Christmas at sea

Hugh’s prediction that Christmas would be different from the norm was realised.  The days immediately following his December letter saw little change for Osiris. Day exercises at sea involved practising and testing diving procedures. Osiris found herself alongside the T-Class submarines Thrasher and Talisman and continued to receive support from the depot ship Medway. Thrasher had just completed her 6th war patrol and would start another on New Year’s Day.

 On December 20, at 1023, a message came through that the destroyer HMS Griffin had made contact in the area with a German ‘U’ boat.  Griffin was a key player in escorting and protecting the Mediterranean convoys against the Italian Fleet.  As a result, Osiris was forced to abandon exercises. Some practice firing took place but by 1450 they were safely in harbour alongside Proteus. This submarine had already been responsible for sinking a number of enemy vessels.

Two days later, the morning was spent embarking provisions. At 1640, Osiris slipped from alongside Medway to begin her 10th War Patrol. This was the first patrol since the end of September when Osiris came into Alexandria with major defects. Much hard work had made the submarine seaworthy again. Leaving Alexandria on December 22 in heavy weather, the crew must have wondered whether Osiris would cope.

This patrol took Hugh to the area around Crete where Osiris was to inspect the north coast.  Christmas Day was spent examining a spot about a hundred miles east of Crete with the island of Kasos visible. The submarine was below the surface, always taking a zigzag course.  Crete had been an important base for the Allies and now, with the island occupied by the enemy, they were targeting German and Italian supply ships by patrolling the surrounding waters.

Although December 25 was part of these proceedings, the ‘Victualling’ section of the Patrol Report states that provisions were good throughout, especially the Christmas Day meals.

On Boxing Day, Osiris moved west carrying out surveillance near the small island of Spinalonga.  The following day, she moved towards Suda Bay to intercept a convoy.  Around midnight on the morning of December 28, a ‘darkened vessel’ was spotted and Osiris prepared to attack. The ship was identified as a small destroyer which then retreated. That evening there was more action. The log book gives some idea of the tension Hugh would have experienced.

Dec 28 1908 Dived. Two masthead lts [lights] sighted, bg [bearing] 180 deg – bg altered rapidly – approx co [course] 300 deg. 2035  3 red flares in a close triangle bg 135 deg angle of sight 45 deg. Aircraft’s engines heard when main engines were stopped. 2250 Sighted coloured tracers and HA bursts bg 240 deg, probably over Suda Bay. 2300 Sighted gunflashes and HA bursts bg 120 deg probably over Candia.  2307 Sighted aircraft approaching from astern. Dived.  2319 Surfaced. Commenced zigzag on mean co 090 300 revs.

Successes and failures

The following days were no quieter. On December 29, Ghibli aircraft were sighted causing Osiris to dive deep to eighty feet.  Whilst these Italian planes were used for reconnaissance, they were also capable of carrying out light bombing.  Next day at 9am a schooner was seen patrolling the entrance to Suda Bay in the north-west of Crete.  A second schooner was soon visible. Two hours later, the enemy aimed the first of six depth charges at Osiris.

This period marked successful attacks for the Mediterranean fleet with sinkings of enemy supply ships. A large tanker was also destroyed. However, for Osiris, officials deemed the patrol disappointing. A report mentions the repair staff of HMS Medway ‘who had spent so long trying to make her fit for operational use.’  One attack on December 31 was aborted because of poor visibility, another, on New Year’s Day, because an engine was out of action. On January 2 and 3, they were helpless for four hours in a heavy sea.  Weather conditions with particularly high winds, meant that there were only six days throughout the patrol when the periscope could be used effectively.

Well done for trying

The Patrol Report praised the captain for his fortitude in the midst of difficulties. Brookes did well and with severe strain on the officers and ship’s company, they rose to the occasion well, particularly the Engine Room Department.

Under the subtitle Personnel, the report concludes:

Great credit is due to the Engineer Officer, the ERAs and the whole of the engine room department for the temporary measures taken to keep the ship under way. Conditions in the engine room and after machinery space were far from good. At one time a mixture of water and dirty lubricating oil was nine inches above the engine room plates in the after end. The whole department always appeared cheerful in spite of the bad position in which “Osiris” was placed.

Hugh was one of these Engine Room Artificers and, with their boat limping back to base on January 7, they were in for a welcome rest. HMS Farndale met Osiris and escorted her into harbour.  Then the port engine’s starting levers jammed so Osiris had to be towed in by Roysterer. She was likely to be out of action for three or four months, if not for good.

To add to the mood of the crew, a week later, HMs/m Triumph was reported missing following an uncompleted special operation in the Aegean Sea.

I am again indebted to Deryck Swetnam for background information. He told me that it was difficult to assess results of action. Because submarines dived deep, they had to rely on sound rather than sight. Sometimes a torpedo would miss a target but hit a hitherto hidden vessel. In brief periscope sightings, it was easy to mistake ships for each other. Presumably, this also applied to enemy submarines. This meant that the claim of a sinking could not be trusted.

A New Year

No-one had any idea that the war was only half-way through its horror and tragedy. Everyone must have wondered what 1942 would bring. Writing her diary, Jim’s New Year’s Day comment was that the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes will fly side by side on Westminster Abbey. This must have meant a lot to her as she thought back to her American visit.

Hugh spent the remaining weeks of January in Alexandria. They were not without incident. In the process of preparing for the next patrol, Osiris linked up to Medway to charge batteries. The following day, after returning to harbour, there was an explosion in No. 2 battery tank. This resulted in an enquiry which took place aboard Medway on January 10. The log book does not reveal the outcome. Osiris was subjected to the usual cleaning and general checks until the end of the month and on into February.

In a review of the passing year’s war news, Jim notes that the enemy started attacking by night.  General Wavell had defeated the Italians in Libya in February but this had led to German reinforcements under Rommell and the recapture of Libya in April. At the same time, Greece suffered defeat. The following month it was the turn of Crete to suffer.  Jim also recalled USA entering the war and the efforts of the Mediterranean fleet.  In the thick of these offensives, Hugh now turned to his letters. His next to Jim began a trend to monthly ones.