World War 2 History: John Capes' Amazing Submarine Escape
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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