b. 18/12/1920 Ealing, London. d. 01/09/2008 Wirral, Merseyside.
Ian Edward Fraser (1920-2008) was born on December 18th 1920 in Ealing, London. He was the elder son of Sydney Fraser, a marine engineer, and Ian was taken at a few months old to Kuala Lumpur, where his father had a new job. He went to the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, and then HMS Conway, the training ship in the Mersey.
In 1938 he joined the Blue Funnel Line and went to sea as a cadet in Tuscan Star and Sydney Star. After joining the battleship Royal Oak as a midshipman, RNR, for what he thought was to be four months’ training, he was aboard for the Fleet Review in Weymouth Bay, Dorset, in July 1939. When war broke out, Fraser served in the destroyer Keith. He was in the destroyer Montrose at Dunkirk, and in another destroyer, Malcolm, when she and other escorts sank U-651 in the Atlantic on June 29th 1941.
Then — “for no valid reason which I can now recall” — he volunteered for submarines. He served in P35 and H43 before joining Sahib in the “Fighting Tenth” submarine squadron in the Mediterranean. He was awarded a DSC in April 1943 after Sahib, west of Corsica on January 21st 1943, sank U-301 as well as several Axis supply ships. At a post-patrol party aboard a depot ship, somebody threw a heavy brass ashtray which broke a bone in Fraser’s foot. As a result, he was not on Sahib’s next patrol, in which the sub was lost and all but one of its crew became PoWs.
Fraser was appointed first lieutenant of the old submarine H44 which, after refitting at Sheerness, went to Londonderry, where escort commanders on the surface practised trying to find him. This led to his volunteering for Xcraft. He trained in X20 in Loch Cairnbawn before, in November 1944, taking command of XE3 — unofficially named “Sigyn”, after the ever-loving wife of Loki in Norse mythology. It adopted the motto “Softly, softly, catchee monkey”.
Fraser would be awarded the VC as captain of the midget submarine XE3 in Operation Struggle, a daring attack on the Japanese 10,000-ton heavy cruiser Takao in the Johore Straits, off Singapore Dockyard, just before the end of the Second World War. Takao had previously been damaged in action. But it was thought she could be repaired and used as a floating gun-battery to defend the Straits. Towed by the submarine Stygian, XE3 sailed on July 26th 1945 from Labuan, off Borneo. “Tich” Fraser and his crew — Sub-Lieutenant “Kiwi” Smith (RNZNVR), Artificer Charles Reed and the frogman diver Leading Seaman “Mick” Magennis — transferred from Stygian on July 30th to relieve XE3’s passage crew . That night, at 11 pm, the midget sub slipped its tow at the eastern end of the Singapore Channel.
The party now set off on an intricate and dangerous passage of some 40 miles. They passed shoals and wrecks and crossed minefields to proceed betweeen Singapore Island and the Johore mainland. Had they fallen into Japanese hands they would probably have been executed as spies. XE3 made a steady five knots on the surface and passed the Johore listening posts just after 2am on July 31st. At 4.30am Fraser had to dive hurriedly to avoid a tanker and its escort which came looming up out of the dark, and XE3 hit the bottom at 36ft. This damaged the logs which measured speed and distance on which Fraser relied for his dead-reckoning navigation.
In the heat and confinement of the Xcraft, conditions were extremely unpleasant. The men kept themselves going by sipping orange juice from the refrigerator before taking Benzedrine tablets at 6am. Three hours later, Fraser sighted the line of buoys which marked the boom, and, waiting outside, managed to follow a small, unwary trawler through. As XE3 worked her way steadily up the Straits at 40ft, Magennis began to dress in his rubber frogman’s suit, assisted by Fraser. Inside the submarine, the temperature was 85 degrees and the air heavy and sticky. At 12.50 Fraser saw the shore of Singapore Island to his left, some buildings ahead, and then the target — Takao. “Although she seemed to appear with the suddenness of an apparition,” he recalled, “I had the feeling that I had been staring at her for a long time. She was heavily camouflaged and she lay in the exact position I had plotted on my chart.”
An hour later, when the crew had been submerged for nine hours and had been 19 hours without proper sleep, he began his attack. Takao was anchored with her stern only 100 yards from the Singapore side of the Straits. The depth of water around her was between only 11ft and 17ft, but she lay across a depression in the seabed some 500ft wide. Fraser had somehow to get XE3 across the shallows and into the hole below Takao (though he had told the depot-ship staff that this would be impossible). The first attack on Takao’s bow was too fine. Fraser retired and at 3am he tried again. This time he slid XE3 neatly under the target. Magennis went out through the “wet and dry compartment” (which could be flooded and pumped to let a diver in or out of the submarine) and began to fix limpet mines to Takao’s bottom. Since the plates were covered in marine growth, he had to chip and clear away for more than half an hour before he could place his six mines properly. But their magnets were unaccountably weak, and the mines kept floating up and away, with Magennis swimming after them.
When Magennis came back to the sub, Fraser’s next task was to release the two side-charges, each two tons of Amatol explosive. The port charge dropped away cleanly, but the starboard side stuck. So, too, did XE3, underneath Takao. Fraser and his crew had a frantic few minutes’ manoeuvring before the submarine came free. Fraser wanted to go out to release the remaining charge, but Magennis insisted that he was the diver and he would go. Armed with a spanner, he climbed out again and in five minutes — the longest five minutes of Fraser’s life — he released the charge. XE3 returned to Stygian and was taken in tow again, reaching Labuan on August 4. The charges duly detonated and blew a great hole in Takao’s bottom. Fraser was dismayed to find there were plans for him to repeat Struggle. He felt he had done enough and more than enough, and was greatly relieved when the end of the war made the operation unnecessary.
On his way back to Britain, Fraser passed through Singapore and was shown over the remains of Takao. To his bitter disappointment, he found that there had been only a skeleton crew on board. The Japanese Navy had written her off. Nevertheless, he and Magennis were both awarded the Victoria Cross.
In 1945 he was appointed an Officer of the US Legion of Merit, and the borough of Wallasey raised more than £300 by public subscription for Fraser and presented him with a Sword of Honour. It had been Fraser’s ambition to transfer to the regular Royal Navy after the war, but it became clear that he was not going to be offered a permanent commission and, in 1946, he withdrew his application. He was discharged the following year. The VC had changed Fraser’s life, and he used it intelligently and resourcefully to give himself as good a start as possible in his new civilian career. With other ex-frogmen and service colleagues he formed his own company, Universal Divers, and became its managing director and later chairman.
To finance the company, Fraser organised a troupe of frogmen, who went through their underwater paces, re-enacting their wartime experiences in Xcraft in a 20,000-gallon glass-sided tank at such venues as Belle Vue, Manchester, and the Shakespeare Theatre, Liverpool. The act unashamedly traded on Fraser’s VC, and was fiercely criticised as “commercialising” the award. But while upset by the disapproval, he remained unabashed, and continued with his performances. With Universal Divers and North Sea Diving Services, which he formed in 1965, he expanded into the field of exploration and maintenance of North Sea oil and gas rigs. After selling out to the Blue Star Line in 1975 he served with Star Off-shore Services until 1982.
Fraser remained in the RNR rank until he retired as a lieutenant- commander in 1966. He was awarded the Reserve Decoration with Long Service Bar, became a JP and vice-president of the Merseyside Branch of the Submarine Old Comrades’ Association. In addition he was a Younger Brother of Trinity House and, since 2002, had been United Kingdom vice-chairman of the VC/GC Association. His memoirs, Frogman VC, were published in 1957. Ian Fraser married, in 1943, his childhood sweetheart, Melba Hughes, who was serving as a Wren at Pwllheli on the north Wales coast when they met. They had four sons and two daughters. Ian Fraser VC, DSC died on 1st September 2008, aged 87, and was cremated at Landican Crematorium, The Wirral. His ashes were interred in Conway Chapel, St Mary’s Church, Birkenhead. His medals were purchased privately in 1988 by Michael Ashcroft and are displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: CREMATED AT LANDICAN CREMATORIUM, THE WIRRAL.
ASHES ARE INTERRED IN CONWAY CHAPEL, ST MARY'S CHURCH, BIRKENHEAD.
Ian Fraser's medals including VC and DSC on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (August 2014).
Ian Fraser Walk in Wallasey
Leasowe Golf Club (James O'Hanlon Feb 2020)