The Malta Independent 25 February 2020, Tuesday

Beneath the waves - Early submarine visits to Malta (1911-13)

Monday, 10 February 2020, 17:07 Last update: about 15 days ago

A submarine is a warship with a streamlined hull designed to operate completely submerged in the sea for long periods, equipped with a periscope and typically armed with torpedoes or missiles. In North America, a submarine is a sandwich made of a long roll typically filled with meat, cheese and vegetables such as lettuce, tomato and onions. This feature looks into the first British submarine visits to Malta during the early 20th century and the first submarine to be sunk by air attack. Anthony Zarb Dimech investigates

Sandwiches aside, the modern-age submarine is a powerful nuclear-powered vessel. Today six countries deploy some form of nuclear-powered strategic submarines: the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China and India.

The recent discovery of HMS Urge by a team of archaeologists led by Maltese Professor Timmy Gambin B.A. (Melit.), M.A. (Bristol), Ph.D. (Bristol), Associate Professor, Classics & Archaeology, has re-ignited and aroused fresh interest in the history of submarines.  Submarines were first built by Dutch inventor Cornelius van Drebel in the early 17th century but it was not until 150 years later that they were first used in naval combat. On 7 September 1776, during the Revolutionary War, the American submersible craft Turtle attempts to attach a time bomb to the hull of British Admiral Richard Howe’s flagship Eagle in New York Harbour. It was the first use of a submarine in warfare.

The United Kingdom has a long history in submarine design and production dating back to the construction of the Nordenfelt by the Barrow Ship Building Company in 1886. From then through the end of the Second World War, Britain developed numerous classes of new diesel-powered submarines and built almost 500 submarines.

Malta’s link to submarines is a result of her rich maritime history and submarine deployment to Malta is one important aspect of Malta’s maritime connection with Britain.

During the Second World War, the British used Marsamxett Harbour, particularly Manoel Island, as a submarine base. Also, the submarine depot was based at Msida Creek, next to the Torpedo Depot between 1950 and 1960.

Early submarine deployment to the Mediterranean goes back to 1911-1913, when early submarines (B9, B10 and B11) called at Malta’s Grand Harbour. For instance, the B1O was ordered as part of the 1904-1905 Naval programme. 

Some statistics about the B10 reveal that it was launched on 23 March 1916 and was completed on 28 April 1906. The Builder was Vickers and had a length of 142 feet and a diving depth of 100 feet. With a speed of 13.5 knots and a complement of 15 crew. It was sunk on 9 August 1916. The B class was an enlarged and improved version of the preceding A class.

In 1912, HMS B10, HMS B9 and HMS B11 were transferred to Malta. After the First World War began in 1914, B10 played a minor role in the Dardanelles Campaign. The boat was transferred to the Adriatic Sea in 1916 to support Italian forces against the Austro-Hungarian Navy. She was anchored in Venice when it was bombed by Austro-Hungarian aircraft on 9 August. A bomb struck the submarine and blew a hole that measured 5.5 by 6 feet (1.7 by 1.8m) in the side of the hull. As she flooded, her crew was able to escape without loss of life. It was the first submarine to be sunk by an aircraft in history.

One must not fail to mention the sinking of the HMS Louvain during the First World War, when the German submarine UC 22 torpedoed the Louvain and sent it to the bottom of the Aegean Sea in January 1918 in the worst naval disaster with the greatest loss of Maltese lives (26 crew and 46 other Maltese ratings).

Eventually, B10 was docked for repairs but the damage was compounded by the activities of an Italian dockyard welder who began work with his torch next to one of the submarines petrol tanks. B10 was surveyed and considered not fit for repair. She was sold for scrap.

Interestingly, the crew of the B10 stayed at Dowdall Hotel at St George’s Bay in Birzebbuga, since it was a popular spot for submarines’ crew. A photo showing the crew of submarine numbers 10 and 11 outside the Dowdall hotel was also recently unearthed and seen by the author of this feature.

Photo on top shows B10 in Grand Harbour, Malta with Upper Barrakka Gardens in the background

Photo of H. M. Submarine B10 crew (1911-1913)

Sailor cap denotes H.M.S Egmont

(A. B Axworthy, A. B Welsh, Ldg. Sea. Humber, Sto. Jordan, A. B. Wilcox, Ldg. Sto. Hark, A. B. Ashfield, ERA Eustace, Lieut. Gravener, P.O. Brewster, Lieut. Walsh, ERA Smeeton, A. B. Wolton, Sto. P.O. Jewell). Photo by S. L. Cassar (Malta)


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