Albert F Brown - Human Torpedo
Never volunteer for anything.
It was early on in the World War 2. I volunteered for everything, even to go to Finland to help them out when they were getting over-run, but I was told I was not old enough. I had to be 29 years of age and I was only 18. The next thing was the minesweepers but I was not a Fisherman and that's who they were taking, so the next was the Navy.
I went from Rye to Brighton and passed A1. They tried to get me in the Marines but I said the Navy and that was that. In two weeks I was in HMS Glendower, North Wales. They divided us into three lots, stewards, stokers and sick-bay tiffies.After seven weeks I was drafted back to Pompey to the Victory but I had already put in to change to Ordnance Mechanic, so I was sent to Wallsend for a course in engineering. I did very well and was drafted back to Stamshaw Camp, Pompey. From there I marched every day to Whale Island to do a course on hydraulics.
The first day, I put my foot in it; we were in the classroom and a two ringer was asking for our particulars he was making a joke of everything such as if you came from Brighton you know what they say about them. So when he asked me where I was born I just said "why", he asked me again and so I said "why" and just looked around the room, that went on three or four times. He said I have to know as I have to write it down. By this time his face was getting red, then one of the lads said that is where he was born Sir. Why in Kent. The joke was on him and he didn't like it. I cannot tell you what he said but he made it clear that I had to do well in the next exam because he was one of them that passed us out.
After that I heard there was Navy Commandos and, after two or three requests to see the Captain at Stamshaw Camp, I got to see him and it was arranged that I should be drafted to the Victory Barracks and then to some place in Scotland to train for the Commandos. When the time came for exams on hydraulics I did very well but it was that man again. He said you failed. The rest of the class could not believe it, that he could get away with that, but I just looked at him and said that's okay, I have been accepted for the Navy Commando's. Then he went off his head again and shouted that I had been wasting his time so in the next two days I was drafted to the Victory Barracks. They said they didn't know anything about me and there was no Navy Commandos so they put me over to the Ward Room to pass out as a Steward, I didn't, I packed my case and went away for the week to Three Bridges. I had been there before, just for a weekend, and thought it was a nice place. I never had a pass so after the week I went back to Pompey and walked in and nothing was said. I just went into the Stewards Mess, there was always a lot of coming and going so they thought I was a caterer of the Mess.
One day it came over air they wanted lads for Special Service so over to the Jaunty's Office I went and in no time there was over four hundred of us there but after going through the office there was twenty six of us picked out of that lot and sent to another office. We were sent in one at a time to be interviewed, by seven officers. When I got by that, I was told to wait outside in the corridor on the left and not to speak to the other lads. By the time we had all been through, there was myself and five others on the left and twenty on the other side of the corridor. Then a PO came out and told the twenty to get back to their duties and the six of us had to go back in again one at a time and it was then I was told what I was going for.
It was underwater and a cold-blooded job and did I still wanted it. I said yes and that was that. The time was about 3.30 in the afternoon and by 4.30 I was all packed and drafted to the Dolphin Submarine base. The next day we all went to the tank and were told about the DSEA Sets and in the tank we went. It was great. After that we had more tests then over to the hospital the six of us but only five made it, another one had to drop out. By then it was Friday 3.00pm. There was nothing more to do until Monday. We had to get the first train to go to Surbiton to Siebe Gorman's for more tests in and out of the tanks. It was great. That was the first time I had seen Sladen Suit. By this time another one of the boys had to drop out. He lost his nerve and just would not go through the tank.
We arrived in Stornoway by Steamer, overland to Loch Erisort. There was no jetty and in the dark we just had to scramble over the rocks to a wee boat then out to the Titania - that was about 3 o clock in the morning so we just got our heads down any place we could for the rest of the night.
The next day it was all go from then on. We were paired off. My Number 1 was Lt. Harry Hardgreaves, a great lad.
We got used to the suits and sets then onto a wooden torpedo, there was no engine in it, you had to pump water in to go down and out to come up again. It was good fun. The only thing I didn't like at the time, we never had enough mouth pieces to go round so when someone came in from a run they just took their mouth piece out and threw it into a bucket of Dettol. The next one had to take it out and give it a rinse and use it again. The smell and taste was not very nice when you were down below on oxygen.
Sometime later on I was doing a night dive. We set off from the Titania but the water was coming in one of my glasses and at that stage we had two eye glasses that were screwed in so we went alongside another ship that was with us and in the darkness an Officer took the glass out and replaced it. He gave me a weight in my right hand to take me down to test the glasses. He also handed me a rope in my left hand to stop me going down too far but before the officer could get back to the other end of the rope I was over the side in the darkness and I was going down head first not able to get the weight off my finger. I was getting squeezed and pinched in all places and the rope never stopped coming down with me. I hit the seabed at about 200 ft. by that time my ears had gone bang with the pressure and there was no oxygen in my bag or in my suit to keep the pressure off. As I was upside down I could not get any oxygen until I stood up on the seabed then I got some into my suit and came up almost alongside the torpedo. I mumbled to my Number 1 my ears had gone and just got to the torpedo and carried on with my run.
We had nets to go through and one we had to go under at about 90 ft. The clock used to stop at 90 ft. but many times we had been a lot lower than that. I went to the sickbay that night after we got back from that run and I had to lay off diving for a week.
After the week PO Bill Smith had a line on me and I went down on a short rope over 225 ft. I could hardly bend but I managed to pick up a tin from the bottom and take it back to Smith. He always joked and said, "I couldn't go to those depths" so I thought I would show him, it was great. After my eardrums had burst I could go down any depths, as there was no pressure on them all. So I never left a torpedo even when it was going down out of control I had a few Number 1's that bailed out but I hung on and brought them back up to the surface, and picked up the Number 1. Sometimes it was a hard job as this was all done in pitch darkness in rough weather and in open sea.
I remember they took HMS Howe out of the fleet for us to practice under. They had nets all round her and the Ships Company were out in small boats around the nets; it was so dark we couldn't see them. As we only had a few torpedoes, when the first one came back to the Titania myself and Harry, my Number 1 were to take it to do our run but we found that the Number 1 was dead - it was the Number 2 that brought it back but we were ready so away we went.
Well we didn't bother about the nets; we went right down under them and came up just under the bow of the Howe. We dismounted and took the torpedo right to the stern and back again. It was so hot under there I went out for the count for a second or two. I came round and I was still holding the torpedo. My Number 1 didn't even know I had been out for the count. I was lucky. By this time we were just under the bow, we mounted again I dived down over 90ft and came out under the nets and back to Titania. It was great - no one saw us at all.
After the Titania had moved from two or three different lochs we ended up at Loch Striven, then three or four pairs were picked to go to Malta including Harry and myself.
The day we left all the ship's crew were up on deck, by the time I had got up after having ‘sippers' all around I thought I was seeing things, they had got my kit bag and hammock up on the derricks. I held my breath because if they had come open I would still be doing time for all the duty frees and the tins of tickler.
We went overland to Dunoon by truck and from there to Gourock by Steamer. The customs see me with all my kit and would think I was going on draft so they never bothered to look through it, but I was going home to Hastings on leave before I went to Malta.
On leave you couldn't tell anyone what you were and what you were doing and there was no badges for us. Not even my mother and family knew what I was letting myself into, but I was all for it.
After leave I picked up a boat in Glasgow - the Clan Cameron - but we only got as far as Gibraltar on her. My Number 1 Harry told me he had left two bottles in his cabin, Gin and Whisky so I took two of the boys up with me on the night we got to Gibraltar about 3.00 a.m. We had to change over boats; I can tell you it was some job going over the side onto a small boat then to another ship with what little kit we had, the rest of it we had to leave at home.
After we got on our way in a convoy out through the Med at about seven knots the first day was OK but about 10.00 p.m. at night it started, one plane came over our ship and right across the convoy without a spark. Then it came straight back from corner to corner of the convoy over the top of us, it dropped four bombs, two each side of us and after that planes came from all ways. You could see ships going down on fire all across the convoy. Every day there was less and less ships in the convoy.
We eventually got to Malta and got on with some training, we didn't do any day runs only at nights then you didn't know when you would get a rope around your neck as there were so many small boats in the harbour. Harry and myself did, on or two night runs into Grand Harbour from six miles out. The first one the torpedo's gear stripped and it started to sink. In the end we had to let a flare go and hope for the best. We were lucky - a boat loomed up and it was one of ours and we got the torpedo aboard very quickly and back to Malta. It was not our fault the torpedo broke down. So, the next night we went out again and everything went OK. Captain (S) told us there was a trip wire across the harbour entrance also nets and a mine on each side. Well, he said, it was there but didn't know if they had taken it away. We got in OK to the nets but we couldn't get under them so we got through a hole about 50 ft. down. I got off, got the torpedo through with Harry still on it and I held on to it with the tips of my fingers and let it pull me through. I could not let go because the screw would have taken my fingers off. When Harry found out that I was not on the back he stopped then I could let go and get back on and gave him the OK. I was still with him.
When we came to the surface we could see our target was on one side of the Harbour and the Nelson was the other side. We knew they were looking for us in the Harbour so we dived from one side of the harbour right under the Nelson across to the nets round the target and from then on it was hard work. We were up to our knees in mud, tins and bottles. You name it you can find it at the bottom of Grand Harbour.
We put a dummy charge under the ship and let a line go from it so the crew could see we had been there then we got back out. It had been a successful run.
A day or two after that I was in the sickbay with sand fly fever or malaria. But they picked two pairs to go on the next raid my Number 1 came to the sick-bay and told me that we had been picked and asked me if I would be okay.
Well the day came to go aboard on a sub - the Unrivalled with 'Topsy' Turner the Skipper. I came out of the sick-bay and went abroad with plenty of pills to keep me going.
Our target was the Italian cruiser Andrea Doria. She was at anchor just outside Taranto harbour but inside the nets. We had it worked out what we were going to do but as it was lying at anchor and they would find we were there she would just up-anchor and move away and the charges would be pulled off. So I was going to stop underneath with the clocks ticking until I knew the other boys were away. I would catch up with them the next day ashore under a bridge but if the target moved I was going to turn the clock back and blow it up with myself as well but at the last minute the operation was called off and we returned to Malta. We were told they would not risk our lives because the Italians were on the verge of giving in. I did a few diving jobs in Malta until I could get a boat back to the UK.
We came in at Liverpool then up to Rothesay then on leave back down to Hastings. After my leave I was 36 hours adrift getting back - I was held up at Newcastle - she was a brunette. I arrived back at Rothesay then out to Port Bannatyne to HMS Varbel. By this time the rest of the boys had been drafted to Blyth to a submarine course to pass the time away. I saw Captain Banks, he asked what I wanted to do? I could go as a diver on X Craft or clear harbours from explosives or stop as I was on the torpedoes but he said he was going away for a week and I could tell him when he got back. So, I had a week doing nothing in Rothesay. He called for me when he got back and asked if I had made up my mind, then before I could say anything he said I would like for you to stop on torpedoes as my Number 1 had taken over frogmen.
I went down to Blyth and did the training course but there was nothing in it after being on the subs in the Med. After a few weeks I went to the Dolphin and was trying the new 'Terry' job - the Mark 2 torpedo. I could not sit down in it as we still had two big bottles on our back. After a few set-backs it was sent north and I went with it. They told us if we did seven, seven hour runs at night we could go on leave. I never had a Number 1 at the time so I went out with any Number 1 that was spare. The only thing was I had to kneel all the time as we still had big bottles on our backs. I was too big to sit down in it back to back. Well I got my seven runs in but the Number 1's I had were not very good. So I was picked to go to the Far East without a Number 1.
I went home on leave and picked up the HMS Wolfe up in Rothesay Bay for the Far East. The trip out was very good until we got to almost Bombay when Lt McArthur sent for me to come to his cabin. He told me he had bad news for me that my people had been bombed out but my mother was safe. The message never said anything about the rest of the family. He asked me if I wanted to go back, if so he could put me off in Bombay and I might get a flight back. He was pleased when I said I would carry on, as everything would be over by the time I got home.
Soon after we arrived in Trincomalee we got down to training. It was another world down below but everything went okay and they gave me Bill Smith for my Number 1. We got on very well together and we were picked to go on the first job against the Japs with two men torpedoes. Our targets were in Phuket Harbour on the West Coast of Malaya at the North end of Malacca Straits. There were four of us picked. Two for each machine. We went on a short jungle training course just in case we had to bail out and make our way into an enemy training course just in case we had to bail out and make our way into enemy occupied territory. Escape kits were prepared and explained and some Shark scares had also arrived, one of these was a repulsive smelling ointment to smear over suit, headpiece and hands but we did not use it as we thought the machines and the figures riding them would be enough to frighten any sharks.
Back from the jungle course we found the submarine Trenchant was to take us on the operation; 'Baldy' Hazlet Lt Commander commanded her. He played an outstanding part in the early years of the enterprise.
There remained a short period of time for training to be carried out with the parent submarine, for the final trial the two machines were taken out to sea and launched about six miles from the entrance about 8pm. or 9pm. Smith and I had an eventful run; on going under the first boom, my nose clip came off and fell into the bottom of my face piece. As soon as we came to the surface inside the net I opened the visor to fix things, hoping Smith would not dive again in too much of a hurry. But with wet hands the replacement of a slippery nose clip proved too difficult a manoeuvre so I decided to leave it off and shut the visor, judging the risk of carbon dioxide poisoning to be a justifiable one in 'practice battle' conditions. One the way out, after we had completed the attack the machine gears suddenly stripped and Smith was left with no means of varying the speed and none of going astern.
We could have surfaced alongside the net, where we knew there to be a launch from the Wolfe but we decided to carry on out to sea to pick up Trenchant in spite of the defect. But before we could get back to the rendezvous and because of the many extra obstacles we had to surmount, the machine was completely out of compressed air and Smith and I were completely out of oxygen, we were accordingly running on the surface with visors open when we sighted the Submarine. There was only one problem of stopping, round and round we went again and again until we could reach a line thrown from the big boats casing which eventually halted us. When we climbed out of the water it was 4.20am. - it had been a long night.
Trenchant sailed on 22 October with the torpedoes resting on the Port and Starboard Saddle tanks.
Down below in the control room the four of us were observing all that was going on, we had checked our escape equipment just before leaving. Each of us had been issued with a 38 revolver and ammunition, local currency, a small bag of 25 gold sovereigns, a silk map, a small dagger, needle and thread for sewing up wounds, compass, hacksaw blades, a watch and a tablet of poison. All of this had to be concealed among our clothes and carried inside the diving dress. There was also the "Siamese Blood Chit", a small square of white silk. On this, in addition to a very garish Union Jack, was a message inscribed in several Oriental languages to the following effect:- "I am a British Naval Officer who has been engaged in operations against the Japanese. If I am captured I cannot to fight against the Japanese, so I appeal to you to hide me and provide me with food until I can re-join our forces. If you will help me by giving me food and hiding me in safety until our armies arrive in Malaya, you will earn the gratitude of my Government, who will give you a big reward and I am authorised to give you a chit to this effect." The sea trip to Selenga Island on the coast of which lay Phuket Harbour was uneventful, and on the morning of the attack, Trenchant was in position 6½ miles to seawards from the target area.
The four of us had a good look through the periscope at the targets, Eldridge's and Woollcott's target was just inside the harbour entrance, she was the 5,000 ton merchantman "Sumatra" but our target the "Volpi" of 5,272 tons way lying further in, right at the extreme end of the waterway, to reach her we had a considerably longer trip. She was out of commission and partly submerged and in the process of being salvaged by the same team as had re-floated the "Sumatra." I was told the divers were working round the clock on her.
The day passed terribly slowly and nightfall brought a great sense of relief. Dressing took less time than had been expected and the four of us had to sit about in a sweltering control-room, clad in thick rubber suits, with the sweat literally pouring off us.
We were glad when we were able to man the machines at 10 o'clock, the sea was very flat as the submarine submerged and left her two offspring's afloat.
The night was lit by a brilliant moon, which had its advantages as well as its disadvantages. I couldn't see where we were going but I could see where we had come from, as we sat back in the torpedoes.
I am happily connecting myself to the machine oxygen supply, then came the trim-dive, which went well enough as far as Smith and the chariot were concerned. But for me things were not plain sailing. As soon as we submerged I felt the water coming through the vent in the headpiece and within minutes I was flooded from feet to neck. It didn't worry me very much until I had to dismount to secure the warhead, which Smith had noticed working loose. I had to keep a very firm grip on the securing gear to prevent myself plummeting to the bottom. Smith and I felt very confident about the whole job. It was quite straightforward there being no nets across the harbour and we never saw any and probably no other defences either. Both of us were old hands at the actual business of handling a machine below the water, so the night should be a 'quiet number'. We had several natters together to formulate a plan of campaign and had decided simply to ride in on the surface for the first 4 1/2 miles and keep dived for the last 2. Nothing stopped us keeping to that programme. After having gone about 3 miles we were able to distinguish first of all Eldridge's target then our own. Smith was a little worried about the phosphorescence that the propeller was churning up. This was a feature of tropical waters to which none of us had become fully accustomed.
When the time came for diving we remained below for 400 yards at stretch surfacing slowly every time to check course and to take in the situation as a whole.
This part seemed slow going, and, indeed, we were being forced off course considerably by the strong cross current, but by trial and error we eventually got into position some 300 yards away from the target and dived for the attack. Soon we could see the dark shape of the hull appear and with motor stopped we glided smoothly alongside, the depth was about 20 feet.
The intention was to place the charge vertically under the centre line of the ship as near as possible on the engine room plates, but on sinking slowly to 40 feet we both realised that with the position in which the ship was wedged we would never manage to get ourselves or a charge underneath her. Partly to think again, partly to try another attempt we withdrew. We kept deep on the next attempt but our luck was no better.
So, I dismounted and went forward to have a look at the ships side, moving slowly past Smith and past the warhead. The water was so dark that before I had gone some four feet from the nose of the chariot I was completely out of sight from Smith, but in a few minutes I was back, to indicate by signs that there was no hope of securing the charge on the ships side. It was disappointing, but there was nothing to be gained by stopping where we were, so with the main ballast slowly blowing we crept up the side of the ship towards the surface. At fifteen feet we came to a deck, Smith stopped the ascent for me to dismount, well to get out of the cockpit for a third time on the trip.
This time I took the charge with me and lashed it to one of the deck-fittings and took the pin out of the time-setting clock. I had about 45 minutes on the clock when the lashing parted and my hand was cut. I had to grab the charge again and struggle with it across the deck. The fuse-clock was ticking away and I knew my time was running out as I negotiated a series of steps down into an engine room and placed the charge where it could not move. Then I had to take a chance and put another 4 hours on the clock; that's when my life was in my hands. But I was too preoccupied with several personal discomforts, to start with, my suit was full of water and one of my hands were bleeding badly from a cut sustained when I half stumbled with the charge, a further fall had torn open my head piece and gashed the top of my skull. I could feel my hair sticky with blood, through the hole in the rubber.
However, as I made my way up the engine room ladder and across the deck to where I thought Smith would be waiting, I was able to reflect on the big bang I had left just below me. By the time I rejoined Smith I had to been aboard for some 20 minutes - long minutes they had been too.
I let Smith feel the split pin that meant the charge had been set, we shook hands and were away. The usual routine for departure was a long dive for about a mile at about 10 or 15 feet, course to be as estimated by Number 1. This was Smith's intention as the chariot surged slowly forward and away from her target, but they had barely gone 10 yards before he felt this breathing coming with difficulty and before we had gone very much further he knew for certain that his equipment had a defect. In a hurry he brought the machine to the surface, ripping open his visor and disengaging his mouthpiece. His mouth was badly burned by the soda lime that had worked loose from the canister. Luck had changed and we were in a not very promising situation, all we could do was to carry on at full speed on the surface and hope for the best.
We had been proceeding in this fashion for about 90 minutes and the time was between 2 and 3am. when Smith sighted the Trenchant some 40 yards away. We had been dead on course, the next moment a dark shape appeared to port and proved to be lofty Eldridge's machine. Things could not have been better timed. Hezlet ordered the chariots to be scuttled. With my headpiece full of water and my back to Smith I was not sure what was happening, the machine started to dive and a leg hit my head so I grabbed it as I was still connected to the machine for oxygen supply. I managed to disconnect myself and still hold on until I got a hold of the Submarines Casing, if not I would have been at the bottom with all the water and hole in the suit.
Page 11 of 14 As soon as we got aboard and down below Hezlet had the 'Plugs pulled out' in double quick time. My suit was almost bursting open with the weight of water inside it. I always got by but no one could swim with that. I was a non-swimmer. The mystery was that I had managed to conceal the fact through the best part of 3 years. McArthur was highly amused when he heard about it.
Back in Trenchant there was an air of satisfaction and the four divers after a brief comparison of notes were packed off to get a few hours sleep. We were called again at 5.30am half an hour before the charges were due to go up. Woollcott's target disintegrated to be followed five minutes later by ours. We were all allowed frequent peeps through the periscope to see the effects of our handy-work. The two explosions were quite different, the first was a sharp crack and the vessel seemed to move upward. The second was considerably duller and seemed to expand its energy horizontally outward. The Trenchant continued on patrol for a further three weeks much to the delight and interest of the charioteers. During this time Hezlet was able to make a successful attack on a convoy and the boat was subjected to some depth charging. On return to Trincomalee reports were submitted and the four of us went on leave to a rest-camp in the hills. When we returned to join the other teams we found them packing for home.
Authority had decided against any further chariot operations in the Far East.
The Commander in Chief had said that he would not be responsible for sending men on operations where return might not be possible, when it was known that all men captured would immediately loose both eyes and testicles. As a result everything was being wound up as far as this mode of warfare was concerned.
All those now 'out of work' would be given a comprehensive choice of jobs and every effort would be made to see them placed in the appointment of their choice - charioteering had to come to an end.
By the time I got back to the UK the war was over. I spent my last days at the DSE tank before I was demobbed.
The end had come for the lad they tried to make a Steward; and out of about 400 lads that tried to get into the job I was the only one that got through and did a successful operation.
'A non-swimmer' and at last they changed me over to a Seaman and was awarded the DSM for this operation.