This week’s Secret Coast pattern is inspired by a story from the second world war: that of lieutenant H Henty-Creer, who trained as a submariner beneath the dark waters of Loch Striven.
Born in Australia, after his parents’ divorce, Henty-Creer travelled around Europe with his unconventional English mother. Enjoying travelling life, but disliking formal education, he ran away from school at the age of 14. Drawn to the excitement of the silver screen, Henty-Creer joined a film production crew, and, learning his craft quickly, worked on set with Alexander Korda, as assistant cameraman onThe Four Feathers (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940).
In 1940, Henty-Creer travelled to Canada with Michael Powell, working as cameraman on the British propaganda film The 49th Parallel (1941). Written by Emeric Pressburger (“Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I’d show him a thing or two”) and made, in Powell’s words “to scare the pants off the Americans and bring them into the war”, the film follows the journey of six survivors of a German U-boat (sunk by RCAF bombers) across Canada, in hope of reaching the then-neutral United States.
Featuring some big British names (Lawrence Olivier, Leslie Howard), a gripping pick-them-off plot, a stirring score by Ralph Vaughan Williams, editing by David Lean, and Henty-Creer’s stunning camerawork of the Canadian landscape, the film was certainly fit for its propaganda purposes. Later released for audiences in the United States as The Invaders (1942), the explicitly racist speeches of the Nazi lieutenant played by Eric Portman (the focus of a moral revulsion that reinforces the film’s anti-racist message) were actually cut from the American version, for fear of offending those in the South who then supported racial segregation. The film won 3 academy awards, and to this day remains the highest-grossing British film in the United States.
Tom and I are huge Powell and Pressburger nerds, and beyond its obvious wartime aims, the 49th Parallel has many of the hallmark weirdnesses that we love so much about their work.
For Henty-Creer – then just 21 years of age — working on The 49th Parallel filled him with his own sense of anti-Nazi purpose, and a deep fascination with submarines. He returned to England, and volunteered for the navy, with the aim of becoming a submariner.
Selected for officer training, Henty-Creer joined the Navy’s submarine arm in 1942. He found his initial training experiences terrifying, describing the “awful sensation of claustrophobia, clouding my thought and making my heart beat heavily” on first being submerged in a training tank. Despite feeling overwheming terror “when the trap door shut me in”, Henty-Creer decided he had to repeat the experience of submersion immediately in order to get over his fear: “I knew at once that if I did not go through the whole ruddy business again I never would. I had reached a crossroads within myself and knew with certainty that if I did not take charge of my mental forces and master my panic once and for all I was lost and would have to get out of submarines.” Henty-Creer returned to the tank, went on to excel in training, and, as a young unmarried man without dependents, was deemed a suitable candidate to lead dangerous operations, such as those involving the new midget ‘x-craft’ submarines which were then being built in Barrow in Furness.
To train with the new x-craft, Henty-Creer travelled to Argyll, and was stationed at Ardtaraig house, at the north end of Loch Striven, which had then been commissioned as HMS Varbel II. Cowal’s perceived remoteness, frequent cloud-cover, and topographical similarities to the fjords of northern Norway, where Nazi battleships were then positioned, made it the ideal location.
Henty Creer trained in the cold dark waters of the loch. He was fascinated by the brooding hills above the water, and the mysterious landscape he discovered beneath the surface, what he described as the “underwater world below the bustling crowd of humanity, untouched and silent.” After one of his dives, he wrote of how the underwater landscape:
“reminded me of the chinese pattern on household crockery, the dark yellow sea bed with its rocks and black looking seaweed. Not a fish or crab moved and there all around at what seemed some ten feet off the bottom was a soft white cloud effect as the weak light ceased to penetrate. I walked a few yards and, after ten minutes I had laid a perfect smoke trail that gradually in the distance merged into that upper soft white halo. But always ahead of me was the invisible, impenetrable mass of dark water.”
While undergoing his training, Henty-Creer randomly (and almost literally) ran into his friend and former film-industry colleague Michael Powell – whose account of their unusual encounter is certainly memorable:
“We were standing on the quay when we saw approaching three strange-looking objects. They were far away, but were coming directly towards us. I seemed to be looking at three men crucified, their crosses standing on barrels which rolled slightly, so that their feet were awash as they played follow-my-leader. The sun was low. It was slack water, and the sea heaved mutinously, but there were very few waves . . . soon we saw that they were midget subs. Each skipper standing on the deck, holding onto the crosspiece, had earphones and a mouthpiece with which he communicated with his fellow submariner down below in the body of the tiny vessel. I never saw such dedicated and absorbed young men. . . to my amazement, I recgosnised the leader of this pygmy flotilla. It was Henty-Creer . . . who . . . was now a lieutenant under training for a very hush-hush job.”
Powell was then in Scotland scouting-out locations in Argyll for the project that eventually became I Know Where I’m Going (1945) a film that Pressburger was to describe as part of the Archers’ “crusade against materialism.” (There is a tune that features prominently in this film, which Tom and I had a piper play at our wedding).
Henty-Creer nicknamed the midget sub (X-5) that was under his command “Platypus”, in honour of his Australian origins, a creature which “will carry its huge eggs and lay them under enemy ships”. Before leaving on the mission known as Operation Source, in September 1943 Henty-Creer gave his mother a wooden plaque, upon which a platypus was carved alongside the Latin motto dum spirio, sperro, spiro – “while I breathe I hope, and while I hope I breathe.”
During Operation Source, six x-craft submarines set out from Scotland to lay their charges under the German battleship, The Tirpitz, then stationed a thousand miles away in northern Norway. The submariners’ attack on the Tirpitz on September 22nd put the ship out of action for several months, but Henty-Creer and his crew were lost in action. Despite his courage, and unlike several of his compatriots Henty-Creer was not decorated (the cause of some upset to his family) and the wreck of X-5 was never found.
Now, I’m not one for military history, and I generally don’t have much interest in the strategies and technologies through which humans have developed ever-more ingenious ways of killing one other. In its pointless, terrible waste, war, for me, is always somehow about humanity’s basic failure, and believe me I have thought about this a lot in recent days. But the second world war has shaped the landscape and culture of Argyll in ways that are still profoundly felt today: its legacy is there in the so-called nuclear “deterrent” that’s stationed close to my mum and dad’s house on the Gareloch, as well as the several thousand tonnes of munitions that are currently stored in the hills behind Loch Long. I felt that Cowal’s wartime story was important, and that it had to feature in our Secret Coast book, and so, in recent months, I’ve done a lot of reading about Argyll in the 1940s. I read about HMS Varbels I and II, on the Kyles and in Loch Striven, and HMS James Cook in Glen Caladh. I read about Argyll’s wrens and lumberjills and about the experiences of child evacuees on the Isle of Bute. And I also read about courageous young men, like H Henty-Creer, who braved the terrifying conditions of the tiny x-craft subs, and whose lives were cut short beneath the waves.
I am very grateful to our Cowal friend Michael Hartley, who has written a great essay about Operation Source for our Secret Coast book (club members can read Michael’s essay this weekend).
And I designed a pair of mittens in the memory of H Henty-Creer featuring couched X’s . . .
. . . and embroidered barnacles: symbols of endurance, hardiness, resilience.
. . and the underwater landscape that so fascinated this young man.
If you’d like to read more about Henty-Creer, the x-craft submarines, Operation Source, and its human aftermath, I recommend Alf R. Jacobsen X-Craft Versus Tirpitz (2003; 2006) and Frank Walker and Pamela Mellor, The Mystery of X-5 (1988) from which my quotations from Henty-Creer’s personal writings are taken. The story of Operation Source is also fictionalised in the film Above Us the Waves (1955).