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Part 1 of 2 - 1939-42

HMS/M United (CyberHeritage, click to enlarge), "U" class submarine of 540/730t. Developed from the prewar "Undine" class.   on to Part 2, British Submarines, 1943-45

Each Summary is complete in its own right. The same information may therefore be found in a number of related summaries

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Royal Navy in 1939 - The Allies primary maritime tasks were based on the assumption Britain and France would go to war against the European Axis powers of Germany and Italy. The Royal Navy would be responsible for the North Sea and most of the Atlantic, although the French would contribute some forces. In the Mediterranean, defence would be shared between both Navies The Royal Navy, still the largest in the world in September 1939, included 60 submarines, mainly modern with nine building. They were reasonably well-equipped with effective guns, torpedoes and fire control. Approximately 21 were based in Home waters and four in the Atlantic. The main defined role for the Home Fleet submarines appears to be patrolling off southwest Norway and the German North Sea bases for surface raiders and U-boats on passage.

1939-45 - As the war progressed, the Royal Navy and its few Allied-manned submarines neither had the target opportunities of the German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean nor the US submarines in the Pacific, and certainly in the early years suffered heavy losses for comparatively few gains at least in Axis warships. Yet once account is taken of such vital activities as the heavy merchant ship sinkings in the Mediterranean, certainly in the battle for North Africa, the many dangerous cloak-and-dagger operations so vital to Churchill's command to "set Europe alight", helping to cut Germany supply routes from Norway and Japanese ones to Burma, then the even more silent part of the "Silent Service" played a major role in clearing the seas of Axis shipping. The figures for merchant ship sinkings by British submarines are not complete but give some idea of their successes.

HM Submarine Storm

Perhaps one example would suffice to illustrate these otherwise cold statistics - HMS Storm, the first British submarine commanded by a RNVR officer, Commander Edward Young DSO, DSC RNV(S)R. After twelve months from January 1944 to January 1945 on patrol in the SE Asia area, his "Jolly Roger" recorded three torpedo sinkings, seven gunnery sinkings, one cloak-and-dagger special operation, and "the little schooner surmounting a row of dots ... for indicating the results of the Celebes patrol". He prefaces these comments by writing that "Storm's Jolly Roger boasted a small bag compared with those of many other, more famous submarines". ("One of Our Submarines" by Edward Young, 1953)






3rd - After Germany invaded Poland on the 1st, Britain and France demanded the withdrawal of German forces. The ultimatum expired and at 11.15am on the 3rd, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to announce that Britain was at war with Germany. He formed a War Cabinet with Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. France, Australia, New Zealand and India (through the Viceroy) declared war the same day.


10th - Home Fleet submarines on patrol off southwest Norway suffered their first casualty in tragic circumstances. "OXLEY" was torpedoed in error by "Triton" and went down off Obrestad.



20th - British Home Fleet submarines gained their first success in the Heligoland Bight when "Sturgeon" sank German patrol ship "V-209".



4th - On patrol off the Heligoland Bight, submarine "Salmon" (Lt Cdr Bickford) sank outward bound "U-36". She was successful again nine days later.

13th - "Salmon" torpedoed and damaged German cruisers "Leipzig" and "Nurnberg" in the North Sea as they covered a destroyer mine laying operation off the Tyne Estuary, north east England.



Axis Shipping Losses due to Royal Navy Submarines in 1940

European waters January-December 1940 - 33 German ships of 135,000grt

Mediterranean June -December 1940 - 10 Italian ships of 44,500grt



7th - Home Fleet submarines suffered heavy losses in the Heligoland area at the hands of minesweeper patrols, starting with “SEAHORSE”. On the same day “UNDINE” was sunk.

HM Submarine Undine (Navy Photos/Mark Teadham)

9th - Two days later “STARFISH” was lost. British submarine operations in the Heligoland Bight were abandoned.

APRIL 1940



Norwegian Campaign

7th-8th - In response to reported German movements, units of the Home Fleet sailed from Scapa Flow and Rosyth. More than 20 submarines, including three French and one Polish took up positions.

9th - Germany invaded Denmark and Norway

10th - Submarine “THISTLE” on patrol off Utsira failed in an attack on “U-4”. Shortly after she was sunk by the same U-boat.

14th - Submarine “TARPON” on patrol off southern Norway was sunk by German minesweeper “M-6”. German gunnery training ship “BRUMMER” was torpedoed and sunk by submarine “Sterlet” .

18th - Four days after sinking the “Brummer”, “STERLET” was presumed sunk in the Skagerrak by German anti-submarine trawlers.

29th - Submarine “UNITY” was lost in collision with a Norwegian merchantman off the northeast coast of England.

MAY 1940


5th - Submarine “SEAL” successfully laid mines in the southern Kattegat on the 4th before being damaged by a German mine. Trying to make for neutral Sweden on the surface, she was attacked and captured off the Skaw by German air and sea patrols.

JUNE 1940


8th - On the last day of the Norwegian campaign the Polish “ORZEL” on passage to her patrol area and made famous after escaping from invaded Poland, was presumed mined. Another Allied boat was lost twelve days later.

20th - Dutch submarine “0-13” also on passage to her Norwegian patrol area was torpedoed in error by Polish “Wilk”. More recent research suggests she was more likely sunk 13 June 1940 in a German minefield in 5655'N-0340'E.

20th - As the damaged battlecruiser “Scharnhorst” headed for Germany from Norway, “Gneisenau” feinted towards Iceland. West of Trondheim she was torpedoed and damaged by British submarine “Clyde”. Both battlecruisers were out of action during the critical phases of the Battle for Britain until the end of the year.


Italy Declared War - Italy declared war on Britain and France on the 10th. Two weeks later France was out of the war. Still on the 10th, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa declared war on Italy. The Royal Navy started with ten submarines based in the Eastern Mediterranean.

13th - Mediterranean Fleet submarines operated out of Alexandria on patrol off Italian bases and soon lost three of their number (1-3). At the time mines were usually blamed, but it turns out Italian anti-submarine forces were far more effective than expected. The first loss was “ODIN” (1) off the Italian coast in the Gulf of Taranto, sunk by the guns and torpedoed of destroyer “Strale”.

16th - The second British submarine “GRAMPUS” (2), minelaying off Augusta, Sicily was caught and sunk by large torpedo boats “Circe” and “Clio”.

19th - Towards the other end of the North African coast, the third British loss “ORPHEUS” (3) was sent to the bottom by Italian destroyer “Turbine” north of the Cyrenaica port of Tobruk, soon to become a household name .

20th - Italian submarine “DIAMANTE” was torpedoed by submarine “Parthian” off Tobruk, Libya.

JULY 1940


6th - Home Fleet submarines carried out patrols off the coast of southwest Norway, but with heavy losses in July. Late on the 5th, "SHARK" was badly damaged by German aircraft and next morning of the 6th had to be scuttled off Skudenses.

July - A few days later submarine "SALMON" was presumed lost on mines. Later still "THAMES" was also probably mined in the middle of the North Sea on passage to her patrol area.

26th - As the damaged German battlecruiser "Gneisenau" made for Germany from Norway, submarine "Swordfish" carried out an attack and sank escorting torpedo boat "LUCHS".


16th - Submarine "PHOENIX" attacked an escorted tanker off Augusta and was lost to depth charges from Italian torpedo boat "Albatros".



20th - Submarine "Cachalot "on Bay of Biscay patrol sank the returning "U-51" off Lorient, western France


1st - Submarine "SPEARFISH" on patrol in the North Sea was torpedoed by "U-34" and sunk. "NARWHAL" was paid off the same day. After leaving the English east coast Humber Estuary on 22nd July for a minelaying mission off Norway, she failed to return.


1st - Submarine "OSWALD" on patrol south of the Strait of Messina reported Italian Navy movements. She was detected and later rammed and sunk by destroyer "Vivaldi".



22nd - British submarine "Osiris" on patrol in the southern Adriatic attacked a convoy and sank Italian torpedo boat "PALESTRO".



18th - The old submarine "H-49", on anti-invasion patrol off the Dutch coast, was lost to German A/S trawlers.


15th - On patrol off Calabria, south west Italy in the Ionian Sea, submarine "RAINBOW" (cause of loss to be clarified) was lost in a gun action with the Italian submarine "Enrico Toti" . At about this time "TRIAD" was probably mined off the Gulf of Taranto.



16th - Submarine "SWORDFISH", setting out on Bay of Biscay patrol, struck an enemy mine off the Isle of Wight, southern England and sank.  



Late November/early December - Submarines "REGULUS" and "TRITON" were lost in late November or early December, possibly mined in the Strait of Otranto area at the southern end of the Adriatic Sea. Alternatively "Regulus" may have been sunk by Italian aircraft on 26th November.



Axis Shipping Losses due to Royal Navy Submarines in 1941

European waters in January-December 1941 - 21 ships of 56,000 grt

Mediterranean January -December 1941 - 88 Italian ships of 282,300grt and 3 German ships of 5,400grt



Early February - British submarine "SNAPPER", after leaving her escort off Lands End for patrol in the Bay of Biscay. was not heard from again. She failed to rendezvous back on the 12th February, possibly lost on mines.


25th - On patrol off the east coast of Tunisia, submarine "Upright" torpedoed and sank Italian cruiser "ARMANDO DIAZ" covering a convoy from Naples to Tripoli.

MARCH 1941


28th - Mines laid by submarine "Rorqual" west of Sicily on the 25th, sank two Italian supply ships the next day and torpedo boat "CHINOTTO" on the 28th.

31st - Continuing her successes, "Rorqual" torpedoed and sank submarine "CAPPONI" off northeast Sicily.

MAY 1941


Late April/early May - Two submarines operating out of Malta were lost, possibly due to mines - "USK" in the Strait of Sicily area and "UNDAUNTED" off Tripoli. "Usk" may have been sunk by Italian destroyers west of Sicily while attacking a convoy.

Royal Navy Submarine Operations - "Upholder" (Lt-Cdr Wanklyn) attacked a strongly escorted troop convoy off the coast of Sicily on the 24th May and sank 18,000-ton liner "Conte Rosso". + Lt-Cdr Malcolm Wanklyn RN was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for this and other successful patrols as commander of "Upholder".

JUNE 1941


25th - Submarine "Parthian" torpedoed Vichy French submarine "SOUFFLEUR" during the British-Free French campaign to occupy Lebanon and Syria.

27th - Submarine "Triumph" on patrol off the Egyptian coast sank the Italian submarine "SALPA".

JULY 1941


19th - Submarine "UMPIRE", working up and on passage north with an East Coast convoy, was rammed and sunk off Cromer by an armed trawler escorting a southbound convoy.


5th - Submarine "Torbay" on patrol in the Aegean Sea sank Italian submarine "JANTINA".

20th - Two more British submarines fell victim to Italian anti-submarine forces during convoy attacks in July - the first was "UNION" to torpedo boat "Circe" off Pantelleria.

30th - The second loss to Italian anti-submarine forces during convoy attacks was "CACHALOT" while on passage from Malta to Alexandria, rammed by torpedo boat "Papa".



7th - Submarine "Severn" on patrol for U-boats attacking HG convoys west of Gibraltar, torpedoed and sank Italian submarine "BIANCHI".


18th - Submarine "P-32" was lost on mines off Tripoli as she attempted to attack a convoy entering the port. "P.33" was also lost around the same time in this area, possibly on mines.

26th - As an Italian battlefleet returned from a sortie against Force H, submarine “Triumph” torpedoed and damaged heavy cruiser "Bolzano" north of Sicily.



Malta - The 10th Submarine Flotilla was formed at Malta with the smaller 'U' class boats which were more suited to Mediterranean conditions. On the 18th, Lt-Cdr Wanklyn in "Upholder" sank the 19,500-ton transports "Neptunia" and "Oceania". Between June and the end of September, submarines sank a total of 49 ships of 150,000 tons. Added to the losses inflicted by the RAF this was a high proportion of Axis shipping bound for Libya.

27th - Submarine "Upright" sank Italian torpedo boat "ALBATROS" off Messina, northeast Sicily.



20th - Mines previously laid by submarine "Rorqual" in the Gulf of Athens sank Italian torpedo boats "ALDEBARAN" and "ALTAIR".

Late October - Submarine "TETRARCH" sailed from Malta for Gibraltar but failed to arrive, presumed lost on mines in the Strait of Sicily.



26th - Old submarine “H-31” was overdue by the 26th, possibly lost on mines during Bay of Biscay patrol.


6th - Submarine “PERSEUS” on patrol off the west coast of Greece was mined and sunk off Zante Island. Just one man made an amazing escape to the surface and reached the distant shore.

11th - Submarine “Truant” sank Italian torpedo boat “ALCIONE” north of Crete.



Axis Shipping Losses due to Royal Navy Submarines in 1942

European waters in January-December 1942 - 12 ships of 30,000grt

Mediterranean January -December 1942 - 83 Italian ships of 223,400grt and 11 German ships of 29,400grt



Early January - Submarine "TRIUMPH" sailed from Alexandria on 26th December for a cloak-and-dagger landing near Athens before patrolling in the Aegean. She reported the landing on the 30th, but failed to rendezvous back there on the 9th and was presumed mined off the island of Milo, southeast of the Greek mainland.

5th - Three Axis submarines fell victim to their RN counterparts in different patrol areas in January. The first was Italian "SAINT-BON" north of Sicily to Lt-Cdr Wanklyn's "Upholder".

12th - The second Axis loss was German "U-374" off the east coast of Sicily to "Unbeaten" (Lt-Cdr E. A. Woodward).

30th - The third was Italian submarine "MEDUSA" torpedoed by "Thorn" in the Gulf of Venice, in the far north of the Adriatic.



German Surface Warships - Following the "Channel Dash", heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen" sailed with pocket battleship "Admiral Scheer" to join "Tirpitz" in Norway. Off Trondheim, submarine "Trident" torpedoed and heavily damaged her on the 23rd.


13th - Two Royal Navy submarines were lost. The first was "TEMPEST" which torpedoed a supply ship off the Gulf of Taranto but was depth-charged by the escorts including Italian torpedo boat "Circe", brought to the surface and soon sunk.

16th - A third submarine was saved by the gallantry of her crew. "Thresher" was also counter-attacked by the escorts of a convoy, off northern Crete. Two unexploded bombs lodged between the casing and hull, and with the likelihood of drowning should she be forced to submerge, two of the boat's crew managed to remove them. Lt Peter Roberts RN and Petty Officer Thomas Gould were awarded the Victoria Cross.

23rd - Ten days later "P-38" attacked a heavily defended convoy off Tripoli and was also lost to the escorts' counter-attack which again included Italian torpedo boat "Circe".

MARCH 1942


RN Submarine Operations - Another submariner won the Victoria Cross. Shortly after, Royal Navy submarines sank three more Axis submarines, all Italian, in the space of four days. HM Submarine Torbay (Cdr Miers) carried out a difficult attack on shipping off Corfu on the 4th and torpedoed two merchantmen. This was only the latest of a number of successful patrols. Cdr Anthony Miers RN was awarded the Victoria Cross.

14th - The first Italian submarine sinking was "MILLO" off Calabria in the Ionian Sea by "Ultimatum".

17th - The second was "GUGLIELMOTTI" also off Calabria, by "Unbeaten" (Lt-Cdr Woodward).

18th - Finally "TRICHECO" went down off Brindisi in the southern Adriatic, torpedoed by "Upholder" (Lt-Cdr Wanklyn).

APRIL 1942


1st - Submarine "Urge" sank Italian cruiser "BANDE NERE" north of Sicily. This was a welcome success in a month that saw heavy Royal Navy losses including "Urge" herself.

Malta - By now Malta had almost ceased to be of any value as a base for attacking Rommel's supply lines, and most of his transports were getting through. The German and Italian bombing led to the loss, directly and indirectly, of numerous ships including four destroyers and four submarines: 1st - Submarines "P-36" and "PANDORA" were sunk in Malta and others of the 10th Flotilla damaged. "Pandora" had only recently arrived from Gibraltar on a supply trip. 4th - Greek submarine "GLAVKOS" was sunk in Malta. 14th - 10th Flotilla lost its most famous boat when "UPHOLDER" (Lt-Cdr Wanklyn VC) went missing. She attacked a convoy northeast of Tripoli and was presumed sunk in the counter-attack by destroyer escort "Pegaso". 27th - By this time the 10th Submarine Flotilla had been ordered to leave Malta. "URGE" sailed for Alexandria on the 27th, but failed to arrive.

MAY 1942


2nd - Minesweeper "Seagull" and Norwegian destroyer "St Albans", part of the escort of Russian Convoy PQ15, sank Polish submarine "JASTRZAB" in error .


8th - Submarine "OLYMPUS" sailed from Malta for Gibraltar with many passengers including the crews of bombed boats "P-36" and "P-39". Just off Grand Harbour she hit a mine laid by German E-boats and went down with heavy loss of life.

29th - In a series of attacks on convoys bound for North Africa, submarine "Turbulent" (Cdr Linton) sank three transports in May and on the 29th torpedoed and sank escorting Italian destroyer "PESSAGNO" northwest of Benghazi.

JUNE 1942


21st - Ex-US submarine "P-514" on passage around the coast of Newfoundland from Argentia to St Johns was rammed and sunk in error by Canadian sloop "Georgian".

JULY 1942


Malta - "Unbroken" was the first 10th Flotilla submarine to return to the Island.



3rd - On anti-U-boat patrol between the Shetlands and Norway, submarine "Saracen" torpedoed "U-335" on passage out.


6th - Submarine "THORN" attacked a tanker off southwest Crete and was presumed sunk in the counter-attack by Italian escort destroyer "Pegaso".

22nd - Italian torpedo boat "CANTORE" was lost on mines laid by submarine "Porpoise" northeast of Tobruk.



Russian Convoy PQ18 - PQ18 left Loch Ewe in Scotland on the 2nd with over 40 merchantmen. Close escort was provided by 17 warships plus escort carrier "Avenger" and two destroyers. Two separate forces were in support - close cover was given by AA cruiser "Scylla" and 16 fleet destroyers and further out three heavy cruisers. More distant cover was by battleships "Anson" and "Duke of York", a light cruiser and destroyers to the northeast of Iceland. Home Fleet submarines were on patrol off the Norwegian Lofoten Islands and northern Norway. Of the original 40 ships, 27 reached Archangel on the 17th in exchange for three U-boats.


Mid-September - Submarine "TALISMAN" left Gibraltar on the 10th with stores for Malta. She reported a U-boat off Philippeville, eastern Algeria on the 15th, but was not heard from again - presumed mined in the Strait of Sicily.



Early October - Submarine "UNIQUE" on passage from Britain to Gibraltar was last reported on the 9th off Land's End, south west England. She was never heard from again.


French North Africa - In preparation for Operation 'Torch', US Gen Mark Clark landed in Algeria from submarine "Seraph" to help persuade the Vichy French authorities to support the coming Allied landings. Gen Giraud was to be smuggled from unoccupied France, again in "Seraph", to head pro-Allied Frenchmen.

19th - South of Pantelleria, submarine "Unbending" attacked an Axis convoy bound for Tripoli, sinking a transport and Italian destroyer "DA VERAZZANO".

North Africa - With the Second Battle of El Alamein, Gen Montgomery started the last and decisive British campaign against Axis forces in Egypt. In the build-up to the battle, Royal Navy submarines and RAF aircraft, especially those based in Malta, were sinking more than a third of Axis supplies setting out for North Africa.



11th - Submarine "UNBEATEN", on patrol in the Bay of Biscay for U-boats on passage to and from Atlantic operations, was accidentally lost in an attack by a RAF Wellington.


8th - French North African Landings: Operation 'Torch'

9th - In continuing Royal Navy submarine operations in the Central Mediterranean off northwest Sicily, "Saracen" sank Italian submarine "GRANITO".

The Relief of Malta - A convoy of four ships, escorted by three cruisers and 10 destroyers, got through on the 20th. Its arrival effectively marked the lifting of the long and bloody siege of Malta. Since Operation 'Excess' in January 1941, two aircraft carriers, four cruisers, 16 destroyers and five submarines had been lost in the many attempts to supply and reinforce the island, and in the heavy air attacks launched against the George Cross island.

24th - Off northwest Sicily, "UTMOST" was lost to Italian destroyer escort "Groppo".



Royal Navy Submarine Operations - Throughout the month, British submarines were on patrol in the Western Mediterranean and lost four of their number. In return they sank several Axis ships including two Italian warships. Early December - "TRAVELLER" left Malta on 28th November for the Gulf of Taranto. Overdue by the 8th December, she was presumed mined in her patrol area. 6th - "Tigris" sank Italian submarine "PORFIDO" north of Bone. 12th - In the Gulf of Naples submarine "P-222" was lost to Italian torpedo boat "Fortunale" while attacking a convoy. 17th - North of Bizerta, "Splendid" sank Italian destroyer "AVIERE" escorting a convoy to North Africa. 25th - As an Axis convoy headed into Tunis, "U" class submarine "P-48" attacked, but was sunk by Italian destroyer escorts "Ardente" and "Ardito". Late December - At the end of the month submarine "P-311" sailed for Maddalena, Sardinia with Chariot human torpedoes for an attack on the cruisers based there. Her last signal was on the 31st December and she was presumed lost on mines in the approaches to the port.


on to Part 2, British Submarines, 1943-45
back to Campaigns of World War 2

revised 8/7/11