One of the elements that attracted me to the University of Portsmouth BA (Hons) History course was the department’s links with local museums, galleries and other heritage ventures. The course also has a strong emphasis on social and cultural history. The University is ideally placed on the doorstep of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Two months into my first year I was offered a voluntary research assistant post for a new project in the Dockyard based in one very large building: Boathouse 4.
Housing an exciting hands-on exhibition of small naval craft, Boathouse 4 will be centred on delivering practical, intensive courses in traditional boatbuilding and related skills. With around twenty-five small craft to exhibit, it is the task of the volunteer researchers to source as much background information as possible. Ideally, this should be primary sources and include the testament of the people who built and served in them. Some craft came with specific demands for proof and evidence. For my part, I was allocated midget submarine, known as X-Craft, to research.
The well-documented part played in the Second World War by the X-Craft relates to the sinking of the Tirpitz. Behind this, lies many years of research and development. The Boathouse 4 research team wanted to prove that one X-Craft, X4, was built in Boathouse 4. Plenty of anecdotal evidence exists, but tracing primary sources has proved more elusive. The search centred on previously ‘restricted’ documents at The National Archives, local archives, specialist libraries – to name but a few. The team have collected a vast array of information with one of the best testimonies coming from the Royal Archives in Windsor.
King George IV’s personal diary for Wednesday 30 September 1942 notes
“In the Dockyard I saw a 3 man submarine in sections. One is already in comms [commission] and has a range of 1,000 miles. One and two man S/Ms are also being constructed.”
This entry could have easily been overlooked as it does not specifically mention X4. Knowing the movements of the other X-Craft at the time means we can be certain that King George actually saw X4 being built. However, although this places X4 in the Dockyard it does not prove it was in Boathouse 4. We needed to explore other avenues.
The original prototype X3, (X1 and X2 numbers previously allocated to other projects), was conceived and built by a retired Royal Navy submarine commander: Cromwell Hanford Varley DSC. He built the first one at his marine works on the River Hamble. Research has led us to making contact with his grandchildren who are currently searching for any evidence, in the way of diaries, personal papers, which could help. Further to this, using my interest in family history, I am currently tracing the relatives of one of the men who operated X-Craft.
Vernon ‘Ginger’ Coles passed away recently and was the Engine-Room Artificer (ERA) on X9. Coles is quoted as saying,
“We went into a building and saw our first midget submarine. X3 was the first X-Craft but she was already in use for training in Loch Striven, Strathclyde; the one we saw was X4 and she was lying all opened up, her total length when finished was 51 feet. They used to build them in three sections. The bow was built in Hull, the control room in Portsmouth and the tail in Devonport. We had a good look at her before she was bolted together. It was a little frightening.”
With still no mention of Boathouse 4, we are currently trying to contact the Coles family to see if any primary source correlation exists. Meanwhile there are always more archives to search.
The problem with all this searching is the amount of very interesting reading. As we are all so immersed in our subject, it is easy to get distracted. While reading files in The National Archive about trails of another midget submarine, the Wellman, I got engrossed in the correspondence between various departments. At one time this involved Winston Churchill being invited to the testing area at a reservoir in Staines as being only “45 minutes motoring form Downing Street, almost on way to Chequers”. The commanding officer was dismayed after one visit due to the number of spectators watching a secret project, noting that “and one of them was a woman!” Oh dear, the rest were German spies but the audacity of a woman?!
The research continues…………
*Article produced with kind permission from the project organisers at Boathouse 4.