The Definition of WWII Courage: Meet the Submarine HMS Upholder

By Beadell, S J (Lt) Royal Navy official photographer - This is photograph A 18836 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-01), Public Domain,
August 8, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MediterraneanSubmarineHMS UpholderNorth AfricaWorld War II

The Definition of WWII Courage: Meet the Submarine HMS Upholder

This spunky submarine did its bit for the Royal Navy to put an end to Hitler's plans.

Key Point: This submarine helped as best it could. Unfortunately, despite the valour of its crew, it was lost with all hands.

She was a tiny vessel, not really designed for the dangers and hardships of war in far places and deep waters. She was intended for short-range war in coastal waters, and accordingly, she was classed as a “Small Patrol Submarine,” as were the other boats in her class. She carried a crew of only 31, and was slow and under-armed compared to her larger sisters in the British Royal Navy and other navies of the world, and she could not dive below 200 feet, which would leave her terribly vulnerable in clear water … like that of the Mediterranean. Only 196 feet long, she could do no more than 111/2 knots on the surface and just nine submerged.

The Sub With The Funny Nose

She was the tenth of the U-class subs, and so, unlike later U-class boats, she carried not only four internal bow tubes, but a curious pair of external tubes, also at the bow. These two additional tubes resulted in a bulbous snout, which made the boat hard to manage when she fired a torpedo salvo in shallow water. The exterior tubes were phased out in later U-class boats.

She carried only eight torpedoes altogether, 21-inch Mark 8s normally loaded four at a time. They were primitive weapons by today’s standards, running straight ahead at about 45 knots without any homing capability. Aiming was accomplished by pointing the whole boat, estimating the target’s speed, calculating its angle-on-the-bow, and then firing a spread of “kippers,” standard Royal Navy slang for torpedoes. The submarine skipper got a little help from a contraption called ISWAS—later replaced by something nicknamed “the fruit machine”—which helped calculate the lead angle along which to aim. Firing from 1,000 yards, the submarine’s crew could hope to hear the “whump!” of a hit—or know they had missed—within about 40 seconds.

Hard Life Of a Submariner

Hers was a hazardous business. Life on any submarine was grueling, often downright miserable, and the undersea service was the most dangerous duty there was. While Royal Navy submarine losses did not reach the hideously high percentage suffered by the German Kriegsmarine, more than 70 British boats were lost during the course of World War II, over 40 of these in the Mediterranean.

Axis Mediterranean convoys were normally well escorted, and any British submarine could expect prolonged depth-charging. The torpedoes of the day left a clearly visible track on the surface of the water, and the convoy escorts would invariably charge down that track to counterattack. Barrages of 20, 30, or more depth-charges were common and often lethal. HMS Upholder, tiny as she was, still would prove to be a giant among warships, and her commander was equal to his tough little boat.

Indian-born Malcolm David Wanklyn was a career sailor, a product of British public schools and the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.Tall and lean, a superb horseman and enthusiastic naturalist, he was a quiet, reserved man, generally obscured behind a large and foul briar pipe. He was, a fellow officer said, “a very strict disciplinarian … and he never set out to be popular with anybody…. But for all that, he was utterly straight with the Ship’s Company … and they all came to love him for it.” He was the sort of officer for whom sailors will dare anything at all.

Slow Progress In British Sub Development

After World War I, the Royal Navy scrapped a great many submarines, retaining two types of patrol submarines: the short-range H boats and the L-types, which were designed for longer range work. Although some of both types would see action in the early days of World War II—Wanklyn himself would command two H-class boats—they were becoming obsolescent. The H submarines, for instance, could not dive safely beyond 100 feet, an almost suicidal limitation in World War II. Nevertheless, there was little new construction until the mid-1920s.

Even then, some of the boats produced for the Navy were peculiar hybrids of no permanent value, for instance, X1, which carried four 5.2 inch guns in twin-tube turrets, and M1, which lugged around a clumsy great 12-inch gun taken out of an old battleship. Another M-boat carried an airplane. There were also the ungainly K-class boats, powered by steam. Though they would do the astonishing speed of 24 knots surfaced, they were about 340 feet long, hard to handle, and only safe down to 200 feet. The submarine service cherished the story of a K-boat skipper who telephoned his first officer in this wise: “Number One, my end is diving—what the hell is your end doing?”

Skipper Observed Atrocities During Spanish Civil War

The O, R, and P classes were bigger boats, designed as a counter to Japanese imperialism in the Far East. They were built to remain at sea for long periods over great distances. Wanklyn’s first assignment was to one of these boats, HMS Oberon, and he went on to command two obsolete H-class boats as well. In time he graduated to the new S class boats, Shark and Sealion.

In 1937 Wanklyn and Shark served in the Mediterranean at the height of the Spanish Civil War. There he learned about oppression first hand, watching German and Italian pilots striking targets in Spain. He had no use for either side in the local conflict. “Both committed atrocities,” he told his sister, “but marginally Franco’s lot were the worst.” Nothing the western democracies were willing to do could halt the agony of Spain, or halt sinkings of provision ships by German and Italian boats.

Obsolete From Birth

Upholder was laid down at the Vickers-Armstrong yards in the first autumn of the war at Barrow-in-Furness in northwest England. She was only one of 49 U-class submarines produced during World War II. While the U-class were arguably obsolete even in 1939, they were agile, tough, and easy to build. Production therefore continued. She was launched in July 1940 and completed in October, and her first—and last—captain was Lt. Cmdr. Wanklyn.

In obsolete submarine H31, Wanklyn—“Wanks” to his friends—had already spent some time on war patrol, sinking a German antisubmarine vessel off the Dutch coast. Now, he was on his way to the most dangerous submarine port in the world: Malta.

In January 1941, when Upholder arrived at her new duty station, British submarine operations out of Malta were not going well. Nine boats had been lost so far, with more than 400 crew members. Old boats mostly, they had tried to operate in a sea swarming with Italian surface vessels plus German submarines, and saturated with minefields.

Mediterranean Crucial To Britain’s War Plans

The relatively shallow Mediterranean was the most dangerous submarine theater of the war, but the survival of Malta was crucial to British operations in the Med. If Malta’s surface forces, aircraft, and submarines could consistently interdict supplies destined for Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the British could hold the littoral of the southern coast of the Med and bar the Axis’s way to Egypt. If they could not, Egypt might be lost, and with it the Suez Canal, the oilfields of the Near East … and perhaps the war. The fight for Malta would involve enormous sacrifice by the RAF, the Royal Navy, the crews of dozens of merchantmen, and, not least, the citizens of the embattled island.

The battle for the Med was, as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo, “a damned close-run thing.” At one point, the entire functional aviation component of Malta’s defenses was three obsolete Gladiator biplane fighters, called, with typical British optimism, Faith, Hope, and Charity. Torpedoes were in short supply; food was tightly rationed; the Navy’s ration was one slice of bread per meal, exactly what the civilian population of the island ate. Even the supply of beer, that staple of the British seaman, was scant to nonexistent. British sailors instead drank an explosive local brew called “ambeet” or, more appropriately, “stuka juice.”

Upholder Thrown Into Fray At Malta

Upholder and her little consorts would play a major role in the Allies’ rupture of the Afrika Korps’ supply lines. It would be a long, hard road, studded with tragic losses, and Upholder began it the hard way. On January 10, just four days after the boat’s arrival, the Germans began the “second siege” of Malta, hurling waves of dive-bombers against shipping in the harbor and vessels at sea. Among these was carrier HMS Illustrious, already badly hurt by six bombs at sea, and the center of an extended assault in mid-January.

As clouds of German and Italian aircraft descended on Malta, Upholder had the misfortune to be moored next to Illustrious. As every gun on Malta hurled steel at the attackers, and Upholder joined in with her Lewis guns, the carrier was deluged with bombs, sometimes almost hidden by monstrous columns of water and sheets of spray. She took one bomb, but she survived. The ship’s company of Upholder were unhurt, but they had come very close. Lying near the submarine was merchantman Essex. She was loaded with 4,000 tons of torpedoes and ammunition, and was struck by a bomb in the engine room. Her bulkheads contained the explosion, although she took 38 casualties. Had the bomb’s explosion broken through to her cargo Upholder and her crew would have been destroyed by the resulting blast.