January-February 1942 , Tough Times For Royal Navy Submarines in Mediterranean

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.

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THE SITUATION ON LAND in Cyrenaica, as already told, stabilised on the Gazala line in the middle of Cyrenaica in the early days of February. Both armies, however, wished to renew the offensive: the Axis to seize Tobruk and advance to the Egyptian frontier and the Allies to retake western Cyrenaica and then to advance into Tripolitania and drive the enemy out of Africa. Both depended on supplies and re-inforcements before either army could attack; those for the Axis having to cross the Mediterranean, and for the Allies having to come round the Cape or from India, Australasia or South Africa. The need to attack the Axis sea traffic was therefore as great as ever. On 1st February, six Royal Navy submarines were on patrol in Mediterranean. HMS Proteus had just arrived on the west coast of Greece; HMS P34 and HMS Upright were returning to Malta from Messina and the north west coast of Sicily respectively; HMS Thunderbolt was off Cephalonia; HMS Urge east of Sicily and finally HMS Thorn was still in the Adriatic. In the first few days of February, another six submarines put to sea, all from Malta. HMS P31 for the western approaches to Tripoli; HMS Unique to patrol south east of Messina; HMS Upholder for the north west coast of Sicily and Sokol, HMS P35 and HMS Unbeaten for the east Tunisian coast.

On 1st February, HMS Urge (Lieutenant Commander EP Tomkinson DSO* RN) fired a long-range salvo of three torpedoes (at 7000 yards) at a convoy off the east coast of Sicily without result except that the destroyers of the escort counter attacked her with 29 depth charges. At almost exactly the same time, HMS Thunderbolt (Lieutenant Commander CB Crouch DSO RN), on the other side of the Ionian Sea off Cephalonia, also attacked a convoy that was southbound. She fired three torpedoes at a range of 1000 yards and hit and sank Italian cargo ship Absirtea of 4170 tons. Two days later on 3rd February, HMS P35 (Lieutenant SLC Maydon RN) in the Gulf of Hammamet, sighted Italian cargo vessel Napoli of 6140 tons at anchor after the RAF had damaged her. She fired two torpedoes singly at 2500 yards obtaining one hit and sinking her but in shallow water. The RAF, trying to prevent her being salved, subsequently attacked this ship again with boming raids. Meanwhile HMS Upholder (now Lieutenant CP Norman RN) had left Malta under the command of the spare Commanding Officer, to patrol off Cape St Vito on the north coast of Sicily. On 4th February, six miles off Cape St Vito she took a shot in a rough sea at a Navigatori-class destroyer. She fired three torpedoes at 2000 yards but the tracks were seen, the torpedoes were avoided and she was counter attacked with ten depth charges, which fortunately did no damage. On 3rd too, HMS Thunderbolt, now off Argostoli, damaged an Italian trawler by gunfire and next day she sighted an Italian submarine and fired a salvo of six torpedoes from 3000 yards. One of the torpedoes broke surface soon after being fired but does not seem to have been seen by the enemy, nevertheless all the torpedoes missed. HMS Thunderbolt then surfaced and engaged with her gun and also fired her remaining two torpedoes from her amidships tubes but the enemy dived and escaped. HMS Thorn in the Adriatic carried out a second landing operation near Mljet on 4th before returning to Alexandria. On 6th February, HMS P31 (Lieutenant JBdeB Kershaw RN) in the approaches to Tripoli fired three torpedoes at a range of 5000 yards at a small Italian merchant vessel escorted by an aircraft, but the aircraft saw the tracks and the torpedoes were avoided. On 12th, HMS P31 suffered an accident with the operation of her main ballast tanks. She dived involuntarily and the Commanding Officer was knocked unconscious, an officer was drowned and there was serious flooding necessitating her immediate return to Malta. On 7th, HMS Unbeaten (Lieutenant Commander EA Woodward RN), off Kerkenah fired four torpedoes at a range of 3500 yards at a convoy, but an aircraft of the escort probably saw the tracks and the torpedoes were avoided. She then suffered a counter attack of 29 depth charges by a destroyer of the escort. Between 5th and 7th, HMS Upholder, still on the north west coast of Sicily, sighted traffic inshore off Cape Gallo and in Castellamare Bay. The weather was bad but she was hunted by air and surface patrols. On 8th at 1720 she attacked an eastbound convoy with three torpedoes at 1300 yards and hit and sank Italian cargo ship Salpi of 2710 tons and damaged another Italian merchant ship Duino of 1334 tons. She was then counter attacked sharply by the escort over a period of fifteen minutes. On 8th February, HMS Proteus (Lieutenant Commander PS Francis RN), on the west coast of Greece, made a night attack on what she thought was a U-boat and fired two torpedoes at 700 yards from her stern tubes without result, probably because they ran under. HMS Proteus turned to try again firing another torpedo at 1000 yards from the enemy’s quarter. In a subsequent melee HMS Proteus collided bow to bow with the enemy, which turned out to be the Italian torpedo boat Sagittario that had been escorting a convoy. Both ships were damaged, Proteus losing her port forward hydroplane as well as starting some rivets in her pressure hull. As a result she had to abandon her patrol and return to Alexandria.

On 6th February, it had been decided, in spite of the loss of western Cyrenaica, to attempt to send another convoy to Malta from the east. With no battleships left operational at Alexandria, the convoy had only light cruisers and destroyers as escort. Royal Navy submarines therefore had an important role and were stationed south of Messina and across the Gulf of Taranto to report and attack any Italian heavy ships that left harbour. Convoy MF5 consisting of three large merchant ships, sailed on 12th February and the opportunity was taken to get four empty ships out of Malta. HMS P36, HMS Urge and HMS Unique were stationed south of Messina and HMS Una, HMS Tempest and HMS Upright formed the patrol line, ten miles apart, in the Gulf of Taranto. While approaching her patrol position, HMS Una (Lieutenant DSR Martin RN) sighted and attacked a large tanker. She fired three torpedoes at a range of 2600 yards and hit and sank tanker Lucania of 8106 tons. This was unfortunate as the ship had a safe conduct. HMS Upright (Lieutenant JS Wraith RN) had, in accordance with her orders, already allowed her to pass unmolested. The mistake occurred as the markings agreed for the ship were difficult to see, and the Captain of HMS Una had a high fever at the time. Nevertheless the British Government offered to replace the ship but this offer was not accepted. The convoy to Malta failed to get through, all the ships being damaged by air attack, two having to be sunk by Royal Navy forces, and the third putting in to Tobruk. The empty ships from Malta reached Port Said safely. Four Italian cruisers and ten destroyers put to sea from Messina and Taranto to intercept the convoy. Warned of the presence of British submarines off Taranto by the attack on Lucania, the Italians sent out an anti-submarine hunting force. On 13th February the Italian torpedo boat Circe, recently fitted with German antisubmarine equipment, after a six-hour hunt, located HMS Tempest and, in an accurate depth charge attack, damaged her and forced her to the surface. Three officers and twenty men were rescued and taken prisoner of war and a party boarded the submarine. She sank, however, as soon as she was taken in tow by Italians. The casualties included her Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander WAKN Cavanagh RN, one other officer and thirty-seven men. An hour after midnight on 15th HMS P36 (Lieutenant HN Edmonds RN), south of Messina, sighted two cruisers southbound and escorted by destroyers. She fired a full salvo of four torpedoes in a surface attack. The range, however, was long (7000 yards) and the enemy speed was high and she failed to secure a hit. She made an enemy report and later air reconnaissance located the force, but a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm attack from Malta failed to secure any hits either. Next day, HMS P36 sighted the same force, which had been sent out from Messina to attack convoy MF5. She identified the main units as Italian heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento. This time hms P36 got closer and fired another full salvo of four torpedoes. She again missed the large ships, which were steaming at 22 knots, but one torpedo hit and damaged Italian destroyer Carabinieri. Some of the seven other destroyers counter attacked for three and a half hours dropping 216 depth charges but without causing any significant damage. The others towed Carabinieri into harbour.

On 12th February, Polish submarine Sokol (Kapitan B Karnicki), who had been investigating the Gulf of Qabes, sank the three-masted schooner Guiseppina of 392 tons by demolition charge and on 13th fired three torpedoes at a destroyer at a range of 2500 yards, but the target did not even notice the attack. On 15th February, HMS P38 (Lieutenant RJ Hemingway DSC RN) torpedoed and sank Italian cargo ship Ariosto of 4116 tons off Cape Afrika, Tunisia. HMS Unique (Lieutenant Commander AF Collett DSC RN) returned to Malta on 18th February after a blank patrol south of Messina. She ran hard aground while trying to find the harbour entrance and had to be towed off. This was her last patrol before returning to the United Kingdom to refit. On 16th February, HMS Thrasher (Lieutenant HS Mackenzie RN), who had left Alexandria on 13th and passed north of Crete, attacked an escorted Italian supply ship off Candia. She ‘missed the DA’ on a 120-degree track but caught it up on a 160-degree track firing four torpedoes at 2000 yards. She claimed to have hit the target and was subjected to a very heavy and accurate counter attack from both the air and surface escort. No damage was noticed until she surfaced after dark when two 100 lb bombs were found lodged in the casing near the gun. The first was thrown over the side without difficulty, but the second had to be manhandled twenty feet before it could be disposed of. This was done by Lieutenant PWS Roberts RN and Petty Officer TW Gould, both of whom were subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery. Lieutenant Mackenzie reported that the ships that counter attacked Thrasher were using echo detection equipment efficiently, although the depth charges caused no damage.

On 16th February, signal intelligence revealed that an important Axis convoy of three large merchant ships was about to sail from Taranto for Tripoli and another three from Corfu to the same destination. Four Royal Navy submarines were at once ordered to form a patrol line north of Ras el Hamra to intercept them. These were HMS P34 on her way to patrol off Kerkenah, HMS P38 from the coast of Tunisia and HMS P39 and HMS Una from Malta. The patrol line was in position by 18th but further signal intelligence then indicated that the convoy had been delayed. The patrol line was therefore withdrawn sixty miles to seawards from its position close inshore for a period of forty-eight hours. It was back in position by dawn on 23rd. The Italian convoy from Taranto consisting of three large modern ships escorted by seven destroyers passed through the patrol line on the morning of 23rd. HMD P34 (Lieutenant PRH Harrison DSC RN) sighted the convoy and fired a full salvo of four torpedoes at a range of 4500 yards but missed and was heavily counter attacked but fortunately without damage. HMS P38 (Lieutenant RJ Hemingway DSC RN) was not so lucky. The torpedo boat Circe of the escort, obtained a hydrophone contact of her while she was making her attack and sighted her periscope. Circe assisted by Italian destroyer Usodimare then made an accurate depth charge attack and HMS P38 was forced to the surface with an acute bow up angle. Other escorts opened fire but HMS P38 submerged again and the other escorts joined in the depth charge barrage. Half an hour later she again broke surface and then dived steeply with her screws out of the water. This was followed by the appearance of oil, debris and large air bubbles. HMS P38 was lost with her whole crew including her Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Hemingway, three other officers and twenty-eight men. This was the second success by Circe with her German detecting apparatus in ten days and augured badly for the future. It had been hoped to reinforce the patrol line when the convoy was delayed and HMS Upholder, HMS Unbeaten, HMS P36 and HMS P35 left Malta on 21st February to join it. They did not arrive in time and after the convoy had passed, the patrol line was dispersed. HMS P34 went back to Kerkenah, HMS P39 to the Lampedusa area, HMS Upholder remained north of Tripoli, HMS Unbeaten to an area off Monastir, HMS P35 to the south of Messina and HMS P36 to the Gulf of Qabes while HMS Una returned to Malta. On 27th February, after a number of sightings and being caught in a sandstorm, HMS Upholder (again Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn VC DSO RN) sank the northbound and escorted Italian cargo ship Tembien of 5585 tons, unfortunately carrying some British prisoners of war. She obtained two hits with three torpedoes fired from 2800 yards and was counter attacked with eight depth charges. Of the 792 prisoners of war in this ship and in Ariosto sunk by P38 on 15th February, 582 were saved. On 28th, HMS P35 (Lieutenant SLC Maydon RN) in a day submerged attack fired two torpedoes at aN Italian supply ship south of Messina, but one of them malfunctioned and the other missed at a range of 3500 yards.

Three submarines sailed for patrol from Alexandria in the second half of February, HMS Torbay and HMS Thorn for the west coast of Greece and HMS Turbulent for the Aegean. The patrol by HMS Thorn (Lieutenant Commander RG Norfolk RN) was uneventful but HMS Torbay saw plenty of action, most of which happened during March and will be described later. On 27th, however, she made a night attack at the close range of 400 yards on an escorted tanker. She only fired one torpedo and a yaw caused it to miss. While diving, the Commanding Officer’s pillow caught in the conning tower hatch. Fortunately the counter attack was slow to develop and not very accurate. Later in the day she was able to surface and sink the small Italian coaster Lido by gunfire. HMS Turbulent (Commander JW Linton DSC RN) was brand new and had brought torpedoes and stores through the Mediterranean while on passage. Her Commanding Officer, however, was experienced in the Mediterranean and he was given a roving commission in the Aegean. On 26th, he attempted to attack a three-ship convoy off Suda Bay without success but next day sank a caique by gunfire. From there he made for the Doro Channel and his exploits from now on took place in March and will be described later.

The failure of the February convoy to Malta increased the need for Royal Navy submarines to carry supplies there. The civilian rations had already been decreased below those in the United Kingdom and the expenditure of ammunition and aviation fuel in the many air raids was prodigious. During February, HMS Porpoise (Lieutenant LWA Bennington DSC RN) ran a trip with petrol and personnel from Alexandria, and HMS Olympus (Lieutenant Commander HG Dymott RN) and HMS Pandora (Lieutenant RL Alexander RN) did the same from Gibraltar. During this month too there were countless Axis air raids dropping 1020 tons of bombs on the island. The destroyer HMS Maori was sunk in the Grand Harbour by Luftwaffe bombers but up to the middle of the month, most of the bombs were still aimed at the airfields and the dockyard. Force K and the air striking forces on the island were unable to achieve any results against the enemy convoys and nearly everything sunk during the month was by Royal Navy submarines. On 13th February, a very heavy raid, in which parachute mines were used, struck the submarine base on Manoel Island. It did a great deal of damage, demolishing a number of buildings including those of the mess decks and killing two men and wounding five others. There could have been heavy casualties but for the rock shelters under the base. The maintenance and repair of submarines was much hampered, not only by this attack but also by air raid alarms, and the crews could get little rest in harbour. Even the rest camp at Ghain Tuffieha was attacked. Nevertheless the base staffs persevered, and were just able to cope. The submarines now submerged by night and surfaced by day so that work could be done on them. At the end of February, the new arrival HMS P39 was attacked by Luftwaffe Me109 fighters as she entered harbour after her first patrol. In this same raid on 27th February, the submarine base, in spite of four Bofors guns that had been deployed on Manoel Island, was again heavily bombed and four officers were killed and the officer’s quarters were destroyed. From now on all hands had to mess in the open and sleep in the over crowded shelters. During the month the Admiralty became alarmed at the scale of attack and suggested that the old submarine depot ship Lucia, now used in the Indian Ocean as depot ship for the Eastern Fleet submarines, should be sent to Alexandria to which place the Tenth Submarine Flotilla might have to withdraw. Captain Simpson, however, had no intention of being dislodged by the Luftwaffe and was determined to remain and continue to service and support his flotilla.

The results achieved by Royal Navy submarines during February were well up to previous performance. Twenty attacks were made firing 64 torpedoes and six ships of 30,825 tons were sunk as well as several small craft. Two destroyers were damaged as well as at least one ship of 1334 tons. Nevertheless Italian losses, as a percentage of the increased traffic in convoy now being sent, were small and the build up of their forces in Cyrenaica began. A sinister development was the loss of two submarines, HMS Tempest and HMS P38, by depth charge attack from asdic fitted escorts. Fortunately the German echo detection gear was greatly inferior to the British asdic, but the period in which the enemy ships had virtually no way to detect our submarines when they were submerged was over. Furthermore no new submarines arrived on the station during February to replace these losses.

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