b. 19/07/1921 Malvern, Worcestershire. d. 27/12/1994 Holborn, London.
Basil Charles Godfrey Place (1921-1994) was born on July 19th 1921 in Malvern, Worcestershire and joined the Royal Navy as a cadet at Dartmouth in 1934. A midshipman in the cruiser Newcastle when war broke out in 1939, he joined the submarine service in 1941 and went out to the Mediterranean to serve in the 10th Flotilla in Urge and Una and as a liaison officer in the Polish submarine Sokol; he was awarded the Krzyz Walecznych (Polish Military Cross) in 1942.
As first lieutenant of Unbeaten he was awarded the DSC after she had carried out several successful patrols and sunk the Italian U-boat Guglielmotti off Sicily in 1942. Place was the only regular RN officer of all the early X-craft volunteers, and commanded the second experimental X-craft X4 before taking command of X7.
The 44,000-ton Tirpitz rarely put to sea and used her main 15in guns in anger only once, against the island of Spitzbergen. But her presence in her heavily defended anchorage in Kaa Fjord, northern Norway, affected Allied ship movements around the world. Many attempts were made to attack her, but the first to do any damage was Operation Source, carried out by midget submarines (or X-craft) in September 1943.The X-craft were 51ft long, weighed 35 tons, could dive to 300ft, had a speed of five knots and a crew of three officers and an engine-room artificer.
Armed with two side charges which could be dropped under a target and set to detonate by clockwork time-fuses, they were towed to their target by “orthodox” submarines with a “passage crew” on board, an “operational crew” taking over for the actual attack. Six X-craft took part in Operation Source: two to attack the battlecruiser Scharnhorst; one to attack the battleship Lutzow; and three to attack Tirpitz (X5, X6 and X7 – the last commanded by Place).
Towed by Stubborn, X7 left the depot ship Bonaventure in Loch Cairnbawn on September 11th, and Place’s operational crew took over on the evening of September 18th, after a tow of nearly 1,000 miles. The next night, 20 miles from the slipping point, X7 was on the surface charging her battery while the crew had supper when they heard an alarming noise from up forward.
Place went on deck and saw that a German mine had caught in X7’s towing wire and was bumping against her bow. He noticed that one horn was broken but, he recalled, “I didn’t wait to examine it closely; keeping it off with my foot gingerly placed on its shell, I loosed its mooring wire from the bow and breathed deeply as it floated astern. When I got below I thought a tot would not do us any harm, so we toasted Minerva – the mine with the crumpled horn.” X7 entered the fjord on September 21st and surfaced that evening to charge the battery. Place dived at 1am the next day and found a gap in the outer net.
X7 then ran into an anti-torpedo net at a depth of some 30 feet. The water was so clear that Place could see the mesh of the net through the periscope. X7 went full astern and then full ahead, flooded and then blew ballast tanks, threshed and fought like a struggling salmon, and eventually broke through. Place first sighted Tirpitz at 6.40am, at a range of about a mile. There was yet another net, in which X7 stuck at a depth of 70ft. Somehow X7 penetrated it, and broke surface some 30yds off Tirpitz’s port beam.
At full speed X7 struck Tirpitz’s side at a depth of 20ft, slid gently under the keel, swung fore and aft in line with the ship and jettisoned the starboard side charge. X7 then went slow astern for about 200ft further aft and dropped the port charge. The charges had a time-delay of roughly an hour, but this could not be relied on. Place tried frantically to penetrate the net again, but X7 was still stuck when the charges went off at 8.12am and blew her clear of the net.
X7 was now extremely difficult to control and broke surface several times, whereupon Tirpitz’s guns opened fire, damaging the hull and periscope. With all her high-pressure air exhausted, X7 sat on the bottom while Place considered the situation. He decided he must abandon the craft. X7 surfaced near a battle-practice target about 500yds off Tirpitz’s starboard bow. Place emerged and began to wave a white sweater, but some water lapped into his submarine and, in her low state of buoyancy, she went to the bottom. One officer escaped three hours later, but another and the artificer were drowned.
Place was taken on board Tirpitz, where he realised he cut a ridiculous figure on her quarterdeck – “wearing vest, pants, seaboot stockings, army boots size 12”. Threatened with execution if he did not reveal where he had laid his mines, “I stated I was an English naval officer and as such demanded the courtesy entitled to my rank.”I didn’t say what rank – I had a fleeting vision of Gabby, the town crier in Max Fleischer’s cartoon of Gulliver’s Travels, shouting ‘You can’t do this to me, you can’t do this to me, I’ve got a wife and kids, millions of kids!’ ” X7’s charges and those laid by X6 did so much damage that Tirpitz was not ready for sea again until April 1944. Place and Lt Donald Cameron, X6’s captain, who also became a prisoner-of-war, were both awarded the VC. X5, commanded by Lt Henty-Creer, was lost with all hands.
He spent the rest of the war in Marlag-Milag Nord, where he played a part in the celebrated “Albert RN” escape. After the war a tactless Admiralty bureaucrat offered Place a humdrum submarine appointment because he had “lost” so much time as a PoW. He turned his back on submarines to join the Fleet Air Arm. He qualified as a pilot in 1952 and served as a pilot and a squadron commander in the carrier Glory in the Korean War.
From then on his appointments were either in the Air Arm or in surface ships: on the staff of Flag Officer Flying Training; as commander of the destroyer Tumult; as executive officer of the carrier Theseus, taking part in the Suez operation in 1956; and as commander of the destroyer Corunna until he was promoted captain in 1958. He was then successively chief staff officer to Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers and Deputy Director of Air Warfare. He commanded the frigate Rothesay, as Captain (F) 6th Frigate Squadron; was captain of HMS Ganges, the boys’ training establishment at Shotley; and commanded the commando-carrier Albion in the Far East until he was promoted rear-admiral in 1968 – by which time he was the only serving VC in the Navy.
Place’s last appointments were as Director General Recruiting and Admiral Commanding Reserves; he retired in 1970, when he was appointed CB. In 1975 Place became the first ombudsman for complaints against solicitors. In his final report four years later he called for more vigorous action by the Law Society to reduce delays by solicitors acting as executors. When he found travel to London too tiring he bought and ran two leather goods shops and a saddlery near his home in Dorset.
Although his VC was for an act of outstanding courage, Place was an extremely modest man with an almost self-effacing manner. He made a splendid chairman of the VC and GC Association from 1971, bringing together its highly individual personalities into a unique fellowship. He had married 2nd Officer Althea Tickler, WRNS, in 1943, weeks before the Tirpitz raid, with Henty-Creer as his best man; they had a son and two daughters. Godfrey died on 27th December 1994 in Holborn, London and was laid to rest in Corton Denham Churchyard, Corton Denham, Somerset. His widow Althea donated his medal group to the Imperial War Museum, and they are displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: CORTON DENHAM CHURCHYARD, CORTON DENHAM, SOMERSET.
Kevin Brazier – Image of Godfrey Place VC’s grave in Corton Denham Churchyard.