Chariot-class Midget Submarine
|Builder Name||Stothert & Pitt, Bath, Somerset, England, United Kingdom|
|Machinery||Battery powered electric motor|
|Armament||Detachable warhead containing 600 pounds of Torpex|
|Maximum Endurance||7-8 hours|
|Maximum Diving Depth||27m|
Contributor: Alan Chanter
This article refers to the entire Chariot-class; it is not about an individual vessel.
ww2dbaseThe Italians were the first to use midget submarines to great effect in World War Two. In Sep 1941, six members of the Italian Navy's elite assault team known as the "Sea Devils" sailed their 20-foot long torpedoes called the Maiale or "Pig" into the British naval base at Gibraltar where they sank British cargo ships. The Italian frogmen rode in on the back of their torpedo guiding it towards their chosen target with only their heads showing above the water. When close they submerged and detached the warhead which containing some 500 pounds of explosive and clamped it just beneath the ship's keel. They then set a time fuse and made their escape. The success of this first mission encouraged the "Sea Devils" to look for a more prestigious target. They found it in the heavily defended British naval base at Alexandria in Egypt.
ww2dbaseOn the night of 18-19 Dec 1941 Commander Luigi Durand de la Penne led three Maiale torpedo teams undetected into the harbour behind some Royal Navy destroyers that were entering the base. De la Penne and Chief Diver Emilio Bianchi cut their way through the anti-torpedo net which was protecting the Royal Navy battleship HMS Valiant but, close to their target, their Maiale became stuck in cables and mud. Having set the time fuse the two divers swam off to a buoy. Meanwhile, the other two teams had also reached their targets – the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth and the tanker Sagona. Undetected they too attached warheads beneath these vessels. At dawn, the harbour was shocked by three massive explosions which disabled all three ships together with the destroyer HMS Jervis which was moored nearby. The six Italians frogmen were quickly captured, but their audaciousness had clearly shown the British the threat now posed by these manned torpedoes.
ww2dbaseBritain's wartime leader Winston Churchill was furious at the success of the Alexandria raid and demanded that the Royal Navy establish a similar manned torpedo force to attack Axis shipping in their own harbours. Commander (Retired) William "Tiny" Fell RN, the commanding officer of the submarine depot ship HMS Titania was appointed to set up a training base in western Scotland, United Kingdom to work on the development of "Chariot" human torpedoes which were based on an Italian Maiale which had been captured at Gibraltar. Meanwhile, in Mar 1942, the training of specialist divers commenced in Portsmouth, England, United Kingdom.
ww2dbaseThe Royal Navy's frogmen were equipped with the same primitive British-made breathing equipment as had been used by the Italians. The air being recycled within the equipment so as not to leave a trail of bubbles. The breathing bag contained a cylinder of pure oxygen (although the dangers of breathing this were not fully appreciated at the time). The British Chariot Mark I was 22 feet 4 inches long, 2 feet 11 inches wide, 3 feet 11 inches high and weighed 1.6 tonnes. The battery powered motor had three settings: slow, medium and full which permitted a top speed of about 3.5 knots. The Chariot manned torpedo had a maximum diving depth of 27 metres and an endurance of about seven or eight hours. The detachable warhead containing 600 pounds of Torpex, an explosive mix developed for torpedoes which was 50% more powerful than TNT by mass. Some 34 Chariot Mark I torpedoes were manufactured from 1942 followed, in 1944, by thirty larger semi-enclosed Mark II examples which had a warhead containing 1,200 pounds of explosives.
ww2dbaseAfter months of training in underwater sabotage and exercises (during which one frogman died) the British Chariot teams were finally ready for their first mission. It would be worthy of their elite status. An attack on the mighty German battleship - the dreaded Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck, and the largest German warship in northern waters. Her presence seriously threatened Britain's Arctic convoys shipping supplies to the Russians. It was imperative that she be eliminated. Securely moored in a fjord in Norway and surrounded by torpedo nets and guard boats – the Tirpitz was going to be a tough nut to crack.
ww2dbaseThe plan (Operation Title) was to sail up the Trondheimsfjord where the Tirpitz was located and then launch the Chariots near the target. On 26 Oct 1942 the Norwegian trawler Arthur, with two Chariots secreted beneath, entered the fjord. The trawler was commanded by Lieutenant Leif Larsen, a Norwegian in the British Special Operations Executive with the Chariot teams (J. Brewster, M. Causer, W. Tebb and R. Evans) pretending to be Norwegian fishermen. Unfortunately a storm struck as they sailed along the Fjord and both Chariots were torn off the hull when just 10 miles short of the German battleship. Larsen regretfully was forced to abandon the mission. Despite its failure Larsen would be awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, the first non-Briton to do so, for his courageous attempt to disable the Tirpitz at its berth. The crew of the Tirpitz never knew how close they had come to destruction.
ww2dbaseChariots were sent to the Mediterranean Sea, and a more successful operation was carried out against the Italians. On 3 Jan 1943, two submarines launched Chariot torpedoes at Italian shipping in the Sicilian port of Palermo. While other teams attacked vessels in the harbour, including a liner being used as a troopship, Lieutenant Dickie Greenland RNVR, and Leading Signalman Alex Ferrier broke through the defensive torpedo nets surrounding the light cruiser Ulpio Traiano and attached their warhead beneath her keel. Realising that they could not now return to their parent submarine they decided to scuttle the Chariots and attempt to escape from Palermo overland. They were soon apprehended, but had the satisfaction of hearing the detonation of their explosive charges inflicting seriously damage to Axis vessels in the harbour.
ww2dbaseOn 18 Jan 1943 the submarine Thunderbolt (Pennant No. N25) left Malta bound for Tripoli carrying two Chariot manned torpedoes. The crews of Sub Lieutenant G. Larkin RNVR, Petty Officer Cook C. Berey, Sub Lieutenant H. Stevens RNVR and Chief Engine Room Artificer E. Buxton headed into the harbour but found it empty of ships. The two Chariot teams were now stuck far behind enemy lines. Larkin and Berey miraculously evaded capture to find the advancing 8th Army. Stevens and Buxton were captured.
ww2dbaseChariots were not only used for attacks on enemy vessels. In May and Jun 1943 they were used to reconnoitre potential landing beaches for the Allied invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky). These were carried out partly by Chariots launched from the submarines HMS Unseen (P51) and HMS Unrivalled (P45).
ww2dbaseOn the night of 21-22 Jun 1944 a joint British and Italian operation was mounted to prevent the occupying Germans from sinking the Italian cruisers Bolzano and Gorizia as block-ships in La Spezia, northern Italy. Two Chariots were launched from a motor torpedo boat but unfortunately one had to be abandoned when it began to leak and could not be controlled. The other (crewed by Sub Lieutenant Malcolm Causer RN and Able Seamen Harry Smith RN) reached the Bolzano and successfully sank the cruiser at her berth.
ww2dbaseFinally, on the night of 28–29 Oct 1944, two teams, commanded by Lieutenant Tony Eldridge RNVR, were launched on the new Mk II Chariots from the submarine HMS Trenchant (Lieutenant Commander Arthur "Baldy" Hezlet RN). Undetected they entered the harbour of Japanese-occupied Pluket, Thailand, and sank two Japanese ships found there.
Peter Marriot: Midget Submarines at War (Military Illustrated, Sept 2007)
John Winton: The War at Sea (Book Club Associates, 1974)
The Underwater Heritage Trust (underwaterheritagetrust.org.uk)
Last Major Revision: Sep 2019
Chariot-class Midget Submarine Interactive Map
Chariot-class Midget Submarine Operational Timeline
|26 Oct 1942||Norwegian trawler Arthur, commanded by Norwegian Lieutenant Leif Larsen working for the British Special Operations Executive, entered Trondheimsfjord, Norway with two Chariot manned torpedoes secreted beneath the vessel. The Chariots were torn off the hull when just 10 miles short of their target, German battleship Tirpitz, and the mission had to be abandoned.|
|3 Jan 1943||Lieutenant R. T. G. Greenland RNVR and Leading Signalman A. Ferrier penetrated Palermo harbour in Sicily, Italy on a Chariot human torpedo and sink the Italian light cruiser Ulpio Traiano.|
|18 Jan 1943||British submarine Thunderbolt departed Malta for Tripoli, Libya with two Chariot manned torpedoes. The two Chariot teams discovered the harbor to be empty of ships and became stuck far behind enemy lines. One team became captured and the other escaped and eventually would find the advancing British 8th Army.|
|29 Oct 1944||British Lieutenant Tony Eldridge led two Mk II Chariot manned torpedoes into the harbor of Pluket, Thailand and sank two ships.|
|19 Apr 1945||Italian frogmen piloting British-built Chariot manned-torpedoes sank the uncompleted aircraft carrier Aquila to prevent the Germans from scuttling the ship to block the entrance to Genoa harbour, Italy.|
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Winston Churchill, 1935