Building X Craft Submarines
A Memoir by James Henry Weatherburn (ex Vickers Ltd)
Having been asked to produce an account of my experiences associated with X Craft production, ordered from Vickers Barrow for the Royal Navy, during the Second World War, I will record what I remember but it was some years ago and I have worked on as great many submarines since.
My first glimpse of a Midget Submarine was about August 1942 when my then foreman in the Submarine Dock sent me to have my photograph taken to form a special pass to enter a secure area set in the North Shop (formerly the Gun Shop and now the Nuclear Build Shop) to work on a special project. I had no idea what the project was and doubted whether anyone else in working in my area did either.
I had just entered my final apprenticeship year (5th) when I arrived in this area to work for the same foreman I had been working for in the Sub Dock and was pleased he had included me in his new team. To my surprise I was given to work on my own as a journeyman and was taken to what I recognised as a unit of a small submarine because I was to fit a rudder and a hydroplane to this unit with its operating rod assembly to the three glands to inside the unit. Other units arrived in the workshop and then could be seen the elements of a mini-submarine by then known as X Craft. Each complete submarine consisted of three units - a Bow Unit, Control Room Unit and Tail End Unit each with a joint ring flange at its open ends with probably 40 bolts to join the units together. This design was good for build as outfit could be completed as far as possible with accessible open ends.
The bow unit had a forward trim tank and other small tanks under a battery of, I think, about 112 batteries which, when installed reached up to above halfway and then a wooden platform above it sufficient for a man to carry out battery maintenance and also use it for sleeping in service.
The next unit was mainly the control unit which had a wet and dry compartment at its forward end, enclosed by two bulkheads each with a circular bulkhead door the forward one for entrance to the battery tank and the aft one for entry or exit to the control room. This W & D compartment also had a hatch above it and was to enable a diver to exit and re-enter the submarine for the purpose of cutting submarine nets and also laying charges under an enemy ship as well as undercover coastal work. This unit also had a periscope observation blip on the hull, two very important hull castings on each side which operated the release of side explosive charges and a pressure hull hatch aft. This was also a blessing for access when the units were joined.
The aft unit contained a rudder and aft hydroplane, aft trim tank, fuel and water tanks, a Keith Blackman motor coupled directly to the propulsion shaft, a Gardner diesel engine - similar to the London bus engines with a clutch between to disengage the engine. All connecting systems to the control room unit required to be exactly positioned so that the complete spare tail end unit could replace any of the six Units.
The operating equipment was small and the valves were neatly designed. The trim control was a bit like a car gear box where you had crossed slots. Pushing away the toggle discharged water out, pulling the toggle towards you fed water into the tanks, go left in the slots - Aft Trim to for'd trim and right in the slot - or'd trim to aft trim. The engine control was right next to this and, I think, the aft hydroplane control. You could not stand up in the control room so always had dipped head and shoulders.
Dawned the day when the three units were joined together with a thick dexine joint and numerous bolts and then what marvellous tiny submarines we had on display. However this brought its problems with production because if you had eight or ten people inside you could hardly move and men completed their tasks working on top of each other, all in very good spirits as I remember. Men sat at the forward hatch waiting to get in as men left the aft hatch.
Eventually we had the first complete boat lifted onto a railway wagon and covered with a tarpaulin. I noticed a name had been painted on the bow - I think it was Shrimp. Later one was called Platypus and one with a Greek or Latin name beginning with X. It was also at this time that I saw two young Sub Lieutenants with the boss looking around the outside of the boat who I later recognised as Cameron and Place. Arriving for work next morning, no railway wagon, no submarine, it had disappeared over night. The train would have been escorted, I believe, to Faslane by crew members and then on to Rothesay.
This first boat was probably X5 and, as X6 was nearing completion my Boss asked me to accompany one of his Fitters (Bill Moscrop) to Scotland to carry out a modification to the clutch on the submarine recently dispatched. We caught the 5.30am train out of Barrow and travelled to Wemyss Bay where a ferry plies to Rothesay. It was six thirty and pitch black when we arrived at Rothesay where a naval truck was waiting for us. They drove us to Port Balantyne (sic) - Bannantyne and immediately transferred to a waiting liberty boat. They ploughed through the dark for about two hours to what was, I later discovered, Loch Striven. A series of wooden huts were built here and a jetty, alongside which was our X5.
Bill got stuck in right way on the job and I think we finished about six o'clock in the morning and, boy, did the bacon and egg go down well which they provided but the huts and bunks were a bit rough and the boys were being pushed hard in their training.
When dawn broke I could then see the set up here was a large mansion set back from the Loch which was where the officers were accommodated but otherwise it was the end of nowhere. There were the two man torpedo riders tied up at the jetty but pretty quick the riders were on them and off up the loch and diving. We had walked part way up the hillside to watch our X5 move out and dive and then we were taken back to Port Bannantyne. I think I slept on the boat and later on the train. This had a profound effect on myself because here you see the real frontline of the war, these young men, none much older than I, risking their lives in a very positive way, and we knew from conversation that several lads had already died, what brave lads. I, myself, had seen in Barrow ships coming in damaged - bows blown off, we produced every type of weapon and we had a blitz but the real coal face was not experienced.
It was not long after returning that I was told to accompany another fitter (Bill Kelly) to Rothesay to carry out Mods on X5, X6 and X7 which had left Barrow to join the Navy. This time the journey from Barrow was the same. We were escorted into HMS Varbel at Port Bannantyne which had been the Hydro Hotel but taken over by the Navy, was now a ship. We gathered that the three subs were tied up by a steam barge alongside the Jetty. As we entered HMS Varbel, Bill Kelly was spoken to by a couple of ERA's. We were marched up the steps and into a large room full of officers and Captain Ingram sat in the middle. He welcomed us and said that everything was ready and laid on to start work right away.
I didn't know what Bill was thinking, I was only the helper, but he said we wouldn't start right away but would start in the morning. He told the Captain we had travelled for 14 hrs and because there were three boats we should get some sleep and then work right through. I think the Captain was livid and told an officer to get on with one boat himself. It didn't make sense what Bill said but we then went down the pub where quite a few of the crews were having a night ashore. It seems they had whispered to Bill not to work or they would be kept on standby. To be honest they had been stuck up at Loch Striven for weeks on end and wanted a break. They talked about their families and their futures and I was more moved when, later on, the Tirpitz raid was announced and you realised they must have known they would not get back home.
We started work early next morning and worked right through till dawn the next day and had to do all three boats. I remember lying on the deck of the steam barge as dawn broke and the deck was lovely and warm. It took us so long because of the access lying full length on your tummy with pipes and brackets in your back. We could only take it in turns on one boat at a time.
The six boats were completed by January 1943 so were all completed in about 5 months. I read, after the war, an article which said that they were required mainly for a raid on Tirpitz and they had two windows - March and September. However they were not ready and fully trained by March so missed that earlier time.
I returned to larger submarine building for a little while and then, which must have been around June/July 1943, my same foreman (Ted Fleming) had to take a team (maybe six or eight men) to Port Bannantyne for modifications to all six boats X5 to X10. When we arrived all six boats were nose to tail on a floating dock and their depot ship HMS Bonaventure was anchored nearby in Rothesay Bay. We carried out many modifications which I cannot remember now but I think it was extra buoyancy forward. We were there two or three weeks and had digs ashore with some old ladies, poor dears, who tried to feed us but rations were difficult in war time. However we used to feed at lunchtime and tea time on Bonaventure. Boy, what a treat, we had white bread, baked on board, which we hadn't seen since 1940 and lashings of real butter, bacon, eggs, sausage and home cooked puddings etc. There was no rationing there and quite right too, these were the real heroes of the War.