Great escape – how John Capes survived the sinking of a submarine

John Capes died in 1985, aged 75. At the time of his death some people still doubted his amazing survival story from the sinking of the submarine HMS Perseus when it hit a mine in the Ionian Sea off the Greek island of Kefalonia on 6 December 1941.

His story: he was the only one of 61 men on board who managed to get out of the sunken sub and make it to the surface. He struggled ashore and was rescued by fishermen.

Capes was hidden by villagers from occupying Italian forces for 18 months before being taken off the island on a fishing boat in May 1943 in a clandestine operation organised by the Royal Navy.

He made it to Turkey and from there back to the submarine base in Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.

He told of his amazing escape, writing newspaper articles and giving interviews.

But some doubted he was ever on the submarine at all – because his name wasn’t on the crew list. Submarine commanders had been ordered to bolt escape hatches shut from the outside to stop them lifting during depth charge attacks.

There were no witnesses, Capes had a reputation as a great storyteller, and details in his own written accounts after the war varied. Little wonder his story was met with scepticism.

It took until 1997 when a dive team from Greece led by Kostas Thoctarides found the wreck of the Perseus 171 ft (62 m) below the surface for the amazing story to be verified.

His amazing escape has since been recounted by Tim Clayton, author of Sea Wolves: the Extraordinary Story of Britain’s WW2 Submarines, in BBC Radio 4’s Escape from the Deep program broadcast in 2011 for which Clayton was a consultant, and in DIVER magazine in 1998.

Capes’ story unfolds this way, based on those reports:

John Hawtrey Capes was born on the 20 September in 1910. He studied at Dulwich College and joined the Royal Navy rather late in life, aged 25, as a Stoker 2nd Class on 20 May 1935.

He volunteered for the Submarine Service at the earliest opportunity and started training in June 1938. He joined his first boat, the submarine L 34, on 18 July that year.

He also served on the HMS Olympus and the HMS Thrasher around the Mediterranean.

On a visit to Malta he was involved in an accident while driving a hired car; he ran into a horse and cart and demolished the car. Before the incident was resolved he was recalled to his own submarine. HMS Thrasher, where he was Leading Stoker. He was later given leave to return to Malta and settle matters with the owner of the horse and cart. After the court matter, 31-year-old Capes and another sailor hitched a ride aboard HMS Perseus for the trip back to Alexandria where he could rejoin his own ship.

In bad weather on the night of 6 December 1941 Perseus was on the surface two miles (3 km) off the coast of Kefalonia, recharging her batteries and preparing for another day below the surface.

Shattering jolt

Capes was resting in an empty torpedo rack at the aft end of Perseus. Above him there was a round escape hatch. He was going through some letters and drinking rum from a bottle that later proved to be a lifesaver and an important piece of verification evidence.

Suddenly a tremendous explosion rocked the submarine from stem to stern. The lights went out and cries of panic and despair came from every quarter as tons of water surged into the boat. The submarine had hit something, probably a mine, and was going down in a nosedive.

Capes described the explosion as a “nerve shattering jolt”.

He could stand and he grabbed a torch to help him find his way around. In the rising water of the engine room he found “the mangled bodies of a dozen dead”. Amongst the scattered bodies and wreckage he managed to find three other badly injured but alive stokers.

Not far away was the bulkhead door, held shut by the pressure of water on the other side.

“That door,” Capes later wrote, “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.”

Capes remembered his bottle of rum. Cold had already started to affect 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.

He fitted them and himself with Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus – a rubber lung with an oxygen bottle, mouthpiece and goggles.

He flooded the compartment, lowered the canvas trunk beneath the escape hatch and with some difficulty released the damaged bolts on the hatch.

He pushed his injured companions into the trunk, up through the hatch and away into the cold sea above. Then he took a last swig of rum, dropped the bottle and passed through the hatch himself.

Capes went through agonising moments trying to slow down his ascent. He was dizzy and felt as if his lungs were going to burst. He had to slow down. He unrolled a small apron he had on his apparatus and held it out in front of him so it would act like a parachute in reverse. It was supposed to trap the water and slow him but it unbalanced him and turned him upside down.

He had to let go to become upright again.

He recalled: “I still had my torch, which suddenly illuminated wires hanging from a large cylindrical object. 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.”

He suddenly found himself on the surface. But there was no sign of the other stokers. They didn’t make it up.

In the darkness he spotted white cliffs and struck out for them.

The next morning Capes was found unconscious by two fishermen from the village of Mavrata on the shore of Kefalonia and hid him in a cave.

For the following 18 months he was passed from house to house, to evade the Italian occupiers. He lost 70lb (32kg) in weight and dyed his hair black to blend in.

Don’t eat the donkey

He recalled later: “Always, at the moment of despair, some utterly poor but friendly and patriotic islander would risk the lives of all his family for my sake. They even gave me one of their prize possessions, a donkey called Mareeka. There was one condition attached to her – I had to take a solemn vow not to eat her.”

Finally, on May 30, 1943, in a plan organised by the Royal Navy, Capes was put aboard a small fishing boat which smuggled him 640 km (400 mi) to Smyrna, Turkey. He went to the British consulate and was taken to Alexandria, Egypt. Capes returned to service in the Royal Navy and later received the British Empire Medal for his exploits. He retired from the navy in 1950.

Greek diver Kostas Thoctarides read the story of HMS Perseus and put a team together to try to find it. A local fisherman recalled that his nets occasionally became caught on something heavy and immovable in the area where Perseus was thought to lie, so that was considered the best place to start looking.

The diving team searched and eventually the silhouette of a wreck showed on the sonar at 170.6 ft (52 m). Its shape and size matched the characteristics of the British submarine and a dive by Thoctarides confirmed its identity.

The only significant damage to the boat was a crack on her port side, near the bow, presumably caused by hitting the mine. The rest of her hull was in good condition.

The escape hatch of the stern compartment was open, just as Capes said he left it, and everything in the compartment fitted the scene he described, including the empty rum bottle, a Davis apparatus, a boiler suit and three army boots.

Close to Perseus, divers found the anchor of an Italian mine: a discovery that seems to confirm that an exploding mine was the cause of her sinking.

Capes’ escape was one of the most remarkable stories of World War II in which there were only four escapes from stricken British submarines.

 

 

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