Honouring our Heroes: “It was a bit of a hoot”


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When Sub-Lieutenant Kenneth Briggs first saw the ocean, he was nine and didn’t have much of an interest in sailing or the sea.

But, as the Second World War continued into 1941, convinced by a mate, he volunteered to join the Royal Australian Navy.

Ken served in the European theatre on patrol boats for three years but was transferred to the Pacific as a diver on top-secret midget submarines.

The midget submarines normally had a crew of three — the commander, navigator and engineer — but often operated with the addition of a diver who was needed for jobs such as attaching limpet mines to the hulls of enemy shipping or cutting anti-submarine nets guarding harbours.

“Because of our age, it was a bit of a hoot,” Ken said.

“We trained every day — I had a three to four-hour dive every day.”

Ken was one of two divers who crowded into the tiny submarine, XE-4, on 30 July 1945 for Operation Sabre, a daring mission to cut the underwater telecommunications cables linking Hong Kong, Saigon and Singapore. Cutting communications would force the enemy to use radio transmissions to communicate, which the allied forces could then intercept and decode.

"The crew were having some R and R in the Whitsundays when the orders came through for the job.

"We headed to Mon Repos (near Bundaberg) to practise on an old French cable. My sub, XE-4, were the quickest at the task, so we were sent in to do the job."

It was a tight squeeze in the midget submarine and Ken lay on top of the batteries for most of the 30 hours or so that the expedition lasted. The XE-4 had been towed by a full sized submarine, Spearhead, to within 170 kilometres of the Vietnamese coast before setting off under its own power.

As the XE-4 approached the Vietnamese coast to search for the cable, it towed a grappling hook which it hoped would snag the cable.

After one false alarm when the cable caught on a rock, it finally hooked onto the underwater cable.

Ken went through the procedure of flooding the wet-dry chamber in which he was travelling, then exited the submarine to check the line. To his delight he found they had hooked onto the cable and he returned to the sub for the air-powered cutters necessary to cut through it.

The cable was located at a depth of 52 feet (15 metres) and as Ken did not have scuba equipment, he breathed pure oxygen through a hose. For safety reasons, Ken only had a limited time to be outside the submarine and complete his task. Luckily, this part of the operation took barely more than 10 minutes.

His job achieved, he took the 45 centimetre piece he had cut out of the cable and re-entered the submarine.

The crew then went looking for the Saigon-Hong Kong cable. Again they were lucky and hooked onto the second cable. After three attempts Sub-Lieutenant A K Bergus was able to cut through it at a depth of 50 feet. Then it was back to their towing submarine and depot ship in Labuan.

For his daring actions which helped bring a quicker end to the war in the Pacific, Sub-Lieutenant Kenneth Briggs was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the Royal Navy.

Ken was a Life Member of the Springwood RSL Sub Branch and a member of the Slacks Creek and District Seniors Citizens Club for 30 years.

Ken passed away aged 94 on the 20 January 2018 and is fondly remembered by his friends and family.

Hear more of Ken's story by visiting the Australians at War Film Archive.

In the final year of Anzac Centenary (2014–2018) we are sharing stories of men and women from all wars, peacekeeping operations and conflicts through the Honouring our Heroes series.