Monday, 8 July 2013

"Midget Submarine Commander", Paul Watkins

In Watkins’ preface to this biography of Godfrey Place it is revealed that it is a book written in surprise that there hadn’t previously been an account of such an accomplished naval officer. When one reads of Place’s enormously successful, varied, and colourful career, this is a surprise, and a pleasure that this wrong has now been righted.

The central thrust of “Midget Submarine Commander” looks at Place’s involvement with Operation ‘Source’, the attack on the German battleship Tirpitz in Alta Fjord. This focus reflects Churchill’s own fixation with Tirpitz, but a lot of what is contained here raises questions about whether this was warranted. Watkins highlights many of the reasons behind Churchill’s fixation with it, and yet also flags up how it was, to a large extent, something of a paper tiger. Churchill felt that the resources tied up by Tirpitz impacted the “entire naval situation throughout the world”, and that if she could be eliminated it would allow a significant rebalancing in the Pacific. That said, the coverage of Tirpitz through Watkins’ narrative illustrates how limited her activity was, with prolonged periods of her undergoing planned maintenance while the astonishingly long preparations for the X craft operations we carried out. Herein a key point is made about the nature of a fleet in being – a significant warship does not need to be particularly active to cast a very long shadow.

Place may have won his Victoria Cross for his operations against the Tirpitz, but in many ways this, and the title of the book, masks the wider achievements of his career. Indeed Place himself downplayed the significance of this episode in his career, seeing it as “a grossly over-publicized attack in a small submarine on the Tirpitz in 1943” (p.116). It is in this wider career that Watkins’ book is at its strongest, producing rich anecdote and delivering valuable context and colour to any serious student of the period.

In the accounts of Place’s service aboard the Polish submarine Sokol in the Mediterranean some genuinely fresh pieces of history emerge, including the ‘official’ declaration of war against Italy by Poland – the humorous delivery of which, described on page 34, and involving some fantastic language and a hand thrown shell – masks the real and potentially oft-missed point of how legal niceties such as this were handled during the Second World War. Place’s own accounts of his time on Sokol reveal the deep sense of humour that ran through his personality. His claim that his “award of the Polish Cross of Valour entitled him to a mistress, two cows and half a hectare of land” (p.56) cannot fail to raise a smile.

Perhaps one of the most striking points about Place’s career is that he was very much not just a submariner. After his release from prisoner of war camp and frustrated attempt to rejoin the submarine service, he transferred to surface ships where he played an active role in attempts to counter the insurgency in Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel, and then in another significant career change, in 1951 he joined the Fleet Air Arm and qualified as a carrier aviator. This led to his service aboard HMS Glory in the Far East, carrying out combat missions over Malaysia, and most significantly Korea.

Late in the book a small point jars. Place was promoted to Captain on 31 December 1958, having passed through the Joint Services Staff Course, and in many ways this marked the run towards the end of his career, and certainly the end of Watkins’ work; at this time he was 37. When the reader considers all that had been achieved by then it is reminiscent of Caesar weeping at the sight of a statue of Alexander the Great when thinking that by the age of 30 Alexander had conquered most of the known world. Place is similar to Alexander, achieving a vast amount in critical times for his country.

Disclaimer: a free review copy of this book was provided by Pen and Sword Books.