A valuable resource

It was September 2013 when I visited The National Archives and transcribed six log books for HMs/m Osiris. They covered the periods February 24 – May 31 and August 1 – October 31 1941. ADM 173/16837 contains the May log book but the next, ADM 173/16838, is the one for August. Those for June and July not only appear to be missing from the collection but never to have existed. However, there are some patrol reports for the period.

It was a chance conversation that led me to the log books. I belonged to a group which met biannually to sing.  The members and their partners came from all parts of the country and we all stayed at the same hotel. Evening meals gave an opportunity to get to know each other better. One evening in the summer of 2010, I found myself sitting next to Deryck Swetnam.  All I knew was that he lived in Portsmouth.

Earlier in the year, I had been in touch with the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport. I casually asked if Deryck knew the museum. He stopped eating, put down his cutlery and told me he was there on a weekly basis. Although his research field was the First World War, he knew a lot about Hugh’s boats. I am very grateful to Deryck for his support with this project. As a former naval man, he has given me invaluable help with resources, life on board and naval jargon. In particular, he explained the Admiralty (ADM) log books and patrol reports housed at TNA.

Hugh leaves UK waters

Since the end of May, Osiris must have received orders to return to the Mediterranean fleet. She left Holy Loch on June 14 for the long voyage to Alexandria. This would be her first bout of active service since the refit. During my visit to Chatham Historic Dockyard, I spoke to a member of their Historical Society. The gentleman later wrote to tell me that Osiris made the voyage via Gibraltar and Malta. The Patrol Report gives the detail.

With Tod Euman in command and a boat packed with stores, Osiris left Gibraltar on June 25, sinking two caiques on the way to Malta. On June 27 and 28, the boat was patrolling the Tyrrhenian Sea. Each day, she made an unsuccessful attack on a steamer.

Whether or not Hugh was able to lose himself in a book at sea, he certainly found solace in reading once the patrol was over. He now lists his Books for August 1941 .

Now to write about something more congenial and a subject in which we apparently have a common interest – books. I’m still voicing my old complaint about not getting enough to read and having lots of convenient time for reading.

Here are some of the books I have read lately; G. D. H. Cole’s ‘Socialism in Evolution’, Thackeray’s ‘Henry Esmond’, J. B. Priestley ‘Midnight on the Desert’, Shaw’s ‘Unsocial socialist’, H. Spring ‘Fame is the Spur’, Vicki Baum’s ‘Nanking Road’ and one called ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’ by a French author whose name I’ve forgotten. ‘Midnight on the Desert’ is an Englishman’s appreciation of the West – the best I have ever read. Vicki Baum’s ‘Nanking Road’ is good and the last written in poetic-like prose by a contemporary French author and I enjoyed it very much. Come to think of it, it would make a good present for your pilot friend. These three books I think you would enjoy reading.

Jim’s enquiries answered

You accuse me of writing rather discretely about my job in the Navy but this is so out of necessity and I hope you will not be offended. Most people have a rather hazy idea about submarines and submarine life.  It consists mostly of long monotonous periods of watching and waiting with short intervals of quick action and high excitement.  The submarine itself is rather interesting from a mechanical point of view and could be likened to a submerged factory – full of machinery with miles of pipes and wires and hundreds of valves all over the place. Inside it appears very intricate and imposing but it really is much more simple than its appearance would seem to indicate.

It may surprise you to know that a person who had never been on a submarine before would be unable to tell whether he was on the surface or submerged. Also they are much safer than most people think. Oddly enough, men who have served on both submarines and surface craft prefer the former. There is much less discipline and a more friendly feeling among the crew as a rule. Pay is higher and food better – two attractions for the average matloe. One disadvantage is that submarine life doesn’t improve one’s health to say the least.

Hugh’s former discretion was obviously due to the censoring of letters from military personnel. Jim did not retain the envelopes for Hugh’s letters. His airgraphs and airmail letter cards are on one sheet of paper. The sender folds them carefully to show the destination address. In these cases, censor’s stamps are clearly visible, dated within a day or two of Hugh’s date. As her American speech shows, Jim was all too aware of the issues of Censorship. Whilst Hugh described general conditions on board, he could not, of course, give any clues as to his whereabouts. This was something I had to uncover.

Hugh sounds like a seasoned submariner now, even though he ends the paragraph in a slightly pessimistic mood. As far as Hugh’s ‘job in the Navy’ was concerned, a page of his Service Record lists the Ship/Shore Establishments on which he was based, beginning on 15 June 1941. The information is extracted from the Payment and Victual Ledgers and also shows his rank. At this time, he was an Acting Engine Room Artificer, 4th class, a position which remained for the rest of the year. Building on his work experience and activities at HMS Drake, HMS Dolphin would have provided him with the necessary theoretical knowledge. Hugh could now speak with authority about submarine life.  His mechanical and electrical experience had clearly facilitated the work he was now doing.

Another page of the Record states that Hugh was attached to HMS Medway from June 15. This was the depot ship for the submarine flotilla based in Alexandria. So, as soon as Hugh left Scotland, he was under the auspices of Medway.

Why the Med?

I discovered that the focus was on Malta. With its strategic position between Sicily and Tunisia, commanding the entrance to the eastern Mediterranean, the group of islands that is Malta had seen many changes of government over the centuries. Its small size had made it easy to conquer but the citizens had remained stalwart and displayed a remarkable independence of spirit. History had taught them to use their assets in their defence. Amongst these were tunnels dug through the limestone to provide shelter at times of danger.

The British government took the decision to defend Malta in 1933. 1935 saw the completion of a 200 foot mirror at Maghtab, north-east of Valetta. The following year a telescope was fitted. This increased the range at which aircraft could be detected.

Malta also had the advantage of deep harbours. These are on the eastern side of the island below Valetta, with its three cities of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea. The Grand Harbour has many creeks on the southern side. Large enough for modern cruise ships, these are separated from one another by promontories overlooking the main channel. Facing north-west, they overlook a strip of mainland. Beyond this, further north, is another large harbour, Marsamxett. This also has inner harbours such as Lazzaretto. In the middle of this harbour lies Manoel Island. This is where the British Navy set up a submarine base following a momentous event in January 1941.

A vulnerable position

Malta’s naval assets also made the island vulnerable. When in June 1940 Italy entered the war, its air force was not considered a great threat. Allied air power in Malta held its own.  When Hitler brought in the Luftwaffe, there was more cause for concern. In 1941, the military installations and docks area came under constant threat of bombing. Moreover, because of the close proximity of the densely populated capital, civilians also came under fire.

The harbour was even more of a prime target because of the presence of aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.  As the ship was entering harbour on January 10, 1941, it suffered a severe air attack. After limping into harbour to apparent safety, enemy bombers returned six days later and caused Illustrious severe damage. Repairs were made and the ship retreated to Egypt. To quote Churchill in his speech of February 9, All the necessary repairs were made to the Illustrious in Malta harbour, and she steamed safely off to Alexandria under her own power at twenty-three knots.

Fireworks celebrate the 50th anniversary of Malta’s independence in 2014 bringing thoughts of wartime bombing

In 2014, I heard Valetta harbour resound again with loud retorts.  A firework display, in the presence of Prince William, marked the fiftieth anniversary of Malta’s independence. I am sure I was not the only one who thought about the wartime bombing of the same area.

The approaches to the island were heavily mined and drastic action was needed to maintain supplies. One solution was the ‘Magic Carpet’ service. Travelling from Alexandria or Gibraltar, convoys supplied stores to beleaguered Malta. Submarines were an important part of this process. It seems strange that a vessel with so little space should be amongst these cargo boats; but the ability of submarines to be invisible ensured them of this vital role. As an Oberon class boat, Osiris had more storage space than some other submarines. The island was a very important base for the RAF so aviation fuel was among the cargo.

The first boat to make such runs was HMs/m Rorqual and Osiris took over in June 1941. In July alone, Malta had taken delivery of a hundred and sixty thousand gallons of fuel, twelve tons of mail and thirty tons of general goods, not to mention passengers.

With enemy gains in Greece and Crete, Malta was in danger. Clearly, the convoys were in a vulnerable position as they negotiated the intersection of Axis routes to North Africa and the eastern islands. Allied thinking was that invasion from the sea would be difficult due to lack of beaches suitable for landing. Unusual weather, resulting in a sirocco wind, meant fewer air attacks on Malta because of dry and dusty conditions. Nevertheless, over the next year, Axis offensive was to bring the islanders to starvation point and to great loss of life.

The P and V Ledgers information shows that Osiris made the trip from Gibraltar to Malta in early July. This was only the second ever of the Magic Carpet runs. Once safely in harbour in Malta, Hugh was attached to HMS St Angelo from July 6 for four days. The Fort, on one of the promontories in Grand Harbour, had been taken over by the Royal Navy as barracks. July also saw an Italian attack on Grand Harbour which would have hampered further attempts to land supplies on the island.

Fort St Angelo in Valetta harbour, naval base in World War II, pictured in 2014

Leaving Malta

On July 9, still under the command of Lieutenant Commander Tod Euman, Osiris left Malta for her First War Patrol. This was to eventually take Hugh to his new base. At the end of the patrol, Euman duly sent a summary of the ‘1st War Patrol after refit in UK’ to the Captain of the 1st Submarine Flotilla, S M Raw. Raw then made a report.  Now no longer a secret document at The National Archives, it was addressed to the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet.

July 13 saw Osiris reaching her first destination, the vicinity of Corfu. She then turned south to patrol off Argostoli. Next day, someone on watch spotted a large merchant ship. It was unescorted and heading north. Euman took the opportunity to attack but his four torpedoes missed. He later reported that the main motors were not ready in time. Euman redeemed himself by continuing the chase and scoring one or two hits by gun fire. The enemy then retaliated so Osiris quickly dived. This would have been one of the instances to which Hugh referred as ‘short intervals of quick action and high excitement’.

There was a similar unsuccessful confrontation the next day. This was a dangerous environment but Euman sought permission to remain in the area for a further forty-eight hours. Permission granted, Osiris spotted several craft but failed to attack.  On July 17, she sighted an aircraft and dived deep.  On coming to periscope depth, nothing further could be seen. That night, Osiris left the vicinity of Cephalonia. With the boat still beset by faults, the patrol was now in peril so Euman headed directly for Alexandria.  Raw expressed the hope that subsequent patrols would ‘show an improvement’.

A place to call home

So the boat settled in Egypt, the origin of its name. The ship’s badge featured the Egyptian god of the underworld wearing a blue head-dress and a crook and flail in gold, all on a black background. The image is on a diamond with gold cable-patterned edging. The ship’s crew was reportedly in good health when they arrived into Alexandria harbour on July 23. In the early part of the war, the Allies had sought a safe haven in Malta but it was thought prudent to move the 1st Submarine Flotilla to Alexandria.

The August log book leaves us in no doubt as to Hugh’s whereabouts.  The beginning of August saw Osiris alongside HMS Medway, spending the morning on an exercise and then fuelling in preparation for more manoeuvres the following day.

Medway was completed at Barrow-in-Furness in 1929. Named after the Chatham River with which Hugh was now familiar, it was the first purpose-built depot ship for Royal Navy submarines. Having a length of nearly two hundred yards, it could serve the needs of up to eighteen O, P and R class submarines. As well as acting as a base for the submarine crews, it housed workshops to serve all the trades necessary for maintenance and repairs.  

Medway also acted as a storage and distribution centre for spare parts. Carpenters, blacksmiths, metal workers and the like were all at the ready. The ship held stores of ammunition, clothing and food for distribution to the fleet.  Medway had been transferred from the Far East to the Mediterranean in the spring of 1940 to support the 1st Flotilla at Alexandria. Osiris was one of eighteen submarines in the current fleet.

Osiris was now preparing for a Storing Passage back to Malta. Fuel tanks were washed out ready for them to take petrol and kerosene. Between movements around the docks area Osiris always returned to mooring alongside Medway.

On the Magic Carpet

On August 2, Hugh’s boat left harbour and went beyond the boom as far as No 30 buoy before returning to Medway and taking two torpedoes on board early the following morning, a Sunday. The next two days were spent embarking fuel and other cargo. After a night at No 30 buoy, Osiris returned once more to Medway and took on ninety bags of mail. Everything was now ready for the patrol and at 1700 on August 7 the boat edged out of harbour. Picking her way through a route which sometimes entailed diving, she marked out a zigzag path to minimize detection. At 1900, the crew spotted a trawler but continued with their orders to dive for ten minutes before zigzagging out to sea.

There was a hitch on day three when pressure was lost with the telemotor and it was discovered that the housing valves were not shut off when dived. It was necessary to surface to inspect this problem.  On August 11 Osiris undertook an emergency dive. They had spotted the green and black camouflage and cross of a German Heinkel bomber at 2000 feet.

Back to Malta

From August 11, Hugh was once again attached to Fort St Angelo. His journey west entailed putting the clocks back one hour on August 12 to Malta zone, time minus 2, and each morning and evening checking the time by the stars as usual. The following day, the starboard engine showed a defect. They were now only two days from Malta but one engine down. An enemy U-boat was spotted off Malta on August 14 but Osiris managed to enter Marsa Scirocco harbour early on the morning of August 15. Now known as Marsaxlokk, this is a large harbour in the south-east corner of Malta. The crew would have their nerves tested as the boat made its passage at dawn on the Friday. There was now the prospect of a weekend off.

As a result of the 1941 passage of August 7 – 15,  Osiris was able to deliver to Malta 21,760 gallons of 100 octane fuel, 11,000 gallons of kerosene, five and a half tons of stores, a hundred and one bags of mail and nineteen personnel.  For those fortunate enough to escape the U-boats, these perilous journeys would have taken their toll on men and boats alike.

This run included the carrying of passengers but the usual cargo of mail, medical supplies, general stores and cooking oil would also have been on board. Vital aviation fuel for the RAF base was also part of these cargoes. This, the first storing passage for Osiris, was complete. The mail was landed and, late in the afternoon, Osiris moved round to Lazzaretto, Valetta’s northern harbour, following a course previously searched for mines. The log book describes the busy arrival.

August 15th 0407 In position to approach GH [Grand Harbour]. 0620 Entered searched channel and proceeded to Marsa Sirocco [sic] as ordered. 0821 Secured at Shell Jetty. 1100 Landed mail. 1650 Left berth, proceeded to Lazzaretto base via searched channel.  1921 Secured.

For the crew, the end of each patrol meant rest, pay and showers of fresh rather than sea water. For the boat, it was time for more repairs. Next day, the crew were cleaning compartments and did have some time off. On the Sunday at 0915 Osiris left berth for Grand Harbour and at 1020 secured in No 1 dock.

18th Cleaning compartments and drawing stores. 19th Commenced pumping.

A welcome rest

The boat was now due for repairs and maintenance. This was to involve a delay of three weeks for engine defects to be rectified. With the boat in dry dock, the crew may have welcomed this time. There were opportunities to visit the cinema. They could try to forget the dangerous conditions under which the whole island was living.

24th 1400 Commenced flooding dock. 1515 Dock flooded. 1600 Left No 1 Dock with two tugs. 1640 Secured at Hamilton Wharf, Grand Harbour. At Hamilton Wharf, hands were employed painting the ship.

The men then had a few days on maintenance tasks, sometimes in dry dock. A week later Osiris was secured at Hamilton Wharf in Grand Harbour where more cleaning and painting took place. Hugh now found time to write to Jim but it seems he had lost track of the days because August 29 was a Friday. He was able to reflect on submarine life, giving the impression that at times life could be tedious. Letter-writing would be a pleasant escape and it is to be hoped that he found somewhere cool. This ‘torrid climate’ meant temperatures could rise to ninety degrees in August. Hugh remained attached to Fort St Angelo in Malta until September 5.

Grand Harbour, Valetta, in 2014, showing cruise ships and yachts using creeks formerly used by warships

I am glad to hear that England has been having fewer and fewer air-raids this summer. Jerry seems to be busy elsewhere just now.  I hope you and your family are well and happy and are not suffering too much from the rationing of food and clothes. I’m looking forward to getting a letter from you the next time I get in. It may interest you to know I have had no mail at all since I left England but this time I feel sure there will be something.

Next time you go walking in the hills think of me.

Yours sincerely,


Hugh was referring to Operation Barbarossa. This was the German offensive in Russia which had begun in June. For Jim and her family, the rationing of food and other commodities was always on their minds.