Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time 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, Feb. 24, 2021: Full Fathom Five
Here we see a painting by noted British maritime artist Charles David Cobb of HM Submarine Shakespeare (P221) acting as a beacon marker for the Allied invasion fleet at Salerno, 9 September 1943. If she looks at ease in the task, it was the vessel’s third set of landings in just 10 months– and she had a lot of war left to go.
As her name would suggest, our boat is a member of the Royal Navy’s expansive S-class or Swordfish-class of smallish diesel submarines completed across a 16-year run from 1929 to 1945. In all, some 62 of these 200-foot/900-ton (ish) subs were completed in three generations. Small enough for operations in constrained seas, they were ideal for work in the Mediterranean, a place where, sadly, many of the class are still on eternal patrol.
Our vessel is the second of the Royal Navy’s vessels to be named for the bard, English playwright William Shakespeare, with the first a Thornycroft-type destroyer leader of the Great War era that had been scrapped in 1936. While Old Bill stuck primarily to events on land, one of his more memorable lines has always stuck with me when concerning a battered ship on rough seas.
*Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! Now I hear them � Ding-dong, bell.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Sc. II
*Incidentally, the title Full Fathom Five was also used for an installment of the WWII serial docuseries Victory at Sea on the U.S. Navy’s submarine campaign in the Pacific.
Ordered in a 27-hull block of the 1940 shipbuilding Programme, Shakespeare was built at Vickers Armstrong, Barrow-in-Furness, originally as P71. Her subclass could carry extra fuel in their main ballast tanks, giving them a longer range than previous classmates. Further, they had air conditioning, a vital bonus for vessels working in hot and tropical climes.
Leaving her builders on 8 July 1942, she worked up at Holy Loch and by 15 August 1942– a span of just five weeks– she left on her first war patrol from Lerwick, a short and uneventful stalk in the Norwegian Sea.
Her second patrol, from 7-23 September, was likewise quiet, helping to screen Northbound convoys PQ 18 and QP 14 headed to Russia.
Upon return, she was off to the Med, where her services were much in demand.
Arriving at Gibraltar in late October, Shakespeare began her 3rd war patrol from there on All Saints Day 1942, on the eve of the Torch landings in North Africa. As part of that operation, she conducted periscope reconnaissance of the landing beaches off Algiers over a four-night period, launching a collapsible folbot kayak/canoe with two lieutenants to get a closer look– only to have them promptly captured by the Vichy French! On the night of 7/8 November, she surfaced and marked her two designated landing zones, Apple White Beach and Apple Green Beach, flashing her beacon seaward and transmitting a low-powered radio pulse to guide in the approaching landing craft.
After the landings started, she was immediately dispatched to run interference against responding Axis ships, staking out a patrol zone to the West of Sicily. In this, she came across a small convoy and fired four torpedoes at a big German freighter, no doubt taking supplies to Rommel. However, instead of chalking up a kill, all Shakespeare logged that night was a depth charge run from an escorting Italian subchaser.
Her new engines increasingly cranky, our sub made for Portsmouth by way of Gibraltar, arriving there 18 December.
Back at it
By March 1943, with two new motors, Shakespeare was on the prowl in her 4th war patrol along the edges of the Bay of Biscay on the lookout for German blockade runners. After a brief stay at Gibraltar and from there Algiers, she was back in the Med.
Starting her 5th war patrol on 9 April, she made for Sardinia and survived a near-miss from Axis patrol planes.
Her 6th patrol, leaving Algiers on 8 May for Corsica, was her first successful surface action, bagging a pair of old Italian schooners near the Strait of Bonifacio five days later, peppering the vessels with 52 shells from her deck gun. Releasing her battery again on the afternoon of 20 May, she loosed 20 rounds at the Italian-held airfield at Calvi.
Her 7th patrol left Algiers on 5 June and soon tangled with a German U-boat (unsuccessfully) that was spoiled by a blue-on-blue air attack.
Meanwhile, her 8th patrol, in early July, saw Shakespeare once again act as a submersible beacon during the Allied operations at off Sicily, as part of the Husky Landings. There were seven beacon submarines used in Husky: Safari, Shakespeare, and Seraph from Algiers lighting the way for the three American amphibious forces of the Western Naval Task Force, and Unrivalled, Unison, Unseen and Unruffled from Malta shepherding the four British amphibious forces of the Eastern Naval Task Force. Specifically, Shakespeare walked in Dime Force (TF81), landing the 1st “Big Red One” Infantry Division at Gela.
On our submarine’s 9th war patrol, leaving from Malta on 25 July, she carried four canoeing covert beach surveyors of No 5 COPP (Combined Operations Pilotage Party) who reccied off the Gulf of Gioia over a four-night period.
It was during the patrol that Shakespeare brushed up against the two Italian light cruisers Eugenio di Savoia and Raimondo Montecuccoli, firing three torpedoes at long range (6,000 yards) with no success. There would be other occasions.
Her 10th war patrol, leaving Algiers on 24 August, included a mixed group of five No. 5 COPP and SBS cockleshell commandos, as well as a special Mine Detection Unit (MDU) for her Type 138 ASDIC set, bound for Salerno as part of the Avalanche Landings. Over the next two weeks, she undertook numerous periscope and folbot-borne beach reconnaissance missions while keeping a weather eye (and ear) peeled for mines. And boy did she find them.
Minefields in the Gulf of Salerno were first detected by HMS Shakespeare (P221), a British beacon submarine active in the area since August 29, 1943. Using magnetic detection devices, the submarine located a plethora of German “V” and Italian “I”, “J”, and “K” mines in the gulf, thus setting the stage for an extensive mine countermeasures operation.
The recon moved the planned release positions for the transports further offshore into safe water while arrangements for sweeps could be made. In all, special teams of sweepers would clear 275 sea mines from the waters around Salerno by the conclusion of the operation there and Shakespeare’s warning likely saved hundreds of lives.
But back to our sub and the Salerno landings.
Just before the balloon went up, Shakespeare was resting off Licosa Point on 7 September and sighted two large southbound Italian cruising submarines operating on the surface at sunset. The boats, the Argo-class Velella and Brin-class leader Benedetto Brin, had been dispatched as part of Piano Zeta (Zeta Plan) to interrupt the landings. However, it was our sub that did the interruption in the form of six torpedoes fired rapidly at a range of 800 yards, hitting Velella with at least four of those, sending the boat to the bottom with all hands.
Velella was to be the last Italian submarine lost in combat, and her wreck was found in 2003, 8.9 miles from Licosa Point, in 450 feet of water.
The next day, she surfaced at 2135, lit her beacon seaward, and was soon met by the incoming Wickes-class destroyer USS Cole (DD-155), then two hours later transferred her COPP and SBS beach pilots to USS PC-624 for the run in to shore in individual LCMs acting as lead vessels headed to Green Beach with men of the 142nd Infantry Regiment from the Coast Guard-manned transport Dickman— the first landing by U. S. forces in Europe.
Her epic 10th war patrol ended four days later with arrival back at Algiers.
Shakespeare’s 11th patrol was uneventful and, switching to Beirut, she left on her 12th patrol, a sweep of the Aegean, on 21 October. She would sink the Greek two-masted caique Aghios Konstantinos with gunfire, a feat repeated with the caique Eleftheria on her 13th patrol in December.
Her work in the Med done, she sailed for Britain, arriving at Devonshire on 4 January 1944 for a six-month refit.
Her 14th patrol, a sortie off Scotland in the fall of 1944, was uneventful and served as more of a post-refit shakedown. By October, with the naval war in Europe rapidly sunsetting, Shakespeare was reassigned to the Far East.
On to the Orient
Sailing via Gibraltar, Malta and Port Said to reach Aden in November, Shakespeare arrived at Trincomalee from where she sortied on her 15th war patrol on 20 December.
Assigned to sweep through the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, she drew her first Japanese kill on New Year’s Eve, sending the freighter Unryu Maru to the bottom after she fired a six-torpedo spread into a passing convoy in the Nankauri Strait, surviving the resulting depth charging.
Then, on 3 January 1945, our lucky British sub became the subject of a 50-hour running battle when she attempted to tangle on the surface with a Japanese supply ship in the Nicobar Islands. The action soon went wrong, and reinforcements in the form of the IJN minesweeper W-1 and land-based aircraft were called in. Before it was over, Shakespeare would fight off 25 air attacks, dodge 50 assorted bombs, shoot down a Japanese seaplane, and gunfight an armed freighter until it was dead in the water. For this, our submarine would see two of her crew killed and 14 wounded.
On 3rd January, she attacked a small, unescorted merchant ship, firing four torpedoes from a range of 3500 yards and missed. She then surfaced and opened fire with her gun, but almost at once sighted a patrol vessel approaching and prepared to dive. At this moment, the return fire from the merchant ship scored a hit on Shakespeare penetrating the pressure hull just abaft the bridge and causing very serious damage. Her wireless office was destroyed and an auxiliary machinery space flooded and a great deal of water was taken in to the engine and control rooms. She was unable to dive and furthermore her steering gear was damaged, one main engine was out of action as well as both electric motors.
Nevertheless, she struggled away on the surface and fought off both the merchant ship and the patrol vessel. She was unable to call for assistance but made for Trincomalee several days away across the Bay of Bengal. During the rest of the day, she repulsed no less than twenty-five air attacks with her guns, shooting one of them down but suffering fifteen casualties. She withdrew at her best speed all night and next day
For a detailed description of this fight, which could probably fill its own book, check out the WWII Submarines page which includes an amazing wartime photo album of Stoker James Patterson, one of her crew.
With all the damage to her pressure hull, it was decided that she could only be corrected back in the UK and as such she sailed, slowly and on the surface, back to Portsmouth, arriving 30 June. There, she was ultimately deemed unfit for repair post-war and was written off, the last Shakespeare in the Royal Navy.
She was scrapped at Briton Ferry in July 1946.
Specs, S-class, Group 3:
Displacement: 842 tons surfaced, 990 submerged
Length overall: 217 feet
Beam: 23.5 feet
Depth 11 feet
Diving depth: 350 feet
Machinery: 2 x 950hp diesels, 2 x 485 kW electric motors, 2 shafts
Speed Surface 15 knots, Submerged 10 knots (design)
Surface 14.75 knots, Submerged 9 knots (service)
Range: Surface: 6700 miles at 8 knots (design) on 92 tons fuel oil
Radar: Type 291W Air Warning Set
Sonar: Type 129/138 ASDIC, augmented in 1943 with Mine Detection Unit (Type 148 40kHz?)
6 x 21-inch bow tubes
1 x 21-inch stern tube
(13 Mark VIII torpedoes carried, max)
1 x QF 3-inch deck gun, forward
1 x 20mm Oerlikon AAA cannon, abaft the tower
3 x .303 Vickers guns on the tower
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