Time and Tide
It is an awfully long way out to those submarines in Aberlady Bay.
It was on a Friday evening towards the end of summer in 2017 that I found myself striding purposefully along the track that skirts the golf course, aiming for the path that leads towards the dunes marking the boundary of the adjoining nature reserve along the edge of the bay. The light was fading slowly but surely and I was up against the clock. Not that I had any worries about the tide — it would still be ebbing towards the low water mark — no, my concern was that I had mistimed the entire expedition and that the tide would have retreated further out than I wanted. Even after breasting the dunes onto the beach, it was still a substantial hike across the bay to where the two wrecks lay half-buried in the sand.
The wrecks are in fact the remains of two small submarines that were declared surplus to requirements at the end of the Second World War, and dumped in Aberlady Bay as target practice for the local fighter-bomber squadrons still stationed in the Edinburgh area. The vessels themselves were training versions of the X-Class midget submarines developed in 1942 as a means of attacking the German battleship Tirpitz lurking in the Kåfjord in northern Norway, where it threatened the Arctic convoys carrying supplies to the Soviet Union.
Forgotten monuments to a daring mission: these two battered wrecks now lie rusting far out in the bay, slowly sinking into the sands with every passing tide.
Emerging onto the beach from the nature reserve I discovered that I had in fact timed it just about right: the tide and the sun were exactly where I wanted them to be. The sunset was still to develop but the forecast had been promising. The aim was to get long exposure photographs of the tide washing around the wrecks as the end of the golden hour approached. As a goal, it was easier said than done: unfortunately, the submarines’ remote location close to the low water mark meant that opportunities for getting the right light at the right time of day coinciding with the right state of the tide were few and far between. This was hopefully to be one of those occasions.
At first I was puzzled since I could only make out the indistinct smudge of one wreck; and then it dawned on me: I’d arrived earlier than anticipated. That only one wreck was visible meant that the other was still under water: the tide hadn’t gone out quite as far as I’d thought. As it happened, it was the more southerly — and the most distant — of the two that was slowly coming into view. It was also the more completely recognisable wreck having suffered less damage and deterioration than its north-eastern companion.
The tide was still sloshing vigorously around the southern wreck even as I approached, so it was initially impossible to get up close. I took some long distance shots while waiting for the tide to ebb away further. Finally, I was able to walk right up to the structure itself and begin the close-in photography that I’d come for.
As it happened, the light wasn’t as spectacular as I’d wanted. I’d been hoping for at least as good a sunset as when photographing the remains of a derelict fishing boat on Seton Sands earlier in the year (q.v. post: The Longniddry Wreck); but this was August: a different time of the year and definitely not the same weather patterns. In fact, the prevailing conditions were more nearly autumnal than summer still. I had tried to photograph the submarines during that same glorious period of high pressure we had back in May; but was met instead with the slate grey skies so typical of Scottish weather, and which had simply reinforced the bleakness of the wrecks’ location.
Despite the mildly disappointing sunset of the present adventure though, all was not lost. The orange glow of the sun was reflecting nicely off the wet sand, and the sky was “interesting”. The retreating waters created some pleasing tidal races in the drainage channels around the broken structure, and the colour contrast was far better than that experienced earlier in the year. Standing up close to the hulks, it is hard to believe that each midget submarine carried a crew of four, who would have had to operate the vessel in the most unimaginably cramped conditions. For the operation against the Tirpitz and two other capital ships, the Scharnhorst and the Lützow, the X-craft were to be towed across the North Sea by regular fleet submarines before being released to attack their targets. Each midget submarine carried a pair of saddle mines strapped on either side of the hull, and which were to be deposited on the sea bed under the target’s keel.
A small flotilla of the X-Craft submarines was deployed against the Tirpitz battle group during Operation Source in September 1943.
Inevitably, almost nothing went to plan. X9 was lost with all hands while still under tow and X10’s mission was abandoned after it experienced mechanical failures. In any case, its target, the Scharnhorst, was away at sea on exercises. The Lützow was also spared after X8 had to be scuttled when leaks caused her saddle mines to malfunction. X-Crafts 5, 6 and 7 were to be deployed against the Tirpitz. X5 was sunk by enemy fire with all hands, while only X6 and X7 succeeded in laying their charges under the feared warship.
In the event, the crews of X6 and X7 were captured during their attempts to escape through the anti-torpedo netting, and were interned on the Tirpitz itself even as the delayed action timers on the mines continued to tick away. When the charges went off, the shock waves were sufficiently forceful to throw one of the 15” gun turrets off its mounting and cause a significant deformation in the hull. The giant warship was in fact quite badly damaged and put out of action for eight months, but – crucially – it was not completely destroyed as a fighting vessel. Aerial attacks against the Tirpitz continued mercilessly after its repair, which led to its being eventually crippled as a sea-going man o’ war. The Kriegsmarine’s last true battleship was subsequently moved to Tromsø as a floating gun platform, where it was finally sunk at its moorings by the RAF in November 1944.
By the time I had completed my photo-examination of the southern wreck, its more northerly twin was becoming visible. The light had also faded considerably and I was now well into the blue hour. Trudging the 200 metres or so across the intervening distance brought me up to the second hulk, which was still surrounded by water. Amazingly, only 30 minutes had elapsed since I’d first started taking photographs that evening. I would stay for another half-hour before calling it a day, by which time the usable light had almost completely gone; and there was still the long trek back through the nature reserve to be negotiated. It would properly be dark by the time I got back to the car.
In the event I was pleased with the night’s work. I’d got the photographs I’d come for, although I will almost certainly be back to explore the opportunities provided by whatever lighting conditions are prevailing at the time. The photogenic attraction of these wrecks notwithstanding, I’m always mindful of what they represent. Even though as training vessels they were never used in conflict, they remain nevertheless a forgotten testament to the airmen and sailors on both sides who perished in the allies’ repeated attempts to neutralise a potent weapon of war that was of so much concern to the viability of the Arctic convoys.
A selection of the photographs taken during this photo-shoot on the 11th August 2017 and the earlier one on the 12th May are presented in the accompanying Gallery:
So what story am I hoping to tell through these images? These training ships might have been simply thrown away after their usefulness had ended, but their remains can still cause us to wonder and imagine what it was like to sail in them. Like all ruins these wrecks have a past; and that past must not be forgotten. But what form does that remembrance take? Surely that depends on you the viewer too.
The images from the earlier 12th May expedition show the wrecks in a very unflattering light that emphasises the remoteness and bleakness of their location far out in the bay. For these images I have pared back the use of colour to a minimum to emphasise the cold austerity of the scene. Those taken later in August show the wrecks in quite literally a different light. In this second set of images we see the wrecks as possessing a stark beauty in their own right; broken machines half-sunk into the mud of the bay, but still defiant against the effects of the weather and the tides.
So how do we regard these wrecks? As discarded hulks lying far away from our consciousness, having meaning only as relics of a deadly bitter conflict, the true reality of which in terms of lives lost has largely been airbrushed out of popular memory? Or might they be romanticised as representative of a heroic past, in which brave warriors dared the evil dragon in its lair? Or do we not care at all about the history they represent, and see them only as a curiosity to marvel over when the tide is out? You are the viewer: you choose.
The Featured Image
The image at the head of this post is of the northern X-craft wreck, taken at 20:27 on the 11th August 2017.
An additional gallery of images from May 2016 and July 2019 may be found in the following link:
- Operation Source, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Operation_Source &oldid=861242766 [last visited Jan. 1, 2019].
- John Asmussen (2000 – 2009) “Tirpitz”; https://www.bismarck-class.dk/tirpitz/tirpitz_menu.html [Accessed January 2019]
- John Asmussen (2000 – 2009) “Operation Source (11 September – 5 October 1943)”; https://www.bismarck-class.dk/tirpitz/gallery/galltiropersource.html [Accessed January 2019]
- John Asmussen (2000 – 2009) “British Ships Involved Submarines X-Craft (Midget Submarine) Technical Data (X-5 to X-10 series)”; https://www.bismarck-class.dk/other_craft_involved/british_ships_involved/submarines/x_craft.html [Accessed January 2019]