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Vernon Coles

Submariner and engineer

Submariner and engineer

Born: April 16 1920; Died: May 2 2014.

Vernon "Ginger" Coles, who has died aged 94, was a hero of one of the most audacious naval raids of the Second World War. Mr Coles and three colleagues manned a four-man midget submarine known as an X-craft. The perilous raids were carried out on the German fleet anchored in the Norwegian fiords and were made into a film, Above Us The Waves, starring John Mills.

The midget subs were just that - headroom under 5ft and the crew could neither stand nor stretch out. The air was not good and the submarines had to surface every six hours for fresh air. Each mini-submarine carried a couple of two-ton explosive charges which were to be attached to the German battleship.

Their most highly charged expedition was Operation Source, an attack on the three most powerful battleships of the German navy: the Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Lützow. The warships lay at anchor and were a potential menace to the North Sea and the vital convoys crossing the Atlantic. Mr Coles held the pivotal role as engineer and steersman of X-9.

The submariners trained at Loch Cairnbawn, a sea inlet off Eddrachillis Bay, north of Ullapool. The training was intense and Mr Coles and his crews were subjected to lengthy periods in deep water.

"The training was dangerous" he recalled. "We lost quite a few people here and there. Lots of people fell unconscious at different times just getting used to the diving gear."

It was from Loch Cairnbawn that in 1942 the flotilla of six X-crafts were each towed by a mother submarine across the North Sea. It was a hugely hazardous operation - intensified by the unreliability of the towing ropes.

Three chariots were destroyed and Mr Coles lost three close friends.

Years later he remembered them with pride: "They were always working: doing something for the betterment of the boat."

Despite the problems, the men succeeded in placing bombs on the hull of the mighty Tirpitz and they caused extensive damage and put her out of action for six months.

It was entirely appropriate Mr Coles and his colleagues were remembered at a ceremony overlooking Loch Cairnbawn when a monument was unveiled in 2012.

The Rev Peter Mosley led the service of remembrance and after the singing of the naval hymn in the wind and rain the Last Post was sounded.

In 1944 Mr Coles was involved in another dangerous mission when he returned to Norway for an attack on Bergen harbour. On that expedition he steered his chariot for 19 hours without a break. The mission was entirely successful and Mr Coles was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

After D-Day, Mr Coles served in the Far East and was involved in a mission to cut two strategically important underwater telegraph cables off the coast of Saigon.

He and the crew were towed from Queensland to the Mekong river and, after a lengthy search with expert navigation from Mr Coles, successfully cut the cables. For his expertise and calmness under extreme pressure, Mr Coles was mentioned in dispatches.

He was born in Berkshire and brought up by relatives leaving the local school at 14 to become an apprentice toolmaker. He often visited naval reviews at Weymouth with his Sunday School and decided to enlist with the Royal Navy in 1938.

He first served on HMS Faulknor, which was the first ship to sink a U-boat, and also saw service in the Mediterranean on the Malta convoys; he also escorted convoys to Russia on the hugely challenging Murmansk Run, the latter usually assembled and sailed from Loch Ewe.

Mr Coles volunteered for submarine service in 1942.

After the war, he served in submarines in Sydney and Singapore and twice returned to Malta before leaving the service in 1952.

In retirement, he worked at the Ministry of Public Works and Buildings in Malaysia and at Abingdon in Berkshire. He was also the chief engineer at the American Air Force base at Greenham Common before taking an executive post with Van Oord, a dredging company.

He was active in freemasonry during his retirement and spoke with much sympathy and passion to local organisations of his war experiences.

In 2011, he visited the Museum of the Submariners' Association and, despite his 92 years, gave a spirited interview to a television crew about his experiences both at Loch Cairnbawn and on the training he underwent on Hayling Island prior to D-Day. During that period Mr Coles carried out vital and extensive surveys of the Normandy beaches before the invasion.

He married Marie Weaver in 1948. She predeceased him in 2010 and he is survived by their two daughters and a son.

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