THE STRATEGIC SITUATION in the Mediterranean at the close of 1941 has already been described at the previous posts. It will be recalled that the recapture of Cyrenaica by the Eighth Army gave the British a substantial geographical advantage while the Axis underwater offensive by U-boats, human torpedoes and mines had led to the loss or disablement of the whole British eastern Mediterranean battle squadron, as well as the sinking of Ark Royal and to a severe setback to Force K in Malta. The submarines were less affected by these developments except that Benghazi was now in our hands, and it was necessary to transfer more effort to the Tunisian coast along which enemy convoys were expected to sail in the future. Air attacks on Malta were, however, becoming serious, a thousand tons of bombs being dropped during January. It was now difficult to service and maintain ships and submarines. Furthermore, enemy aircraft and E-boats were laying mines round the islands and there was only one minesweeper left and she had to sweep at night. However all was not lost. The Maltese tunnellers had made it possible for all important parts of the submarine base, including a large workshop, to be put underground by the end of 1941. The base was now secure but the submarines themselves were now far from safe when in harbour. Upholder, at sea for exercises, was machine gunned by four German fighters and her temporary Commanding Officer (Lieutenant CP Norman RN) was wounded. He was just able to shut the conning tower hatch as the submarine dived. On 6th HMS P31 was bombed while in dock; three of her crew were wounded, the pressure hull was holed in twenty-six places by splinters, and repairs took three weeks.
In the first days of 1942, nine submarines were at sea on patrol and another three were on passage between bases. HMS Upholder had just arrived on the north coast of Sicily, HMS P34 was off Augusta south of Messina and HMS Urge was off Lampion on the Tunisian coast. HMS Unique was south of Taranto while HMS Proteus and HMS Thunderbolt were on the west coast of Greece off Cephalonia. HMS Triumph was in the Aegean with HMS Thorn and HMS Osiris north of Crete. Submarines on passage were HMS P35 and HMS Una on their way from Gibraltar to Malta and HMS Talisman from Alexandria to Malta. A fourth submarine on passage sailed early in January from Gibraltar. This was HMS P36 (Lieutenant HN Edmonds DSC RN) and she was routed by the south coast of France to land an important agent south of Miramas to organise operations in the area for the Special Operations Executive. HMS Upholder (again Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn VC DSO RN) was forced to dive by Italian aircraft soon after leaving Malta and, after diving under the minefields of the Sicilian narrows, rounded Marittimo on 2nd running into more air activity. Next day off Cape Gallo she made a night attack in moonlight on a convoy of two westbound escorted ships. She fired two torpedoes at a range of 2600 yards on a track of 142 degrees and both missed. Early next morning she came upon the Italian cargo ship Sirio of 5300 tons and attacked, but one torpedo ran hot in the tube and the other dived to the bottom and exploded, severely shaking her. HMS Upholder gave chase and after dawn engaged with her gun and fired two more torpedoes, one of which hit Italian ship amidships. Sirio returned fire with machine guns and Upholder finally had to let her go and dive, and the target escaped at a speed of nine knots. HMS Upholder now had only one torpedo left and next morning early (5th January), she was sighted by the large Italian submarine Saint Bon in the moonlight. Saint Bon was difficult to see against the land and approached with her guns manned and opened fire. HMS Upholder dived as soon as she saw her and fired her last torpedo by eye at a range of 800 yards which hit just forward of amidships and sank Italian submarine. HMS Upholder picked up three survivors confirming her success without any doubt. Within a few minutes of this exploit, HMS Proteus, on the other side of the Ionian Sea, attacked Italian cargo ship Citta di Palermo of 5415 tons firing a stern salvo of two torpedoes at 600 yards, both of which hit and sank her.
The Italian Navy was determined to repeat the successful convoy that had arrived at Tripoli on 19th December. They still had not heard of their successes against the British battleships in Alexandria, and so intended to escort their convoys with their whole fleet. On January 3rd, a convoy of six large ships in three parts, escorted by a total of ten destroyers, sailed from Messina and Taranto with important military cargoes including 54 tanks for the Afrika Korps. A second smaller convoy sailed at the same time from Palermo to take the route by the Tunisian coast. A force of three Italian battleships, six Italian cruisers and thirteen destroyers covered both convoys, and both arrived safely in Tripoli. The cargoes were at once landed and conveyed to the front, and were in the hands of the army within a matter of days.
The arrival of these convoys was a serious setback for the British especially as the cryptographers had given warning that they were about to sail and had foretold their route. Furthermore there were five submarines at sea in the central Mediterranean. The reason for the failure was that Italian Navy covered the passage of the convoys by heavy air attacks on Malta. These not only prevented any attack by the air striking forces based in the island, but also prevented any effective air reconnaissance and the convoys were not located until they were nearing their destination. Signal intelligence continued to be received during the month, but it could not often be acted upon. It showed that the coastal route from Tripoli to El Agheila was being used to get supplies forward but no submarines were sent there after Force K ran into mines in the shallow water off the North African coast. As has been pointed out before, it was imprudent to use signal intelligence directly for fear of compromise. The difficulties with air reconnaissance from Malta due to air attacks on the island often meant that signal intelligence could not be used at all.
Some information was received from air reconnaissance, however, which was of value to try to intercept the Italian fleet on its way back to Taranto. HMS Unique was already on patrol off Taranto, HMS P34 was moved there on 4th from the coast of Sicily and HMS Thrasher from patrol off Cephalonia. Polish submarine Sokol and HMS Unbeaten were sent straight to the area from Malta. HMS P34 and HMS Unique were given the inshore positions in the Gulf of Taranto and HMS Unbeaten, Sokol and HMS Thrasher were positioned on a patrol line farther out. HMS Thrasher was, however, delayed by heavy weather and did not arrive in time. Just after midday on 5th, HMS Unique (Lieutenant Commander AF Collett DSC RN) heard hydrophone effect and found herself right ahead of Italian battleship Duilio escorted by a cruiser, five destroyers and two flying boats. She went deep for one of the screen and by the time she was able to use her periscope again, she could only fire her four torpedoes at a range of 6000 yards from the quarter after the enemy had passed. Not surprisingly all the torpedoes missed. C-in-C was severely critical of this failure and pointed out that there was no need to go deep, as conditions were bad for air observation and such precautions against collision, necessary in peacetime exercises, were not warranted in wartime when risks must be run. The other submarines did not see the enemy force and the concentration were dispersed on 8th January.
HMS Triumph, on patrol in the Aegean, had instructions to land a party near Piraeus to round up and rescue any army escapers (survivors of German invasion of Greece from previous year) they could find. While waiting to pick them up again she was given a patrol area south east of the Gulf of Athens and on 4th January she made an unsuccessful torpedo attack on the motor cutter Sofia south of Milo. She then moved to a position off Cape Sounion and on 9th January she attacked a large lighter under tow and missed again. She then almost certainly struck a mine in an antisubmarine field laid in this area by the Italian minelayer Barletta in December 1940. This time HMS Triumph was sunk with all hands including her new Commanding Officer, Lieutenant JS Huddart RN, five other officers and fifty five men. Four of her officers and twenty of the ship’s company of this most successful submarine had been decorated or mentioned in dispatches, and she was a great loss.
HMS Porpoise (Commander EF Pizey DSO RN), after being employed on a number of store trips to Malta, embarked mines at Haifa on 5th January and laid them off Suda Bay , Crete on 11th. Italian torpedo boat Cantore struck one of them on 15th and was damaged. On 18th January, HMS Porpoise attacked a strongly escorted convoy of three Axis ships, firing a full salvo of six torpedoes at a range of 6000 yards and sinking Italian cargo ship Citta di Livorno of 2471 tons even though one of the torpedoes had a gyro failure. HMS Thrasher (Lieutenant HS Mackenzie RN) from Taranto was sent to the Straits of Otranto and at night in heavy weather fired four torpedoes at a range of 600 yards sinking Italian cargo ship Fedora of 5015 tons, which was southbound and fully laden. HMS Unbeaten (Lieutenant Commander EA Woodward RN) when she left the Taranto patrol line was sent to Cape Spartivento to the south east of Messina and on the forenoon of 12th January she first heard, and then sighted and attacked a German U-boat. She fired four torpedoes at 1500 yards from periscope depth and obtained two hits and sank Germsn submarine U-374. HMS Unbeaten picked up one survivor. After this success, on 19th, she attacked a convoy at long range on a broad track with four more torpedoes, but without result. On return to Malta, HMS Unbeaten was attacked and machine gunned by Luftwaffe fighters as she entered Valetta harbour but dived and there were no casualties. After this attack, Royal Navy submarines approaching Valetta were ordered to remain submerged until one mile off St Elmo, and were only to surface after checking that the red air raid warning flag at the Castile was not flying. Polish submarine Sokol (Kapitan B Karnicki) the last of the Taranto line was sent to patrol off Crotone but saw nothing.
HMS Urge on the east coast of Tunisia, south of Lampion, was joined early in the month by HMS Upright, but they saw nothing and these two submarines were relieved by HMS P35 and HMS Una in the middle of January. On 17th, HMS P35 (Lieutenant SLC Maydon RN), who had been sent to reconnoitre Sousse, sank Italian salvage vessel Rampino of 301 tons, hitting with one of three torpedoes at a range of 1500 yards. Three days later she sighted a lighted Axis convoy off the Tunisian coast and outside territorial waters. It was in the ‘Sink at Sight’ zone so she fired four torpedoes at very long range, which was also probably underestimated and scored no hits.
On 16th January, opportunity was taken to send a four-ship convoy to Malta and take advantage of British possession of airfields in Cyrenaica to give it fighter protection. It was also escorted by light forces from the Mediterranean Fleet, and by Force K from Malta. A submarine patrol line was established south of Taranto by HMS Upholder and HMS Unique from Malta, and HMS Torbay, which had been on patrol off Crete. The convoy arrived after heavy air attacks on 19th and was violently attacked in harbour too, but 21,000 tons of supplies were safely unloaded. The Italian surface forces did not leave harbour, and these submarines saw very little. HMS Upholder sighted a hospital ship and an escorted supply ship too far off to attack, and on 20th the patrol line was dispersed. On her way back to Malta, HMS Unique sighted a U-boat on 21st in the half-light before dawn. She fired four torpedoes at a range of 1500 yards on a late track and missed. The Italian Navy sent over another important convoy with a heavy surface ship covering force at this time. HMS Torbay had been sent back to Taranto and was there when it left, and HMS P36 and HMS Urge had just arrived off Tripoli. HMS Torbay (Lieutenant Commander ACC Miers DSO RN) sighted three Italian cruisers with an escort of destroyers at midday on 22nd and fired six torpedoes at a range of 8000 yards on a track of 120 degrees. She was probably out of range and the torpedoes scored no hits. Early on 24th January HMS Urge (Lieutenant Commander EP Tomkinson DSO* RN) saw aircraft flares as the RAF from Cyrenaica, and the Fleet Air Arm from Malta, heavily attacked the convoy, sinking the 13,000-ton Italian liner Victoria with 1.400 troops on board. HMS Urge sighted the convoy and its cruiser escort but was unable to get within range. However she made an enemy report by asdic to HMS P36. HMS P36 (Lieutenant HN Edmonds RN) made contact and fired four torpedoes at a range of 4500 yards, claiming a hit and she was counter attacked with thirty depth charges. The remaining four ships of the convoy, however, reached Tripoli without further damage. Most of the troops were saved, and another 71 tanks were landed.
On 21st January, Panzer Group Afrika led by General Rommel, with a new lease of life from these convoys, attacked and drove the Eighth Army back. Benghazi fell on 29th but the army in the desert was able to stabilize the situation on the Gazala line some thirty miles west of Tobruk. This did not affect submarine operations except that patrols were required again off Benghazi and in the Gulf of Sirte but it became very difficult to run convoys to Malta from the east. HMS P34 (Lieutenant PRH Harrison DSC RN) patrolled off Messina in the second half of January and on 25th she fired four torpedoes at a range of 5000 yards at an escorted southbound merchantman scoring one hit. This was Italian cargo ship Dalmatia L of 3320 tons and she remained afloat for some hours before finally sinking. The counter attack by her escort was ineffective. HMS P34 was relieved by HMS Urge south of Messina before the end of the month. HMS Upright (Lieutenant JS Wraith DSC RN) was sent to patrol north of Sicily during this period but saw nothing. HMS Thunderbolt (Lieutenant Commander CB Crouch DSO RN) followed HMS Thrasher off the west coast of Greece and encountered very heavy weather. On 30th she attacked a convoy firing three torpedoes at a range of 2500 yards, but an escort sighted the tracks and the torpedoes were avoided. Free Greek Navy submarine Nereus (Ypoplaiarkhos A Rallis) patrolled off Suda Bay for ten days at the end of January but remained deep in daylight throughout and made no contacts, which was not altogether surprising. HMS Thorn (Lieutenant Commander RG Norfolk RN) left Alexandria for the Adriatic on 17th January, passing through the Straits of Otranto on 22nd and spent some days trying to make two landing operations. One party was put ashore on 27th on the island of Mljet and on 28th off Sibernik she fired three torpedoes at a range of 800 yards at a merchant vessel and missed. She then surfaced and engaged with her gun setting the enemy on fire and stopping her, but not before she had been forced to dive by shore batteries. She then fired two more torpedoes, one circled but the other hit sinking Italian merchant ship Ninuccia of 4585 tons. During this action, she ran aground putting all three starboard bow tubes out of action. However she remained on patrol proceeding north to the Gulf of Quarnero where she had a substantial success. Here, off PoIa, on 30th she sighted the Italian submarine Medusa and fired four torpedoes at 3500 yards, hitting with one of them and sinking her.
Germans and Italians managed to get 43,328 tons of supplies and equipment and 22,842 tons of fuel across during January with a loss of nine per cent. This was less than they would have wished but enough to mount the counter offensive which recaptured Benghazi. Royal Navy submarines did nearly all the damage as the 669 tons of bombs dropped on Malta had made it very difficult for the RAF to attack shipping, or even fly adequate reconnaissance missions. The nucleus of Force K was still in the Grand Harbour but found it impossible to operate without air reconnaissance. Most of the air attacks on Malta were directed at the airfields and the dockyard and at Force K, but the maintenance and rest periods for submarines were bound to be affected. Nevertheless at sea, Royal Navy submarines kept up their sinkings during January. In nineteen attacks they fired 69 torpedoes and sank three enemy submarines , a salvage vessel and five cargo ships of 21,106 tons and damaged another of 5300 tons. The Italian naval historian, however, claims that most of these ships were sunk when returning to Italy and were empty. One submarine, HMS Triumph, was lost and another, HMS Utmost, left the station to refit. Two others had been sent to the Far East but two new T-class, HMS Turbulent and HMS Tempest had arrived at Gibraltar as well as the four new U-class. All these submarines carried out short working up patrols from Gibraltar before making their passages to Malta or Alexandria.