Warship Wednesday, April 13, 2022: The Example and Inspiration Remain
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, April 13, 2022: The Example and Inspiration Remain
Here we see the sail of the British U-class submarine HMS/m Upholder (N99) with her only skipper, LCDR Malcolm David Wanklyn, VC, DSO, RN, pointing in the distance for the camera as the White Duster flaps in the breeze behind the boat’s attack periscope. Upholder is a legend, which we will get into, although her short yet brilliant career came to a tragic end 80 years ago this week.
The U-class was “Small Patrol Submarines” and simple, under 200-feet overall, and able to float in just 16 feet of water. Even in their largest format and ballasted down they only weighed about 700 tons. Carrying two diesels and two electric motors with no direct diesel drive they weren’t the fastest boats in the sea, capable of just 11 knots in a surface attack, but they made up for it in wartime use in the congested seas of the Mediterranean.
Armed with four 21-inch bow tubes and a few .303 Vickers guns, they were fitted with a single 3-inch deck gun forward of the sail.
While most had “U” names, nine only received alpha-numeric designations (P32, P33, P36, P38, P39, P41, P47, P48, and P52) and four had “V” monikers (Varangian, Vandal, Varne, and Vox).
The first completed, HMS/m Undine (N48), joined the fleet on 21 August 1938 and the 49th, HMS/m Vox (P73) commissioned on 20 December 1943 while five units (Ulex, Unbridled, Upas, Upward, and Utopia) were canceled.
Our boat was a little different and was one of the seven (Undine, Unity, Ursala, Unique, Upright, and Utmost) completed with an extra pair of bow tubes, which gave them six forward tubes and a total load of 10 torpedoes, while the other members of the class just carried four and eight.
English built at Vickers Armstrong, Barrow-in-Furness, Upholder was one of a dozen sisters on 4 September 1939 just hours into WWII, was laid down 30 October 1939, and was commissioned one year and one day later on Halloween 1940.
Her skipper from shakedown through loss was “Wanks” Wanklyn, who, of note, was colorblind, a fact that never seemed to affect his nighttime attacks at sea.
Born in British India in 1911, he stoked an early interest in the sea and applied to the Royal Navy in his early teens, leaving for Dartmouth Naval College at age 14 and finishing at the top of his class as a mid in 1929. After service on Great War battlewagons HMS Marlborough and Renown, he was a lieutenant in the Submarine Service by 1933, serving on HMS/m Oberon, L56, and Shark in the lead up to the war, including tense service in the Spanish Civil War. Starting WWII as the first lieutenant on HMS/m Otway in the then-sleepy waters of the Med, he was given his first command, the cramped little HMS/m H31, in early 1940, and commanded that boat on its 5th and 6th War Patrols in the North Sea, sinking the German auxiliary patrol vessel UJ 126/Steiermark (422 GRT, built 1938) on 18 July off the Dutch coast then bringing his boat back safely after the ensuing depth charge attacks by her fellow surface escorts.
In short, Upholder’s first skipper was a regular officer with a decade of service– most of it in subs– under his belt and was ready for a fight.
After trials and working-up in Home waters at the end of 1940, covering her first two War Patrols, Upholder was dispatched to join the 10th Submarine Flotilla in Malta on 10 December. The 10th, composed of over a dozen U-class boats (including two sailing under Free Polish control), was in January 1941 put under the control of Commander George Walter Gillow “Shrimp” Simpson, RN as Commander (Submarines), Malta. Based at Lazaretto, near Grand Harbour, Shrimp had one marching order: to stop all supplies from Italy making for the Axis troops in North Africa.
Besides daily harassment from Axis air raids at Malta, the life of the 10th Flotilla was anything but business as usual.
As detailed in British Submarines of WWII:
The Mediterranean is a very difficult hunting ground for submarines, in some places deep and clear, the outline of a submerged craft is visible for miles. In many places where the 10th Flotilla operated, the sea was very shallow and was poorly charted at that time, causing many a submarine to bump along the bottom during an attack. Ultra-shallow seas forced submarines to caution in those areas where the depth was such to allow the laying of mines, and closer to the coast they would be avoiding hordes of small craft housed in many bases to hunt down and attack submarines. The whole operating area for the Malta submarines was within the range of land-based reconnaissance aircraft. Mirages also created confusion as land and other objects appeared to be distant aircraft carriers or enemy ships. Another problem, mainly encountered near the Northern coasts, was that of the many rivers emptying fresh water into the Mediterranean; this would cause serious ‘layering’, where a submarine might ‘drop’ 100 feet in seconds in the less buoyant water. Off the Tunisian coast, another problem was encountered, what to do about enemy ships in French territorial waters. With the advance of the enemy along the North African coastline, more ports became available for the handling of the essential supplies, resulting in a greater dispersal of shipping.
Nonetheless, Upholder was off on her first of 26 Mediterranean War Patrols on 24 January 1941 and was off to a busy campaign. On 25 April, she sank the 5,428-ton Italian freighter Antonietta Lauro, then a week later bagged the German cargo ships Arcturus (2,576 GRT) and Leverkusen (7,382 GRT).
While on her 10th Med War Patrol on the night of 24 May, despite his Sub’s vital listening gear being out of action, Upholder came across a heavily escorted troop convoy just east of Siracusa, Sicily, and picked as her target a ripe troopship.
From her report:
2030 hours – Sighted three very large two-funnel liners in position 36°48’N, 15°42’E. Course was 215°. Closed to attack. It was later seen that there were at least four destroyers but most likely six.
2043 hours – Fired the last two torpedoes at the centre ship which was the biggest. The nearest destroyer (a Grecale-class) was then only 400 yards ahead. Upholder went to 150 feet upon firing and retired to the East. Two explosions were heard about a minute after firing.
2047 hours – Depth charging started. In all 37 depth charges were dropped. The last four at 2107 hours were very close. No damage was sustained.
2120 to 2125 hours – The target was heard to sink.
2250 hours – Surfaced and passed a report to Malta. There was a strong smell of fuel oil in the breeze upon surfacing.
Her victim that night was the 18,000-ton former trans-oceanic passenger liner SS Conte Rosso, built in 1922, sunk with the last of Upholder’s torpedos. The Scottish-built liner was pressed into service as a troopship then torpedoed and sunk on 24 May 1941 in a convoy to North Africa by Upholder. Of the 2,729 soldiers and crew aboard headed to Tripoli, she instead took 1,297 to the bottom with her.
The incident, specifically the heavy depth charging after, was dramatized in the 2018 cable series, Hell Below: Defying Rommel.
Stacking up the tonnage
Upholder would soon sink a further three freighters– including the Italian cargo ship Laura Cosulich (6,181 GRT) which carried a vital load of explosives– then move firmly into the history books during her 17th War Patrol. On 18 September 1941, accompanied by HMS/m Unbeaten, Upright, and Ursula, Upholder torpedoed three large escorted Italian transports off Tripoli, sinking two and damaging a third.
Closing at night at full speed on the surface the little submarine managed to get into a good firing position despite six escorting Italian destroyers and her torpedoes mortally wounded the converted liners Neptunia and Oceania, each of 19,500 tons and full of reinforcements for North Africa.
From her report:
0350 hours – Sighted convoy of three lines escorted by four destroyers bearing 045°. Range was about 6 nautical miles. Closed to attack.
0406 hours – In position 33°01’N, 14°49’E fired four torpedoes from 5000 yards.
0408 hours – Dived and retired to the South.
0410 – 0411 hours – Two explosions were heard. Two of the liners had been hit by one torpedo each. No depth charges were dropped following the attack.
0445 hours – Surfaced and sighted one large vessel stopped in the area of the attack. One destroyer was nearby. A second large vessel was making to the Westward at 5 knots with another destroyer as escort. Set course to the East to reach a favourable attack position to attack again after dawn when the torpedo tubes would have been reloaded.
0530 hours – Dived and approached while reloading in the meantime.
0630 hours – Sighted one Oceania-class ship still stropped with one destroyer nearby. Closed to attack.
0756 hours – When about to open fire a Navigatori-class destroyer was spotted close by. Went deep. The destroyer went overhead when Upholder was at 45 feet but did not drop any depth charges.
0759 hours – Dived under the target while at 70 feet to obtain a new attack position.
0851 hours – In position 32°58’N, 14°50’E fired two torpedoes from 2000 yards. Both hit. The liner [Oceania] sank after 8 minutes. Again no counter attack by the destroyers followed.
A huge rescue operation mounted by the destroyers managed to save 5,400 German and Italian troops, who were sent back to Europe soggy and sans equipment, but the sea claimed at least 384.
Besides sidelining whole brigades of Italian soldiers, Upholder also took a toll on the Regia Marina, sinking the Italian Maestrale-class destroyer Libeccio, the minesweeper Maria (B 14), as well as the submarines Tricheco and Ammiraglio Saint-Bon.
At the height of Upholder’s success, Wanklyn was presented a VC in a quiet ceremony in Malta in January 1942, surrounded by his boat’s happy crew.
The problem is every story has an ending and some have a noticeably short third act.
On her 28th War Patrol– her last sortie before she was to head to Britain for refit– Upholder was sent on 6 April 1942 to land two SIS agents in Tunisia then patrol the western approaches to Tripoli along with sistership Urge. While the agents were safely put ashore on 10 April, Upholder was not heard from again.
On 16 April, Urge heard the distant explosions of continuous depth-charging. Two days later, Italian radio reported an Allied submarine had been sunk.
With Upholder and the 33 souls aboard missing, Shrimp Simpson wrote:
I hope it is not out of place to take this opportunity of paying some slight tribute to Lt Cdr David Wanklyn, VC, DSO, and his company in HMS Upholder, whose brilliant record will always shine in the records of British submarines and in the history of the Mediterranean Fleet in this war. The Upholder would have returned to the United Kingdom on completion of this patrol. She had carried out 23 successful attacks against the enemy, and the targets attacked had almost always been heavily escorted, or else enemy war vessels.
On 18 April 1942, the Admiralty reported HMS/m Upholder missing, perhaps mined off Tripoli.
On 22 August, with no contact from Wanklyn and crew for over four months, the Admiralty announced (emphasis mine):
It is seldom proper for the Their Lordships to draw distinction between different services rendered in the course of naval duty, but they take this opportunity of singling out those of HMS Upholder, under the command of Lt.Cdr. David Wanklyn, for special mention. She was long employed against enemy communications in the Central Mediterranean, and she became noted for the uniformly high quality of her services in that arduous and dangerous duty. Such was the standard of skill and daring set by Lt.Cdr. Wanklyn and the officers and men under him that they and shier ship became an inspiration not only to their own flotilla, but to the Fleet of which it was a part and to Malta, where for so long HMS Upholder was based. The ship and her company are gone, but the example and inspiration remain.
While debate ensues on what happened to Upholder— theories include a sinking by the Italian Orsa-class torpedo boat Pegaso, German bombers, or a minefield– Upholder remains on eternal patrol and her wreck has not been found. She is keeping her secrets.
In terms of tonnage, the Upholder is considered to be the most successful of all British submarines.
According to U-boat.net, the “official” Admiralty figures are a bit overstated, but even the trimmed down data is impressive:
Postwar it was reported that HMS Upholder had sunk two destroyers, three submarines, three transports, ten supply ships, two tankers and one trawler, totaling 128353 GRT during her career. This figure was a bit optimistic, Given our detailed history listed below, HMS Upholder sank one destroyer, two submarines, nine supply ships (including three large troop transports and no tankers. Total tonnage sunk was 93031 GRT.
One of her victims, the 6,100-ton freighter Laura Cosulich, has gone on to a sort of infamy of her own. Sunk in shallow water off Saline Ioniche, Calabria, her 1,500-ton cargo of munitions has been extensively farmed by illegal salvagers for the benefit of the Mafia, who have used it as a “bomb supermarket” over the decades. The Italian navy sealed it off in 2015 and it is inspected routinely.
Upholder has been remembered extensively in maritime art and special stamp runs.
As is Wanks, who has an official portrait that he never had a chance to sit for, handing in a place of honor at the RN’s Submarine Museum.
In September 1944, with so few Axis targets left, the hardworking 10th Submarine Flotilla disbanded just three months after the last British boat sunk in the Mediterranean, HMS/m Sickle, became the Royal Navy’s 45th submarine loss in the ancient sea. Between June 1940 and the end of 1944, RN submarines in the Med had accounted for over 1 million tons of enemy shipping including three cruisers, at least 30 destroyers, torpedo boats, and several German and Italian submarines.
To be sure, had Rommel benefited from all the gear and stores that Shrimp Simpson’s dozen U-class boats, Upholder included, deep-sixed, Montgomery’s 8th Army would have had a tougher go of it as the Afrika Korps and its Italian allies would have been a much bigger gorilla to spank. This could have drawn the North African campaigns out longer, pushing the Atlantic Allies’ invasion of Sicily, Italy, and France even further down the calendar, and given Stalin a bigger role in the end game.
As for Shrimp Simpson, he would retire to New Zealand in 1954 as a Rear Admiral, after having served as Flag Officer Submarines/NATO COMSUBFORLANT.
Of Upholder’s sisters, the U-class itself took lots of lumps, losing besides class leader HMS/m Undine early in the war along with Unity (N66), Umpire (N82), Unbeaten (N93), Undaunted (N55), Union (N56), Unique (N95), Urge (N17), Usk (N65), Utmost (N19), Usurper (P56), P32, P33, P36, P38, P39, P41 (sailing as HNoMS Uredd under Free Norwegian command), P48, Vandal (P64) (who had the shortest life of any British submarine, lost just four days after commissioning), for a total of 19 submarines sunk– 13 in the Mediterranean and six in the Atlantic and the North Sea. This jumps to 20 if you count HMS/m Untamed (P58) which was lost while during training in 1943 due to a bad sluice valve then salvaged and recommissioned as HMS/m Vitality only to be scrapped less than two years later.
Postwar, with the class considered too small and slow by late 1940s standards, the survivors were quickly passed on to allies needing low-mileage and easy-to-use submarines (P47 to Holland, P52 to Poland then later Denmark, Untiring and Upstart to Greece, Upright to Poland, Varne to Norway, Vox to France, Unbroken, Unison and Ursula to Russia) or scrapped (Ultimatum, Umbra, Unbending, Una, United, Unrivalled, Unruffled, Unruly, Unseen, Ultor, Unshaken, Unsparing, Universal, Unswerving, Uproar, Uther, and Varangian).
The final units in British hands were withdrawn by 1950.
The last repatriated from overseas loans (Untiring and Upstart after service with the Greeks as Xifias and Amfitriti respectively) were sunk as sonar targets by the Royal Navy in 1957 and 1959. The holdout of the nearly 50 mighty British U-class boats, HNoMS Ula (P66), ex HMS/m Varne, continued in Norwegian service until 1965, when she was broken up, ironically, in Hamburg, having served just 23 years, most of them for King Haakon VII.
Upholder was the first RN warship to carry the name while the second was given to the lead ship of the Type 2400 Patrol Submarines– Britain’s last diesel-electric boats.
HMS Upholder (S40), like her namesake built at VSEL, Barrow-in-Furness, led a class of four boats that repeated at least two of the names of the old U-class: Unseen, Ursula, and Unicorn. While MoD retired the class early, they were sold to the Royal Canadian Navy where they continue to serve today as the Victoria class, sadly, under new names.
Surfaced – 540 tons standard, 630 tons full load
Submerged – 730 tons
Length 191 ft
Beam 16 ft 1 in
Draught 15 ft 2 in
2 shaft diesel-electric
2 Paxman Ricardo diesel generators + electric motors
615 / 825 hp
11+1⁄4 knots max. surfaced
10 knots max. submerged
4 × bow internal 21-inch torpedo tubes, 2 externals
1 × QF 3-inch 20 cwt gun
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