Image:  © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images A dark shape is moving into the black depths off Malta’s Grand Harbor. ...

This Submarine Vanished Without A Trace In 1942 – But Divers Have Now Solved The Mystery Of Its Fate This Submarine Vanished Without A Trace In 1942 – But Divers Have Now Solved The Mystery Of Its Fate

This Submarine Vanished Without A Trace In 1942 – But Divers Have Now Solved The Mystery Of Its Fate

This Submarine Vanished Without A Trace In 1942 – But Divers Have Now Solved The Mystery Of Its Fate


A dark shape is moving into the black depths off Malta’s Grand Harbor. From the dockside, a woman watches it move. For a moment, she thinks she sees her new husband running across the deck of the submarine. Hopefully he’ll be back soon. But she strains her eyes as the sub is swallowed up by the night, onto its next mission. The April 1942 morning is still and quiet, no bombing raid tonight. Yet for all this, the HMS Urge will never be seen again. And what happened to her will remain unsolved for decades. 

In the sea off Malta, divers are exploring a strange find, discovered by university researchers. They have been searching the seabed for 20 years, uncovering the secrets of the Mediterranean island’s territorial waters. And here, hundreds of feet below the surface, the team finally finds answers to the mystery of the Urge

Although the war was a long time ago now, there are still those whose hearts were broken by the loss it brought. Yet the story of what became of their loved ones is finally revealed. So the families of the crew of the submarine, and the passengers who accompanied them, will at last have closure.

The Urge was a “U-class” submarine. Although they were only little, and intended for use in training submariners, they proved powerful combatants in the war at sea. Submarines were a dangerous place to be inside, of course, with 20 of the 48 U-class vessels ending up lost in action. 

But the small subs – less than 200 feet long – gave as good as they got. They were equipped with ten torpedoes and, if needed, a three-inch deck gun. The undersea sharks of the U-class cruised at ten knots flat out. Only 15 feet across and drawing just a bit more than 17 feet, they were perfect for operating in the Mediterranean.

The Urge ended up costing £300,000, about $17 million in today’s money. That was raised with the help of the people of Bridgend in Wales. You see, once a year U.K. towns and cities did fundraising to get the money for ships, and the Urge was the Welsh town’s project. Its citizens put on dances, a soccer match and art exhibitions, among other things, to raise the cash.

Having paid for the submarine, Bridgend’s residents proudly adopted the Urge after her launch in August 1940. And just like a mom sending parcels to her kid at the front, they sent gifts of luxuries and food to the submariners who served them and their country. The 32 men aboard were no doubt delighted to get them, given the limited rations available during the war.

Image: Pedro/Flickr

In 1941 the Urge was sent to Malta, where she was based at the Grand Harbor. She was just one of the 10th Submarine Flotilla, which was largely made up of U-class boats. There were never more than a dozen subs at Malta, but they posed a serious menace to the enemy’s ships.  

Top man aboard the Urge was Lieutenant-Commander Edward Tomkinson. And he was highly thought of by his peers, who considered that he deserved a Victoria Cross. The top brass placed him in the highest echelon, believing him to be the best of the best of their submarine commanders from both world wars. So high praise there then!

Tomkinson’s crew made a lot of friends among the Maltese, as University of Malta professor Timmy Gambin explained to the Royal Navy in a 2019 statement. He said, “Many of the crew of HMS Urge formed bonds with the people of Malta – one crew member married a Maltese bride.” 

And the submarine had been successfully harassing Italian ships. The Italians’ aim was to take supplies to the Germans who were fighting in North Africa. But British subs attacked and sank them as they sailed through the Mediterranean, making it more difficult for Field Marshal Rommel to keep his Afrika Korps moving.

Tomkinson had taken the Urge out 20 times, winning some important victories. Not least of these were hitting the Giovanni delle Bande Nere, an Italian cruiser, with torpedoes, which sent her down. Plus a dose of the same medicine was handed out to the Vittorio Veneto, which left the Italian battleship crippled.

Success seemed to be second nature for the Urge and her crew. And they reaped decorations as they proved a severe menace to German and Italian shipping. When not sinking unwary ships, the submarine carried canoes full of special forces soldiers into action. Despite its usefulness, though, the flotilla was finding Malta too hot for comfort.

That’s because the Axis forces made the submarine base a top priority for attack in 1942. They rained bombs on the fort that housed the fleet. So eventually the decision was made to skedaddle, and orders came for the flotilla to depart Malta and head for Alexandria, a safer haven in Egypt. 

So on April 27, 1942, Tomkinson loaded up the Urge for what would prove to be its final voyage. The 32 crew were joined by 12 passengers. Among them was the correspondent Bernard Gray, who braved the dangers of war for the readers of British newspapers. Once ready, the sub slipped out into the darkness.

But the Urge never arrived in Egypt. And when she didn’t turn up on May 6, when due, the Navy had to report her missing. The commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean expressed his sorrow at the news, writing, “The loss of this outstanding submarine and commanding officer is much to be regretted.”

Whenever men are lost at sea, of course, they leave behind loved ones. In the case of Tomkinson, he left not only a wife but a baby daughter. That daughter, Bridget, would have a son, Francis Dickinson, who became integral in the effort to find out what exactly had happened to the Urge.

That effort was needed because no one had any idea of what had become of the submarine. Then in 2015 a scuba diver claimed he knew the identity of a wreck he’d found some years earlier, some 160 feet down off the coast of Libya. And he claimed that what he’d discovered was the Urge

What had happened was that Belgian Jean-Pierre Misson had been diving near Marsa el Hilal, in the vicinity of Tobruk in 2012. But civil war troubles in Libya had left him unable to go down and take a better look. Only after studying the images that he’d acquired by sonar was he able to identify his find.

Thus Misson tried to get in touch with the loved ones of the crew. He told the U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail, “I really do not know how the relatives of the captain and crew of HMS Urge will take it – they might have been content knowing their loved ones were somewhere in the huge ocean rather than being too close to fanatics in Libya.”

Although officials believed that the submarine had been lost near Malta, there was another theory. That said that the Urge had attacked an Italian ship on April 29. When a nearby Italian plane had been alerted to what was going on, it had soared over to bomb and sink the submarine.

This would have been an extraordinary outcome if Monsieur Misson had been correct. Because the Urge would have been miles from the course that it was supposed to have taken. That would mean that Tomkinson had not followed the orders that he’d been given, and gone off looking for action in a different area of the Mediterranean. Odd and unlike him to say the least!

Well, that always seemed a little unlikely, and now that theory has been proven wrong. Because Tomkinson’s grandson Dickinson got together with naval researcher Platon Alexiades from Canada, Prof. Gambin, and a bunch of students to find out the truth. And in 2019 they made a discovery that they believed provided the answer. 

The university team itself had been surveying Malta’s territorial waters for more than 20 years. And when Dickinson asked them to take a close look at a particular area, they said yes. That area was the part of the sea where the Germans had laid a lot of mines. So if the Urge was there, they were sure that they’d find her.

That’s because the team was scanning the seabed. Since 2014 they’d been sending out an underwater vehicle that was able to go down to more than 1,600 feet, staying beneath the sea for as many as five hours. Prof. Gambin told the Live Science website in 2019, “We are mapping whatever there is on the seabed. We have found everything from [a] 2,700-year-old shipwreck, to planes crashed in the sea during the Cold War.”

When looking a couple of miles from the Maltese coast, the researchers found a shape on sonar that looked a lot like a submarine. So they sent down the diving vessel to take a closer look. And there definitely was a sub there, and it did seem to be a U-class boat that had had a part of its bow ripped away.

Prof. Gambin told the Daily Mail about the condition of the submarine. He said, “The damage to the bow shows a very violent explosion… indicating that the ship would have sunk very fast, giving no chance to anybody to survive from this tragedy.” So it seemed that the mystery of the Urge may have been solved. 

Plus Prof. Gambin was quick to confirm that the commander had very much followed orders. He told Malta’s PBS broadcaster, “Besides the damage on the bow, the wreck is in absolutely fantastic condition. It is sitting upright on the seabed, very proud, in the direction that it was ordered to take on its way to Alexandria.” 

The university team didn’t just rely on what they could see, though. They sent off the material that they’d gathered to the British defense ministry. And the ministry confirmed that what they’d discovered was, in its view, the Urge. Plus the ministry was not alone in considering that this settled the matter.

Because the Royal Navy gave an insight into the reaction of the crew’s families. In a press release in October 2019, it said, “Families of the crew, led by Lt. Cdr. Tomkinson’s daughter Bridget, hope to erect a memorial on the island and attend a commemorative service next year to mark the tragedy and Urge’s rediscovery.” But there was still a tiny question mark: it was a U-class, but was it really Urge

Well, a team of six divers finally closed the book on the submarine in April 2021. They went down to take a look for themselves. And when they found the tower that sits in the middle of the submarine, they had confirmation at last. Because on it was written the name of the doomed ship: Urge.

Prof. Gambin himself led the team down to roughly 360 feet. They stayed there for longer than 20 minutes and were able to take photos at high resolution. And it was clear to them that the submarine had fallen prey to a mine. The explosion, you see, had smashed through the ship’s pressure hull. Thus water would have rushed into the bow, and that would have been enough to send the sub to the bottom.

And Prof. Gambin described the certainty that now existed over the fate of the Urgeto Live Science. He said, “It is now 100 percent confirmed. We got some good images of the name that will hopefully do away with the absurd claim that she was lost off North Africa.” But getting pictures of the submarine’s name had proved difficult. 

Because Prof. Gambin explained that in the years since the submarine had sunk, gorgonian coral had grown over it. And the coral has the protection of law. The professor told Live Science, “We abide by international standards where we don’t touch the wreck, so I’m not going to go and just shove it [coral] out of the way.” 

It had taken a while to dive down to the wreck, too, because of precautions surrounding the pandemic, Prof. Gambin explained. But he recognized how important answering the questions about the wreck was. He said, “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.” 

Because in a recent conflict, the victims’ families are still likely to be with us, Prof. Gambin noted. He said, “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.”

The British Royal Navy declared in 2019 that the wreck would be considered a war grave. So a commemorative ceremony was set for April 2020. It noted, “The wreck will now be treated as an official war grave and protected by Maltese, British and international law.” And at least one family member expressed satisfaction at the outcome.

Yes, Francis Dickinson told the Royal Navy in 2019 that the discovery had resolved questions that had haunted his family. He said, “My family have always wanted to know where HMS Urge and her gallant crew’s resting place is. Thanks to this project, we now know where and how the submarine was lost after achieving so much.”

And Prof. Gambin noted that this satisfaction extended to Malta, too. He told the Royal Navy, “The powerful image of this seemingly-undaunted wreck reflects the courage of those who sailed in her, as well as the enduring alliance of HMS Urgewith the island of Malta. It will forever be a part of the history of the Royal Navy and Malta.”

The remains of the tragedy that was World War II will likely continue to be uncovered for many years. Only a few months before Urge was found in 2019, Italy confirmed that the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere, a cruiser sunk by the submarine, had itself been discovered off Sicily. So let’s hope that many more continue to be found – for the sake of history, and the victims’ families. 

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