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.



Interview with Air Vice-Marshal Don ‘Pathfinder’ Bennett CB CBE DSO

In the fourth of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, Air Vice-Marshal Don ‘Pathfinder’ Bennett CB CBE DSO is interviewed by Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Tony Mason CB CBE DL at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, December 1980.

During the interview, Air Vice-Marshal Bennett discusses his experiences in the field of aerial navigation which eventually led to the formation of the legendary Pathfinder squadrons during WWII. Air Vice-Marshal Bennett transferred to the RAF from the Royal Australian Air Force in 1931 in order to broaden his flying experience. Although a gifted pilot in single-seat fighters, he had the ambition to fly large aircraft and subsequently transferred to Calshot to fly the Southampton, then the largest aircraft in the RAF.

During his time on the Flying Boats, he developed a passion for navigation, becoming an instructor before leaving the RAF to join Imperial Airways where he helped to develop many of the pioneering techniques that would later become commonplace. He re-joined the RAF in 1941, going on to command 77 Squadron, 10 Squadron and subsequently No. 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group. When he was promoted to Air Vice-Marshal in December 1943 he was the youngest person ever to hold the rank. He was considered by many to be ‘one of the most brilliant technical airmen of his generation: an outstanding pilot, a superb navigator who was also capable of stripping a wireless set or overhauling an engine’.

His book, The Complete Air Navigator: Covering the Syllabus for the Flight Navigator’s Licence, was considered by many to be the seminal text on the subject of aerial navigation when it was published in 1936. Viewers are asked to make allowance for the 1980s video quality as the subject matter is outstanding and adds significantly to the understanding of the history of the RAF.

Source – RAF YouTube site

Group Captain Leonard Cheshire interview

In the third of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, inspirational wartime leader and world-renowned humanitarian, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire VC OM DSO** DFC is interviewed by Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Tony Mason CB CBE DL at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, February 1978. During the interview Group Captain Cheshire discusses his now legendary record of achievements throughout his service during WWII.

Group Captain Cheshire received a commission as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on November 16th 1937. Although he demonstrated considerable prowess in training as a single seat pilot, by a vagary of the system he was destined to be posted to Bomber Command. During the War his command appointments included 76 Squadron, 617 Squadron, and RAF Marston Moor and he was, at one time, the youngest group captain in the RAF. By July 1944 he had completed a total of 102 missions, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation simply states: ‘Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader’.

After the war, Cheshire founded the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability and devoted the remainder of his life to pursuing humanitarian ideals. His obituary in the Independent (1992) declares that ‘LEONARD CHESHIRE was one of the most remarkable men of his generation, perhaps the most remarkable’.

Q&A with Battle of Britain veteran Group Captain Sir Hugh “Cocky” Dundas

In the second of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, Battle of Britain legend Group Captain Sir Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas CBE DSO* DFC presents his thoughts on ‘Leadership in War’ followed by an informal question and answer session at an after-dinner speech given circa 1991 at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell.

Group Captain Sir Hugh Dundas joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force as an acting-pilot officer in 1938 before being called up to active service upon the outbreak of the Second World War. Initially he served on 616 Squadron flying Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Is during the Battle of Britain fighting ‘hard and fiercely’ throughout. He went on to serve as a squadron commander and then subsequently as wing leader and had, by 1944, become one of the youngest Group Captains in the RAF at the age of just 24. In combat against the enemy he is credited with four aircraft destroyed while having shared in the destruction of another six as well as two probables.

He left the RAF in 1947 to pursue a successful career in the media. He has also published an autobiography, Flying Start: A Fighter Pilot’s War Years, describing his wartime experiences in great detail. In 1969 he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant for Surrey and in 1989 High Sheriff. Dundas married Enid Rosamond Lawrence in 1950 and together they had a son and two daughters.

Sir Hugh Dundas passed away on July 10th 1995.

September 23rd 1938 – British Anti-Aircraft Units Mobilise During Munich Crisis

On September 22nd 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler to discuss the issue of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After the political map of Europe was redrawn following World War I, many ethnic German speakers found themselves living in Czechoslovakia and Hitler had vowed to return them to the Fatherland. Chamberlain had agreed to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland but Hitler made demands that he wanted to seize Czechoslovakia completely.

Naturally, Czechoslovakia was opposed to this as were most European powers and began to mobilise for war. As the situation deteriorated, Britain began making preparations for war and on September 23rd 1938 the anti-aircraft units of the Territorial Army were activated.

Among the units mobilised were;

  • 26th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting London with just 41 AA guns
  • 35th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting the important naval base at Portsmouth
  • 42nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Glasgow
  • 43rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Teeside
  • 54th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting towns and cities in the West Midlands

Many of these units found themselves armed with little more than World War I Lewis machine guns until heavier weapons could be distributed to them.

The crisis was eventually resolved as far as Britain was concerned with the Munich Agreement  and Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to Hitler’s will. The Czechoslovak government could not hope to fight the Nazis alone and reluctantly agreed although they felt betrayed by Britain and France.

On September 30th 1938, Chamberlain returned to Britain and gave one of history’s most notorious speeches proclaiming “peace in our time” however the Territorial Army anti-aircraft units would remain mobilised right up until the following September when peace was finally shattered in dramatic fashion.

Restoration of a 1944 GMC – Crowdfunder Appeal

David Chambers and his father are looking for supporters of their project to restore this 1944 GMC 353 H1 tipper that he and his father have saved from the scrapheap. Based in South Wales, the father and son duo have saved and restored several US World War II vehicles in the past and displayed them at numerous events for enthusiasts and the public alike to experience these pieces of history first hand.

1944 GMC 353 H1 tipper

As well as helping restore the vehicle, there are benefits to donating a list of which can be found on the group’s crowdfunder page which you can link to below.


Just three of their collection.
I had the pleasure of viewing some of their impressive collection recently so I can I promise you they know what they are doing.

Do you have an event or charity you would like to promote on Defence of the Realm? If so then feel free to email the details to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. 


The Final Flight of Hampden TB.I AD729

This article was researched and written by request of Gareth Evans whose great uncle was Pilot Officer William Rees.

In the closing hours of January 11th 1943, a formation of bombers grumbled their way towards the Scottish coast. They were twelve Handley Page Hampdens of the Royal Australian Air Force’s No.455 Squadron attached to RAF Costal Command and based at RAF Leuchars, Fife. The aircraft were returning from a late afternoon anti-shipping operation off the Norwegian coast using the early darkness of winter to cover their escape back to Britain. No.455 Squadron was a veteran unit having a wealth of experience on the Hampden that ranged from minelaying to attacks on the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The previous year the squadron had also deployed to Russia to support the arctic convoys before training Russian crews on how to operate the aircraft.


No.455 Squadron Hampden (ADF-Signals)

By this stage in the war the Hampden was becoming increasingly obsolete. During the early operations, like much of Bomber Command’s aircraft it suffered horrendous losses at the hands of German fighters forcing them to switch almost exclusively to night operations. The exceptionally narrow fuselage and slab sided cabin earned it the affectionate nickname “The Flying Suitcase”. As more powerful and capable designs flooded Bomber Command’s ranks the Hampden saw increasing use by other services such as Coastal Command for maritime operations where the fighter threat was not perceived to be as great as over mainland Europe. Maritime duties had their own dangers however such as severe weather and the difficulty of navigating over large areas of sometimes featureless ocean.

Although an Australian squadron, like most British Commonwealth units there were a number of nationalities that made up the ranks of No.455 Squadron and this was typified by the crew of Hampden TB.I AD792/UB-P that wintry night. The only two actual Australians were wireless operator Sergeant Reginald Smithers and gunner Sergeant R.K. Spohn. At the controls was 22-year-old Flying Officer Phillip J. Hill from Gloucestershire who had joined the reserves before being called to active duty when war broke out and then posted to No.455 Squadron.

The navigator/bombardier was Pilot Officer William Rees who hailed from Abercarn in South Wales. Having attained a degree in Latin and Greek from Cardiff University, Rees had begun teaching shortly before the war broke out and decided to enlist in the RAF. He was soon made Sergeant (Aircrew) and having gained operational experience with Bomber Command was granted a commission and sent to Canada to train as a navigator as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (please take time to visit Pierre Lagacé’s blog about this program by clicking here). Upon completion of his training he was posted to No.455 Squadron which was fresh from its Russian endeavour. The night of January 11th 1943 was to be his first mission with the squadron.

At 2213hrs, the aircraft was instructed to turn on to a QDM (magnetic bearing) of 218 degrees to start the next leg of the return flight to Leuchars. Ground radio stations heard a brief response by Sergeant Smithers but it ended abruptly. After waiting for the aircraft to signal again they tried to re-establish contact but nothing came back. During the course of Smithers’ transmission, Hampden TB.I AD792 crashed in to a blackened Scottish hillside in Kincardeshire. Poor weather had obscured the view from the aircraft until it was too late and responding to the course change the aircraft came upon the sloping hillside which struck the Hampden under the nose.

Being in the forward section of the aircraft, Hill and Rees were both killed on impact. The two Australians survived the crash but while Spohn was able to clamber out of the wreckage, Smithers was in a bad way and couldn’t be moved.  Spohn was left with the agonising decision of either remaining with his comrade and hope they were found soon or leaving him there and trying to find help. He chose the latter and set off in to the night walking for several hours before he was finally able to contact Leuchars and get help for Smithers. Smithers was rescued in the early hours of the morning and rushed to hospital but sadly his injuries were too severe and exactly a week later he succumb to them and died.

Flying Officer Phillip Hill was buried in Fettercairn cemetery while Sergeant Reginald Smithers was buried at Leuchars. Pilot Officer William Rees’ body was returned to Abercarn in Wales and Spohn travelled down to attend his funeral and meet his family. Spohn himself returned to flight operations and survived the war, returning home to Australia where he lived out his life until he passed away in 1995.