January 2019 Meeting

‘A Greek Escapade’

Speaker: Stephen North

15th January 2019

For our first meeting of 2019 we welcomed Stephen North who is the son of our President, Edna North.

Stephen came along to share the amazing story of John Capes, a HMS Submariner who had a miraculous escape from the submarine HMS Perseus in World War 2, when it hit a mine in the Ioanian Sea off the coast of the Greek Island of Kefalonia.

John Capes

Here’s a summary of John’s story:-

  • John Capes was a Stoker Rating of the crew of HMS Thresher but following a port call to Malta he missed resailing with the Tresher and was able to board HMS Perseus.
  • John as a passenger was not allocated a bunk and had to sleep in a makeshift bunk in the after torpedo room
  • He was lucky to be in the after torpedo room when the bows of the Perseus struck a mine.  This meant that the after torpedo compartment remained relatively in tact.
  • The problem was that it was now 270ft (82 metres) below the surface of the water on the sea bed. 
  • Escape Drill – There is a system that sub mariners all over the world train and practice for so that they can escape from a submarine that is submerged at depth.
  • Using the Davis Escape Apparatus John Capes burst on to the surface and in his words he was in incredible pain and felt that his lungs were about to burst.
  • It was the dead of night and he found himself completely alone and with an overwhelming sense of dread that none of his shipmates had made it out alive despite three escaping with him they didn’t survive.
  • Apart from the Captain and senior officers on a submarine, the location of the vessel is generally a closely guarded secret so that the rest of the crew, and someone as lowly as Leading Stoker Capes, would not have any idea where the submarine was other than in the Eastern Mediterranean somewhere?
  • In the darkness, John Capes was able to faintly make out the white rocks of the cliffs that unbeknown to him was in fact the southern coast of the Greek island of Kefalonia.
  • John Capes was approximately 8km (5 miles) from the shore and swam with what strength he had left. Eventually landing on the beach and collapsing.  The Greek resistance hide John Capes from the occupying forces for 18 months. 
  • John Capes is noted of saying that even in the darkest hours of his ordeal he was touched by the selfless acts of human kindness shown to him by the people of Kefalonia, who had they been discovered harbouring John Capes, would have no doubt been summarily tried and executed by the occupying army.
  • After 18 months of evading capture, in May 1943, John Capes was taken from the island of Kefalonia on a caique, which is traditional Greek fishing vessel, that was skippered by Captain Miltiades Houmas who was famous in the Greek resistance.  This operation was organised by the British Royal Navy who had been informed of John Cape’s situation by the resistance.  Captain Houmas sailed his Caique from Kefalonia around the Peloponese and up through the Agean sea to Smyrna in Turkey.
  • From Smyrna in Turkey, John Capes was able to make contact with the British Consul in Istanbul and the British Authorities were then able to get him out of Turkey and back Alexandria.  When telling his story to the authorities there was a great deal if scepticism, with some saying they didn’t believe John Capes had even been on the Perseus when it left Malta.
  • However, John Capes was awarded the British Empire Medal and stood by his story right until his death in 1985, although many disbelieved him.
  • In 1997 Kostas Thoctarides led an expedition to find the final resting place of the submarine HMS Perseus and this is what he found. (Video)
  • 12 years after John Cape’s death, his story was final verified and he was indeed a hero who showed super human capabilities in an effort to survive a tragic disaster that took the lives of 59 of his shipmates.
  • If you ever visit Kefalonia there is a monument that is dedicated to the men of the Perseus and to all those islanders and members of the Greek resistance who were instrumental in the John Capes escape story.

Read more of John’s story online: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/john-capes-submarine-sunk.html 

Thank you to Stephen for telling us a most interesting and fascinating story, we look forward to the next one!


                          HMS Perseus