The hard to believe but yet true story of John Capes.

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.John Capes was a leading stoker aboard the HMS Perseus, it sailed from Malta for Alexandria on 26 November 1941 with instructions to patrol waters to the east of Greece during her passage. She apparently torpedoed a ship on 3 December but at 10 pm on 6 December struck an Italian mine off Cephalonia, 7 miles (11 km) north of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea.

Hms_perseus_submarine

So far the story is still believable. One man out of the 61 onboard survived, this man was  the 31-year-old  John Capes, one of two non-crew members hitching a lift to Alexandria. He and three others escaped from the submarine using the Twill Trunk escape hatch in the engine room and wearing Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus.

800px-Davis_Submerged_Escape_Apparatus

This equipment had only been tested to a depth of 100ft (30m). The depth gauge showed just over 270ft, and as far as Capes knew, no-one had ever made an escape from such a depth.In fact the gauge was broken, over-estimating the depth by 100ft, but time was running out. It was difficult to breathe now.

However, only John Capes survived the journey to the surface and the five mile (8 km)

But having made the deepest escape yet recorded, his ordeal was not over.His fellow injured stokers had not made it to the surface with him so he found himself alone in the middle of a cold December sea.

In the darkness he spotted a band of white cliffs and realised he had no choice but to strike out for those ,to the island of Cephalonia, where he was hidden by islanders for 18 months .For the following 18 months he was passed from house to house, to evade the Italian occupiers. He lost 70lb (32kg) in weight and dyed his hair black in an effort to blend in.

He recalled later: “Always, at the moment of despair, some utterly poor but friendly and patriotic islander would risk the lives of all his family for my sake.

“They even gave me one of their prize possessions, a donkey called Mareeka. There was one condition attached to her – I had to take a solemn vow not to eat her.He was finally taken off the island on a fishing boat in May 1943, in a clandestine operation organised by the Royal Navy.

A dangerous, roundabout journey of 640km took him to Turkey and from there back to the submarine service in Alexandria.

Alexandria_-_Egypt

Despite being awarded a British Empire medal for his escape, Capes’s story was so extraordinary that many people, both within and outside the Navy, doubted it.

Medaille_B.E.M._met_Brittania

Was he really on the boat at all? After all, he was not on the crew list. And submarine commanders had been ordered to bolt escape hatches shut from the outside to prevent them lifting during depth charge attacks.

There were no witnesses, he had a reputation as a great storyteller, and his own written accounts after the war varied in their details.

And the depth gauge reading 270ft made his story all the harder to believe.

John Capes died in 1985 but it was not until 1997 that his story was finally verified.

In a series of dives to the wreck of Perseus, Kostas Thoctarides discovered Capes’s empty torpedo tube bunk, the hatch and compartment exactly as he had described it, and finally, his blitz bottle from which he had taken that last fortifying swig of rum.

wreck-of-hms-perseus

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