By James Brewer
Rear-Admiral Godfrey Place was the only Royal Navy officer to go to war below, above and on the waves. The most famous exploit of this outstanding naval officer was his command of the X7 midget submarine in its attack on the mighty German battleship Tirpitzin September 1943. For this, he and the commanding officer of the X6, Donald Cameron, were awarded the Victoria Cross.
His story, based on much new material, is told in Midget Submarine Commander: the Life of Godfrey Place VC by military historian Paul Watkins.
The author points out that Place served as a Fleet Air Arm pilot in the Korean War, “and in fact throughout his naval career there were few conflict areas where he did not serve.”
It is the daring attack on the pride of the German fleet, the battleship Tirpitz that will command greatest attention in the 244 page book. This mighty warship had seemed impregnable, stoutly protected and surviving numerous attacks by enemy aircraft and subs in her positions off the Norwegian coast. The heavily-armed behemoth was a constant menace to British merchant and naval vessels in the North Sea, although in practice was less potent than planned.
The second and last battleship of the Bismarck class, the Tirpitz had been named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German Imperial Navy. The ship was laid down at the Kriegsmarinewerft Wilhelmshaven in November 1936 and launched on April 1 1939 by the daughter of Admiral Tirpitz. After sea trials in the Baltic, Germany’s largest warship (52, 600 tonnes fully loaded) was in early 1942 posted to Trondheim to guard against a feared Allied invasion, and to attack Arctic convoys, a deployment which kept much of the Allied fleet tied up.
Even while en route to Trondheim, the ship was unsuccessfully attacked by torpedo biplanes from the aircraft carrier HMSVictorious and the following month Halifax and Lancaster bombers failed to deliver real blows. In early July 1942, the Tirpitzscattered the PQ-17 convoy of 36 merchant ships.
A Soviet submarine attack later failed, and it was left to the X6 and X7, the only two out of six midget submarines that managed unscathed in September 1943 to get near the fortified mooring of the Tirpitz at Kåfjord, to inflict real damage. For the first time, theTirpitz was out of action, and for six months at that. Even bombing from aircraft from six carriers in April 1944 could not lay low the huge ship, but it was finally sunk near Tromsø on November 12 1944 with 971 of the complement killed.
Lieutenant Godfrey Place was only 22 on this mission with submarine X7 – one of a series weighing only 35 tons which was towed from northwest Scotland more than 1, 000 miles, negotiating minefields and anti-submarine nets for 10 days to get through protective netting to place high explosives under the hull of the Tirpitz.
Under heavy fire, he and Cameron were forced to surrender, and repatriated to England only at the end of the war.
Place had been stationed in Malta with the 10th Submarine Flotilla from summer 1941 until April 1942, and served in four submarines, including thePolish ORP Sokol, and HMS Unbeaten. He was awarded the DSC for his role in the sinking of an Italian submarine.
He continued to serve in the Royal Navy for 25 years, flying with 801st squadron in the Korean War, and serving on aircraft carriers at Suez, Nigeria and the withdrawal from Aden. On his retirement in 1970, he had the distinction of being the last serving naval officer to hold the Victoria Cross. He was then for a period personnel director of Cunard Cargo Shipping. He died in December 1994.
Using many first-hand accounts, the book details the adventurous life of Place, from a childhood spent partly in East Africa to war service – he volunteered specifically to go on dangerous assignments – to being chairman of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association for 23 years. It draws on previously unpublished material, including Place’s own recollections of the attack on the Tirpitzand his time as a prisoner of war.
Author Paul Watkins says that he had extensive access to previously unpublished material, including Place’s recollections of theTirpitz attack, which has made the retelling all the more vivid.
Mr Watkins is a veterinary surgeon with a lifelong interest in military history, especially naval history and the Victoria Cross. Having spent a career in research (including time spent with the Royal Navy) he has written and contributed to numerous books and scientific publications.
Midget Submarine Commander: The Life of Godfrey Place VC, by Paul Watkins. ISBN: 9781848848009. Published by Pen & Sword Military. £19.99 hardback and £4.99 as e-book. www.pen-and-sword.co.uk Also available from Amazon.