Britain's submarine fleet played a crucial role in winning World War Two, and the Daily Mirror helped keep submariners' morale bouyant with a unique daily newspaper – Alison Rayden reports
The sailors sat tensely waiting to die.
Their boat had been blasted by a depth charge, lost all power and sunk to the ocean floor.
Knowing they probably had little time left, the men asked if they might read all the as-yet unseen copies of the daily submariners’ paper currently locked in the safe.
The chief petty officers agreed – how could they not? – and ripped open package after package of editions of ‘Good Morning’, which the ship’s company were soon devouring in the gloom.
Suddenly power was restored, the sailors were saved and the boat surfaced, albeit with her messes spilling over with tabloid newsprint.
Far-fetched as it may sound, the tale is true.
Because as Royal Navy submariners fought brutal battles beneath the waves they had an invaluable ally – the Daily Mirror.
The paper was the only one in Fleet Street to specifically support their perilous, yet crucial efforts with their very own publication.
Between 1939 and 1945 British boats sank over two million tons of enemy cargo vessels, plus 57 major warships and submarines.
These included crippling the German battleship Tirpitz, numerous covert missions to sneak commandos onto hostile beaches undetected and strangling the sea route of supplies destined for enemy forces fighting in North Africa.
Seven Victoria Crosses were won – two posthumously – plus hundreds of other decorations for endless examples of selfless courage by all ranks and ages.
As Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill said: “Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners.”
Yet all the successes came at a price.
Patrols were gruelling and hazardous, with 36 per cent of the Royal Navy’s 206 submarines lost over the six-year period.
Maintaining the crews’ morale was one of the admirals’ top priorities, but an uphill struggle.
Many experienced captains were killed in the early stages of the war and men eventually had to be conscripted into the service.
So in 1942 Mirror editorial director Guy Bartholomew formed a small, separate team of reporters to produce ‘Good Morning’ just for the submarine flotillas.
Numbered rather than dated, bundled copies were carefully placed in correct order in a submarine’s safe before she left on patrol.
At the end of a day at sea, the diesel boats usually surfaced for the night to recharge their batteries and allow fresh oxygen to seep into the stinking atmosphere on board.
As the message went out giving the ship’s company permission to smoke, the coxswain would tour the boat handing out that day’s instalment.
‘Good Morning’ was a mixture of news, showbiz, stories about submariners’ families, cosy pictures of animals and cartoons.
Sailors often bet their daily rum ration on the outcome of the various quizzes and crosswords – and would then wait anxiously until the next evening to check the right answers.
‘Good Morning’ was also a miracle of organisation run by its editor James Newcombe (pictured above, left – credit: RN Submarine Museum) .
His journalists were often on the jetty to greet boats quietly slipping back into port and unfailingly replied to sailors’ letters sent to the paper’s tiny office in Clerkenwell, London.
Daily Mirror showbiz writer Ron Richards even visited submariners’ families to bring them whatever news wasn’t classified.
Amongst the Royal Navy submariners, the paper’s importance cannot be overplayed.
“The effect on crew morale was significant,” said Royal Navy Submarine Museum archivist George Malcolmson, who has a complete bound set of every edition that rolled off the presses.
“The Daily Mirror stepped in just when the service needed it most.”
Commanding Officer of HMS Syrtis Lt Michael Jupp DSC wrote in a 1943 War Patrol Report during a frustrating hunt for German U boats: “A cheerful spirit prevails as always, in spite of the difficulty, not yet surmounted, of finding a target at which to fire torpedoes.
“Thanks for this cheerfulness are due in good measure to ‘Good Morning’.”
HMS Syrtis sank, probably in a minefield off Norway at the end of March 1944, with the loss of all 48 men on board.
Naturally the Daily Mirror’s deliciously saucy “Jane” cartoons regularly took centre stage in the paper.
The work of artist Norman Pett, each sequence of frames saw the blonde heroine spontaneously shed layers of clothing until she was usually scampering around draped with a small towel, or just plain starkers.
Jane was a huge sex bomb in our wartime arsenal – every time her frilly knickers fell down, military morale soared.
Nowhere was this felt more than among submariners and, in particular, the men of HMS Untiring.
Norman Pett drew a cartoon especially for the boat (below, credit: RN Submarine Museum), which was proudly displayed as they prowled around the Mediterranean, sinking a string of enemy vessels.
Sporting the perkiest breasts in Allied Europe, Jane can be seen in the sketch posing at HMS Untiring’s attack periscope wearing a few scraps of lingerie and a coy smile.
According to crew member John Coote it was the boat’s “most prized possession”.
And perhaps she proved a lucky mascot too as HMS Untiring survived the war unscathed.
The life model for the Jane cartoons was Christabel Leighton-Porter who, in between posing for Norman Pett, also helped keep those home fires burning by performing naked on the West End stage.
When I interviewed her shortly before her death in 2000, she’d just attended the Special Operations Executive’s 60th Anniversary celebrations in Hampshire.
Giggling coquettishly that the veterans at the event had clustered around her and “practically ate me alive, my dear”, she added: “I was always amazed by the strip’s popularity. And when people said ‘Oh, you don’t know how much Jane means to us?,’ I was overwhelmed.”
Everything that was achieved with ‘Good Morning’ was not forgotten after the end of the war.
In 1955, a large reunion dinner was held for everyone involved at London’s Cafe Royale, attended by then First Sea Lord Lord Mountbatten of Burma, Daily Mirror Newspapers chairman Cecil King and Daily Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp (picture below: credit RN Submarine Museum).