The Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award, has been won by a total of I 4 Navy submariners in both World Wars. The VC, a bronze cross simply inscribed For Valour, compares with the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is Part 7 of an eight-part series.
Heroes are not born perfect: there is hope for all of us when we recall the painful climb by Lieutenant Commander Malcolm David Wanklyn from failure to fulfillment with a Victoria Cross, and three times awarded, the Distinguished Service Order.
Wanklyn, as a boy and young officer, was remembered by contemporaries as a reserved and austere loner, undistinguished and quiet except for strangely uncharacteristic outbursts of crude humour. A solemn child at school, probably despised as a swot, he displayed no enthusiasm for the team games and manly activities considered so essential for character building by the British middle classes. He held back when brothers Jack and Peter raced adventurously up rock mountain slopes; and his hobbies were decidedly unadventurous-bird watching, stamp collecting and photography.
As a fully fledged officer he did not present the conventional image of a young naval lieutenant, and he had companions rather than friends. He tried, dutifully. to be one of the boys when the occasion demanded; but his sole contribution to the obligatory postprandial excesses of wardroom guest-nights was to sit on his hand and arse (he eschewed less frankly anatomical terms), and, yoga-like, wrap both legs around his neck. Although tall and lanky he was practically double-jointed and easily able to bend his back-although that did not save him from continually banging his head, and cursing loudly, in submarines.
Late at night, in harbor between wartime patrols, he might be persuaded to sing a dubiously worded comic song; but only, one suspects, if he was a bit Brahms and Liszt. In that connection he was famously tolerant, and skillfully helpful, towards ratings who had over-indulged ashore.
As a seagoing submarine captain Wanklyn looked like an untidy Old Testament prophet, blackly bearded over keen, studious features and wearing trousers shiny with age below a disreputable monkey jacket with its two and a half gold stripes tattered and torn. He by no means personified the archetypal leader of men: nevertheless his ship’s company was totally trusting, and sailors described him as a “a great gentleman”: several hard cases were drafted to his boat for reform.
He sometimes seemed more at ease on the lower deck-the foreends in a Royal Navy submarine-than in the wardroom; but he was never accused of being overly familiar although he awarded nicknames to ratings, such as Fred the Bear for a Leading Stoker who remembered him as “very caring and considerate”.
The traditionalist Royal Navy reckoned that David Wanklyn was a nice enough chap but poorly placed in the promotion stakes. Certainly, nobody foresaw him perfecting the basic skills of underwater warfare in HMS UPHOLDER to the point where he became the ace of aces-and that in a bare 16 months from early 1941 to April 1942 while operating from besieged Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Today, accustomed to automated modern technology and wide oceans, we need to appreciate the niceties of operating a slow thin-skinned boat, with primitive sensors and DIY fire control, in a confined and highly hazardous arena before we can glimpse the genius of this modest, unglamourous submariner.
The U class submarines were originally intended as cheap, unarmed clockwork mice for anti-submarine training. But in 1937, with war in the air, the Admiralty ordered the addition of bow torpedo tubes: UPHOLDER had four, with space for four reloads, together with a 12 pounder gun.
Readers will recall that, for no identifiably sound reason, and unlike American submarines and German U-boats, the straight running torpedoes in British boats could not be continually angled in the tubes: instead, the fish were discharged in hosepipe salvoes, with torpedoes following one astern of another at calculated intervals. A target’s own movement across the single track created spread and spacing equivalent to a fan.
The whole submarine was pointed, like a multi-barreled rifle, with a substantial aim-off (director angle or DA), at the future position of the oncoming enemy. If the target zigged the attacking submarine had to maneuver afresh-if there was time before losing the DA entirely.
Unless the range was very short-a few hundred yards-two torpedoes (let alone a single shot) were seldom sufficient to allow for the discrepancies which were bound to occur.
The DA calculation was largely dependent, when dived, on the captain’s observations through the slender attack: periscope which could only be raised for a few seconds at a time. During those brief glimpses, which often included an all-round look for escorts, the captain had to mark a relative bearing (converted to true bearing by gyro-a ready source of error); judge target inclination by angle-on-the-bow; and measure the range on a part of the target whose height was known, funnel or masthead as a rule, by means of the miniature range finder incorporated in the periscope.
Plotting these observations by hand resulted in the most reliable estimate of enemy speed.
The figures selected by the captain were fed to an elementary DA calculator known as the Fruit Machine; and a spread with appropriate spacing for range and target length was applied to the DA.
The optimum range for a 45 knot fish was 1200 yards on a 100 degree track. But getting through a screen to the right position, at the right time, on the right course for a hosepipe salvo against a zigging target demanded exceptional skill, steel nerves, and a fair measure of luck.
Night attacks on the surface were doubly hard. British boats had no attack center in the conning tower, and the captain on the bridge was remote from (admittedly rudimentary) instruments and displays in the control room. The DA was seldom better than a guess, although oldsters vowed it was always ten degrees.
David Wanklyn had no experience of attacking and very little practice in shiphandling during his submarine apprenticeship which he served from 1933 until starting the Perisher command course in January 1940.
However, at the end of 1938, six months after he married Betty (said to be his first and only girlfriend) he had spent a year as First Lieutenant (Exec) in the minelaying submarine PORPOISE captained by the farsighted Commander G.W.G. Shrimp Simpson. It was the most significant move of Wanklyn’s career to date: although gentle by nature and constantly prone to self doubt, he gained Shrimp’s lasting confidence, understanding and friendship; and he was an excellent foil to the man who would soon be his flotilla captain.
On his second-in-command’s first wedding anniversary, Shrimp Simpson sent Betty a deliberately inappropriate present accompanied by a little poem ending, ” .. Just flatten him, devoted wife! And please accept this rolling pin.”
Wanklyn’s maiden commands were the World War One H32 and then H31 fur patrols in the North Sea. In July 1940 Wanldyn sighted three German trawlers apparently sweeping for submarines off Terschelling Island. Patiently he manoeuvred until the craft-individually small and difficult targets-were grouped in his line of sight: a single torpedo fired from 900 yards sank the submarine chaser UJ 126.
Drawing blood doubtless bolstered his faith in himself; but this fortunate hit with a lone shot on a 125 degree track angle may well have swayed Wanklyn later against employing adequate spreads to cover fire control errors and torpedo failures.
In August 1940 Wanklyn, now in his 30111 year, was appointed in command of HMS UPHOLDER, still building at Barrow. A single hull 730 ton boat limited in depth to 200 feet and in speed to 11.7 knots on the surface (usually 10.5 knots in practice) and a little more than 8 knots dived (for one hour) UPHOLDER normally had a crew of four officers and 29 ratings, but there was just room for a couple of Army commandos if special operations ashore were planned.
Given the severe limitations of the U class, and indeed of all Royal Navy submarines in terms of speed and fire control when compared with the U.S. Navy’s fleet class, it is apparent why British commanding officers would never be able to create havoc on the surface in the midst of convoys at night in the style demonstrated, for example, by Commander Lawson P. Red Ramage of USS PARCHE in July 1944.
UPHOLDER arrived at Malta on 14 January 1941 to be welcomed by Shrimp Simpson commanding submarines (to be formed into the Tenth Flotilla in September) from their base at Lazaretto on the beleaguered island. The second great siege, fiercer by reason of attacks being delivered by German rather than Italian aircraft, had started a month earlier; submarines in harbour were subjected to special attention. The construction of safe pens
in excavated caves had been halted before the war on grounds of economy: the entire project would have equaled the cost of one medium sized submarine.
The prime task of submarines from Malta was to prevent supplies and reinforcements from Italy reaching Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The Axis Commands were curiously helpful in routing convoys consistently, and distances from Lazaretto Creek to the enemy lines of communication were not great; but anti-submarine forces were abundant and continually strengthened by the latest German equipment training. Moreover, submarine torpedoes had to be husbanded because nobody knew when a ship or store-carrying submarine might next be able to break through the blockade; the U-boats had disturbingly noisy auxiliary machinery, although this feature of the class was not fully appreciated until mid -1942; and, on a calm day, a submarine was visible down to 60 feet from the air. UPHOLDER’s periscope depth was 27 feet measured from the waterline in those days or about 40 feet from the keel.
WankIyn took his boat out after dark on 24 January 1941 for an initial patrol off Tunis. Two two-torpedo night attacks on supply ships, from 2500 and 3000 yards respectively, both missed ahead: target speed, the crucial component of DA, had been grossly overestimated at 15 knots when intelligence suggested that eight or nine knots was more likely. Soon after dawn on the next day an 8000 ton merchantman appeared, escorted by an armed merchant cruiser. Wanklyn closed to 900 yards and again fired two fish: one hit and badly damaged the German transport.
During the afternoon of the 30111 two more supply ships came in sight escorted by a pair of destroyers. Wanklyn did not attempt to shorten the range from the near-extreme 4000 yards because one escort was dangerously close: he claimed a hit (not confirmed) but the destroyers raced down the torpedo tracks and pounded UPHOLD ER. The depth charge hammering caused no more than superficial damage and, on balance, was beneficial: it proved to the crew that their captain could get them out of trouble.
Wanklyn had no successes during the following three patrols. By the middle of April he had fired 30 torpedoes with only one certain hit. Simpson agonised: could he afford to keep such a poor shot in the Flotilla?
Why was UPHOLDER so unproductive? First, Wanklyn heeded the order to conserve torpedoes too literally: his salvoes should have been larger and spread wider. Second, some of the fish were antique and unreliable, and they particularly resented being discharged on the surface into a rough sea; third, his surface approach DAs were apt to be based on ill formed estimates.
Wanklyn reasoned out where the faults lay, and the spell was broken. In future he would not be so miserly with his salvoes. With regard to torpedo reliability it is conceivable that Shrimp contrived to ensure that higher.quality fish were supplied to his favorite officer; and maybe shore staff and UPHOLDER’s own torpedomen started to take more care with the weapons. Or perhaps Wanklyn just suddenly got the knack and everything started to work fur him-for that has often enough been the way in submarines.
Above all, though, Wanklyn became privy to ULTRA intelligence which not only enabled UPHOLDER to intercept valuable targets but gave a good indication of their speed. Simpson, publishing his memoirs in 1972 when ULTRA was still an unmentionable word, had tongue firmly in cheek when he wrote: “Wherever Wanklyn was sent the enemy appeared, and noteworthy targets too … ”
The results, whatever the reasons, were spectacular. On the fifth patrol he made all four bow tubes ready for a full salvo to sink the 5500 ton supply vessel ANTONIETTA LAURO despite the range being down to 700 yards. The first fish hit amidships (suggesting, incidentally, that he had underestimated target speed) and, although the second torpedo could not be stopped, he had the presence of mind to cancel the automatic firing of numbers three and four tubes.
Chances for UPHOLDER multiplied and Wanklyn took them all, as symbols sewn on the Jolly Roger testified. But St. Ambrose, patrol saint of submariners, wandered off watch for a spell in May 1941, and UPHOLDER’s Asdic set went u/s at sea. Thus Wanklyn had no idea of what was happening on the roof when his boat was below periscope depth. A lesser man would have returned for repair to Malta-only a day or so away-but not Wanklyn when an important convoy was expected to emerge from the Straits of Messina.
On 20 May a pass was made at two tankers from the absurdly long range of 7000 yards, possibly damaging one. However, the Vichy tanker CAPITAINE DAMIANI, working under Italian charter, took a torpedo in the stem when it passed obligingly close, in convoy, three days later.
Stealing away from the ensuing melee, with only two torpedoes remaining, Wanklyn found himself at sunset in the path of a much bigger target-the 18,000 ton Hoer-troopship CONTE ROSSO packed with soldiers bound for North Africa. The selected prize, making 18 knots (thank you, ULTRA), was in company with three other big ships, and the convoy was surrounded by at least five energetic destroyers.
A deep swell made periscope work, as well as depth-keeping, difficult. Asdic was still silent.
The submarine would have to fire from a very close range if the last two torpedoes were to find their mark, and time did not permit deviating from the optimum approach course to dodge menacing escorts. Wanklyn decided to act as if the destroyers did not exist: he ran a major risk of being rammed on the way in-and once, after glimpsing a sharp bow, he ducked for a few moments-but he refused to be distracted from his aim.
The loss of life, after both torpedoes struck and CONTE ROSSO sank, was heavy: of 3000 Italian troops on board only 1432 were saved.
A counterattack lasted for half-an-hour before the escorts were obliged to rejoin the convoy. None of the charges fell within the lethal 30 feet of UPHOLDER’s fragile hull; but the express train sound of destroyers racing overhead, all too clearly audible without artificial Asdic ears, signified each time that another shattering, perhaps fatal pattern of charges would detonate in an exact number of seconds which could be ticked off on the fingers.
One man’s nerve broke. He dashed to the lower conning tower lid and started to ease back the clips-a futile gesture, of course, because 20 tons of sea pressure was keeping the upper hatch shut. In due course the man was reverted to General Service-the worst, in fact the only, punishment on board UPHOLDER.
Wanklyn was asleep at Lazaretto when the award of a Victoria Cross was eventually announced for the CONTE ROSSO attack. A steward slipped into his cabin unnoticed and sewed the purple ribbon on the monkey jacket hanging over a chair. Typically, Wanklyn was disgusted at what he took for a bad joke when the new ribbon was pointed out to him: modest as ever, he could not believe that he had won the highest decoration.
UPHOLDER’s destruction of enemy shipping continued unabated. The victims of 24 patrols comprised two Italian U-boats and a destroyer sent to the bottom, a damaged cruiser and destroyer, and 19 sunk or damaged Axis transports and supply vessels. The total bag amounted to 134,000 tons including a luckless trawler which fell to the 12 pounder gun.
UPHOLDER was due to return to the UK for refit when she came back from her 25″‘ patrol; but she did not return. She was seen from the air while making a submerged approach off Tripoli on 14 April 1942. The Italian torpedo boat PEGASO sped to the spot an dropped depth charges without gaining firm contact. The random pattern was fatal.
With reticence akin to Wanlclyn’s, Captain di Vascello Francesco Acton (descended from the old English family of that name) did not claim a kill; but there were no survivors from the Royal Navy’s most hard-hitting submarine.
The Admiralty communique announcing the loss of HMS UPHOLDER concluded with words which might serve as a memorial for all wartime submariners who are still on patrol:
“The ship and her company are gone, but the example and the inspiration remain.”