The Malta Submarines


General view of HMS TALBOT, submarine base at Malta.


Submarines and harbour craft making a smoke-screen to cover their base, HMS TALBOT.

Before the outbreak of war, the Admiralty saw Malta as a base for submarines and other forces able to attack the Italian supply lines supporting their forces in North Africa. Yet, the battle was far from one-sided and within three days of Italy entering the war on 10 June 1940, three British submarines, Grampus, Odin and Orpheus, had been sunk by Italian warships. As the bombing of Malta intensified, submarines in port had to lie submerged on the harbour bed in the hope of being missed.

In 1941 Malta became an operational base for submarines. This was not without difficulty as most of the necessary supplies had been taken to Alexandria, but submarines operating from Gibraltar to Malta overloaded with torpedoes and other supplies until stocks were built up. The use of Malta as an offensive base was helped by the introduction of the new U-class submarines, smaller than many of the other classes but ideal for the clear waters of the Mediterranean in which, all too often, sonar is not needed to spot a submerged submarine.

These clear waters often proved fatal for larger submarines, but the U-class was better suited to the conditions, although the class had had its origins in plans for a smaller training submarine. Nine of the U-class were deployed to Malta as the 10th Submarine Flotilla: Undaunted, Union, Upholder, Upright, Utmost, Unique, Urge, Ursula and Usk. Usk and Undaunted did not survive long, but their place was soon taken by others of the same class. In addition to attacking Axis convoys and warships, these submarines were also ideal for landing raiding parties on the Italian coast and on one occasion wrecked a railway line along which trains carrying munitions for the Luftwaffe bases in Sicily travelled.

The submarines were based at Manoel Island, which lay in the Marsamxett Harbour and was approached by a causeway off the main road from Valletta to Sliema, the island effectively dividing Sliema Creek from Lazaretto Creek. Originally a fort designed to cover the outskirts of Valletta which towered over the other side of the harbour, Manoel Island became a naval base with workshops and accommodation for resting submariners and for artificers, the Royal Navy’s term for skilled tradesmen, who were often senior ratings. The submarines were moored alongside. Substantial anti-aircraft defences were placed on Manoel Island, as being on the opposite side of Valletta from the Grand Harbour did not spare the base from heavy aerial attack.

Offensive submarine operations based on Malta started in February 1941 with patrols by Unique, Upright and Utmost. The first significant engagement was later that month when Upright, commanded by Lieutenant E.D. Norman, sank the Italian cruiser Armando Diaz, one of two cruisers escorting a large Axis convoy. No doubt the Italians had put on two cruisers to impress their German allies, but there were no major British warships in the area and the cruiser, which posed no threat to a submarine, proved an ideal target.

Reconnaissance reports of large-scale shipping movements were received on 8 March and resulted in three boats being sent to sea. This was despite Utmost, commanded by Lieutenant Commander R.D. Cayley, having only been in harbour for twenty-four hours. The following day she found and sank the Italian merchantman Capo Vita. On 10 March Unique sank another merchantman, the Fenicia. Later in the month these submarines were at sea again, with Utmost finding a convoy of five ships on 28 March and torpedoing and sinking the Heraklia, while the Ruhr had to be towed into port. The return voyage for the depleted convoy was no less eventful when Upright torpedoed and severely damaged the Galilea, reported as being a straggler.

In April Upholder joined the Malta flotilla, and for almost a year she and her commander, Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn, played havoc with the Axis convoys. From April 1941 to March 1942, this one submarine accounted for three large troop-carrying liners each of more than 18,000 tons, seven other merchant ships, a destroyer and two German U-boats, as well as damaging a cruiser and three merchant ships. The first two troopships had been in a convoy of three approached by Wanklyn steering on the surface and skilfully firing a spread of four torpedoes at the ships. Two of the troopships managed to zigzag into the path of the torpedoes with one sinking immediately, leaving the other to be finished off by Wanklyn when he returned the following morning. Ursula missed the third troopship which managed to reach Tripoli safely. For his time in the Mediterranean Wanklyn was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British service decoration, and the DSO. It was a sad day when Upholder was lost off Tripoli with all hands in April 1942.

So successful was the Malta-based 10th Flotilla in disrupting the supplies for Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert campaign that his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein, later admitted: ‘We should have taken Alexandria and reached the Suez Canal had it not been for the work of your submarines.’

For about a year the Malta-based submariners exacted a high price from the enemy, but even so, opportunities were missed. More than any other type of warship, submarines needed to practise ‘deconfliction’, largely because of the difficulty of recognizing other submarines. Deconfliction is the deliberate separation of friendly forces. In British submarine practice, this meant placing submarines to operate independently within designated patrol zones known as billets, and any other submarine found in that area was to be regarded as hostile. Off Malta there were often so many British submarines that it was necessary to impose an embargo on night attacks on other submarines because of the difficulty in accurate recognition.

Early one morning in 1942, Upright was on the surface when her lookouts spotted another larger submarine on a reciprocal course and it was not until the two boats had passed that they realized the other submarine was a large U-boat. There were many U-boats off Malta at the time and no one will ever know whether the Germans were working to the same rules or whether their lookouts failed to spot the smaller British submarine. This almost certainly wasn’t the only occasion on which two submarines from opposing navies met and passed each other by. Another instance was when an Italian and a British submarine encountered one another on the surface at night and after exchanging mutually unintelligible signals, both dived.

Even with such missed opportunities, the submarines from Manoel Island accounted for 54,000 tons of Axis merchant shipping between October 1941 and February 1942, as well as a destroyer, two submarines and two other ships off Taranto.


British T class submarine HMSM TRUANT underway, coastal waters. Assigned to the Mediterranean in mid 1940, Truant went on to sink a number of enemy ships, including the Italian merchant vessels Providenza, Sebastiano Bianchi and Multedo, the Italian tankers Bonzo and Meteor, the Italian auxiliary submarine chaser Vanna, the Italian passenger/cargo ship Bengasi and the German merchantman Virginia S. Truant also damaged the small Italian tanker Prometeo and the Italian torpedo boat Alcione, which was later declared a total loss. She also unsuccessfully attacked the Italian merchant vessels Utilitas, Silvia Tripcovich, Bainsizza and Arborea, the small Italian tanker Labor and the German merchantman Bellona.

The ‘Magic Carpet’

During the First World War, the Germans had established a company to operate merchant submarines to carry much-needed strategic materials and bring them past the increasingly effective British blockade of German ports. While there was no equivalent British submarine ‘line’, given the strategic importance of Malta and the desperate plight of the islanders and the forces garrisoned there, British submariners were keen to show just what they could do. The submarine supply line that was established became known as the ‘Magic Carpet’.

While at first the Axis hold on Malta had been relatively light, by 1941 the situation was becoming increasingly difficult. Many convoys did not get through at all, and all suffered serious losses. It became the practice for every submarine heading to Malta from Gibraltar or Alexandria to carry at least some items of stores in addition to their usual torpedoes or mines. The true Magic Carpet submarines were the larger vessels, especially the mine-laying submarines Cachalot and Rorqual, as well as the fleet submarine Clyde and the larger boats of the ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘R’ classes. An even better supply-carrying submarine would have been the Royal Navy’s sole aircraft-carrying submarine, M2, whose aircraft hangar would have made a good cargo hold, but she had been lost in an accident some years before the war. An alternative could have been the French submarine Surcouf, a large 2,800-ton boat also with a hangar and in service with the Free French, but she was eventually lost in the Caribbean.

The ‘P’ or Porpoise-class minelayers and Clyde all proved to be especially efficient supply vessels with plenty of room between their casing and the pressure hull for stores, and sometimes one of the batteries would be removed to provide extra space; the mine stowage tunnel was another good cargo space. Rorqual on one occasion carried 24 personnel, 147 bags of mail, 2 tons of medical stores, 62 tons of aviation spirit and 45 tons of kerosene. Inevitably there was also much unofficial cargo, such as gin for the wardrooms and other officers’ messes on Malta, and even Lord Gort, the island’s austere governor, was not above having a small consignment of gramophone records brought out to him in this way. Cargo was sometimes carried externally in small containers welded to the casing of a submarine.

Impressive though the efforts of the submariners were, they could not compare with a merchant ship which at this time could carry as much as 7,500 tons of cargo compared with the 200 tons or so of a large submarine. For the submariners, there were problems as well, as the cargo gave rise to problems with buoyancy. Once Cachalot had so much sea water absorbed by wooden packing cases that her first lieutenant (i.e. on a smaller warship, the second-in-command) had to pump out 1,000 gallons of water from her internal tanks to compensate. Fuel was another hazard. In July 1941, Talisman carried 5,500 gallons in cans stowed beneath her casing, while on other occasions fuel could be carried in external fuel tanks. When carrying petrol in cans, submarines were not allowed to dive below 65 feet, while high-octane aviation fuel in the external tanks meant that fumes venting in the usual way constituted a fire hazard so smoking was banned on the conning tower and pyrotechnic recognition signals were also banned. These problems were in addition to conditions in the Mediterranean favouring smaller submarines rather than larger.

A good example of what could be done was the case of Saracen. She reached Malta via Gibraltar, sailing with a Malta-bound convoy. Smaller than the mine-laying submarines, Saracen had two of her fuel tanks cleared of diesel and filled with aviation fuel instead, while every space aboard was filled with food with priority being given to medical supplies and powered or tinned milk for children and babies. After reaching Malta, Saracen left to search for Italian merchantmen, but instead sank a destroyer and an Italian submarine.

In peacetime, Malta had been one of the most popular postings for the Royal Navy and an equally popular place to call. In wartime, despite the miserable conditions aboard submarines that had to remain submerged during daytime when in harbour, there was little enthusiasm for a ‘run ashore’, visiting the bars and other attractions of Valletta. Ashore, there was little to eat and not much to drink. Things were so bad that one army officer recalled his pleasure at being invited to dinner aboard a submarine.

In addition to the tradition of flying her ‘Jolly Roger’ at the end of a successful patrol, Porpoise added a second flag beneath the Jolly Roger’s tally of ships sunk. This was marked ‘PCS’ for ‘Porpoise Carrier Service’ with a white bar for each successful supply run, and this boat alone had at least four of these.

After delivering supplies to Malta, the Magic Carpet submarines would take mines from the island’s underground stores and proceed north to lay them off the main Italian ports, such as Palermo, before returning to Egypt or Gibraltar. They also torpedoed Axis shipping, and on one occasion an Italian submarine was torpedoed and sunk before an Italian merchant ship was also torpedoed, and as this stubbornly refused to sink, the submarine surfaced and sank her with gunfire.

The arrival of the famous Malta convoy Operation PEDESTAL in August 1942 reduced the pressure on the submarines to supply Malta and allowed increased offensive patrolling.

Despite this, by October 1942 the situation was again becoming difficult, with a renewed German air offensive. At this time, five submarines – Unbending, Unbroken, United, Utmost and Safari – attacked a convoy of five merchant ships including a tanker escorted by seven destroyers south of the Italian island of Pantelleria, co-ordinating the attack with aircraft from Malta.

The role of the submarine was varied. On 21 April 1941, the British Mediterranean Fleet ventured west for an attack on the Italian-held port of Tripoli. Accuracy was usually a great difficulty when attacking a land target from the sea in the dark, so Cunningham had the submarine Truant positioned exactly 4 miles off the harbour, showing a light to seaward as a navigation mark for the bombardment. Then in July, two submarines helped to confuse the enemy and assist a convoy en passage to Malta. The convoy was code-named Operation SUBSTANCE. While the Mediterranean Fleet steamed west from Alexandria to Malta and Force H escorted the convoy east from Gibraltar, the two submarines were west of Crete making fleet signals to indicate that the Mediterranean Fleet was operating in the area while the fleet itself maintained radio silence.

Truant was one of the new ‘T’-class submarines intended for operation in distant waters, which was to prove useful once Japan entered the war. The class could handle the long Pacific distances. It displaced 1,571 tons while submerged and had eight bow torpedo tubes as well as another aft and two amidships, with a 4in gun and light anti-aircraft weapons. Surface speed was just over 15 knots, but while submerged these boats could manage 9 knots, although the batteries needed to be recharged after an hour so the usual submerged speed was around 2 or 3 knots.

Originally Truant and her sisters had a range of 8,000 miles but on later boats this was extended to 11,000 miles by the use of welding to strengthen the boats during construction and by using some of the ballast tanks to carry fuel. However, this still compared badly with the range of more than 32,000 miles of the German Type IXD U-boat.

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