The lost submarine
HMS Urge was a Royal Navy U-class submarine that formed part of the 10th Submarine Flotilla based at the Lazaretto on Manoel Island, Malta. These small, 630-tonne submarines were found to be ideal for use in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean.
HMS Urge was laid down on 30 October 1939 and commissioned on 12 December 1940, under the command of Lieutenant EP Tomkinson. The submarine had an overall length of 58m and a beam of 4.9m and a draught of 4.62m. HMS Urge used two diesel-shaft electric drives for its main propulsion, powering the generators which in turn supplied electric power for the motors, and once submerged, batteries provided the main source of power. The submarine could reach speeds of up to 8 knots whilst underwater, but slower speeds would have been preferred to conserve power.
HMS Urge operated in the Mediterranean where it had an intense patrol career, damaging or sinking significant numbers of Axis shipping. It was also one of the first submarines from which special forces raids on enemy coastlines were carried out. The most well-known achievement of HMS Urge was the attack on the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto near the Straits of Messina on 14 December 1941, the largest enemy battleship to be torpedoed at sea by a Royal Navy submarine during the Second World War. Eventually, the location of the 10th Submarine Flotilla on Manoel Island was no longer viable, and the remaining submarines were ordered to evacuate to Alexandria, Egypt. After leaving the harbour on 27 April 1942, HMS Urge was expected in Alexandria on 6 May 1942, but never arrived, and was never heard from again, along with its 32-member crew and 12 passengers. Reports on the loss considered that mines laid in the approaches to the Grand Harbour could have led to its demise. This, however, would remain a mystery until 2019, when the wreck site of HMS Urge was discovered during a remote sensing survey, jointly organised between the Maritime Archaeology Programme of the University of Malta, and the grandson of the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant EP Tomkinson.
Adopt a vessel during WWII
HMS Urge was adopted by the town of Bridgend as part of the Warship Weeks initiative which formed part of a nationwide campaign to raise money for the Royal Navy. The aim was for cities to adopt battleships and aircraft carriers, and for towns and villages to adopt cruisers and destroyers. Once the funds were raised, the town would “adopt” the vessel and support its crew. The Bridgend and District Warship Week was held between 15-22 November 1941 and raised £300,000, which led to the adoption of HMS Urge and a number of other vessels.
The wreck site was discovered at a depth of 110 metres approximately 2km outside the Grand Harbour. A diver survey carried out in April 2021 by Heritage Malta, definitively identified the wreck as HMS Urge, laying to rest one of the last remaining Royal Navy mysteries from the Second World War and providing closure for the families of the crew and passengers that lost their lives.
HMS Urge struck a mine on its departure from the Grand Harbour, and the site formation processes are directly linked to the wrecking event. The mine struck the bow of the submarine, with the resulting explosion breaking off the bow section and revealing the inner torpedo tube compartment. Upon impact on the seabed, a significant section of the bow penetrated the soft sediments. The hull subsequently broke just forward of the torpedo storage section. Note the plastic waste that is entangled on the site. Deep-water shipwrecks often act as catchment areas for marine plastics.
In addition to the eight 21-inch torpedoes and three portable 0.303 Lewis machine guns, U-class submarines were also fitted with a forward firing 12 pounder gun, located in front of the conning tower. The fitting of the deck gun was not part of the original design, and as a result there was no separate hatch for gun crew or ammunition, often resulting in a crowded conning tower.
HMS Urge was equipped with a collapsible antenna, which allowed the submarine to communicate when at the surface. The difficulty of radio transmissions through the sea meant that the submarine had to surface to communicate, leaving it vulnerable to anti-submarine attacks.
In April 2021, a team of six technical divers from Heritage Malta and the University of Malta descended to the wreck site for the first time. It was during one of these dives that the letters ‘RGE’ were identified on the side of the conning tower, exactly where they should be. This definitively identified the site as that of HMS Urge.
Photos and text is from Heritage Malta underwater museum
For the dive Advanced Trimix certification and deep trrimix diving experience are required.