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.