HMS Unbroken navigates a minefield

HMS GRAPH (ex U-Boat U 570) at Holy Loch on the completion of a trial trip, passing by a depot ship. In the foreground are the conning towers of HMS STURGEON (left) and HMS TIGRIS whilst submarine
P 42 (later renamed HMS UNBROKEN) can be seen in the background.

On 18th July 1942 HM Submarine Unbroken, commanded by Lieutenant Alistair Mars, left Gibraltar for Malta. Even before they began patrolling near Italian and German bases they faced deadly hazards. Many submarines had left base never to be heard of again, not even a claimed attack by the enemy. Their fate was generally attributed to an unfortunate encounter with a mine. On some occasions survival was little more than good luck rather than a matter of skill and judgement:

Our journey passed quietly until 4 am on 18th July when we dived to eighty feet south of Marittimo for the passage through QBB 255. I decided on a direct, bold route, suspended halfway between bottom and surface, that would take us straight through the minefield via Cape Granitola.

The distance of the run was sixty miles – fifteen hours of it at four knots. The thought of QBB 255 gave us all the jitters. The sense of helplessness…. The fact that you cannot hit back but are permanently on the defensive, listening, waiting, magnifying every jolt and movement…. You speak in whispers as though loudness of voice will, in some indeterminable way, add to the hazards, and you are reluctant to make any but the most necessary gestures or movements. It is a nerve-racking business.

Inside the minefield I had the mine-detecting unit – a refinement of the Asdic – switched on in an effort to plot the pattern of the mines and sail between them. A regrettable action. We plotted mines right enough-ahead, to starboard, to port, above, below – everywhere! Cryer’s eyes popped from his head as he reported each new echo, and a few wild expressions and quivering lips were to be seen in the control-room.

I found it difficult to overcome a tremendous temptation to alter course as the mines were reported, but common sense prevailed and we continued dead ahead. A submarine going through a minefield can be compared to a man walking through line upon line of soldiers with a ladder on his shoulder and his eyes shut. As he passes through one line he may hit a man in the line in front, but if he swings round he is certain to hit, not one, but half a dozen. So we kept to the straight and narrow.

Slowly, blindly, we crept forward, while the air thickened and our sweat-soaked clothes clung to our bodies, until, unable to bear any longer Cryer’s maddening and demoralising reports, I ordered: ‘Switch that bloody thing off and never switch it on again!’.

The hours dragged past in uneasy, clock-ticking silence. We lapsed into a half-sleeping state of stiff-jointed, head-throbbing weariness, and it came as a shock to realise that it was nine-o’clock-we were through the minefield, and could surface.

Surface we did, and fresh air never smelled sweeter. I altered course to starboard for the sixty-mile run that would take us to our final hazard – the mine-blocked channel into Valetta.

After the exhausting fifteen hours in QBB 255 I was devoid of emotion towards this second minefield, and my mind was assailed with other, sadder thoughts-memories of friends and messmates of yesterday whose shattered bodies lay but a few fathoms below our hull. It is said that mourning is selfish – that you weep, not for the dead, but for your own loss. That may well be true, and my memories were a shroud of grief, for I had lost many good friends and noble companions among these tortured waters

See Alastair Mars: Unbroken: The Story of a Submarine.

For more on the capture of U-570 seen in the photograph above see 27th August 1941.

Portrait of Lieutenant Alistair C G Mars, DSO, RN, commanding officer of HMSM UNBROKEN.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

kate Foster March 14, 2019 at 2:16 pm

My dad Jan Cryer was the Sparker on this sub with his mate Johnny Crutch, both gone now.

Margaret Staveley August 29, 2015 at 8:02 pm

Very interested as my brother served on this ship in the Med don’t know if any one is still around that would remember him but I would love to hear. he was C/P/O Peter Moorhouse no sure if he was an officer when he served on the Unbrocken as he would be young then. Thank you for taking the trouble to read this Margaret

Jason M. Pilalas July 13, 2015 at 4:15 am

In addition to the DSO, Mars was awarded the DSC and Bar. After HMS UNBROKEN he commanded HMS THULE in the Far East.

In the postwar period he was shuffled rapidly between postings, incurring substantial unreimbursed expenses and tremendous family pressure. In 1952 he refused a new appointment after his wife had a nervous breakdown and was court martialed and dismissed the service, a sad end to a fine career. His later life was up and down until he wrote successful books about his wartime experiences.

Chuck July 18, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Incredible read…… Thanks!

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