THE ABERLADY BAY X-CRAFT MIDGET SUBMARINES
and Kilspindie herring boat remains
Click here for data sheet
Aberlady Bay , East Lothian has a number of remarkably little known historic wrecks including two midget submarines, Royal Naval X-craft. They were training versions (X-T craft) of the type that attacked the German battleship Tirpitz in Kaafjord. This operation was launched from Scotland where much of the training of midget submarine and human torpedo (Chariot) crews had been carried out. In 1993 the Chariots Trust erected a memorial at Kylesku on Loch Cairnbawn to the operators of His Majesty’s X-craft and human torpedoes.
In 1946 two X-Ts were moored on the vast expanse of sand at Aberlady as targets for aircraft gunnery practice. The distinguished war record of allied and axis miniature submarines in attacking harbours and shipping was a driver of post war maintenance of anti-submarine capability, especially covering the approaches to Royal Naval bases like Rosyth.
The Aberlady coastal fringe captivated the Scottish story teller Nigel Tranter who walked it daily. During my shore side recce I saw it at its best, under bright sun and blue sky, a fresh onshore wind covering the breaking waves with foaming white. Even the geese put in an appearance. A long wooden causeway extends from the nature reserve car park across the wide muddy expanse of the Peffer Burn, the interesting perspective of this structure conveying depth to the scene. The beauty of the area has long been recognised. It became a nature reserve more than fifty years ago. The variety of habitat, estuarine, heathland scrub, saltings, dunes, inter-tidal mud flats, sandy beach and a tiny freshwater loch concentrates interest within a small compass.
I had long wanted to visit these submarines, having been to their former bases at Ardtaraig House, Loch Striven and Port Bannatyne on Bute , seen some of their haunts in Shetland and their story in the Scalloway museum. For a first visit I needed a low tide and bright sun for photographs. Their remains are around 300m apart with a concrete block between them standing about 1.2m above the sand, all three features are charted. The approach is clear but there is a charted obstruction (dries) at the low water mark. Anchoring in 5-6m will avoid it. The Bay is best approached near low water when the block is visible and the submarines North and South of it can be identified. Little of the Northern most one survives but the more Southerly one is substantially intact. Half buried in the sand and pointing to seaward their silhouettes are small, hence the utility of the concrete block as a mark but there is little on this flat expanse to confuse them with. The frames of two wooden vessels protrude from the sand, one further North and one further South, looking like rows of fence posts. Ship Wrecks of the Forth (1) has some detail though records the submarines as X-20s.
The bay is very open to the prevailing wind and on a sunny day as the flat lands of East Lothian warm up it becomes subject to fresh onshore sea breezes. Getting quiet enough weather to anchor off and go ashore in a dinghy to explore demands some careful weather watching.
I made sense of the submarines using the annotated diagram in Above Us the Waves (2). The boats look rather unlike their photographs in books as the external free flooding casing has largely disappeared. One is looking at the cylindrical pressure hull, hatches and fittings protruding from it. The free flooding casing surrounded the hatches and gave the hulls some flat deck space. Aerial attack damage and corrosion have also removed patches of pressure hull plating, revealing the circular frames beneath and enabling one to look inside. The XTs were built in Barrow and “Damned Un-English Machines”(3) provides construction records.
The layout of X-Ts 1-6 was battery compartment for’ard, wet and dry compartment under the for’ard hatch (from which the diver could exit and return while submerged), control room and engine room. X5-10 and X20-25 were similar. This was conventional interior layout for the time, the earlier experimental X-3 and X-4 had the control room for’ard.
For’ard of the W and D hatch is the bow shaped remains of the free flooding casing. This and the stern gear, fins, rudder and stub of propeller shaft, help one to orientate oneself.
The operational X-24, famous for destroying the supply ship Barenfels in April 1944 at Bergen and the floating dock in Bergen in September the same year, has been preserved at the Royal Naval submarine museum at Gosport (4). During my visit in April 2005 X-24 was not on public display, having been moved into a new building that is not due to open until around August 2005. To find the museum it is helpful to know it is adjacent to Haslar RN Hospital because the sign posting from the M27, good in places is absent at some key intersections. To see the XTs on the sand at Aberlady and their memorial at Kylesku, by a remote Highland sea loch, conveys more of an impression of their operational environment than joining the never ending stream of traffic on the M27.
There is a wealth of X craft information on the internet of which Undersea Warfare is one of the best sites (5): www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/cno/n87/usw/issue_19/royal_navy2.htm in addition to the RN Museum’s own website: www.rnsubmus.co.uk
In the South submarine one can see the bulkheads of the wet and dry compartment. I couldn’t recognise much in the control room. The pipe sticking up behind the aft hatch was the air intake, often necessary on the surface as the hatches had such little freeboard they frequently had to remain closed. The air induction on the XTs was fixed, not fold down as on the operational submarines. In the engine room one could see the crankcase of the four cylinder Gardner diesel engine, the little ends of the connecting rods sticking out of the top. Behind this is the lump of the electric motor. At the stern the detached rudder and its actuating mechanism coming through the pressure hull could be seen. Between the two hatches is the periscope “dome”, actually more of a stubby tower.
Alone on the sand I stood quietly in awe of the crews who operated these craft as their living conditions became apparent. In such close confines, full standing headroom only under the hatches, barely room to lie down to sleep, cold hull running with condensation, four men maintained themselves and the boat as an efficient fighting unit for days on end. The best WWII submarine film of all-time, Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot”, comes closest to conveying the discomfort and terror of submarine warfare but U96 was spacious compared to an X-craft.
Tidal scour has left both boats surrounded by pools of water, in places over welly depth. This unfortunately prevents one digging to reveal more of their structure and means they are half full of water and sand.
The concrete block suggests a mooring but to seaward of the northerly submarine is a large anchor, shank and shackle pointing towards the boat. Presumably the anchor chain has been salvaged. Bob Baird records salvage having been carried out. A metal detector could help determine whether the South boat’s anchor is buried in the sand. The block was perhaps a target marker.
The cruising yachtsman entering harbours on the surface can only imagine the navigational difficulties of the X-craft in wartime blackout. The achievements of the diver, going out to cut through anti submarine netting, place explosive charges and carry out reconnaissance as they did for the D-Day landings were even more amazing. Description of X-craft operations and the part played by the divers can be found in The Frogmen by Waldron and Gleeson (6). This book has a photograph of an X-craft on the surface in which detail of the free flooding casing can be seen. This title and Above us the Waves also describe Chariots, human torpedoes crewed by frogmen wearing breathing apparatus. Like X-craft they have Scottish connections and had been used in an earlier attack on the Tirpitz, supported by the Shetland Bus (7&8).
Walking back to the car park I noticed numerous timber stumps in the sand. Some are the remains of wartime anti-landing poles, placed to deter the landing of troops by glider. Certainly at low water this firm sand would have made a good landing zone. In May 1940 a coup de main party of German glider borne troops had taken the Belgian strong point of Eben Emael on the Albert canal, a dramatic demonstration of the potential of airborne forces not lost on the UK high command. This and other German successes with airborne troops early in the war had spread fear of airborne invasion and Aberlady beach had become a forest of anti-landing poles. Higher up the shore one can also see concrete pyramids forming tank barriers.
The beach funnels towards the Peffer Burn and a wide assortment of remains of sea creatures are to be found washed up as the sand gives way to the saltings. I picked up the tests of the heart urchin known as the sea potato, Echinocardium chordatum, queen scallop shells Clamys opercularis covered with barnacles and polychaete worm tubes and magnificent specimens of the razor shell Ensis siliqua. Of these the Collins Guide (9) says up to 8 inches long, mine were 8 ¼ inches and after washing and drying prettier than oriental lacquer work. The keys in the Collins Guide will identify all these including the lodgers on the shells.
Along the South shore of the Bay the Peffer Burn wends its way over the beach. The FYCA Pilot Handbook gives a little entry information. In the mud are the much decayed frames of eight or nine fishing vessels, “Fifies” from the early nineteenth century, their stone ballast and some fittings, all listed wrecks. Locally the story goes that the Earl of Wemyss, an artist, acquired the hulks to create a nautical scene to paint. It has been suggested that they were some of Cockenzie’s herring fleet which was using the shelter of the burn in the 1920’s. I was disappointed they were not better preserved as the word ‘hulk’ used on the web suggests something more substantial but there was compensation, the area being alive with wild fowl.
Normally I would have got out my mud boards and examined these remains but was loath to disturb so many birds, including numerous shelduck busy feeding. I’ll return for a proper look in the summer when the birds are likely to be feeding elsewhere.
The duck reminded me of Nigel Tranter’s passion for wild fowling. There is a story recounted in Shipwrecks of the Forth that Tranter got locked in the southerly X-craft while using it as a hide for wildfowling and used his gun barrels to lever the hatch open. While the boat would have made a hide of sorts it smacks more of a good story; being very wet, cramped and uncomfortable. It would have been unnecessary to close the hatch to be out of sight of wild fowl, if indeed it would close. Moving a heavy hatch would have made noise, not something one wants when lying in wait for a morning or evening flight. To produce a shotgun out of this wreck quickly enough on the approach of ones quarry would not have been easy, the hatches were so small, about 2 ft in diameter. This story is a catalogue of impracticalities. Besides, being trapped and at risk of drowning as the water rises is a common formula for suspense, one is in the realms of fiction here.
The hide story appeared in Tranter’s ‘Drug on the Market’, published in 1962 (10). This yarn of drug running on the Forth is a scarce title and a sought after collectors’ first edition. It seems the submarines inspired the hide scene and real life drug smuggling on the Forth may have suggested the plot.
The beauty of this coast and its wildlife, preserved in the nature reserve and Tranter’s writing, makes it a rewarding visit. The difficulty of approaching such a frequently lee shore in a boat and the pilotage of a vanishing burn help preserve the place as the author knew it. The only boat to be seen was a clinker dinghy on the grass at the golf club. However there will be times when the reserve is busy. In warmer weather the traffic on the coast road (A198) can be imagined as Edinburgh city folk seeking a breath of fresh air try to park in the small nature reserve car park or on the roadside verges. In the height of summer a dawn walk will find the area deserted and reclaimed by the wildlife.
1. Shipwrecks of the Forth , Bob Baird, Nekton Books, 1993, ISBN 897995 00 8.
2. Above us the Waves, C.E.T. Warren and James Benson, George Harrap and Co. Ltd., 1953 with a forward by Admiral Sir George Creasy.
3. Damned Un-English Machines, A history of the Barrow built submarines, Jack Hool & Keith Nutter, Tempus, 2003.
4. Royal Naval Submarine Museum , Haslar Jetty Road . Gosport , Hants , PO12 2AS . www.rnsubmus.co.uk
5. Undersea warfare website: http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/cno/n87/usw/issue_19/royal_navy2.htm
6. The Frogmen, T.J. Waldron and James Gleeson, Evans Bros Ltd, 1950 and by Pan Books 1954, New Edition 1965.
7. The Shetland Bus, David Howarth, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1951 and other imp res sions.
8. None but the Brave, Frithjof Saelen, Souvenir P res s, 1955, The Elmfield P res s, 1974, ISBN 0 7057 0053 4.
9. Collins Pocket Guide to the Sea Shore , John H Barrett and CM Yonge, 1958,
ISBN 0 0 219321 3
10. Drug on the Market, Nigel Tranter, Hodder and Stoughton , 1962.
11. Film – UK History Channel.
South Sub Port Side
South Sub Port Quarter
South Sub Bow to Stern
South Sub - Sbd Side looking Aft
South Sub Stern Gear