Aberlady Bay’s midget submarines
Among the many wrecks that litter the sands at the mouth of Aberlady Bay, the hulks of two Second World War midget submarines are the most visible and the most dramatic. What are they, and how did they get there?
The better-preserved of the two wrecked midget submarines, known in the Nautical Archaeology Society’s report as Wreck A.
IN THE SPRING of 1946, two midget submarines were towed to Aberlady Bay and tethered on either side of an anchor point made of one old concrete anti-tank block set on top of four others. There, over two days of trials in the first week of May, they were fired at by aircraft including Mosquitoes and Seafires (the naval version of the Spitfire) in an experiment to judge the effectiveness of 20 mm cannon shells against the submarines’ steel hulls.
The story of the Aberlady Bay midget submarines was uncovered brilliantly by a researcher named Alison Boutland in a report for the Nautical Archaeology Society. She was able to identify the submarines as XT-craft, a training variant of the X-craft mini submarine.
Above us the waves
X-craft were about 16 metres (52 ft) long and powered by a diesel engine when on the surface and an electric motor when underwater. They had a crew of four: a commander, a pilot, an engineer (known as the engine room artificer, or ERA) and a specialist diver. They were used in September 1943 in a daring raid on the German battleship Tirpitz in a fjord in the far north of Norway – a mission that inspired the 1955 film ‘Above us the Waves’, starring John Mills.
The XT submarines, built by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness, were used not just for training X-craft crews, but also to stand in for full-size submarines in training exercises in which they were hunted from air and sea. The XT-craft were simpler than X-craft, since they did not need as much equipment. In particular, they did not have a retractable periscope; the periscope was fixed in a fin-like housing on the top of the submarine. The distinctive eye-shaped attachment point for this periscope housing was clearly identified by Boutland on the two Aberlady Bay wrecks.
The less well-preserved wreck, with the anchoring block and the other sub beyond.
Close-up of Wreck A, showing eye-shaped attachment point for the periscope housing.
Six XT-craft were built, named Extant, Sandra, Helen, Excelsior, Extended and Xantho. When the war in Europe drew to a close, they were no longer needed, and in June 1945 all six were sent to the Naval Construction and Research Establishment in Rosyth. Boutland was not able to figure out which of the six were used for the target trials, although she did conclude that the better-preserved wreck is probably not XT-5, Extended, which, as its name suggests, was modified to be a little longer than the others.
The cannon-fire trials took place on May 1, 1946 and, after the subs were patched up and re-floated, May 6, 1946. The website East Lothian at War, which has the dates as May 2 and May 7, says that the first trial involved armour-piercing shells and the second high-explosive shells, and that the latter proved more effective. Surviving documentation includes annotated photos of the subs showing the damage after the attacks.
Aberlady Conservation and History Society was recently given movie footage of the trials, filmed by a naval officer from the deck of a boat from which the operation was observed, and in 2019 the footage was digitised and posted on YouTube.
From the big dune at the end of the Nature Reserve footpath, the two subs and the anchor block can clearly be seen, looking over towards the Pentlands.
Guns over the golf course
An interesting addition to the story of the submarines comes from Coastkid, a local blogger and Surly fat bike enthusiast, who has evidence that the subs continued to be used as targets for live firing practice by aircraft based at Drem. He recalls working as a greenkeeper at Gullane in the 1980s and finding dozens of spent 0.5 inch shell cartridges as well as 20 mm cartridges, and he was told by a retired tractor driver that aircraft used to line themselves up using a marker pole behind the seventh tee on Gullane No 3 course, and fire when over the rows of anti-tank blocks, near the green of the twelfth hole on No 2 course.
May 16, 2020 • by Damien Noonan
On the Canmore website, the location of the submarines is shown as a blue-grey dot.
How to find the midget submarines
Follow the Nature Reserve footpath out to the beach (across the footbridge, through the bushes and past the marl loch, turn left at the junction of paths) until you reach the big dune. From the top of the big dune, you can see the submarines if you look over towards the Pentlands. To reach them, it‘s about a 15-minute walk (three-quarters of a mile) across the sand.
Tide times (at Fidra) can be found on the BBC Weather website at www.bbc.co.uk/ weather/ coast-and-sea/ tide-tables/ 7/223
Alison Boutland’s report, Aberlady Conservation and History Society: www.aberladyheritage.com/reports/
Film footage of cannon trials, Aberlady Conservation and History Society:
‘X-craft’ on East Lothian at War:
Submarine wrecks on Coastkid’s blog:
Canmore (Historic Environment Scotland) site record: