Cutting cables

Maxwell 'Max' Shean was studying engineering at the University of Western Australia when the news of the evacuation of Dunkirk inspired him to join the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR).

In October 1940, Max was sent to Victoria to train at HMAS Cerberus and then on to HMAS Rushcutter, where he trained as an anti-submarine warfare officer.

In 1941 he sailed to England where he was attached to the Royal Navy and served in the corvette HMS Bluebell for 14 months. During this time, the corvette undertook the dangerous task of escorting convoys in the Atlantic. Max took part in 12 convoy missions from Liverpool to Gibraltar, five of which were attacked by U-boats, including one in which Bluebell attacked and sank a U-boat.

Max was still serving in Bluebell when the Admiralty called for volunteers for 'hazardous service'. Thinking that there couldn't be many operations more hazardous than escorting convoys in the Atlantic, he decided to volunteer for what turned out to be submarine training.

In September 1942, Max and four other Australians were accepted to train for a special mission. As part of the 12th Submarine Flotilla, they would operate special submarines, known as X-craft, that had a crew of four and were designed for operation in enemy ports. Max trained on the X-craft in Scotland and, in September 1943, took part in Operation 'Source', an attempt to sink the German battleship Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord in north Norway.

The X-craft had to be towed to their target by another submarine and Max, the diver with X9, was on board the tow ship when they discovered X9 had broken the tow and disappeared. On the morning of 16 September, when X9 was due to surface as usual for ventilation, there was no sign of the submarine, only the slack tow line astern of the tow ship. The towline became caught in the port propeller and Max was sent out to clear the snag. Working without his usual diving suit, which was in X9, Max managed to clear the line, but X9 and its crew was never recovered. Two of the remaining X-craft submarines managed to attack Tirpitz and, although they did not sink the battleship, they inflicted severe damage. Another of the submarines was scuttled on the tow home. In all, six of the X-craft and nine men were lost during the operation.

Max continued to serve in submarines and in April 1944 commanded X24 in Operation 'Guidance'. He and his crew entered Bergen harbour in Norway on a mission to sink a large floating dock. After being detected and shaking off their pursuer, X24 made it to the target area, but faulty intelligence and incorrect charts led them to lay their charges not on the floating dock, but on a large enemy ship nearby, which was sunk in the explosion. Nevertheless, the mission was regarded as a success and Max was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

Following D-Day, Max's expertise was required in the Pacific. Leaving his new bride, Mary, in Scotland – they were married on 14 June 1944 - Max was posted to the submarine depot ship HMS Bonaventure and returned to the Pacific.

This time he was selected to lead a special mission, Operation 'Sabre', to cut two underwater cables off French Indochina. The submarine telegraph cables were part of the Japanese communications network, linking Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong and Tokyo. The Allies had cracked the Japanese codes and could decipher their radio traffic but were not able to access communications sent via the underwater cables.

Due to the difficult nature of the cables, the men spent some time in the workshop on board Bonaventure developing a grapnel hook that would catch the telegraph cables. Max's engineering background was most useful and he developed a special flat grapnel for XE4 that was eventually used for the mission off the coast of Vietnam.

The X-craft crewmembers took part in a number of training exercises in Hervey Bay in Queensland while they prepared for their mission and two of their most experienced divers, Lieutenant Bruce Enzer, RNVR and Lieutenant David Carey RN, both lost their lives during these exercises.

On 25 July 1945, Bonaventure with the X-craft sailed to Brunei Bay in Borneo and then on to Subic Bay in the Philippines where they were launched on their mission to Saigon. Max too had a narrow escape en route to Indochina. He was swept overboard and nearly drowned but 'after swimming the fastest few strokes of my life' he was able to swim back and climb aboard his craft, the XE4.

At 12.29 on 31 July 1945, Australian diver Sub-Lieutenant Ken Briggs, RANVR, went into the South China Sea. According to the patrol report for the mission,

12.36 Diver cut Saigon-Singapore cable.
12.42 Diver in with short length of cable as evidence.

The second cable, the Saigon–Hong Kong cable was cut by Sub-Lieutenant A K Bergus, RNVR. It took three attempts. He was forced to increase his dive depth using 10 feet (3 metre) increments until at 14.07 (2.07 pm) he finally cut the cable at a depth of 50 feet (15 metres).

14.52: Diver in with pieces of cable. Due to the four cuts, cable had fallen apart and several pieces of armoury were lost in the mud. However the diver had about one foot of the core as evidence.

[Max Shean, Corvette and Submarine, 1992, pp 248-9]

It took the X-craft three days to return to the Bonaventure, which was waiting for them in Brunei Bay. Max was awarded a Bar to his DSO and the US Bronze Star. According to his citation,

for service as CO of the submarine HMS XE-4 on her war patrol of 31st July 1945, conducted off Cape Jacques, off the coast of Indo China"¦.Displaying outstanding navigational skills, Lieutenant Shean detected and picked up vitally important cables used by the enemy for communications between Saigon, and the cities of Singapore and Hong Kong.'

[Item 66/301/183 A816 NAA]

Plans were being made for another series of attacks on Japanese ports when the war ended. Max returned to Australia and was demobilised in September 1945.

Two months later Max and Mary were reunited in Western Australia where they settled and raised two daughters. Max returned to university to finish his engineering degree and after his graduation, he worked for the City of Perth Electricity and Gas Department, and the State Electricity Commission until his retirement in 1978. His book Corvette and Submarine details his wartime experiences and he has recently finished his autobiography.

In May 2005, Max Shean joined the Department of Veterans' Affairs VE Day mission to Europe.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Cutting cables, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024,
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