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history-of-the-british-u-class-submarine

Reviewed by Jeff Schultz

Derek Walters’s The History of the British ‘U’ Class Submarine fills a gap in the historiography of World War II regarding short-range Allied submarine operations. In particular, Walters profiles the small ‘U’ (and ‘V’) class and their use by British and seven other Allied nations both during and after the conflict.

Walters spent a decade as a Royal Navy submariner who served aboard HMS Talent and later spent 30 years in the Derbyshire Constabulary, rising to the rank of Superintendent. After authoring a number of articles, this book, which honors the efforts of the gallant submariners who fought and died some eight decades ago, is his first.

The book is divided into nine chapters with three appendices, abbreviations, bibliography, acknowledgements and an index, augmented with 35 black and white photos and line drawings. The sources include a number of primary documents from the British National Archives along with period ships’ logs, patrol and intelligence reports.

Walters embarks on a significant task, to chronicle small coastal submarines that served not only the Royal Navy but many Allied navies as well. This particular class, a product of the London Naval Treaty of 1930, was initially meant for anti-submarine (ASW) training in 1934 but went on to full combat careers which helped to check the Axis, particularly in the Mediterranean. These small submarines had a number of challenges to work through, such as slow surface speed, torpedo functionality, noisy [“singing”] propellers and other design flaws. Eventually seventy-two of these undersea craft were commissioned and twenty of them lost, seventeen to enemy action.

Initially used near Great Britain and the North Sea, the eventual October 1940 transfer to the Mediterranean of the first ‘U’ class boats proved to be a prescient decision which finally provided a setting where the small design excelled. Against Italian and some German vessels attempting to supply the Axis forces operating in North Africa, often with limited or no escorts, the British submariners enjoyed a target-rich environment and racked up successes which helped to erode the critical Axis logistics lifeline from Italian ports to Tripoli and elsewhere. One such example was HMS Upright, which sank the Italian light cruiser Armando Diaz off Tunisia in February 1941.

The impact of the ‘U’ class only increased as more boats became available, which meant a heightened risk to Axis merchant vessels but also warships. At a time when Rommel’s forces struggled to assemble the means to defeat the British Eighth Army the small submarines continued to slash and sink as many vessels as they could. This effort did result in British losses as well but the deleterious effect on the Axis far outweighed the Allied submariners. Those same submariners amassed over 350 awards for gallantry, including a Victoria Cross awarded to HMS Upholder’s Lieutenant Commander Wanklyn in December 1941 for his intrepid actions against an Axis convoy off Sicily, sinking the Scottish-built Italian ocean liner turned troopship Conte Rosso while under heavy escort pressure. Sadly, Upholder was lost only four months later off Tripoli, depth-charged by Italian torpedo-boat Pegaso. All told, Upholder sank nearly 100,000 tons of enemy shipping, including four warships, arguably the most successful British submarine of World War II.

After May 1943, the defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa allowed the ‘U’ class boats to roam into other waters where they continued to threaten Axis shipping, including the Aegean Sea. As targets became scarcer the British focused on interdicting local vessels supporting the Germans, which included Greek fishing caïque among other similar local craft pressed into service by desperate overlords. There are a number of instances where the submarines used deck guns against smaller vessels, either in cases where torpedoes did not seem appropriate or when only deck guns remained as offensive weapons. HMS Unruly, for example, sank a German-flagged 50-ton two-masted caïque by gunfire in December 1943 while patrolling the Aegean Sea.

By 1944, the targets were fewer as the outlying German garrisons slowly starved until their final collapse. Walters thankfully also details the Allied submariners such as the Poles, Norwegians or Russians, who likewise took the fight to the Axis across various seas. Collectively, the ‘U’ class submarines proved a useful and deadly weapon in the hands of skilled crews against a foe who lacked proper ASW protection.

Axis anti-submarine tactics were lacking, as demonstrated by their practice of dropping depth charges ahead of a convoy, which only alerted the Allied submarines of their presence, and their failure to zigzag to reduce Allied torpedo attack effectiveness. Considering the profligate loss of Axis merchant ships to Allied submarines, adjustments were certainly warranted but attrition, not only of vessels but also experienced crews, proved disastrous. The ‘U’ class clearly benefitted from the weaknesses of the foe’s ASW defenses but also their dwindling means to protect what vessels remained.

Walters’s The History of the British ‘U’ Class Submarine takes the reader into the varied experience of British and Allied submarine crews who fought against the Axis in World War II. Used primarily in the Mediterranean, the British ‘U’ class submarines sank a considerable number of Axis vessels and, owing to the range and other limitations, represented themselves fairly well. This book will appeal not only to submarine enthusiasts but also general naval historians with its glimpses of the anti-shipping efforts in a lesser theatre.


Jeff Schultz is an Associate Professor of History at Luzerne County Community College.

The History of the British ‘U’ Class Submarine (Derek Walters, Pen & Sword Maritime, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2020).

The post The History of the British ‘U’ Class Submarine first appeared on Naval Historical Foundation.

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