Lieutenant Basil Charles Godfrey Place
Basil Charles Godfrey Place was born Little Malvern in Worcestershire on 19th July 1921 and he was the son of Godfrey Place, DSO, MC. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of fourteen and spent the first year of the war as a Midshipman in the Cruiser HMS Newcatle before volunteering for submarines. He was appointed to the 1st Submarine Flotilla based at HMS St. Angelo in Malta 'for Submarines' on 11th Aug 1941. Three weeks later on 1st September 1941 Place was appointed as 'Liaison Officer' to the Polish Submarine Sokol. The duration of his appointment is not established however he was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour for this appointment. He next served in the submarines Urge & Una before being appointed to 'Submarine HMS Unbeaten as the Navigator' now based with the 10th Submarine Flotilla at Malta. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (see London Gazette dated 4th May 1943) for his part in the sinking of the Italian submarine Gugliemotti by Unbeaten off Sicily in March 1942.
He returned home on 13th Aug 1942 and was appointed firstly to HMS Dolphin on that date before being appointed to HMS Varbel (12th Submarine Flotilla) at Port Bannantyne in Scotland 'for special service' with X Craft on 13th Aug 1942. Following training he was appointed to HMS Varbel 'for Submarine X4 in Command' on 11th Dec 1942. During the planning and training for Operation Source (the X Craft attack on German Capital Ships in the Norwegian fjords he was appointed to the 'Submarine X7 in Command'. Godfrey Place was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in a daring attack on the battleship Tirptiz on 22nd September 1943 - one of the most important units of the German Fleet. Submarine X7, together with X6 successfully exploded four charges underneath Tirptiz as she lay at anchor in Kaafjord, in Norway, causing severe damage and rendering her unfit for sea until April 1944. Operation Source began on 11th September 1943 when six midget submarines, each weighing only 35 tons and with a crew of four, were towed from Loch Cairnbawn for 1,000 miles to a position off Altenfjord in northern Norway. Each carried two detachable charges weighing two tons. X9 was lost on passage with all hands and X8 had to be scuttled. The four remaining submarines detached on the evening of 20th September and entered Kaafjord on 22nd September. X10 had to abandon the attack because of a defect while X5 got within 500 yards of her target before being sunk by gunfire.
Tirptiz had been a constant threat to the British merchant and naval vessels and behind a double row of anti-torpedo netting, some 50 miles away from the open sea. X7 passed through the boom defence gap at the entrance of the fjord and then dived to avoid a motor launch and became entangled in the nets. After an hour of struggling, she wriggled free and dived to 75ft to pass underneath Tirptiz's nets but again got caught.
Meanwhile X6, commanded by Lt Donald Cameron, had been sighted on the surface and the alarm raised. Having lost her gyro compass and periscope, the submarine rammed Tirptiz and released her charges before Cameron scuttled her.
X7 once again struggled to escape from the protective nets. Then, in Place's words, "by some extraordinary lucky chance" she surfaced in the nets and at full speed struck Tirptiz on the port side, sliding under her keel before releasing the first charge. Place then drove his submarine astern, releasing the second charge 150 to 200 feet aft of the first. X7 became entangled in the nets for a third time. Place, with masterly understatement, described her predicament thus: "Without a compass I had no exact idea where we were; X6's charges were due to explode in an hour, it was extremely annoying to run into another net." Shortly afterwards, there was a tremendous explosion.
"This evidently shook us out of the net, and on surfacing it was tiresome to find the Tirptiz still afloat," said Place.
X7 was under heavy fire so Place dived again and then considered his options. There was only enough air left to surface one more time so he decided that there was no alternative but to surrender. He surfaced next to a battle practice target 500 yards away from Tirptiz and stepped out of the submarine waving a white sweater. Tragically, water lapped into the submarine, which then sank. One officer managed to escape three hours later using Davis Equipment but the other officer and the Engine Room Artificer perished. Place joined Cameron and the crew of X6 on board Tirptiz where the Germans initially thought they were Norwegian saboteurs. The six survivors were subjected to intense interrogation before being taken to the Marlag-Milag Nord prison camp, where they spent the rest of the war. Cameron and Place were awarded the VC in February 1944 and received their medals from the King on 22nd June 1945. The citation concluded:
The courage, endurance and utter contempt for danger in the immediate face of the enemy shown by Lts. Cameron and Place during this determined and successful attack were supreme.
After the war, Place resumed his Naval career but never held another submarine appointment. In 1950, he transferred to the Fleet Air Arm, training as a pilot and gaining his "Wings" in 1952. Later that year he saw action in the Korean War flying the Sea Fury's of 801 Squadron from the deck of the Aircraft Carrier HMS Glory.
Thereafter, Place's appointments alternated between General Service ships and Fleet Air Arm staff jobs. He commanded the destroyers HMS Tumult and HMS Corunna, the New Entry Training Establishment HMS Ganges at Shotley, the Aircraft Carrier HMS Albion and the frigate HMS Rothesay before promotion to Rear Admiral in 1968. His final appointment on the Active List was as Admiral Commanding Reserves and Director and Director General Naval Recruiting.
After retirement in 1970, Place became the personnel director for Cunard Cargo Shipping. In 1975 he was appointed as the first Lay Observer of the Law Society, in effect the Ombudsman for complaints about solicitors. From 1971, he was president of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association, doing much to ensure that the courage of VC and GC holders was not forgotten.
"Once in your lifetime," he said, "you're first to meet the Monarch. You head the queue right in front of the KCBs and that sort of thing, and the main purpose of our association is that VC holders should not feel that they never get to the front of things again."
Place was never an easy man. He was headstrong, harsh towards those who did not live up to his expectations, and he had an unswerving belief that, on any given issue, his opinion was the correct one. In many ways he was an archetypal member of the Submarine Service and Fleet Air Arm, both branches of the Royal Navy which see themselves as elites and combine great professionalism with social abandon. After one mess dinner at the naval air station at Culdrose in the 1950's Place, then a Commander and a fellow officer flung themselves in full mess kit, into a large water tank. His act of gallantry in 1943 was, in the words of a friend, "entirely consistent with his character" which was "a peculiar combination of recklessness and determination". Qualities which in war, can push men on to extraordinary feats.
Basil Place died in London on 27th December 1994.
Whitehall 22nd February, 1944
The Kinghas been graciously pleased to approve the award of the Victoria Cross for valour to: Lieutenant Basil Charles Godfrey Place, D.S.C., Royal Navy Lieutenant Donald Cameron, R.N.R.
Lieutenants Place and Cameron were the Commanding Officers of two of His Majesty's Midget Submarines X7 and X6 which on 22nd September 1943 carried out a most daring and successful attack on the German Battleship Tirptiz, moored in the protected anchorage of Kaafiord, North Norway.
To reach the anchorage necessitated the penetration of an enemy minefield and a passage of fifty miles up the fiord, known to be vigilantly patrolled by the enemy and to be guarded by nets, gun defences and listening posts, this after a passage of at least a thousand miles from base.
Having successfully eluded all these hazards and entered the fleet anchorage, Lieutenants Place and Cameron, with a complete disregard for danger, worked their small craft past the close anti-submarine and torpedo nets surrounding the Tirptiz, and from a position inside these nets, carried out a cool and determined attack.
Whilst they were still inside the nets a fierce enemy counter attack by guns and depth charges developed which made their withdrawal impossible.
Lieutenants Place and Cameron therefore scuttled their craft to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy. Before doing so they took every measure to ensure the safety of their crews, the majority of whom, together with themselves, were subsequently taken prisoner.
In the course of the operation these very small craft pressed home their attack to the full, in doing so accepting all the dangers inherent in such vessels and facing every possible hazard which ingenuity could devise for the protection in harbour of vitally important Capital Ships.
The courage, endurance and utter contempt for danger in the immediate face of the enemy shown by Lieutenants Place and Cameron during this determined and successful attack were supreme.
Basil Place's Victoria Cross and other medals are on display in the Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum in London.