Maritime Scotland 1: The WW2 Midget Submarines of Aberlady Bay

August 2021

In the latest episode of The Mariner’s Mirror Podcast we begin three episodes dedicated to the maritime history of Scotland. In this episode I speak with Ben Saunders, a senior marine archaeologist with Wessex Archaeology, based at their office in Edinburgh, and we talk about the hulks of two X-Craft on the shore at Aberlady Bay, East Lothian.

An innovative video has been created to accompany this podcast showing 3D photography of the wreck, overlaid with a 3D model of what the craft would have looked like.

The 3D survey is the result of an important project run by Wessex Archaeology. The Covid 19 pandemic put enormous strain on mental health and resulted in the cancellation of projects designed to support the wellbeing of isolated veterans. With funding from the National Lottery Community Fund, Wessex Archaeology ran a training and research project based around two WWII mini submarines in Aberlady Bay, East Lothian. The Aberlady X-Craft project, supported by Breaking Ground Heritage, provided hands-on survey training and produced a condition report of the wrecks; while also inspiring eight individually researched projects, five of which have been taken through to completion, and engaging over 30 veterans. The project is part of Wessex Archaeology’s longstanding work using heritage to support mental health and wellbeing.

Using 3d models of the wrecks completed through photogrammetric survey as inspiration, the project assisted the volunteers to develop their own research projects. These included the construction of scale models of an X-craft with training in artefact scanning/photogrammetry; research into the loss of HMS Glorious by a relative of one of the casualties, the use of X-Craft in the Far East, the medical conditions that affected submariners; and the assessment of the Fred Bown archive, one of the survivors from K17, a submarine lost in a training accident in 1917 (the Battle of May Island).

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Today is the start of a few special episodes on the maritime history of Scotland, which, as a man of Scottish blood, I am delighted to announce. You will also be pleased to hear that I am also a man of Welsh blood, and we are currently working on a special series of Welsh maritime history podcasts as well. I am also you guessed it a man of Irish blood, so we will certainly complete the trilogy. I will then try my best to work out how I am related to someone in Hawaii as an excuse to go there. But for now, to Scotland and its remarkable maritime history. First up, I’m delighted to introduce you all to the excellent Ben Saunders. Ben is a senior marine archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology based in their office in Edinburgh. He works on producing wreck assessments for national heritage bodies, pre-construction assessment and mitigation for offshore developments, and community-based projects investigating the enormous marine archaeological resource present across UK waters and its coastline. In short, Ben is a very, very busy and very, very important person as well as excellent company.

    I should just say something here also about Wessex Archaeology, who are something of a force to be reckoned with, and I remember fondly working for them on numerous occasions when I was a freshly qualified and deeply irresponsible undergraduate in history and archaeology: I help excavated a Neolithic site on the banks of the Thames as well as a Roman site in Hertfordshire. Wessex has been established for 40 years now and is the UK is leading provider of archaeological and heritage services above ground, below ground, and underwater, delivered by over 320 industry experts from an international network of offices. Ben got in touch with a fabulous story of history and community engagement, which I loved, and I knew I had to bring it to you.

    As a registered charity community engagement is at the heart of what Wessex Archaeology do. They are committed to promoting education in science, the arts, culture, and heritage. The knowledge gained through serving their commercial clients is used to enhance the experiences of individuals, communities, and organizations. And during lockdown, they came up with a cracker of an idea. The covid 19 pandemic put enormous strain on mental health and resulted in the cancellation of projects designed to support the wellbeing of isolated veterans. With funding from the National Lottery community fund. Wessex Archaeology ran a training and research project based around two World War Two mini-submarines in Aberlady Bay, East Lothian. The ‘Aberlady X-Craft Project’, supported by Breaking Ground Heritage, provided hands-on survey training, and produced a condition report of the wrecks, while also inspiring eight individually researched projects, five of which have been taken through to completion, and engaging over thirty veterans. The project is part of Wessex Archaeology’s long-standing work using heritage to support mental health and wellbeing. Using 3D models of the wrecks, completed through photogrammetric survey as inspiration, the project assisted the volunteers to develop their own research projects. These included: the construction of scale models of an X-Craft with training and artifacts scanning photogrammetry; research into the loss of HMS Glorious by a relative of one of the casualties; the use of X-Craft in the Far East; the medical conditions that affected submariners (I’m particularly interested in that – well done who thought of that); and the assessment of the Fred Bown archive (one of the survivors from K-17, a submarine lost in a training accident in 1917, which became known as the Battle of May Island).

    As an aside if you’re interested in the history of submarines more generally, and particularly the K-Class, do check out our dedicated episode to the history of those K-Class submarines. They were crazy, enormous, steam-powered submarines from the First World War. Not only do we have an audio episode on their troubled history, but we have also animated a super complicated ship plan from the collections of the National Maritime Museum in London to make it understandable and the result is amazing. It’s an entirely innovative way to present and understand ship plans – I’m very proud of it – and you can find it on the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast’s YouTube channel and the Society for Nautical Research’s Facebook page. And, and, and, just for this episode, we’ve also done something extremely clever with a 3D image of the remains of one of the wrecks from Aberlady Bay, and a 3D reconstruction of what an X-Craft would have looked like. And we’ve overlaid the two and created a flyover video, so you can see both the remains and the ship itself in situ on the seabed. I came up with the idea and the brilliant people at Wessex said, “no problem, Sam at all”, they made it come to life. I’m very grateful, indeed, for their creativity and efficiency. Thank you so much. Enough of all of this here is Ben, and his fabulous project.

    Ben, thanks so much for being here today. Tell me about this brilliant project.

    Ben Saunders

    So, the Aberlady X-Craft Project is predominantly about using archaeology as a vehicle to improve mental health and to pull people out of isolation and remove them from being, feeling alone and feeling particularly low. And in this case, we were doing this project with military veterans, some of whom were going through with PTSD or other conditions that meant that they were feeling particularly isolated, particularly during the COVID pandemic during the winter of 2020-2021. And it was using the 2 X-Craft wrecks, which are two miniature submarine wrecks from World War Two, that are in Aberlady Bay in East Lothian, they’re in the intertidal zone just off one of the nature reserves in the sands. And they were put there in 1946 as part of weapons trials, to investigate what happened to pressurized steel hulls when they were attacked by aircraft using different types of ammunition.

    Sam Willis

    So, the British bombed these aircraft to see what happened?

    Ben Saunders

    Yes, essentially. Specifically, I think there was a Mosquito and a Seafire. And they used 35-millimetre cannon. ammunition, and what I think was between armour piercing and high explosive, to see which one did more damage, and which one was more like to sink a submarine. So, it’s all part of the Coastal Command aspect of shifting from the aspect of the Second World War, the techniques of fighting during the Second War, and then potentially then developing into the post-war combat and post-war interactions with other military forces.

    Sam Willis

    So, there are significant remains of these crafts on the beach. I mean, they’re known locally; they’re interesting things. So, you’re actually getting people involved with sort of curiosities, curiosities around the coast.

    Ben Saunders

    Indeed. I mean, they’re quite well known within East Lothian, and people like to go and walk to them. I mean, it’s – the sands in East Lothian are, particularly in Aberlady Bay, are quite treacherous, you need to be quite careful as to where you go, but you can walk out from the local nature reserve there. And particularly if you pick a good tide where you’ve got some of the big spring tides, you’ve got a good couple of hours out by the wrecks; people cycle out to them on the big wheel bikes and that sort of stuff. And yes, they’re fairly well known within the area. And they are quite – it’s an odd sort of thing to see – you’ve got this huge expanse of flat sand, from the intertidal thing, and then there’s a big concrete block (which are actually two anti-tank invasion blocks that have been moved there as anchors), and then either side of that, one to the north-east and one to the southwest, you’ve got these two sorts of cigar-shaped green metal objects. And what sort of remains is the pressure hull, the thicker steel hull of the cigar part, the submarine essentially, with the two hatches and the periscope dome in between them, and then some of the other parts of the upper works and the thinner metal just about surviving. But you can see into the wrecks because obviously, the metalwork started to break down, it’s been exposed to the sea for the last eighty years, so it’s all starting to sort of break apart. So, it’s a good time to do this survey to sort of record them before they’re completely lost.

    Sam Willis

    Give us a sense of the size of them, because they’re really not very big.

    Ben Saunders

    No, no, they’re not. I’ll just try to find the measurements for you. They are really quite, quite tiny. And they had a crew of four, well they originally had a crew of three, and then they realised that actually, they needed to have a few more than that. But these are really quite tiny machines, they’ve got a beam of 1.7 meters, I think, and they were both 30 meters long. But then obviously with all the internal fittings and that sort of stuff, you’re looking at a lot smaller space and you can get the idea – there’s a fantastic example, the only surviving complete one is at the Submarine Museum in Gosport, X-24, and

    Sam Willis

    I’ve been in it. I barely got in it. Being a claustrophobic person, completely appalling.

    Ben Saunders

    I mean, I wouldn’t want to be in it. I’m six foot and I would struggle. I think a lot of the submariners tend to be a bit shorter anyway. But even for submarines, these were very, very small.

    Sam Willis

    And do we know a lot about how they were used in the war?

    Ben Saunders

    A fair amount, yes. So, they were mostly based out at Port Bannatyne on Bute, in the Clyde Estuary. Certainly, the examples at Aberlady are XT versions, so the training versions that were used. Six of them were built, and you have, I think, between eighteen of the full versions were built, twelve of which were the original design of the X-Craft, and six of which were converted for use in the Far East. And their first mission was against the Tirpitz in the Norwegian fjords to try and damage that, which they were partially successful of; I think it was a couple of VCs that came out of that. And one craft was completely lost, no one knows when that went or where the crew went, and the other two succeeded in dropping their payloads, which were two saddle containers of high explosives. So, rather than having torpedoes or having mines, these submarines had sort of saddle tanks of amatol, a high explosive. And they could go underneath a ship drop the side tanks, which then settle on the bottom. They did a few experiments because early on the amatol wasn’t high density enough in the tank seems to float to the surface just a little bit embarrassing for anybody involved in that. But they did some tests, the things would sink to the bottom and then they’d explode, and the pressure wave would break the ships back – or the concept was the pressure wave would break the ship’s back and it would sink. So, they successfully put down two or three of those saddle tanks, damaged the Tirpitz, which meant that she couldn’t sail for another few months, kept her in the fjord there until the Dam busters were able to go and destroy her later on.

    They were also used in the D-Day landings as signal craft, guiding in the commando raids into – onto the Normandy beaches. So, they were able to sneak in quite close to the coast because they’re such a shallow draft, and then they had a light focused back out to sea to guide in craft onto the D-Day beaches. And they were also then used in the Far East, the converted ones were, to attempt to cut a couple of submarine telegraph cables to try and force the Japanese to use radio communications because we’d broken their codes at that point. They also did a couple of other raids on shipping within the Far East as well. But I mean, not overly used. But the view was that they paid back their amount of time. I mean, they were very dangerous as well. Because they’re so cramped, they were towed to their sort of cast-off positions by bigger submarines, ST- and U-Class submarines, and they’d have a passage crew of three or four on board to look after the craft on the passage to that point, and then at that point, they’d swap over in the out and the mission crew would join. And there was a couple of cases where in the middle of towing, something went wrong, and the X-Craft sank with the passage crew on board, and they were lost. So, it was passage – being passage crew was by no means an easy job, or a non-dangerous one, just possibly slightly less dangerous than the actual mission themselves, but still pretty risky.

    Sam Willis

    I love this idea of using archaeology in the modern day to help with people’s mental health and help people get focused and have a sense of purpose. Who came up with that idea? Where did that come from?

    Ben Saunders

    Well, I mean, it’s not particularly new. I think it’s really – I mean, archaeology is a very practical thing it gives you – it uses a wide range of skills, you have to – it tends to be quite sociable. And it’s outdoors; it makes you move in a boat; you’re doing lots of things that release the natural endorphins and keep you – rebalance the brain in that way. A lot of it comes out – a lot of what we do, particularly around the military veteran’s aspect, comes out of ‘Operation Nightingale’, which is a ministry of defence program of doing archaeological work, particularly involving veterans on military bases. So, the MOD owns a large amount of land and parts of the UK and sovereign bases abroad, and they have a legal responsibility to look after and protect the archaeology on those bases. So, they employ two archaeologists through the defensive infrastructure organization and those archaeologists are there to ensure that the archaeology on the bases is looked after. But part of that is obviously making sure they understand the military – the archaeological resource on those bases and doing little bits of extra work to find out what’s there, working through evaluation trenching or other bits of work. And that means that they can – there’s a real resource there that they can use and they have – a lot of these guys, so, Richard Osgood, the DIO, and his colleagues have run Operation Nightingale for the last ten to fifteen years, bringing together people who are interested within the veteran’s groups in archaeology and also then reaching out to veterans who are not necessarily quite so connected or are isolated and feeling particularly low. And it’s been demonstrated that there is an enormous benefit to mental health. So, Richard Bennett, Breaking Ground Heritage, who is one of our co-organisations on this project, has done a lot of work, doing evaluations of mental health of volunteers before and after projects, and it has shown there was a statistical improvement in people’s mental health and self-regard and all this sort of stuff. And, not just that, you’re also getting skills but you’re getting the confidence to put those skills into practice, you’re making new friends, you’re realising that not everything you’re feeling is just you – other people feel these things, you can talk through your experiences, you can talk through what’s happened, how you feel about things with people who you think will empathise more because they’re also combat veterans, or they’re also military veterans of some kind. So, it makes it a bit easier for people to open up who wouldn’t necessarily want to open up in other circumstances.

    Sam Willis

    It’s such a lovely idea. And I’d really encourage my listeners out there: listeners, if, you know, if you’re feeling a bit peaky, I’d get out and do something, get involved with some local archaeology, there are all sorts of wonderful projects; there’s this one, and also the CITiZAN Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeology Network, that is literally designed to get people like you involved. So, do please check that out, as well. And we should say, now that I’ve been working with Ben or making a little video demonstrating what these volunteers have actually managed to do by surveying the wrecks and imposing a kind of a 3D model of the X-Craft, of what it would have been like on top of the remains. So, you can see not only the remains, what’s there, but also the full glory of these ‘death-trap coffin submarines’, I think, is probably a fair way of putting it. So, what was the actual work – how did you go about making these 3D models?

    Ben Saunders

    So, the initial project was, well, the initial part project was to go and survey these models. So, we did a photogrammetric survey, which is essentially taking lots and lots of photos from different angles all around the wrecks. So, we went out with a couple of – a few veterans and taught them about the concept of photogrammetry, how it all works, and then got them to take a load of photos around the wrecks. And that was during September last year. And the idea was, it’s a safe way to do training during COVID. It’s very, very open air, the wind was blasting through – highly ventilated, I think, would be the best way to look at it. And

    Sam Willis

    I think Scotland is highly ventilated anyway, isn’t it?

    Ben Saunders

    Quite a lot of the time, yes, there’s no shortage of air up here. And yes, we did that. Basically, the idea is you go around the model and take the – what you’re trying to do is make a model of and you take lots of photos at different angles. And then from those photos, you put them into a photogrammetry program that then looks at the individual pixels within the photos, uses an algorithm to compare those from different angles and builds up a 3d model out of those photographs. So, that’s what the initial 3D models were made. So, we did those of the two wrecks and then we put that together and discussed a condition survey of them and went through that. The idea then was that this was there as a sort of inspiration to the veterans involved in the project to come up – design and do their own little research projects. One of which was to create a scale model – to build a scale model of an X-Craft, and then to do an artefact scan of that, which we then did using an artefact scanner, and then superimpose it onto the two to sort of be able to demonstrate how much material has been lost from these over the last eight years.

    Sam Willis

    And how much is there percentage-wise, do you reckon?

    Ben Saunders

    It’s difficult. The eastern wreck is, the eastern wreck is considerably more broken up, whether that just because it’s further out in the forth, or whether that’s just because it’s had different damage to it, is a different matter. I reckon, there’s probably about thirty to forty per cent of the eastern wreck left, and maybe forty to sixty per cent of the western wreck left. Overall. They are breaking down rapidly.

    Sam Willis

    It’s a substantial amount, isn’t there? They are breaking down rapidly, but there’s still quite a lot there. And I’ve greatly enjoyed looking at hulks on kind of on beaches and on riverbanks. And you have to kind of exercise your historical imagination. It’s like doing dot to dots but there are no odd numbers or numbers with a [lost] and your pens broken!

    Ben Saunders

    Yes, exactly. Yes. And someone’s taken away half the paper.

    Sam Willis

    Yes, yes. But if you’ve got forty per cent of it, it is better than ten. You know, it does, it makes it a little easier. Well, it’s a wonderful project. What do they make the model out of? Was it a wooden model?

    Ben Saunders

    So, it’s a kit model. But they then have added – they’ve been very careful in sort of looking – we’ve sent them a load of copies of the X-Craft plans. And they’ve been looking at all the different pictures and doing a lot of research into the X-Craft themselves, to make sure that there are – there’s a few, they noted, a few historical inaccuracies in the model itself. The kit itself is it’s very well detailed, but then you can get additional bits today, then add in some metalwork and other bits and bobs that are even more detailed. The model itself is – the one they did was missing the saddle mines at the time when we did the artefact scanning, but they are going to be added on and the whole thing is going to be put into a little diorama and then donated to the local historical society for their small museum at Aberlady.

    Sam Willis

    Lovely. I love a diorama.

    Ben Saunders

    The guy who did it is very keen on dioramas. So, we think it’s a little dockyard scene for them, which would be quite nice.

    Sam Willis

    Stand by all of you listeners, I’m actually about to go and film a diorama of the Great Eastern at the National Maritime Museum with the latest kind of camera technology, there’s a thing called a probe lens, right? It’s like a magic wand with a lens at the end and a light in it, and it allows you to get incredibly close and bring it all to life. So, you know, when you look at a diorama, and you imagine – I always imagined myself shrinking down being as tiny as possible and actually being there – this kind of thing will allow us to do it using the latest modern technology. So, that’s coming soon, as well. Ben, you definitely be interested in that. So, I mean, how long are these wrecks going to be around for? That’s the sad story of it is that they are going to vanish, aren’t they?

    Ben Saunders

    Yes, it’s a good question. So, we do a lot of work looking at the long-term survivability of wrecks and how they break down – when they start to structurally break down – as part of our work for the MOD, in other aspects, and 20th-century steel wrecks generally are beginning, if they haven’t broken down already, they are certainly beginning to lose their structural integrity. And once that happens, you see an acceleration in the removal of material and the damage; they break apart, wave action and tidal action damages them, alongside the chemical reactions that are going on to break down the iron and steel. I mean realistically – there’s a survey of the western wreck done ten years ago – fifteen years ago, sorry – by a local nautical archaeology society volunteer and the amount of material that’s missing, just in that time is quite impressive. I showed her some of the 3D models and she was genuinely surprised to see how much had gone. It’s mostly the lighter weight material, the thinner metalwork, but there is a lot of the thicker steel also disappearing: parts of the tail plate, parts the hydroplanes and rudder have gone. So, I would – I mean realistically over the next forty years max, those are going to disappear, realistically. It’ll certainly be broke – in the next twenty years, I’d expect to break up more, more extensively. And that, yes, that’ll just be how it goes, I’m afraid.

    Sam Willis

    It’s alarming isn’t it. It’s really important for everyone out there to realise that, you know, if there are wrecks around the coast, or there are hulks, or there’s maritime remains, that they are not going to be there forever and there is a real burden on our generation to go, and, you know, do everything we can to record them.

    Ben Saunders

    Yes, exactly. And it’s going to be – and yes, and that’s through CITiZAN Project in England, and through Skype in Scotland, you have these options of becoming part of the community of volunteer marine archaeologists, maritime archaeologists, going and recording these wrecks before they do disappear. And that’s really important to do. There are some fantastic resources out there to get involved in it. I think CHERISH is the project in Wales. So, there are options for all three nations in Great Britain – I’m not sure about Northern Ireland, as to what’s there, but yes, it’s a really important aspect of this.

    Sam Willis

    Well, Ben, thank you so much for talking to me today. I will definitely – I am going to come up and see you guys, see what else you’re doing up in Scotland and I can’t wait.

    Ben Saunders

    Very welcome to, very welcome to. I just need to mention that this project was very kindly funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, and we’re very thankful to them and to our co-collaborators on the project, and to all the veterans involved. It’s been great.

    Sam Willis

    Absolutely, yes. And I think all the veterans involved if you’re going to listen to this, get in touch with me, I can give you something to do as well. We’ve got all sorts of volunteer opportunities. So, if you’ve had a little time for maritime history do, please get in touch with us at the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast.

    Ben, thank you so much.

    Ben Saunders

    Cheers.

    Sam Willis

    Well, that’s all for now. We have more Scottish stories to follow, including the wonderful story of shipbuilding in Leith, and that of Joannes Wyllie, a Fife man who made a fortune running guns from Glasgow to the Confederate South during the American Civil War, a little bit of Scotland’s hidden history of supporting slavery there. Do please follow us wherever you engage in social media on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube. But best of all, please join the Society for Nautical Research @snr.org.uk, it really doesn’t cost very much but it supports this podcast. You get four journals a year you can sign up to come to our annual dinner on board HMS Victory, and it supports all of the society’s worthwhile goodness that it does to publish the world’s most important maritime history and to preserving our maritime past.

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