November - December 1941 , Royal Navy Submarine service all attack in Mediterranean Sea

ON 1ST NOVEMBER there were seven British and Allied submarines on patrol. HMS Truant was still in the Adriatic, HMS Thrasher in the Gulf of Sirte, HMS Trusty and HMS P31 in the Ionian Sea. HMS Proteus relieved HMS Triumph in the Aegean Sea and Polish submarine Sokol was off Capri. The rest were in harbour preparing for a major effort to coincide with the Eighth Army offensive due to start in the middle of the month. Before returning to base some of these submarines saw action. HMS Thrasher (Lieutenant HS Mackenzie RN) made a night attack on 1st November on a convoy, and fired three torpedoes at a range of 3000 yards but without success. Two days later she fired two torpedoes at a Crotone-class minelayer at a range of 1450 yards and again missed. On her way back from patrol, Polish submarine Sokol (Kapitan B Karnicki) made a night attack on an unescorted Italian merchant ship. She fired three torpedoes at close range, but the enemy saw the tracks and abandoned ship. She fired her last two torpedoes, but one of them had a gyro failure and the other missed. She then engaged with her gun firing 50 rounds and leaving her adversary sinking. A few hours later, she sighted a U-boat at a range of 2000 yards, but having no torpedoes or ammunition left had to let her go. HMS Proteus (Lieutenant Commander PS Francis RN), who had just arrived in the Gulf of Athens had reconnoitred Candia and Suda Bay in Crete shores on the way and then took up a position south west of the Doro Channel. On 3rd November she intercepted Italian tanker Tampico of 4958 tons escorted by two destroyers. She was westbound and fully laden and HMS Proteus fired three torpedoes at 1000 yards securing one hit. One of the escorts passed close astern just before firing. Tampico did not sink, although she was seen later low in the water. HMS Proteus was unable to complete her destruction due to the actions of the escort who made a heavy and accurate counter attack. She then moved across to St Giorgio Island and on 9th after dark, when she was on the surface, picked up a convoy using her new radar set. It was decided to shadow and to make a submerged attack after the rising of the moon. She shadowed successfully for over six hours, and then dived and made a submerged attack by moonlight. She fired four torpedoes at a range of 600 yards and hit German cargo vessel Ithaka of 1773 tons with more than one of them and sank her. This attack, apart from its success, is of great interest. It was the first time that radar was used in action by a British submarine, and was also a notable use of the moon to make a submerged attack at night.

Three submarines sailed on patrol early in the month. The first was HMS Olympus (Lieutenant Commander HG Dymott RN) from Gibraltar. It had for some time been apparent that there was considerable trade between Italy and. Spain, and she was sent to patrol close to the Franco-Spanish border off Cape Creus and in Rosas Gulf. The task was difficult as it was necessary to identify enemy ships from neutrals before attacking. The patrol was conducted in rough weather and too far off shore, and achieved little. On 9th November a ship, thought to be enemy, was encountered at night but attempts to stop her by gun and the firing of four torpedoes, one of which hit, were unsuccessful and she escaped inshore. Greek submarine Glaucos (Plotarkhis Aslanoglos) also left Alexandria to patrol in the Aegean Sea, and succeeded in torpedoing and damaging an Italian ship of 2392 tons. The third submarine, which sailed early in November, was HMS Regent (Lieutenant WNR Knox DSC RN). She left Alexandria on 7th November on passage home and to refit in the United States. She was used for a storing trip at the same time. Her own fourteen torpedoes were her most important cargo, and they were unloaded for use by the submarines at Malta. During November, HMS Porpoise (Lieutenant Commander EF Pizey DSO RN) also made a storing trip to Malta from Alexandria.

Early in November, British cryptographers revealed that two convoys were about to sail for North Africa, one from Naples through the Straits of Messina for Tripoli, and the other from Brindisi for Benghazi. There were three British submarines in the Ionian Sea at the time. HMS Unique was off Benghazi, HMS Ursula off Misurata and HMS Regent on passage from Alexandria to Malta. HMS Upholder, HMS Urge and HMS P34 were sailed from Malta between 6th and 8th November to form an intercepting patrol line in the Ionian Sea some 120 miles east of the island. Force K had also been waiting in Malta for a chance to get into action. The Italian Navy was aware of its presence and had provided two heavy cruisers to protect the convoys, although this had not been revealed in the decrypted messages. Both convoys were sighted and accurately reported by RAF Maryland reconnaissance planes from Malta. On arrival in position on 8th, HMS Upholder (Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn DSO RN), when on the surface before dawn, sighted an Italian submarine, no doubt running stores to North Africa. HMS Upholder dived and in a submerged attack in moonlight, fired four torpedoes at a range of 1500 yards but inexplicably without success.

Force K intercepted Axis convoy (Duisburg convoy as it was dubbed since the largest ship was Grman cargo ship Duisburg) from Messina in the early hours of 9th November and, with the priceless advantage of radar, but nevertheless in a brilliant night action, destroyed all seven ships and Italian destroyer Fulmine, leaving Italian destroyer Libeccio disabled and two others damaged. This was done under the noses of the powerful escort Italian heavy cruisers Trento and Trieste and four Italian destroyers, which with no radar, were virtually blind. Furthermore it was done without damage or casualties in Force K. The interception was just north of the submarine patrol line, and HMS Upholder watched the whole action. Later in the morning, she closed and sank Italian destroyer Libeccio who was lying stopped, firing a single torpedo at 2000 yards. Later still HMS Upholder sighted the two Trento-class cruisers and their escort, and fired her last three torpedoes at them at a range of 2500 yards. They were steaming at 25 knots, however, and one of the torpedoes had a gyro failure and the other two were seen and avoided. HMS Upholder returned to Malta for more torpedoes and was relieved by HMS Upright on the patrol line. The patrol line remained in place as signal intelligence informed us that two more convoys were on the way. The convoy from Brindisi to Benghazi was attacked by the RAF but got through to North Africa. Nevertheless a crisis in the provision of supplies to the Axis armies in Cyrenaica arose. Limited quantities of supplies continued to reach Libya in small ships sailing independently and others by submarine directly to the front line, but it was found necessary to transport cased petrol in cruisers, which was extremely dangerous. Two more convoys, however, did get through to Benghazi on 16th and 18th November in spite of air attacks and British advance information about them. The second of these was in fact attacked at long range by both HMS Urge (Lieutenant Commander EP Tomkinson RN) and HMS Upright (Lieutenant JS Wraith RN) on 17th, firing three and four torpedoes respectively at 5000 yards and both missing. The submarine patrol line was withdrawn on 18th when cryptography indicated that there was no more traffic for the moment. The only other attack of this period in the central Mediterranean was by HMS Ursula (Lieutenant AR Hezlet RN) off Misurata, who fired three torpedoes at a range of 2000 yards at a coastal convoy of small ships and missed, being counter attacked with fourteen depth charges.

As is clear from the narrative, submarines and aircraft and surface forces all owe their great success at this time to cryptographers. The position of Malta was strangling the Axis convoy routes to North Africa, and the considerable advance notice obtained of enemy movements, coupled with the fact that the departure ports were well to the north gave even the slow U-class submarines time to get into position. Nevertheless cryptography was of greater value to ships and aircraft with their higher speed and ability to intercept right across the Ionian Sea. It is interesting too that Force K, in a single interception using signal intelligence, sank seven ships and one escort whereas submarines in the same period made three contacts but were only able to sink one escort. Cryptography, however, yielded much more than intelligence of convoy movements. At this time it revealed the enemy anxieties, and that sailings would be to Benghazi in future rather then Tripoli, and that the route down the west coast of Greece and from the Aegean would be used. All this helped to decide where best to send submarines to patrol.

On 18th November, Operation ‘Crusader’, the Eighth Army’s offensive to relieve Tobruk and retake Cyrenaica began. Two submarines of the First Flotilla, HMS Torbay and HMS Talisman, were used directly to assist the offensive. They embarked forty men of No 11 (Scottish) Commando under Lieutenant Colonel OC Keyes and landed them on the night of 17th/18th November near Appolonia to attack a house where it was thought that General Rommel had his headquarters. They reached their objective and attacked, but General Rommel was not there and in the hand-to-hand fight Colonel Keyes was killed. With the start of the offensive, the Axis need for supplies became more urgent. Eight ships were loaded and waiting in Italy and Greece ready to cross. It was decided by the Italian Navy that the best strategy was to divide the eight ships into four convoys, two would sail from Naples by Messina to Tripoli, and would be heavily escorted by five cruisers and seven escorts; while two convoys with only three destroyers as escorts would slip across to Benghazi from Taranto and Navarino respectively. At the time there were eight British and Allied submarines on patrol in the central Mediterranean. Dutch submarine O21 was west of Naples on the convoy route to Sardinia, Utmost was south of Messina; Polish submarine Sokol was off Navarino and HMS Unbeaten off Tripoli. HMS P31, HMS Upright, HMS Thunderbolt and HMS Trusty had just been spread, using signal intelligence, on a patrol line across the southern Ionian Sea. The Italian convoys all sailed together on 20th November being followed next day by Italian light cruiser Cadorna from Brindisi with a cargo of petrol in drums for Benghazi. One ship from the eastern group broke down and had to return to base. RAF reconnaissance aircraft sighted the Naples convoys while still in the Tyrrhenian Sea and HMS Utmost (Lieutenant Commander RD Cayley DSO RN), north of Messina, sighted a convoy bound for Taranto but was too far off to attack. That night she decided not to recharge her battery, which had plenty left in it, but to lie stopped on the surface listening with her asdic, as it was a very dark night. This tactic paid off. Hydrophone Effect was heard just before midnight and shortly afterwards she sighted three cruisers and three destroyers of the covering forces. She fired four torpedoes at a range of 1500 yards and hit Italian light cruiser Duca D’Abruzzi in the forward boiler room. The flash of the explosion illuminated the whole scene and HMS Utmost had to dive hurriedly. A counter attack did not develop for some time, but the cruiser although severely damaged, was able to reach Messina. The two convoys from Naples had by now joined together but they had been reported by HMS Utmost and RAF Wellingtons from Malta, and heavy air attacks were made from the island. A Fleet Air Arm torpedo hit the Italian heavy cruiser Trieste, but she also got back to Messina. This was too much for the Italian high command, and they ordered the convoy to abandon its mission and to make for Taranto. Polish submarine Sokol (Kapitan B Karnicki) was invited to enter Navarino Bay and attack one of the other convoys that were sheltering there. She was told that there were no net defences She complied on 19th and almost at once got tangled in indicator nets. She shook them off with difficulty and one periscope was damaged. On 21st she fired three torpedoes at two destroyers at anchor 4200 yards away (set to run shallow over the nets) and damaged Italian destroyer Avieri. That night she fired another three torpedoes at a convoy at very long range. She claimed a hit at the time but it is doubtful whether her torpedoes ever reached the target. On 22nd, HMS Upright (Lieutenant JS Wraith DSC RN) sighted Italian cruiser Cadorna on her way south but she was too far off to attack. Of the eight Axis supply ships in the four convoys, only three reached Benghazi as well as cruier Cadorna with her cargo of petrol.

The supplies reaching North Africa was now less than half the tonnage required by the Axis armies and fuel was very short. The Italian Navy redoubled its efforts to get more across and decided, not realising that their ciphers were being broken, that the best strategy was to continue to run as many small convoys simultaneously as possible and to keep them widely separated. Within a few days operations of this type were again in progress. While Cadorna was returning from Benghazi, Italian merchant ship Adriatico was routed from Reggio for Benghazi unescorted and three single Axis supply ships each with one escort were sailed, two to Benghazi and one returning to Brindisi. Another Axis cargo ship with two Italian destroyers left Trapani for Tripoli by the Tunisian coast, and finally two more Axis supply ships, Maritza and Procida with two Italian torpedo boats, sailed from the Aegean Sea for Benghazi. There were six Allied submarines in the central Mediterranean at this time. HMS Trusty was off Argostoli, HMS P31 in the middle of the Ionian Sea, Polish submarine Sokol about to leave a position off Navarino, HMS Thrasher approaching the Straits of Otranto, HMS Osiris north of Crete and HMS Unbeaten off Misurata. RAF reconnaissance aircraft, guided by the cryptographers, spotted all of the Italian movements and Force K from Malta put to sea to intercept the Maritza convoy. Force K was sighted and reported by the Italian submarine Settembrini, but nevertheless it intercepted and sank Italian cargo ships Maritza and Procida although the escorts escaped. On 25th HMS Thrasher (Lieutenant HS Mackenzie RN) off Brindisi fired four torpedoes at a range of 1900 yards, hitting and sinking Italian merchant ship Atilio Defenu of 3540 tons. One Axis ship arrived safely at Benghazi and another at Tripoli.

At the very end of November, the Italian Navy tried again. The same strategy of using a number of small convoys or single escorted ships sailing simultaneously on widely separated routes was used, but this time an Italian cruiser covering force was sent to the middle of the Ionian Sea and another force, including a battleship, was sailed in support. The British had also strengthened the forces available for attack and Force B consisting of the cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Neptune with two destroyers had arrived at Malta from the eastern Mediterranean. There were eight British submarines on patrol in the central Mediterranean at the time. HMS Thrasher was south of the Straits of Otranto, HMS Trusty was off Argostoli, HMS Perseus off Zante, HMS Upholder, HMS P31 and HMS Thunderbolt formed a patrol line south of Taranto, HMS Talisman was off the Kithera Channel, while HMS P34 had just arrived off the south east coast of Calabria. Thanks to the cryptographers, they were therefore well placed to intercept the enemy convoys.

On 29th November the Italian forces and convoys put to sea. Of the two Italian supply ships that sailed from Brindisi, the RAF bombers hit and sank one of them and so badly damaged the other that she had to put in to Argostoli. An Italian tanker from Navarino was also damaged by the RAF and had to turn back. Force K with four cruisers was now superior to the Italian cruiser force, and made at high speed for a ship that had sailed from Taranto for Benghazi but they first fell in with the damaged Italian supply vessel that had left Argostoli and sank it. The last ship left Trapani for Tripoli by the Tunisian coast, and she was damaged by RAF torpedo bombers from Malta and finally destroyed with her escort by Force K after a long high-speed chase. In the end only one Italian supply ship arrived at Benghazi.

The submarines had a disappointing part in these successes, the laurels for which went to the RAF, the Fleet Air Arm and Force K. HMS Upholder (Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn DSO RN), off Cape Spartivento and on her way to her patrol position had, on 27th, attacked and missed a tanker escorted by two destroyers. She fired four torpedoes at a range of 2800 yards and her miss was probably due to an inaccurate estimation of the speed, and the enemy appeared to be unaware of the attack. HMS Trusty (Lieutenant Commander WDA King DSO DSC RN) had to abandon an attack on an escorted tanker on 27th as a torpedo ran hot in the tube and nearly asphyxiated the crew. Next day she tried to attack three destroyers but she was unable to turn fast enough and they got away. On 29th, HMS P31 (Lieutenant JBdeB Kershaw RN) sighted the Italian cruiser force, consisting of cruisers Attendolo, D’Aosta, Montecuccoli and three destroyers steering south. She fired a full salvo of four torpedoes at a range or 4300 yards and, although explosions were heard and she thought she had hit at the time, this was not so. HMS Upholder sighted the Italian cruisers coming north again in the early morning of 1st December while it was still dark. She attacked on the surface but was too close and was forced to dive by one of the escorts. HMS Upholder completed the attack at a depth of 70 feet by firing four torpedoes by asdic but she failed to secure a hit. The enemy appeared to be unaware that they had been attacked, and HMS Upholder was able to surface 50 minutes later and make an enemy report.

The Crusader ‘Offensive’ had resulted in two weeks of heavy and confused fighting in the desert. The British army had not relieved Tobruk as yet and certainly had not retaken Cyrenaica. The Axis were still in the Egyptian frontier area but had not captured Tobruk as they had hoped to do. For two months, however, the German and Italian armies in Libya had received only half the supplies that they needed and their reserves, especially of fuel, were almost used up. They had been kept going by the Italian Navy shipping essentials in warships and submarines to Derna and ports near the front, and to a certain extent by capturing supplies from the British. Without substantial supplies and reinforcements they had little hope of taking Tobruk or indeed of taking the offensive at all. If something was not done to restore their supply lines, defeat stared them in the face.

The Axis losses in November were nothing less than disastrous. They had tried to send 79,208 tons of supplies and fuel to North Africa and only 29.843 tons had arrived. The losses amounted to 62% and thirteen cargo ships and three destroyers were sunk, as well as two cruisers seriously damaged. The Italian Navy had transported all of the meagre 2471 tons of fuel that did get across in warships and submarines. Nine ships of 44,539 tons were sunk by surface ships, three of 5691 tons by aircraft, one of 5996 tons by submarine, and another of 2826 tons by other causes. From a campaign of attrition the operations now began to look more like a blockade.

The reason for the somewhat disappointing showing of submarines in these operations was not for want of trying. Aided by cryptography plenty of submarines were deployed on the enemy routes, but the plain fact is that Force K and aircraft of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm got there first. On 18th November, at the start of the Eighth Army offensive, C-in-C Mediterranean laid down where submarines were to patrol. The First Flotilla at Alexandria was to keep a submarine off Benghazi, one off Misurata, one in the Adriatic and two in the Aegean, while Porpoise was to be used for minelaying. The Tenth Flotilla from Malta was to keep one submarine south of Messina and a patrol line in the Ionian Sea to intercept convoys for Benghazi. At the time there were ten submarines in each flotilla and so it was not possible to keep all these positions filled. Nevertheless submarines were used elsewhere than on the routes to North Africa and obtained results that kept their total average sinkings nearer normal. Both HMS Thunderbolt and HMS Thrasher have been mentioned in operations in the central Mediterranean, but HMS Thunderbolt spent some of her patrol in the Aegean and HMSA Thrasher in the Adriatic. HMS Thunderbolt sank a schooner by gunfire north west of Cape Malea on 25th while HMS Thrasher after sinking Attillio Defenu off Brindisi on 25th fired a single torpedo at a stopped ship but she went ahead as the torpedo was fired and it missed. HMS Thorn (Lieutenant Commander RO Norfolk RN) left Alexandria on 10th November and passing through the Kaso Strait, landed stores and a party on a small island of the Paros group on 15th. She sighted a convoy off Gaidoro but it was out of range, and then made a night attack on a lighted ship. She fired two torpedoes from right astern and fortunately missed as it was a Turkish Red Crescent relief ship. On 20th she had to give up an attack on a small convoy, and later picked up 21 escapers from the Pares Islands. HMS Triumph (Lieutenant JS Huddart RN) also patrolled in the Aegean and on 24th, after landing an agent near Cape Plaka in Crete, fired two torpedoes into Candia Harbour at a range of 4000 yards hitting and sinking the salvage tug Hercules of 630 tons. In the afternoon she bombarded Heraklion airfield and shore batteries replied.

As we have already noted, the sea transport situation was seen by both the Italian and German high commands as a matter of extreme concern. Mussolini again asked Hitler for a return of the Luftwaffe to neutralise Malta. The Italian Navy redoubled its efforts to get fuel and other supplies across by submarine. During December they used twelve boats, which made nineteen trips between then mostly to Bardia and some to Derna, Benghazi and Tripoli. They transported a total of 1758 tons. The German Navy had already taken steps to assist. During the autumn the Italians had accepted a German offer to send some twenty U-boats into the Mediterranean. They began to arrive during September and on 14th November, German submarine U81 torpedoed and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal east of Gibraltar. Ten days later U331 torpedoed and sank the battleship HMS Barham in the eastern Mediterranean. The arrival of these U-boats was a serious business but the Netherlands submarine O21 (Luitenant ter zee 1e Kl JP van Dulm), which had been on patrol west of Naples and was on her way back to Gibraltar, was able to redress the balance to some extent. She sighted German submarine U95 in bright moonlight just after midnight on 28th November. The U-boat made the challenge as other U-boats were about, and O21 replied with a torpedo at a range of 2000 yards, which missed. A second torpedo fired by O21 hit U95 and sank her. O21 picked up U95’s Captain and eleven of her crew.

The total successes in the whole Mediterranean by Royal Navy submarines during November were the destroyer Libeccio, U95 and four ships of 8415 tons sunk and the cruiser Duca D’Abruzzi and a ship of 4958 tons damaged. This result was achieved in twenty-one attacks firing 64 torpedoes and was in line with previous results during the summer of 1941. There were no losses of British or Allied submarines during the month and, In fact, no new submarines joined either. Total strength stood at twenty-three British, two Netherlands, one Polish and five Greek submarines.

ON 1ST DECEMBER THERE WERE no less than fifteen Allied submarines on patrol throughout the Mediterranean. In the western basin, HMS Clyde and Dutch submarine O24 had been sent from Gibraltar to patrol off Oran to intercept a ship reported to be taking a cargo of rubber to Europe. The ship, however, was not sighted: HMS Clyde returned to Gibraltar and O24 went on to patrol off Naples. From Malta, HMS P31 was in the middle of the Ionian Sea. HMS P34 was on the south east coast of Calabria. HMS Unique was south of Messina and HMS Upholder south of Taranto. From Alexandria, HMS Truant was passing along the north coast of Crete on her way to Argostoli. HMS Thrasher was between Cape Ste Maria di Leuca and Cephalonia, HMS Trusty was off Argostoli. HMS Proteus and HMS Talisman were patrolling the Kithera Channels and HMS Triumph and HMS Thunderbolt were off Navarin while HMS Porpoise was approaching the same area to relieve HMS Thunderbolt. The enemy convoy routes to Cyrenaica were therefore strongly patrolled. On 5th December , HMS P34 (Lieutenant PRH Harrison DSC RN) sighted a convoy and fired three torpedoes at a range of 5000 yards, probably damaging a ship and was counter attacked with 31 depth charges. On 5th also, HMS Talisman (Lieutenant Commander M Willmott RN) sighted an Italian submarine in rough weather at night. She fired seven torpedoes at point blank range (1000 yards) from the quarter and all missed. Thee days later she fired three more torpedoes at a range of 400 yards at night at what she thought was another U-boat but it turned out to be a destroyer which she also missed, the torpedoes probably running under. When returning to base on 14th December, HMS Talisman did encounter the Italian submarine Galatea on the surface at night. Both submarines fired torpedoes and tried to ram and HMS Talisman opened fire with her gun but both submarines emerged unscathed. On 3rd, HMS Trusty (Lieutenant Commander WDA King DSO DSC RN) met a destroyer and fired three torpedoes at 600 yards, but the torpedoes probably ran under and she missed too. Next day she fired another three torpedoes at a range of 1000 yards at another destroyer that was escorting a convoy. One torpedo had a gyro failure and nearly hit HMS Trusty herself, and she was subjected to a heavy counter attack into the bargain. One of her torpedoes, however, did hit and sink Italian merchant ship Eridano of 3585 tons in the convoy. On 7th off Suda Bay, HMS Truant (Lieutenant Commander HAV Haggard DSC RN) attacked an Italian merchant cruiser ship of the Ramb-class with three torpedoes at a range of 1500 yards hitting and stopping her with one of them. HMS Truant was unable to finish the job because of the presence of the escort and a seaplane. She then returned to Suda Bay on a report of transports and warships gathering there. On 11th she sighted an Italian tanker escorted by a torpedo boat and an aircraft. She fired four torpedoes at a range of 3500 yards hitting both of them. Italian torpedo boat Alcione was sunk and Truant saw the tanker low in the water and on fire. Italian records, however, do not confirm the sinking of this tanker and it is probable that she was only damaged. Two days earlier, HMS Porpoise (Lieutenant Commander EF Pizey DSO RN) off Navarin fired four torpedoes at a range of 1600 yards at Italian tanker Sebastiano Venier of 6310 tons escorted by a torpedo boat and hit her. She was, however, beached and did not sink. An attempt two days later to complete her destruction failed when both torpedoes of a salvo of two broke surface and ran crooked. However on 15th HMS Torbay (Lieutenant Commander ACC Miers DSO RN) arrived and fired two torpedoes at 1500 yards and, although one of them ran crooked, the other hit and completed the ship’s destruction. HMS Perseus (Lieutenant Commander ECF Nicolay DSO RN), which had been refitting at Malta since October, was north of Zante on 6th December. She struck a mine and was lost. One of her crew made a remarkable escape from 170 feet using the Davis Apparatus and swam ten miles to land, where he was cared for by the Greeks and subsequently rescued. Her Commanding Officer, four other officers and 53 men of her ships company were drowned.

During the same period, two submarines left Malta for Gibraltar to refit, one in the United Kingdom and the other in the United States. These were HMS Ursula and HMS Regent.

It is of interest that torpedoes were so short at Malta at the time that they were only allowed to take two each, HMS Regent’s pair being Mark II and of First World War vintage. On 1st December off Marittimo, Regent (Lieutenant WNR Knox DSC RN) sighted Italian cargo ship Erico of 2550 tons, and in a night surface attack fired both her elderly missiles at 800 yards but unhappily without result. She then opened fire with her gun and damaged her target but it escaped in the darkness. HMS Ursula (Lieutenant AR Hezlet DSC RN), on arrival at Gibraltar, was given a full salvo of torpedoes and sent to patrol off Alboran Island to try and catch a German U-boat as O21 had done. After a day or two, however, she was recalled to operate in the Bay of Biscay against German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest.

In this early part of December, the Italians were preparing another major effort to get supplies across to north Africa and in the meantime were using their light cruiser Cadorna, destroyers and submarines to transport essential supplies to Benghazi and Derna, and in the case of submarines, as far forward as Bardia. This was done in a period of very bad weather, Italian light cruiser Cadorna, with her deck cargo of petrol, having to shelter in Argostoli on 8th December. Royal Navy submarines, as has been told, caught glimpses of these ships but did not sink any of them. On 9th, however, the enemy attempted to run canned petrol across west of Sicily in the Italian light cruisers Barbiano and Guissano. Cryptography gave them away, but after being sighted by aircraft and not wishing to face an attack with such a dangerous cargo on board, they turned back. They sailed again and off Cape Bon on 13th were intercepted by a force of four Allied destroyers (thre Royal Navy and one Dutch destroyer) on passage to join the Mediterranean Fleet and both Italian cruisers were torpedoed and sunk. More than 900 Italian naval personel perished in these cruisers. By 13th the three convoys of the next major Italian move, sailed. These consisted of only five ships but they were all large with important cargoes. They were heavily escorted by eight destroyers, and the two principal convoys also had a battleship, two cruisers and three destroyers in support. However, intercepted wireless messages led the Italian High Command to believe that the whole Mediterranean Fleet had left Alexandria to attack them and all were ordered back to Italy. In fact the British had only despatched the 15th Cruiser Squadron from Alexandria, which it was intended should join Force

K. When returning to base, the German U-boats scored another success when German submarine U657 torpedoed and sank Roysal Navy light cruiser HMS Galatea.

Although some of the submarines on patrol at the beginning of the month had returned to base, a number had put to sea to replace them. Between the 1st and 9th December, HMS Unique, HMS Upright, HMS Unbeaten and HMS Utmost had left Malta to patrol south of Messina and to form a patrol line south of Taranto. On 11th December, ninety miles south of Cape Matapan, HMS Upright (Lieutenant Commander M Willmott RN) fired five torpedoes at a range of 2300 yards and sank Italian cargo ship Calitea of 4015 tons on her way from Argostoli to Benghazi. On 12th, HMS Upright, HMS HMS Utmost and HMS Unbeaten, which formed the patrol line south of Taranto, were ordered to close north to intercept a convoy along the coast. HMS Unbeaten (Lieutenant Commander EA Woodward RN) interpreted her orders too literally and claims to have seen the glow of a sentry’s cigarette on the breakwater, and she stirred up anti-submarine measures. HMS Utmost (Lieutenant Commander RD Cayley DSO RN) sighted the convoy at night and fired four torpedoes at very long range and claimed a hit but in fact she missed. At 0207 on 13th, less than an hour later, HMS Upright (Lieutenant JS Wraith DSC RN) also sighted the convoy and fired a full salvo of four torpedoes at a range of 4500 yards all of which hit. Three torpedoes sank one of the ships and one torpedo the other. These were the brand new sister cargo ships of Italian merchant marine , Carlo Del Greco and Fablo Filzi of 6835 tons on their way to Taranto to load for North Africa. The convoy’s powerful escort of destroyers counter attacked with 51 depth charges, and were in contact for the rest of the night, a period of eight hours. HMS Upright had to remain submerged all next day with her battery very low and on surfacing the next night she was again put down by destroyers dropping 20 depth charges very close, and forcing her to dive involuntarily to 300 feet. She managed to shake them off but her wireless and asdic were put out of action, some battery cells were broken and her pressure hull distorted. Not being able to make any signals, HMS Upright remained on patrol in the Gulf of Taranto until her pre-arranged time to return to Malta, where she was received with relief. She had failed to answer several signals from Captain(S) Ten to report her position and was feared lost.

The Italian misfortunes were not at an end even now. They had decided that their two modern battleships, Vittorio Veneto and Littorio, should move their base from Naples back to Taranto where they could intervene more effectively in supporting convoys to North Africa. As they emerged from the southern end of the Straits of Messina, zigzagging at 20 knots and escorted by four destroyers, they were intercepted by HMS Urge and HMS Unique. HMS Urge (Lieutenant Commander EP Tomkinson DSO* RN) fired a full salvo of four torpedoes from submerged at 3000 yards and hit Vittorio Veneto under the foremost turret. HMS Unique (Lieutenant AF Collett DSC RN) also sighted the force but it passed her out of range. Vittorio Veneto reached Taranto under her own power but was out of action for three months.

On 7th December, General Rommel, after hearing that he could not hope for reinforcements for some time, and after further advances by the Eighth Army, decided to retire his Panzer Army to the Gazala line, so giving up half of Cyrenaica. On 10th December he raised the siege of Tobruk, but left some of his army behind at Bardia and on the frontier at Halfaya. As a result, the Italian Navy redoubled its efforts to get supplies across, and had planned another convoy to be escorted and covered by the whole Italian Fleet. Simultaneously the British were planning to get more fuel to Malta as Forces B and K had run the stocks low. This was to be sent in HMS Breconshire escorted by cruisers and destroyers who would meet Force K half way and hand her over to them. There were insufficient destroyers to allow the British battleships to put to sea. On 15th December and during these fleet movements there were eleven Allied submarines at sea in the central Mediterranean. O24 was off Naples, HMS Upright and HMS Urge were still south of Messina. HMS Unbeaten and HMS Utmost were off Taranto while HMS P31, HMS P34, HMS Upholder and Sokol formed a patrol line across the middle of the Ionian Sea. HMS Torbay was off Navarin, HMS Truant off Argostoli and HMS Porpoise was on her way back to Alexandria. Using signal intelligence, the submarines were disposed almost entirely in the Ionian Sea, and there were none of them patrolling off the African coast at all. On 16th when nothing had been seen by dawn, new dispositions were ordered. HMS P31 went to relieve HMS Upright off Cape Colonne, HMS P34 returned to Malta and a new patrol line was ordered south of Taranto consisting of HMS Unbeaten, Sokol and HMS Utmost with HMS Upholder to the southwards. This redisposition was in progress when the Italians put to sea from Taranto. Next day HMS P31 sighted an Italian submarine but it dived before she could attack. Simultaneously on 16th the British force sailed from Alexandria. While the Italians were leaving Taranto, the submarine patrol line in the Ionian Sea was ordered to move north. The British submarines caught glimpses of the Italians as they came south, HMS Unbeaten and HMS P31 sighted a cruiser and destroyers but they seemed to turn back. HMS Utmost fired a very long-range salvo (at 8000 yards) of four torpedoes at a cruiser in a night surface attack, but without result. Her wireless report, however, gave the first visual indication that the Italian fleet was on the move. Air reconnaissance soon revealed the opponents to each other, but whereas the British knew the Italian intentions correctly from cryptography, the Italians thought that the British were at sea solely to try to destroy the Axis convoy. The surface forces met late on 17th December in what became known as the ‘First Battle of Sirte’, and both succeeded in protecting their convoys. HMS Breconshire got to Malta and one Italian ship arrived safely at Benghazi and three off Tripoli. Here the RAF laying mines delayed their entry, and an attempt by Force K to intercept them was disastrous. Force K ran into a minefield, HMS Neptune and HMS Kandahar were sunk, and HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope were damaged. The three Italian merchant ships then entered the port safely. HMS P31 (Lieutenant JBdeB Kershaw RN) got into a firing position on 19th as the Italians returned to base, on a force of three cruisers, and launched four torpedoes at 1000 yards range. She was, however, put deep by the destroyer screen and missed. HMS Unbeaten also sighted this force but was out of range. At mid-day Sokol (Kapitan B Karnicki) sighted a squadron of ships but was too far off to attack. Heavy seas and bad visibility hampered all these submarine operations.

The Allied submarine part in this action was disappointing and was not for want of trying. Using the available signal intelligence they were well disposed to intercept the enemy and at one point, all nine boats of the Tenth Flotilla were at sea together. Nevertheless this operation was hailed by the Italian Navy as a great success and the turning point in what they called the ‘First Battle of the Convoys’. Certainly the blockade of North Africa was broken, and the supplies received allowed the Axis armies to withdraw in good order and stand at El Agheila. On the day the Italian convoy entered Tripoli and Force K was destroyed, another disaster befell the British in Alexandria itself. Here the Italian submarine Scire launched three ‘human’ torpedoes, which severely damaged the battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth and put them completely out of action.

By Christmas, all except one submarine of the Tenth Flotilla had had to return to Malta to replenish and rest, and they achieved nothing more during 1941. At the end of the year the Italians were able to take advantage or this lull in operations to run two more convoys through to North Africa. Even HMS Upholder had a blank patrol between 12th and 21st December off Cape Spartivento where her only excitement was to be hunted by enemy air and surface anti-submarine forces. At the same time German E-boats laid 73 ground mines off Valletta increasing the hazards for our submarines.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, operations by the submarines of the First and Eighth Flotillas had continued. On 20th December, HMS Torbay (Lieutenant Commander ACC Miers DSO RN), who had been off Navarin during the ‘First Battle of Sirte’ and had seen nothing, fired a single torpedo at a destroyer in Navarin Bay but its gyro failed and it circled to starboard. Three days later she tried again and this time the torpedo ran correctly but the range, at 2000 yards, was very long and the inclination of the destroyer fine, and although a hit was claimed at the time there is no post war confirmation of this. Towards evening she tried yet again the target then being a merchant ship, but the torpedo exploded short in the harbour entrance, probably in the net defences. HMS Thorn (Lieutenant Commander RO Norfolk RN) left Alexandria on 16th December and passed through the Kaso Strait and was known to have been sighted by the enemy off Cape Drepano on 22nd. On 20th a small tanker was attacked at a range of 2000 yards with three torpedoes, but one ran crooked and the other two missed. She then surfaced and opened fire with her gun and obtained several hits but the tanker was faster than Thorn and escaped. Two days later another tanker bound from Patras to Taranto was attacked at 1400 yards, and this time she used a salvo of six torpedoes, three of which hit and sank Italian tanker Campina of 3030 tons off the coast of Cephalonia. HMS Proteus (Lieutenant Commander FS Francis RN) left Alexandria on 22nd December for the west coast of Greece, and on 30th fired three torpedoes at Citta di Marsala of 2480 tons escorted by a destroyer at a range of 2000 yards. One torpedo hit her, but she was towed into Argostoli and beached. HMS Proteus was still on patrol at the end of the year.

HMS Osiris (Lieutenant RS Brookes DSC RN) also left Alexandria on 22nd to patrol north of Crete and was sighted and hunted on 20th and 30th. She then suffered serious breakdowns in both engines, lying stopped and helpless for four hours. Patrol was then abandoned and she returned to her base. HMS Thunderbolt (Lieutenant Commander CB Crouch DSO RN) left Alexandria at the same time as HMS Osiris to patrol off Navarin, but saw nothing before the end of the year when she was still on patrol. HMS Olympus (Lieutenant Commander HG Dymott RN) made a storing trip from Gibraltar to Malta during the second half of December, carrying petrol and mails but above all a full outfit of fourteen torpedoes of which Malta was becoming very short.

Aided by cryptography, December was a month of substantial success for the Allied submarines in the Mediterranean. In twenty-five attacks they had expended 82 torpedoes and had sunk Italian torpedo boat Alcione and six ships of 30,610 tons. They had also damaged Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto and another six ships or approximately 20,000 tons. Furthermore five of the six ships sunk were transporting supplies to North Africa, two of which were carrying tanks. They also sank considerably more than Forces B and K (two ships of 12,516 tons) or had aircraft (one ship of 1235 tons). Although the Italian Navy now claimed to have broken the blockade and virtually that the ‘First battle of the Convoys’ had ended in their favour, only 39,000 tons of fuel and supplies were landed during December and 18% were lost on the way. These results were obtained for the loss of one submarine. Indeed only two submarines had been lost during the last four months, both of which had struck mines and these casualties were not due to aircraft or surface anti-submarine vessels. Three submarines had left the station to refit (O21, HMS Ursula and HMS Regent) but four (HMS P35, HMS P38, HMS P39 and HMS Una) were on their way out as reinforcements. The Greek submarines were still in a bad state of repair, as were the elderly British survivors of the O, P and R-classes and these last were in urgent need of refit. HMS Olympus was out of action for over a month at Gibraltar in November and December, but as has been told, completed a storing trip to Malta in the latter month. The breakdown of HMS Osiris on patrol, already noted, is also relevant.

On 7th December, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour and on 22nd the Admiralty ordered C-in-C Mediterranean to send ‘two good submarines’ to Singapore as soon as possible. HMS Trusty and HMS Truant were chosen and left for the Far East at the end of the year.

IN THE SEVEN MONTHS of the ‘First Battle of the Convoys’ the supplies landed in North Africa fell from 125,076 tons in June 1941 to 39,000 in December 29. The crisis came in November when the amount landed fell to only just over half the minimum required to support the Axis armies in Africa. The effect was that, having reached the Egyptian frontier, General Rommel was unable to advance further or to mount a decisive attack on Tobruk. When the British ‘Crusader Offensive’ began, he was seriously handicapped by a shortage of supplies and this was one of the reasons he had to retreat and give up the whole of Cyrenaica. The Italian Navy’s claim that the ‘First battle of the Convoys’ ended in their favour can scarcely be supported, as in December they still landed less than was needed. What is true is that they staved off total defeat and landed enough for the Axis forces to retreat and stand at El Agheila. During the seven months they lost sixty-two ships of 270,386 tons sunk; twenty-eight of 108,820 tons by British submarines, eleven of 57,055 tons by Royal Navy surface ships and three of 4015 tons by other causes. The minor crisis in September was largely caused by air attacks and the major crisis in November by Force K, while submarines exerted a steady pressure throughout the whole seven months. All these sinkings were largely made possible by the success of the cryptographers. The casualties noted above, however, were only those which were southbound with supplies for North Africa, and Royal Navy submarines also sank a number of empty northbound ships and ships in the Adriatic, Aegean and Tyrrhenian Seas not taking supplies to Libya. These amounted to an additional thirty-one ships of 99,439 tons with yet another sixteen of 91,797 tons damaged. On top of this they sank five Italian destroyers or torpedo boats, and two U-boats and damaged a battleship and three cruisers.

The above figures are of interest as they call attention to an important question of submarine strategy. In particular, whether the whole effort should not have been concentrated on the southbound laden traffic to North Africa, and not dissipated on empty northbound traffic, and on ships in other areas, notably the Aegean and the Adriatic. It seems doubtful, however whether a simple ban on attacking northbound ships would have meant that more laden southbound ships would have been encountered. It would only help if submarines were running out of torpedoes by expending them on northbound ships, and then meeting southbound ships which they would not be able to attack. This was certainly not the case. Few submarines returned from patrol having expended all their torpedoes31. Such a ban would simply have meant that fewer ships would have been sunk. Undoubtedly the concentration of submarines on the routes to North Africa rather than sending them to the Adriatic or Aegean would have meant that more ships running supplies to North Africa would have been sunk, but whether the overall total would have been greater, or even the same, is open to doubt. An advantage of sending some submarines to patrol in the Adriatic and Aegean was that it forced the traffic in those areas to be escorted, and this meant that anti-submarine protection of the convoys to North Africa was weakened. Traffic in the Adriatic and Aegean was not, in any case, of no value to Italy’s war effort. It seemed obvious, for example, with the chronic shortage of fuel that the Italian tanker traffic from the Dardanelles was of exceptional importance. On the other hand the fuel shortages can now be seen as not caused by transport difficulties, but by the heavy expenditure in the Russian campaign and by the amount available at source, and how much the Germans were prepared to let the Italian Navy have. In fact all of what the Germans made available could be transported by rail. The Aegean traffic included supplies to the Luftwaffe in Crete and the German garrisons in the Greek Archipelago. The Adriatic traffic included supplies to the Italian army in Greece and Yugoslavia, and the Tyrrhenian Sea traffic supplies to the Regia Aeronautica in Sardinia. It can also be argued that the submarine campaign should not simply be directed against these military cargoes, but against Axis shipping in the Mediterranean as a whole, and that ships should be sunk wherever they could be found and whatever they were doing. The size of the Italian merchant marine available in the Mediterranean at the outbreak of war was 548 ships (over 500 tons) of 1,749,441 tons to which could be added 56 German ships in Italian ports of 203,512 tons. By the end of 1941, total losses amounted to 201 ships of 779,409 tons, which was far more than were being built. A considerable number of ships were under repair after being damaged in action. Nevertheless, although a progressive shortage of shipping for all purposes would be caused by this method it would, at a rate of sinking of 500,000 tons a year, take another two years to reduce the Italian merchant marine to impotence. There is no doubt that the policy of attacking cargoes obtains results more quickly than the policy of attacking shipping as a whole. It seems on balance that a greater concentration on the southbound routes to North Africa would have had a marginally greater effect, but probably not enough to change the course of the war in the Mediterranean.

Another point of strategy was that the concentration of the small submarines at Malta, although for good reasons, and the large submarines at Alexandria, meant that the eleven attacks on Italian heavy fleet units were, with one exception, made by U-class submarines with the weak four torpedo salvo rather than by the T-class, of which there were eight on the station, with their powerful ten torpedo salvoes. For example during the ‘First Battle of Sirte’, the large submarines were disposed to intercept merchant ships, and the small disposed to intercept fleet units. The result was that out of eleven attacks on these targets, only four obtained hits at all, and these only damaged and did not sink the enemy. The argument that the U-class were used in shallow water where the larger submarines were at a disadvantage is not valid. The T-class were employed to a large extent off Benghazi and in the Gulf of Sirte, which were shallow, and the U-class were often used in patrol lines in the Ionian Sea where it was deep. The argument, that all depended on endurance, is not valid either. Both the T-class from Alexandria and the U-class from Malta could operate in the Ionian Sea where most of the attacks on the Italian heavy units took place.

By the end of 1941, the strategic situation in the Mediterranean was, geographically, much improved. The recapture at Cyrenaica gave airfields that could cover the central Mediterranean. Convoys to Malta would now again be possible from the east. The planners were even discussing whether it would be possible to eject the Axis from North Africa altogether. From the naval point of view, however, the strategic situation was little short of disastrous. The arrival of the German U-boats and the exploits of the Italian human torpedoes had put the Mediterranean Fleet battle squadron totally out of action, and German mines laid by Italian cruisers had destroyed Force

K. It was only the shortage of fuel, which kept the powerful Italian battlefleet in harbour that saved the situation. Even Force H at Gibraltar had lost its aircraft carrier and was unlikely to get another for some time. Furthermore Japan’s entry into the war meant that forces of all kinds were being taken from the Middle for the Far East. Two T-class submarines, as has already been told, were being sent. Now the Allied submarines in the Mediterranean with a strength of nineteen efficient operational units, with their bases and depot ships at Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria intact became, with the Allied air forces, the most important units left to dispute the command of the sea with the Axis powers. The spectre of Fliegerkorps II, now arriving in Sicily in strength was, however, becoming apparent and the future looked grim32.

During the seven months covered by this chapter, submarine casualties in the Mediterranean were moderate. Six boats were lost, two sunk by destroyers but four by mines, which in this period proved the most dangerous counter measure. In spite of the fact that submarines could be seen submerged down to sixty feet, there were no casualties from aircraft, and the British tactics of always remaining submerged by day paid off although time on passage was almost doubled thereby.

The awards for the period covered by this chapter included the first Victoria Cross to be conferred on a submarine officer during the Second World War. Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn of HMS Upholder had already received the Distinguished Service Order and since then had sunk another five ships of 45,445 tons, bringing his total to over 80,000 tons. He had also sunk the destroyer Libeccio and had damaged the cruiser Garibaldi and another merchant ship. The citation mentioned both his sinking of the liners Oceania and Neptunia in September, and also his attack on Conte Rosso in May. This last attack was particularly noticed for Lieutenant Commander Wanklyn’s gallantry in staying at periscope depth to complete the attack when inside the screen, and when he could hardly see the escorting destroyers in the failing light or hear them as his asdics were out of action. Two Commanding Officers received the Distinguished Service Order and a Bar for their exploits during this period. These were Commander WJW Woods of Triumph, who had sunk the Italian submarine Salpa and seriously damaged Italian heavy cruiser Bolzano, as well as sinking four ships of 9530 tons; and Lieutenant Commander EP Tomkinson of HMS Urge who had torpedoed and damaged Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto and three other ships, as well as sinking two of 6570 tons during 1941. The award of a bar to the Distinguished Service Order was in fact given before the attack on Vittorio Veneto for which, at his own request, he was given two years seniority instead of a decoration. Bars to the Distinguished Service Order also went to Commander MC Rimington of HMS Parthian for sinking the Vichy submarine Souffleur, and for seven patrols; and to Lieutenant Commander RD Cayley of HMS Utmost for torpedoing and damaging the cruiser Abruzzi and sinking three more ships amounting to 8015 tons during eight patrols. Altogether another seven decorations were awarded for patrols during this period. Lieutenant Commander HAV Haggard of HMS Truant, who had sunk no less than eleven ships totalling 44,274 tons in North Norway and the Bay of Biscay as well as the Mediterranean, and second only to Lieutenant Commander Wanklyn in the ‘tonnage stakes’, at last received a Distinguished Service Order. His successes in the Mediterranean had included the sinking of Italian torpedo boat Alcione and two ships of 5570 tons, as well as damage to three others. Lieutenant Commander ACC Miers of HMS Torbay had sunk the Italian submarine Jantina and five ships of 15,085 tons and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The Captains of the Netherlands submarines O21 and O24 were also given Distinguished Service Orders. Luitenant ter zee 1e Kl van Dulm for sinking German submarine U95 and three ships of 7725 tons, and Luitenant ter zee 1e Kl de Booy for sinking five ships of 12,817 tons. Two more Distinguished Service Orders went to Lieutenant JS Wraith of HMS Upright for sinking German torpedo boat Albatros and the two ships of 13,670 tons off Taranto, and Lieutenant Commander ECF Nicolay first of HMS Taku and later HMS Perseus for sinking five ships of 11,620 tons. Lastly, Lieutenant AR Hezlet, a spare Commanding Officer temporarily in command of HMS Unique received a Distinguished Service Cross for sinking Italian ship Esperia of 11,400 tons. Lieutenant AF Collett, the actual Commanding Officer of HMS Unique also received the Distinguished Service Cross ‘for services in the Mediterranean’. Lieutenant Commander GH Green-way of HMS Tetrarch had sunk four ships of 7063 tons, but was lost with his submarine without any award. He was posthumously Mentioned in Despatches.