Towards the end of 2019 the discovery of the wreck of HMS Urge received global press attention when it was announced in Malta. There is now a community of people connected to HMS Urge, whether as relations of crew members, friends, supporters or simply those interested in the life and times of a British submarine which achieved a lot in a short but intense Second World War career. The end of April will be a poignant time for the HMS Urge group, which was to have met in Malta to commemorate the submarine and crew on the anniversary of their loss on 27 April, 1942. Sadly, the events involved have needed to be postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but there is every hope of rescheduling them in the future. Everyone in the group is aware that so many plans and indeed lives have been interrupted and altered forever at this current time.
HMS Urge was one of the small U class of Royal Navy submarines which were intended for short range patrols and anti-submarine training purposes. She was built at Barrow by Vickers Armstrong and handed over to Lieutenant EP Tomkinson RN as commanding officer on 12 December, 1940. HMS Urge’s first two patrols were in the North Sea searching for German capital ships, before being ordered to the Mediterranean to form part of what became the 10th Submarine Flotilla at Malta. En route in the Bay of Biscay Urge sank the Axis 10,000 ton tanker Franco Martelli. The first lieutenant at this time was Lieutenant Peter Marriott, who left shortly afterwards to assume his own commands including the former German U boat HMS Graph; also on board taking passage was Lieutenant Ian McGeoch, a future Vice Admiral and Flag Officer Submarines whose book An Affair of Chances makes fascinating reading.
After arriving in Malta in May, 1941 Urge joined in the attack on enemy convoys from Italy to reinforce Axis forces in North Africa. The experience of being depth charged by strong escorts in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean in the first patrol led Tomkinson to offer up a prayer of thanks for the first of many lucky escapes, in this case Urge diving beyond the design limit to 278 feet to evade enemy forces. “The depth charges were raining around us…some of my crew were pretty shaken up and I’ve sent them for a rest.” he wrote to his wife. One crew member was flung across a whole compartment by the force of the underwater explosions, which they would experience many times over the coming months. Almost all of the crew coped well with this extraordinary pressure.
The intensity kept up over the next few months of 1941. As well as attacks on enemy convoys HMS Urge was one of the submarines from which some of the first special forces raids on enemy coasts were carried out by what was then known as the Special Boat Squadron. Commandos operating from Urge blew up enemy trains on two occasions, disrupting communications. Captain “Tug” Wilson was probably the most famous of the commandos operating from Malta submarines, working brilliantly with HMS Urge and many other U class submarines. Urge also undertook missions to land and recover special agents on enemy coasts. Tragically, on one occasion an agent became compromised and Sub-Lieutenant Brian Lloyd, a naval officer operating a Folbot (a folding canoe) from Urge, was killed in a firefight close to the shore. Tomkinson and his crew had to take action to evade enemy anti-submarine traps on that and several other occasions when undertaking special missions.
HMS Urge’s most significant achievement was arguably the torpedoing of the 45,000 ton Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto near the Straits of Messina on 14 December, 1941. This was the largest enemy capital ship torpedoed at sea by a Royal Navy submarine in World War Two, and the need to repair the damage deprived the enemy of a modern battleship comparable to the Bismarck for a critical 6 months during which Malta was under threat of invasion. Among the crew at this time was Lieutenant Godfrey Place who would go on to win fame for the X craft attack on the German battleship Tirpitz later in the war. After evading the enemy counter attack, Urge returned to Malta to find she had to remain dived off the island due to several waves of air raids which were in progress – Admiral Miers was later to say that Urge, Upholder and their comrades “operated under conditions of danger and difficulty the like of which I doubt will ever be paralelled.”. It was several months before the results of the Vittorio Veneto attack were fully confirmed, by which time Urge’s own loss was to overshadow it.
During the winter of 1941-2 the Malta submarines faced challenges with equipment such as torpedoes that were liable to malfunction, and the effects of storms which often caused damage to friend and foe alike. With a surface displacement of a little under 650 tons the U class boats were thrown around when on the surface at night during heavy weather which was essential to recharge batteries or intercept enemy convoys.
On 1 April, 1942 HMS Urge torpedoed and sank the Italian 6 inch gun cruiser Giovanni Delle Bande Nere. The wreck of the Bande Nere was itself discovered by the Italian Navy earlier in 2019. This was a major success, but took place against the backdrop of intensified enemy air raids on the base of the 10th Submarine Flotilla at Malta, an island which at this time became the most bombed place in history. Eventually the submarine base became unviable and the remaining 5 submarines were evacuated to Alexandria. After surviving 20 intensive war patrols, HMS Urge was not heard of again after leaving Malta on 27 April, 1942. She was lost along with her crew of 32, and 12 passengers (11 naval personnel and the journalist Bernard Gray).
In his report on Urge’s loss, Captain Simpson of the 10th Flotilla considered that Urge had struck one of a large number of mines laid by enemy E boats in the approaches to Malta at that time. British minesweeping capabilities had been crushed by enemy air attacks leaving submarines vulnerable during this intense phase of the Mediterranean war. The Royal Navy’s Commander in Chief, Mediterranean signalled the Admiralty that “The loss of this outstanding submarine and commanding officer is much to be regretted.”
In a letter now copied to the archives of the Submarine Museum, Admiral Sir Max Horton as Flag Officer Submarines wrote to Tomkinson’s widow “It is true to say that your husband’s courage, leadership and great skill were second to none in the Submarine Service either in this war or the last.” Every member of the crew had become invaluable – Captain Simpson wrote: “In Urge’s fine ship’s company one rating stands out with a record that must be for all time exceptional. Chief Petty Officer C.J.Jackman…had been in action during this war well over 40 times against all types of enemy ships.”.
Like many, Leading Signalman Eric Law was another who had seen action before joining Urge, at 22 years old he was a veteran of the Norwegian campaign as well as that in the Mediterranean. Each crew member who was lost had played a critical role in the achievements of the submarine, and their families are now gaining a sense of their contribution – as well as those already mentioned Telegraphist Henry Twist, ERA Eric Varley, PO Telegraphist Peter Wiseman, Lieutenant David Allen, Leading Seaman Jesse Norris, Able Seaman Leslie Baxter, PO Henry Watts, Leading Stoker James Lamb and Stoker Albert Bryant are among those with family members actively researching their roles. The same is true of those lost on passage such as Leading Stoker Samuel Wilkes and Bernard Gray. The journalist Bernard Gray’s presence on Urge had been established by George Malcolmson of the NMRN, having not previously been officially confirmed.
In 1942 Mrs.Tomkinson wrote to all the bereaved families, and people whose lives were changed forever through their loss were able at least to share their experience in letters. Today many of those same families are coming together and exchanging letters from that time, still remembering the relations whose qualities as people are being remembered alongside their military successes.
An accommodation block at HMS Dolphin was named after HMS Urge in 1947, with a further building named after Lieutenant-Commander Tomkinson in 1975. The town of Bridgend adopted HMS Urge in 1941 and still has the submarine’s crest in its Council chamber, along with artwork honouring the crew. There is a memorial window for the crew of HMS Urge in the chapel at Fort Blockhouse.
In 2019 staff and students from the department of Classics and Archeology of the University of Malta, working in conjunction with the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, discovered the wreck of HMS Urge lying a short distance from Malta. The discovery was verified through images and analysis, and the wreck was recognised as the last resting place of HMS Urge and her crew by the MOD prior to the announcement. The work of Professor Timmy Gambin of the University of Malta and Platon Alexiades, a naval researcher from Canada, was critical to the search project.
The full story of HMS Urge’s career, loss and discovery is still being compiled and will be completed when the Malta Commemoration has taken place in due course. It is also hoped that events to remember the submarine will be possible at the Submarine Museum. Pending such events, on 27th April the HMS Urge group will be remembering all those lost.
Text (C) Francis Dickinson