Lt-Cdr Ian Fraser VC: Submarine commander who sank the Japanese cruiser 'Takao'
Thursday 04 September 2008
Although the war in Europe was over in May 1945 the Japanese were still fighting tenaciously, defending the Malay Peninsula and Singapore. Lt Ian Fraser, commanding the midget submarine XE3, was ordered to attack the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao anchored in the Straits of Singapore. On 31 July, after a highly dangerous voyage through minefields, with great skill and courage he got his craft beneath the cruiser. Under enormous pressure, his diver James Magennis succeeded in attaching six limpet mines which detonated and sank the Takao. Both men were awarded the Victoria Cross.
Ian Fraser was born in Ealing, London in 1920 and attended Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, where his family lived. He continued his education at the school ship HMS Conway and began his naval career in the Merchant Navy. At the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy and saw action on destroyers. He volunteered for submarine service in June 1943 and was appointed First Lieutenant of the H Class submarine HMS Sahib. Later that year he was awarded a DSC for "bravery and skill in successful submarine patrols".
He then noticed a signal from the Admiralty asking for volunteers for "special and hazardous service". Since he had recently married, he thought that the Navy would not send him on anything particularly dangerous. However, he soon found himself in command of XE3, an X-craft midget submarine. These submarines were 57ft long with a range of a thousand miles and could stay at sea for three weeks. They were equipped with two detachable tanks which held two tons of high explosives as well as six 200lb limpet mines. The X-craft was manned by four men.
After training, Fraser was sent up to Eddrachillis Bay in the north-west of Scotland where he joined the depot ship HMS Bonaventure, a former Clan liner that was equipped with very heavy derricks capable of lifting up to 27 tonnes out of the water. For six months Fraser and the other six X-crafts exercised throughout the Western Isles until Christmas 1944, when the Bonaventure and the X-craft crews were sent to the Far East.
The journey took some while and included a month in a rest camp in Hawaii before arriving in Australia. On VE Day Fraser was in Brisbane celebrating. But the war in the Far East was far from over.
He was sent out on the Great Barrier Reef to practise cutting cables. There they waited for a diver to instruct them until Fraser said he would have a go at the cutting. But David Carey, who had volunteered with Fraser in 1943, decided he would tackle the task instead. However, he failed to surface, having been poisoned by pure oxygen as he had gone below the prescribed depth. Carey's death was a great sadness for Fraser.
Fraser's X-craft was then ordered to attack the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao at her moorings in the Johore Strait in Singapore. The Takao had its guns pointing up the Malay Peninsula where the British Army was advancing.
XE3 was towed 600 miles by a submarine to the entrance of the strait. An old British anti-submarine boom lay across the entrance but to Fraser's amazement the gate was open. This left them 11 miles from their target. Fraser decided to leave the believed safe channel and enter the mined waters to avoid suspected hydrophone posts. Somewhat miraculously, they manoeuvred their way through, with Fraser, at times, sitting astride the midget sub, scanning ahead with binoculars.
About 400 yards from the target, Fraser raised the periscope and to his horror saw a Japanese liberty boat with about 40 soldiers on board only 10 feet away. He was to recall: "They were so close I could see their lips moving. We went deep immediately, but I will never know why they did not stop us."
The X-craft scraped along the seabed but suddenly there was a large bang as they crashed into the side of the Takao which was almost aground fore and aft. However, at midships Fraser spotted a 15ft depression in which he squeezed XE3, but there they became stuck. It took 10 terrifying minutes straining at full power forward and back to free themselves.
Fraser withdrew a thousand yards and decided to make a second attack, this time under the Takao's keel. When he looked through his periscope he saw the hull was only a foot above his head and covered in thick weed and barnacles, which would make placing the limpet mines very difficult.
The X-craft diver, Acting Leading Seaman James Magennis, slipped out of the wet and dry chamber and for the next 30 minutes, with the knowledge that his breathing apparatus was leaking, chipped away at the thick layer of barnacles. Fraser and the other two men aboard waited anxiously watching him through the night periscope. After Magennis succeeded in placing the six mines, Fraser began to withdraw only to find that one of the limpet carriers which had been jettisoned would not release itself.
Magennis courageously volunteered to go out again and for a nerve-wracking seven minutes, as the Takao seemed to get closer to crushing them, he worked away with a heavy spanner.
As soon as the exhausted Magennis returned Fraser tried to get out from underneath the target: "For half an hour we went full speed astern and full ahead, with no success," he recalled later. "I made a mental plan to abandon ship before the charges went off. But just as I was despairing, we felt a movement, and XE3 climbed out from under the ship. We were all exhausted. After that if was 'Home James and don't spare the horses'."
Aerial photos showed that XE3 had been successful and that Takao had sunk. Six days later the Americans dropped a bomb on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki on 9 August. The Second World War was over.
Fraser and Magennis went together to collect their Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace. Part of Fraser's citation for his VC reads: "The courage and determination of Lieutenant Ian Fraser are beyond all praise."
After the war, Fraser and some friends acquired war surplus frogmen's kit and set up a public show displaying frogmen's techniques in a large aquarium tank in Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester. Using the show's takings, with his younger brother Brian, he set up the commercial diving organisation Universal Divers Ltd, of which he was managing director from 1947 to 1965 and later chairman.
In 1957 he published an excellent autobiography, Frogman VC. The same year he was appointed Justice of the Peace for Wallasey, Merseyside.
Ian Edward Fraser, wartime submariner: born London 18 December 1920; DSC 1943; VC 1945; managing director, Universal Divers 1947-65, 1983-2008, chairman 1947-2008; RD and bar 1948; Lt-Cdr, Royal Navy 1951-65; joint managing director, North Sea Diving Services 1965-76; married 1943 Melba Hughes (four sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Wirral, Merseyside 1 September 2008.
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