Hero of the Month - March 2020
Published in Britain at War in March 2020.
Rear Admiral Sir Anthony Cecil Capel Miers VC, KBE, CB, DSO & Bar
Rear Admiral [Sir] Anthony Miers was awarded one of the finest submariner VCs of the Second World War. Furthermore, this courageous, highly-decorated – yet controversial – officer was of only three submarine commanders to be awarded Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry award for actions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Anthony Cecil Capel Miers was born in Birchwood, Inverness, Scotland, on November 11 1906. He was the younger son of Captain Douglas Miers, of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and his wife, Margaret (nee Christie).
Miers was proud of both his Scottish and military roots: through his grandmother, Mary Macdonald, he was a direct descendant of Donald Macdonald, the sixteenth Chief of Clanranald, while his paternal grandfather, Lieutenant-Colonel Capel Miers, also served in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. His (Anthony’s) father was killed in action during the opening year of the Great War at Bourg on the Aisne.
Young Anthony was educated at Stubbington House School, Fareham, Hampshire, before attending the Edinburgh Academy in Scotland and Wellington College, Berkshire. In 1924, Miers joined the Royal Navy as a special entry cadet and from 1925-7 he served as a midshipman in the battleship HMS Valiant. On January 1 1928, he was promoted to sub lieutenant and on April 29 the following year he joined the Submarine Service. Miers was a fine athlete, playing tennis, squash and rugby, being chosen for the latter sport to play for London Scottish, the Combined Services and Hampshire, and being chosen for trials for the Navy and Scotland.
After various appointments and promotions, he suffered a career setback in 1933 when, as a first lieutenant, he voluntarily reported an attempt to strike a rating after a football match. Miers, who could be volatile and short-tempered, was court-martialled and dismissed from his ship, the fishery protection vessel Dart.
However, he soon put that unhappy episode behind him and in 1936 he was given his first submarine command, L54, and on January 1 1938 he was promoted to lieutenant commander. From 1939-40, the opening year of the Second World War, he was on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, serving in HM ships Nelson, Rodney and Warspite.
However, on November 12 1940, Miers returned to the Submarine Service as Commanding Officer of one of the new T-class boats, HM Submarine Torbay. For a time, he was based in Scotland but, from May 1941 to May 1942, Torbay operated from Alexandria, Egypt.
On July 5 1941, while based in the Mediterranean, Torbay sank the Italian submarine Jantina and two tankers. Controversially, in the same month, Miers attacked four German vessels carrying soldiers from a German garrison and, during the operation, he ordered the machine-gunning of German soldiers leaving the vessel in a rubber raft.
On December 31 1941, Miers was appointed to the rank of commander. For bravery in 1941 while commanding his submarine, Miers was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and, later, a Bar to his DSO: these two awards followed the sinking or damaging of more than 70,000 tons of Axis shipping and rescuing more than 130 Allied soldiers from Crete.
During this period, however, he again became involved in a controversial incident when he ordered an embarked corporal of the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) to canoe to the shore in Crete in a Force 8 gale. When the corporal refused on the grounds it was far too dangerous, Miers threatened to shoot him with his revolver before eventually calming down.
Late February 1942 witnessed the start of a frantic period of action for Miers and his submarine crew. Torbay sailed from Alexandria on February 20 in order to patrol off the west coast of Greece. On the morning of February 26, having surfaced to recharge her batteries, Torbay’s crew sighted a tanker escorted by a destroyer. With Miers commanding operations, Torbay dived, surfaced astern and fired one torpedo that was spotted by the enemy.
Once Torbay had been seen, she had to dive again and 11 depth charges were dropped in the hope of disabling her but they all missed. Miers had endured great difficulty shutting the upper hatch as the destroyer advanced towards his submarine and he later discovered that this was because the hatch was jammed by his own pillow.
On both March 1 and 2, Torbay was depth-charged by destroyers and six near misses saw the submarine lifted six several feet upwards in the sea. When Miers later spoke of the stresses and strains of being depth-charged, he was full of praise for the calmness of his crew: “I am bound to confess that on many occasions I have felt extremely frightened when the depth-charges have been going off around us. Yet even then the crew of Torbay has never failed to amaze me. In fact they almost seem to enjoy themselves keeping a scoreboard of the number of enemy depth-charges dropped.”
On March 3 1942, an enemy convoy escorted by three destroyers was seen by Torbay’s crew entering Corfu harbour. “All out of range,” Miers told Lieutenant Hugh Kidd. “I am going to trail ‘em. May take some time, but it should be worthwhile.” Overnight, having already surfaced once only to have to dive again to avoid a motor-ship, Miers followed the convoy through a narrow channel in heavily-patrolled waters having commented to Kidd: “There going in. We’ll follow later. Can’t catch them otherwise, and we’re not coming all this way for nothing – don’t you agree, Kidd?”
There were dangers aplenty – becoming grounded, striking a mine or being spotted, shot at and sunk by enemy ships. Once Torbay was deep into the harbour, Miers upped periscope and could see he was surrounded on three sides by enemy territory and several enemy vessels. Knowing it was too dangerous to attack at night and to escape afterwards, he decided to wait until the morning.
However, first Torbay was forced to surface in a full moon to recharge her batteries, before diving once again having not been spotted. By dawn on March 4, Miers discovered that the convoy had sailed again leaving only two 5,000-ton transport ships and a destroyer at anchor. “Right. Stand by to attack,” were Miers orders to his first lieutenant. The Torbay fired a torpedo at each of the three ships, missing the destroyer but hitting both transport ships, both of which subsequently sank.
Miers took his submarine to the seabed, not knowing if the torpedoes had hit their targets, and waited there for an hour. That was the easier part: the submarine now had to make a hazardous withdrawal to the open sea in broad daylight, enduring constant depth-charging by the pursuing enemy. In all some 40 depth-charges were dropped but none found its target.
Miers had made for the nearest exit in a straight line and, at one point, was right among small boats searching for the submarine. He also avoided the enemy anti-submarine craft that were hovering along the long exit channel, as well as enemy aircraft continuously patrolling overhead. It was mid-morning when Miers finally reached open water, fully 17 hours after he had led Torbay into the enemy’s lair.
Miers VC was announced on July 7 1942 when his citation read: “For valour in command of H.M. Submarine Torbay in a daring and successful raid on shipping in a defended enemy harbour, planned with full knowledge of the great hazards to be expected during seventeen hours in waters closely patrolled by the enemy. On arriving in the harbour he had to charge his batteries lying on the surface in full moonlight, under the guns of the enemy. As he could not see his target he waited several hours and attacked in full daylight in a glassy calm. When he had fired his torpedoes he was heavily counter-attacked and had to withdraw through a long channel with anti-submarine craft all round and continuous air patrols overhead.”
After the announcement of his VC and other gallantry awards for his officers and crew, it was suggested that the four officers would be invested at one ceremony and the ratings at another. Miers is said to have responded that if they could not all attend together, he would turn down his VC. This meant that, on July 28 1942, the ship’s company remained united, as they had been under the sea, for the investiture at Buckingham Palace by George VI. In all, 28 officers and men from Torbay were decorated by the King.
Miers continued to serve with considerable distinction for the rest of the war. In 1943, he was appointed as Submarine Staff Liaison Officer on the staff of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific, and of Admiral Lockwood, Commander Submarines Pacific. As part of this role, he took part in a 56-day war patrol with the US submarine Cabrilla. From 1944-5, Miers was Commander Submarines, the 8th Submarine Flotilla, which was based at Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and, later, Perth, Australia.
On January 20 1945, Miers married Patricia Millar, who served in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS), in Perth. The couple went on to have a son, who served in the Royal Navy, and a daughter. After the war ended, Miers was promoted – on December 31 1946 – to captain and during the same year he was given command of HMS Vernon II.
From 1948-50, he commanded HMS Blackcap, the Royal Naval Air Station at Stretton, Cheshire, and during this time he gained his pilot’s licence. From 1950-2, he commanded HMS Forth and the 1st Submarine Flotilla and from 1952-4 he was in charge of Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London. From 1954-5, he commanded the aircraft carrier, HMS Theseus. Miers was promoted to rear admiral on January 7 1956 and on March 15 of the same year he was appointed Flag Officer, Middle East. He retired on August 4 1959, having been made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1958 and a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1959.
Miers led an interesting and active after his retirement. Assorted business interests aside, he was President of the Royal Navy Lawn Tennis Association and the Royal Navy Squash Racquets Association and, in 1967, was appointed President of the Submarine Old Comrades Association.
During his final years, Miers and his wife lived in Roehampton, London. He died at his home on June 30 1985, aged 78, when his last word was “Cheerio”. Sir Anthony Cecil Capel Miers VC KBE CB DSO and Bar is buried in the Romach Caatholic section of Tomnahurich cemetery, Inverness.
I purchased the Miers medal group privately in 2009 and I feel privileged to be the custodian of the gallantry and service medals of this courageous, if controversial, senior Navy officer.