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.

21 thoughts on “Sinking of HM Submarine P.38 – 23 February 1942

    • This appears to have been Pallade in fact. I have a report by her captain about a successful attack made with sonar on an enemy submarine on 16 February. It should be noted however that no Royal Navy submarine was lost between HMS Tempest (Circe, 13 February) and HMS P.38.

  1. Thanks. I am interested to know at what date Italian ships started to get sonars. I have information that Albatros and the 4 Pegaso/Orsa class had Italian sets at war start, but would like to know when German DC’s and sonar started to be installed.

    • I believe da Mosto may have been the first, if not one of the first, meaning the programme would have started in the second half of 1941, probably in reaction to the effect of Royal Navy submarines on the convoy routes. Commanders of the vessels were sent to a training course at the Kriegsmarine’s ASW school in the Baltic Sea area, and I believe again that the equipment was put in during scheduled maintenance/dock time (e.g. for boiler cleaning or whatever).

  2. My data agree with second part of 1941. I am just looking for more deatils. Another doubt is if Italians sets were employed too. Some sources say so but in a vague way.

  3. Pingback: HMS Cachalot - World War 2 Talk

  4. Hi, I wonder if anyone could help me with an enquiry about P38 and Tempest? I’m writing a book about Irlam and Cadishead’s involvement in WW2. One of our local men, Harry Cromwell Whitfield served aboard Submarine Tempest which was sank on 13th February 1942. 23 survivors (of 61 crew) were picked up by the Italian Destroyer Circe and taken as POWs. However, Harry’s date of death is 23rd February, ten days after the sinking of Tempest. The only submarine sank on 23rd was P38. Using Geoff’s Search Engine, I found that 38 members of HM Tempest are listed on the CWGC but only three of them were killed on 13th. All the rest were 23rd! I can’t work out what happened. Does anyone know. Any help/advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Cheers
    Pete

  5. Pingback: The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea « The Crusader Project

  6. i believe my uncle Sam Butler was killed on the p38,could anyone confirm this as i cannot find the names of any of the men.thank you

    • Dear Val

      Your uncle was indeed one of the men who died when P.38 was sunk by Circe. The full list is appended below. MPK stands for ‘Missing, presumed Killed’.

      With kind regards

      Andreas

      From: http://www.naval-history.net/xDKCas1942-02FEB.htm

      P.38, submarine, lost
      ATKINSON, Leonard, Able Seaman, D/JX 238569, MPK
      BECKETT, Stanley W, Petty Officer Telegraphist, P/J 112814, MPK
      BENFIELD, George E, Act/Petty Officer, P/JX 128783, MPK
      BRIGHTMAN, Leonard, Able Seaman, RFR (Pens), C/J 97384, MPK
      BROWN, Leonard J, Stoker 1c, C/KX 96835, MPK
      BUTLER, Samuel, Able Seaman, D/JX 188247, MPK
      DURNELL, Clarence W, Engine Room Artificer 5c, D/MX 75078, MPK
      EDWELL, Ernest R, Leading Seaman, RFR, C/J 101500, MPK
      EUSTACE, David A, Lieutenant, MPK
      FERGUSON, Arthur J, Telegraphist, P/JX 153630, MPK
      GOVER, Richard E, Able Seaman, C/JX 190485, MPK
      GRAY, Alan M, Sub Lieutenant, MPK
      GUEST, George, Ty/Act/Leading Stoker, D/KX 90669, MPK
      HALLSWORTH, Arthur S, Able Seaman, D/JX 186407, MPK
      HEMINGWAY, Rowland J, Lieutenant, MPK
      JACKSON, William, Stoker 2c, D/SKX 1233, MPK
      KERR, Walter T, Stoker Petty Officer, P/KX 81825, MPK
      LAWLER, Peter J A, Able Seaman, C/JX 221120, MPK
      MARRABLE, Donald L, Engine Room Artificer 2c, C/MX 50282, MPK
      MERCER, Cornelius A G, Ty/Act/Leading Telegraphist, D/KX 148281, MPK
      MERKEL, Phillip T, Petty Officer, P/JX 130551, MPK
      PIDGEON, Stephen A, Lieutenant, RNR, MPK
      PORTEOUS, Kenneth, Stoker 1c, C/KX 92187, MPK
      ROBINSON, Alfred H, Leading Telegraphist, C/JX 133890, MPK
      RONALD, George H, Able Seaman, C/SSX 26013, MPK
      SALTER, Charles H, Able Seaman, P/JX 145845, MPK
      SCHRODER, John C, Chief Engine Room Artificer, C/M 35645, MPK
      SCOUSE, Eric O, Able Seaman, P/JX 139585, MPK
      SHIPLEY, Philip, Stoker 1c, C/KX 111361, MPK
      TURNBULL, Frederick, Able Seaman, C/SSX 20030, MPK
      WALLACE, John, Ty/Act/Leading Stoker, C/KX 75404, MPK
      WEAVER, James, Ordinary Signalman, D/SSX 29182, MPK

  7. Hi Andreas
    My uncle was Donald Leonard Marrable who died with the rest of his crew on P38. The information on your site is fascinating. I wonder if you have any more details on Donald in particular? I will be referencing you site in my own private publication at some point, I hope that is OK?

    Good luck with your book.
    Dee

  8. Hello.
    I would like to point out a few mistakes in writing down some Italian names and words.
    The correct term with which the Circe was classified was “Torpediniera” (although “torpediniere” exists in Italian, it was used more as an adjective than a noun).
    The correct rank for its commander would be “Capitano di Corvetta” (“Corvette” is the plural form of the noun).
    The name of an Italian destroyer cited is actually “Antoniotto Usodimare”.

    Sorry if this seems nitpicking, but I value correctness, and I’m trying to help the quality of the already excellent work and analysis done here.

  9. Pingback: Use of German Sonar on Italian vessels – Pt. 2 | The Crusader Project

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