FOUND: The Submarine That Vanished Without a Trace During WW2

Craig Bowman
HMS Urge

The British submarine HMS Urge sank off the coast of Malta on April 27, 1942. This was during the seige of Malta by German and Italian forces. The Urge hit a German mine while leaving the British base on the island. The wreck sits at a depth of 108 meters. It stands upright with its deck gun facing forward.

For decades historians were uncertain how the Urge was lost with its 32 crew members, 11 additional naval personnel and a journalist. Until that day, the Urge had been one of the most successful British submarines in WWII.

University of Malta
University of Malta

In the spring of 1942, the island of Malta was heavily bombed by the Germans and Italians. The bombing was so severe that the 10th Submarine Flotilla (the “Fighting 10th”) was ordered to leave and set up a new base at Alexandria.

HMS Urge alongside at Malta, with Upholder outboard
HMS Urge alongside at Malta, with Upholder outboard

It ought to have been a time for the crew to relax after some of the heaviest warfare experienced by the British submarines in WWII. Instead, the Urge hit the mine placed in the channel by a German E boat. There were no survivors.

A team led by professor Timmy Gambin of the University of Malta’s Department of Classics & Archaeology surveyed the wreckage. The team of maritime archaeology staff and students were able to settle the question of how the Urge was lost.

Gambin stated that the damage to the bow of the ship indicated a violent explosion which detached the entire bow section from the rest of the vessel. This would have caused the submarine to sink very quickly and prevented any chance of survivors.

Photos of the wreck show her still standing upright after over 77 years on the seabed. The bow is buried and the rest of the ship is providing shelter for a variety of marine life.

University of Malta
University of Malta

According to Gambin, other than the damage to the bow, there is remarkably little other damage to the ship.

The captain of the Urge was Lieutenant-Commander EP Tomkinson, DSQ, RN. During WWII, the Urge gained acclaim for successfully attacking enemy cruisers, merchant ships and a battleship. The Urge was also used to land British commandos for special operations. The Urge also assisted in secret missions with the British Secret Intelligence Service.

When the Urge sank, it sparked a decades-long mystery as to how. The work by Gambin’s crew has finally settled that mystery.

Among those on the team was Francis Dickinson. Dickinson is the grandson of Lieutenant-Commander Tomkinson. He provided the team with information about the Urge and was the lead financial sponsor.

Platon Alexiades was also on the team to provide his knowledge gained from years of work as a naval researcher, including knowledge of relevant naval records from the war. Sponsorship of the project was facilitated through the University’s Research and Innovation Trust.

Lt Cdr Edward P Tomkinson DSO
Lt Cdr Edward P Tomkinson DSO

The UK Ministry of Defense reviewed the information in the team’s report and agreed that the wreck they discovered is indeed the Urge.

The submarine wreck is considered a war grave site and is protected under Maltese and international law. The Maltese government has begun the process of protecting the site.

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A memorial is being planned for April 2020 in honor of the 78th anniversary of the sinking of the Urge. Tomkinson’s daughter, Bridget Dickinson, has stated that she hopes the families of those lost will be able to attend the memorial in Malta.