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World War 2 History: John Capes' Amazing Submarine Escape

Updated on January 07, 2016
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. Why? Because we have to look to the past to prepare for the future.

Image of the submarine HMS Perseus (1500 tons, 260 ft long) circa 1930s
Image of the submarine HMS Perseus (1500 tons, 260 ft long) circa 1930s | Source

Lone Survivor of HMS Perseus

On December 6, 1941 the British submarine HMS Perseus, struck a mine while on patrol in the Mediterranean. In a short time, she was at the bottom of the sea, a tomb for most of her crew of 59 and two passengers. One of those passengers, John Capes, managed to escape his watery grave via an escape hatch and, finding himself alone, started swimming toward some distant cliffs. Capes' story was so fantastic that, for over half a century, many doubted his claim to have escaped, or even been aboard the submarine, mainly because no one should have been able to reach the surface alive at the depth he claimed.

Magic Carpet Service

Capes' story started much earlier in the war when the car he was driving ran into a horse and cart on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. Before the incident was resolved however, he was recalled to service aboard the submarine HMS Thrasher where he was Leading Stoker (basically an engine room engineer). In September 1941 the 31-year-old Capes was given leave to return to the island and appear in court regarding the accident. Malta was by then under siege by the Germans and Italians so he was smuggled in by the “Magic Carpet Service”, whereby British submarines were used to deliver supplies and personnel around the Mediterranean. After several weeks he was ready to leave and on November 26 hitched a ride on HMS Perseus, one of the Royal Navy's largest submarines, which was bound for Alexandria, Egypt with orders to patrol the waters off eastern Greece on the way.

Island of Kephalonia, Greece

A markerKephalonia, Greece -
Cephalonia, Greece
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Perseus Hits a Mine

During the night of December 6, Capes relaxed in his makeshift bunk in an empty aft torpedo rack in the rear compartment of the sub, reading and sipping from a bottle of rum. Perseus was patrolling on the surface in the dark and recharging her batteries off the southern coast of the Greek island of Kephalonia. Suddenly an enormous explosion shook the sub, plunging it into darkness and sending her nose-first almost straight down. When the prow struck bottom, Perseus, whose stern was now almost vertical above the surface, slipped completely under until she lay at rest mostly upright on the sea floor, water rushing in through a great crack in her bow caused by an enemy mine.

Four Survivors and a Bottle of Rum

Capes, thrown about and slightly injured, groped around for the flashlight stored near the aft escape hatch and began looking for survivors. He went forward into the engine room which was full of wreckage and bodies. Ahead he saw that the bulkhead door was shut holding back the sea. The pressure on the other side was tremendous, however, and streams of water leaked through the rubber seals. Capes did manage to find three injured stokers amid the engine room's debris and corpses and helped them further back to the stern compartment. He shut the aft watertight door and the men fortified themselves from his bottle of rum.

WW2: Two Royal Navy stokers in the engine room of a British submarine during World War II.
WW2: Two Royal Navy stokers in the engine room of a British submarine during World War II. | Source

Dead on the Bottom, 170 Feet Down

Capes located four Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus sets (rubber oxygen rebreather vests) and helped the men don them before putting one on himself. The depth gauge showed they were 82 meters (270 feet) below the surface and the vests were only rated for 32 meters (100 feet). It would almost surely be suicide to try to get to the surface at that depth through the emergency escape hatch, but they were faced with certain death if they stayed. In fact the gauge was wrong. They were actually 52 meters (170 feet) under water-- though still deeper than thought possible to survive.

In order to open the escape hatch, the pressure inside the sub had to be the same as the outside. That meant flooding the compartment. Capes located the starboard bilge valve but it was bent and wouldn't budge. He then remembered the submarine's underwater flare gun which was used to send smoke signals to the surface. Opening its breech, he tried to open the sluice valve. The sea came gushing in and, slowly, the water level rose around them.

Capes made sure everyone had their mouthpieces in and their nose-clips on and, as the water filled the compartment compressing the air at the top, he used a spanner to undo the bolts holding the hatch closed. With a great hiss, the hatch flew open as the trapped air escaped. Capes then guided the others one by one up through the opening before following.

Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus (DSEA) "rebreather" like the one John H. Capes used to escape HMS Perseus
Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus (DSEA) "rebreather" like the one John H. Capes used to escape HMS Perseus | Source

Escape

Even with his flashlight the waters were so dark and murky he could only get a last glimpse of Perseus lying slightly tilted on the sea bed. As desperate as he was to reach the surface, he slowed his ascent so the pressure wouldn't build up and burst his lungs. Despite his efforts he became dizzy and the pain in his chest grew ever more intense, every breath hurting more and more the further he rose. When he didn't think he would make it, he broke the surface. Using the feeble light of his flashlight, he searched for his comrades, but found no trace of them. Off in the distance, Capes saw a line of white cliffs. Using his rebreather as a makeshift life vest, he began swimming toward them hoping the others had done the same thing.

A beach on the island of Kephalonia (AKA Kefalonia, Cephalonia), Greece in the Ionian Sea
A beach on the island of Kephalonia (AKA Kefalonia, Cephalonia), Greece in the Ionian Sea | Source

Eighteen Months in Hiding

Hours later Capes lay unconscious on the beach beneath the cliffs on the southern coast of Kephalonia. Fishermen from the nearby village of Mavrata found him and hid him in a nearby cave. For the next year-and-a-half, the islanders, at great risk to themselves, cared for Capes. They moved him from house to house and village to village around the island, keeping him hidden from the occupying German and Italian forces. At every turn, when everything seemed bleak, destitute villagers came to his aid. In order to blend in with the populace, he dropped 70 pounds and dyed his hair black. At one point he was given a prized donkey, the only condition being that he not eat the donkey.

Finally, on May 30, 1943, in a plan organized by the Royal Navy, Capes boarded a small fishing boat which smuggled him 640 kilometers (400 miles) to Smyrna, Turkey. He presented himself to the British consulate there and was taken to Alexandria, Egypt and freedom. Capes returned to service in the Royal Navy and later received the British Empire Medal for his exploits. He retired from the navy in 1950.

Too Unbelievable

To say Capes' story was hard to believe is an understatement. Many just did not believe he could have survived an 82-meter ascent. His estimate of where HMS Perseus went down did not square with the Royal Navy's estimate. Some even thought he was an imposter and wasn't on the sub at all. A note was attached to his file:

"The whole of this escape should be treated with reserve, as there are various incidents difficult to account for. Three different authorities who all saw this man separately are doubtful of the whole story. There is no other means of checking the facts and it is possible that this man, who was only taking passage in PERSEUS, may have been on the bridge or in the Control Room and got out before she sank. At the same time there is no direct evidence that his story is not in substance correct."

Till the day he died in 1985, some considered him a complete fraud.

Memorial on Kephalonia

HMS Perseus Memorial, just outside of Poros, Kefalonia (dedicated in 2000)
HMS Perseus Memorial, just outside of Poros, Kefalonia (dedicated in 2000) | Source

“All the survivors of the war had reached their homes by now, and so put the perils of battle and the sea behind them".... (Homer, "The Odyssey", rhapsody a, lines 11-12)”

“Dedicated to the patriotic islanders who put courage before fear to shelter John H. Capes, the sole survivor of the British submarine H.M.S. “Perseus”, which was hit by a mine and sank on December 6, 1941 off the coast of Mavrata, Kefalonia.”

Vindication

On December 26, 1997 Greek divers discovered the wreckage of HMS Perseus under 52 meters of water several miles from the island of Kephalonia. The cracked hull of the bow was consistent with a mine explosion. The aft escape hatch was open. Further dives revealed no bodies in the stern compartment, an empty bottle of rum and a bunk in a torpedo rack. The sluice valve in the underwater flare gun was open. The depth gauge incorrectly showed 82 meters instead of the actual depth. Even at 52 meters (170 feet), John Capes would have set a new record for surviving a shipwreck. Twelve years after his death John Capes was finally vindicated.

The Story of HMS Perseus

© 2015 David Hunt

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    • kbdressman profile image

      kbdressman 14 months ago from Harlem, New York

      What a neat story! It's too bad he didn't live to see his vindication!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 14 months ago from sunny Florida

      That is quite a story...there just are times that incredible things do happen..I guess that is what makes them 'incredible.'

      Determined, courageous, driven are just a few words that come to mind not to mention that he thought of the others and tried to help them as well in such a perilous situation. Thank you for sharing his story with us.

      Angels are on the way to you this morning ...ps

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 14 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for your comments, kb and ps. I gather as the years went by that John talked less and less about his exploits, even with his family, but at least they got to see him vindicated.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 14 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Thank you for sharing that with us in such a great writing style. Really a cool adventure story.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 14 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the compliment, Eric. When I first heard about John Capes, I was disappointed to hear that he was viewed with suspicion, so I dug a little deeper. I'm glad I did.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 14 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Just shows, doesn't it, that it's hard to convince people if they're set on doubt. It's how the Navy was run: if we say it's impossible, don't try to talk us over.

      Good stuff, David. Good story, much appreciated. One of my uncles lived next door to one of the three survivors of HMS 'Hood'. That might be another good story for you. Up to it?

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 14 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Great to hear from you, Alan. I think there were mixed signals regarding Capes: on the one hand his story wasn't believed by many, but on the other hand he was awarded the British Empire Medal. Perhaps the crown awarded the medal based on his 18 months evading the enemy. Re the Hood... our family history has it that one of my uncles was supposed to be aboard her ill-fated run but, for unknown reasons literally missed the boat. I have been unable to verify that. Maybe I'll do more research on the Hood, but I've always felt that particular story was beyond me for some reason.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 14 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      David, you could always knit it into coverage on the sinking of the 'Bismarck' off Ireland. 'Hood' was considered unsinkable but for some reason armour plating to protect the magazine had not yet been fitted. She'd been on tour in the Med and was rushed straight into the chase. That could be a story in itself, and the rest built around it.

    • TrixieShi profile image

      Diana Strenka 14 months ago from North Carolina

      Great article!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 14 months ago from Oklahoma

      You always find the most fascinating historical events.

      Wonderfully done!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 14 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Trixie and Larry, I'm glad you both enjoyed it. When a writer's efforts strike a chord in a reader's mind, well, that's what it's (almost) all about. I appreciate your feedback.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 14 months ago from USA

      What an amazing story of survival, and to have been not believed all those years must have been horrible. Truth is stranger than fiction. Fantastic historical hub!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 14 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks much, FlourishAnyway. Perhaps the single most compelling evidence supporting Capes' story was the depth gauge incorrectly showing 82 meters while the submarine lies 52 meters under the sea. No one could have made that up. Ironically, the incorrect depth Capes cited (based on the gauge) may have been the very damning detail his detractors couldn't get over.

    • emge profile image

      Madan 14 months ago from Abu Dhabi

      Very thrilling tale. I am sure god played a hand in his escaping from the boat for as the Lord Krishna says," not a leaf moves without my will"

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 14 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, emge, but I wonder what Krishna had against the other 60.

    • shprd74 profile image

      Hari Prasad S 12 months ago from Bangalore

      What an emotional story. Excellent adventurous story very well written. Congrats too for being selected by HP editor as best hub. Will follow. Thanks

      - hari

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 12 months ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi David. Congratulations! A first class hub as is usual from you. Your research always shines through and you presentation is first class. Well done.

      Graham.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 12 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      hari, thanks for reading, commenting and following. Glad you liked it.

      Graham. always great to hear from you. Thanks for the comment.

    • JoanieMRuppel54 profile image

      Joanie Ruppel 12 months ago from Keller, Texas

      Enjoyed this narrative very much. Congrats on your best hub status!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 12 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, Joanie. I have to admit when I first heard of Capes' story, I was skeptical too. I was very pleased to hear that the sub was found and proved his story.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 12 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      David.....CONGRATULATIONS. Well done! Well deserved! "Happy New Year!"

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 12 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks Paula! I'm blushing. Hope your new year is happy, too.

    • gerimcclym profile image

      Geri McClymont 12 months ago from Colorado

      Amazing story of a real hero. It was quite moving to read how the islanders cared for Capes for the eighteen months he was in hiding, at the risk of their own safety. Glad to hear he was vindicated, even if it was twelve years later. Congratulations on being chosen as HOB --well deserved.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 12 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, Geri. The islanders were indeed incredibly brave to hide him for eighteen months from the Italian and German occupying forces. It may sound like an idyllic spot (Greek island in the sunny Mediterranean) but the enemy wasn't kidding around. When the Italian soldiers on the island refused to surrender their arms to the Germans after Italy capitulated, the Germans executed thousands of them.

    • moj 12 months ago

      but what about the incident with the horse and buggy? was he vindicated for that also? did the trial ever take place?

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 12 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      David, congrats on HOTD! Your historical hubs are always interesting and amusing to learn about the second world war. Nice lens!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 12 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks so much, Kristen. Like many others, I enjoy researching almost as much as writing-- but there's nothing as satisfying as getting positive feedback.

      moj, his motorcar had demolished the wagon and so when he was summoned back to Malta (via the Magic Carpet) it was to settle the affair with the owner of the wagon.

    • alikhan3 profile image

      StormsHalted 12 months ago from Karachi, Pakistan

      Absolutely epic ............ Brilliantly done by Capes as well as you ........ I wonder how would it feel during a 52m accent?

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 12 months ago from the short journey

      Beyond-all-adds incidents are always great reads, especially when they are well written. Thanks for the introduction to John Capes and for a neat report on the story of this aspect of his life. Makes me want to read more details of his life.

      Congrats on your Hub of the Day award, as well.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 12 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi alikhan3. My ears hurt just going down 12 feet underwater! Thanks for the comment.

      Thanks RTalloni. It must have been hard on him to be cast as a liar most of his life. By all accounts he started out as an outgoing personality. At least his legacy was salvaged.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 12 months ago from Dallas, Texas

      Fascinating story in exquisite, wonderful detail. I love the fact that Mr. Capes was eventually vindicated for his incredible survival of this wreck. You have inspired me to pen the story my Dad told us about his surviving a submarine that went down and never came up. Thanks and congratulations on Hub of the Day. Well deserved.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 12 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, Peg and I hope you do write your Dad's story and publish it on HubPages.

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 12 months ago from Australia

      John Capes obviously had some incredible qualities. Caring enough to try and save others, creative enough to find a way to let water in, brave enough to try to reach the surface despite the apparent odds against him, and cunning enough to successfully evade capture. Any idea of what he achieved in his later life?

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 12 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting, LongTimeMother. Apparently John Capes was always something of an enigma. He was tall and handsome, graduated from Dulwich College and his father was a diplomat. He was therefore officer material but chose instead to toil as a mechanic in submarine engine rooms. There are pictures of him on the Internet, but I could not not find any that were public domain or I would definitely have included one of him. He seems to have withdrawn after the war and I haven't found anything more about him other than he died in 1985.

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