"Royal Navy and Maritime Book Reviews" provided by Rob Jerrard

HM Submarine Splendid

On 21 April 1943 HM Submarine Splendid was patrolling off the Bay of Naples. In five previous patrols, operating against ships taking vital supplies from Italy to the Axis armies in Tunisia, she had sunk a destroyer and more merchant tonnage than any other Allied submarine during the same period.  But her luck was about to run out. In a dramatic and unexpected encounter with a crack German destroyer the Splendid was depth-charged and forced to the surface, where gunfire killed several of her crew as they abandoned the sinking submarine.  Her captain, Lieutenant Ian McGeoch DSO RN, though wounded, was among those who survived to become prisoners of war. In his book "An Affair of Chances" he relates his wartime experiences as a submariner up to this fateful incident and his subsequent attempts to escape.  Determined to get back to England and displaying remarkable independence and resourcefulness, he set out on an odyssey which was to take him from the parched landscape of Italy to the fleshpots of neutral Switzerland and from there, with the help of the French Resistance, across occupied France to a squalid Spanish gaol.  Just over a year after his capture he made it home and resumed his naval career.

FROM "His Majesty’s Submarines, Published 1945"

Maiden patrol

The first war patrol of the Splendid  (HM Submarine Splendid) in the Mediterranean gives a picture of conditions at this time. She started off in the vicinity of Naples, hoarding her torpedoes for the Littorio-class battleships known to be based there. When the landing in North Africa was past its critical phase, her captain, Lieutenant I. L. McGeoch, R.N., decided that he could afford to spend a few torpedoes on lesser game. A German U-boat was the target for his first attack, but he missed.  An anti-submarine schooner was sighted the same afternoon. After a careful examination through the periscope, Lieutenant McGeoch explained the tactics he intended to employ. These were to surface and attack by gunfire, forcing the crew to abandon ship.  A boarding party would then search and sink her.  If the Splendid was compelled to submerge, she would return when practicable.  If she failed to return, the boarding party would sail the prize to North Africa. If, on the other hand, the schooner turned out to be a Q-ship-as sometimes happened-she would be rammed, tor­pedoed, or carried by boarding according to circumstances.

The Splendid surfaced, and opened fire at 1,000 yards.  The schooner's crew abandoned ship, and the boarding party searched her ; she was set on fire and left ablaze.  The Splendid dived and made off, leaving the castaways in a calm sea with a ten-mile pull to land.

With the Littorios still in mind, Lieutenant McGeoch allowed an armed merchant cruiser and, next day, a U-boat to pass unmolested, but the following day another U-boat offered too tempting a shot to resist.  But it was not an easy attack and the torpedoes missed.

He took the Splendid with her one remaining torpedo towards the shore, determined that it should not be wasted. Two merchant ships under the escort of two destroyers were sighted. He chose the larger and more " worth while " destroyer and torpedoed her neatly.  Her depth-charges, still in their chutes and throwers, exploded as she reached the depth at which they were set to go off. The men of the Splendid listened to the explosions with satisfaction.

Having no torpedoes left and her offensive capacity being limited to her gun, the Splendid was ordered back to base. During the return voyage, a Wellington was seen to attack a convoy and disable one of the merchantmen. The submarine surfaced and expended her ammunition in shelling the straggler until she sank.

What is described in the official despatch as an " exhilarating " patrol was further enlivened the following night by the sighting of a U-boat,  Lieutenant G. G. Hardy, R.N.V.R., spotted the conning-tower in the path of the moon. The Splendid dived, and a few minutes later there was the distant sound of two torpedoes exploding at the end of their run. Owing to Lieutenant Hardy's alertness they had missed.

By this time the submarine's presence was known to the enemy, and except for short-range weapons they were defenceless. A round of ammunition that had been overlooked in the heat of the gun action was, however, found under the wardroom table. It was loaded into the gun and, thus armed against the violence of the enemy, they ran the gauntlet of the patrolled area and reached harbour.

The Splendid settled down to making a nuisance of herself on the Italian convoy routes. She sank another destroyer on her second patrol, and 8,000 tons of shipping and two anti-submarine vessels oil her third. During her next she added 11,000 tons to her bag in a particularly dangerous and well-patrolled area.

She had now got her eye in. A 10,000-ton tanker heading for Tunisia with powerful escort got no farther than the north coast of Sicily. Undeterred by a flat calm and a bright sun-the worst possible conditions-Lieutenant McGeoch pressed home the attack to within 600 yards and " made a job of it " with three torpedoes. He followed this up a couple of days later by sinking a 3,000-ton tanker.

The Splendid had now to her credit three tankers totalling 17,900 tons, six supply ships totalling 26,000 tons, two destroyers and three anti-submarine vessels. At a time when the ememy was in need of every gallon of petrol and every ton of supplies, the effect on the campaign of this one submarine's achievements was incalculable.

From her next patrol the Splendid did not return, but the majority of Her company are safe.

Vice-Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch KCB DSO DSC MPhil was born in Helensburgh, Scotland, in 1914 and was brought up on the Firth of Clyde where "messing about in boats" became his favourite pastime. A visit to the mighty battlecruiser HMS Hood clinched his determination to become a naval officer. In 1933 he joined HMS Royal Oak, a Jutland battleship, as a midshipman. Service in the destroyer Boadicea and the cruiser Devonshire followed, but in 1937 he began to specialise in submarines. When war came in 1939 he was third hand of HM Submarine Clyde. By the end of 1944, after the adventures described in this book, McGeoch had become Staff Officer (Operations) to the admiral commanding the 4th Cruiser Squadron in the British Pacific Fleet, fighting alongside the US Third and Fifth Fleets in the battles leading to the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945. He returned to Britain early in 1946 after helping with the evacuation of former Allied Pows from Japan. Thereafter he held command and staff appointments culminating in 1964 in his promotion to flag rank. He became successively Admiral President of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich; Flag Officer Submarines (NATO Commander Submarines East Atlantic); and Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland (NATO Commander Northern Atlantic Area). After his retirement in 1970 he gained an M.Phil degree at Edinburgh University and from 1972 to 1980 edited The Naval Review. He was responsible for the "War at Sea" sections of General Sir John Hackett's The Third World War and The Third World War: The Untold Story.

I was very sad to hear of the death of Vice-Admiral Ian McGeoch on 12 Aug 2007 - below is his obituary as published in the Daily Telegraph. I served in HMS Dolphin when he was Flag Officer Submarines and was his Barge Coxswain, see http://www.rjerrard.co.uk/royalnavy/dolphin/dolphin.htm.

Vice-Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch

Obituary The Daily Telegraph 17/08/2007

Captured submarine ace whose many escape attempts culminated in a 400-mile trek across Italy to Switzerland

Vice-Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch, who has died aged 93, was a wartime submarine ace and a serial escaper after being captured by the Germans in the Mediterranean in 1943.

McGeoch's most famous exploits in submarines came in the period between November 1942 and April 1943. On his first war patrol he was deployed off Naples to ambush any Italian battleship which might threaten the Allied landings in North Africa.

He hunted and missed a German U-boat, but when an anti-submarine schooner was sighted the same afternoon McGeoch surfaced and fired a few shots to persuade the crew to abandon ship; he then boarded and searched her before setting her on fire. He allowed an armed merchant cruiser to pass unmolested, but the next day another U-boat proved too tempting to resist - it was not an easy attack, however, and McGeoch's torpedoes missed their target.

A day later - determined not to waste his one remaining torpedo - McGeoch took Splendid inshore, where he could see two merchant ships under the escort of two destroyers. Picking the larger and more modern of the destroyers, he scored a direct hit.

Returning to Malta, McGeoch saw an RAF Wellington attack a convoy and disable a merchantman; he surfaced and shelled the straggler until she sank.

What the official record described as an "exhilarating" patrol was further enlivened the following night, when Splendid was forced to turn and dive to avoid the tracks of two torpedoes.

On his second patrol McGeoch and Splendid made a nuisance of themselves on the Axis convoy routes to North Africa, sinking another destroyer. On his third and fourth patrols he sank two anti-submarine vessels and another 19,000 tons of shipping. He was awarded a DSO.

Later McGeoch spotted a 10,000-ton tanker with a powerful escort off Sicily. The conditions were as unpromising as they could be (a flat calm and a bright sun), but he pressed home his attack to within 600 yards and "made a job of it" with three torpedoes. Two days later he sank a 3,000-ton tanker.

In April 1943 McGeoch was awarded a DSC for his bravery and skill in successive submarine patrols, but on April 21 his luck turned. He was in Splendid three miles off the south-east coast of Capri when he was puzzled to see through his periscope a British destroyer; it was in fact a British-built warship, formerly the Greek destroyer Vasilefs Georgios, but now under the German swastika as Hermes.

In good asdic conditions Hermes dropped three accurate patterns of depth charges and Splendid sank to the seabed, where the depth gauge stopped at 500ft. McGeoch blew all his air tanks to raise his submarine to the surface; the crew abandoned the boat through the gun and conning tower hatches while Hermes made direct hits with her main armament, killing 18 of Splendid's 48-man crew.

McGeoch himself was wounded, in the right eye, but stayed in the boat until he was sure that there was no one left alive and that it would sink before the enemy could board it. The entire action was over in 12 minutes.

As McGeoch was hauled from the water into a German motorboat he heard a guttural voice delivering the classic line "For you the war is over", and he thought to himself "No, it bloody well isn't". Thus began a year-long odyssey to reach Britain.

Although now blind in one eye, McGeoch made several escape attempts: he attempted to dig, during the siesta hours, a tunnel from an Italian hospital where he was being treated. He jumped from a train when he was being moved between camps, but was recaptured. After being taken to Rome for interrogation, he leapt from a moving car and made a vain attempt to enter the Vatican.

Later, after the Italian armistice, he was promised repatriation, but the train in which he was travelling was commandeered by the Germans; McGeoch was taken to a prison hospital, from which he simply walked away, eventually crossing the border into Switzerland after a 400-mile hike.

He chose Switzerland - more distant than the Allied front line - because he wanted medical attention, and he was conscious while Professor Adolphe Franceschetti used an electromagnet to draw a jagged sliver of rusty steel from his blind eye.

He was also taken with what he called "the silken dalliance" of Geneva, but was impatient to get home and obtained false papers before walking into France in January 1944. Making contact with the Resistance, he travelled westwards by train and car, then skied across the Pyrenees and into temporary internment in Spain.

From Gibraltar he took passage in the dummy battleship Centurion, and his arrival in Britain was announced to the Resistance by the BBC with the cryptic words le tabac du Petit Pierre est dans la boîte. His reunion with his wife and the child he had not yet seen was delayed until two days later by a debriefing with MI9. He was mentioned in dispatches for his successful escape.

Ian Lachlan Mackay McGeoch was born on March 26 1914 at Helensburgh, where he was inspired to pursue a life at sea by messing about in boats on the Firth of Clyde. He was educated at Pangbourne, and entered the Royal Navy as a special entry cadet in 1931.

In 1933 he served as a midshipman in the battleship Royal Oak, the destroyer Boadicea and the cruiser Devonshire, but six years later began to specialise in submarines.

On the outbreak of war McGeoch was third hand in the submarine Clyde. He passed the perisher in 1940 and was sent to Malta as spare commanding officer. He commanded Splendid during the Allied landings in North Africa (Operation Torch) before embarking on the period in which he became a submarine ace.

After his escape McGeoch attended the naval staff course in 1944 and was staff officer operations in the 4th Cruiser Squadron of the British Pacific Fleet.

In 1946-47 he commanded the frigate Fernie until being promoted commander and sent to work in the operations division of the Admiralty. In 1949 he commanded the 4th Submarine Division in Sydney.

He was naval liaison officer to RAF Coastal Command in 1955-56, Captain 3rd Submarine Squadron in 1957-58, then spent two years as director of the Underwater Warfare Division in the Admiralty. After a year as a student at the Imperial Defence College, McGeoch commanded the cruiser Lion from 1962 to 1964.

Promoted to admiral, he was successively Admiral President of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, Flag Officer Submarines, and Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland. He was appointed CB in 1966 and KCB in 1969.

After retiring in 1970 McGeoch went to Edinburgh University to study Social Sciences, and in 1975 was awarded an MPhil for his study of the origins, procurement and effect of the Polaris project.

From 1972 to 1980 he was editor of The Naval Review, and contributed to many other service journals. He collaborated with General Sir John Hackett and other senior Nato officers in producing two editions of The Third World War (1978 and 1982), which predicted how a future war might be fought.

McGeoch wrote a wartime memoir, An Affair of Chances: a Submariner's Odyssey, 1939-44 (1991), and The Princely Sailor: Mountbatten of Burma (1996), an assessment of the service career of a leader with whom McGeoch had several times served and whom he had always admired.

Interested in all maritime affairs, but especially in safety at sea, McGeoch took an active interest in all his many nautical associations, including the Royal Institute of Navigation, the Nautical Institute and the Honourable Company of Master Mariners.

He was a member of the Queen's Body Guard for Scotland, the Royal Company of Archers and of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Ian McGeoch died on August 12. He married, in 1937, Eleanor Somers Farrie (whom he always called Somers); she survives him with their two sons and two daughters

The Royal Navy Submarine Museum Gosport Hampshire
The Royal Navy Submarine Museum is a registered charity that supports submarine veterans and their dependants. We do welcome donations to costs and help us continue our work. We are currently trying to raise £6 million for a project to restore our main exhibit HMS Alliance. Should you wish to make a donation please forward any cheque made payable to: The Royal Navy Submarine Museum HMS Alliance Appeal"our address is: Haslar Jetty Road, Gosport Hampshire PO12 2AS.