MALTA AND HER SUBMARINES

The Mediterranean was always a difficult operating environment for submarines because of the clear blue waters {easily seen dived by high flying aircraft}, the temperature of the sea {where sound wave - ASDICS and propeller noises known as HE {hydrophone effect} - performed less well than in the icy waters of the Atlantic], the obvious submarine bases, and the known [prior to the Italian surrender] 'attack routes'  from the European mainland to the African Mainland. For these reasons, the Submarine Depot Ships had to duck and dive [figuratively speaking] accordingly. The siege of Malta, though horrendous, was restricted to a relatively small time frame [1940-1942] but my God, did they suffer with both the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica [Italian Air Force] pounding the Island day and night without respite.

This meant that the resident submarine Depot Ship could not stay in Malta. With its boats alongside it was 'a sitting duck', so two distinct things happened in this dreadful year. First off was that the Depot Ship had to leave the Island and re-locate.  Second off, all submarines left in Malta had to be independent of berth or buoyage and were ordered to dive in their static positions when air raids were known to be approaching. This meant that the crews had to be at almost permanent 'war diving stations' ready if needed to dive, not just by the crew [diving stations] or by those on watch [watch diving] as would be expected at sea, but to dive by the few that happened to be onboard when the Axis forces decided to attack, particularly at Grand Harbour. This was designed to be a panacea for all the losses hitherto taken by submarines tied alongside, whether jetties or Mother Ship's.

Submarine Depot Ships were of many different shapes and sizes from the period pre WW1, right through until the late 1970's with HMS Forth, now renamed HMS Defiance at Devonport being the last {decommissioned in 1978 and scrapped in 1985} with the others, Maidstone and Adamant going much earlier to the scrap-yards, the former in 1978 and the latter in 1970. Those who knew of HMS Dolphin {Fort Blockhouse at Gosport} will recall such names as Vulcan, Hazard, Alecto, Thames, Pandora etc., blocks which served admin, dining and accommodation for submariners. These were revered names of either submarines or submarine Depot Ships of long ago. Many of these names saw service in Malta or in the Mediterranean and are worthy of remembering.

From pre WW1 to post WW1, Malta had several Depot Ship's/Tenders including the old HMS Adamant and the old HMS Maidstone. The longest serving Depot Ship for the Island was HMS Cyclops, 1926-1939. HMS Maidstone took over but soon moved from Malta, moving first to Gibraltar for a short stay, and then to Algeria for a longer stay in Algiers Harbour taking with her The C-in-C Mediterranean. There, the Brits controlled their naval operations for the years 1941 to 1943. This led to a very rare sight indeed. On January 21 1943, at 0800 sharp, the C-in-C's Flag {the St George's Cross} was hauled down in the Flagship {Maidstone} and in its place the Union Flag was hoisted. Why? Because on that day, the C-in-C, Andrew Browne CUNNINGHAM was promoted to an Admiral of the Fleet, the Union Flag being a five-star officers personal Flag.  Also in 1940, HMS Medway served in the Mediterranean as a submarine Depot Ship.  At the end of 1943, Maidstone was re-appointed to the East Indies Station. From 1943 to 1946 when the pressure was off Malta {the Italians having surrendered}, several ships came and went acting as the Island's Depot Ship but all for relatively short periods.

In March 1946 HMS Wolfe went to Malta as the submarine Depot Ship and left in late 1948.

Her place was taken by HMS Forth who remained in Malta until the 1st October 1960. When she left to much ceremony, she was flying her paying off pennant, locally made costing £15 and measuring 550 feet long.

She was followed by HMS Narvik, still in Msida Creek [1960-1962]. She was replaced by HMS Ausonia but in Lazaretto Creek from 1962 until Ausonia left on the 7th August 1964, when submarines ceased to be stationed in the Mediterranean, being deployed there from other squadrons. The only RN presence shown in the PINK LIST for January 1965 was the carrier HMS Centaur with the 27th Escort Squadron, the 7th Minesweeping Squadron and a TRV [Torpedo Recovery Vessel] - no submarines based in the Mediterranean.  Also in 1965, the post of Flag Officer Flotillas Mediterranean ended. Britain fulfilled its NATO obligation in the Mediterranean thereafter, and Brit submarines were often controlled from the steel town of Bagnoli, five miles north of Naples in Italy, the base of COMSUBMED, a Command within the AFSOUTH organisation, which had a small British staff including British naval communicators. Ausonia relieved the Ranpura which arrived in 1953 to relieve HMS Tyne, and left on the 13th November 1958. Both the Ranpura and the Ausonia were former luxury liners which were taken over as armed merchant cruisers at the onset of WW2 and were subsequently converted to heavy repair ships. On the 31st July 1964, FOSM signalled to Captain SM5 [in Ausonia] "The departure of the submarine division from the Mediterranean brings to a close an era studded with honour."

Ivor Rothwell, a long time resident of Australia, was a Commander R.A.N., in the Communications Branch, an ex R.N., Telegraphist/RCI and a one time submariner. There were not many of his kind! He has kindly supplied me with the following information.  Ivor was the A/SCO and Miles Rivett-Carnac was the SCO to SMS MED [see below] where the letters 'CO' stand for Communications Officer and the letter 'S', in this case, stands for "Staff": in private ships, it stands for "Ship's" but it can also mean "Squadron" depending upon the appointment of the Captain of that ship e.g., as Captain 'D' or Captain 'F' etc. The letter 'A' stands for "Assistant".

In August of that year {1960} we lost some of our submarines and became the 5th Submarine Division {swapping places with HMS Dolphin who took our 1st Submarine Division title to the UK} which, with the 108th Minesweeping Squadron, formed the composite command “Submarines and Minesweepers Mediterranean (SMS MED) under the command of our former Captain SM1, Captain R.L. (“Robbie”) Alexander DSC.  The LST HMS NARVIK replaced FORTH, which returned to the UK, and our home base was Msida Creek, with NARVIK at the head of the creek, submarines alongside and at a couple of berths alongside, whilst the minesweepers were secured between buoys in column through the creek.  We also had the coastal minelayer HMS MINER VI as part of the Command.  MS108 was another Communicator, Commander George Bowers.

 

Miles {Rivett-Carnac - click here for more details A_FAMOUS_NAVAL_FAMILY } left the Command in the latter part of 1961 with his wife April and their two children, Lucinda and James.  He was a thoroughly nice man, kind, considerate, understanding and scrupulously fair.  I liked him enormously and he was an exceptional superior.  Not only was he a very knowledgeable Communications sub-specialist and Seaman Officer, he was (as you know), a first-rate sportsman who seemed to be able to play any game skilfully.  I only saw him once again, in HMS MERCURY before he left to assume command of HMS WOOLASTON. 

 

His place in SMS MED was taken by a New Zealander, Lieutenant Peter Wright RNZN, another good all-round Communicator, sportsman and friend.  We then had another drastic change, in moving to HMS AUSONIA in Lazaretto Creek, taking our Submarine Division and Minesweeping Squadron with us.  These moves went to prove the great versatility of the RN in being able to adjust and combine such diverse operational activities as submarines and minesweepers. 

 

I am attaching two photographs of NARVIK, Submarines and Minesweepers in Msida Creek, one from astern and one from ahead.  MINER VI, which I used to navigate when she went away from Malta, must have been at sea on one of her unending Torpedo Recovery tasks as she isn’t in these pictures.  

This picture shows Narvik with her dual role as submarine and minesweeper Depot Ship laying in Msida Creek with Whitehall Mansions [off screen] to the right

 and this picture

with Whitehall Mansions on the left.

These pictures come from the NA.

The sight of submarines and 'sweepers together in Msida Creek had been observed long before Narvik took centre place in the pictures above. This below, is of HMS Forth, with HMS Striker alongside with boats and 'sweepers suckling up to Mum.

An unusual shot of small vessels in Msida Creek with Whitehall Mansions in full view over to the right. It shows vessels of MS108 at individual buoys emulating the berths for frigates and destroyers in Sliema Creek, which extends the effective use of the Msida Creek into Marsamxett Harbour.
 

After Narvik came the Ausonia, seen here leaving Grand Harbour

But the daddy of them all in terms of years in Malta, beating the Forth by some ten months, was HMS Cyclops 1926-1939

The immediate post war Depot Ship was HMS Wolfe 1946-1948

HMS Ausonia in Lazaretto Creek

 HMS Forth in Msida Creek

HMS Tyne in Lazaretto Creek

HMS Ranpura in Lazaretto Creek

 

At the end of March 1969, the last RN ships based on Malta, the 6th MCM Squadron sailed away from Manoel Island.