Science

WWII: Wreck off the coast of Malta is confirmed to be missing submarine HMS Urge

The wreck of a submarine sunk off the coast of Malta has finally been verified as the missing HMS Urge which vanished with all hands en route to Alexandria in April 1942.

Archaeologists from the University of Malta dove to the wreck twice in April and were able to identify the vessel based on the ‘N17’ ID embossed on its conning tower.

The confirmation puts an end to controversial claims that the sub was instead sunk off of the coast of Libya by Italian warplanes while undertaking a secret mission.

Experts believe that the HMS Urge was fatally struck by a German mine shortly after leaving Malta’s Grand Harbour, while the vessel was still surfaced. 

It was discovered in 2019 after Francis Dickinson — grandson of HMS Urge’s captain, Lt Cdr Edward Tomkinson — pushed for a search of an area heavily mined by Nazis.

 The wreck of a submarine sunk off the coast of Malta (pictured, showing the forward gun) has finally been verified as HMS Urge, which vanished en route to Alexandria in April 1942

Experts believe that the HMS Urge (pictured here in 1941) was fatally struck by a German mine shortly after leaving Malta's Grand Harbour, while the vessel was still surfaced

Experts believe that the HMS Urge (pictured here in 1941) was fatally struck by a German mine shortly after leaving Malta’s Grand Harbour, while the vessel was still surfaced

N17 HMS URGE: SPECS 

Class/type: U-class submarine

Length: 191 feet (58 metres)

Beam: 15 feet 1 inch (4.9 metres)

Draft: 17 feet 5 inches (5.3 metres) 

Max surface speed: 11.25 knots 

Max submerged speed: 10 knots 

Arms: One 3-inch gun, 10 torpedoes 

Complement: 32 crew

Builder: Vickers Armstrong 

Launched: August 19, 1940

Lost: April 27, 1942

The dives down to the wreck were led by archaeologist and deep wreck historian Timmy Gambin of the University of Malta, who was accompanied by five colleagues.

‘It is now 100 per cent confirmed,’ Professor Gambin — who first discovered the wreck two years ago around six miles east of the Maltese coast — told Live Science.

‘We got some good images of the name that will hopefully do away with the absurd claim that she was lost off North Africa.’

This is the first time that people have dived down to visit the wreck. Surveys in 2019 were undertaken with an autonomous underwater vehicle, and since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has impeded investigation of the lost vessel.

During the recent dive, however, the researchers were able to spend more than 20 minutes inspecting the wreck — which lies at a depth of around 360 feet (110 metres) — taking high-resolution photographs and video of the vessel.

Sight of the vessel’s ID embossed on the port side of her conning tower had previously been impossible to catch, because such had been obscured by a legally-protected gorgonian coral that had grown alongside the wreck.

‘We abide by international standards where we don’t touch the wreck, so I’m not going to go and just shove it out of the way,’ Professor Gambin told Live Science. 

The researchers were also able undertake a detailed 3D scan of the submarine’s hull,  which revealed not only how it matched the dimensions of the missing HMS Urge but also the extent of the damage to the vessel’s bow.

The team’s inspection found that the state of the wreck was consistent with having struck a German naval mine, with a hole having been punched through the vessel’s pressure hull near her bow.

According to Professor Gambin and colleagues, the bow section likely rapidly filled with water after being holed, and ultimately broke off when the stricken sub plunged in the sea bed. 

HMS Urge was discovered in 2019 after Francis Dickinson — grandson of HMS Urge's captain, Lt Cdr Edward Tomkinson — pushed for a search of an area heavily mined by Nazis. Pictured: a sonar image of the vessel's wreck, top, compared with an illustration of a U-class sub, bottom

HMS Urge was discovered in 2019 after Francis Dickinson — grandson of HMS Urge’s captain, Lt Cdr Edward Tomkinson — pushed for a search of an area heavily mined by Nazis. Pictured: a sonar image of the vessel’s wreck, top, compared with an illustration of a U-class sub, bottom

In early 1942, HMS Urge was based at the British naval port at Malta, which at that time was a key facility in the Mediterranean.

To avoid the intense bombardment of the island by German and Italian air forces, the British Admiralty ordered all warships stationed at Malta to set sail for the port of Alexandria, in Egypt.

HMS Urge set sail from Malta on April 27, 1942 under the cover of darkness, carrying 29 crewmembers, 11 naval passengers and the British war reporter Bernard Gray, who wrote for the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial.

By May 6, however, she had failed to report at Alexandria as expected, and was ultimately reported missing.

HMS Urge (pictured) set sail from Malta on April 27, 1942 under the cover of darkness, carrying 29 crewmembers, 11 naval passengers and the British war reporter Bernard Gray, who wrote for the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial. By May 6, however, she had failed to report at Alexandria as expected, and was ultimately reported missing

HMS Urge (pictured) set sail from Malta on April 27, 1942 under the cover of darkness, carrying 29 crewmembers, 11 naval passengers and the British war reporter Bernard Gray, who wrote for the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial. By May 6, however, she had failed to report at Alexandria as expected, and was ultimately reported missing

Sight of the vessel's id embossed on the port side of her conning tower had previously been impossible to catch, because such had been obscured by a legally-protected gorgonian coral that had grown alongside the wreck. Pictured: a sonar image of the vessel's wreck, top, compared with an illustration of a U-class sub, bottom

Sight of the vessel’s id embossed on the port side of her conning tower had previously been impossible to catch, because such had been obscured by a legally-protected gorgonian coral that had grown alongside the wreck. Pictured: a sonar image of the vessel’s wreck, top, compared with an illustration of a U-class sub, bottom

The mystery of the submarine’s fate resurfaced in 2015 when Belgian adventurer Jean-Pierre Misson controversially claimed to have discovered her wreck in sonar scans taken off of the coast of Libya, at Marsa el Hilal.

Mr Misson argues that the HMS Urge was sunk after by dive-bombed by Italian warplanes, and has suggested that the submarine’s deviation from its ordered course may reflect the vessel having been engaged in a secret mission.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Misson will accept the new evidence that the HMS Urge sank off of Malta, having prominently rejected the 2019 findings.

The team made a ‘Fraudulent Claim’, he told The Newsletter of Derbyshire Submariners last year, adding that ‘the real mystery lies more with the way the Royal Naval Historical Branch and the British Ministry of Defence got so easily fooled.’

‘In due time, the wreck of HMS URGE will be confirmed to be at Marsa el Hilal because the Truth can’t be concealed for ever!’ Mr Misson concluded.

'It is now 100 per cent confirmed,' Professor Gambin — who led the team that initially found the wreck back in 2019 —told Live Science . 'We got some good images of the name that will hopefully do away with the absurd claim that she was lost off North Africa'

 ‘It is now 100 per cent confirmed,’ Professor Gambin — who led the team that initially found the wreck back in 2019 —told Live Science . ‘We got some good images of the name that will hopefully do away with the absurd claim that she was lost off North Africa’

'It is now 100 per cent confirmed,' Dr Gambin — who first discovered the wreck two years ago around six miles east of the Maltese coast — told Live Science

‘It is now 100 per cent confirmed,’ Dr Gambin — who first discovered the wreck two years ago around six miles east of the Maltese coast — told Live Science

According to Professor Gambin, providing this final confirmation of the wreck’s identity had taken on a personal importance.

‘There is a massive difference between working on a Roman shipwreck — which is important archaeologically and very spectacular — and working with something from a recent conflict,’ he told Live Science.

‘The daughter of the commander is still alive. The love letters written by her mother are in the submarine.

‘So for me, the science and the safety of the dives are paramount, but the most important thing is closure for the families.’

With their latest study of the wreck complete, the team will be passing the details to the Royal Navy, which retains responsibility for the wreck under international law. 

THE VOYAGES OF THE HMS URGE 

Pictured: HMS Urge's captain, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Tomkinson

Pictured: HMS Urge’s captain, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Tomkinson

Commissioned on December 12, 1940, HMS Urge spent most of her career active in the Mediterranean.

The £300,000 vessel (equivalent to some £12 million today) was adopted and partly paid for by the people of Bridgend, Wales, as part of a nation fundraising ‘Warship Week’.

From 1941–1942, HMS Urge operated out of Malta’s Grand Harbour as part of the 10th Submarine Flotilla — during which period she was captained by one Lieutenant-Commander Edward Tomkinson.

She completed 20 patrols prior to being sunk by a German mine in April 1942 and was distinguished by a series of victories in battle. In particular, HMS Urge was responsible for torpedoing and sinking the Italian cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere.

The submarine was also used to deploy several successful canoe-based commando missions.

When news of her loss reached the commander-in-chief Mediterranean, they reported to the admiralty that the ‘loss of this outstanding submarine and commanding officer is much to be regretted.’


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