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Cmdr John Lorimer

From the Daily Telegraph

Commander John Lorimer, who died aged 97, was a sailor who in his midget submarine helped to put a mighty German battleship out of action; his war was 18 months of training, two weeks of operations and two years as a prisoner of war, including six months of solitary confinement.

His two weeks' operations were in X6, a midget submarine commanded by cameron and crewed by Lorimer, Sub-Lieutenant Dick Kendall and Engine Room Artificer Edmund Goddard, who set out on a suicidal mission to sink the pride of the Germany navy.

Operation Source, as it was known, began on September 11 1943, when six large submarines, each with an X-craft in tow, crept out of Loch Cairnbawn and headed for Kaafjord in Arctic Norway: their target was the German battleship Tirpitz, which was threatening the convoys to Russia.

Lorimer had joined the RNVR as soon as he could, and "young, 19, and stupid", he volunteered for special and hazardous duty without knowing that this involved an arduous training programme. Besides learning how to operate the four-man midget submarines, known as X-craft, he also had to train to trek great distances, in case he had to take the mountainous trail to Sweden after the operation.

He recalled:

There was an awful lot we didn't know, such as the dangers of diving to 100ft with pure oxygen, which kills you in half a minute. This all had to be discovered by experimentation, and there were casualties. But that's war.

One in four of his fellow volunteers died, including Lorimer's best friend, Paddy Kearon, who perished with his crew when a towrope broke and his submarine plunged to the depths.

Lorimer in a sketch drawn by his commanding officer, Donald Cameron VC while they were in PoW camp
Lorimer in a sketch drawn by his commanding officer, Donald Cameron VC while they were in PoW camp
Cast yourself back to the age of 21," said Lorimer. "You're in a war where everyone's united. You drink like tomorrow we die, yet you feel immortal. One lost a lot of chums, but otherwise one enjoyed one's war. I find this country so much more depressing today. We're no longer united, and all anyone cares about is money.

On the night of September 21/22, having penetrated deep into the fjord, Lorimer caught his first sight of Tirpitz.

"It was surreal, lit up like a Christmas tree. My first thought was that she was so pretty, it seemed an awful shame to have to blow her up.

Each X-craft had aboard a specialist diver trained to use bolt cutters on the thick steel underwater netting. However, X6's captain, Cameron, had a better idea, when through a leaking periscope he spotted a trawler carrying German sailors from shore leave, passing through a gate in the outer ring of nets.

Impetuously, Cameron followed just 10 feet behind in the boat's wake. "We could see the sailors' faces quite clearly, but they were too pie-eyed to notice us."

Astonishingly, they repeated the trick by following a small boat through the inner torpedo netting. "Then disaster struck," Lorimer recalled. "We hit an uncharted rock. Our periscope caught fire. The boat broke surface at 45 degrees."

Somehow Cameron managed to dive again, but the submarine was now blind, filling with noxious fumes and all but uncontrollable. "Right,"Cameron grimaced, "we'll just have to ram the bloody Tirpitz." X6 dropped each of its two-ton Amatol explosive charges under the Tirpitz's keel, before surfacing amid a hail of bullets and grenades.

They were captured, and as they were herded aboard Tirpitz, Lorimer askedCameron: "Skipper, shall we salute the quarterdeck?" "Why, of course," answered Cameron', and this they did, to the consternation of the Germans. At first the Germans were rough, but when their admiral arrived, evidently from a hunting trip ashore, he treated them more gentlemanly.

At first, they held their silence, but when the German made to send divers down, "we were very British and said: 'Don't send those poor buggers down because in an hour they'll be mashed potato.'"

However, when the timed explosives did blow and Tirpitz was bodily lifted upwards, the Germans became very hostile and lined up their prisoners as though to shoot them. Lorimer remembered thinking that he wouldn't give a sixpence for his life, "but mainly I was bloody furious that the ship was still floating." However, Tirpitz was mortally damaged and never saw service afterwards.


"Good show! Good show!" said George VI when after the war he awarded the survivors two VCs, three DSOs and a CGM. The official despatch described the attack as one of the most courageous acts of all time. When the raid was re-created in the film 'Above Us the Waves' (1955), Donald Sinden borrowed Lorimer's pipe as a prop.

John Thornton Lorimer was born on 9th July 1922 at Kelso in the Scottish Borders, where his parents were doctors; his father was a naval surgeon in both world wars. Young John was educated at the United Services College in North Devon.

Released from an initial "softening-up" spell in solitary, Lorimer found prisoner-of-war camp "just like public school" and joined various attempts to escape. One failed when heavy rain caused the collapse of a tunnel he was helping to dig; when Albert, RN (a collapsible, life-sized dummy) was used to trick the German's head count, Lorimer carried Albert's left leg.

When taken prisoner, Lorimer had been engaged to a Wren, Judy Hughes-Onslow, one of the four daughters of Sir Geoffrey Hughes-Onslow. For the first six months of his imprisonment she did not know whether Lorimer was dead or alive, and when the camp was relieved, her soldier cousin, Tony Lithgow, came looking for Lorimer, and he was returned to Scotland in a flying boat. Judy, sent to collect the mail from the boat, was surprised to find Lorimer crammed into the back. Asked how she felt, she said: "Oh, it was the same old John. Dull as ever." They married in 1945.

Post war, Lorimer asked to stay in the Navy, and when this was refused, he was a rowdy and rumbustious, older undergraduate at Edinburgh, reading forestry. He joined the Ayrshire sawmill and timber company of Adam Wilson before setting up a forestry consultancy with Michael Barn, working until he was 85. Lorimer was a countryman who loved messing about in boats and was Deputy Lieutenant of Ayrshire and Arran. Lorimer havered when invited to join a reunion of Tirpitz's crew, but returned from Germany full of good humour.

Judy predeceased him and he is survived by their son and daughter.

Commander John Lorimer was born on 9th July 1922 and died 1st December 2019

Lieutenant-Commander Canon Rupert LonsdaleCaptain Michael Lumby