Obituary: William Hedley Kett 1913-2014



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Capt Hedley Kett, who has died aged 100, was a successful wartime submarine commander and, post-war, piloted ships in the
North Sea and on the Thames. 

In 1929 Kett went to sea as a deck apprentice with the Bolton Steamship Co. He entered the Royal Fleet Auxiliary when the Glover Bros tanker he was serving in, Romney, was chartered by the Admiralty during the Spanish Civil War. By 1936 he had obtained his First Mate’s certificate and he joined the Royal Naval Reserve in 1938. When war broke out he was a second officer of the 12,000-ton fleet auxiliary Arndale, and when she called at Colombo to have defensive guns fitted he became her gunnery officer.


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By November 1939 Kett was at home, preparing for his Master’s Certificate, when he was called up; it would be seven years before he sat the examination. He volunteered at once for the submarine service, and his first appointment was as navigator of Oberon. Nine months later he joined Clyde, first as navigator, then as first lieutenant. Clyde was one of the Navy’s largest submarines, with a 57-man crew, and the air was often so stale that off-watch crew were ordered to their bunks at 4pm to conserve oxygen. There was no water for showers or washing, but the food was better than in surface ships. Tinned, oily fish was a regular feature of the diet, to compensate for the lack of sunshine and vitamin D.

On September 21 1941 Clyde was diverted from Atlantic escort duties to Tarrafal Bay, Cape Verde Islands, to investigate a report that German submarines were meeting to transfer fuel, torpedoes and crew. Clyde entered the bay on the surface at midnight, immediately saw the U-boat U-68, and fired six torpedoes which missed and exploded on the beach. Clyde dived to reload, hitting U-111, which happened to be underneath. Surfacing an hour later, they saw a third U-boat, U-67, which Kett, as officer of the watch, tried to ram, calling out: “Hard a-starboard, full ahead together, captain on the bridge”.

Karl Dönitz, the German U-boat admiral, realised that Clyde’s arrival in Tarrafal Bay at the same time as three German submarines was unlikely to be a coincidence, but was reassured that German codes could not be cracked; only long after the war did he learn about the British success in reading his signals. Many years later, too, in Hamburg, Kett met an Elbe pilot who had been a German submariner in Tarrafal Bay. As they swapped stories, Kett learned that U-111 had been so badly damaged that it could not dive and had been sunk by the armed trawler Lady Shirley a few days later; while U-67 had been so badly damaged that it had had to abort its patrol and return to France.


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Next, Clyde was diverted for the so-called “Magic Carpet” run, ferrying aviation fuel, ammunition and food from Gibraltar to the besieged island of Malta, where Kett acquired the nickname “Tanker”. The aviation fuel was carried in the submarine’s tanks, but several tons of stores had to be stuffed into every nook and cranny while Kett tried to keep track of its eventual underwater trim. When an Army officer handed him a crate of lipsticks, Kett told him to take them back — but once he was persuaded that they were good for morale on the island, he relented. Having reached Malta, Clyde lay on the bottom of the harbour by day, and by night Kett worked frantically to unload the precious cargo.

After his fifth cargo run to Malta, Kett was flown home in a Wellington bomber to attend the course for submarine captains. He arrived in England on September 24 1942, married two days later, and the course started on September 27. At their diamond wedding his wife insisted that she had still not had a honeymoon.

Kett was awarded a DSC for his bravery and skill in successful submarine patrols.


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His first command was P-555, which acted as a “clockwork mouse” (dummy target) off Tobermory for surface ships practising their anti-submarine tactics. Then, in January 1943, he was given command of the U-class submarine P-34. When Winston Churchill decreed that submarines should have names, Kett chose Ultimatum. He remained in the boat for two years during which Ultimatum carried out a work-up patrol north of Iceland and 12 patrols in the Mediterranean.

On October 30 1943 Kett attacked a German U-boat on the surface off Toulon, and for many years he was credited with sinking U-431: in the late 1980s, however, this was reassessed as an attack on another U-boat which escaped undamaged. Nevertheless, Kett was awarded a bar to his DSC for outstanding service in anti-submarine operations.

On his last patrol in the Mediterranean, Kett conducted a survey of the shallow waters off the southern French coast, using his forward-looking short range Asdic (sonar) to locate enemy mines. Each mine was plotted, and no Allied ships were lost to mines during Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings in southern France in August 1944.

By the end of the war, one in three British submariners had lost their lives, and of 18 officers on Kett’s submarine captains’ course, only two survived the war, the other being Admiral Sir John Roxburgh.

William Hedley Kett was born at Ponders End in the Lea Valley on July 28 1913, a descendant of Robert Kett, leader of the rebellion in Norfolk in 1549 against the enclosure of common lands. He was brought up and educated in Blackheath.

Kett was demobilised in 1946, when he received his licence as a London and North Sea pilot. He continued to be an active member of the RNR, commanding the submarine Springer during his annual fortnight’s training in 1950.


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In 1966 he was appointed ADC to the Queen. In 1971 he was sworn in as one of the Younger Brethren
of Trinity House. In retirement he took up painting landscapes and seascapes .

Hedley Kett married, in 1942, Doris May Mitchell. She died in 2006, and he is survived by their two daughters.

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of The Telegraph where it first appeared. The photos are supplied by the family of Hedley Kett who also gave permission for this article.


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