In May 2016 Italian diver Massimo Domenico Bondone was close to abandoning his search for the wreck of HMS P311. His own research had led him to hunt for the submarine, lost with all 71 crew members in 1943, off the coast of the Mediterranean island of Tavalora. However, he’d found nothing after a month of dives in stormy waters.
Yet Bondone’s luck was soon to change. In May 2016 he would tell International Business Times, “I was just telling my surface assistant I had had enough, as the operation had been very expensive and the sea was constantly rough. But he persuaded me to go down and check, and it went well. When I saw it, I couldn’t move [for the emotion].”
Bondone’s research led him to be sure that he’d found the wreck of HMS P311, sitting at a depth of 338 feet on the sea bed. And he knew that she had been in these waters on a mission during the Second World War. That mission: to destroy enemy craft at the naval port on La Maddalena, a tiny island near to the larger Italian island of Sardinia.
Bondone also recognized the two “human torpedoes” fitted to the submarine’s hull which had made the vessel something of a rarity. The so-called Chariot was in fact a torpedo-shaped craft that was crewed by two specially trained divers sitting astride it.
The Chariots were chiefly used to infiltrate harbors and moorings, and they weren’t to be taken lightly. The divers of each of these “human torpedoes” would attach mines to enemy vessels – and then make good their escape.
The P311 herself, meanwhile, was a British T-class submarine – one of 55 built in the 1930s and ’40s. All of them had names beginning with T – Triton, Thetis and Thistle among them. The P311 was for her part to have been named HMS Tutankhamen, but her loss meant that she was never officially given the moniker. Indeed, she remains the only British Royal Navy T-class submarine not to have been formally named.
HMS P311 was built at the Vickers Armstrong yard in Barrow-in-Furness on the north-west coast of England, and Commander Richard Cayley took command of her. Then, in August 1942, the boat left the Barrow shipyard and headed for Holy Loch in Scotland for sea trials.
The following month, the submarine left for Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth on the south coast of England. There, she was fitted with the containers to hold the Chariot vehicles that she would need for her secret mission. But preparations weren’t quite yet complete.
It was at Loch Cairnbawn in north-west Scotland that P311 took on board the two Chariots themselves. Loch Cairnbawn was also where Royal Navy volunteers were trained to use the 22-foot-long vehicles. The training was rigorous – and the so-called frogmen risked sinus and eardrum damage, exposure to poisonous gases and convulsions. All in the name of duty.
On November 12, 1942, P311 left Scotland and headed for the Mediterranean on her first – and final – mission. Naval ships often stopped off at Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain. However, Commander Cayley was under instruction to carry on into the Mediterranean and on to Malta. That was because the officially neutral Spain was a hotbed of German and Italian spies.
Following her course, the boat arrived in Malta on November 30 before departing on December 28. The submarine’s mission now loomed large: to send the Chariot vehicles into the Italian naval port on the island of La Maddalena, just off the north coast of Sardinia. There, the Chariots would target two moored Italian cruisers.
P311’s mission was part of the larger Operation Principal. This involved two additional T-class submarines also mounted with Chariots: Thunderbolt and Trooper. Their mission was to sail to Palermo and sink the Italian ships moored there. Yet while they had some success, most of the frogmen were captured, and one was unfortunately killed.
The last signal sent from the P311 herself came on December 28, when she gave her position as being some 55 miles north-west of the coast of Sicily – and some 235 miles south of her target at La Maddalena. The boat was never heard from again, and she was officially reported as lost on January 8, 1943, after she failed to return to Malta.
Exact details of her fate remain a mystery, but it’s assumed that she hit a mine en route to La Maddalena. Likewise, we don’t know the exact date when she sunk, but it’s thought to have been on or around January 2, 1943.
Sadly, moreover, we have little information about many of the men who went down with their boat. The usual complement for such a vessel was 61, but the eight “charioteers” plus two specialist Chariot engineers took the tally here up to 71.
The man historians know most about is the captain, Commander Richard Cayley, who was just 35 when he died. His previous wartime exploits in submarines – notably on HMS Utmost – saw him being nicknamed Deadeye Dick by his comrades. And his bravery was recognized in 1941 with a Distinguished Service Order.
The news of the loss of HMS P311 was subsequently announced on March 12, 1943, in a short notice in The Times newspaper. The notice read, “The Board of Admirality regrets to announce that HM Submarine P311 (Commander Richard Douglas Cayley, DSO, RN) is overdue and must be presumed lost. The next-of-kin have been informed.”
So what will happen to the wreck now? Well, Commander Cayley’s daughter, Jennifer Barker, now aged in her eighties, has firm views on that. Speaking to The Sun in May 2016, she said, “If it is intact it probably means all of the bodies are still inside. I just hope they leave her where she is and don’t try to raise her. It’s a war grave and should be respected as such.”
The wreck’s discoverer, Bondone, agrees. In an interview with Italian newspaper La Nuova Sardegna, he said, “We must treat such wrecks with utmost respect. Immediately I thought of the destiny of the men who met their deaths down there.”
“It was a fate shared by so many men, submariners in particular, fighting on all sides of the conflict,” added Bondone. And it would seem that the British and Italian navies agree, as they have no plans to raise the wreck or to disturb it. For now, then, the submarine that was sunk before she could be named will continue to be a grave for the men who served on her.