Absolutely stunning 8x10 inch photograph signed by Commander John Lorimer DSO.
Sitting at the home he shares with his wife, Judy, Commander John Lorimer, DSO, sucks amusedly on his pipe – an erect, alert, irreverent 86-year-old not at all resembling a man who's going to keel over soon. "Everyone thinks one was frightfully brave, but it's all bull----!" says Lorimer. "One was merely doing one's duty." His modesty is belied by the awards showered on the survivors: a VC for each of the commanding officers, Donald Cameron and Godfrey Place, three DSOs and a CGM. "Good show! Good show!" said George VI as he pinned them on at Buckingham Palace.
The official report said the attack "will surely go down in history as one of the most courageous acts of all time". For young John, it all began in 1941 when, as a reserve seaman – "young, 19, and stupid" – he volunteered for "special and hazardous duty" and found himself on an arduous training programme. Besides learning how to operate the four-man midget subs – the X-Craft – he also had to train to walk great distances (in case, after the operation in Norway, he had to make the 600-mile trek to Sweden) and how to dive.
"There was an awful lot we didn't know, such as the dangers of diving to 100ft with pure oxygen, which kills you in half a minute. This all had to be discovered by experimentation and there were casualties. But that's war," he says. One in four of his fellow volunteers were killed. One of his best mates, Paddy Kearon, died with his crew when a tow-rope broke and his sub plunged irretrievably into the depths. He also lost three first cousins. "But cast yourself back to the age of 21. You're in a war where everyone's united. You drink like 'Tomorrow we die', yet you feel immortal. One lost a lot of chums, but otherwise one enjoyed one's war.
I find this country so much more depressing today. We're no longer united, and all anyone cares about is money." The operation finally began on September 11, 1943, when six large submarines, each with an X-Craft in tow, pulled out of Loch Cairnbawn on the west coast of Scotland and headed for their destination 1,200 miles away, in the fjords of northern Norway. Their main target was the Tirpitz, sister ship of the Bismarck.
Because of its size, speed and power, the 43,000-ton vessel posed a huge threat to Britain's Arctic convoys, and Churchill had made its destruction his top priority. On September 21, having penetrated deep into Norway's Kaafjord in the Arctic Circle, Lorimer first caught sight of the Tirpitz. "It was surreal," he says. It was "lit up like a Christmas tree", behind its cordon of torpedo and submarine nets. "My first thought was that she was so pretty, it seemed an awful shame to have to blow her up." Each X-Craft had aboard a specialist diver trained to use boltcutters on the thick steel underwater netting.
Lorimer's commander in X6, Lieutenant Donald Cameron, had a better idea, though. Through his leaking periscope, he spotted a trawler carrying German sailors back from shore leave, passing through a gate in the net. Impetuously, he followed in the boat's wake just ten feet behind. "We could see the sailors' faces quite clearly, but they were too p---ed to notice us." Astonishingly, they pulled off the same trick twice by following a small boat through the thicker torpedo netting. "Then disaster struck," says Lorimer. "We hit an uncharted rock. Our periscope caught fire. The boat broke surface at 45 degrees." Somehow, Cameron managed to dive again, but the sub was now blind, filled with noxious fumes and all but uncontrollable.
"So Cameron quite rightly said: 'Right. We'll just have to ram the bloody Tirpitz.'?" This is what X6 did, dropping each of its two-ton Amatol explosive charges under the Tirpitz's keel, before surfacing amid a hail of bullets and grenades. They were captured and herded aboard the ship.
"Skipper, shall we salute the German flag?" joked Lorimer. "Why, of course!" said Cameron – and much to the Germans' displeasure, they did. Now Lorimer and his comrades found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being on a ship about to be blown to kingdom come by eight tons of high explosive. (X7 had also managed to deliver its package, but not X5, which had been blown out of the water.) They kept quiet about this at first, until the Germans started sending divers to investigate. "We were very British about it. We said: 'Don't send those poor buggers down because in an hour they'll be mashed potato.' In the Navy, you see, it's the ship that's your enemy, not the men."
When the explosives did go off, Lorimer was below decks being interrogated. The boat was lifted seven feet in the air, but only one sailor died. "The Germans were very hostile, and I wouldn't blame them. They lined us up on deck as if to shoot us, and I remember thinking, 'I wouldn't give a sixpence for my life right now', but mainly being bloody furious that the ship was still floating." In fact, the German admiral insisted the prisoners were treated well – and the Tirpitz was so badly damaged that, from then until its destruction by the RAF in 1944, it would never again see useful service.
The raid was re-created in the 1955 film Above Us the Waves. In late 1945, Lorimer's beloved fiancée Judy, a Wren, was sent to collect some vital documents from a flying boat. Crammed into the back of the aircraft she was most surprised to find John, safely returned after 18 months in a German PoW camp. For the first six months, she hadn't even known if he were alive or dead. Asked how she felt, she says: "Oh, it was the same old John. Dull as ever."
WW2 Tirpitz X-Craft attack veteran John Lorimer DSO signed photo
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