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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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D-Day Heroes of Derbyshire!

Posted Tuesday, July 3, 2007

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D Day Heroes of Derbyshire

`seven hundred ships and four thousand landing craft were employed'

Celebrations throughout the land this year will mark the 63rd anniversary of D Day and the famous Normandy Landings of June 6th 1944, in which seven hundred ships and four thousand landing craft were employed in the major assualt on the beaches of Northern France.

In terms of time and distance, the Normandy Landings may seem remote to us in our landlocked county here in the middle of England, but the work of the men and women of Chesterfield helped to make it all possible.

`Top Secret M.O.D. project'

Time and distance also govern the release of what is termed `classified’ information, but it can now be revealed that a top secret M.O.D. project was successfully undertaken by the staff and workforce at Markham’s Broad Oaks Works in Chesterfield, which played a significant role in that astonishing allied naval success of sixty years ago.

Very soon after the outbreak of war in 1939 Markhams came under the aegis of the Admiralty and the manufacturing capacity at the Broad Oaks Works in Chesterfield was given over almost entirely to Naval purposes.

The company firstly manufactured marine engines for small ships, and the forward ends of tank landing craft, but by the end of 1940 they were building complete Tank Landing Craft (LCT) and Military Landing Craft (LCM), which at over 16 feet wide and 70 feet long proved the most unweildy loads ever despatched by road from Chesterfield!

Each vessel was of a rivetted construction throughout, with a deep well amidships and a drawbridge ramp forward so that vehicles could be driven on and off. They were subdivided into watertight compartments with a large tank for the transport of fresh water amidships under the well deck. An engine room compartment housed two Chrysler V8 marine petrol engines driving twin screws through clutches. The wheelhouse was right aft above the engine compartment.

Each vessel left the Works finished, with petrol tanks filled, and furnished with all stores, even down to the signal bunting, and over a three year period Markhams produced and despatched 31 complete LCM’s, which left the works at regular intervals of one every four weeks, and were despatched directly to the coast.

`By 1943 almost the whole of Europe was in enemy hands'

By 1943, almost the whole of Europe was in enemy hands and the German fleet was stationed in strategic fiords on the Western seaboard, heavily defended against aerial attack and with conventional submarines unable to penetrate their closely guarded anchorages. Thus the Naval Authorities decided to construct small submarines capable of conveying large quantities of high explosive and crewed by a minimum number of personnel, which would, by reason of their small size and easy manoevrability, be able to approach their target without detection. The miniature submarines were designated `X Craft’ and were developed in strict secrecy by Varley Marine for the Ministry of Defence. The first six operational X Craft were built by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow-in Furness, and were used successfully in the attack on the 47,000 ton German battleship Tirpitz in Norwegian waters in 1943. The Tirpitz was put out of action for the duration of the war, but all six X Craft were lost, and the M.O.D. immediately commissioned another twelve X Craft midget submarines. Markham were designated to build four of them, and Managing Director R.J. Barclay took personal charge of the project.

The entire operation had to be conducted in the strictest secrecy, with all personnel working under the Official Secret’s Act, and the work had to be carried out entirely in a sealed off section of the works, the Boiler Shop, which became known as the `Closed Shop’. A guard was posted night and day at the single entrance, and all personnel were issued with a security pass.

Works Manager Herbert Stone, writing in the Broad Oaks Magazine some years ago confirmed: “Occasional visitors concerned with the work were only admitted if accompanied by a senior member of the staff similarly concerned, and after complying with conditions governing such admissions which were imposed by the Admiralty. The conversion of the shop to meet these requirements had to be carried out at high speed and while it was in progress a small team from Markham visited Vickers Shipyard to become acquainted with the job and to obtain particulars of special building jigs and fixtures which were immediately put in hand at Chesterfield by men who had no idea of their ultimate purpose. The Admiralty appointed the late Commander H.L. Rendel as Liaison Officer , and by the time the shop conversion and the building fixtures were completed, plate material was arriving, and a small team of platers and welders disappeared behind the walls of the `Closed Shop’”.

Over a period of eighteen months Markham built five X Class submarines, namely the X22 `Exploit’, X23 `Xiphias’, XE4 `Excalibur,’ XE 11 `Lucifer’, and XE12 `Excitable’. The latter never saw active duty, for Excitable was almost completed when in 1945 the war with Japan ended abruptly and work was stopped. As Herbert Stone records:

“We received instructions to dismantle and return all key items to naval Stores, and the rest of the vessel had to be cut up into unrecognisable scrap. All correspondence and drawings connected with the project had to be parcelled up, and under supervision, destroyed in the Boiler Shop plate furnace, the ashes being beaten up so that no legible trace whatever remained of one of the most fascinating jobs Markham has ever attempted”.

Of the four remaining submarines, the XE Craft were slightly larger than X Craft and had air conditioning and refrigeration units for Far East operations, and despite the prefix `midget’, each submarine was sixty feet long with a diameter of six feet, and weighed around thirty tons!

Powered by a 42 HP Marine deisel engine and a 30 HP electric battery, each had a range of 1200 miles and could operate at a maximum diving depth of 300 feet. Each carried a four man crew, two containers of limpet mines, and two tons of high explosives, attached like a saddle across the hull.

An escape compartment was incorporated by means of which a diver could leave the vessel and return while submerged, his duty being to cut holes in steel anti-submarine nets through which the vessel could pass, using for the purpose power-driven cutters which could be plugged into the hull. He was also able to attach magnetic `limpet’ mines to the hull of the vessel under attack”.

As each submarine neared completion its intended crew members came to Markham’s to train and familiarise themselves with the craft, even adding their own personal features. The completed submarines were disguised as motor cruisers and shipped by rail to the Navy’s secret submarine base at Faslane in Scotland.

Of the four remaining Markham `made in Chesterfield’ submarines, Exploit met a tragic end when she sank with the loss of all four crew members after being rammed by her towing submarine in the Pentland Firth in 1944. Lucifer fared no better, surfacing inadvertently beneath a boom defence vessel in Loch Striven in 1945, which ripped open her hull and sank her with the loss of three crew members.

However, Excalibur and Xiphias (Swordfish) were destined for glory; Excalibur, under the command of Aussie Lt. M. H. Shean, played a noteable part in the war against Japan, successfully disrupting enemy communications by cutting underwater cables between Saigon and Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore, for which the daredevil Aussie received a bar to his DSO.

Xiphias, under the command of Lt. George Honour played a vital and significant role in the D Day landings.

By dawn on June 4th 1944 Xiphias was submerged three miles off the French coast. Honour's orders were to take Xiphias, loaded with auxiliary gear such as radar beacons, 30 foot telescopic mast and flashing lights, to the French Coast, pin point the landing site, remain submerged until he received a coded message, then to surface, check his position and act as marker for the invading armada – and all under the eyes and bristling guns of the enemy. All this he successfully accomplished, despite the fact that heavy weather caused Eisenhower to call a 24 hour delay to the invasion plans, and Xiphias and her crew had to sit it out on the sea bed in enemy waters for 64 hours! At the appointed hour Xiphias raised her telescopic mast with the flashing marker lights and signalled the start of the invasion.

Lt. George Honour, commander of the Chesterfield-made Xiphias midget submarine was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in recognition of his valiant efforts in the long hours immediately preceding the DE Day Landings on June 6th 1944.

Today we pay our tribute and salute the men and women of Markham Engineering, Chesterfield who helped to make it all possible.

*Note.

I am indebted to Mr. K.G. Wort, former Director of Markham Engineering, Chesterfield, for allowing exclusive access to archive material and for his invaluable assistance in researching and helping to put this article together.

Contact Tom: tombates@sky.com

 
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