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Philip Francis

Submariner who sank Axis shipping in the Mediterranean and supervised the surrender of the U-boat fleet in Northern Ireland at the war's end

As the captain of the submarine Proteus between September 1941 and August 1942, Philip Francis earned two DSOs during the most critical period of the Mediterranean campaign to sustain Malta and to deny vital supplies to Rommel's army in North Africa. In an announcement in late 1942, the C-in-C, Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, coupled Francis with such other heroic names as Miers, Rimington, Wanklyn and Linton, crediting them with having sunk a million tons of Axis shipping. Of these, Miers and Linton won VCs, but both Linton and Wanklyn were among the many submariners who failed to return from their last patrols, perforce carried out in a sea dominated by enemy air power.

Described as having a brain packed in ice, Francis was on the surface in the dark of a February night on one of his nine war patrols when he carried out a snap attack on what he thought was another submarine, but missing what turned out to be the Italian small destroyer Sagittario. This vessel spotted the torpedo tracks and turned to attack. Francis, faced with unpalatable choices between diving and being depth-charged or turning and being rammed, instantly decided to press on straight ahead. In the subsequent collision Proteus's port hydroplane opened up several of the Sagittario's compartments like a tin-opener each thought they had sunk the other until one of Francis's officers met the captain of the Sagittario after the war and put the record straight.

Statistics compiled in 1944 showed that Francis had fired 51 torpedoes and obtained 20 hits, putting him near the top of the batting averages in the campaign, and arguing both coolness and a ruthless determination to get in close to his targets.

Commander Philip Francis warranted obituaries in both the Times and the Daily Telegraph, in October 2000:

The Times

October 10, 2000

Commander Philip Francis spent the first six months of the war in the battlecruiser Repulse, but was soon given command of the submarine Talisman, operating in the Channel and Bay of Biscay. His seven patrols which were initially aimed against the threat of invasion yielded only three ships sunk or disabled. However, two patrols were examples of early and somewhat primitive operations with the Secret Intelligence Service and the Special Operations Executive. In August 1940, he successfully landed three British and Free French agents near Bordeaux. In November, after immobilising a tanker and surviving a counter-attack, Talisman surfaced near the Ile de Groix and captured a sailing tunny fishing vessel, Le Clipper, deemed suitable for subsequent clandestine operations. Half the crew were embarked in Talisman while the rest, accompanied by SOE agents, were made to sail the boat to Falmouth. (The crew's wives were interrogated by the Port Tudy Kommandatur; believing that their husbands had been lost at sea, they were dumbfounded when the missing men arrived back in Groix in July 1945.) Late in 1942, Francis was appointed operations office of the First Submarine Squadron, based ashore at Beirut because their valuable depot ship, the Medway, had just been sunk by U372 off Port Said. At the end of the war he commanded the submarine base at Lisahally in Northern Ireland, managing the berthing and ships' companies of the 63 U-boats that surrendered there. He was tremendously impressed with their discipline and impeccable conduct in the aftermath of enormous losses and their final defeat.

Of gentleman farming stock, the young Francis was a tough and enthusiastic sportsman, playing rugby and soccer for the Naval College at Dartmouth, and, as a midshipman in 1926, winning the Atlantic Fleet lightweight boxing cup. In 1927 he was appointed to the battlecruiser Renown for the Duke and Duchess of York's visit to Australia to open the new Parliament at Canberra. Highlights were playing squash with HRH, shooting sheep in the Marquesas and stags in Mauritius.

Passing basic submarine training in 1930, he joined the China Station and the submarine Otus based at Hong Kong, where he played rugby for the Navy and rode as an amateur jockey at Happy Valley.

Perhaps the most enterprising event of his life was his participation, with three other submarine officers and a naval doctor, in the financing and construction at the Whampoa shipyard of a teak-built 50ft ketch, the celebrated Tai Mo Shan, with the intention of sailing her home via Japan and the Kuriles, past the Aleutians and down to the Panama Canal, over 16,000 miles. Although the formidable Admiral Sir Howard Kelly gave the venture his blessing refreshing to note this spirit of adventure and initiative the Admiralty required the officers to take a year on half-pay. (During the war, this crew earned four DSOs and a VC this last by Lieutenant Red Ryder for his gallantry in the raid on St Nazaire, in which the dock gates were rammed by the destroyer Campbeltown. No yacht of similar size had yet attempted this northern route against the prevailing winds. Because they had chosen not to incorporate an engine in the design, they ran aground on Crooked Island in the Bahamas for 16 days, but reached Dartmouth in 1934 after a year at sea, receiving a congratulatory telegram from the King. In 1935 Francis became a founder member of the Royal Naval Sailing Association which still competes for a Tai Mo Shan Tankard today.

In 1937 he commanded his first submarine, the Spearfish, finding the time to hunt regularly with the Blackmore Vale and take part in ocean races, including two Fastnets.

After the war, Francis returned to the Far East in command of the 4th Submarine Squadron, renewing his acquaintance with the Happy Valley racecourse. He retired in 1953 after a final tour in the plans division of the Admiralty.

Living in Dorset, he and his wife Ruth, whom he married in 1939, farmed pigs and cruised extensively in their sloop Peter Rabbit. He was highly active in local charities and national organisations connected with the welfare of seagoers.

His wife predeceased him in 1984. Their daughter died in 1971.

Commander Philip Francis, DSO and Bar, wartime submarine captain, was born on April 8, 1908. He died on September 17 aged 92.

The Daily Telegraph

October 5, 2000 


COMMANDER PHILIP FRANCIS, who has died aged 92, was awarded the DSO and Bar for eight war patrols in the submarine Proteus between September 1941 and August 1942, when submarines in the Mediterranean sank nearly a million tons of Axis shipping and seriously disrupted supplies to Rommel's Afrika Korps.

Proteus's own score included an 8,000-ton troopship, five enemy supply ships, tankers, and an escort vessel. Her patrols had some dramas, notably the "Tin-Opener Incident". On the night of February 8 1942, Proteus was on the surface close inshore off the Levkat Cephalonia passage to the Corinth Canal when Francis saw what he thought was a U-boat and at once turned to attack.

However, the target was the Italian torpedo boat Sagittario and Proteus met her head on. Proteus's port forward hydroplane ripped open Sagittario's port side. Proteus lost her hydroplane and had several rivets loosened, so Francis reluctantly had to abandon the patrol.

As a submarine CO, Philip Francis was known as the man with "his brain packed in ice". According to official figures, he fired 51 torpedoes in all and scored 20 hits - a "batting average" of just under 40 per cent, higher than those of much better known COs such as Linton VC, Wanklyn VC and Miers VC.

Philip Stewart Francis was born on April 8 1908 and went first to Horton School, Biggleswade, where in 1920 he led a revolt against the headmaster because he refused to grant a holiday on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. In 1921 he went to Dartmouth as a cadet.

His first ship as a midshipman in 1925 was the battleship Ramillies. He won the Atlantic Fleet lightweight boxing cup the following year. In 1927, Francis joined the battlecruiser Renown, taking the Duke and Duchess of York to Australia for the State opening of the new Parliament in Canberra.

As a student at the Royal Naval College Greenwich, Francis won the naval Atlantic Fleet Point-to-Point at Cattistock, and walked the 52 miles from London to Brighton in 13 hours - a record at the time. He joined the Submarine Service in 1930, having survived a serious motor-cycle accident the year before which put him in hospital for nine months. His first boat in 1931 was Otus, based in Hong Kong.

In 1932, towards the end of their time on the China Station, Francis, a naval doctor, and three other submarine officers (including "Red" Ryder, who won a VC at St Nazaire in March 1942) commissioned, financed and had privately built the yacht Tai Mo Shan, named after a prominent hill in the Hong Kong New Territories.

The Navy allowed them to go on half pay of seven shillings a day while they sailed Tai Mo Shan eastabout back to England. It was a voyage of 16,200 miles which they accomplished, after many adventures, in a year less one day.

In 1935, Francis joined the old training boat H.33 as first lieutenant, and won the Cattistock point-to-point again the next year. His first command, in 1937, was Spearfish. He found the time to walk the 70 miles from London to Portsmouth in 20 hours to win a bet, climbed Ben Nevis, Scafell, and Snowdon in 24 hours, and hunted regularly with the Blackmore Vale before going back to General Service in 1939 in the battlecruiser Repulse, serving in her for the first six months of the war.

Francis's next command was Talisman. Between July 1940 and February 1941 he made eight patrols in her, seven in the Bay of Biscay and one English Channel anti-invasion patrol. After Proteus, Francis was Staff Officer Operations, 1st Submarine Squadron, in the depot ship Medway in the Mediterranean. In 1945 he was Base Commander at Lisahally, Northern Ireland, supervising the surrender of 63 U-boats, prior to their scuttling off the coast in Operation Deadlight. He was much impressed by the impeccable conduct and politeness of both British and German officers and ships' companies towards each other.

From 1946-48, Francis was Commander S/M, 4th Squadron, of eight T Class submarines in the depot ship Adamant in the Far East. He was overjoyed to be back in his old pre-war stamping ground and rode at Happy Valley in the Hong Kong Jockey Club's first post-war race meeting. Before retiring in 1953 he was for a period Commander, Portland Dockyard, and was appointed to the Admiralty Plans Division.

Francis retired to Dorset where he hunted regularly, farmed pigs and sailed his 30 ft sloop Peter Rabbit from Poole. He was a staunch member of the village community at West Camel, taking part in local associations and charities. He married, in 1939, Ruth Schreiber, who died in 1984. Their only daughter died in 1971.


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Information provided by
The Times and The Daily Telegraph