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HMS Perseus – A Story of Survival

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HMS Perseus – A Story of Survival

Leading Seaman John Capes, whilst in Malta, was involved in an accident whilst driving a hired car. He collided with a horse and cart, completely demolishing it, and was given leave by the Admiralty to return to the island to settle matters with the 'karotsi' owner. Arrangements were made for his passage to the island, then under siege, by the Magic Carpet Service, which were the large submarines that were used frequently to deliver supplies from Alexandria and Gibraltar to Malta.

After his court appearance, John Capes left Mtitlea and found passage on board the submarine HMS Perseus. On the night of the 6th of December 1941, the submarine was patrolling the straights between Kefalonia and Zakynthos when suddenly a tremendous explosion shuddered the submarine from stem to stern. She had struck an Italian mine.

The lights went out, and cries of panic and despair came from every quarter as tons of water surged into the vessel.

At the moment of the explosion John Capes was resting in an empty torpedo rack at the aft end of Perseus. He was going through some letters, drinking rum from a bottle that later proved to be a lifesaver.

Following the shattering explosion, Perseus plunged nose first into the depths. Her prow hit the bottom with a tremendous impact and then her stern settled heavily onto the seabed. Within seconds HMS Persus had become an underwater grave for most of her crew.

Luckily, the aft compartments did not start to flood until Perseus touched the bottom, and Capes, although injured, was still alive. He started to grope around until he found the torch that was always placed near the escape hatch. It was still working. Its rays pierced the damp and foggy atmosphere, smelling of paint from an upturned pot.

Capes started to search for his shipmates. He went into the engine room and saw a dreadful scene: the electricians were dead, probably after falling on live switches. However, among the scattered bodies and wreckage he managed to find three other badly injured stokers.

Not far away was the bulkhead door, held shut by the pressure of water on the other side. It creaked ominously, while jets and trickles of water seeped through the rubber seal around its periphery.

"That door," wrote Capes years later, "saved me and the three injured men I found alive in the debris. Our plight was one of horror. The water was rising in the engine room bilges and we were surrounded by the mangled bodies of a dozen dead. Perseus had become a cold steel tomb surrounded by the relentless sea."

At that moment Capes remembered his bottle of rum. Cold had already started to penetrate the survivors, and he thought the alcohol would warm everyone up. All four of them had a few reviving sips. Then Capes carried the wounded men to the stern compartment, where there was an escape hatch: their only chance for escape, if it hadn't jammed in the sinking.

In order to open the escape hatch, Capes had to balance the pressure in the compartment with that in the sea. His reactions were immediate: "I shut the aft watertight door, isolating us in the stern compartment," he recalled later. "I opened four lockers and strapped rubber escape sets (Davis submerged escape apparatus) on my companions".

Then Capes lowered the collapsible canvas escape sleeve (or twill trunk) and secured it by lashings to the deck. At the top of the sleeve was the escape hatch, with four nuts holding it in place.

Next he had to find a way to flood the compartment from the sea, so that the water would rise around the escape trunk, leaving a small pocket of compressed air to stop the water rising further.

The next step for the four seamen would be to insert their mouthpieces, duck down under the water, and come up inside the trunk before getting out into the open sea through the escape hatch. But when Capes found the valve in the starboard bilge he was unpleasantly surprised. Its spindle was bent and immovable.

They were trapped.
 

Time was passing and Capes had to find an alternative way to flood the compartment before they were all suffocated. It was then that he remembered the underwater gun, normally used for sending smoke signals to the surface for instruction purposes.

"I splashed down to the gun and opened its breech," Capes continued. "I tried the sluice valve gently and could feel the thrust of water entering. It increased to a steady whirl as the sea gushed in and then steadied. The air space round the hatch diminished rapidly. Here it came - the sea that would save us, drown us or freeze us to death.

"The atmosphere in the small space was becoming foul. As the water swirled around us almost chest high, a thick oily scum of paint spread across the dark swell in the confined space. We breathed this putrid air, slightly warm from its compression."

Capes turned on his Davis apparatus and, breathing painfully, ducked down through the paint scum, groped for the bottom rim of the escape trunk and dragged himself into it. Soon he had his head above water in the tiny pocket of air below the escape hatch.

He stretched out his hand and unscrewed the small vent cock in the middle of its steel lid. These were critical moments.

"The air whistled out to the sea above and the slimy water rose above my face. My teeth were chattering. I realised the oxygen would not give me long. I had much to do still. Using all my weight, I put my remaining strength on the tommy bar in the tube spanner to undo the dog nuts. Fortunately, they were not corroded, and came away without difficulty. The vital moment came as the last nut dropped below me and the hatch flew wide open while a giant bubble of air escaped."

The way to the surface - deadly hazardous though it was - was now open. A battle was won, but the war was not over. Capes now had to go back through the escape trunk and into the foul air still trapped in the roof of the compartment where the injured crewmen waited.

He was relieved to find them still breathing, but time was running out, and he had to act quickly. They were all wearing Davis apparatus, ready to leave the submarine. But how deep were they? The depth gauge was showing a little over 270ft (82m). But was it still working? And if so, what chance did they have to surface from that depth? The fact that the Davis apparatus contained pure oxygen and not air made the situation even more hazardous.

However, the desperate seamen didn't really have a choice. They had to get out of the sunken submarine and attempt an ascent, no matter how dangerous that might be. It was the only way to escape the death they would inevitably suffer unless they abandoned the sub. Without wasting another moment, John helped his shipmates into the escape trunk, through the hatch and out to the sea. Then, draining the last of the rum from his bottle, he followed.

Visibility in the cold, dark water of the Ionian Sea was very limited. "I flashed my torch around," Capes recollected, "but was unable to see further than a few feet of rear casing steel deck. This was my last glimpse of the valiant Perseus."

The ascent to the distant surface had to be taken slowly if the escaping men hoped to avoid dramatic consequences. John Capes went through agonising moments trying to slow down his ascent. He was dizzy and felt as if his lungs were going to burst. Unless he did something fast he wouldn't make it to the surface alive.

He unrolled a small apron he had on his apparatus, designed to act like a parachute in reverse, and held it out in front of him. Theoretically, it was supposed to trap the water and slow his ascent, but it unbalanced him and turned him upside down. So he had to let go to become upright again. His breathing was getting more painful, and things were not about to get any easier.

"I still had my torch, which suddenly illuminated wires hanging from a large cylindrical object," Capes went on. "It was an acoustic mine. Dear God! Any sound was supposed to set it off. God only knows why it didn't go off. Perhaps I was destined to live. The pain was constantly increasing, and just when I thought I couldn't take it any more, I realised that I had burst to the surface!

"The sea was rough. I looked around but there wasn't any sign of my companions. I didn't want to believe that I was the only survivor of the 60 crew members of Perseus, a British submarine whose tragic fate was now indicated only by the air bubbles that were still coming up from the wreck to the surface. My eyes searched the wave tops in despair.

"Then, at some distance, I saw a ribbon of white, bobbing about on the wave crests. It appeared to be a broken line of cliffs, probably a beach on the Greek island of Cephalonia.

"Despite the intense pains in my lungs, I started to swim towards the shore, hoping that my shipmates had already struck out in that direction."

Capes, resourceful as he was, made the oxygen bag of the Davis apparatus into a kind of lifebelt in order to get through the strenuous ordeal of swimming in the cold sea. Although he was feeling the consequences of his fast ascent, and despite being injured, the thought of giving up his fight to live never crossed his mind. Hour after hour he kept going, sometimes on his back, then swimming breaststroke, resting frequently.
Eventually, he realised that land was close by. With renewed effort he gathered his strength for a final push to the shore. He could now see cliff formations clearly. Suddenly his foot struck something hard. He had reached rocks fringing the shore. Gasping in dry air, he dragged himself on, and eventually crawled over the rocks onto a sandy beach.

He hauled himself a little further, and then with his face down, head on hands, he lapsed into unconsciousness. The residents of the nearest Cephalonian village found him there the next day.

For the next 18 months they sheltered him, moving him from house to house to avoid the occupying forces of Italians and Germans, before smuggling him by boat to safety in Turkey.

To say that Capes' story was thought to been overly remarkable by many is an understatement. Many did not believe it, nor did they believe Capes was, in fact, himself, though those making those conclusions had to admit that, the crew list being classified, it was unlikely an imposter could have come up with the facts he had.

None the less, his statements concerning the location of the sinking did not jive with Admiralty estimates, and many considered him a fraud to the day he died.

However, in 1996, Greek divers located HMS Perseus on the ocean floor, exactly where Capes said it would be. It was in 170 feet of water, and the rear escape hatch was open. Upon looking into the open hatch, the divers clearly saw on the floor below the rum bottle emptied by Capes just before his departure. All of this was photographed. Though Capes had been dead for some 15 years when the sub was discovered, it can truly be said that he had the last laugh on those that doubted his story. It is probably the single most remarkable survival story to come out of WWII.

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