Sinking of HM Submarine P.38 – 23 February 1942

This is only indirectly related to Operation CRUSADER, but of interest nevertheless because it shows the increasing sophistication of Italian escort vessels which happened around the time of the end of the operation, and which probably contributed somewhat to 1942 becoming the worst year for losses in the Mediterranean, with a total of 13 of HM Subs lost, compared to 9 in 1940 (admittedly in just over six months), and 11 each in 1941 and 1942. I have added information on the Italian convoy on 28 May, based on the entry in the Seekrieg website.

P.38, under the command of Lieutenant R.J. Hemingway RN DSC, was sunk by Tp Circe (Tp = Torpediniere – torpedo boat, a class of light escort destroyers), which sank or participated in the sinking of four Royal Navy submarines, HM S/M Grampus on 16 June 1940, HM S/M Tempest and P.38 in February 1942, and HM S/M Union in July 1942. Circe herself was lost on 27 November 1942 in a collision with auxiliary cruiser Citta di Tunisi. Lt. Hemingway was probably awarded his DSC on 20 December 1940 for  what was believed to be a successful action against an Axis submarine (either U-58, or Italian submarines Veniero or Otario) in the Bay of Biscay, while serving on HM S/M Tigris under Lt.Cdr. Bone, DSO, DSC. In reality however Tigris did not sink the target, whichever of the three it was. His previous command was HM S/M H.31, which was lost with all hands on 19 December 1941 in the North Sea.

P.38 was sunk while trying to attack one of the big convoys of early 1942, in this case the third major operation of the year, convoy K.7. It consisted of two separate convoys of six merchants each from Messina and Corfu. The convoys were the fast motor vessels Unione, Monginevro, Ravello (all in convoy 1), and Monviso, Lerici, and Giulio Giordani (convoy 2). They were escorted by destroyers in direct escort (Ugolino Vivaldi, Lanzerotto Malocello, Nicolo Zeno, (all Navigatori-class), Premuda (captured Yugoslav Dubrovnik), Strale (Freccia-class), – convoy 1; Antonio Pigafetta (F), Emanuele Pessagno, Antonio Usodimare, (all Navigatori-class) , Maestrale, Scirocco (both Maestrale-class) – convoy 2) and also by two squadrons of heavy escorts, those of the  old battleship Duilio with the Soldati-class destroyers Aviere, Ascari, Geniere, Camicia Nera, and the heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento, the light cruiser Giovanni della Bande Nere, and the destroyers Alpino (Soldati), Antonio Da Noli (Navigatori), and Alfredo Oriani (Oriani/Poeti-class). Convoy 1 was escorted by the Spica-class torpedo boat Pallade, and convoy 2 by Spica-class torpedo boat Circe. Commander of the close escort of convoy 2 was the Captain of the destroyer Antonio Pigafetta.  It appears that only Circe and Pallade were equipped with the German S-Geraet sonar and German depth charge throwers (and probably rails, since references to depth charges used on Circe use two German separate designations).

Here’s the report of her captain, Capitano di Corvette (Lt.Cdr.) Palmas, which is held in the captured German records section in NARA. It can be found in the files of the German Naval Attache in Rome.

GKDOS 1706/42

28 March 1941 (sic!)

SECRET COMMAND AFFAIR!

REPORT ABOUT THE SINKING OF AN ENEMY SUBMARINE BY TORPEDO BOAT “CIRCE” ON 23.2.42 – ACCORDING TO STATEMENT BY COMMANDER K.KPT.PALMAS

CIRCE escorted a convoy of 3 steamers on the way to Tripolis. Calm sea. Light swell. Speed 14 knots.

Northwest of Cape Misurate an echo was reported at 1014 [hours] in 46 degrees, 1,800 metres. Bearing wanders out quickly. Signal to convoy to turn to port.

Boat [CIRCE] turns into the bearing, increases speed to 18 – 20 knots and moves across the target. At around 1,000m the periscope is sighted at the position of the echo. With 16 knots moved onto it and dropped six depth charges from rails and four from throwers into the location of the dive which was indicated by air bubbles. Depth setting 70 metres. Shortly after the submarine surfaces with heavy list to stern, it had apparently used pressurised air [emergency surfacing]. Other boats [escorts] and planes open fire and throw depth charges, in some cases in front of other boats. One Italian rating is killed by friendly machine-gun fire. This makes an orderly attack by CIRCE impossible. After the other boats have been called off, CIRCE again receives an echo from the by now again submerged submarine. This resurfaces shortly after like a dolphin with running screws and drops 45 degrees listing to prow into the depth. A lot of oil and air bubbles come up, which only slowly reduce. Apart from that parts of the interior fittings (polished cupboard door, table top), one bag with flags and body parts (lung) drift up.

Boat remains 1.5 hours on the scene of the attack. Echo shows the same location until the last. Water depth 350m. The echo is probably caused by the continuing rising of oil and the still escaping air.

In his formal report to Supermarina, the Italian admiralty, he also analysed the performance of the attack. Below is the section on lessons learnt.

  1. March during lively sea during the night 22 to 23 February has taxed the ship’s hull very much, especially while marching direction 180 degrees.
    Three cracks occured at the movement gap [Dehnungsfuge], which is situated in the centre of the boat, between machinery centre and the ventilators of boiler room 2.
  2. In contrast to the attack on 13 February [on HM S/M Tempest, which was sunk], this attack on a submarine was carried out almost with lightning speed, with the intent to prevent the submarine, which was already lying ready to attack, from carrying this out and to then hunt and destroy it.
    The second task, far more important by comparison to the first, was achieved almost immediately. The convoy could, because of my signals, turn away 90 degrees to port, and thereby move away from the danger zone. The second task was then resolved shortly after, by the almost immediate dropping of all depth charges, which were set at 75 metres depth [sic!] from the rails and throwers.
    The explosion has certainly hit the submarine which was in rapid dive. It was so strong that the enemy commander could do nothing else but surface immediately and give pressurised air on all the tanks.
    The second and last attempt by the submarine to surface failed, and it dived forever.
  3. The attach was carried out based on the information received from the S-Geraet, the prior sighting of the periscope, and the air bubbles which remained on the surface when the submarine dived rapidly.
    These visible signs led me to drop all depth charges at once, even though by this I partially violated existing regulations. 11 depth charges were dropped.
    I found it not useful to undertake further depth charge drops during the later phases of the search since the proof I had seen and collected left not the slightest doubt about the result of the attack.
    The parts of the interior fittings of the submarine and the human remains prove beyond any doubt the destruction of the submarine. During the two unsuccessful attempts to surface the tower was closed and nobody came out.
    The small bag with flags was probably inside the tower under the hatch, inside the pressure vessel.
  4. The behaviour of the crew was again commendable. The rapidity of the attack has excited the crew beyond belief.
  5. The explosion of a depth charge packet is extremely strong. The hull of the torpedo boat has vibrated noticeably, but not too much, because I carried out the attack at a speed of 15 knots.

It is clear from this account that P.38 and her crew never stood a chance. The Italian commander made all the right decisions (and risky ones – emptying his depth charge racks could have landed him in trouble if P.38 had survived the first attack), he had advanced detection systems that allowed him to find the enemy (and I wonder if 10th Flotilla on Malta was aware of this – does anyone know?), and his relentless initial attack doomed the submarine.All 32 hands on her were lost. May they Rest in Peace. You can read a bit of background on one of her crew, 22-year old Clarence Durnell, at this link. Before rejoining the convoy escort, Circe made a final gesture to the fallen, according to the report of her commander:

Before I finally move off, I cross the site of the sinking at slow speed and and offer the fallen honourable recognition with the whole crew on combat stations.

The convoy arrived in Tripoli without any losses, and brought much needed reinforcements for the Axis forces in North Africa, allowing them to build up strength for the Gazala battles in May 1942, the conquest of Tobruk, and the advance to El Alamein.

Many thanks for Dili from the Comando Supremo forum for his comments and corrections.

The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

Introduction

Operation CRUSADER saw about 8,500 Commonwealth soldiers become prisoners of the Axis forces, in the fighting around Tobruk and during the counter offensive in January. See this older post for a discussion of losses suffered by each side. This post here is based on research around the internet.

In general, as the old line goes, ‘For you [insert nickname here], the war is over!’. In the case of North Africa, this was however not the case for the Commonwealth POW. In order to secure them and relieve the supply situation in North Africa, beginning in December 41 they were shipped off to Italian-controlled territory, either to Italy or to Greece (and thence to Italy, I guess), either on naval units or on homeward bound merchants (the New Zealand Official History has a good account of the situation of the POW at this link – note that Sebastiano Venier is called Jantzen in this account).  This could be dangerous, since POW transports were not marked, and since even if ULTRA had given warning to the Royal Navy that a particular transport carried POW, it was likely impossible to warn the submarine commander without risking a breach in the ULTRA secret (e.g. if the submarine commander were to be taken POW himself, and informed his captors about the warning he was given about leaving a particular transport alone).

In consequence, several hundred Commonwealth POW lost their lives during or shortly after the end of Operation CRUSADER and the counter-offensive in three separate sinkings. The casualty figures were high because of overcrowding on the vessels.

Screenshot 2019 10 12 16 15 44

 

HMS Porpoise in harbour, from Ebay.

The loss of Venier

At 1435 hours on 9 December 1941, the large mine-laying submarine HM S/M Porpoise (Lt.Cdr. Pizey DSC) attacked Sebastiano Venier, ex-Jason, off Cape Methone. She is so badly damaged she has to be beached and is written off. Around 300 of the 2,000 Commonwealth POW estimated to be on board died in the attack, most of them when the torpedo struck the forward hold of the Venier.

Entry in Log of HMSub Porpoise describing the attack on Sebastiano Venier

The fact that Venier had POWs on board was known in London since at least 1100 GMT on 8 December, the day before, and probably earlier than that. The document below is a compilation of intercepts that was passed on to Downing Street. This would indicate that there would have been some time to alert submarines to not attack merchants moving north, albeit of course with the risk that this would lead to compromising the secrecy around the radio interception. Furthermore, a later intercept indicated that Venier would only leave Benghazi at 1600 on 9 December, a time at which she was well aground off Cape Methone.

 

Naval Headlines

Naval Headlines 159, 1100 GMT, 8 December 1941. UK National Archives, HW1/308

Nevertheless, it is clear that in other circumstances, the Middle East command did play fast and loose with the protection of this secret (see this older post).

The incident is well described in the New Zealand Official History ‘Prisoners of War’:

On 8 December a large draft of 2100 had left on the Jantzen , an 8000-ton cargo vessel, with rations sufficient for the 36-hour dash across to Italy . In the middle of the next afternoon, just off Cape Methoni, near Pilos on the south-west coast of the Greek Peloponnese, she was struck by a torpedo in one of the forward holds. Five hundred or more of the prisoners packed there were killed, and the hatchboards falling in with men lying on them killed others as they crashed below. As soon as they had recovered from the shock of the explosion, men rushed to the decks up ropes or still usable ladders. The rugged coastline of Greece could be seen a mile or two away with heavy seas breaking on it, lashed by a bitterly cold wind.

The Italian captain and crew had taken themselves off in two of the three lifeboats, the other having capsized in launching, and some of the men jumped overboard in an attempt to swim to the shore. Nine New Zealanders reached one of the boats, which eventually made a nearby uninhabited island where they spent the night, and they were taken over to the mainland next day. Fifteen got away on a raft they had managed to launch, but more than half of these died of exposure. Meanwhile a German naval engineer had taken control of the ship, explaining to those on board that the engines would still go and that there was a good chance of reaching safety. He ordered everybody aft in order to keep the weight off the damaged bow and organised rescue parties to bring up to the officers’ quarters the injured from the lower decks. Although the wind and sea were still strong, the ship was brought in stern first and beached about 5 p.m. broadside on to an open piece of coast. In spite of the bitter cold many now swam the remaining fifty yards to the shore, and when darkness fell many others made their way to safety along ropes secured to the rocks.

Next day dawned fine, and those still on board came off in the remaining lifeboat or on stretchers slung to the ropes. A check made later showed that a little over two-thirds of the British prisoners had survived, the remainder (including 44 New Zealanders) having perished either in the explosion or in the events which followed.

Nlnzimage

Ship Sebastiano Venier aground at Point Methoni, Greece, New Zealand Archives PAColl-2242-1-2

Other Incidents

On 14 February 1942 the brand-new HM S/M P.38 (Lt. Hemingway) attacked a small convoy consisting of Italian steamer Ariosto, German Atlas, and escorts Ct Premuda (ex-Yugoslav Dubrovnik) and Tp Polluce. Ariosto was sunk, hit by two torpedoes, and going down after a few hours in the early hours of 15 February, with 138 Commonwealth POW are lost, almost half the contingent.

On 27 February 1942 the most famous of the Malta submarines, HM S/M Upholder (Lt.Cdr. Wanklyn, VC) sinks the old SS Tembien, launched in 1914.  390 out of 468 Commonwealth POW on board died.

In total therefore, over 800 POW are killed in these attacks, or around 10% of the number of POW taken during CRUSADER and the counter-offensive.

All three submarines undertaking the attack were to be lost with all hands during the war. HM S/M Porpoise was to become the last Royal Navy sub to be sunk by the enemy in the Malacca Straits in 1945. HM S/M P.38 was lost on 23 February on the patrol after she sank Ariosto in a counter-attack by Tp Circe.  HM S/M Upholder was sunk on 14 April 1942, possibly by Tp Pegaso, or she may have run on a mine.

It is of note that Tp Circe, a Spica-class escort destroyer, was already fitted with German S-Geraet active sonar and depth charges (see this older post). She was on a roll in February 1942, sinking HM S/SM Tempest on 13 February, and HM S/M P.38 on 23 February (misidentified as a ‘Unity-class’, presumably U-class), showing quite well the capability of the new equipment.  I have reports by the captain of Circe and a member of the German sonar crew, which I have posted at this link.

Many thanks go to Brian Sims who has researched this topic exhaustively, and to Barb Edy, whose father Don of No. 33 Squadron RAF was on the Ariosto as a POW, and suvrived the sinking. An account of her sinking by Don can be found in Don’s book ‘Goon in the Block’, which I would highly recommend.

Pizey

 

Captain G B H Fawkes with Commander (S) E F Pizey, DSC, RN. IWM16004 – Picture is part of a series showing the men and boats of the Submarine Flotilla in Algiers, February 1943, during their operations against Axis supply traffic to Tunisia.