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HMS Utmost - Taranto Patrol

by Ben Skeates

From the radio room we received a routine signal from the Admiralty to say that the RAF reconnaissance had reported that a Naval force was due to leave Taranto within the next 48 hours. We were instructed to take up station in the centre of the instep which formed the bay south of Taranto. The areas immediately to the south of Utmost would be covered by two more 10th Flotilla boats, HMS Upright, and the last by HMS Upholder.

Suddenly the skipper who was still scanning the area with the periscope; remarked that there was a Catalina flying boat circling low over the Navy ships in the harbour. At that same moment the bow of the Utmost started to rise. The duty officer used the trim pumps to flood 'Z' and 'A' ballast tanks; but she still continued rising. Then the external ballast tanks were flooded; the for'd hydroplanes were at full dive as were the rear, and the motors were at full astern both. This had no effect and we finally came gently to a dead stop. We had almost completely surfaced on the top or side of an uncharted sandbank.

During our attempt to get the boat off the sandbank we made one hell of a muddy swirl; with the saddle tanks emptied, and the port motor running full ahead and the starboard at full astern to swing her away from the bank. A running commentary from the Captain informed us that there were great columns of sand and water as we blasted the ballast tanks free of water to lighten her. He could even see people and cars moving along the seafront Esplanade and several boats were also plying in the harbour. None of these took the slightest notice; even if they did see us they must have assumed that we were an Axis boat. Finally twisting free and sliding off the sandbank, and still apparently undetected. We dived to fifty feet for one hour then continued to complete our reconnaissance of the Italian Naval activity.

The next day we received a further signal from Admiralty on a routine broadcast that the RAF plane had also intercepted a cipher. It contained the sailing date, course and speed of a force of three 10,000 ton 'Trieste' class Italian Navy cruisers and escorting destroyers.

This was the squadron that we had been detailed to watch, and they were shortly leaving Taranto. We assumed station in what the Captain decided was the best position for an attack on the last of the three cruisers. The obvious reason for selecting the rear cruiser was, if we fired at the first cruiser the look-outs on the other two would undoubtedly have been alerted by the luminescent wake of the torpedoes at night. They would then take evasive action, and the destroyer escorts would have a sure-fire track to where to look for us.

Following the normal routine during action stations; the PO Tel took over from the asdic operator. At 23:43 he picked up the HE (hydrophone effect) of some of the escorting destroyers. The Captain was absorbing not only the details for lining up the boat for torpedo firing; but also the numerous bearing and range reports that the asdic operator was continually updating him with. This gave him the positions of the three cruisers and the destroyer screens, their speed and course. By three minutes to midnight Asdic had identified the tail ender of the three Trieste class Cruisers, with range and bearings. The Navigating Officer had calculated the speed from this information and we approached the moment of truth.

At three minutes past midnight; having positioned the boat for firing the skipper gave the orders "Fire one", "Fire two", "Fire three" and "Fire four" at appropriate intervals. He received the four confirmations by telephone from the torpedo room "Torpedoes fired sir" and confirmed by the asdic. The noise of the torpedo motors as they left the boat also confirmed that each of the torpedoes were "running sir".

We waited with bated breath for what seemed an eternity; the time that had elapsed since the first 'fish' was fired indicated that it had missed. That meant that at least two of the other three should hit. In fact all three remaining torpedoes hit the cruiser and before giving the order to dive deep. Then the Captain called to the navigator to record that the first torpedo had apparently continued on it's course, and hit an ammunition ship further afield on the same bearing.

Almost at once, and certainly no later than we had dived to 90 feet; we commenced the cat and mouse game of evasive action. Five of the destroyers turned back towards the survivors, at least that was what we thought by the direction they were heading. Instead of first trying to save their men from the cruiser they started at once dropping depth charges ad-lib all over the area with no concern for the hundreds of men in the water who must have been desperately trying to attract their attention. From the number of close depth charges in those first few minutes, it is certain that they killed more of their own men than we had with the torpedoes. Some of the charges were exploding uncomfortably close to us.

When their initial panic died down; they started a bit more systematically to try to locate us with sonar, and then run in with depth charges. One of the torpedo men in the fore ends chalked up eightyfour close ones in the first eight hours. One sprung hull rivet, was plugged immediately by the damage control unit with one of the specially prepared wooden pegs carried by all of our boats. Apart from a number of bulkhead fittings such as fuse boxes, high and low pressure airlines, and overhead lights breaking loose and blowing a few fuses - they were all secured to the bulkhead on welded brackets - we escaped serious damage.

The enemy counter attack lasted throughout the remainder of the night, and the following day. The Captain ordering continual changes of course; heading for the gaps between the attacking destroyers that appeared from the bearings the navigating officer received from the asdic. When all the enthusiasm seemed to have dissipated up top, the skipper suggested that the second operator should take over for a spell so that the PO Tel could take a break; but for him to stand by, just in case.

Back in the mess, with one of the junior operators manning the asdic, he sat down beside the Electrical artificer (EA) who was reading a book. He noticed that there was a wheezing noise like an old bellows and so mentioned it. The EA replied that it was due to the lack of oxygen, and everyone was having difficulty breathing. We had been submerged over 24 hours, and had no facility for replacing the oxygen. The lack of oxygen was slowly contracting our breathing ability. At last when everyone was near collapse, and wheezing as if they were being slowly strangled we surfaced, and just before we hit the surface the skipper gave the order to start main engines. The diesels roared out, until the vacuum produced by the air intakes was almost high enough to burst our ear-drums. He then called up to the seaman waiting on the conning tower ladder; to open the hatch. In rushed a vast quantity of fresh air and salt water, it really smelt like nothing I have ever smelt before or since. It was disgusting enough to make one vomit, but it was because we had been without oxygen for so long that our sense of smell had grossly deteriorated.

No sooner had the Duty Officer arrived on the bridge than the asdic operator picked up HE from one of the destroyers. The PO Tel was recalled for what was obviously a continuation of the counter attack. The destroyer was winding up her motors with a view to coming in with another depth charge attack. They must have been lying under quiet routine waiting for us to make a move. We crash-dived again using the ten ton quick diving tank "Q tank". 'Q' could be flooded and evacuated by a three ton per minute Drysdale centrifugal pump. This took on additional ballast to get down to ninety feet again as quickly as possible.

The surfacing operation was to us a complete success; as apart from the two or three minutes on the surface, which incidentally was a crucial factor in our escape, we had been dived for twenty odd hours. We had, by starting the diesels before opening the conning tower hatch and using the resulting partial vacuum replaced most of the oxygen starved air in the boat. We were able to continue to dodge the enemy destroyers until eventually; after we had jettisoned a load of oil and clothing through one of the torpedo tubes to give the illusion of having been hit, we broke surface.

To everyones' relief; at 23:00 hrs or eleven PM on the second night after the attack we were clear of the enemy. We transmitted a signal to Malta via Admiralty in the UK, to inform Captain Simpson (the Officer in Charge 10th Submarine flotilla) that we were leaving the patrol area to re-load torpedoes.

Both the cruiser and the ammunition ship were later confirmed destroyed by Royal Air Force reconnaissance aircraft before we arrived back in Malta. Commander Cayley entered the sinking of the cruiser on my service sheets together with a recommend for MID. The Captain received a Bar to his DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and for his effort and the PO Tel received the Oak Leaf (mention in despatches).

The remainder of that patrol was uneventful as we proceeded to Malta at 90 feet.


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