December while making a preliminary reconnaissance of the harbour, while P311 (Lt RD Cayley RN) was lost prior to the attack itself, having gone on ahead through the mined Sicilian Channel to Maddalena.

In addition, the smaller Unruffled was also along as the rescue submarine for the crews. Five chariots remained for the attack, on the night of 2/3 January 1943. One chariot crew - Sub-Lt HLH Stevens RNVR and Ldg Seaman Carter had five hours of struggling to find the entrance of the harbour, when Carter's breathing bag failed and ran out of oxygen. Stevens decided to leave Carter on a buoy, to continue alone. However, he was still unable to find the harbour and went back for Carter and to look for their parent submarine.

After more hours in the water they saw, in the darkness, the outline of the Unruffled (P46). The vigilant lookouts on the Unruffled saw the chariot and they were rescued.

One chariot had a battery explosion: AB W Simpson was drowned but the other, PO Miln, swam ashore and was taken prisoner.

The driver of a third chariot, Lt HF Cook RNVR had ripped his suit on a net and was suffering from severe seasickness. His number 2, AB Worthy, drove the craft ashore to leave Cook and carry on alone, but he found the craft too difficult to handle alone and abandoned it in deep water. He swam back to where he had left Cook but failed to find him. Worthy was also taken prisoner.

Of the two chariots that remained, XXII, manned by Lt RTG Greenland RNVR and Leading Signalman AM Ferrier, succeeded in penetrating the net by night and, crossing the harbour undetected, dived underneath the new Italian cruiser Ulpio Traiano. Once there, the two men successfully placed their charge under the ship's bottom. A second chariot, XVI, with Sub-Lt RG Dove RNVR and Leading Seaman JM Freel in the saddles, also got through the net and, like the first chariot, crossed the harbour without being observed. There they selected the 8,500 ton transport Viminale as their target, dived beneath her stern and successfully fixed the charge. They made their way ashore and were taken prisoner.

Greenland and Ferrier were feeling more optimistic and tried to make their way to sea. They crashed through a net at full speed but came to a sudden halt when they bumped into a merchant ship and further damaged their compass. They eventually abandoned their craft and swam ashore and were captured, joining the four others, PO Miln and AB Worthy, Sub-Lt Dove and L/Sea Freel, in captivity, firstly in Italy and then moved to a Marlag in Germany when Italy surrendered.

As a sad footnote, on release in May 1945, they found that their special pay for diving and chariot duties had been stopped from the time of their capture.

Principle was a hollow success. Of the eight chariots that set out from Malta, none returned. Three chariots and their crews were lost with P311. One two-man crew were brought back (Stevens and Carter) while, of the remaining four crews, six were in captivity and two more were dead. The operation caused the loss of two valuable T Class submarines, P311 and Traveller.

Against this were the sinking of a new Italian cruiser, which may not have been able to put to sea anyway, due to fuel shortages, and damage to a troopship (which had nowhere to take any troops to). Other charges were laid by Greenland and Ferrier but were either made safe by Italian divers or were incorrectly set.

January 1943 - Operation Welcome

The attack on Tripoli harbour

Operators: G Larkin, C Berey, H Stevens, E Buxton

On 18th January the submarine Thunderbolt left Malta bound for Tripoli harbour carrying two chariots. Chariot XII (Sub Lt GSW Larkin, RNVR, Petty Officer Cook Berey) and Chariot XIII (Sub Lt Stevens, CERA Buxton) were to sink two block ships. The San Giovanni Batista and Giulia before the Italians could use them to block Tripoli harbour. Because of defects, Sub Lt Larkin and Petty Officer Cook Berey were forced to abandon their mission, sinking their Chariot near the shore. They were captured by the Germans but managed to escape and rejoin the 8th Army. The other crew entered harbour but their main charge did not detonate. It was believed that Giulia may have been damaged by limpet mines but this is not certain, the two men were captured.

This was the last operation in which chariots were carried in containers on British submarines, although some others followed with the chariots on deck without containers.

May 1943 - Sicily Beach

Beach survey prior to allied landings. The object to measure beach gradients and mark enemy positions and beach defences.

Operators: T Evans, W Smith, W Jakeman, A Kirby, V Mills, J Brewster, J Brown, Hargreaves.

Sept 1943 - Lunna Voe operations

Using Norwegian agents to spy on occupying Germans. Motor Torpedo Boats used to drop Chariots.

Operators: G Larkin, N Job, with 13 others

Operation Husky

Operation Husky was a major campaign of World War II, in which the Allies took the island of Sicily from the Axis powers (Italy and Nazi Germany).

Chariots were not only used for attacks on enemy vessels. In May and June 1943 reconnaissance of potential landing beaches for the allied invasion of Sicily, Operation Husky, was carried out partly by Chariots deployed from the submarines HMS Unseen and HMS Unrivalled.

June 1944 - Operation QWZ

Sinking of the Bolzano

On 2ist June 1944 a joint British and Italian (i.e. post-armistice) operation was mounted in order to try to prevent the German military from using the Italian cruisers Bolzano and Gorizio at La Spezia. Two crews entered the harbour but one began to leak from its float tank, could not be controlled and was abandoned. The other reached the Bolzano and, with the assistance of Italian frogmen, sank the Bolzano.

Operators C Berey, M Causer, W Lawrence, H Smith.

A single chariot forced its way through dense anti-submarine nets into La Spezia harbour and sank the last Italian heavy cruiser Bolzano, which the Germans had seized at the time of the Italian surrender and withdrawn to the north. Operation QWZ, as it was known, was a joint operation with the Italian Navy. Two chariots, Sub Lt MR Causer (the veteran of the Trondheim attempt on Tirpitz and the walk to Sweden), with AB Harry Smith, and PO Cook Conrad 'Len' Berey with Stoker Ken Lawrence, were carried in Italian Motor Torpedo Boat MS74.

Causer and Smith made a textbook attack securing the warhead underneath Bolzano. Berey had failed to find the entrance to the harbour and, as dawn was breaking, decided to scuttle his Chariot. Both Chariot teams failed to make the rendezvous with their MTB transports and, by coincidence, succeeded in joining the same group of Italian partisans ashore. Berey managed to cross the River Arno in August 1944 to rejoin British forces, but Lawrence, Causer and Smith were all captured while trying to make the same crossing.

October 1944 - Operation 51

Secret Operation in Phuket Harbour, Thailand

Operators: A Elderidge, A Brown, W Smith, S Woolcott

In 28–29 October 1944 "the only completely successful British Chariot operation" occurred when two crews on the new Mark II Chariots, commanded by Lieutenant Tony Eldridge RNVR, were launched from the submarine HMS Trenchant (commanded by Lt Cmdr. Arthur 'Baldy' Hezlet, RN) and successfully entered harbour and sank two ships in the harbour of Japanese occupied Phuket, Thailand.

Normandy

Charioteers were used to survey the Normandy beaches prior to the landings. The object to measure beach gradients and mark enemy positions and beach defences.

Taku's attempted trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1941Terrapin's 6th Patrol Far East