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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Upholder - Britain’s 'Ace' Submarine

On 27th April 2022, an event was held at Fort St. Elmo, Valletta, to commemorate the loss of HMS Urge, exactly 80 years before. The British U-class submarine had sailed from Malta, bound for Alexandria, Egypt, with 44 personnel on board, but failed to arrive at her destination. It was only in October 2019 that her wreck was finally discovered in 130 metres of water, some three kilometres off the coast of Malta, confirming the long-held view that she had struck a mine whilst surfaced, shortly after leaving harbour, causing her to sink quickly without survivors.

HMS Urge was lost with all hands on 27th April 1942.

The 80th anniversary commemorations also included a wreath-laying ceremony over the site of the wreck, which is now an officially recognised war grave. For the relatives of the 44 men who had been simply listed as missing for so long, these events would surely have provided some closure. Sadly, that is still not possible when it comes to a number of other submarines lost whilst operating from Malta during the Second World War, including Urge’s sister boat Upholder - Britain’s most successful submarine.

In November 1936, the Royal Navy ordered the first three U-class submarines: HMS Undine, Unity, and Ursula entered service in the latter half of 1938. Although originally designed as training vessels, these relatively small, agile, and inexpensive boats proved quite effective, leading to a second batch of 12 being ordered in September 1939, which included Urge and Upholder. A total of 49 U-class submarines would eventually be built.

HMS Upholder was a British U-class submarine.

Constructed by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness, HMS Upholder was laid down on 30th October 1939, launched on 8th July 1940, and commissioned on 31st October of that same year. At just under 60 metres long, and with a crew of only 31, she was classed as a 'Small Patrol Submarine', like the rest of her class. With a top speed of 12 knots on the surface and 10 whilst submerged, and able to carry only eight torpedoes, she was both slow and under-armed when compared to the larger submarines in service with the Royal Navy and other navies of the world. In addition, she could not dive below 60 metres, which could make her vulnerable to air attacks in clear waters. Upholder would become inseparably linked to David Wanklyn, who would command her for the entirety of her short, but very successful, career.

Malcolm "David" Wanklyn was born in Calcutta, British India, on 28th June 1911, the third son of William and Marjorie Wanklyn. His father was a successful businessman and engineer, who went on to serve in the British Army on the Western Front during the First World War. Yet, from a young age, David had always shown more interest in a seafaring career. The Wanklyns eventually relocated to Scotland, where David became adept at sailing, fishing, and shooting. In 1925, at the age of 14, he applied to join the Royal Navy, and despite discovering that he was colour-blind, he successfully negotiated the selection board process, entering Dartmouth Naval College.

David Wanklyn married Elspeth Kinloch at the Holy Trinity Church, Sliema, on 5th May 1938.

Wanklyn was assigned as a midshipman in May 1929, before being promoted to sub-lieutenant in January 1931, and to lieutenant in February 1933. That same month, he moved to HMS Dolphin, joining the Submarine Service. Wanklyn’s first assignment was to HMS Oberon, which was then part of the Mediterranean Fleet. In October 1934, he transferred to HMS L56, where he was appointed first lieutenant after a year on board. He also performed the same role aboard HMS Shark, where he spent the majority of 1937 and 1938, taking part in patrols around Gibraltar during the Spanish Civil War. On 5th May 1938, he married his girlfriend Elspeth "Betty" Kinloch at the Holy Trinity Church, Sliema, before returning to Gosport in July 1939 to become first lieutenant on HMS Otway, just before war broke out.

In January 1940, Wanklyn attended the Commanding Officer's Qualifying Course and was given command of HMS H32 in February. In June, he received his second command - HMS H31 - and later that month, he set off on his first war patrol as commanding officer. Ordered to patrol in the North Sea, near the north coast of the Netherlands, Wanklyn scored his first success on 18th July, when H31 torpedoed and sank the German submarine chaser UJ-126, northwest of Terschelling. Upon returning to port, he was despatched to Barrow-in-Furness, to assume command of Upholder. On 30th October, Upholder departed her builders yard, and following a period of sea trials and training exercises, she sailed for Malta, via Gibraltar, on 10th December.

Following a period of sea trials and training exercises, Upholder, with Lt. Wanklyn in command, sailed for the Mediterranean on 10th December 1940.

Italy’s entry into the war on 10th June 1940 had led to the opening of a new front in North Africa, and Malta’s strategic location, halfway between Italy and the North African coast, meant that the island was the perfect place from which to attack Axis shipping transporting crucial supplies heading to Libya. Yet, the Mediterranean was the most dangerous submarine theatre of the war: Axis convoys were normally heavily escorted, and any British submarine could expect prolonged depth-charging, whilst, in the clear waters, a submarine was visible down to 20 metres from the air. By January 1941, British submarine operations out of Malta were not going well, with nine boats having already been lost. Yet, due to their size, the U-class submarines were considered ideal for operating in the shallow waters around Malta, and a number of them were now despatched to the island.

The submarine base was established at the Lazzaretto, a former quarantine hospital on Manoel Island, in Marsamxett Harbour, and commissioned as HMS Talbot. Workers tunnelled into the rock behind the old hospital buildings to create underground facilities, which included engineering workshops and a sick bay. However, there was no protection for the submarines; a project commenced in the mid-1930s to excavate purpose-built pens in the rock face along the harbour had been abandoned due to rising costs. Malta Force Submarines, later to become the 10th Submarine Flotilla, was given orders to stop all supplies from Italy to North Africa, and to wreak havoc among enemy shipping in the Mediterranean.

HMS Talbot, the submarine base on Manoel Island, in Marsamxett Harbour.

Upholder arrived in Malta on 12th January 1941 and departed on her first patrol from the island just under two weeks later. On 26th January, Wanklyn attacked a convoy off the Kerkennah Islands with four torpedoes, but no hits were obtained. Two days later, another convoy was sighted, and this time, the German freighter Duisburg was damaged, forcing her to be towed into Tripoli. Following another unsuccessful attack on a northbound convoy on 30th January, and with all eight torpedoes expended, Upholder returned to Malta on 1st February - the same day that Wanklyn was promoted to lieutenant commander.

The following four patrols saw several more torpedoes being fired at various targets, but no hits were recorded. It was not until Upholder’s sixth patrol from Malta that she began to build her reputation. On 25th April, the Italian freighter Antonietta Lauro was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Tunisia. On the following day, Wanklyn spotted the abandoned wrecks of the German freighter Arta and the Italian destroyer Lampo, both of which had run aground on the sandbanks off Kerkennah after the Battle of the Tarigo Convoy. Moving alongside Arta, Wanklyn sent a boarding party to retrieve documents from the captain’s safe, before destroying the wreck with demolition charges, although his attempt to finish off the destroyer had to be abandoned. Then, on 1st May, Upholder torpedoed and sank the German freighters Arcturus and Leverkusen.

The SS Conte Rosso. Her sinking would earn Lt. Cdr. Wanklyn the Victoria Cross.

More successes would follow. On 23rd May, the Vichy French tanker Capitaine Damiani was torpedoed and damaged, south of Messina, Sicily. On the following day, whilst on patrol east of Syracuse, Wanklyn sighted a heavily escorted enemy troop convoy, carrying reinforcements to North Africa. With Upholder’s asdic temporarily out of action, Wanklyn decided to press home his attack at short range, using only his periscope. He fired two torpedoes, both of which struck home, sinking the converted liner Conte Rosso. Of the 2,729 soldiers and crew aboard, 1,297 were killed. The escorting destroyers made run after run above Upholder, dropping 37 depth charges, but Wanklyn calmly extricated his boat from danger and sailed back to Malta.

The sinking of Conte Rosso would lead to Wanklyn being awarded the Victoria Cross - Britain’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He thus became one of only fourteen submariners to have won a VC. Wanklyn was now one of the most successful Allied submarine commanders, and Captain George "Shrimp" Simpson, commanding the 10th Submarine Flotilla, was anxious to rest him. Although Wanklyn was temporarily taken off patrols, his crew could not be spared, and Upholder carried out her next patrol under the temporary command of Lieutenant Arthur Hezlet, which however proved uneventful.

Wanklyn and other members of Upholder's crew at their base on Manoel Island.

Upholder’s next success came on 3rd July, with Wanklyn back in command, when she torpedoed and sank the Italian freighter Laura C, off Saline Joniche, Calabria. On 24th July, Upholder torpedoed and damaged the Italian freighter Dandolo, before escaping the attentions of a torpedo boat and a CANT Z.501 flying boat, which dropped a couple of anti-submarine bombs. On 28th July, two cruisers and two destroyers were sighted near Marettimo Island, off the western tip of Sicily. Upholder fired four torpedoes, hitting the light cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi, which took on 700 tons of water. Upholder survived a depth charge attack, while the stricken vessel was towed to Palermo. Although Wanklyn had not sunk Giuseppe Garibaldi, she was put out of action for a very long time.

On 20th August, Upholder torpedoed and sank the Italian freighter Enotria off San Vito Lo Capo. Two days later, the Italian auxiliary transport Lussin was also hit in the same area. She sank quickly, with heavy loss of life. As usual, a heavy counterattack with depth charges ensued. Despite some minor damage, Wanklyn was yet again able to steer his boat to safety. On 31st August, Upholder came across the Italian troop transports Oceania and Neptunia, east of Tripoli, and engaged with four torpedoes, all of which missed their targets. Wanklyn would get a second bite at the cherry when encountering the same two vessels just 18 days later. On 2nd September, several of the crew received awards, which included a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for Wanklyn, while the men were given two weeks off.

Passengers abandoning the sinking Oceania after she had been torpedoed by HMS Upholder.

On 18th September, Upholder intercepted yet another major troop convoy headed to Tripoli, which included Oceania and Neptunia. This time, they would not get away. The two ships were hit with one torpedo each. While Neptunia began to sink, Oceania went dead in the water. Having ordered the torpedo tubes to be reloaded, Wanklyn closed the distance, hoping to finish off Oceania. An escorting destroyer forced Upholder to go deep before she came up to periscope depth on the far side of the stricken vessel. Two more torpedoes sent her to the bottom. In that one attack, Upholder had accounted for almost 40,000 tons of enemy shipping, although 5,395 passengers and crew were rescued. Another 384 were not so lucky.

Upholder experienced a barren run over the next weeks, but then, on 9th November, she came across the Italian destroyer Libeccio, which was in the process of rescuing survivors from the Battle of the Duisburg Convoy. Her stern was blown off by a torpedo, and despite attempts to save her, she later sank. By now, Upholder’s crew were exhausted from the tension of being almost constantly in combat, as well as from the lack of daylight and fresh air resulting from long hours of being submerged. Even when back at base, it was difficult to get any rest due to the constant air raids. Yet, with the fighting in North Africa raging on, the attacks on the Axis supply lines had to continue.

The Italian destroyer Libeccio going under after having been torpedoed by HMS Upholder.

Upholder spent Christmas 1941 in Malta, and Wanklyn was convinced to take another break, with Lieutenant Compton "Pat" Norman given temporary command. Yet, on 29th December, as Upholder was returning to base on the surface after having taken part in training exercises off the coast, she was strafed by German Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Although Upholder suffered only minor damage, Norman was wounded and ended up being hospitalised, as a result of which, Wanklyn’s rest was cancelled.

On New Year’s Eve, Upholder left Malta for her latest war patrol. On 4th January 1942, she torpedoed and damaged the Italian freighter Sirio, northwest of Cefalù, Sicily. Wanklyn decided to surface, so as to finish her off with gunfire, but Sirio fired back, and so the attack was abandoned. On 5th January, Wanklyn spotted the Italian submarine Ammiraglio di Saint Bon on the surface, north of Messina. He fired Upholder’s last remaining torpedo, which hit the target. Three men who had been standing on the conning tower were picked up, but the other 59 disappeared without a trace. Despite these continued successes, the ever-increasing intensity of the bombing raids on Malta in those early months of 1942 made it impossible for the submarine crews to get proper rest. Wanklyn was convinced to take a month’s leave, with the recovered Norman taking charge once more.

Lt. Cdr. Wanklyn with his First Lieutenant, Lt. J.R.D. Drummond.

On 27th February, Upholder was on patrol off Tripoli, with Wanklyn back in command. Looking through his periscope, he spotted the Italian freighter Tembien, which had just left port and was headed to Italy with 468 Allied prisoners of war on board. Tembien was hit with two torpedoes and sank in just 20 minutes, taking with her 390 POWs and 78 guards and members of the crew. On 18th March, Upholder torpedoed and sank the Italian submarine Tricheco, east of Brindisi. 11 men were rescued by nearby vessels, but another 38 were lost. On the following day, Upholder surfaced around 100 metres from the Italian auxiliary minesweeper B-14 (Maria), north of Otranto, Italy. Wanklyn gestured to her crew to abandon ship, before she was sent to the bottom using Upholder’s deck gun.

Despite these repeated successes, Upholder’s time was running out. On 6th April, she departed for her 25th patrol since arriving in Malta 15 months earlier. This was to be her last before finally returning to the UK for a refit. On 10th April, Captain Robert "Tug" Wilson and Lance Corporal Charles Parker, together with two Arab agents working for the Secret Intelligence Service, were successfully landed near Sousse, Tunisia, for a special operation. Later that night, the two Britons returned to the submarine, and shortly afterwards, Wilson was transferred to HMS Unbeaten for passage to Gibraltar. He would be the last man to see the crew of Upholder. On 12th April, she was ordered to intercept a Tripoli-bound convoy, but it is not known whether this signal was ever received, as she was not heard from again. Like so many boats before her, Upholder simply disappeared.

HMS Upholder (left) moored alongside HMS Urge (right). Both submarines would be lost with all hands within the space of two weeks in April 1942.

For some time, the most popular theory was that she had been sunk by the Italian torpedo boat Pegaso, following claims that she had attacked an unidentified submarine on 14th April, whilst escorting another convoy, although no debris was seen on the surface. More recent research points to another possibility: German aircraft supporting the same convoy reported attacking an underwater contact with bombs two hours before the Pegaso incident, after which a dark patch, possibly leaking diesel, was spotted on the surface. Yet, both of these actions took place more than 150 kilometres from Upholder’s patrol area, and it is now believed that she was more likely lost in an Italian minefield, located some 25 kilometres north of Tripoli.

The Admiralty officially announced Upholder’s loss on 22nd August, in a communiqué that carried special praise for Wanklyn and his crew. During her time based out of Malta, Upholder had completed 24 patrols, sinking 93,031 tons of enemy shipping, including a destroyer and an auxiliary minesweeper, two submarines, three troopships, six cargo ships, and an auxiliary transport. She also damaged the Italian light cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi, one German and two Italian freighters, a Vichy French tanker, and destroyed the grounded German freighter Arta. Wanklyn was posthumously awarded two bars to his DSO, to make him the most decorated of all Royal Navy personnel during the Second World War. He would also remain the leading British submarine ace.

Lieutenant Commander Malcolm David Wanklyn, VC, DSO & Two Bars

That Upholder’s luck had ultimately run out should perhaps have come as no surprise, as the undersea service was the most dangerous duty there was. More than 70 British boats were lost during the course of the war, with over 40 of them in the Mediterranean. For the submarines based in Malta, there was danger even in between patrols. During the Spring Blitz of 1942, when practically all surface ships had been withdrawn to the safety of Alexandria, the boats of the 10th Submarine Flotilla were forced to submerge and lie on the harbour floor to minimise the risk of damage. Two of them were sunk while underwater in this way, while another was destroyed whilst undergoing repairs.

By the end of April 1942, submarine operations from Malta had become unviable, due to the ever-increasing danger from bombing raids and enemy minefields, and thus the surviving boats were also withdrawn. Between January 1941 and May 1942, the Malta-based submarines had sent to the bottom an incredible 400,000 tons of supplies. These enormous losses inflicted on Axis shipping denied the enemy of much-needed supplies in the battles in North Africa and played a crucial role in the eventual Allied victory in that theatre. No vessel had contributed more than HMS Upholder. Today, she still lies somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean, both a tomb and a monument to David Wanklyn, three officers, and 29 other ranks who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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