Royal Navy's last 'human torpedoes' tracked down

Jan McGirk
Wednesday 10 May 2006 00:05 BST

"Tiny" and "Slasher", the last two "human torpedoes" used by British Royal Navy commandos in combat, may have been found in the southern Andaman Sea east of Phuket, some 60 years after they were abandoned and sank.

Chris Parton, a marine salvage expert, told The Independent that he and his former business partner, Adam Douglas, tracked down the Second World War-era miniature vessels to the seabed near Dok Mai island, a haunt of leopard sharks and moray eels.

After the Boxing Day tsunami pounded the reefs in 2004, the rare sneak- attack weapons came to rest at a depth of nearly 40 metres. A strong current makes recovery difficult, but Mr Parton, 58, said they could be retrieved within three months if government permits come through.

A surprise attack using human torpedoes was launched from the British submarine HMS Trenchant on 28 October 1944, just after midnight. War records recount how four British commandos, sitting back-to-back astride the two top-secret MK II Terry Chariot torpedoes, were sent to sabotage two Italian cargo ships anchored off Japanese-occupied Phuket. The frogmen were meant to plant explosive charges on the ships' hulls, set the timers, and ride their battery-powered torpedoes, minus the warheads, back to the command submarine.

One team was detained an extra20 minutes because they could not dive beneath the bigger ship, and had to sneak into its engine room to plant their time-bomb. The cargo ships Volpi and Sumatra blew up just after the commandos made it back to the submarine.

But when a monitor picked up the sound of propellers, the four frogmen, William S. Smith, Albert Brown, Anthony Eldridge and Sid Woolcott, were ordered to jettison before the Chariots could be stowed. A Japanese warship was reported lurking nearby, so the Trenchant dived and sped back to base at Trincomalee. The pair of Terry Chariots sank in the jade-green waters off Thailand.

Mr Parton reckons it was "an intelligence fiasco", and that the likely source of the propellers heard on the submarine's sonar was the returning Chariots.

Three of the retired commandos later came back to Phuket to revisit the site where they had earned Distinguished Service Medals.

Mr Brown described the operation in graphic detail to a member of the Submariners' Association, Dave Barlow, before his death.

"I took the charge with me and lashed it to one of the deck fittings and took the pin out of the time-setting clock. I had about 45 minutes on the clock when the lashing parted and my hand was cut. I had to grab the charge again and struggle with it across the deck. The fuse-clock was ticking away and I knew my time was running out as I negotiated a series of steps down into an engine-room and placed the charge where it could not move.

"Then I had to take a chance and put another four hours on the clock; that's when my life was in my hands. But I was too preoccupied with several personal discomforts: my suit was full of water and one of my hands were bleeding badly ... a further fall had torn open my head piece and gashed the top of my skull. I could feel my hair sticky with blood. However, as I made my way up the engine-room ladder and across the deck to where I thought Smith would be waiting, I was able to reflect on the big bang I had left just below me.

"By the time I rejoined Smith I had to been aboard for some 20 minutes - long minutes they had been too. I let Smith feel the split pin that meant the charge had been set, we shook hands and were away."

It was Mr Parton's business partner Adam Douglas, whose father had piloted a miniature submarine during the war, who recognised the silhouettes of these rare weapons on the sea bed. Only six were ever made. As historic curios, the rusty Chariots have generated considerable international excitement. Thai maritime law is explicit, however: any antique found in Thai waters belongs to the nation.

Complicating the case is confusion over whether these MK II Chariots are vessels or spent weapons. Thai officials are waiting for advice from the British Admiralty.

There may be more war souvenirs on the seabed around Dok Mai. Each of the four frogmen was issued 20 gold sovereigns, silk maps of Siam and Malaya, a telescope and heliograph, watch and compass, a revolver, a commando dagger, plus a cyanide capsule.

Mr Parton said he would hate to see the memorabilia auctioned on eBay.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in