January 28th 1941 – Italian submarine sinks British steamer Urla west of Ireland

The discussion of Britain’s battle with Italy during World War Two is often confined to the Mediterranean and North African theaters. However, Mussolini’s forces also attacked Britain directly and even committed aircraft to support the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. An even less-known fact is that Italian submarines supported the German Kriegsmarine in their siege of Britain in an effort to strangle her of vital war supplies from across the Atlantic.

One such Italian submarine was the Marconi-class Luigi Torelli which was launched five months before Italy would declare war on Britain and France in support of Germany. After completing its shakedown cruise and the training of its crew the Luigi Torelli sailed for German-occupied Bordeaux to join up with the small Italian submarine flotilla based there. Italian fortunes in the Atlantic didn’t often mirror their German counterparts but the Luigi Torelli would prove an exception when over the course of January 15th-16th 1941, the submarine attacked and sank three ships from a convoy over 400 miles west of Rockall; a British islet west of Scotland and south of Iceland. A fourth ship was attacked but escaped destruction.

Four days before this incident, the 17-year old 5,198-ton steamer Urla departed Halifax in Canada with convoy HX 102 carrying a load of steel and lumber bound for Manchester. The crossing was not an easy one for the 42 men of the Urla which struggled to keep pace with the rest of the convoy. The North Atlantic weather had battered HX 102 and a number of ships had to turn back to Canada to join HX 103 when the weather improved. The Urla pressed on but soon found itself straggling behind the others by the time the convoy approached the British Isles toward the end of the month.

Urla Luigi Torelli north atlantic submarine sinking italian navyOn January 28th, the Urla had the misfortune to stumble across the Luigi Torelli on patrol to the west of Ireland (Right). The Italian submarine fired on the Urla, scoring a direct hit on the ship which soon began to sink but incredibly not before all 42 crewmembers managed to safely launch their lifeboats.

While the war was over for the Urla, it was far from over for the Luigi Torelli. The Italian submarine would be on the receiving end of an attack when on the night of June 3rd 1942, it was bombed by an RAF Vickers Wellington using its powerful Leigh light searchlight 70 miles off the Spanish coast. It suffered considerable damage but managed to reach the port of Avilés in the north of neutral Spain but was damaged again shortly after in an attack by a Royal Australian Air Force Short Sunderland as it attempted to reach Bordeaux forcing it back to Spain for more repairs.

In 1943, the submarine was one of four Italian boats assigned to join a German mission to the Far East to sneak through Allied naval patrols to acquire vital war material from the Japanese in Asia. During the mission, the Italian government joined with the Allies and the submarine was interned by the Japanese. It was then taken on charge by a mixed German-Italian crew to combat the Allies in the Far East under the German flag as U.IT.25. It served the German Navy in the Far East up until Germany’s surrender in 1945 after which the submarine was then taken on by the Japanese as I-504. The submarine and her Italian sister Comandante Cappellini were the only two ships to fly the flags of all three main Axis powers during the course of World War II.

With the war nearly over, the service life of I-504 was relatively short. Based in Kobe, Japan it was damaged in a major air raid on the city by USAAF B-29 Superfortress bombers on July 15th 1945; less than 24 hours after its new Japanese captain had assumed command. The I-504 is credited as probably the last warship of the Axis powers to score a victory over the Allies when in the waning days of the war its deck guns shot down a B-25 Mitchell bomber that was raiding the harbour.

On August 30th, the I-504 was formally surrendered to the Allies ending the submarine’s war for good. On April 16th 1946, the submarine was taken out in to the Kii Channel east of the city of Tokushima and scuttled. A sad end to the story of an incredible warship.



Italian diver claims to have found lost Royal Navy submarine

HMS P311 T-class submarine.jpg

An Italian diver has claimed to have discovered the wreck of HMS P311, a British T-class submarine lost during World War II, off the coast of Sardinia. The diver, Massimo Bondone, stumbled upon the wreck laying at a depth of 262ft off the island of Tavolara.

HMS P311, under the command of Commander Richard “Deadeye Dick” Cayley, disappeared sometime between December 30th 1942 and January 8th 1943 having been part of an operation to attack two Italian cruisers anchored at La Maddalena in Sardinia. It has long been suspected the sub was lost to an Italian mine. The vessel was due to be given the name HMS Tutankhamun after a directive by Churchill that all British submarines were to have names to distinguish them from German U-boats in the eyes of the British public but was lost before the renaming ceremony could take place.

The Royal Navy told the BBC that they are investigating the claim by Bondone.

Submarine Patrol (1943)

U-boats are evil. Submarines are good.

That’s the general impression the Royal Navy wanted to give the public during the war. The fact that Germany’s submarines were called U-boats helped distinguish them in propaganda films such as this even when tactics and operations by both sides differed only little. Nevertheless this is a fascinating – if somewhat scripted – account of RN submarine operations during the war.


A U-Boat in the Royal Navy (Part 1)

A U-Boat in the Royal Navy (Part 2) >
A U-Boat in the Royal Navy (Part 3) >
HMS Graph

Part 1 – The RAF’s Prize

It has long been a tradition among the world’s major navies to capture enemy vessels and then impress them in to service against their former masters. It is a tactic as old as naval warfare itself and it allows a navy to replenish its losses quickly and remove a threat all at the same time. In the 20th century naval weapons had evolved to such a point where their destructive power was such that it was very unlikely that an enemy ship could be captured in such a good condition that it could be used again. However there were some isolated incidents that resulted in the taking of enemy ships as war prizes.


One such incident was the case of U-570, a Type-VIIC U-Boat launched on the 20th March 1941. Having failed to crush the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, Hitler knew that Britain had to be starved in to submission and the way to do that was to flood the Atlantic with U-Boats to intercept the supplies from the United States that were effectively keeping the country in the fight. The Germans were certainly capable of turning out some impressive U-Boats that were either the equal or superior of their allied equivalents. Unfortunately for Hitler a tool is only as good as the person using it and in 1941 there was a severe shortage of experienced crews to man the increasing numbers of U-Boats. U-570 was a prime example of this. Of her 48 crew only 4 of them had actually undertaken a combat patrol in a U-Boat before joining U-570. Her commanding officer, Hans Jochiam-Rahmlow, was not one of them having only ever undertaken a single training patrol onboard U-58 and then another training patrol during the work up to U-570 becoming operational. His previous experience was not even on a surface ship but on a defensive shore battery. 38 of the crew were new to the German Navy and had almost no previous experience. This was the situation that Jochiam-Rahmlow found himself in when he and his U-Boat left for their first patrol on August 24th 1941. Confidence was still quite high however as the technology and tactics the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were using to destroy U-Boats was still maturing and successes were infrequent.


Things were slowly changing for RAF’s Coastal Command however. Having been known as the “Cinderella Service” because of its hand-me-down aircraft that weren’t always suited to its needs they were now getting far more capable types tailored for their requirements. One such aircraft was the American-built Lockheed Hudson; one of those great designs that has had little fanfare outside the annals of military aviation (see above picture). The Hudson gave Coastal Command an aircraft with respectable enough range to roam the northern approaches near Iceland to try and catch the U-Boats on their way in to the Atlantic where there was still a gap in air cover. In terms of spotting the U-Boat there was still a degree of luck involved. On the morning of August 27th 1941, a Hudson of No.269 Squadron flown by Sergeant (Aircrew) Mitchell was about to get very lucky and then very unlucky. His aircraft was patrolling south of Iceland when they spotted a U-Boat on the surface in the early hours of the morning; it was U-570. He swung his aircraft down to attack with bombs but the racks failed to eject them and U-570 escaped. Jochiam-Rahmlow elected to keep his U-Boat underwater for a few hours even after the Hudson had given up and returned to base. This was as much to do with offering the crew a break from the rolling of a U-Boat on the surface as it was to stay undetected; a large number of the inexperienced crew had become incapacitated by sea sickness.

Type VII

At 10:50am he decided it was time to resurface. The U-Boat broke through the water and Jochiam-Rahmlow climbed out of the hatch in to the North Atlantic air. A strange sound greeted him; a loud buzzing. Then to his horror he realized that he had surfaced his U-Boat directly beneath another No.269 Squadron Hudson. Terror-stricken, he tried to get below and dive again but this Hudson’s weapons were working perfectly. U-570 was only partially submerged when the Hudson dropped a stick of four depth charges around the submarine shaking it violently to the point where it almost rolled over and it had lost all electrical power. The air quickly became contaminated making it impossible for the crew to survive submerged and so the decision was taken to surface once again perhaps hoping that the Hudson had gone. It hadn’t. The Hudson saw U-570 surface and being out of bombs or depth charges the aircraft resorted to straffing it with its machine guns. Jochiam-Rahmlow wanted to have his men take their anti-aircraft positions but it was obvious that to do so would be suicide and fearing another depth charge attack (not knowing the Hudson had none left) he ordered his men to hold up a large white sheet. The crew of the Hudson couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw that their quarry were surrendering.


An RAF Catalina flying boat was scrambled to the scene so it could land near the U-Boat and accept the surrender. However while the Hudson waited for the Catalina, Jochiam-Rahmlow radioed his situation to German Naval Command who immediately sent out signals to other U-Boats in the area instructing them to go to U-570’s position and assist in their rescue. The German crew then began destroying their radio and coding equipment before it could fall in to British hands. U-570’s message was uncoded however and the British Admiralty intercepted it. A race was now on between the Royal Navy and the German Kriegsmarine to get to the scene first. The Hudson ran out of fuel and so the Catalina took over guarding the submarine until Allied ships arrived while her crew remained onboard. The Catalina was ordered that if no vessel turned up before sunset the aircraft was to signal the U-570 ’​s crew to abandon her after which the Catalina would destroy it. As it happened the first vessel to reach the U-boat was HMT Northern Chief which was guided to the scene by flares dropped by the Catalina. The Captain of Northern Chief was determined to make sure the Germans didn’t scuttle their ship warning he would fire on them if he saw any effort to sabotage the vessel.


The crew of U-570 repeatedly requested to be taken off the U-Boat but the request was refused partly because of space concerns aboard the armed trawler and partly because the Northern Chief’s captain believed they were less likely to scuttle the U-Boat if they remained onboard. The next day disaster nearly struck when an aircraft belonging to No.330 (Norwegian) Squadron spotted the U-Boat and the Northern Chief unaware of what was happening and attacked exchanging fire with the Northern Chief. Fortunately the attack was ineffective and there were no casualties. Additional vessels arrived on the scene including a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer and U-570 was taken under tow to Iceland arriving on the 29th August. The Kriegsmarine had lost the race to svae their comrade.

The RAF and the Royal Navy now had a fully intact German U-Boat.

A U-Boat in the Royal Navy (Part 2) >
A U-Boat in the Royal Navy (Part 3) >