#0039: The Ghosts Beneath The Surface
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
It's a little after six in the morning on Wednesday 22nd September, 1943, and the sun is rising over the summit of Sakkobadne in northern Norway.
As daylight creeps down the western flank of the mountain, it picks out bare rock face and scree, before reaching its foot and rushing out across the still waters of Kåfjord.
It reflects weakly off the surface, picking out the fishermen on their trawlers, returning from a long night at sea.
It shines gently on a flock of birds, sleeping on the water.
It comes to rest on the black and grey striped hull of the Tirpitz, looming over the dark mirror of the fjord.
Along with her sister, the Bismarck, Tirpitz is the largest and most powerful battleship in the German fleet. Over a quarter of a kilometre long, and weighing more than fifty thousand tonnes, her position on the northern coast of Norway presents a major threat to vital convoys between Britain and the Soviet Union.
The heavy, metal nets surrounding the ship render torpedoes useless, whilst her phenomenal firepower makes conventional bombing too risky.
A new approach is needed if this strategic target is to be neutralised.
And that approach hails from the most unexpected of places.
Seventy-six years later, I'm stepping off the single-track tarmac of the B836, just before it snakes through the woods skirting the shore of Loch Striven like a length of twisted, black ribbon.
As I leave the road, the footpath down to the glen drops steeply and unevenly through a tunnel of trees, the sound of falling water rushing ever closer as the trail approaches a bridge over a tumbling river.
I lose my footing and stumble the final few metres down the path. When I regain my balance and look up, I can't help but smile at what I see.
A grey-harled jumble of turrets, chimneys and gables hunkered under a steeply pitched roof, Ardtaraig House has stood proudly over the shore of Loch Striven for over three hundred years. As I walk toward the water, my gaze passes over the elegant formal gardens, contrasting sharply against their backdrop of magnificent, uninterrupted views over the sea loch, and onward to the densely wooded hills which drop abruptly to the western shore.
It's those hills, and their close resemblance to the landscape of Kåfjord, over two thousand kilometres north, which led to the tightly tangled histories of Loch Striven and the pride of the German fleet.
In the years before the war, Cowal was an isolated place of fishing, farming and tourism. But with the coming crisis in Europe, the military needed an out of the way location for its most covert operations. Suddenly, Cowal's isolation became its major appeal.
War was coming, and it was coming to Argyll.
First came HMS Varbel, established in the luxurious Kyles Hydro Hotel on the Isle of Bute, after it was commandeered by the Royal Navy in 1942. Shortly afterward, the military set its sights on Ardtaraig or, as it would come to be known, HMS Varbel II.
The Varbels served the Navy's 12th Submarine Flotilla; Varbel as headquarters, and Varbel II, taking full advantage of Loch Striven's secure, protected waters, as a navigation and pilotage training facility.
The 12th Flotilla wasn't the home of just any submarines, however.
At just under sixteen metres long and a metre and a half in diameter, the experimental X-craft miniature submarines were capable of carrying crews of four to places larger craft simply couldn't reach. Once there, they could dive to more than ninety metres, taking payloads of four tonnes of explosive charges with them.
This was a new type of weapon, for a new, strategic war.
Following the shore toward Glenstriven House, which became a home away from home for the crew of the X-craft, I imagine how the dark, forbidding waters of Loch Striven were brought to life from the depths all those years ago.
Streams of bubbles would break the surface whilst, deep below, the X-craft would glide through the darkness, their crews learning how to command their experimental, dangerous new vessels. Away from prying eyes, away from the horrors unfolding on the continent, the waters off Cowal become a playground for these young, fearless crewmen.
But the X-craft weren't the only experimental weapons in Loch Striven's arsenal against the Tirptiz.
It's June, 1943, and, whilst the X-craft chase each other through shafts of light piercing the gloomy waters off Bute, the smell of burning tar signals the beginning of a now-familiar routine for the civilian owners of Glenstriven House.
The family catches a fleeting glimpse of plumes of thick, oily smoke blocking out the midday sun and shrouding the loch in secrecy, before curtains are drawn across the windows and they are ushered, by uniformed officers, into a back room of the house.
They sit in the still, stuffy, gloom. And, quietly, they wait.
The silence is broken by the distant thrum of twin Merlin engines as a de Havilland Mosquito keeps low to the water.
Louder now, the engines roar as the aircraft races past the house. Then another noise.
The dull thunk of metal on hollow metal.
Then silence, broken only by the Merlins' retreat and muted cheers from the water.
Think of bouncing bombs, and it's difficult not to imagine that now famous march accompanying shaky footage of cylindrical bombs skimming across flat water. The Dam Busters captured the imagination of the world, and brought its attention to Upkeep, the four tonne, barrel-shaped bomb which breached the dams at Möhne and Edersee.
But whilst Upkeep was still in development, its designer, the aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis, was already setting to work on something new.
Weighing in at only six hundred kilograms, Highball was a gently flattened sphere of metal, almost a metre in diameter. Designed specifically to target ships, it would skip across the waters surface, bouncing over anti-torpedo nets, and sinking next to its target.
An eight ball jump shot in a pool game between the gods.
By detonating at depth, Highball would target the lower, weaker sections of the hull. Why attack the armour of the beast when you can go for its belly?
Over the course of 1943, around two hundred prototype Highballs were dropped in testing, targeting the French battleship, Courbet, which was moored on Loch Striven specifically for target practice. Until two of those bombs were salvaged in July 2017, the only Highballs in existence were to be found in the dark, cold waters at the bottom of the loch.
As the summer pressed on, and preparations were made to launch a Highball attack on the Tirpitz, concerns grew over the reliability of the mechanism to release the bombs from the Mosquitoes' bomb bays.
By the start of September, the Royal Air Force had to accept their worst fear.
Highball wasn't ready.
Looking out over the water, my mind races back to Norway. To 22nd September, 1943.
As dawn breaks over Kåfjord, none of the two thousand strong crew aboard Tirpitz pay attention as the antisubmarine net defending the fjord is opened to allow a Norwegian trawler through, the still waters boiling and rolling in her wake.
Several metres below the trawler, the dark water is fractured by a thousand shards of early morning light and, gliding between them, an X-craft slips through the net. She's joined by a second and, together, they sink below the keel of the Tirpitz.
The morning calm is shattered as the alarm is raised and shells rain down on the fjord, gunfire reverberating around the surrounding mountains.
Knowing that there's no escape, one of the submarines breaks the surface, her crew surrendering to the German fleet.
Struck by gunfire, the second craft takes on water and, like a dying leviathan, sinks rapidly to the sea bed. In the dark, at the bottom of the fjord, with breathing apparatus held close to their faces, her crew waits for the pressure to equalise before the hatches open and, with shells sizzling through the water all around them, they swim for the surface.
Only two make it.
But Tirpitz's fate is already sealed. Within the hour, the charges dropped by the two X-craft have detonated. An oil tank is ruptured, Tirpitz's shell plating is torn, and over fourteen hundred tonnes of water flood the ship.
It'll be six months before Tirpitz is operational again, and another eight until she is finally sunk under bombing by Avro Lancasters in the waters off Tromsø.
The Navy dispatched six X-craft from the Secret Coast to attack Tirpitz.
Three made it to Kåfjord.
Only one returned.
The cold wind bites at my face, but I'm not sure that's what's making me shudder. Whilst undeniably beautiful, there remains something sinister about Loch Striven.
Perhaps it's the memory of its vendetta against Kåfjord, so far away in the Arctic Circle.
Perhaps it's the way the hills cut into the loch like cold, steel blades.
Perhaps it's the forbidding grey of the water.
Or perhaps it's the many secrets which still lie hidden beneath its surface.