Chris Sutcliff

Artist Man I am
18th May 2009

They still make them like they used to.

My Dad is a walking history book. More specifically – after 12 years in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces – my Dad is a walking naval history TALKING book. If you don’t run away from him fast enough, he will put knowledge in you, whether you want him to or not. Depending on whom you are and which party you are at, he’s either the man you most want to sit next to or the man you need to pretend not to have seen before leaving discreetly via the fire exit. As I am his son and his house has no fire exit, I am the man who receives ALL his topical updates in return for being fed or borrowing his money. Thanks to him, I not only exist but I can also talk for some time on major naval victories like Trafalgar, major naval growling matches like The Cold War and major naval drinking holes in Plymouth.

I visited him the other day to waste all his black printer ink by printing giant fonts that I later found to be quite useless. He cornered me when I made him a cup of tea and I least expected it. Amazingly, he only needs three conversational jumps before you find yourself in a seminar. It goes like this – “Hi Son, how are you today? The weather is awful isn’t it? Have you seen how low the ceilings were on the gun-deck of HMS Victory? The men slept eighty to a bunk in a room the size of your eye and had one radish between them to nourish them for four years.” – Or any one of a million other random facts that are centred on intense bravery through intense hardship a really, really long time ago. On this particular visit I got two stories that I was surprised and pleased to find absolutely ace, not only were they pretty interesting and inspiring but they were also totally in tune with the themes I want to talk about in this blog. So here they are:

In World War 2 the British had these nifty little four-man submarines called XE-Craft that were actually just water-tight Dustbins with two tons of Amatol explosives strapped to each side. The four crewmen were signed up because they weren’t claustrophobic, flammable or sane. One of the crewmen was a diver who had in his possession a further six or so 20-pound limpet mines. The craft would slip under an enemy ship whilst it was moored, drop the two side charges on the sea bed and then the diver would pop out of a tiny hatch and attach the limpet mines by hand to the hull of the ship then get back in the XE and make a hasty exit before the timed charges all went off. You ideally needed to be at home in your slippers by the time that happened. How anybody volunteered for these missions is completely beyond me.

In August 1945, the craft XE-3 was tasked with mining the Japanese cruiser ‘Takao’ in Singapore harbour. It took 11 hours to steer the craft through fortified harbour defences and get under the target. The diver, one James Joseph Magennis, then swum out of the hatch to lay the limpets. In the cold and the dark he had to chip away at barnacles for thirty minutes before he could clear enough space to lay the mines, without being seen by guards with rifles, in a diving suit that was faulty and leaking oxygen the entire time. When he returned to the craft, panting slightly, his Lieutenant found that one of the side charges had not dropped, so Magennis went straight back out to sort it, commenting only “I’ll be right as soon as I’ve got my wind, Sir”. He sat on a two ton bomb for seven minutes and freed it with a heavy spanner allowing it to drop to the sea floor. During all this time the tide had gone out and the ship had dropped in the harbour, obstructing their exit. So, with a Japanese cruiser sat directly on top of them and with all their own bombs sat just feet away and ticking merrily towards obliteration, the crew of XE-3 just sort of sat about for a bit, sweating in silence and waiting for the tide to lift the ship sufficiently out of the way so they could bugger off in one piece. This they did. The ‘Takao’ was damaged enough to never sail again and Magennis got the Victoria Cross for bravery.

In February 2008, in the city of Basra in Iraq, Major Phil Packer found himself on the wrong side of a rocket attack and suffered ‘catastrophic’ injuries, resulting in the loss of use of both his legs. Doctors said he would never walk again. I can’t say for sure, but that sounds like the point where I would have accepted defeat and got ready for a life where most of the planet is completely inaccessible, including most of your home. Major Phil Packer had entirely different ideas. Twelve months after the accident, almost to the day, Phil and a chap called Al Humphreys rowed a boat 30 miles across the English Channel, in freezing temperatures and rough seas, in fifteen and a half hours. Two months after that, on the 26th April 2009, Phil set off with all the other runners on the Flora London Marathon. It took him 13 days, 2 hours and 50 minutes to walk the route, 2 miles a day, on crutches. “I’ve walked 52,400 steps and somebody has walked with me every step of the way, be it a dinner lady or a London taxi driver,” said the Royal Military Police Officer. “I’ve had time to talk to people and they have really opened up about their feelings about the Armed Services. It has been humbling”. Naturally, he doesn’t stop there. Next he will climb, actually pull himself up, El Capitan – 3000 feet of vertical rock in Yosemite National Park – in 3 days. After that he wants to work to bring hope and inspiration to disabled teenagers and injured servicemen through the charity Help for Heroes. What an absolute legend.

My sincere apologies here as I drag these two great stories into making a rudimentary point about my cushy little life. Leading Seaman Magennis proves that when you have a job to do you have an opportunity to do it to the best of your ability (listen up my call-centre brethren) whilst biding your time so you can eventually get the hell out and go about your life with pride. Major Packer proves that you can do whatever you set your mind to, despite what everyone else thinks are impossible obstacles, and achieve greatness in the face of all adversity. Finally, and most oddly of all, my Dad has proved that as long as you tell someone enough stories, some of it will eventually be of some use and you may accidentally inspire someone to go off and be better than they would have been had you paid any attention to how obviously disinterested they were when you started talking to them.

by Chris
Posted in Words

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