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U-Boats in the Mediterranean

Once again, the submarine had taken a hand. At last the losses and demoralisation of Axis naval forces in the Mediterranean forced the Germans to allow some of their precious U-Boats to be transferred to the Mediterranean. When they arrived they found that the British anti-submarine tactics had grown rusty because of the poor performance of the Italians. The sequence of events was a grim lesson for the British, who had grown used to their freedom. The first important victim was the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, torpedoed in the Western Mediterranean by U81 and U205 on 13 November 1941. Next to go was the battleship Barham, torpedoed in the Eastern

Mediterranean by U331 on 25 November, and the light cruiser Galatea, sunk by U557 on 15 December.

The exploits of Italian submarines were hardly notable for their vigour, but in one area the Italian Navy showed not only ingenuity but great personal courage. During the First World War they had pioneered midget submarines as well as special assault craft for penetrating defended harbours. Profiting by this experience they developed the "Maiali" or "Pig", a torpedo-shaped small submersible craft which was controlled by two men wearing self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA gear). The operators rode the body of the craft, hence its nick-name of "human torpedo", but it differed from a torpedo in that it was simply a slow-moving underwater vehicle to allow two frogmen to move about an anchorage. The "warhead" was detached from the nose of the "pig" and then attached to any convenient projection on the bottom of the target vessel, such as a bilge keel, by clamps.

Italian "Pig" Human Torpedo. The best known of all midgets, these "Maiale" (Pigs) immobilised two British battleships at Alexandria in 1941. The forward operator was the commander, who had to control the craft, while the diver was responsible for placing the explosive. Speed: 2·8 to 3 knots; Endurance: 5-6 hours at full speed; Max diving depth: 50 ft

The "pigs" could not travel far, so the submarines Scire and Gondar were converted to carry three each in watertight containers on deck. After an abortive attempt against ships in Gibraltar in September 1941 the Scire was sent to Alexandria .two months later. On the night of 18 December she put her three crews over the side; as luck would have it a British cruiser was entering the harbour and so the three "pigs" were able to slip through the net defenses without any difficulty. They found their targets, the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant and an oiler, and duly placed their charges. Early the next morning the charges went off, causing heavy damage to the two battleships. Coming so soon after the other losses, it meant that the Royal Navy's heavy units in the Mediterranean had been wiped out, and that the Initiative had passed to the Germans and Italians.

Other events in the Far East were to add to the Royal Navy's problems. For on 7 December the Japanese had launched their crippling attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, and had followed this by sinking the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse. Aircraft, war ships and shipping had to be switched to the Far East, stripping the Mediterranean to the bone. The only naval forces left to harass the Axis supply lines were submarines, but now they had to operate in the face of enemy air superiority. Their base at Malta was under constant air attack, and it became necessary to submerge and lie on the bottom of the harbour by day, surfacing to recharge batteries at night.

As early as May 1941 Malta's position had been precarious, and so the minelaying submarine HMS Rorqual was sent on an experimental supply run. She took three weeks to convert at Alexandria, and finally sailed on 5 June with over 100 tons of urgently-needed stores, including high-octane fuel, kerosene and medical supplies. A second trip on 25 June showed that with careful attention to stowage even more fuel could be carried, and later in the year the fleet submarine Clyde took 1,200 tons of supplies, at a time when hardly any surface ships could get through. More runs were made by the Osiris, Porpoise and Urge, and by the middle of 1942 submarines had taken 65,000 tons into Grand Harbour, a staggering feat which was only matched by the efforts of the Japanese in the Pacific.

British Vivid. The "V" Class was a development of the "U" Class, but could dive deeper by virtue of having welded hulls. As the collapse of Italy in 1943 eliminated the need for small submarines many of this class were transferred to other Allied navies. Displacement: 545 tons (surfaced). Armament: Four 21-in torpedo-tubes; 8 torpedoes carried; one 3-in AA gun; 3 machine-guns. Speed: 12¾ knots (surfaced), 9 knots (submerged)


The experience of American submarine-commanders in the Pacific was vastly different from that of their German counterparts in the Atlantic. The Japanese stubbornly refused to convoy their ships and the American submarines were able to play havoc with their shipping - so much so, that submarines began to sink more escorts than escorts could sink submarines

The destruction and immobilisation of the United States Navy's battleships at Pearl Harbour left it with only two ways of carrying the war to the Japanese: carrier-borne aircraft and submarines. By December 1941 the USN had 113 submarines, of which 04 were elderly boats built during the First World War and suitable only for training and coastal work, nine large cruiser-submarines which were not mechanically reliable, and 40 newer submarines. Fortunately Congress had authorised a further 73 boats of which some 30 were actually under construction.

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