Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Robert Hudspeth

Lieutenant Commander Hudspeth

Kenneth ‘Ken’ Robert Hudspeth was born in Echuca, Victoria on 31 March 1918 the eldest son of schoolteacher Robert Hudspeth and Ada Beatrice Hudspeth (nee Sim).  The family moved to Tasmania in 1919 where his two younger brothers (John and Donald) were born and his father became the first Principal of Hobart Technical College. As a boy Ken was a keen bush-walker, in Tasmania’s south-west region, and also became a Sea Scout and sailing extensively. After completing his schooling Ken became a trainee teacher, in the Tasmanian Education Department, and was assigned to Hythe area school, Southport some 100 kilometres south west of Hobart.

Following the outbreak of war Ken Hudspeth applied to join the Navy and was appointed as a probationary sub-lieutenant, RANVR on 15 July 1940. His first posting was to HMAS Cerberus for induction training followed by training at HMAS Rushcutter for anti-submarine warfare duties. During his time at Rushcutter he completed sea training in the former survey vessel HMAS Moresby. His brothers chose to serve in the army although Donald later transferred to the RAAF in 1942.

Hudspeth departed Australia in the MV Imperial Star in late January 1941. On arrival in the United Kingdom, in late March, he served briefly in the Flower Class corvette HMS Clarkia before being appointed to the corvette HMS Anemone and serving in her for the next 18 months on convoy escort duties in the North Atlantic.  In mid-1942 volunteers for special and hazardous service were called for, stating they must be ‘below 24 years of age on selection, unmarried, be good swimmers and of strong and enduring physique’. After volunteering, and following a selection interview at HMS Dolphin, Hudspeth was accepted without an explanation of what the ‘hazardous service’ actually was. He was subsequently posted to HMS Varbel, on the Isle of Bute, where he commenced training in the new British midget submarines known as X-Craft.  He was promoted lieutenant on 15 January 1943 and was appointed commanding officer of HMS X-10.

The first major employment of the X-Craft was Operation SOURCE involving attacks on the German warships Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Lutzow then operating from northern Norwegian Fjords.  These warships posed a major threat to Allied convoys transiting to and from Russia. Hudspeth commanded X-10 during the attack on 22 September 1943 on the Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord.  The X-Craft, with a crew of four per vessel, were towed across the North Sea by British submarines before being released to enter the fjords submerged.  The crew would then manoeuvre the craft underneath the enemy vessel where the ‘side cargo’ of high explosive charges would be jettisoned.  A delayed activation fuse would then give the crew time to escape before the charges exploded and the resulting overpressure would damage or sink the ship.

The attack was a partial success with Tirpitz badly damaged by the charges laid by X-6 and X-7; but both vessels were attacked and sunk with two of the crew of X-7 killed and the other six men taken prisoner.  X-5 was also sunk by German forces in Kaa Fjord during the attack.  X-8 was to attack Lutzow in Alten Fjord but the explosive charges began to take on water and on being jettisoned one prematurely exploded; damaging the submarine and forcing her crew to scuttle the vessel.  X-9 and X-10 were to attack Scharnhorst in Kaa Fjord; however X-9 sank en route while under tow across the North Sea.  Hudspeth pushed on with the attack and took X-10 into the fjord not knowing that Scharnhorst had shifted berth and was now in Alten Fjord.

When within four miles of the target location, although Scharnhorst was no longer there, the periscope motor burned out and filled the submarine with fumes. Following this the gyro compass failed as did the magnetic compass light. Then the boat started to leak and X-10’s switchboard blew all its fuses. Finally one of the two side cargo explosive saddles began to leak as well.  Hudspeth put X-10 on the sea floor to attempt repairs but, when all repair efforts failed, he was forced to abandon the attack.  X-10 had been submerged in the fjord for nearly 24 hours and the air in the submarine was now almost unbreathable; reluctantly Hudspeth took X-10 out of the fjord to rendezvous with HMS Sceptre. Despite failing to reach his target Lieutenant Hudspeth was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) ‘for outstanding courage and devotion to duty’ (London Gazette 11 January 1944).

His citation read: “For outstanding courage whilst in command of HM Submarine X10 during Operation Source in September 1943. This submarine penetrated Alten Fjord on 22 September 1943 to within four miles of where Tirpitz was lying. Lieutenant Hudspeth bottomed in this position in enemy waters throughout 22 September while he and his crew worked in trying conditions to make good the vessel’s defects. The attempt was in vain and Lieutenant Hudspeth had to come to the correct though bitter decision to withdraw, when so near his goal. The successful double passage of the approaches to Alten Fjord required determination and skill of a high order. The application and endurance shown in the attempt to remedy defects deserve credit. The information this officer was able to bring back was of great value”.   The last comment refers to Hudspeth hearing the explosions from the attacks made by X-6 and X-7 as their crews had been killed or captured and thus unable to report their success. 

Upon return to Varbel the surviving X-Craft crews began training for their next activity.  This was Operation POSTAGE ABLE scheduled to take place during January 1944.  The planning for the invasion of Europe, planned for the summer of 1944, revealed that the Allies had no close inshore charts of the Normandy coastline. The plan formulated was for X-Craft to take specialist commandos to the proposed invasion beaches and put then ashore.  The commandos would then gather the necessary information from the shore-line (both above and below the expected tide level) and then be recovered by the X-Craft for return to the United Kingdom.  Data such as beach gradient, sand and soil consistency (to support vehicles coming ashore) tides and rips, hazards (both man-made and natural) and enemy defences was essential for the landings to take place successfully. From this data the vital invasion charts could be produced to assist with the landing of troops on the Normandy coast. 

Combined Operations Pilotage Parties were formed and two X-Craft (X-20 and X-23) were shipped by rail from Loch Striven (Scotland) to Portsmouth for the operation. Hudspeth and his crew from X-10 were assigned to X-20 where they practised passage in the shallow waters of the Solent. During the period 17-21 January 1944 X-20 landed commandos on the French coast in the area that would become Omaha and Utah Beaches at night before withdrawing and ‘bottoming out’ on the sea floor.  Then before dawn the X-Craft would return to collect the commandoes before repeating the procedure. 

This was done over four nights before exhaustion amongst both X-Craft crews and commandoes forced them to return to Portsmouth. The information brought back enabled the Allies to create suitable charts and models of the invasion beaches that were used for planning and training for Operation OVERLORD.

Lieutenant Hudspeth was awarded a Bar to his DSC ‘for courage and undaunted devotion to duty in a hazardous operation’ (London Gazette 4 April 1944).  The more complete citation read; “For outstanding courage and devotion to duty whilst commanding HM Submarine X20 in hazardous operations. He showed great coolness, grasp and ability in manoeuvring his X-Craft submerged in shallow water close under enemy defences during the first attempt at putting Combined Operations Pilotage Parties on beach reconnaissance on a heavily guarded position of an enemy coast, in unknown and unpleasant conditions during the period 17 to 21 January 1944”.

Following this task X-20 and X-23 were retained for Operation GAMBIT. Hudspeth retained command of X-20 whilst Lieutenant George Honour RNVR commanded X-23. For this operation the crew of each X-Craft was increased to five men. The submarines were originally designed for a crew of three so conditions on board became extremely cramped.

Operation GAMBIT was to be conducted during 2 - 6 June 1944 of the Normandy coast and was part of the overall D-Day naval operation known as Operation NEPTUNE. The X-Craft were to approach the British/Canadian allocated beaches (Gold, Sword and Juno) and position themselves off Juno (X-20) and Sword (X-23). There they would wait until the allocated time and date of the invasion before surfacing and acting as navigation beacons for landing craft heading towards the two beaches.

D-Day was set for Monday 5 June 1944 and both X-Craft sailed from Portsmouth at 2130 on 2 June. They were then taken in tow by the trawlers Darthem (X-20) and Sapper (X-23) for the passage across the English Channel. The two submarines were slipped from their tow the next day and headed for the Normandy coast. They reached their allocated positions on 4 June and submerged to await the arrival of the Allied invasion force.

Every five hours the X-Craft needed to come to periscope depth to draw in fresh air and also confirm their allocated position by periscope sighting each evening. At 2200 daily they listened to the BBC news broadcast for any coded message that would confirm the landings would commence the following morning. During one broadcast the code words “trouble in Scarborough’ advised that the invasion landings had been delayed due to bad weather in the United Kingdom and would not commence until 6 June.

At 0500 on 6 June 1944, X-20 raised her periscope along with the telescopic mast that had the navigations lights affixed (facing seaward) and waited for the invasion of Europe to begin.  This was the most dangerous period as not only was the X-Craft in danger of being hit by German artillery fire directed at the approaching Allied fleet but it was also in danger of being run down by Allied vessels heading towards the beach.  Both X-Craft successfully completed their mission before submerging and waiting for orders to rendezvous with their two trawlers for return to Portsmouth.

Following the D-Day operations Hudspeth returned to Varbel and put his school teaching ability to good use training new X-Craft crews and updating the training manuals for the vessel.  On 23 September 1944 Lieutenant Hudspeth was appointed to the destroyer HMS Orwell as an Anti-Submarine Officer. During his time on board Orwell was employed as a convoy escort to Russia until April 1945.  For his service in the D-Day operations he was awarded a second Bar to his DSC ‘for gallantry, skill, determination and undaunted devotion to duty during the landing of Allied Forces on the coast of Normandy.’ (London Gazette 28 November 1944).

In March 1945 Ken was advised his youngest brother, Flying Officer Donald George Hudspeth, had been killed in action when the Lancaster bomber, in which he was a crew-member, had been shot down near Pfieffe, Germany on 6 March 1945.  Donald’s remains were recovered and later buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Hanover.

Orwell re-joined the Home Fleet in May 1945 and Hudspeth became her First Lieutenant (second in command). On 10 September 1945 Lieutenant Hudspeth was appointed to HMS President (the holding depot in London) pending his return to Australia and demobilisation. He embarked in the passenger liner SS Aquitania, departing Southampton on 28 October and arrived in Tasmania in early December 1945. He was demobilised, at HMAS Huon, on 5 February 1946. Hudspeth later re-joined the RAN Reserve and was promoted lieutenant commander on 31 December 1951.  He eventually resigned from the RAN Reserve on 21 January 1965.

After the war Ken Hudspeth obtained his teaching diploma and returned to his pre-war occupation as a teacher with the Tasmanian Department of Education. He became the warden of “Werndee”, a hostel in Hobart for junior and trainee teachers. Following this were several appointments to schools in northern Tasmania before becoming Principal of the Teachers Training College and later Superintendent of Education Department Buildings throughout Tasmania.    He also served a term as President of the Teachers Federation of Australia.   In 1959 he married English born Audrey Nicholson whom he had first met while on leave in the United Kingdom during the war.  They kept in touch after his return to Australia and eventually he proposed.   They later had three sons: Andrew, David and Donald.

Kenneth Hudspeth retired from teaching in 1979. In retirement Ken followed his interests in music and literature, although his main interest was anything maritime and he was heavily involved in work with the Tasmanian Maritime Museum and the preservation of Hobart’s rich maritime history.

Kenneth Robert Hudspeth died in Hobart on 3 December 2000.