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Fight for a hero denied a VC 

The Sydney Morning Herald - 20 July 1974

In February, 1944, a young Sydney born Royal Navy lieutenant was mentioned in despatches. For Lieutenant Henty Henty-Creer, 21, that was all- the only official recognition of his part in a heroic midget submarine attack on the giant German battleship, Admiral Von Tirpitz, in a Norwegian fjord five months before. The mission to cripple the 41,000-ton pride of the German Navy, code named "Operation Source", was vital: the Tirpitz had to be put out of action before it could wreak havoc on the Atlantic convoys. Repeated bombing attacks had failed, and the Tirpitz- surrounded by an elaborate defence network- was gaining a reputation as "unsinkable". 

To penetrate its defences, the Allies needed to try something different. "Operation Source", bordering on the impossible, was it. Six X-class midget submarines, designed specifically for this one mission, were to be towed to the Norwegian coast parent submarines, make their way 50 miles up a fjord through minefields and an intricate web of anti-torpedo and anti-submarine nets, past patrol boats and gun emplacements, to the battleship's anchorage. Then they had to lay the pair of two-ton delayed-action explosive charges, attached to each of them, beneath the Tirpitz. 

Only three of the 53ft long craft made it to the anchorage- one of them captained by the young Australian. The trio last rendezvoued more than 30 hours before the September 22 "zero hours," and exchanged good luck shouts. The other two commanders- Lieutenants Donald Cameron and Godfrey Place met again after the 8.30 am explosions on September 22, on the quarterdeck of the listing and badly damaged Tirpitz. They had been captured after completing their mission. 

What the Australian-manned submarine had been doing in the previous one and a half days- the subject of a. raging controversy ever since-they had no idea. But, as they were interrogated at gunpoint on the panic-stricken ship, they saw the Australian's craft surface outside the triple netting around the ship and come under fire. The X-5, Lieutenant Henty-Creer's submarine, disappeared -it had either sunk after a direct hit or had crash-dived to escape. The Admiralty was delighted with what they described as "one of the great strokes of the war," putting the Tirpitz out of action for seven months. 

Twelve months after the raid the battleship was sunk by bombers, and five months later the Admiralty was generous in its rewards. Lieutenants Place and Cameron were to receive the Victoria Cross. Official naval intelligence reports said they had completed their mission. Officially, Lieutenant Henty-Creer, presumed "killed in action," had not. 

X-5, said the 'report, was depth-charged and sunk almost half a mile from the Tirpitz- having failed to penetrate the nets. The news was received by his family with disbelief and disgust. The Admiralty, said the family, had not published any evidence to suggest that the Australian lieutenant had not also completed his mission. They were convinced that he had placed the X-5's charges, got back out through the nets and was escaping when the submarine surfaced and was shelled. "Henty," says his elder sister, Miss Deirdre Henty-Creer, "always succeeded in whatever he undertook to do. If he set his mind to do something, he did it." 

They clung to the hope that he had in fact escaped after the shelling. After their request for a full Admiralty inquiry had been refused, they began their own search to discover Lieutenant Henty-Creer's fate . . . and to prove his right to hero's honours. Last week after a 30 year search for evidence - a quest that has taken the lieutenant's mother and his two sisters on three expeditions to the Arctic Circle - the icy black waters of Norway's Kaafjord where the raid took place, gave up what could well be the first solid evidence to support their claims. A team of 16 amateur divers using sophisticated electronic equipment found the wreckage of what they are convinced is an X-class submarine . and what the Henty-Creers are convinced can only be X-5. Whether it is X-5 is still the $64,000 question, says the British team leader- Peter Cornish. "Everybody wants it to be," he said this week, "and I personally think there's an excellent chance that it is even though that's based on largely circumstantial evidence." Beside a bow section, found upside down on the fjord bed 140 feet below the surface, the divers noted a three-foot-deep crater, German records show that, after disappearing, X-5 was depth-charged. About 900 feet away, partly buried in silt, a 20-foot-long midships section was sighted - split open down the middle. 

The divers found no clue as to the fate of the craft's four-man crew, and no sign of the two enormous saddle mines that had been attached to the hull. The wreckage was found by a 27-year-o1d Melbourne diver, Lindsay Cole, more than a quarter of a mile from where RN records show, X-5 was sunk. The expedition photographed the wreckage, raised the bow section to within a few feet of the surface for a detailed inspection and photographs, and returned it intact to the bottom. The wreck's status as a war grave prevented their salvaging it. But the remains of a diver's boot and a piece of battery recovered from around the hulk are now in Britain for identification. 

The find has sparked off new controversy, fired the Henty-Creers with new hope of finding the truth, and won new sympathy for their cause. Says the lieutenant's younger sister, Mrs Pamela Mellor: "We want the truth to be brought out, whatever it is X-5 has been allowed to slide into limbo, and our family life for the last 30 years has been ruined by the uncertainty of what happened." 

Lt Henty-Creer's mother, disillusioned by the decades of Admiralty refusal to help solve the mystery of what happened to her son, has steadfastly refused even to look at the "Mentioned in Dispatches" award. The family is now pressing for a Ministry of 'Defence expedition to raise the wreckage and bring .it back to England. And, if the wreckage is identified as that of X-5, they insist that Lt Henty-Creer be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Miss Henty-Creer says: "It was a VC job . . . and Henty should have got it with the others. More important, they feel, is that the record is put right. Experts agree with the family that, if the wreckage found is that of X-5, the fact that it is in large pieces suggests it had already laid its charges. "Otherwise," says Miss Henty-Creer, "it would have been blown to smithereens during the German shelling." 

And the family has a file crammed with eyewitness reports and other circumstantial evidence to support its claims. They began their private quest for the truth with an advertisement placed by Lt Henty-Creer's father, Captain Reginald Henty- and adviser to the RAN in Sydney when his son was born - in Norwegian newspapers immediately after the war, - asking for information from eyewitnesses. A Norwegian living beside the fjord during the war wrote that the propellers of the Tirpitz were buckled and badly damaged after the attack. Miss Henty-Creer says: "We thought . . . well, there it is. Support for our theory. My brother always believed that the propellers were the best and most vulnerable point to hit. During their 12-month training he always placed his limpet mines on the propellers of the target ship. "It was also known that Cameron, commander of X-6, always laid his charges at the bow, and Place, in X-7, would choose the midships." 

The family's firm belief that Lt Henty-Creer was in fact making his escape, having successfully completed his mission, when forced to the surface and shelled was strengthened by more letters. Norwegian seamen reported seeing the Tirpitz's stern rise out of the water during the explosion. And members of the Norwegian underground reported there had been great uneasiness aboard the ship before X-6 and X-7 had gone through the nets. This tallied with the Henty-Creers view that X-5 had gone in earlier and laid its charges possibly, making some noise detected by the Germans. The former Lt P1ace now a retired rear-admiral, agreed this week that neither he nor Lt Cameron had placed their charges directly under the stern. But he said that each of the commanders aimed to place their charges some distance apart- to give the greatest effect. "We know that X-6 laid both its charges for'ard," he said. "One of X-7's was for'ard and the other near the back end of the ship...I meant it to be under the aft gun turret. "But it's not so easy to identify your position from the ship's hull. And the Germans did move the aft end of the ship just before the explosion." 

The Henty-Creer family has had to live with theories since 1943. Miss Deirdre Henty-Creer says: "Through the years we've all felt quite ill about it all. Year after year we saw book after book published on the raid . . . with either no mention of X-5's role or giving just the official version. As far as the family is aware, in five books written about the suicidal raid and in a multitude of official reports, only one differed from the RN's initial version. Rear Admiral G.E Creasy, Commander of Submarines from 1944 to 1946, did concede the possibility that the Australian had already 'succeeded when X-5 was shelled about 8:45 am on September 22. ".. X-5 may therefore already have attacked and laid her charges and been on her way out when depth-charged and destroyed, or she may have been waiting to attack at the next attacking period at 0900," he wrote. 

The Royal Navy has promised a sympathetic hearing of any submissions put to it regarding the X-5 and Lt Henty-Creer. The family, bitter over the long years of naval inaction, say it is not before time. Mrs Mellor says: "It is quite ridiculous to think that we've had to rely on enthusiastic amateur divers to try and find our dead war heroes . . . quite ridiculous."


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