September-October 1941 Royal Navy Submarine Service in Mediterranean Sea

from “British and Allied Submarine Operations in World War II” written by Vice Admiral Arhur Hezlet , RN

ON 1ST SEPTEMBER, THE SUBMARINES AT MALTA were organised into a separate flotilla under the command of Captain GWG Simpson who had recently been promoted. The new flotilla was numbered the Tenth, and remained based ashore on Manoel Island in Sliema Harbour. Its name ship was HMS Talbot and the old monitor, HMS Medusa (exM29), which was used by the submarines as a fuel barge, was renamed accordingly. Operations, however, continued to be co-ordinated under C-in-C Mediterranean by Captain(S) First Submarine Flotilla in HMS Medway at Alexandria. In practice this made little difference. Captain Raw had, in fact, never interfered with the operation of the Malta submarines. Air raids in Malta had, by this time, fallen to one in every twenty-four hours and were made almost exclusively at night. They caused little disruption and no damage. Reinforcements of Hurricane fighters had also been flown in from aircraft carriers during the summer. Tunnelling at Lazaretto had continued during the summer, and by October the plans to put vital facilities underground had been half completed.

September proved an even more successful month than August. Operations were spread throughout the Mediterranean and included patrols in the Aegean and the Adriatic. On 1st September there were twelve submarines on patrol. From the Eighth Flotilla at Gibraltar, Free Netherlands Navy submarines O21 was south east of Sardinia and O24 off the Italian Riviera. From the Tenth Flotilla at Malta, HMS Upright was on the north coast at Sicily while HMS Urge was returning to Malta from the Naples area: HMS Unbeaten was south of Messina and HMS Upholder and HMS Ursula were off Tripoli. Of the First Flotilla at Alexandria, HMS Talisman was in the Gulf of Sirte and HMS Thunderbolt was on her way to the same area to join her; HMS Perseus was in the Aegean; HMS Triumph was returning to Malta from the Tyrrhenian Sea and HMS Rorqual was on her way back to Alexandria from the west coast of Greece. Most of these submarines were back in harbour before the middle of the month, but not before some had achieved results. O21 (Luitenant ter zee 1e K1 JF van Dulm), in the Tyrrhenian Sea made no less than five torpedo attacks on various ships but all missed except one. On 5th September she sank cargo ship Isarco of 5738 tons carrying phosphates from Tunisia to Naples rescuing twenty-two men of her crew, and taking them back to Gibraltar. O23 (Luitenant ter zee 1e Kl GBM van Erkel), patrolling off the Italian Riviera missed a three masted barque with torpedoes, but surfaced and sank her by gunfire. This was Carla of 347 tons. Near Elba on 9th, she encountered two ships in convoy and sank Italian freighter Italo Balbo of 5114 tons with torpedoes. O23 then set course round the north of Corsica, and was narrowly missed by torpedoes from an MAS boat before returning to Gibraltar. In the early part of the month HMS Otus (Lieutenant RM Favell RN) and HMS Osiris (Lieutenant CP Norman RN), which were in Malta after bringing in supplies, made their way to Alexandria carrying mail and passengers. HMS Osiris carried a spare destroyer stem piece lashed to her casing. She was ordered to bombard Appolonia airfield on her way, which she did, surprisingly without any return fire from the shore. On 3rd September, HMS Otus sighted a Ramb-class merchant ship escorted by a destroyer, probably on her way to the Dodecanese. She fired four torpedoes at a range of 2000 yards, but the destroyer got in the way and caused her to miss. HMS Perseus (Lieutenant Commander ECF Nicolay RN), in the Aegean on 5th September, attacked a convoy and fired four torpedoes hitting and sinking Italian cargo ship Maya of 3865 tons at the long range of 5000 yards. One of the salvo also hit a tanker in the convoy and it stopped. A fifth torpedo was fired at this ship an hour later but it missed. HMS Thunderbolt (Lieutenant Commander CB Crouch DSO RN), newly arrived in the Mediterranean, was off Benghazi on 5th September where she was harassed by anti-submarine vessels. On 7th, however, she encountered the escorted Italian merchantman Sirena of 975 tons and sank her. This was a remarkable attack since although it started in the normal way, the target altered course stern on at a range of 2000 yards, and the single torpedo fired overtook and hit her. HMS Thunderbolt then moved her patrol position to the Gulf of Sirte and on 9th bombarded Fort Baroli. Next day she sank the schooner Svan I of 388 tons by gunfire in the anchorage at El Auejai and during this action shore batteries engaged her. On 11th she attacked a convoy of two ships escorted by two destroyers, firing three torpedoes at a range of 1200 yards, hitting and sinking Italian merchant ship Livorno of 1829 tons. Two days later she attacked a minelayer of the Crotone-class escorted by aircraft and minesweepers, and expended three torpedoes at a range of 3200 yards, but without result. Finally next day she fired four torpedoes at a large escorted supply ship at a range of 4600 yards. Although she claimed a hit at the time, there is no record that the enemy was sunk although she may have been damaged.

During the early part of September after four submarines had returned from patrol, the Tenth Flotilla had only HMS Unique at sea and she was off Capri. The others were preparing for Operation ‘Halberd’, which was another Malta convoy. HMS Unique (Lieutenant AF Collett RN) had left Malta on 5th for the Tyrrhenian Sea, and on 14th sighted a large tanker of the Oceana-class off Capri but could not get within range. It is now clear that this ship was bound for Naples, from which port a large troop convoy was about to sail. Cryptography revealed its times of arrival and departure and its destination as Tripoli. It also gave its route as through the Straits of Messina and the central Ionian Sea, making its landfall at Ras el Hanra on 19th. This intelligence was to lead to a major success for the cryptography/air reconnaissance/submarine combination. RAF air reconnaissance revealed that the convoy had left Naples, and Captain(S) Ten at Malta at once decided to set an ambush with five submarines that were available there. HMS Upholder (Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn DSO RN), HMS Upright (Lieutenant JS Wraith DSC RN) and HMS Unbeaten (Lieutenant Commander EA Woodward RN) were despatched on 16th September to form a patrol line some fifty miles north east of the expected landfall of the convoy on the African coast. They would then be able to make a night attack and be certain to avoid the period around dawn when it would be difficult to decide whether to attack on the surface or submerged. HMS Ursula (Lieutenant AR Hezlet RN) was sent to patrol close in off Ras el Hamra to attack submerged after daylight. HMS Urge , who had only just got in from patrol, did not take part.

All four submarines were in position shortly after midnight 17th/18th September, and the submarines on the patrol line checked their relative positions using asdics. At this point HMS Upholder’s gyrocompass failed which was a setback. It was a dark but clear night and the submarines had not long to wait. At 0307 HMS Unbeaten sighted the enemy eight miles to the northward and, as she was obviously too far off track to attack, she made an enemy report first by asdic and when this did not get through, by wireless. HMS Upright received the message at 0331 and HMS Upholder at 0340. HMS Unbeaten then followed up the enemy to deal with any ships damaged by the other two. HMS Upholder sighted the convoy at 0350 at a range of six miles, and closed at full speed on the surface. At 0408 she fired a full salvo of four torpedoes at the long range of 5000 yards with a track angle of 115 degrees. With no gyrocompass the submarine was yawing badly but the torpedoes were sighted individually at two ships that were overlapping. Two of the torpedoes hit, one striking Oceania and the other Neptunia . Neptunia sank; Oceania stopped dead in the water and the third ship, Vulcania , increased to her full speed of 21 knots and continued on her course. While the six large Italian destroyers of the escort were busy rescuing survivors, HMS Upholder dived and closed in while she reloaded her torpedo tubes. HMS Upright ran south on receiving the enemy report but Vulcania passed north of her. After daylight, an Italian destroyer passed within range of HMS Upright but could not be attacked as she was armed with Mark IV torpedoes, the depth setting of which could not be altered in her torpedo tubes. By 0650 both HMS Upholder and HMS Unbeaten had sighted the stopped Oceania , and were closing in submerged from the same side to finish her off. HMS Upholder had to go deep to avoid a destroyer, and dived under Oceania then turned and at 0851 fired two torpedoes at a range of 2100 yards from the other side, both of which hit and sank her,

HMS Ursula arrived in her position off Ras el Hamra before dawn and dived. As soon as it was light she sighted the torpedo boat sent out from Tripoli to guide the convoy in. She was working stealthily round to the northeast when the Vulcania was heard on asdic and came in sight earlier than had been expected. At 0705 HMS Ursula fired four torpedoes at a range of 3500 yards. The target speed, however, was set at 17 knots, which was anticipated as the convoy speed, and the torpedoes missed astern. At the time a hit was thought to have been obtained, and this seemed to be confirmed as Vulcania went on her way with a list to starboard.

This great success for the Tenth Flotilla, in which the part played by cryptography and air reconnaissance must not be forgotten, was achieved by the torpedoes of HMS Upholder , who had already sunk Conte Rosso in May 1941. Some 6500 men were being transported in Oceania and Neptunia , and the Italian Navy succeeded in rescuing all but 384, most of whom were killed by the torpedo explosion in Neptunia . This was the last of these troop convoys, four of the liners having been sunk by our submarines. Troops from now on were transported mainly in destroyers, which crossed at night at high speed. Vulcania , after disembarking her troops, returned without delay to Italy using the route west of Sicily. HMS Utmost was on her way to the north coast of Sicily at the time and was ordered to a position off Marittimo to intercept. On 20th September she sighted the liner on a course for Naples, but was too far off to attack.

HMS Upholder wanklynn

Lt. Cmdr David Wanklynn and HMS Upholder , tonnage ace of Allied submariners


Lt. Commander David Wanklynn

hms unique

HMS Unique

Although the ‘Substance’ and ‘Style’ convoys had successfully supplied Malta during August, it was considered necessary to run another convoy in September to build up stocks there. It was decided to run this convoy towards the end of the month when reinforcements for Force H from the Home Fleet would be available. The Italians still had five battleships operational with which to contest the passage of this convoy, and it had only been found possible to bring Force H up to a strength of three capital ships. It was therefore considered essential to deploy a strong force of submarines in support of this convoy, which was code named ‘Halberd’. This was not only for reconnaissance but to attack the Italian battlefleet should it sortie. Nine submarines were made available. HMS Utmost was already north of Sicily and was ordered to patrol north of Messina, and O21 had just arrived to patrol south east of Sardinia. HMS Upright , HMS Upholder and HMS Urge were sent to take up positions off Cape Rosso Colmo on the west coast of Calabria, off Marittimo and north of Palermo respectively, while HMS Ursula and HMS Unbeaten were sent to patrol south of the Straits of Messina. Finally HMS Trusty and the Free Polish Navy submarine Sokol , on passage in the western Mediterranean to join as reinforcements, were ordered into the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily. This time some units of the Italian Navy put to sea to oppose the passage of the convoy. They were unable to use all five battleships as they were by now too short of fuel. Two forces were used; the first consisted of Littorio and Vittorio Veneto with eight destroyers, preceded by a second force of four cruisers and another eight destroyers. The Italian Fleet was restricted by instructions only to engage forces that were inferior, and to keep within the umbrella of fighter aircraft from the shore. They were unable to obtain enough information from air reconnaissance to compare the relative strengths, but nevertheless cruised to the east of Sardinia during the 27th and 28th September before returning to base. The only contact made with any of our six submarines in the Tyrrhenian Sea was by HMS Utmost , who sighted three cruisers returning to Naples. She attacked but was forced to dive deep to avoid being rammed by one of the escorts and did not get her torpedoes away. Operation ‘Halberd’ was a success and eight of the nine merchant ships arrived in Malta safely although the battleship Nelson was damaged by an aircraft torpedo.

Immediately before, during and after ‘Halberd’ and for the rest of September, the usual submarine patrols continued. On 24th, HMS Urge (Lieutenant EP Tomkinson RN) fired a single torpedo at a small merchant vessel off the west coast or Calabria but it had a gyro failure and circled, then dived to the bottom, and exploded uncomfortably close. That night in the Gulf of Gioja, she attempted to recover an agent landed by HMS Utmost in April but was disturbed by an MAS boat. She tried again next night but one or her officers who went ashore in a folbot was killed by fire from the shore, and HMS Urge was forced to make a rapid withdrawal by the arrival of a destroyer at high speed. It seems that the enemy obtained information from the agent and had set a trap. This confirmed Captain Simpson’s dislike of these special operations that could so easily lead to the loss of a submarine. Before returning to Malta, HMS Urge bombarded the railway with her 12-pd. gun but without effect. HMS Torbay (Lieutenant Commander ACC Miers RN) sailed again for the Aegean on 6th September, and although she made six attacks firing fourteen torpedoes she failed to score a single hit. On 10th she sighted a merchant ship escorted by destroyer, and fired three torpedoes at a range of 1500 yards after first being thwarted by the escort. The first torpedo was seen and the target evaded the salvo. She pursued submerged all day and caught up with her quarry in Candia harbour by the evening. She fired another torpedo at her stern, which was sticking out from behind the breakwater but it missed. On 18th three more torpedoes missed a small escorted merchant ship at a range of 2000 yards, probably because of an error in the estimation of her speed. Next day in an attack on two ships in convoy with four torpedoes at a range of 4000 yards she was forced deep by he escort and counter attacked, and the torpedoes missed again. Then on 21st two torpedoes fired at an escorted Romanian ship at a range of 300 yards also failed to hit, probably because they ran under. Finally on 23rd she encountered a small coaster towing a lighter with a destroyer and an aircraft as escort. Two torpedoes at a range of 1600 yards missed yet again and an exasperated HMS Torbay returned to Alexandria on 26th September.

HMS Thrasher , (Lieutenant Commander PJ Cowell DSC RN) left Alexandria to patrol off Benghazi on 12th September. She plotted the courses of the Italian local patrols and so verified the positions of the minefields off the port. On 23rd in the early hours she sighted three darkened ships and fired three torpedoes at a range of 1000 yards. One torpedo ran crooked but a second ran right under one or the enemy ships which were now seen to be destroyers, and not supply ships as at first thought. Two days later, also at night, she sighted a convoy of two ships escorted by two destroyers and fired five torpedoes at a range of 3500 yards, but all missed. HMS Thrasher then went on to Malta arriving on 1st October. HMS Tetrarch (Lieutenant Commander GH Greenway RN) left to patrol in the Aegean on 14th September to relieve HMS Torbay. She began by landing two army officers near Port Surtari in Crete to round up troops in hiding and then patrolled for two days off Suda Bay. She then went on to the Gulf of Athens and left the troops to be taken off by HMS Osiris (Lieutenant RS Brookes DSC RN), who made a special trip from Alexandria for the purpose. The operation, however, failed and it was clear that the Germans had got wind of it and HMS Osiris returned to Alexandria empty handed. HMS Tetrarch meanwhile, on 26th, sighted a convoy off Gaidaro Island but being in a bad position to attack, she worked ahead during the night and next morning fired two torpedoes at a range or 1500 yards hitting and sinking Italian merchant ship Citta di Bastia of 2499 tons. She was counter attacked but shook off the enemy, and two hours later reached a new firing position and fired two more torpedoes at the rear of the convoy, but the range was 6500 yards and she missed. Later in the day she sank a caique full of Italian troops by gunfire. On 28th she fired another pair or torpedoes at a large ship in convoy in a night attack south of Gaidaro Island. She was forced to dive by the escort and actually fired by asdic sinking Axis commandeered Greek ship Yalova of 3755 tons at a range of 2500 yards.

HMS Triumph (Commander WJW Woods RN) left Malta on 16th September for the Adriatic carrying a party of British and Yugoslav officers for a special operation. On 18th off Cape Rizzuto she fired three torpedoes at the tanker Liri of 6000 tons with a deck cargo of motor transport. One torpedo hit at a range of 3500 yards, which only damaged her, and she was towed into Crotone. On 20th HMS Triumph landed her party at Peljesac which she had some difficulty in identifying. On 23rd she sank the German cargo ship Luwsee of 2373 tons with one hit from a salvo of three torpedoes fired at 3600 yards. Next day off Ortona she fired three more torpedoes at a large tanker at a range of 2500 yards hitting with two of them but only damaging her. HMS Triumph then surfaced and engaged with her gun firing six rounds at a tug, and 35 at the tanker, but was forced to dive again by shore batteries. She also sank a small pilot cutter. She then expended another four torpedoes to try and finish off the tanker, but they missed and the enemy managed to make port on fire with a heavy list and upper deck awash.

HMS Perseus (Lieutenant Commander ECF Nicolay RN) also patrolled off Benghazi leaving Alexandria on 22nd September, but had not achieved anything by the end or the month. HMS Talisman (Lieutenant Commander M Willmott RN) followed HMS Tetrarch in the Aegean, leaving Alexandria on the 20th. She reconnoitred the Kaso Strait, and Santorin, and then Tenedos without seeing anything, and then returned to the Zea Channel by the end of the month. Free Greek Navy submarine Triton (Plotarkhis Kositogianni) also carried out a patrol north of Crete from 18th September, but had to return prematurely after a fire in her engine room. On 27th, HMS Upright (Lieutenant JS Wraith DSC RN), north of Messina, was approached by an Italian torpedo boat that circled her position twice. On the second time round, HMS Upright fired two torpedoes at a range of 3000 yards and hit and sank her. The torpedo boat was Albatros . This was a remarkable shot at so small a target at such a range, and was most satisfactory as it was Albatros who was responsible for the destruction of HMS Phoenix in 1940. On the same day, however, HMS Upright attacked a small escorted merchant ship with two torpedoes at a range of 1500 yards but missed.

HMS Unbeaten

HMS Unbeaten

HMS Unbeaten crew

During this month of September, our submarines sank a greater tonnage than ever before. In twenty five attacks by British submarines firing 74 torpedoes, and seven attacks by Netherlands boats firing some fifteen to twenty torpedoes, they sank the torpedo boat Albatros and nine ships of 51,135 tons and damaged two more of approximately 15,500 tons. A number of smaller ships were sunk by gunfire as well. Four of these, of 41,534 tons, were actually carrying men and supplies to North Africa. Aircraft again did well and sank six ships of 23,031 tons. Early in the month there was a particularly effective attack by torpedo planes on a southbound convoy, which sank one large ship and damaged another. Again in the middle of the month, aircraft sank three ships of over 15,000 tons. Military cargoes landed in Africa fell to 54.000 tons, 29% being lost on the way, and fuel delivered was only 13,400 tons and 24% never arrived. Furthermore these results had been achieved without losing any British submarines, and although O23 had left the station to refit in the United Kingdom, no less than five reinforcements had arrived in the Mediterranean. One of these submarines, HMS Proteus , had been fitted with a type 250 radar set.

The Italian Navy was now seriously worried and General Rommel was declaring that he could not contemplate any further advance or even an attack on Tobruk without an improvement in the supply situation. It is true that General Rommel was more interested in decreasing the length of his land supply route than increasing the volume, and continued to demand that Benghazi should be used as the main point of disembarkation rather than Tripoli, and that even Derna should be used by ships as well as submarines. The cryptographers revealed those enemy difficulties to us. The Italian Navy again complained that the British had developed effective co-operation between aircraft and submarines, and that each was guiding the other to the attack or calling in the other to finish off damaged ships. They do not seem to have had an inkling that we were reading their ciphers. They also complained that British submarines were now infesting all the convoy routes, and bewailed the sinking of the large liners used as troopships. To try to meet the Afrika Korps needs, small fast warships and submarines, as we have seen, were used to carry supplies to ports nearer the front. The ships crossed and unloaded at night, and the Italian submarines approached submerged and left again before dawn. At the some time Mussolini was trying to get the Luftwaffe to return to neutralise Malta, but all Hitler would do was to order the Luftwaffe in the eastern Mediterranean to cease its offensive operations against Tobruk, Egypt and the Canal, and to concentrate on the defence of the convoys to North Africa. Six Italian destroyers also laid mines south east of Malta in mid September. The German Navy desired to help, and planned to pass minesweepers and E-boats through the French canals to the Mediterranean. More important, however, was the diversion of German U-boats from the Atlantic, and some of these had already begun to arrive through the Straits of Gibraltar. The Royal Navy, too, planned to step up its attack on the routes to Libya with surface forces. The Mediterranean Fleet, busy supplying Tobruk, had no ships to spare and so others were found from the Home Fleet and would shortly arrive.

September 1941 was unquestionably one of the high points of the British submarine campaign In the Mediterranean. Admiral Weichold, the German Navy’s representative in Rome, reported that ‘the most dangerous Allied weapon is the submarine’. He stated that between mid-July and the end of August, there had been thirty-six submarine attacks of which nineteen were successful. Eight ships had actually been sunk just outside Axis harbours. He also pointed out that the sunken ships could not be replaced, and there would be a crisis in the not too distant future. Admiral Raeder agreed with him. Also in September, Hitler’s headquarters noted that ‘Enemy submarines definitely have the upper hand’. Almost simultaneously, the British C-in-C Mediterranean was signalling to the Admiralty that ‘every submarine that can be spared is worth its weight in gold’.


GEOGRAPHICALLY THE STRATEGIC SITUATION in the Mediterranean at the beginning of October remained the same. Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet was still pinned in the eastern end on the coasts of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Cyprus, and in the west the British held only Malta and Gibraltar. Militarily the strategic situation showed an improvement. Throughout the summer reinforcements and supplies had been arriving in the Middle East from Britain round the Cape, and by the Takoradi air route, as well as direct from India and the Antipodes. Many of these had to be diverted to build up a front in Syria and Iraq against a possible German break-through from the Caucasus. There was, however, enough to plan an offensive in the western desert for November to relieve Tobruk and retake Cyrenaica. The attack on the enemy supply routes across the Mediterranean was therefore now of paramount importance. Malta had been re-supplied, especially with Hurricane fighters, and there were now thirty-two Allied operational submarines available none of which at present needed to be diverted to run in supplies to the island. On 1st October, thirteen of these were at sea on patrol. O21 , *HMS Upholder , HMS Utmost and HMS Urge were in the Tyrrhenian Sea: HMS Proteus , HMS Upright . HMS Ursula and HMS Unbeaten in the Ionian Sea: HMS Perseus and HMS Thrasher off the North African coast; HMS Tetrarch and HMS Talisman in the Aegean and HMS Triumph in the Adriatic.

Some of these submarines were already on their way back to base but, in the early days of October, ten attacks were made. O21 (Luitenant ter zee 1e KI JF van Dulm) had left Gibraltar on 21st September to patrol off the south east coast of Sardinia. She met some anti-submarine patrols and on 8th October torpedoed a ship in the ‘Sink at Sight’ zone, which proved to be the Vichy French merchantship Oued Yquem of 1370 tons. On 1st October, HMS Talisman (Lieutenant Commander M Willmott RN) in the Zea Channel in the Aegean fired three torpedoes at a merchant vessel escorted by a destroyer and an aircraft at a range of 2500 yards. She missed and was subjected to a heavy counter attack of 37 depth charges. Two days later she fired two torpedoes at a beached merchant ship on the west side of St Giorgio Island hitting with one, but the other had a gyro failure. On 4th October, HMS Talisman torpedoed and sank the French liner Theophile Gautier of 8194 tons south east of the Doro Channel. She fired four torpedoes at 1000 yards, and the escort of three destroyers counter attacked her with another 37 depth charges over a period of half an hour. Finally on 7th October she attacked a convoy of two ships escorted by two destroyers off Suda Bay. The range was 2500 yards and although she claimed a hit at the time, all three torpedoes missed. On 1st October as well, HMS Proteus (Lieutenant Commander PS Francis RN) off Zante fired three torpedoes at 2800 yards at a merchant ship in a glossy calm and missed. HMS Proteus suffered serious defects in her telemotor system on this patrol and had to return to Alexandria prematurely. Then on 2nd October off Benghazi, HMS Perseus (Lieutenant Commander ECF Nicolay RN) fired two followed by three more torpedoes at two ships at ranges of 2500 and 3500 yards, hitting and sinking the German cargo vessel Castellon of 2086 tons. She was counter attacked by the two Italian destroyers of the escort with forty depth charges. Next day while it was still dark, she attacked a large ship escorted by two destroyers bound for Italy. She fired two torpedoes at the long range of 5000 yards and no hits resulted. On 2nd October, HMS Utmost (Lieutenant Commander RD Cayley DSO RN) made a night attack on a three ship convoy off Marittimo. She was only able to fire the first torpedo of a salvo of three as an escort saw her and fired an illuminant forcing her to dive. Nevertheless she hit and sank Italian merchant vessel Ballila of 2470 tons. On 2nd October, HMS Urge (Lieutenant Commander EP Tomkinson RN), on the west side of Calabria, fired four torpedoes at an Italian submarine at a range of 1300 yards but one torpedo had a gyro failure and circled, and the others missed. HMS Urge bombarded the coastal railway line before returning to Malta. On 3rd October, HMS Ursula (Lieutenant AR Hezlet RN) missed a large merchant vessel in ballast escorted by a destroyer with three torpedoes at long range in a heavy swell south of Messina.

For the greater part of a second month running there were no casualties among the British and Allied submarines while on patrol in the Mediterranean. HMS Rorqual , however, followed at the end of the month by HMS Tetrarch , left the station to refit in the United Kingdom. HMS Tetrarch (Lieutenant Commander GH Greenway RN) left Malta for Gibraltar on 26th October but never arrived. She communicated by asdic with HMS P34 in the secret channel under the Sicilian mine barrage, and exchanged bearings and distances, but that was the last that was heard of her. She was ordered to patrol off Cavoli Island on 29th where we now know that the Italians had laid mines in late 1940. It is probable that she fell victim to this minefield or possibly a mine in the Sicilian barrage. She was lost with all hands, including her successful Commanding Officer, another seven officers (some on passage) and 54 men. Three new submarines, HMS Thorn , HMS P31 , and the Polish submarine Sokol arrived as reinforcements as well as HMS Porpoise from the Home Station after a refit. HMS Porpoise tried out a new type of container for carrying aviation spirit in her mine casing and also brought a small quantity of stores and some passengers from Gibraltar to Malta. HMS Thorn (Lieutenant Commander RG Norfolk RN), in her passage encountered an enemy convoy west of Sicily, and in the fading light on 8th October fired four torpedoes at the long range of 6000 yards, but without result. She aimed two torpedoes at the merchant ship being escorted, and two at the destroyer escorting. The Admiralty, when they received HMS Thorn’ s patrol report, made one of their very rare comments on the way submarines were operated, and said that it would have been better to have fired all four torpedoes in a single salvo at one target instead of dividing it. HMS Rorqual left the station with a flourish. Before sailing, she had embarked fifty mines at Port Said and laid them in the Gulf of Athens on 8th October close to St Giorgio. This field sank the Italian torpedo boats Altair and Aldebaran on 20th/21st October. At Malta she embarked fifty more mines and, on her passage to Gibraltar, laid them off Cavoli and Cape Ferrato in Sardinia.

HMS Unique (Lieutenant AF Collett RN), who left for patrol east of Kalibia on 9th October, came upon a merchant ship on 14th escorted by an armed merchant cruiser and fired four torpedoes at a range of 4500 yards, claiming a hit at the time. Subsequent investigation shows, however, that she missed. On 14th October, the cryptographers revealed that three large destroyers were about to leave Port Augusta for North Africa. A patrol line was established off Cape Murro di Porco at the southeast corner of Sicily by HMS Upright , HMS Urge and HMS Unbeaten from Malta. The destroyers were not sighted and only a hospital ship was seen. This patrol line was withdrawn on 16th October. On this same day, the cryptographers gave information that a convoy was to pass west of Sicily on its way to Tripoli, and air reconnaissance reported it as forecast in the Tyrrhenian Sea. HMS Rorqual (Lieutenant LW Napier RN) who was still on her way home at the time was given a patrol position to intercept, and HMS Ursula and HMS P34 were sailed from Malta for positions in the Lampedusa area. HMS Rorqual and HMS P34 saw nothing, but HMS Ursula (Lieutenant AR Hezlet RN), on parting from her escort south of Filfola, set a course to intercept and proceeded at full speed on the surface all night. At dawn on 18th she dived and was at once aware of the approach of the convoy by the Italian practice of dropping ‘scare’ charges intermittently. She then sighted smoke and mastheads, and it was clear that she was a long way off the convoy’s track. She ran in submerged at full speed in several bursts and closed the range by approximately five miles, which just put her within torpedo range. She fired four torpedoes at 6000 yards and hit Italian cargo ship Beppe of 4859 tons and damaged her. Beppe , however, although she fell out of the convoy, was able to reach Tripoli.

For the rest of October the war of attrition on Axis shipping continued, submarines leaving for another twenty odd patrols. From Gibraltar, O24 sailed on 1st October for the Tyrrhenian Sea returning on 21st. From Malta, Sokol , HMS Upholder , HMS Urge , HMS Utmost and HMS P34 patrolled to the east of Tunisia, and HMS Upright was off Marittimo. HMS Ursula patrolled south of Messina while HMS Unbeaten was off Augusta. Sokol was then sent on 23rd on this her second patrol to a position off Ischia in the Tyrrhenian Sea. From Alexandria, HMS Regent left for the North African coast on 4th October followed by HMS Torbay on 7th and later on by HMS Thrasher and HMS Talisman . HMS Thorn and HMS Trusty patrolled on the convoy route off the west coast or Greece, while HMS Thunderbolt , HMS Triumph and HMS Proteus went to the Aegean and HMS Truant to the Adriatic.

Of these submarines, HMS Upholder (Lieutenant Commander MD Wanklyn DSO RN) and Sokol (Kapitan B Karnicki) had blank patrols off the east coast of Tunisia. HMS Upholder only saw two ships; one was a hospital ship and the other French. The other submarines at sea, however, saw plenty of action. O24 (Luitenant ter zee 1e Kl O de Booy) at first found nothing east of Sardinia, but later attacked but missed an escorted tanker, She then landed some saboteurs between Genoa and La Spezia, but the enemy captured them. HMS Urge (Lieutenant Commander EP Tomkinson RN) on 23rd off Lampion fired three torpedoes at a range of 1500 yards at Italian cargo ship Maria Pompei of 1405 tons. She missed, but the ship stopped and her crew abandoned ship into one of the escorting auxiliary anti-submarine vessels. HMS Urge was then able to fire a fourth torpedo that completed the ship’s destruction. Later on the same day, she found Italian merchant ship Marigola of 5598 tons at anchor off Kuriat, and fired a single torpedo at a range or 3700 yards, which hit. Marigola settled on to the bottom but did not sink altogether. HMS Ursula (Lieutenant AR Hezlet RN), after her attack on the convoy south of Lampedusa on 18th, returned to Malta and replenished with torpedoes going onto patrol south of Messina. In this general area she found no targets and had to be content with a bombardment of a railway bridge south of Cape Bruzzano, which temporarily blocked the line. She exchanged small arms fire with the Italian Army and an armoured car before being forced to dive by the arrival of an aircraft. HMS Unbeaten (Lieutenant Commander EA Woodward RN) off Augusta sighted an Italian submarine on 27th early in the morning. She fired four torpedoes at a range of 3400 yards, but they missed. After returning to Malta HMS Unbeaten left again to patrol between Marittimo and Cape St Vito, and saw nothing, but was lucky to survive as she scraped past the wires of some moored mines offshore. Sokol in the Tyrrhenian Sea attempted to attack an unescorted ship off Capri on 27th, but was unable to fire partly due to bad weather, and partly to intervening rocks. Next day she had better luck and attacked a convoy of a small liner and four cargo ships escorted by two destroyers. She broke surface during this attack but got away three torpedoes one of which had a gyro failure, but another hit and damaged Italian merchant vessel Citta di Palermo of 5413 tons at a range of 6000 yards. She survived the counter attack that followed and was still on patrol at the end of October.

The Alexandria submarines saw plenty of action too. HMS Thunderbolt (Lieutenant Commander CB Crouch DSO RN) in the Aegean, after sailing on 5th, reconnoitred Sudsuro Bay in Crete, and landed a party with difficulty in bad weather on 9th. She then made for the Kaso Strait and sank a caique carrying military stores on 10th. Next day she looked into Suda Bay, but the boom defences protected all possible targets. She landed a second party on 13th on Megalo Island in the Petali Gulf. Two days later she sighted an escorted convoy and fired three torpedoes at 650 yards at a large tanker. The torpedo pistols, which were of the new Duplex non-contact type, did not go off and the escort damaged HMS Thunderbolt in a counter attack. She was able, however, to continue on patrol. On 18th she fired three more torpedoes at a convoy but was put deep by one of the escorting destroyers and missed. HMS Regent (Lieutenant WNR Knox DSC RN), sent to Khoms early in the month to intercept a convoy revealed by radio intercepts, failed to sight it and then moved to Benghazi. Here between 8th and 18th she saw ships laying mines, and after plotting the fields she withdrew to watch the northern approaches to the port. On the night of 17th/ 18th she attempted to attack a convoy, but lightning revealed her to the escort and she had to dive. On 21st she sighted four destroyers and made a snap attack firing six torpedoes at a range of 2000 yards. The speed was probably underestimated and the tracks were almost certainly seen and avoided. HMS Torbay (Lieutenant Commander ACC Miers DSO RN) was also off the coast of Cyrenaica to the north east of HMS Regent , and she landed a party at Ras Amer on 7th. HMS Torbay 's area was off shore and she sighted nothing and had to be content with a bombardment of Apollonia on her way back to Alexandria.

Patrols off Benghazi were not easy. The land was low and navigation was difficult; the water was shallow and the anti-submarine measures were strong. HMS Thrasher (Lieutenant HS Mackenzie RN) was the next submarine in this area, and on 28th fired a torpedo at a large schooner full of cased petrol at a range of 550 yards. She missed but surfaced and sank the target, which was Italian Esferia of 385 tons, by gunfire. HMS Thorn (Lieutenant Commander RG Norfolk RN) and HMS Trusty (Lieutenant Commander WDA King DSO DSC RN) left Malta in the middle of the month to intercept traffic to Africa by the west coast of Greece, and took up positions off Argostoli and Cephalonia. A large convoy was predicted by radio intelligence and expected to leave Taranto for Benghazi at this time, and on 20th these two submarines were joined by HMS Truant (Lieutenant Commander HAV Haggard DSC RN), on her way to the Adriatic, to form a patrol line to intercept. Nothing however was seen, and HMS Thorn went on to Alexandria and HMS Truant to the Adriatic. On 25th, HMS Trusty fired six torpedoes at a range of 5000 yards at two large merchant ships in convoy without success, although hits were thought to have been obtained at the time. On 30th she sighted another convoy that had come from the Corinth Canal. She set off that night in pursuit on the surface but after moonset she was unable to make contact again.

HMS Truant passed through the Straits of Otranto on 23rd October and sighted a convoy of three ships escorted by an armed merchant cruiser. She fired two torpedoes at 800 yards hitting and sinking Italian merchant ship Virginia S of 3885 tons. The armed merchant cruiser stood by the sinking ship and HMS Truant hit her too with a single torpedo fired at a range of 2000 yards. The target was only damaged, however, and was able to get back to harbour. Next day a small, unescorted ship in ballast was sighted and a single torpedo was fired at 1000 yards but it ran wide. The economy in the use of torpedoes was deliberate, but it is debatable whether it was not a false one. However HMS Truant surfaced and engaged with her gun and set the ship on fire before being forced to dive by an aircraft. The ship was Padema of 1598 tons and she burned for seven hours. Her charred hull was eventually towed in to port. On 26th, HMS Truant reconnoitred Ancona and next day landed a party who blew up the railway on the main line between Brindisi and Milan and returned safely. She then crossed to the Yugoslavian coast but met no success there, and so returned and on 31st attacked a convoy in shallow water off Ortona. She fired four torpedoes at the convoy, which was spread from 1400 to 2000 yards range, and she obtained a hit on the Italian tanker Meteor of 1635 tons. Two of the torpedoes from her external bow tubes probably stuck in the mud, and HMS Truant herself grounded with only 25 feet over her periscope standards. She survived a counter attack by the escort and was able to withdraw after it got dark that evening. Meteor was later salved and towed to Trieste for repairs. HMS Truant then returned to Alexandria and it is of interest that after this adventurous patrol she still had half of her outfit of torpedoes left.

HMS Triumph (Commander WJW Woods RN) left Alexandria on 16th October for the Aegean. She landed a party near Cape Stavros in Crete on 21st, and then proceeded to the Doro Channel and sank two caiques flying the German flag by gunfire. Next day she fired three torpedoes at a range of 700 yards at a small Spanish steamer but missed. On 26th she attacked a convoy with five torpedoes at a range of 3500 yards hitting and sinking Italian cargo ship Monrosa of 6705 tons. She was then near missed by bombs from the air escort and heavily depth charged, but survived with only minor damage. Patrol was maintained between Naxos and St Giorgio until 29th. Another submarine from Alexandria, HMS Talisman (Lieutenant Commander M Willmott RN), was used for a special operation. This was to land Commandos to make a reconnaissance in the Ras el Hilal area with the aim of attacking General Rommel’s headquarters in November as soon as the army offensive was launched. HMS Talisman made a periscope reconnaissance on 24th and landed a party under Captain Radcliffe that night. The party did not return, and she left for Alexandria on 20th.

Towards the end of the month two submarines from Malta fired torpedoes. HMS P34 (Lieutenant PRH Harrison RN) missed an unescorted merchant ship on 26th with two torpedoes at a range of 4500 yards in the Lampedusa area, and HMS Utmost (Lieutenant JD Martin RN) came upon the grounded wreck of Marigola , damaged by HMS Urge the week before. She fired a single torpedo at a range of 3000 yards and missed in very shallow water. She then surfaced and fired fifty rounds from her 12-pdr gun at a range of 400 yards, to try and finish her off, setting her on fire.

In October, VA(S), Sir Max Horton, made a tour of the Mediterranean submarine flotillas arriving first in Gibraltar to visit the Eighth Flotilla, going on to Malta to see the Tenth, and ending up in Alexandria with the First Flotilla. He was able to see for himself the high morale of the submarines, and to take back much information for material improvements. He was able to discuss the employment of submarines with C-in-C Mediterranean and Vice Admiral (Malta). He stated that it was his intention that an operational ‘tour’ by the submarines in the Mediterranean should only last a year, but that the implementation of this policy depended on the building programme and the completion of refits. In October, too, there was a brief visit from the Polish General Sikorsky on his way to see his troops in Tobruk, and he decorated Boris Karnicki of Sokol with the Virtuti Militari.

During October, British and Allied submarines made thirty two attacks firing 94 torpedoes sinking seven ships of 26,430 tons, and damaging an armed merchant cruiser and four ships of 20,268 tons. HMS Rorqual laid 100 mines, which sank Italian torpedo boats Altair and Aldebaran . One ship of 1598 tons and four smaller craft were also sunk by gunfire. Of these casualties, however, only two ships of 7305 tons were carrying supplies to North Africa, but the RAF succeeded in sinking another five ships of 20,160 tons so employed. Even so the result was that only 61,660 tons of supplies reached the Axis armies in Libya losing 20% on the way, and only 11,950 tons of fuel losing 21% while in transit. The Italian submarines Saint Bon, Cagni and Atropo however, continued to run fuel and ammunition into Bardia, but the situation for the enemy was still very serious. The Axis forces were unable to take the offensive in Cyrenaica, and had difficulty in maintaining their forward positions. Furthermore the attack on the Axis supply routes across the Mediterranean was about to enter a new phase, On 21st October a surface striking force, known as Force K, consisting of the cruisers HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope and the destroyers HMS Lance and HMS Lively , had arrived at Malta from the west and was now only waiting for an opportunity.