Finding your submariner ancestor

The crew of HM submarine Thrasher ready to go on leave after 18 months in the Mediterranean

It is oddly difficult to find accounts of the work of British submariners in the Second World War. Just as the pilots of Fighter Command tend to get more recognition than those of Bomber Command, since their aerial battles were occurring in the skies above the United Kingdom rather than in far off Germany, so the public are more aware of the shadowy U-boats that lay in wait for innocent British merchant ships and fishing vessels, and sent so many of them to the bottom, than they are of the Allied submarine campaign; that took place all over the globe, especially in the Mediterranean and around Malta, on the coast of Norway and in the Far East. Basically, anywhere but at home.

Before starting on the various campaigns and actions, let’s take a look at what life on a submarine would actually have been like. A mixed bag, according to ‘His Majesty’s Submarines’, the book released by the Ministry of Information in 1945, available to read for free on our website, or to download as an ebook or PDF for £2.95.

The publication states that the submarine attack team consisted of the captain, the first lieutenant, the plotting officer, torpedo officer, telegraphists and the men at the hydroplanes. The captain ran the whole show, being the one controlling the periscope, and therefore the only man with a clear idea of what was happening in the air and sea around the boat, and where the enemy or target was in relation to the vessel. This explains why certain submarines developed formidable reputations, thanks to the brilliance of their captains. For example, Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn, captain of HM Submarine Upholder, was awarded the Victoria Cross on December 12th 1941.

Our record for him includes the following London Gazette citation, published December 12th 1941: “On 24th May 1941 in the Mediterranean, south of Sicily, Lieutenant-Commander Wanklyn, commanding HM Submarine Upholder, torpedoed a troopship which was with a strongly protected convoy. The troopship sank and Upholder then endured a strong counter-attack in which 37 depth charges were dropped in 20 minutes, before she got clear. By the end of 1941 Lieutenant-Commander Wanklyn has sunk nearly 140,000 tons of enemy shipping, including a destroyer and troopships, tankers, supply and store ships.” Unfortunately, his submarine was sunk on April 14th 1942, and the gallant captain was presumed dead.

HM submarine United flying the Jolly Roger and a flag bearing a stork carrying a baby to mark the birth of the Commander's daughter

The First Lieutenant was the second in command. He assigned all operational duties, supervised training, saw to the cleanliness of the ship and looked after the vital storage batteries that powered the vessel underwater. Most importantly, he was responsible for the maintenance of the ‘trim’ of the submarine, i.e. its balance and depth when diving or surfacing. This was a particularly tricky job when the submarine was being hunted by the enemy, as a submarine could only stay still and silent if the trim, controlled by ballast tanks that could be filled with water or air to change the buoyancy and hydroplanes, horizontal rudders at the front and back of the submarine that controlled the angle of a dive and raised or lowered the bow and stern as required, was absolutely spot on.

The plotting officer, or Fourth Hand, had a very difficult job indeed, as unlike a ship’s navigator he did not always have a horizon or view of the stars to help orientate himself. By day the submarine was underwater, and it would only emerge at night, meaning navigating by landmarks was out. He mainly used Sonar (SOund Navigation And Ranging) and charts, which must be constantly updated to plot minefields, safe channels, wrecks, lights and a host of other marks that would aid the safe passage of the vessel. Finally, he was responsible for operating a device known as the ‘fruit machine’, which estimated when a torpedo should be released to hit the target by measuring the enemy’s direction and speed. The torpedo officer or Third Hand, meanwhile, was responsible not only for operating the gun armaments and firing torpedoes, but making sure his department correctly maintained all the equipment needed to fire upon the enemy.

The Petty Officer Telegraphist was tasked with operating and maintaining the wireless equipment; this was an absolutely vital job, as without the radios a submarine on patrol was completely isolated, and would not be able to warn Allied ships and submarines that it was in the area (and so reduce the risk of ‘friendly fire’), receive details of approaching enemies, warn others of danger, receive orders or, where necessary, radio a distress call to possible rescuers. Meanwhile, the Stoker Petty Officer took charge of the hydroplanes, acting on the orders of the First Lieutenant to ensure that the submarine was kept ‘in trim’ even in strong currents (the Chief Petty Officer took over this job when diving or surfacing, or at tense moments when precise handling was imperative). There were lots of other roles of course, especially those involved with keeping the electrics and components of the submarines in top working order, but these are just a few of the key positions.

The crew of a submarine coming ashore in high spirits to enjoy a well-earned leave

The life of a submariner was a very unpredictable one, boring one minute, fraught with peril the next. On a quiet day, as ‘His Majesty’s Submarines’ explains, the submarine would surface after dark, open the vents to draw in fresh air and run the engines to power the battery used to propel the vessel underwater. The men were able to climb out for a breather, but not seeing the sun for months on end meant that they needed sunlamp sessions to give them vitamin D to prevent bone disease. The daily drill included meals, starting with breakfast at around midnight, and routine jobs involved with cleaning and maintenance of the many pieces of equipment fitted ingeniously into the tiny space, all of which needed to be performed absolutely perfectly for the safety of everyone on board. All the while, the officer of the watch for the evening would man the conning-tower bridge, a raised platform with good visibility, in the company of two lookouts standing back to back, while the helmsman directed the vessel. The lookouts changed every hour, as it was imperative that they stay alert to spot danger or potential targets. If the submarine needed to dive, they’d ring an alarm hooter that called all men to their stations. Before dawn the submarine would always dive, and would move off under power of the battery. The watch would now be kept using a periodically raised periscope, and listening for danger would become very important. Those at leisure would keep as quiet as possible, reading, playing games or sleeping, to avoid using up more air than necessary.

On a more action-packed day, mines, patrolling enemy aeroplanes, submarines and warships armed with depth charges, tides, storms and underwater obstacles might all need to be contended with. A simple malfunction, meanwhile, could hamper the vessel’s ability to remain buoyant, sending it spiralling down to the deepest depths of the ocean, to be crushed by the pressure of the seemingly endless water. There was also a daily struggle to balance effectiveness with safety. While it would have been easy to move aimlessly around the sea, the submarines, like Bomber Command pilots, had to head straight into danger if they wanted to do their jobs properly, steering a course for enemy-held coastlines and harbours and actively searching out the fiercely protected convoys that it was their purpose to destroy. To attack meant to give away one’s position and draw down enemy defenders upon oneself. Being hunted meant hiding out underwater, aware every minute of the ticking of the clock as both battery power and air were steadily used up. Eventually it would become essential to surface in order to survive.

Officers and crew of HM submarine Safari, which has returned to port on the completion of her 14th war patrol during which she sunk over 40 enemy ships

According to, the UK began the war with just 60 submarines in five flotillas, compared to Germany’s 50 U-boats, but there was no ‘phoney war’ for the submariners. HM Submarine Ursula launched the first torpedo at an enemy submarine, U35, on September 9th. The German attacks also began quickly, but one of Britain’s submarines, HM Submarine Oxley, was actually sunk by friendly fire on September 10th, before the enemy had had a chance to do any damage! Shortly thereafter, HM Submarine Spearfish endured two hours of enemy depth-charging and sustained some pretty serious damage, but after hours of hiding, surfaced to find that the enemy had left the area. One of the motors and both diesel engines had been knocked out, but by morning the crew had managed to fix not only the other motor, but the radio, which allowed them to summon a destroyer escort and get safely home.

Meanwhile, according to ‘Hutchinson’s Pictorial History of the War, No 8, Series 2’ in our Historic Documents archive, Commander E O Bickford of HM Submarine Salmon covered himself in glory in December 1939 by first torpedoing and sinking a U-boat, U-36, then just over a week later torpedoing and damaging two German battle cruisers, Nürnberg and Leipzig, in the Heligoland Bight. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and promoted to Commander, but what really made him a hero in British eyes was that, in between these acts, he spotted and could have easily sunk the German passenger liner SS Bremen, but followed international law by first signalling her to stop – something that most felt a U-boat wouldn’t have done. In fact he was forced to give up the hunt and dive when a Dornier Do-18 aircraft arrived to defend the liner, and she escaped unscathed.

After this baptism of fire, the Royal Navy submarines went on to prove their worth all over the world. They helped to stop Germany getting supplies to troops in Norway, laying an extensive minefield in their path and moving up and down 1,000 miles of coastline, in the Baltic, Norwegian and Barents seas and the Heligoland Bight, until the complete occupation of Norway and Denmark provided a land-route for the Germans. Once France was invaded, they helped to guard the Channel and maintained a presence in the North Sea. They protected convoys heading to deliver supplies to Malta; had the island fallen, Italy would have gained a valuable stepping stone from which to attack the Allied troops in North Africa. They also helped to protect the east coast of North Africa more generally, ceaselessly patrolling the Mediterranean from September 1941 to September 1944, menacing Axis convoys trying to deliver supplies to their men on the ground and hunting their escorting U-boats. German and Italian cruisers and battleships which might otherwise have been used to threaten our own convoys were pulled in to help protect the Axis supply ships. Originally British submarines helped to defend the sea routes to Singapore and Hong Kong, and later in the war they worked with the American submarines to cut off convoys in the Indian Ocean delivering supplies to Burma and hunt Japanese ships. They could less often be found in the Atlantic, helping to protect our own convoys, and the Adriatic Sea.

Significant triumphs included the torpedoing of German cruiser Prinz Eugen off Tronheim by HMS Trident in February 1942, in front of watching Norwegians, and the damaging of the mighty German battleship Tirpitz by a stealth midget submarine attack in September 1943, which knocked it out of action for around 7 months, potentially saving the lives of many British sailors. In the course of this valuable work, 73 submarines and their crews out of around 220 serving were lost.

Records for the submariners who served in our perilous vessels of the deep can, says Simon Fowler in his ‘Tracing your Naval Ancestors’, be found in similar places to other Royal Navy records, as sometimes they don’t have a special category. However, the surviving log books of submarines from 1914 to 1987 can be found in ADM 173- “Admiralty and Ministry of Defence, Navy Department: Submarine Logs” at The National Archives in Kew. This is the only open access set of records you will find there, as most other relevant records they hold are classified at present.

The Royal Navy Submarine Museum is well worth a visit, as their archive holds some unique personnel records. The ‘Submarine Service Movement Record Index Cards’ can provide much background information, including movements of submarine personnel during World War II. Previously maintained by the submarine drafting office at HMS Centurion in Gosport, they were transferred to the museum following the adoption of a computerised pay and drafting system. The cards do not provide a definitive record of everybody who served in submarines, but they do cover the period 1918-1969 for ratings and 1935-1969 for officers. They can be searched using just a name, and if a card is located on file you may be able to find out where your relative served during his time in submarines, but be aware that they are not indexed or digitised. You may also be able to look through photographs, ship plans and artefacts. You will, however, need to provide at least two weeks' notice for an archive visit, having first submitted a research request form, and there will be a charge; at the time that this magazine went to press the online form was out of order due to technical problems, and enquiries had to be submitted to the archive via e mail: instead.

Men home from submarine patrol duty aboard the depot ship reading letters from their families and friends

Another museum with resources that might be of interest is the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which, being in Portsmouth, is close enough to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum that it might make sense to visit both on the same day. The reading room is open from 10:00-4:00 weekdays, and a donation is encouraged. Among their resources is a diary which, though covering the period 1927-30, could be illuminating if you are wondering what life as part of the Royal Navy Submarine Service might have been like. It was written by Petty Officer John Graydon, and describes his life with the 4th Flotilla.

If you live further north, the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds might be of help to you, as it contains multiple eye witness accounts of the First and Second World Wars, including many from submariners, such as Arthur John Clarke’s First World War diaries. You will need to contact the university before visiting to arrange access, and potentially pre-order materials. It is also well worth visiting, since the website has a list of Royal Navy casualties starting pre-WW1 and continuing to 2008, organised in alphabetical, ship, unit and date order; unfortunately, with so many submariners giving up their lives for their countries, it is also worth checking the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website for your relative’s record if you’re not sure whether he survived. The Imperial War Museum in London holds lots of submarine pictures if you care to visit, including a collection of shots of submarines and submarine officers at Malta, and you can view their podcast about The Submarine War online.

Finally, don’t forget to take a look at the Forces War Records site. There are numerous pieces about submarine action in our Historic Documents archive, including the book ‘His Majesty’s Submarines’, of course, ‘The Grand Fleet 1914-1916’ for the Great War, and even a copy of ‘Good Morning’, the daily paper of the Submarine Branch in WW2. Plenty of our collections, such as the ‘UK Navy List 1919’ and the ‘UK Navy List 1947’, will also be of interest.

Some of the crew of HM submarine Trusty, safely home again after nearly two years' absence

The fact of the matter is, though life aboard a submarine was no bed of roses, very few people ever transferred out of the Submarine Branch once they entered it, as the comradery onboard and the relationships between the officers and their men were so positive. In ‘His Majesty’s Submarines’, indeed, a submariner describes a scene where his submarine was being depth charged and sustaining terrible damage, with gas leaking and batteries low, hydroplanes knocked out and depth unknown. Suddenly a note was passed the Commanding Officer, saying: “J_J_, A.B., requests to go back to General Service”, and the diarist recalls blithely, “This relieved the tension no end!” Such was the merry, daring life of the submariner.

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