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Upholder Sank 129,529 Tons Of Axis Ships

The ship and her company are gone; the example and inspiration remain.

The name of Her Majesty's Submarine Upholder is inseparably linked to the name of her Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander W. D. Wanklyn VC DSO and 2 Bars RN. Upholder, under Wanklyn's command, was perhaps the most successful British submarine of the Second World War Lt. Cdr. Wanklyn was Upholder's captain throughout the whole of her short life, from her completion at Barrow in 1940 until she was lost on April 14, 1942.

Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn, VC, DSO and Two Bars, Royal Navy
Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn, VC, DSO and Two Bars, Royal Navy

The U Class submarines were, even by World War II standards, small. They were in fact almost exactly the same size as the E Class submarines of the 1914-18 war.

The armament consisted of four 21-inch torpedo tubes in the bow and eight torpedoes. A 12-pounder gun was mounted for'ard of the fin and three machine guns could be fitted into brackets on the bridge for air defence or for covering boarding parties. As quite often happened, these parties were sent across to small ship's that were not worth a torpedo but which could be sunk with a few explosive charges.

The relatively small size of the U Class made these boats very manoeuvrable divers, easy to handle on the surface and quick to submerge. It took well under 30 seconds to reach periscope depth from the time of pressing the klaxon on the bridge.

Malcolm Wanklyn took command of Upholder while she was still under construction at Vickers. After trials and a short working up period the boat left the UK to join the Malta submarine flotilla in December 1940.

She operated from Malta for the whole of her single commission. Malta was under constant attack from the air at this time, and submariners suffered from the lack of proper rest in between their arduous patrols.

The submarines, too, suffered from a lack of proper maintenance although miracles were achieved by the base staff. Fortunately Upholder had been well built and suffered very few defects.

On her first patrol in January 1941 Upholder succeeded in damaging the 8,000 ton Duisburg and also sank a 5,000 ton supply ship. On her second day out she had attacked two supply ships and missed with four torpedoes, thereby wasting half her total load.

Upholder had no luck at all on her next four patrols and she wasted a number of extremely valuable torpedoes - very scarce in Malta, whose supply convoys were not worth a torpedo, by the Germans and Italians.

Shrimp Simpson, commanding the flotilla and their Lordships in London started to have growing doubts about Lt. Cdr. Wanklyn's ability. Serious consideration was being given to relieving him of his command but his crew had no doubts at all. Wanklyn was one of those remarkable men who can inspire others to give in full measure of their very best at all times, good or bad. His early failures left the crew unmoved, they had complete confidence in their captain.

Quiet firm, kindly "Wanks" didn't look like a hero in the traditional mould, though in the few brief months left to him and to Upholder's crew he was to become the Royal Navy's foremost submariner.

Upholder's fortunes changed sharply for the better on her sixth patrol when Wanklyn sent the Antonietta Laura (5,428 tons) to the bottom, finished off a German merchantman which had been abandoned on a shoal and sank two vessels from a heavily escorted convoy, eluding the escorts despite weather conditions which markedly favoured the enemy. This was the pattern of success that Upholder was to follow for her remaining patrols.

Upholder 1940
Upholder 1940

After a fortnight of rest and maintenance Wanklyn was again sent out and this time things did not go very easy. Soon after leaving Malta one of the torpedoes in a tube developed a leak and had to be changed.

This, in the very confined space of a U Class torpedo stowage compartment, was a long and tedious task, disrupting sleep and meals and other work. Eventually the job was done. Then suddenly, the ASDIC underwater listening set went wrong.

This was serious because the ASDIC - now known as sonar - was and is, the submarine's only means of knowing what is happening around her when below periscope depth.

The ASDIC also served to give warning of the approach of other vessels when periscope visibility was poor. Most important, of all it was on this listening set that the captain depended completely in his evasion tactics before and after an attack.

Some men might, quite justifiably, have given up the patrol at that point and returned to harbour. Not Wanklyn. He had important targets coming his way and he was determined to torpedo them. Three convoys passed through Upholder's patrol area and Wanklyn attacked them all.

His first two salvo's found their mark on tankers and after the second attack there was a violent counter attack by the surface escorts.

By now Wanklyn had only two torpedoes left. One torpedo tube bow cap was defective and the patrol was due to end shortly. With the ASDIC still unusable many commanding officers might have called it a day but Wanklyn was determined to put those last two torpedoes to good effect.

On the evening of May 24 he got his chance. The most important convoy of the patrol consisting mainly of troop-carrying vessels, was about to come within range.

The sea was rough and visibility, in the half-light with the sun just below the horizon was poor when Wanklyn sighted, through the periscope, three very large ships steaming fast with several destroyers scattered around them.

He could only see the destroyers from time to time in the prevailing conditions and had to guess where best to penetrate this formidable screen.

The troop ship stood out quite clearly, and Wanklyn recognised that he was in a favourable firing position, well ahead of the main targets and just about the right distance off track.

It must have been very tempting to fire a long shot which would have given the submarine a very good chance of escape before the destroyers arrived, overhead or close by.

With only two torpedoes and fast zigzagging targets to hit, he knew that he must get in close if his attack was to succeed. His estimation of course, and speed and the necessary calculations for aim-off were probably done mentally (Wanklyn was a brilliant mathematician and could size up any situation instantly in his head).

He judged that the three troopships were going at about 20 knots and lined up on the centre ship. As he gave the order to fire he sighted a destroyer very close and right ahead of him.

There was no time to look for the others before going deep, and without his sonar, no means of knowing where they were. As the submarine levelled off at 150ft. the unmistakable sound of two torpedo explosions could be heard clearly through the hull.

Two minutes later the inevitable counter-attack began. Upholder stopped every piece of machinery that she could; her crew froze in utter silence, knowing that the slightest noise would bring instant retribution from the destroyers hunting overhead.

At first the depth charges could be heard at a fair distance, nothing to worry about. Then the noise of the exploding charges crept closer and closer and closer.

Each explosion sent a huge tremor through the hull, but Wanklyn, completely calm, gave his orders slowly and clearly. He was trying all the time to out-guess the enemy and to put his boat on a course and at a depth his hunters would not suspect.

One pattern of charges was particularly close. The submarine shook, lights went out as the fittings broke and crashed to the deck. The unmistakable propeller noises of a destroyer could be heard directly overhead. If another pattern of depth charges came down from that ship then everyone knew - it would be the end.

A ship has to be very close indeed before you can hear its propellers without the aid of ASDIC Wanklyn himself seemed utterly taxed His confidence, as always, spread to his crew.

By some miracle the hunters decided, at that moment, that enough was enough. Why they did so will probably never be known. It may be that the charges which came so near to destroying Upholder had been dropped so accurately quite by chance. In any event the destroyer made off.

Then came other noises; noises which Wanklyn recognised as those made by a ship breaking up. He was right. When he came up to periscope depth the sea was empty. The Conte Rosso (18,000 tons) that had been crammed with troops was gone. The remainder of the convoy had turned back.

It was for this patrol that Upholders Commanding Officer was awarded the Victoria Cross. It can seldom have been better earned, and Upholder went on from success to success.

By the end of her 25th Mediterranean patrol she had accounted for the enormous total of 129,529 tons of shipping, including three submarines, always the most difficult targets of all.

Upholder, her captain and her very gallant crew never returned from the 26th patrol. At last the Italian anti-submarine forces succeeded in revenging the terrible losses that the Axis shipping had suffered at the hands of this little submarine from Barrow.

In a quite exceptional message the Admiralty recognised Upholder's loss in a special communiqué. It was the final words of this signal that a visitor sees immediately on entering the Submarine Museum at HMS Dolphin the home of submariners;

The ship and her company are gone, but the example and the inspiration remain.

Reproduced from
Ulverston News (1976)



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