March-May 1941 , 10th Submarine Flotilla in Malta goes on attack against Axis convoys

from “Fortress Malta” by James Holland
“The Fighting Tenth” by John Winton
“Sea Wolves British Submarines in Second World War” Tim Clayton
“History of British U-Class Submarine”
British and Allied Submarine Operations in Second World War - Admiral Arthur Hezlett (who commanded Royal Navy subs in war) NOTE : This author commanded submarines both in Meditwrranean and Indian Ocean)

RAF air recon in March revealed a suprising number of Axis shipping and sea transport and at least ten Italian warships at Tunisian coast , suggesting a big operation (the reason was initial two divisions of German Afrikakorps was in sealift from Italy to Libya and Axis vessels were hugging close to Tunsian coast that belonged Vichy France not to get caught by British air and naval patrols)

Eight U-class patrols from Malta were carried out during March. HMS Unique (Lieutenant AF Collett RN) left Malta on 27th February for the east coast of Tunisia. Her patrol was extended beyond the normal time as air reconnaissance of Tripoli showed a particularly heavy concentration of ships there. On 10th March in a dawn attack, she fired two torpedoes at a range of 2500 yards at Italian merchant ship Fenicia of 2.585 tons in convoy and hit with one torpedo, which sank her. On 1st March, HMS Utmost (Lieutenant Commander RD Cayley RN) carried out a special operation to pick up an army officer from a place called Shabka el Cazel in Tunisia, which was successful, subsequently returning to Malta. After only twenty-four hours in harbour, HMS Utmost was sent out again to relieve HMS Unique because of the concentration of ships in Tripoli.

On 9th March at 1205 in the Gulf of Hammanet she sighted the same Axis southbound convoy attacked by HMS Unique and fired three torpedoes at a range of 1600 yards, hitting and sinking Italian trop transport Capo Vita of 5685 tons with two of them. Calm weather, a bright moon and intense anti-submarine activity, made recharging the battery on the surface difficult and on 10th March, HMS Utmost returned to Malta. From 3rd-l0th March, HMS Upholder (Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn RN , submarine ace of Royal Navy) patrolled off Tripoli. On 8th March she fired two torpedoes at a small merchant ship at a range of 1000 yards but missed. Fire was withheld on a northbound convoy also of small ships, as the shortage of torpedoes at Malta was now serious. HMS Upright (Lieutenant ED Norman DSC RN) patrolled in the Tripoli area from 6th-l5th March and on 12th fired two torpedoes at a range of 3000 yards at a merchant ship after dark. One torpedo ran on the surface and the other missed. After this unsucessful patrol (his superiors wrongly began to doubt Wanklynn’s competance)

On 19th March HMS Utmost and HMS Ursula both left Malta, one for Kerkenah and the other to patrol off Lampedusa. HMS Ursula only spent one day off Lampedusa and was sent to the area north and east of Cape Bon to investigate convoy routes in that area, and from this to try and establish where the minefields were. On 24th before it was light, she attacked a large merchant ship firing four torpedoes at a range of 2000 yards but the enemy altered course and avoided them. She also sighted convoys on 26th and 28th but they were out of range. HMS Ursula encountered heavy air and surface antisubmarine measures in this area but returned safely to Malta on 1st April having obtained much valuable information. On 28th March after dark, HMS Utmost attacked a six-ship convoy escorted by two destroyers and carrying German troops. She fired four torpedoes at the long range of 4000 yards, one of which had a gyro failure but two of the others hit and sank German transport vessel Heraklea of 1.930 tons and damaged another larger ship of 5.954 tons, which was able to continue her voyage. The escorts were busy rescuing German soldiers and did not counter attack. HMS Utmost returned to Malta on 1st April having spent thirty out of the last thirty-eight days at sea.

HMS Upright sailed again from Malta before the end of the month. On 31st she met a straggler from a southbound convoy and fired two torpedoes at a range of 1000 yards in a day-submerged attack obtaining one hit. There is no post war record of this ship being sunk and it seems that she got in to port. The escorts hunted HMS Upright for some time, fortunately without damage.



HMS Utmost

Of the larger T Class submarines, HMS Triumph was still on patrol on 1st March off the south east coast of Calabria. On 2nd March she fired three torpedoes at a range of 2000 yards at a medium sized merchant vessel in a submerged attack but missed with all of them. Three days later, however, she sighted two ships that anchored off Melito. She closed in and fired three torpedoes singly and missed with one but hit both ships with the other two sinking merchant vessels Marzamami of 960 tons and Colomba Lo Faro of 900 tons. HMS Truant left Malta on 5th March to patrol in the Gulf of Sirte. Three days later she reconnoitred Burat el Sun but it was so shallow that she ran aground at periscope depth. On 19th she saw the small Italian tanker Labor enter the harbour and decided to make a surface attack that night. At 2025 she fired two torpedoes at 400 yards that ran under and exploded beyond the pier. HMS Truant then had to turn using her screws before she could withdraw. She was close enough to exchange verbal insults with her quarry. After this exploit she returned to Alexandria.
HMS Tetrarch (Lieutenant Commander RMT Peacock RN) had an unsuccessful patrol off Tripoli from 14th-21st March and suffered from many defects. On 21st March in a night attack on the surface she expended a salvo of six torpedoes at what she took to be a U-boat but was actually a coastal vessel for no avail.

HMS Traunt

HMS Truant

HMS Truant

P class minelayer submarine HMS Parthian (Commander MG Rimington DSO RN) took position off the Italian coast in mid March where experience in earlier patrols had led her to believe that convoys were routed well out to sea. On 11th, however, off Cape Spartivento, a convoy passed close inshore and she was unable to get close enough to attack. On 16th March, however, in a day-submerged attack south of Messina she fired six torpedoes at a convoy, three at a large tanker and three at a sizeable merchant ship. At the time she claimed hits on both ships but she suffered a heavy and accurate counter attack and post war research indicates that only one of the two ships, of 3141 tons, was hit and she did not sink. Another minelayer submarine R class HMS Regent (Lieutenant Commander HC Browne RN) left Malta on 18th March for the Adriatic to patrol the route along the Yugoslavian coast to Albania from Pola and Trieste. She patrolled off Split and Dubrovnik but achieved no results. The Greek submarine Triton , however, sank Carnia of 5.450 tons in the southern Adriatic on 23rd March. HMS Rorqual (Commander RH Dewhurst DSO RN) left Alexandria on 18th March for what proved to be a most successful patrol. She embarked mines at Malta on 22nd and passing through the middle of the minefields of the Sicilian narrows, laid a field off Cape Gallo near Palermo on 25th and 26th March. Italian tanker Verde of 1.430 tons struck one of these mines and sank. Another ship of 1.472 tons in the same convoy also struck a mine and the torpedo boat Chinotto as well and both were also sunk. On 29th March in a night surface attack, HMS Rorqual fired three torpedoes at a range of 1900 yards with a ninety degree angled shot, and sank Italian tanker Ticino of 1.470 tons. On 30th March, in another night surface attack she fired two salvoes of two torpedoes each at a range of 1000 yards at the tanker Lauro Corrado of 3645 tons, missing with the first and hitting with one of the second pair. The enemy was finished off by gunfire with some difficulty as the gun flashes blinded the gunlayer. Next day HMS Rorqual sighted the Italian submarine Capponi on the surface north of Messina. She fired her last five torpedoes in an attack in which she did not even have to alter course, hitting and sinking her with two of them. HMS Rorqual then returned to Alexandria calling at Malta on the way for more torpedoes.

During March, submarines had made fifteen attacks firing 51 torpedoes, 13 of which hit sinking an Italian U-boat and eight ships of 21,175 tons and damaging two others. Another two ships of 2902 tons and a torpedo boat were sunk by HMS Rorqual 's mines. Results were therefore twice as good as had been achieved during the previous month. The U-class at Malta had now begun to score, HMS Unique sinking one and HMS Utmost sinking two.

March was a month of heavy troop movements by sea by all the belligerents. The British moved their Expeditionary Force to Greece, the Germans the Afrika Korps to Tripolitania, and the Italians substantial reinforcements to Albania. In general all were transported safely and without serious loss. A further movement of troops that was to affect the maritime situation in the Mediterranean was the advance during March of the German Twelfth Army of twenty divisions into Bulgaria. The reinforced Italian army in Albania attacked in the first part of March hoping to seize Greece before the Germans arrived, but its offensive failed. The German Fifth Light Motorised Division had all arrived in Tripolitania by the middle of the month, and the Fifteenth Panzer Division had begun to cross. By the end of March fifteen convoys had arrived carrying 25,000 troops, 8500 vehicles and 25,000 tons of supplies. The total supplies landed in Libya for the Italians as well as the Germans were 95,753 tons with a loss of 9%. The Allied attack on this traffic had been left almost entirely to submarines, the air and surface forces being busy elsewhere. The force of fifteen British submarines in the Mediterranean, although they were now attacking the main Italian supply route and doing better than before, was quite unable to stop or even seriously to hinder the transport of the Afrika Korps. Four convoys carrying the Afrika Korps got across without loss and also two Italian convoys, one of which consisted of the liners Conte Rosso , Marco Polo and Victoria .

It was in March too, that the British cryptographers first made real progress into breaking the German naval cipher that used the Enigma machine. However it took a month to make sense of the first message by which time it was too stale to be of use. Nevertheless this was an advance of incalculable value.

ON 2ND APRIL, THE GERMAN AFRIKA KORPS and the Italian army in Tripolitania advanced into Cyrenaica. It was only by a rapid retreat that the weak British garrison was able to save itself. The advance was not brought to a halt until the Egyptian frontier at Halfaya Pass was reached on 20th April. Tobruk was cut off but held out against heavy attacks. Almost simultaneously the Germans declared war on and invaded both Greece and Yugoslavia. The British campaign in Greece was, from the beginning, a retreat, ending in an evacuation, which was decided upon on 20th April and completed by the end of the month. The reverses in Greece and Cyrenaica were not the only troubles during April. In this month, Fliegerkorps X, now with a strength of over four hundred aircraft, dropped its heaviest weight of bombs on Malta. The crisis lead to calls, which became insistent and even peremptory from the Prime Minister and Government in the United Kingdom for greater efforts to cut the traffic to Libya.

The submarines from Malta did their best. Nine patrols were made by the U-class off the coast of east Tunisia during April, normally three of them being out at a time. The results achieved, however, were very disappointing. Only four of their patrols made contact with the enemy at all. In the first few days of the month, a troop convoy of four liners crossed from Naples to Tripoli and returned without being attacked and an important convoy for the Afrika Korps did the same. On 8th April HMS Upright (Lieutenant ED Norman DSC RN) sighted a north bound convoy at night and fired four torpedoes at a range of 3000 yards and missed with them all. HMS Upholder (Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn RN), patrolling off Cape Bon, fired two torpedoes on 10th April at a large merchant ship in an Italian convoy of four ships in a day submerged attack at the very long range of 6400 yards, and from the quarter, and understandably secured no result. A few hours later she fired three torpedoes at another large merchant ship in convoy at 1850 yards but the torpedo tracks were seen and the target took avoiding action. Two Italian destroyers then hunted her unsuccessfully. On the night of 11th April in moonlight, HMS Upholder fired her last three torpedoes at a merchant ship at 2000 yards but one had a gyro failure and another broke surface. She had to dive deep at once to avoid her own torpedo and the others missed the target. This ship was unescorted but HMS Upholder had to stay deep to avoid the circling torpedo and so could not surface to use her gun. By this time, British destroyers had arrived at Malta to attack the convoys (Battle of Tarigo Convoy or Action off Sfax as known) and HMS Upholder , exasperated by expending all her torpedoes for no result, stayed on patrol in case she could be of assistance to them for reconnaissance. HMS Unique (Lieutenant AF Collett RN), on her second patrol of the month off No 4 buoy, Kerkenah Bank, sighted a large southbound convoy on 11th April but could not get close enough to attack. On 12th April, HMS Ursula (Lieutenant AJ Mackenzie RN) on patrol to the southward of Upholder , sighted a large convoy and fired four torpedoes in a submerged attack at a range of 2500 yards but missed. HMS Upholder sighted this same convoy of five large ships escorted by three destroyers and three aircraft. In full view of the aircraft, she surfaced and transmitted an enemy report and receiving no acknowledgment, tried again half an hour later. She then received orders to return to Malta but at the same time picked up an aircraft report of another convoy with which she made contact on the surface, it by this time being dark. She then ‘turned’ the convoy by firing starshell, hoping to help any British destroyers at sea. Destroyers from Malta did put to sea but did not make contact. HMS Upholder left Malta again on 21st April to patrol off the Lampedusa channel. Here on 25th she sighted a large ship and in a submerged attack in daylight fired two torpedoes at a range of 700 yards. The first torpedo hit in time to check the firing of the third and fourth torpedoes of the salvo. The victim was Italian merchant Antonietta Lauro of 5.430 tons was sunk and it was the only success by the Malta submarines in April and a very welcome success for HMS Upholder who had before this expended twenty torpedoes and only damaged one ship. Next day HMS Upholder discovered a German transport Arta and an Italian destroyer both badly damaged in the naval action of Sfax then grounded and abandoned at Kerkenah Bay. A boarding party from HMS Upholder entere deserted Arta , full of German equipment , weapons and supplies headed for North Africa , acquired some souvenirs and equipment as booty then sunk both Arta and Italian destroyer with demolishment charges.

HMS Upright

HMS Upright

In spite of the Government’s calls for greater action against the Libyan supply route, HMS Utmost (Lieutenant Commander RD Cayley RN) was sent on two more special operations in Tunisia during April. Commander Simpson was not in favour of these diversions from the primary task of our submarines, and was reluctant to spare them for such purposes. HMS Utmost 's first mission was to land agents near Sousse and this was successfully accomplished on 19th April. During this operation she sighted a convoy to seawards but had to let it go. The second mission was to pick up an army officer in the Gulf of Hammanet from a boat that met HMS Utmost in the open sea. This somewhat precarious arrangement, however, worked. HMS Utmost also landed an agent near Castellamares in west Sicily. The danger to the submarine in the event of compromise in such operations was, however, considerable.

The larger submarines were not entirely employed in attacking the route to Libya either, and carried out some other tasks. HMS Tetrarch (Lieutenant Commander RMT Peacock RN) was already in the Gulf of Sirte in the first day of the month and as General Rommel’s advance began, she was well placed to interfere with his support by sea along the coast. On 4th April she fired two torpedoes into Burat el Sun at a small merchant vessel but one torpedo broke surface and the range being 5000 yards she had no success. She then attacked some local schooners off El Brega with her gun but had to desist when a shore battery opened fire. HMS Tetrarch was relieved in this area in the middle of the month by HMS Truant (Lieutenant Commander HAV Haggard RN) and took up a new patrol position forty miles to the north of Tripoli. Here on 12th April she met the 2.475-ton cargo vessel Persiano and fired four torpedoes in a day submerged attack at a range of 4500 yards obtaining one hit and sinking her. On 17th April she sank by gunfire the barque Vanna of 279 tons carrying cased petrol along the coast. On the night of 20th/2lst April, the Mediterranean Fleet in response to the Prime Minister’s calls for action entered HMS Truant’s area and bombarded Tripoli. The fleet was led in by HMS Truant who took up a position as a navigational beacon. The fleet fired 530 tons of shells sinking one ship and damaging a torpedo boat. It also did a great deal of damage to the port and town, causing four hundred casualties. The fleet then departed at high speed leaving the area to HMS Truant again. She had sighted another small tanker but had had to let it go, as she was still busy leading in the fleet. On 21st April, however, she encountered the Italian naval auxiliary Prometio of 1.080 tons and missed with two torpedoes at a range of 2300 yards. The target however, in a desperate effort to escape, first ran herself ashore and then scuttled herself.

The most effective action against the Libyan supply route in April, in spite of the perseverance of the submarines, was taken by surface forces. On 11th April the Fourteenth Destroyer Flotilla arrived at Malta. On 12th and 13th they made an abortive sortie in which, as we have already seen, HMS Upholder attempted to co-operate. On the night of l5th/l6th April, however, they intercepted a whole German convoy off Kerkenah sinking five merchant ships and three destroyers for the loss of the destroyer HMS Mohawk. Next day 1.248 of the 3.100 troops embarked were rescued by the Italians. Rest were perished. Air reconnaissance later reported that a destroyer and a merchant ship were aground on the Kerkenah Bank. HMS Upholder was ordered to investigate and ran aground while doing so. On 26th April she boarded the wreck of the German Arta loaded with motor transport, and set her on fire. She was unable, however, to board the destroyer because it was too shallow to approach her. Fleet Air Arm Swordfish torpedo planes from Malta also sank another Italian supply ship in a night attack on 13th April. In the middle of the month, in spite of the heavy air raids, the Wellington bombers were sent back to the island and resumed their bombing of ports, especially Tripoli. At the end of April a new force of Blenheim bombers arrived with the aim of making direct attacks on shipping at sea by day. In spite of all these measures, Axis managed to transport 57,796 tons of supplies across to Libya during the month as well as 20,027 tons of fuel and their losses only amounted to eight per cent. General Rommel’s logistic difficulties as he reached the Egyptian frontier were because he overextended his forces too much to east towards Egyptian border (a mistake he would do contantly in later operations due to over ambition) and his land transport could not cope , not due to any lack of supplies arriving in Tripoli by sea. Italian marchant marine and Italian Navy despite suffering extensive losses , acomplished an admirable job to transport bulk of Afrikakorps to Libya and later to sustain it logistically.

The invasion of Yugoslavia by the Germans led to a request to take off the British Minister and his staff and HMS Regent (Lieutenant Commander HC Browne RN) left Malta on 17th April to try to do so. She dived through the Otranto Strait on 21st and arrived off Kotor the following day. The port was already in Italian hands; HMS Regent entered on the surface but had difficulty locating the Minister. Some negotiations were made with the Italians but at 1530, HMS Regent was dive bombed by German aircraft, which fortunately missed although the submarine was badly shaken. HMS Regent then had to leave without the Minister and without one of her officers who was ashore negotiating. She got back to Malta on 26th April. Of the four submarines of the Yugoslav Navy, one, the Nebojsca, managed to get to Suda Bay on 22nd April and subsequently joined the First Submarine Flotilla at Alexandria.

There were over a hundred air raids on Malta in both February and March and more in April. There was only one hit on the submarine base, which destroyed the sick bay, but the laying of mines from the air off the harbour entrances posed a serious danger to the submarines. These were ground mines with magnetic and acoustic triggers and there were no minesweepers in Malta capable of sweeping them. The main counter measure was to try and plot the position of each mine as it fell. Submarines were already degaussed, and by proceeding at slow speed on their electric motors and using a channel close to Valetta that seemed to be clear, they avoided casualties. By the end of April there were thirty or forty mines off the harbour entrances and it was almost impossible to find a safe passage.

All the other operations by British submarines during April were in the western basin. On 12th April HMS Olympus (Lieutenant Commander HG Dymott RN) of the Eighth Flotilla at Gibraltar, arrived at Malta after a patrol off Oran to intercept the French battle cruiser Dunkerque, which was thought to be about to put to sea. It was intended that she should make a patrol in the Mediterranean, but her mechanical state was such that she had to be sent back to Gibraltar. On 23rd April the new submarine HMS Torbay (Lieutenant Commander ACC Miers RN) left Gibraltar to patrol off Cape Ferrato on the south east coast of Sardinia. On 27th she encountered a merchant ship and made a submerged day attack at a range of 1000 yards. She ‘missed the DA’ but caught it up and fired one torpedo that ran wide of the target. She attacked again but only one torpedo out of an intended salvo of three was fired due to a drill failure, and this missed too. HMS Torbay was subsequently routed direct to Alexandria without calling at Malta.

During April, in the course of some fifteen patrols, Royal Navy submarines had tried hard but they had only fired 28 torpedoes in ten attacks and had only sunk two Axis supply ships of 7.905 tons. A third Italian supply ship had was grounded and then scuttled herself. This mediocre performance cannot be attributed to any one cause. The lack of contacts when air reconnaissance was improving is difficult to understand. In the later part of the month several convoys got across without being seen, and two of these had cruiser escorts to protect them from attack by the British destroyers from Malta. Of the actual attacks, two misses can be attributed to long range, one was avoided by the enemy, two were due to torpedo failure or bad drill and three were inexplicable and must be put down to bad shooting.


BY 1ST MAY THE CAMPAIGN IN GREECE was over and the British and Dominion forces had, except for a few scattered remnants, been evacuated. The whole Mediterranean Fleet had been used in this operation and the army had been taken either to Egypt or to Crete, which it was intended to hold at all costs. Tobruk was invested but was holding out, and the Afrika Korps and Italian army were being held on the Egyptian frontier where counter attacks were being planned. During the recent fighting in the desert, the German tanks were found to be better than British, which were in any case largely worn out and having maintenance problems. Some 350 new tanks had already been embarked in five fast merchant ships in the United Kingdom, and had sailed intending to make the voyage round the Cape to Egypt. It was now decided that the situation in the Middle East was so serious that an attempt must be made to run these five ships through the Mediterranean saving some six weeks in passage time. This ‘Tiger’ convoy as it was known, had arrived at Gibraltar by 5th May and its passage involved full fleet operations from both ends of the Mediterranean. The operation also included the reinforcement of Malta’s fighters and the use of long range Beaufighters from the island. The opportunity was taken to pass some other convoys and reinforcements for the fleet, and it was intended to bombard Benghazi with light forces. The Italians had only two battleships to oppose these moves, the others being still under repair since Taranto and Matapan.

The passage of the ‘Tiger’ convoy was a complete success. The heavy Italian units did not intervene and bad weather and low visibility as well as fighters from Malta and from HMS Formidable protected it from attack. One ship was mined and sunk losing over fifty of the precious tanks but the other four arrived safely. Submarines did not come into action to assist this convoy but there were no less than twelve of them at sea during its passage. These submarines were, in general, going about their normal business but some of them were in good positions to cover the passage of the ‘Tiger’ convoy if it had been necessary. There were four submarines at sea in the western basin: HMS Truant on her way home to refit had been diverted to patrol off Calvoni; HMS Taku on passage from Gibraltar to Malta was patrolling north of Messina; HMS Pandora of the Eighth Flotilla at Gibraltar was off Naples while HMS Cachalot , also on passage from Gibraltar to Malta followed a day or two behind the convoy. HMS Pandora (Lieutenant Commander JW Linton RN) sighted a heavy cruiser on 8th May when the convoy had reached the Sicilian narrows, but it was northbound and she was too far off to attack. In the central basin there were four of the U-class on the Libyan convoy route; HMS Ursula and HMS Upright off Kerkenah; HMS Utmost in the Gulf of Hammanet and HMS Undaunted off Tripoli. HMS Unique , however, was well placed south of Messina. She sighted a southbound cruiser too far off to attack on 4th May before the ‘Tiger’ convoy sailed from Gibraltar. Further east, HMS Tetrarch was off Benghazi and HMS Torbay , on passage to Alexandria, was ordered to reconnoitre Navarin as the convoy passed to the southward. The twelfth submarine at sea was HMS Rorqual and she was in the Aegean on her way to lay mines off Salonika.

The most important result of the arrival of the ‘Tiger’ convoy as far as the submarines were concerned, was that it included Gloxinia , a corvette capable of sweeping the mines off the Malta harbour entrances. Before her arrival an attempt was made to blast a passage through the mine-fields using depth charges but Gloxinia effectively exploded fifteen mines off the Grand Harbour and another eight off Sliema and the danger was over for the present.

In the early part of May and during the passage of the ‘Tiger’ convoy, submarines provided cover and also continued their general attack on Italian shipping. On 1st May, HMS Upholder on patrol in the Lampedusa Channel sighted a convoy of five ships escorted by four destroyers. In a day-submerged attack in rough weather and at a range of 2800 yards, her commander Lt. Commander Malcolm Wanklynn fired four torpedoes hitting German supply vessels Arcturus of 2.588 tons and Leverkusen of 7835 tons. Arcturus sank and Leverkusen was badly damaged. HMS Upholder was able to follow her submerged for over seven hours, and before dark reached a new firing position at a range of 1200 yards launching two more torpedoes and sinking her too before returning to Malta. However 10th Submarine Flotilla lost its first casaulty also. On this same day HMS Usk , patrolling off Cape Bon and who had reported intense antisubmarine activity there, struck a mine and was lost with all hands including Lieutenant GP Darling RN, her Commanding Officer, three other officers and thirty men. HMS Usk had arrived in the Mediterranean in January but had had a great deal of engine trouble and this was only her second patrol. It was, however, the first loss of an Allied submarine since HMS Narval and HMS Triton in December. In the middle of April, Italian light cruisers of the 7th Division, laid over a thousand mines in two operations east of Cape Bon and it was probably these mines which sank HMS Usk.

On 2nd May HMS Upright (Lieutenant ED Norman DSC RN) off the coast of Tunisia fired a single torpedo at very long range (6000 yards) at a merchant ship from the quarter with practically no chance of a hit and, of course, missed. On 4th May, HMS Taku (Lieutenant Commander ECF Nicolay RN), a newcomer to the station and on passage from Gibraltar to Alexandria in the Tyrrhenian Sea missed a coaster with two torpedoes fired at a range of 3000 yards. The target sighted the torpedo tracks and altered course away. Two days later when south of Policastro, she had better luck and sank the Italian merchant vessel Cagliari of 2320 tons with three torpedoes at a range of 700 yards all of which hit. Both of these attacks were made submerged by day. Two days earlier, HMS Ursula (Lieutenant AJ Mackenzie RN) had missed a merchant ship off Tunisia at a range of 2000 yards with a salvo of four torpedoes also in a day-submerged attack. On 6th May HMS Triumph (Lieutenant Commander WJW Woods RN) also missed an escorted merchant ship off the North African coast with four torpedoes at a range of 3600 yards fired from the quarter. She was counter attacked by the escorting destroyer, which was Climene, but suffered no damage. She had no better luck next day when she attacked a medium sized merchant vessel in ballast at a range of 1000 yards with three torpedoes that probably ran under. On 6th May too, HMS Truant , with a parting shot as she left the Mediterranean, sank the 1715-ton Italian vessel “Bengasi” off Sardinia with two torpedoes fired at 1000 yards. On 11th May HMS Pandora off Naples fired three torpedoes at a tanker at a range of 3000 yards, but one torpedo failed to run and the other two missed. A fourth torpedo fired a few minutes later also missed. On 13th May another Royal Navy submarine was lost. This was the newly arrived HMS Undaunted , which struck a mine while on patrol off Tripoli. She was lost with all hands including her Commanding Officer, Lieutenant JL Livesey RN, three other officers and twenty-eight men. On 14th May HMS Unbeaten (Lieutenant EA Woodward RN) on her first patrol, arrived off Tripoli to relieve HMS Undaunted. She at once attacked a convoy of four large schooners close to the coast. She fired three torpedoes at a range of 4500 yards, hitting and sinking one of them, which was of 1.100 tons. She then made another attack on an 800-ton schooner at anchor in Khoms Roads. She approached submerged at periscope depth bumping along the bottom and then surfaced and engaged with her gun at a range of 1000 yards and sank the target. On 16th May she sighted two large westbound transports escorted by destroyers, but struck bottom at periscope depth when the nearest destroyer was 500 yards away and she was unable to fire torpedoes. Finally on 19th, attacking a large Italian merchant ship escorted by a destroyer, in a depth of only 14 fathoms, she fired three torpedoes at a range of 3500, two of which hit the bottom and exploded and the third missed. She was then hunted in 76 feet of water for a period of eight hours by the destroyer, which dropped twenty to thirty depth charges. She survived by resting on the bottom until dark when she was able to slip away. On 18th May, HMS Tetrarch , patrolling off Benghazi in a flat calm, fired four torpedoes at long range (6000 yards) at an escorted supply ship. The tracks of the torpedoes were seen but too late to avoid them and Italian supply ship heading for Benghazi “Giovinezza” of 2.360 tons was sunk.

The loss of Greece to the Allies meant that the Aegean Sea from being virtually a friendly area became enemy waters. The immediate effect was that the Italians were able to re-start their tanker traffic from Rumania by the Dardanelles. Their stocks of oil fuel were by now low and this was of great importance to them. Some oil fuel was reaching Italy overland by rail but there was a shortage of tank wagons and stocks were falling. The Aegean was now within the ‘Sink at Sight’ zone and there were no Greek territorial waters to worry about. It was therefore decided to use submarines to attack the oil traffic again in the Aegean. HMS Rorqual (Commander RH Dewhurst DSO RN) after embarking a cargo of mines in the Bitter Lakes Alexandria , left Port Said on 5th May and on 7th passed through the Scarpanto Strait into the Aegean. She laid fifty mines off Atheride Point in the Gulf of Salonika and this field sank Italian tanker Rossi of 2.000 tons. On 12th May while on her way to reconnoitre the Dardanelles, she sank two local craft by gunfire that were carrying German soldiers.

On 20th May the Germans made their airborne attack on Crete. There was little Royal Navy submarines could do to help to defend the island and so, during the dual struggle by land and at sea between the Mediterranean Fleet and the Luftwaffe, they continued their attack on shipping. By the end of the month, Crete had been evacuated and, this coupled with the loss of Greece a month earlier, made the strategic situation in the Eastern Mediterranean critical. The sea frontier, from the line Corfu to Benghazi had been pushed back as far as Cyprus to the Egyptian border. The Mediterranean Fleet had to withdraw the destroyers from Malta that were there to attack the convoys to Libya, and the campaign was left again to aircraft and submarines. The attack on Axis tanker route in the Aegean was continued and HMS Perseus (Lieutenant Commander PJH Bartlett RN), after a very disturbed and unsatisfactory refit at Malta was sent to the Gulf of Nauplia on her way to Alexandria. On 28th May she fired two torpedoes at a merchant ship escorted by MAS boats (Italian fast torpedoboats). The range was 3000 yards, a torpedo tube misfired and the submarine lost control and went deep on firing. It was calm and the tracks were probably seen, resulting in a miss. The MAS boats then hunted her for one and three quarter hours. She left patrol for Alexandria next day with many defects. HMS Parthian (Commander MG Rimington DSO RN) left Alexandria on 23rd May for the Dardanelles. She sighted three eastbound tankers with a destroyer escort on 3rd June and attacked one of them that was straggling. She fired three torpedoes at long range (6000 yards) and secured a hit on the 5.000-ton Italian tanker Strombo , which was, however, able to beach herself. HMS Parthian was then hunted by two of the destroyers without success. On 8th June she reconnoitred the harbour at Mitylene and found two large schooners and a lighter there. She fired two 31 year old Mark II torpedoes from her stern tubes at them at a range of 3000 yards sinking all three. The Greek submarine Nereus , which had arrived at Alexandria in April, was also sent to patrol in the Aegean. She was off the Turkish coast from 26th May to 4th June but saw or rather heard nothing. Her report revealed that she had spent daylight hours at 90 feet relying entirely on her hydrophones. Such tactics would obviously protect her from being sighted from the air but whether her hydrophones were good enough to warn her of the approach of any ships in time to take offensive action is another matter.

The Italian shipping traffic to North Africa continued to be attacked off Benghazi, Tripoli, the coast of Tunisia and also off Calabria and the east coast of Sicily. HMS Triumph was off Benghazi at the end of May and on 30th she fired two torpedoes into the harbour at a range of 4000 yards, hitting and damaging Ramb Iii of 3667 tons. After a visit to Misurata, HMS Triumph went on to Burat and sank two 250ton schooners ( Frieda and Trio F) and the 340-ton trawler Valorosa by gunfire. On 8th June HMS Triumph reconnoitred Gharah Island to evacuate some British personnel, but found that they had already been taken off by air. Off Tripoli, HMS Ursula (Lieutenant AJ Mackenzie RN) on 27th May fired two torpedoes at a range of 2500 yards at a small merchant vessel and missed. On 31st May she fired two more at a larger ship escorted by a destroyer. Although the range was shorter (1500 yards) she missed again.

Four new submarines joined 10th Flotilla , patrolled off the east coast of Tunisia during the second half of May. These were HMS Urge, HMS Union , HMS Unique and HMS Utmost. HMS Urge (Lieutenant EP Tomkinson RN) made a headstart even before entering Mediterranean Sea. While in transit from Meditterranean to Gibraltar , HMS Urge encountered and sunk Franco Marciellli , a 10.500 ton Italian blockade runner at Bay of Biscay. On 20th May, HMS Urge (Lieutenant EP Tomkinson RN) on her first patrol in the Mediterranean sighted two cruisers screened by destroyers, which were covering a convoy, but they were out of range. Minutes later she sighted the convoy of four merchant ships escorted by five destroyers. She fired four torpedoes at a range of 1400 yards hitting two ships. Italian tanker Zeffiro of 5.165 tons was sunk and transport ship Persio of 4.800 tons was damaged. HMS Urge herself was damaged by the explosion of her own torpedoes and by a counter attack of ten depth charges. Next day the cruiser force, which consisted of Italian light cruisers Abruzzi and Garibaldi , was sighted again returning northwards, and four torpedoes were fired at a range of 6000 yards. The enemy were proceeding at 22 knots and although a hit was claimed at the time, in fact the torpedoes missed. HMS Union (Lieutenant RM Galloway RN) spent most of her first patrol trying to find damaged ships reported by air reconnaissance but without success. HMS Utmost (Lieutenant Commander RD Cayley RN) carried out another of her special operations on 27th May, and on 29th missed a merchant ship with three torpedoes fired at a range of 4500 yards one of which had a gyro failure.

On the Italian coast, HMS Upright (Lieutenant ED Norman DSC RN), towards the end of the month landed Lieutenant Schofield and five men of No.1 Special Service Commando on the east coast of Calabria and they succeeded in blowing up a train on the coastal railway. They used an unwieldy steel punt carried on the casing that was propelled by oars and had to be floated off. The Commandos were recovered as it was getting light. They were paddling out to sea having missed the submarine. The most successful patrol of this period was, however, carried out by HMS Upholder (Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn RN). She left Malta on 18th May after suffering an accident with a torpedo in harbour in which one man was killed and another injured. She took up her patrol position on the east coast of Sicily and sighted a convoy out of range. On 20th May she sighted another convoy of three ships and fired three torpedoes at the very long range of 7000 yards and it is not surprising that there was no result. To make matters worse, she was counter attacked by the escort with depth charges. She also sighted a hospital ship and three days later she saw two southbound tankers off Taormin flying French colours. Clearly, however, they were in Italian employ and she fired three more torpedoes at a range of 2600 yards, one of which hit tanker “C.Damiani” aft. This ship was, however, towed in to Messina and did not sink. HMS Upholder was subjected to a long hunt in which depth charges put her asdic out of action and the hunt continued next day.

The Italians had for some time been debating whether to continue to use their large passenger liners to transport troops to North Africa. On 24th May four of these passanger ships, “Conte Rosso” , "Marco Polo , “Victoria” and “Esperia” , set off for Tripoli by the Straits of Messina with a strong destroyer escort. They were sighted by HMS Upholder who had moved south down the coast since her last attack. HMS Upholder only had two torpedoes left and her asdic were still out of action. In the growing darkness she had difficulty seeing the escorts through the periscope and with no asdic could not hear them. She was nearly rammed by one of them but returned to periscope depth and closed to 1600 yards and fired both torpedoes at “Conte Rosso” . Both of them hit the 17,880-ton liner carrying 3.000 Italian troops and she sank with heavy loss of life. Only 1432 soldiers were picked up by the escorts. HMS Upholder was subjected to a heavy counter attack of some forty depth charges but was not damaged further. The Conte Rosso convoy was covered by the cruisers Bolzano and Trieste with three destroyers but they were not seen.

At the end of May, Commander Simpson decided to use his spare Commanding Officers to give some of the operational captains a rest. HMS Ursula sailed on 26th May under the command of Lieutenant ILM McGeoch RN for the Tripoli area. She then moved to Zuara and sighted a supply ship with two escorts. An attack was frustrated by a navigational alteration of course. She nevertheless got away two torpedoes from almost right astern and they inevitably missed.

The sinking of Conte Rosso was, with the exception of the destruction of the light cruiser Armando Diaz in February, the most notable achievement of British submarines to date in the Mediterranean. Indeed the results of the month of May showed a substantial improvement over the earlier part of the year. Sixty-six torpedoes were fired in twenty-two attacks sinking seven ships of 39,860 tons and damaging another of 4800 tons. Two submarines were lost in May 18, both probably on mines but against this six submarines had arrived as reinforcements from home waters. This upturn in Royal Navy fortunes, however, must be put in perspective. In this period 82,491 men were landed in Africa with a loss of 5.1% and 447,815 tons of material arrived with a loss of 6.6%. Most important of all was the transfer of the Afrika Korps to Libya. The 15th Panzer Division had all arrived to Libya by the end of May in addition to the 5th Light Division. The German troops were all transported in German ships that were in Italian ports. There were some forty of these and the most suitable were used and they were organised in twenty-five convoys of three to four ships each. The ships employed totalled 130,000 tons of which twelve of 47,000 tons were sunk and five of 29,000 tons were damaged. Submarines were responsible in the period January to May 1941 for most of the casualties, Italian as well as German, and sank sixteen ships of 61,035 tons. Surface ships came next with nine ships of 21,367 tons while aircraft were only able, because of the heavy air attacks on Malta, to sink two ships of 5.483 tons. Mines and other causes sank another three ships of 13,751 tons. Nevertheless the fact is that during the first half of 1941, the Afrika Korps was successfully transported and the monthly average of 89,563 tons of supplies were more than sufficient to keep the Italo-German army in Africa on the offensive. The damage done to Italian convoys by submarines, even now they had discovered the convoy route, nevertheless remained small. The key convoys carrying the Deutsche Afrika Korps out to Libya made it through unmolested. Similarly, the Italian luxury liners got the armoured Ariete and motorised Trento divisions across without loss. In February 79,000 tons of Axis supplies reached Africa with just a 1.5 per cent loss. In March it was 95,000 tons, though with a significantly improved 9 per cent lost. In April nearly 60,000 tons of supplies and 20,000 tons of fuel reached Rommel with 8 per cent lost. The losses were not great enough to do more than irritate him.

Nevertheless the Italian Navy was worried by the British submarine attacks (their existing tonnage to transport more reinforcements and supplies to sustain operations in Libya was getting lower and lower and there had been no vast scale Axis shipbuilding to replace sunk tonnage) by the efficient way aircraft and submarines co-operated. They noted that while losses in February and March had been insignificant, they rose to 32,000 tons of shipping in April and May out of totals of 143,000 and 112,000 tons employed. Furthermore convoys were frequently interrupted and delayed. Although Axis did not realise it, by May the German naval cipher was being broken within four to six hours and at the same time the Italian naval machine cipher began to yield results. These two sources now gave extremely valuable intelligence of the convoys to and from North Africa, sometimes including the composition, times of arrival and departure and even the routes to be followed and the cargoes carried. It was, of course, of vital importance not to use this priceless information too freely or it would become obvious to the enemy and he would be likely to change his ciphers. It was therefore decided not to pass the intelligence out to submarines at sea but to use it to fly air reconnaissance flights in the right places. They would then be able to pick up the convoys whose position had been gleaned from signal intelligence - the enemy would then attribute subsequent contacts and sinkings to efficient air reconnaissance.

Another worry for the Italians was that in mid May, Fliegerkorps X was moved from Sicily to Greece in preparation for operations against Russia, so that Malta would no longer be subject to a heavy scale of air attack. On the night of 26th/27th May, however, four Italian torpedo boats laid mines east of Malta and the land transport problem was eased by using the Italian submarines Atropo and Zoea to run petrol and ammunition direct from Taranto to Derna. At about this time too, the Italian Navy compared its anti-submarine experimental work using acoustic echo detection apparatus with what had been achieved by the Germans. There was little difference between the two designs except that the German system was already in production, and so the Italians purchased sixty or so of the sets that they intended to install in their escorts. Italian personnel were also sent to Germany for training. In addition they designed and began to lay down a new type of anti-submarine corvette. In fact the tussle to control the routes to Libya during the five months covered by this chapter was really only preliminary. The main struggle was about to begin.


Incredible to learn in such detail about the British Submarine/U-boat efforts. It often feels that they are overshadowed by the much more well-documented (at least in popular history) German U-boat fleet in the battle of the Atlantic.