The Second World War saw conflict on a scale never before seen. The war in Europe exploded across the globe after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and a new, yet more deadly generation of bluewater combat emerged on the high seas.
Perhaps the most dangerous theater for such combat for Allied submariners was the Mediterranean. Submarines operating here had a myriad of threats: a strong Axis naval presence with bases from Vichy France to Greece, very limited Allied bases, and the gauntlet of fire through the Hellespont for anyone trying to enter the inland sea.
Many sailors died in the Mediterranean conflict, sent to the bottom by enemy mines or attack. HMS Perseus, the British submarine, was one such, hit by an Italian mine off the Greek island of Kefalonia 70 years ago.
When a submarine sinks, it becomes a communal coffin in which escape is almost impossible: two-fifths of the submarines that entered the Mediterranean would be destroyed, a terrifying ratio.
And, in all that time, there were only four escapes from sinking British submarines throughout the war. The most remarkable of these occurred on December 6, 1941. On this day, HMS Perseus sank to the bottom of the ocean, but one man, John Capes, would cheat death that day.
What was HMS Perseus?
HMS Perseus was one of six submarines of the Parthian class, alongside the Parthia, Phoenix, Proteus, Poseidon, and Perseus. In 1927, Great Britain launched a program to build these submarines and on July 2, 1928, they laid down HMS Perseus in Barrow-in-Furness, at the Vickers Armstrong shipyards.
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Perseus was commissioned for use on April 15, 1930, after being launched on May 22, 1929. She and the rest of her class were in the 4th Submarine Flotilla, under Commander Peter Bartlett’s direction, in the China Station at the start of the war.
They continued to serve in the eastern theater until they were reassigned to the Mediterranean in August 1940, where they was responsible for transporting supplies between Alexandria and the besieged island of Malta. From October to April 1941, Perseus underwent a renovation in Malta. She was now fighting fit.
But, the newly outfitted sub would last less than a year. A massive explosion rocked the submarine on December 6, 1941, as it was patrolling the surface south of the island of Kefalonia, causing it to sink.
John Capes was the only one of the 61 men aboard to survive. His escape, using what is known as a Davis Device, was extremely risky given the damage to the sub, and his survival was nothing short of miraculous.
He swam to the village of Mavrata in Kefalonia, where the localities hid him for several months before eventually being returned to British military forces via Smyrna. Who was this man, and how did he come to be the sole survivor?
John Capes might have been ill-fated from the start. His decision to enlist in the military did not come from a sense of patriotic duty, but from a car accident in 1941. When he crashed his car into a horse and cart by accident, due to the ongoing war, the case could not be resolved.
As a result, they sent Capes to serve his country rather than go to jail. On board the submarine HMS Thrasher, he was assigned the position of Leading Stoker. Capes were associated with upper-class society, and an officer’s rank was more common at the time, regardless of one’s military skills. Thus it was strange to see a member of Britain’s upper class given a stoker’s title.
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However, the fact that he was denied the promotion was probably what initially saved his life. The court ordered Capes to return to finish his car accident trial while on the Thrasher. On November 26, his trial was over, and he was transported back to his position aboard Thrasher on the submarine HMS Perseus.
As a passenger on Perseus, Capes was not given a bunk because he was not a member of the crew. He wound up instead on an empty torpedo rack at the sub’s rear. And that was where he was when Perseus struck the mine.
Capes was drunk and lying in his rack when he felt the explosion. The lights on the entire vessel went out as he was thrown from the rack. He used a flashlight to enter the engine room in search of survivors, but most of the crew had perished. He kept looking until he came across three injured and startled men.
He and the other three people used the escape hatch Twill Trunk kept in the engine room to get out of the submarine. They wore Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus, life vests with goggles and oxygen masks.
By the time they exited the submarine they were 270 feet (82 m) below the surface and the chance of survival was very slim. Capes was the only one who made it to the surface and swam the five miles (8 km) to the island of Kefalonia, where islanders hid him for 18 months before being smuggled (in a suitcase, of all things) to Smyrna in Turkey.
Capes was awarded the British Empire Medal for his escape. However, despite his heroism, his story remained under suspicion right up to his death in 1985. It took an investigation of the wreck by Greek archaeologist Kostas Thoctarides in the 1990s, where evidence of Capes’ actions were discovered, to confirm that he deserved the award.
Top Image: John Capes managed to escape from the wreck of HMS Perseus and swim to a nearby island. Source: Photobank / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri