The Tale Of A World War II British Submarine That Shot Down An Enemy Plane With A Torpedo

History has almost forgotten the World War II submarine crew that claimed a unique “kill” of an enemy aircraft in the Mediterranean.

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Without a doubt, one of the most unusual aircraft “kill” claims of all time is one attributed to the British submarine HMS Umbra, which is said to have brought down an enemy aircraft, using torpedoes, during World War II. The incident occurred in the Mediterranean, while the submarine, under the command of then-Lieutenant Lynch Maydon, was engaging an enemy ship. Such was the ferocity of the resulting explosion after the torpedoes hit that vessel, that Maydon reported that one of the aircraft escorting it was engulfed in a column of fire that leaped 1,000 feet into the air.

Were such a scenario to be considered for a fictional account of naval warfare, it would likely be rejected as too far-fetched. However, the submarine’s commander described the action in some detail and it was widely reported in newspapers at the time. When it returned from its patrol, HMS Umbra was flying the Jolly Roger to signify its successful hunting and the flag included a symbol of the aircraft claimed destroyed. The significance of this type of flag, and its symbols, is something The War Zone discussed in this past article.

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Officers and crew of HMS Umbra, together with their Jolly Roger success flag, at Devonport in February 1943.

As of December 1942, HMS Umbra, a Royal Navy U-class submarine built by Vickers-Armstrong, was on patrol off the coast of Tunisia, where Allied and Axis forces were locked in desert warfare after the Allied Operation Torch landings in North Africa the previous month. Meanwhile, the last major naval battles of the Mediterranean campaign were being fought between the United Kingdom and the Axis forces of Germany and Italy, with the British submarines exacting a steady toll on enemy shipping.

On December 9, HMS Umbra sighted the German merchant vessel Süllberg, south of the Tunisian coastal town of Hammamet. The 1,699-ton steamer Süllberg had been built in 1912 and was now carrying 645 tons of ammunition, 62 tons of other stores, four artillery pieces, and 23 vehicles. These were being transported from Trapani in Sicily to Sousse in Tunisia, to help the Axis forces repel the growing Allied advance into that country.

The following official account of what happened, compiled from details in patrol reports and logbooks, is available online at uboat.net, with HMS Umbra indicated by its pennant number, P35. Note that the submarine was armed with four tubes in the bow for 21-inch torpedoes, plus another four reloads, as well as a 3-inch gun:

(All times are zone -1)

0930 hours — Sighted a small merchant vessel, estimated to be 2,000 to 3,000 tons, bearing 342°. She was proceeding close inshore south of Hammamet. Estimated enemy course was 250°. Altered course and went to full submerged speed to intercept further South on the coast.

0945 hours — Enemy course was now seen to be 235°, speed was 9 knots. The target was keeping very close inshore. P35 proceeded to the South-West at full speed.

1057 hours — Turned to a firing course.

1100 hours — In position 36°14’N, 10°32’E fired three torpedoes from 4,500 yards. A very heavy explosion followed after about four minutes. Another very slight explosion followed about 15 seconds after the heavy explosion.

1109 hours — Returned to periscope depth. All that was left of the target was a magnificent column of orange and white smoke rising to about 1,000 feet in the air.

It’s important to note that this description doesn’t mention the possibility that the explosion aboard the Süllberg had not only sent that vessel to the bottom of the Mediterranean, but had also brought down one of the aircraft that was escorting it.

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Crew transfer personal items between HMS Umbra and a supply ship, with the submarine’s 3-inch gun in the foreground.

It’s also worth noting that in World War II, low-flying aircraft faced a genuine threat of damage or destruction from detonations on the ground, or water, below. It was by no means unusual for bombers or attack aircraft to be hit by debris thrown up from the targets they were supposed to be attacking, with potentially disastrous results. At times, such incidents even stretched the boundaries of credibility. On one occasion, for example, a German Luftwaffe fighter strafing a British train was brought down by debris that flew out of the locomotive’s exploding boiler. Even today, the pilot of an aircraft attacking objectives while flying at low-level must be alert to debris from exploding targets, as well as terrain and air defense threats.

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Italian Fiat G.50 and German Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters over the Mediterranean. While there is no available record of whether the escorts for the Süllberg were German or Italian, if they were indeed twin-engined, then they may well have been Luftwaffe Bf 110s. 

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HMS Umbra enters Devonport naval base, flying the Jolly Roger and with a reduced-size pennant number.

Oddly, for such a unique claim, the incident is absent from many of the histories of the campaign in the Mediterranean, suggesting that, after an initial flurry of media attention, the British Royal Navy may have considered that evidence was inadequate for it to be made official. The few published accounts available even describe the event happening in different years — 1942 or 1943 — but it’s still possible to piece together a more complete story, at least from the submarine crew’s point of view.

By the time that HMS Umbra returned to its Devonport base after its patrol, in February 1943, the official narrative as distributed by the Associated Press ran as follows:

HM Submarine Umbra home from the Mediterranean — she “torpedoed” an enemy plane. HMS Umbra has returned home after more than 12 months in service in Mediterranean waters. Under the command of Lieutenant S L C Maydon, DSO, RN, one of the Navy’s most successful submarine skippers, the Umbra fought many daring actions and wrought much destruction among enemy shipping. Her strangest adventure occurred early this year [sic] when she torpedoed an enemy aircraft in mid-air. Lieutenant Maydon sighted an enemy supply ship being escorted by three aircraft. He fired a torpedo and “all that was left of the target was a magnificent column of orange and white smoke rising to quite a thousand feet.” He noticed that only two of the three enemy aircraft were in sight. “It was hoped,” reported Lieutenant Maydon, “that the third may have gone to great heights when the target blew up.”

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South African-born Lieutenant S L C Maydon, DSO, RN.

Together with that report, a series of photos were taken by the Admiralty showing the victorious crew of the HMS Umbra as they returned. The photo of the crew surrounding the conning tower reveals details of the Jolly Roger flag, which bears the silhouette of an apparent twin-engine aircraft directly above the skull and crossbones. The addition of a victory marking representing an aircraft was not uncommon, with wartime submarines being routinely equipped with anti-aircraft guns for defending against air attack when operating on the surface. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the flag is a life raft symbol denoting the rescue of two airmen from another downed German aircraft, a Junkers Ju 88, which happened two days after the torpedo “kill.”

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Another of several different Jolly Rogers flown by HMS Umbra, with the downed aircraft emblem now to the right of the skull.

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Some of the symbols that can be found on a submarine’s Jolly Roger flag, and what they mean.

News of the — possible — unique victory then spread fast, although reports still noted that there was no official confirmation of the enemy aircraft having been destroyed. “Circumstantial evidence,” explained the San Bernardino Sun, of March 9, 1943, “has led the crewmen of a British submarine to conclude that they ‘torpedoed’ an enemy aircraft.” Again, the same source incorrectly cites the date as early 1943, based on when HMS Umbra had actually returned to port.

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One of the members of the crew of HMS Umbra poses with a bunch of bananas on returning to the United Kingdom.

Other accounts were more circumspect. Captain George Simpson was the commander of the Royal Navy’s Tenth Submarine Flotilla, headquartered in Malta, at the time of the sinking of the Süllberg. In The History of the British ‘U’ Class Submarine, Simpson is quoted as having said of the incident:

P35 is inclined to claim one aircraft from the explosion though the torpedoing of an aircraft at 1,000 feet seems more like the story of a rear gunner.

While Captain Simpson sounds less than convinced by the explanation provided by Maydon and his crew, that’s not to say that it didn’t happen.

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Lieutenant Maydon and another crewman in the cramped interior of HMS Umbra.

Regardless of whether or not HMS Umbra had genuinely brought down an enemy aircraft with one or more torpedoes, Maydon was decorated for his actions, receiving a second Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in recognition of his submarine having sunk seven merchant ships — the same sub and captain had also destroyed the Italian heavy cruiser Trento. Before the end of the war, the latter part of which saw him commanding a submarine in the Pacific, Maydon would also receive the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), for which the citation read: “For outstanding courage, skill and undaunted devotion to duty in successful patrols in one of HM Submarines.”

It is not surprising that the supposed aircraft kill, being unsupported by evidence other than the crew’s own conclusions, would not have been mentioned in relation to Maydon’s various honors. It is for this reason, perhaps, that it appears to have quickly begun to be neglected by official histories, too. As for Maydon himself, he entered politics soon after the war and doesn’t seem to have spoken about the incident at any length before his death in 1970, at the age of 57. 

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Lieutenant Maydon and other crewmen in the conning tower after the return of HMS Umbra to Devonport. 

While it is likely we will never know conclusively whether HMS Umbra was successful in downing an enemy aircraft on December 9, 1942, the supposed remarkable event, and the media's reaction to it, certainly deserves to be remembered as more than just a footnote in military history.

Hat tip to the U.S. Naval Institute, whose Twitter account brought this story to our attention.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com