It was the early hours of 8 May 1942, seven miles off the coast of Malta. A British submarine, the HMS Olympus, hit a mine and sunk. All but nine of its 98 crew and passengers were killed. It was a wartime tragedy of epic proportions for the Royal Navy but the exact location of the wreck has always remained a mystery – until now.
The British-controlled island of Malta had become a focal point in the North African campaign of World War Two. Blockaded and pounded constantly by the might of the German and, to a lesser extent, Italian air force, the 120 square-mile island was of vital strategic importance to the British.
HMS Olympus, had just gone out to sea, attempting to leave the British Naval Base in Malta’s Grand Harbour. The 283-foot submarine was heading to Gibraltar, and from there to home. The thought of escaping the ravaged isle must have been an intoxicating prospect for its war-weary crew. In the previous six weeks, three subs had been sunk, all whilst in harbour, by Italian bombers or the Luftwaffe.
98 men were on board the Olympus that fateful night, the 8 May – her own crew of 55 plus 43 survivors from the three sunken subs. Setting its course for home, it was still on the surface when it hit a mine. Immediately, it began sinking but most of the men on board managed to escape by leaping into the sea.
But they were far from shore and, in the dead of night, surrounded by inky blackness. The island, subject to wartime blackout, was nowhere to be seen. One can imagine the sheer terror – the men stranded in the cold sea, buffeted by the sea, some panicking, others trying to remain calm and to take stock. The faraway glow caused by the German bombs ironically provided them with a ray of hope – now at least they knew in which direction to swim. But it was seven miles of cold, strong water, fully clothed in uniform. Most, sadly, succumbed. Only nine made it to shore. 89 died.
For almost 70 years, the final resting place of the Olympus remained a mystery; nobody knew exactly where it was. But last year, a team of maritime explorers found what they believed to be the wreck of the British submarine. Further research confirmed their findings. But the team, the Aurora Trust, based in Key Largo in Florida, were prevented from announcing their discovery until the Maltese authorities were entirely convinced that the submarine was indeed the Olympus. This week, finally, permission was granted – the announcement was made.
George Malcolmson, archivist from the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire, said, ‘In terms of men killed, the loss of HMS Olympus ranks as one of the worst RN [Royal Navy] wartime submarine losses’.
On the museum’s website, Malcolmson quotes one of the nine survivors, Gordon Selby, who was ‘a legend in the submarine service for surviving the sinking of several boats during the war… Gordon once told me that his lasting memory of the sinking of Olympus was looking back at the submarine as she settled in the water and there he saw a mass of boots and shoes neatly placed in one long line on the upper deck casing. The footwear was placed there by the survivors of the initial mine explosion before they abandoned the submarine and took to the water.’
Malta at War
Lying half way between Italy and North Africa, Malta’s baptism of fire started on 11 June 1940, the day after Italy entered the war on the side of the Germans. Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, immediately ordered the bombing of the island. The British garrison on Malta defended the population, and supplies and extra planes were shipped in. But it was only the start.
British submarines and Hurricane fighter planes retaliated by attacking Italian and German convoys, which were shipping men and equipment to North Africa. In October 1941 Erwin Rommel, the German commander in North Africa, reckoned he had lost over 60% of his supplies to British forces based in Malta.
Now the Germans
The Germans decided that the British garrison was causing too much damage. Albert Kesselring, Hitler’s Mediterranean commander, promised to ‘wipe Malta off the map’. Luftwaffe and U-boats stationed sixty miles north on the island of Sicily launched aerial attacks on Malta and the siege intensified. Supplies to the island virtually ceased and the inhabitants suffered eighteen months of hunger as well as continual bombardment. Civilians, starved and frightened, packed the caves beneath the capital Valletta.
It was during this time of deprivation that Britain’s King George VI awarded the island, as a collective, the George Cross ‘to bear witness to the heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history’. It was the first time that the George Cross had been awarded to a collective. (The second and, so far, last occasion was in 1999 when it was awarded to the Royal Ulster Constabulary.)
But the ordeal was far from over. In May 1942, the month HMS Olympus was sunk, the British tried to fly in a contingent of Spitfires but most were destroyed before they could be deployed. With food and supplies nearly exhausted, the future looked bleak. Ammunition was so low that only a few rounds were allowed to be fired per day.
Spitfire to the rescue
A second attempt to bring in Spitfires was successful. Immediately they went on the offensive against the Luftwaffe and were able to escort supply convoys through to the besieged islanders. The first convoy, having survived intense German attack, arrived in Valletta on 15 August, the Maltese feast day of St Mary. The convoy’s survival and arrival on this important day of the Maltese calendar was seen as nothing less than heaven-sent. The worst was over.
Renewed attacks from Malta on Rommel’s supplies severely hampered the German campaign in Egypt, and by the end of 1942, British supplies to the island were arriving unmolested. The siege was over and the island had survived.
To this day the image of the George Cross appears in the top left corner of the Maltese flag.
The brave men of the HMS Olympus had played their part.
Read more about the war in World War Two: History In An Hour
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.