While conducting a systematic survey of the seabed of Malta and Gozo, a team at the University of Malta noticed an unusual sonar anomaly about seven miles off the port of Valetta. Sonar indicated the presence of a large object resembling a submarine.
Though not registered on any local nautical charts, the team were confident this could be one of the lost World War II shipwrecks.
The shipwreck turned out to be that of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Olympus, which had struck a mine shortly after leaving Valetta on 8 May 1942.
She was transporting the surviving crewmen of the stricken submarines Pandora, P36, and P39 back to Britain. Despite heroic attempts to rescue their fellow crew members, just nine men survived out of the 98 on board. It was the single biggest submarine tragedy of World War II.
A shaky start
HMS Olympus was an Odin Class submarine, the first class of submarine to be designed and built after World War I. She measured 84 metres in length and 9 metres at the beam, and was primarily designed for long-distance patrolling.
The submarine was originally destined to conduct patrols in the Pacific for the Australian Navy. However, following the financial crisis of the late 1920s, she was returned to the Royal Navy.
HMS Olympus was finally commissioned in 1930, after which she was involved in anti-piracy patrols in the South China Sea.
According to a letter from one of the submariners during this period, HMS Olympus was ‘always a happy ship’, and the men excelled at sports (although, ironically, not at water polo).
This spell of relative peace came to an abrupt end following the declaration of war. HMS Olympus was tasked with searching for German raiders, and patrols became increasingly arduous, sometimes lasting for 66 days.
One of her most notable engagements during this period was a dramatic chase of Graf Spee, one of Germany’s most formidable battleships. However, Olympus suffered a series of mechanical faults – possibly due to faulty lubricants loaded in Uruguay – and she was forced to give up the pursuit and limp to Durban harbour in South Africa for a refit.
En route to Malta
After a short spell in Durban, HMS Olympus steamed on to Colombo in Sri Lanka, where she joined a flotilla bound for the Mediterranean. The flotilla comprised submarines Olympus, Otis, Odin, and Perseus.
Unfortunately for the crew of HMS Olympus, she continued to suffer mechanical failures, and had to spend a miserable period docked in Malta. As work neared completion, she took a direct hit during an air raid and was badly damaged.
She was repaired once again and headed west towards Gibraltar, where she almost collided with an Italian submarine. Surviving crew members from this period have recounted the cries of their enemies exclaiming ‘Mamma mia!’ as they scraped past each other.
Olympus eventually set sail for England for a major refit, which was sponsored by the city of Peterborough. Once readied, she redeployed to the Mediterranean with a handful of new crew members.
The situation in Malta was becoming increasingly dangerous: the Italians had deployed around 54,000 naval mines around the island to impede the ‘magic carpet service’ delivering supplies, including torpedoes, medicines, and fuel. Occasionally, submarines would also transport special forces from Malta to Sicily and southern Italy to destroy railways, bridges, and other important infrastructure.
Such was the ferocity of the Axis attacks that between March and April 1942 three Royal Navy submarines were destroyed: HMS Pandora, P36, and P39.
The surviving crew members of the three submarines, including Captain Marriott of the P39 and Captain Edmonds of the P36, were ordered back to Britain to man the newly completed U-Class submarines at Barrow-in-Furness.
It was decided they should board HMS Olympus and return home.
The dark day
In the early hours of the morning of 8 May 1942, HMS Olympus departed Valetta for her journey back home, heading eastwards in an attempt to avoid the mines laid across the approaches to Grand Harbour.
A few hours later, the men heard a loud bang and assumed they were under attack. In fact, they had hit a mine and the submarine was taking on water at an alarming rate.
The crew calmly made their way to the deck and attempted to attract attention by signalling to Malta (which was still blacked out). However, the distress signals failed to ignite and the signalling light also malfunctioned.
The men began to panic. They attempted to fire the deck gun, but the shell got jammed. They were unable to signal for help. They were seven miles from land in a rapidly sinking ship.
What is more, around 13 survivors from P39 were trapped in the battery section of the vessel, perishing before they could attempt an escape.
Within just a few minutes, water started splashing over the sides of the deck and the men were ordered to abandon ship. As one survivor recalled, HMS Olympus sank gracefully ‘on her last dive’ into the watery depths of the Mediterranean Sea.
Tragedy and heroics
After abandoning Olympus, the surviving crewmen began a desperate search for their friends, but the shouts eventually fell to silence as fatigue kicked in.
Even under excellent conditions, a competent swimmer would take around four to five hours to swim seven miles. The already exhausted crewmen of Olympus were faced with chilly waters (around 10.5°C) and an overwhelming feeling of terror.
Somewhat ironically, they were guided towards Malta by the light and commotion caused by the enemy’s early morning air raid.
The men called out to each other in attempt to keep their spirits up, but one by one they fell quiet as exhaustion overtook them and they sank below the surface.
A man by the name of Hiscock swam towards a floating mine, perhaps in the hope he could use it as a buoyancy aid. Others shouted at him not to touch the object, and Hiscock retreated. He would eventually reach the shore, becoming one of just nine survivors.
Another surviving crewman, W G Wright, described how thoughts of his daughter growing up without a father made him keep going. He eventually reached the shore, nearly drowning in just a few feet of water. More than 40 years later, Wright was to describe his perilous situation: ‘I had never swum a mile before in my life, but this time I had to swim seven and it took five hours.’
One man by the name of Farley washed up on the shore and was resuscitated by some local Maltese, who looked after him for several days.
Others were not so lucky: one, Talbot, managed to make it to shore only to collapse and die a few moments later.
The few survivors from HMS Olympus stayed for a period on Malta, feeding off scraps and being forced to clothe themselves from what was referred to as the ‘dead man’s store’. They eventually returned to England on HMS Welshman.
Discovering the shipwreck
For the past decade, the University of Malta, together with the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, have carried out a systematic survey of the seabed off Malta and Gozo, in search of objects of historic significance.
Shipwrecks are fairly common here, ranging from World War II battleships to an ancient shipwreck dating to c.700 BC. Many of the wrecks lie more than 100m below sea level, and can only be detected using state- of-the-art remote-sensing equipment.
It was one such wreck that we detected in 2011, lying upright at 115 metres on a seabed formed of sandy mud. The object was resurveyed using higher-frequency sonar, which produced a more-detailed image that confirmed it was a submarine.
The team were already aware of the loss of the Olympus outside the harbour, but did not know her exact location until now. They then deployed an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to obtain further images and videos, and were able to confirm beyond doubt that the shipwreck was indeed that of HMS Olympus.
The images collected revealed that the wreck is in extraordinarily good condition, apart from damage caused on the starboard side when she collided with the mine. The gun is intact, still pointing upwards after failing to fire the shell that could have signalled her distress. Furthermore, the hatches are still open, confirming the crew escaped from the sinking submarine in the conventional manner.
Exploring the wreck
In May 2017, an international team led by Timmy Gambin dived to explore the wreck. Diving to a depth of 115 metres necessitates precise planning and preparation.
The main aim of the dives was to perform a visual inspection of the damage caused by the mine in 1943, to capture detailed footage of the site, which would in turn enable a further assessment of its state of preservation, and, lastly, to place a memorial plaque in remembrance of those who lost their lives in this tragic event.
All divers felt the enormity of the task – not because of the depths involved, but because the wreck of HMS Olympus is not just an artefact of war but also a war grave and a memorial to the brave young men who served on her.
The plaque was placed just under the conning tower and close to the gun, in a place where some of the young men so desperately tried signalling for help.
Other services were organised to commemorate Olympus’ loss. In May 2017, a sea remembrance service over the wreck was held on board one of the vessels of the Maritime Squadron from the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM). This special event was attended by the British High Commissioner and by serving crew members of HMS Vengeance and HMS Artful.
In the evening, a memorial designed by local architect Patrick Calleja was unveiled in the presence of the Royal Navy submariners, with a guard of honour provided by the AFM.
The memorial overlooks the lazaretto that was Malta’s submarine base on Manoel Island. Through the void in the local stone one can gaze across the horizon in the direction of the Olympus’ last journey. •
Timmy Gambin is Professor of Maritime Archaeology at the University of Malta and leads Heritage Malta’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit (UCHU). He has been involved in numerous collaborative research projects, primarily focusing on shipwrecks off the coast of Gozo and Malta.
Lucy Woods is a travel and archaeology journalist specialising in maritime archaeology and the preservation of cultural heritage. She has a BA in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Bristol.
Initial research that led to the discovery of the Olympus was part-funded by the Aurora Foundation. The 2017 mission was supported by the Malta Tourism Authority and Bremont. Special thanks are due to all expedition members, as well as to the Armed Forces of Malta.