HMS RORQUAL – Commanded by Lennox Napier DSO DSC June 1941-December 1943


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RORQUAL was one of six submarines built in the 1930s designed to lay minefields of up to 50 mines, after which she would use her 6 torpedo tubes within a conventional submarine patrol. Accommodating the mines on rails above the pressure hull, within a steel casing, gave these already large submarines a bulky silhouette which made them particularly vulnerable to being spotted when on the surface, especially from the air, and in the clear waters of the Mediterranean even when submerged. RORQUAL was the only one of the six to survive the war.

HMS Rorqual – pre war colour scheme

There is little World War 2 historical material focusing on the operations of these minelaying submarines, which gives this story of RORQUAL added interest and significance; as well as painting a portrait of Lennox Napier, acknowledged as a distinguished and successful submarine commanding officer, and showing how his unusual attributes for a naval officer of the period served him well in command of RORQUAL.

Lennox Napier DSO DSC

Based on a long interview given to the BBC, letters, and his writings after the war, much of the material in this publication is in Lennox Napier’s own words, his own reflections including descriptions of “magic carpet” operations for the relief of Malta, sinking of the last Axis ship able to carry Tiger tanks to Rommel in North Africa, an attack which caused Hitler personally to go red in the face, and some very narrow escapes.

Read the book in either pdf or epub (especially good for use on smaller screens and opens in iBooks on a Mac) format.

If you have enjoyed this book and are not yet a member of the Friends of the RN Submarine Museum then do please consider joining,  you will then be playing an ongoing role in preserving our submarine heritage.


We have had some reviews of the book:

“I have just spent an immensely rewarding couple of hours reading about the exploits of your father on HMS Rorqual. What an incredible story which you have put together and told in such an informative way. You must be very proud of your father and what he achieved during his wartime service. I was surprised to read that submarines were used transport supplies into Malta and even anti-aircraft guns to Lemnos. Also, that Rorqual was used for shore bombardment. I had never heard or read about those things before. The successful torpedo attack in the Dardanelles must have been a pretty scary affair; there were escorts everywhere and your father showed great leadership, coolness and skill to complete such a hazardous mission. A really good read”

Lt Col (Retd) Michael Rescorle

“Having served in the later HMS Rorqual I was fascinated to read about Lennox Napier’s Second World War Rorqual: very similar in many regards, but so different in her minelaying capability. Christopher Napier has done a fine job in recounting his father’s wartime experience of submarine command in the Mediterranean, in shallow waters, heavily patrolled by Axis ships and aircraft. Doing so he gives insights into life in war-torn Malta and the operations to keep the island supplied, and tells the little sung tale of submarine mine-laying.  Highlights include the sinking by mines of the last ship capable of transporting Tiger tanks to Rommel in North Africa, and the torpedoing of a tanker that made Hitler go red in the face. Lennox Napier gave a long interview with the BBC for a television programme and this has been used to make this a very personal and readable story of a calm and confident commanding officer, and one, it must be said, who was also very lucky.”

Rear Admiral Richard Irwin CB

“I now have your book on HMS Rorqual in all its online form. There are several facets of the book that are fascinating.  I have never been very good at reading about submarine operations and so your book has opened my eyes to the whole field of minelaying but more importantly, I suspect that your father and mine must have known each other in Beirut!  My father, W.G. Pulvertaft having served in submarines before the war – by 1942 was Cdr (E) of HMS Medway.  He survived her sinking in June that year and was one of the staff who set up the base in Beirut from which period I have a few mementos.  Your father’s letter to Christian Lamb about the mess there struck the right chords! I thought the photograph of your father with Lt St John was wonderful as, when you were a Lieutenant, you looked exactly the same!  The mention of Genoni’s Restaurant in Plymouth brought back all sorts of memories.”

David Pulvertaft

“I was immediately fascinated.  I have put all aside to read it from start to finish.  A rare example of my focus, and what a rewarding one too.  Your summary of your father’s exploits was evocative of conflict in an earlier era and with an  immediacy that makes it a page turner.  I have not previously thought about the life of a wartime submariner and so was much enlightened.  Not however about the harsh and smelly conditions which were overlooked.  The references to hard work, long hours, stress, rationing, adrenaline, danger are all put to one side in your account.  This absence of self and crew pity certainly adds to the sense of bravery and stamina.  Both ingredients needed in what was a thoroughly dangerous and full-on time.  Similarly there was little mention of the professional skills needed to fight the ship including the need for precise navigation and the handling of a submarine often not performing as designed.  There must have been some luck involved for any boat to have survived the frequency of action so close to the enemy – but as the message in the book says – it comes with experience. This has been a great and informative read.”

Jonathan Drake-Wilkes

Christopher Napier’s proud account of his father Lennox Napier’s impressive exploits in WW2 is a thorough and delightfully readable insight into the understated bravery, fortitude and hard earned professionalism of our submariners in that era.   The book subtly illuminates how the war tempered this talented, widely read and thoughtful young officer into a strategically insightful, highly respected, wartime Commanding Officer in the Mediterranean theatre.   Definitely worth a read, particularly for anyone who wants to understand more about submarines at war and the psyche of a submarine Commanding Officer.

Rob Stevens

This is a tremendous book. It tells the story of one tiny bit of one of the campaigns in the grand story of the Second World War – minelaying by submarine in the Eastern Mediterranean – and it tells that story with real immediacy and impact. Much of the book is in the words of the Commanding Officer of HMS RORQUAL, Lennox Napier (the father of the author), and it is a treat to spend time with him. It tells the story of a great victory – HMS RORQUAL certainly played her part in the defeat of Axis forces in the Mediterranean in 1943 – you will learn a lot about submarine operation but you will learn a lot about warfare too, and men and machines under pressure. The way he takes his boat into conflict with the enemy day after day are set out with a matter of fact detachment which is extraordinary. At one stage, mistakenly believing the RORQUAL has  been sunk, Mussolini presented the U-boat concerned with a commemorative plaque! It is no surprise that at the end of this Napier was awarded DSO and DSC. But best of all you get to spend time with a special man, and the skipper’s views of the war and things beyond the war are always worth reading. He is highly educated and thoughtful and a deep thinker who sees things clearly (he said after Pearl Harbour “we have won the war today” – Churchill apart an unusual conclusion at the time). And the book ends with a charming set of letters from Lennox Napier to a female friend concerning violins, bowler hats and much else. What style! Recommended.

The Pennant (the journal of the Armed Forces Pension Society)