Rear-Admiral Godfrey Place VC : OBITUARIES

Godfrey Place won the Victoria Cross in 1943 when, as a 22-year-old lieutenant, he captained the midget submarine X7 during a daring attack on the battleship Tirpitz, the most important unit of the German fleet. X7 and X6 successfully exploded fou r charges underneath Tirpitz 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 11 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 20 September and entered Kaafjord on 22 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.

Tirpitz 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 Tirpitz'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 Tirpitz 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 Tirpitz 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 exactidea 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 Tirpitz 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 Tirpitz 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 Tirpitz 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 prion camp, where they spentthe rest of the war.

Cameron and Place were awarded the VC in February 1944 and received their medals from the King on 22 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."

Basil Charles Godfrey Place was born in 1921, the son of Godfrey Place, a barrister in the colonial service who, as a major in the East Surreys, had won the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross for gallantry during the First World War. He joined the Navy at 14 and spent the first year of the war as a midshipman in the cruiser Newcastle before volunteering for submarines. Place was appointed liaison officer in the Polish subarine Sokol, where he won the Polish Cross of Valour, and then served in the submarines Urge, Una and Unbeaten. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in the sinking of the Italian submarine Guglielmotti by Unbeaten off Sicily in March 1942.

Place put his name down for "special and hazardous duties" and was one of the early volunteers for midget submarines in November 1942, commanding the experimental X4 before joining X7. He was married to a second officer in the WRNS just six weeks before the Tirpitz raid. The best man was Lt Henty-Creer who was to command the ill-fated X5 - and was awarded a mere posthumous mention in despatches for his part in the operation. Naval intelligence took the view that X5 probably failed to complete her attackby laying her two charges but Place always maintained that the evidence was "inconclusive".

After the war, Place resumed his naval career but never held another submarine appointment. In 1950, he took the highly unusual step for a submariner of transferring 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 in 801 Squadron from the deck of the carrier Glory.

Thereafter, Place's appointments alternated between general surface ships and Fleet Air Arm staff jobs. He commanded the destroyers Tumult and Corunna, the new entry training establishment Ganges, the air carrier Albion and the frigate Rothesay before promotion to rear-admiral in 1968. His final appointment on the active list was as Admiral Commanding Reserves as 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 1950s, Place, then a comm a nder, and afellow 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.

Toby Harnden

Basil Charles Godfrey Place, naval officer: born Little Malvern, Worcestershire 19 July 1921; DSC 1943; VC 1944; CB 1970; CVO 1991; married 1943 Althea Tickler (one son, two daughters); died London 27 December 1994.

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