A chariot or human torpedo

Our Canadian Charioteers: aka Human Torpedoes

The Canadian Charioteers, Bonnell (L) and Moreton, both RCNVR
Two charioteers astride their "human torpedo" at Loch Erisort in Scotland, 1942.
A charioteer's suit

Unknown and unsung, Lt. Chuck Bonnell, DSC, RCNVR, (L) and Lt. Alan Moreton, RCNVR, were not technically submariners as they never earned their dolphins, but they should quite properly be included here. Outwardly, the pair were unlikely heroes - Moreton was a trainee accountant, Bonnell a salesman. The Royal Navy selected the two Canadians for the top secret "human torpedo" training in 1942 before any others. Both excelled on the extremely hazardous training courses and were chosen for the first raid on the German battleship, Tirpitz.


The Royal Navy began to construct chariots in early 1942 after the Italian navy had severely damaged HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Valiant in Alexandria harbour using a similar machine. The British equivalent looked like a large torpedo that two men rode like a horse; it could be dived and sufaced like a submarine. The 600lb warhead, at the bow, was detachable and the divers' job was to affix it to the bottom of an enemy ship using magnets; a timing device allowed them to retreat before it blew up. Bonnell was given the honour of testing the first prototype, called Cassidy, fashioned from a twenty foot long tree trunk.

Each chariot was fitted with an heavy-duty electric battery that provided power to an electric motor attached to a propeller; this drove the chariot at 3 knots for about four hours, giving it a range of 12nm. Later their endurance was increased to 18nm. The leader sat in front to drive and used only a clock, a compass, and a depth gauge to navigate. His number two sat behind and was responsible for their passage through obstructions like anti-submarines nets.


Training was dangerous. Mechanical defects occurred in the chariots, un-explained things went wrong, and everyone had their share of scares. Pools of fresh water from the streams feeding the Scottish loch, where they trained, caused the chariots to go crashing down, well past the safe depth for breathing oxygen. To plummet to 100 feet was uncommon, but sudden smaller descents were frequent.The Canadians suffered varying degrees of "Oxygen Pete" below forty feet (to eliminate bubbles the charioteers used oxygen rebreathers) and experienced excruciating pain in their ears.


Bonnell and Moreton found dressing in their new diving suits to be the most unpleasant part of their job. These were made of rubberized twill, which was light and very flexible in comparison to the conventional diving suits of the day. First, the charioteers donned two sets of long silk and wool underwear, then two assistants were needed to squeeze each man into his suit. They wore flexible hoods, which were fitted to the suits with special seals. Hair came out in handfuls as the tight fitting hoods were pulled over their heads. Very tight elastic bands around the wrists prevented leaks (hopefully) and two large canvas boots with lead weights came next. The dressers applied thick grease to protect the charioteers' hands as gloves were too clumsy. Weighted belts were slung around their waists. Lastly, two heavy tanks were put on their backs that contained enough oxygen for seven hours.

Bonnell and Moreton put up with permanently swollen noses from wearing tight nose clips for hours and with cuts and blisters in their gums from their mouthpieces rubbing. They always suffered from the bone-chilling cold -- their exposed hands became numb quickly and, when the circulation returned, agony set in immediately.

A desperate measure for desperate times....