During World War II the clean and clear waters of the Mediterranean were a deadly zone for British submarines. They were easily spotted and bombed from the air by specialized submarine hunting planes. And due to the lower depths of the sea, they were easier to hunt with sonar, allowing gunships to drop lethal depth charges on them. Worst of all were the numerous mines floating around, ever-dangerous ready to kill you: the minute you lost focus.
At the time, submarines were seen as a large coffin for everyone on board, when they sunk no one got out – that was just how it was. That’s why submariners were known to have nerves of steel. For every five submarines that deployed into the Mediterranean, two would be sunk. To demonstrate just how difficult it was to escape a sinking submarine, during the whole war there are only four known escapes! And none of them are as exceptional as when John Capes escaped the doomed HMS Perseus.
John Capes was a 31-year-old Navy stoker and was a passenger on board the HMS Perseus en route to Alexandria. He was the son of a diplomat so was part of the officer class, people described him as a bit of mystery – a tall, dark and handsome individual. On the 6th December 1941, the HMS Perseus was on the surface recharging her systems under the shroud of darkness when they ran into an Italian mine. The violent explosion caused the boat to plunge into the seabed.
Capes was at the time relaxing in unused torpedo bay that he had turned into his improvised bunk, suddenly he was thrown across the room and the lights went out. The pressure of the water caused the door to be forced shut, yet water was rising and there was a foul odor in the air. Capes later wrote that he was surrounded by “the mangled bodies of a dozen dead.”
He surveyed the scene and quickly dragged anyone who was still alive towards an escape hatch. The Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus, a sort of rubber lung with an oxygen bottle and goggles was the only hope! Yet it had only been tested to a depth of 30m and here they were at least at a depth of 80 meters. No one had ever escaped this sort of depth. He took the last swig of his rum, dropped his bottle to the ground, and opened the hatch.
“Suddenly I was alone in the middle of the great ocean” – Capes.
His companions did not make it but Capes somehow survived to the surface, where he now had to swim to the closest island. Incredibly he saw some white cliffs and made it to the shore of Kefalonia. Found by two patriotic fishermen, for the next 18months he was hidden from their Italian occupiers, often the locals risked the lives of their entire family just to hide him.
Finally, he was able to escape to neutral Turkey, and make it back to a British naval base in Alexandria. When the Royal Navy heard of his escape it was highly doubted – remember there was no record of Capes being on the crew list! But in 1997 when the wreck of HMS Perseus was discovered, his story was verified. His torpedo bunk was there and his bottle of rum? Still safe in the opened escape hatch!