The 23 year old Lieutenant-Commander John Roxburgh appeared all too youthful to his crew on HMS United when they commenced Mediterranean patrols in late 1942. By the middle of 1943 he was already recognised as one of the most successful submarine commanders based at Malta. He combined an aggressive instinct with a cool nerve.
To date Axis naval forces had made relatively little impact on the Sicily landings. On the 15th July 1943 HMS United was patrolling off Sicily as part of the submarine screen for Operation Husky when Roxburgh spotted another submarine close by. These situations had the potential for disaster. The very precise nature of his report of this action gives a good understanding of how he went about making the calculations for the attack:
I was fine on her port bow on a course of 160 degrees. The sun was shining brightly just abaft the U-boat’s starboard beam, so I altered course to starboard and ran across the U-boat’s bow in order to get up sun of her. She was not zigzagging and her speed was 280 revs according to the Asdics, so I gave her 10 knots.
Did an advancing turn and came round to starboard on to an 80- degree track. I now had a much better view of the U-boat and identied her as an Italian U-boat (the Italian flag was clearly visible) probably of the Pisani-Class. She was painted a greenish colour in various shades giving her a camouflaged effect.
In position 39°19 N 17°30 E fired four torpedoes spread over 1 1/2 lengths, at a range of 500 yards. Torpedoes were fired individually. Two torpedoes hit 52 and 41 seconds after firing the first torpedo. The first torpedo was seen to pass ahead of the U-boat and the second seen to hit it under the forehatch, which made the running time 19 seconds, giving a running range of 500 yards. The third torpedo was heard to hit 10 seconds later, fitting in with the firing interval.
Almost immediately after the second explosion I saw the stern of the U-boat rise high out of the water at an angle of 60 degrees and she then sank within about four seconds. Asdics heard loud and very pronounced breaking up noises which went on for about six minutes, also a regular tapping which was timed at 120 taps to the minute.
Between 9 minutes 21 seconds and 9 minutes 44 seconds after firing there were loud and distinctive explosions at irregular intervals. At first I thought I was being bombed by aircraft, but there was nothing in sight, so it must have been some of the U-boat’s tanks bursting – especially as the Asdics reported no further breaking up noises after the explosions.
Sighted four survivors swimming in the water.
Surfaced and picked up the four survivors – the only ones visible. They were together in a bunch and were the Commanding Officer, a midshipman who was the navigating officer and two seamen. Apart from supercial cuts and bruises, none was injured – though they were all well soaked in fuel oil.
Went deep to reload.
HMS United had sunk the Italian submarine Remo. Roxburgh had some interesting comments to make about her commander Salvatore Vassallo, who was his prisoner for the next nine days:
His first words on being picked up were, Are there any more survivors?’ followed by, ‘Are you American or English?’ He later stated he had seen United’s periscope 300 metres away after she had fired but it was too late to take effective action.
He said he had been hit by two torpedoes and seen the track of a third rise ahead. Apparently there were seven people altogether on the bridge only three of whom survived – the fourth survivor having the amazing luck to escape from the control room after the U-boat was hit.
He was very keen to find out how many torpedoes we had fired at him and whether they had magnetic heads (he was under the impression they had) and also from what range we had fired. I only told him the range we had fired from.
Neither he nor the other three would divulge the name or class of their submarine, but Vassallo informed me his crew consisted of seven officers and 45 ratings; apparently extra junior officers were being carried for training, which would account for the large number of officers onboard.
After recovering from the initial shock, he cheered up considerably and during the nine days we had him proved a pleasant enough individual. Conversation on the whole was kept off service matters and anything he might later be interrogated on, and kept general.
His morale seemed reasonable in so far he never openly admitted considering the war was finished as far as Italy was concerned — though it was not hard to see that this was what he thought. On being asked what he thought of Germany and Hitler, he shrugged his shoulders and said he ‘was a fighting man and was paid to fight not to think’ and ever afterwards would not commit himself on this point — though here again it was not hard to see that his real feelings towards the Germans were not exactly friendly.
He said, however, quite openly, that he thought the Japanese were mere animals. The Russians and Communism appeared to be his ‘béte noir’ and he also seemed to dislike the Americans intensely.
On being asked point-blank why he especially disliked the Americans he said that unlike the English when they bombed places they often as not dropped booby traps (explosive pens was what he mentioned) which the children picked up and so blew themselves to pieces. The English bombs which exploded right away or were delayed action he reckoned were fair enough. He was most insistent on the genuineness of the explosive pens, which he said he had seen himself as well as many photos of their effect in the Italian newspapers.
His general impression of the Americans were that they were nearly all gangsters! I told him he had been seeing too many American movies.
From the original Patrol Report, TNA ADM 199/1820
John Roxburgh went on to become Flag Officer Submarines Vice-Admiral Sir John Roxburgh, KCB, CBE, DSO, DSC. For more on the Remo, one of the two largest Italian submarines that were built during the war, see Submariners World.