When war broke out in 1939, British boats were deployed to Heligoland to patrol the waters off the southwest coast of Norway for German ships and u-boats. Unfortunately, this proved very dangerous even without the Germans as British submarines sometimes fired on each other, mistaking their submarines for German u-boats. Likewise, even when in their designating hunting areas, British submarines were sometimes attacked by the RAF who mistook them for German u-boats. However, the British subs did finally score their first victories with successful attacks by two S-boats. HMS Sturgeon sank a German ship in November and HMS Salmon sank a German u-boat two weeks later. The British submarines would gain a high reputation for their ability to sink enemy submarines at a time when surface ships were still assumed to be their primary targets. The Royal Navy proved that the best weapon to use against a submarine is another submarine and that fact remains true to this day. By the time the war was over, British submarines would account for the loss of 39 Axis subs.
|Admiral Horton, 1940|
Unfortunately, even with 17 boats in the vicinity, the big game proved elusive. The prized German warships Gneisenau, Hipper and Scharnhorst all escaped attacked due to poor visibility and radio direction-finding by German shore installations which were able to direct their ships around areas where British submarines were on the prowl. This was a problem that would come up again later. There were other minor successes but the fact remains that the British submarine force had failed to stop the German invasion and the Royal Navy had been forced to rely only on the submarine force because of the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe in keeping the British surface fleet away. Likewise, operations off the North Sea coast during the German invasion of France and the Low Countries proved to be of little effect. Concentrating boats in these confined spaces had proved to be a mistake, due to the effectiveness of shore installations in homing in on their radio transmissions, the risk of “friendly fire” and the constant daylight in northern areas.
Morale fell as British submarine losses continued and though successes did increase when the government in London authorized the use of unrestricted submarine warfare, the latter half of 1940 was fairly disastrous for the Royal Navy boats. While sinking less than 1% of Italian shipping to North Africa, Britain had lost nine submarines, five at the hands of the Italian navy and the rest to air attack or mines. At one point, Britain was reduced to only five operational boats in the Mediterranean. Clearly, something had to be done. Italian shipping losses had been extremely light in 1940, warships were not engaged and overall Italian superiority in the central Mediterranean had been maintained. It was a gloomy time as the British came to grips with the fact that, despite what Allied propaganda had told them, their enemy was a formidable one. However, the British did what they have traditionally done; learned from their mistakes and adapted.
In March, HMS Rorqual laid a minefield, sent two freighters to the bottom and then sank the Italian submarine Capponi. The same month, another British boat, the P31, made a successful attack on a large freighter using Asdic (sonar) alone, earning the commander the DSO. The following month also saw the beginning of a string of victories for the man who would be the most successful British submarine commander of World War II, Lt. Comm. Malcolm D. Wanklyn of HMS Upholder. He sank a freighter in April off Tunisia and two more on May 1, beginning what would be a very successful career, albeit a short one. Sadly, Wanklyn was killed in action in 1942 by the Italian navy but by that time had managed to sink 21 Axis vessels, earning the Victoria Cross. Because of men like him, things were turning around for the British war under the waves. In the first half of 1941 they managed to sink about 130,000 tons of Axis shipping while losing only two submarines, both to Italian minefields. Still, the rate of success was slow at less than two ships a month and of the shipping interdicted by the Allies, including the movement of Rommel’s Afrika Korps to Libya, less than 5% was lost to British submarines.
Having inside information on when and wear Italian supply convoys would be sailing, the British were able to post their submarines in picket lines in front of the enemy. In so doing, the British boats began to really bite into the Axis war effort, sinking four Italian troopships in a few weeks and badly damaging the new Italian battleship Vittoria Veneto which was attacked by HMS Urge and put out of action for over three months. In the second half of 1941 the British lost six submarines but received 13 new boats and in that time managed to take a significant toll on Axis shipping which was critical to the North African war effort. In the desert, logistics were paramount and when the supplies flowed, Rommel advanced; when they did not, the Italo-German forces fell back. The losses were serious enough to compel the Germans to dispatch some of their own u-boats to the Mediterranean, adding a new and dangerous foe for the British to deal with, proven when the U-81 managed to sink the only British aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, HMS Ark Royal, in November. Moreover, German and Italian air attacks on Malta proved to be devastating, eventually wiping out the RAF defenders, forcing the withdrawal of many ships and damaging three submarines.
Dogged determination proved effective though and despite the reduction in numbers in April of 1942, British submarines sank 117,000 tons of Axis shipping along with the Italian cruiser Bande Nere (sunk by HMS Urge), a destroyer and six Axis submarines. It amounted to only 6% of the materials being sent to Rommel in North Africa but, due to the withdrawal from Malta, was significantly more than what the RAF had managed to intercept. British submarines were also being used to carry cargo to keep Malta alive as Italian naval forces prevented much of the surface convoys from landing their supplies. To fight back against this, British submarines were dispatched to prowl outside the main anchorages of the Italian fleet, to attack when possible but also to warn the high command of when they were moving out. The result was a fierce fight for control of the Central Mediterranean with wins and losses for both sides. However, the need for Axis air power on the Russian front gave the British some breathing room and soon more and more Royal Navy subs were posted to the Mediterranean with new flotillas organized in Gibraltar and Beirut.
Axis power was receding in the Mediterranean and the British boats were at the forefront of the naval victory thanks to men like Comm. J. W. Linton of HMS Turbulent who was killed in action after sinking 90,000 tons of enemy shipping and an Italian destroyer. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Comm. George Hunt of HMS Ultor sank more Axis ships than any other British submarine commander at 30 for which he earned the DSO with bar twice. Comm. Ben Bryant was similarly decorated for sinking over 20 Axis vessels as well as numerous warships. With the capture of Sicily by the Allies, the naval war was practically over but, while outpaced by the air forces, Allied submarines, mostly British, accounted for roughly half of all Axis naval losses in the Mediterranean.
East Asian operations were not as extensive but could still be intense. Lt. Comm. Anthony Collet of HMS Tactician saved a downed American pilot from the USS Saratoga despite being under enemy fire from shore batteries on Sabang and with a Japanese torpedo boat bearing down on them. For this act of heroism, Commander Collet was awarded the Legion of Merit from the United States. More British submarines were dispatched to the region and two new flotillas were organized. Their impact was not negligible and by late October 1944 the British subs had sunk 40,000 tons of merchant shipping, almost 100 small craft as well as a cruiser, three submarines and six smaller warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Not too bad. The smaller British subs were also able to operate in areas such as the Java Sea which were too shallow for the larger American boats. By March of 1945 all Japanese shipping in the Malacca Straits area had been virtually eliminated.
Overall, the British submarine force made a significant contribution to the defeat of Germany, Italy and Japan. Early on, they suffered some serious losses and learned some hard lessons against the Germans in the North Sea and the Italians in the Mediterranean. However, they adapted and came roaring back, taking a considerable toll on Axis warships and plaguing the supply lines keeping Rommel and his Italo-German forces in the field in North Africa. One of, if not the most decisive factor in the successful British defense of Egypt was Rommel’s lack of sufficient fuel and supplies and the British submarine force played a major part in that. Once the Mediterranean was secure, Britain was able to focus on East Asia where not much had been left by the American submarine campaign (the most successful in history) and yet, there too, the British boats played a significant part in disrupting the Japanese lines of supply and taking out several major enemy warships. The Royal Navy impact on the surface might have been more significant, and they may not get as much attention as some others but the British submarine force earned a record in battle during World War II that they can be proud of, contributing to the tradition that would carry Britain forward to the present day.