Lost Subs of the World: Discovery of HMS Olympus wreck announced

Posted by Rebekah
Jan 14 2012

Just a quick note to anyone who is interested in the discovery of USS Flier, the show Dive Detectives: Submarine Graveyard, which documents how the USS  Flier’s wreck was discovered and documented, will show at 10 a.m. on the Smithsonian Channel on Monday, January 16, 2012.  The entire series, including the Submarine Graveyard Episode is available on iTunes.  I loved the show when I first saw it, and I”ve studied it almost frame by frame since then, so look into it if you’re lucky enough to have Smithsonian Channel!



It’s easy for me sometimes, to forget that there was a whole other submarine war taking place during WWII.  After 1942, all American submarines were sent to the Pacific front to fight the Japanese, leaving the British, French, Italian and German submarines to entertain each other.

There were many close calls, fascinating rescues, and hundreds of losses (which I’m only just scratching the surface of).  Discoveries of lost submarines in the Atlantic are frequently announced, including the week: the HMS Olympus has been found.

Olympus was commissioned in 1931 and spent her first ten years in China and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka).  Redeployed nearer home in 1940, she became part of the blockade runners of Malta

Malta was under assault in 1942.  A British territory before the war, she was a military base, but so close to Italy and parts of the North African theater that she was very strategic, and therefore, under assault.

British soldier Charles Maw remembered being stationed on Malta at first wasn’t so bad:

At this time there were not too many air raids as this seemed to be great as the Italians used high level bombing and most of their bombs fell into the sea. We felt fairly safe. We could get food in the main town, pork chop and chips, it was great. They bred pigs, goats and rabbits that they bred on the island. Unfortunately the German Luftwaffe took over the bombing raids from the Italians. We then knew what bombing was all about. We got bombed day and night, sometimes as many as 7 days on the trot. We had good air raid shelters under the rocks and the bombs couldn’t penetrate into them.

Indeed, the British garrison on Malta was able to disrupt enough German convoys that Albert Kesselring, Hitler’s commander of the Mediterranean, decided to ‘wipe Malta off the map’.   Between the Luftwaffe and the assaults from U-Boats cutting off outside supplies, the Maltese and the troops stationed there were in for a rough 18 months.

Maw remembered how different Malta looked at the height of the blockade.

The Germans had by now got us pinned down and we were now on siege rations. We used to lay on our beds and talk about food and women but that didn’t fill our bellies. We lived on 4oz of bread a day. The bread was made from potato flour that was often sour from being kept. We had no freshwater to we resorted to boiling sea water during the day on wood fires…In Valetta people slept in the old underground railway tunnels which were safe except for the entrances. Lots of civilians were killed by blasts and we were called out to bury them when they were found under the rubble. It was very eerie.

Actually, it got so bad, that King George VI awarded the entire island and her people, the George Cross, the highest civilian award in the British Empire. This was the first time such an award was given to an entire population rather than individuals, and it has since appeared on the flag of Malta.

Part of the supply chain to keep Malta going was submarines who could sneak past the blockade.  Of course, there were submarines in and around Malta anyway, as it sat in the center of the Med. One, HMS P 39 was severely damaged on March 26, 1942, too damaged to do much with.  Most of her crew survived.  Then on 1 April 1942, the HMS Pandora in Valetta Dockyard and HSM P 36 in Silema Harbour were both sunk by Luftwaffe raids.  Each of these three boats had highly experienced crews who were now stranded, and Britain sent HMS Olympus to bring them home so they could serve on new boats.  Dropping off her supplies, the Olympus took on an estimated 43 experienced submariners in addition to her 55-man crew and on 8 May 1942, set out for a quick trip to Gibraltar.

HMS Olympus , in a photo from the Imperial War Museum

Seven miles out to sea, while (thankfully) travelling on the surface, Olympus hit a mine.  Whatever damage she initially took, she apparently sank slowly enough that most of her crew was able to get to the deck.  Below, the electrical equipment began to short out and worse, the seawater was leaking into the batteries, flooding the interior of the submarine with lethal chlorine gas.

On deck, the officers urged everyone to keep their sweaters and gear on, but remove their shoes before diving in the cold water.

“One of these [survivors] was the famous Gordon Selby. A legend in the submarine service for surviving the sinking of several boats during the war. Gordon once told me that his lasting memory of the sinking of Olympus was looking back at the submarine as she settled in the water and there he saw a mass of boots and shoes neatly placed in one long line on the upper deck casing. The footwear was placed there by the survivors of the initial mine explosion before they abandoned the submarine and took to the water. “  –George Malcomson, Archivist, Royal Navy Submarine Museum

Sadly, under wartime blackout, there was little light to lead the survivors to land.  Just the faintest glow at the horizon hinted where Malta, the nearest shore, might be.  No one knows how many men were able to escape Olympus, but by morning, nine to twelve survivors (accounts and records recall various numbers, most often 9 or 11 men) managed to stagger back onshore to an island that must have seemed determined to forever keep them.

Once informed of Olympus’s loss, HQ was highly upset-the boat’s loss was nothing to the loss of many experienced submariners.  Due to the sheer number of passengers aboard, the Olympus’ loss of 89 men became the greatest British submarine disaster of WWII.

And so the story remained until 2008, when a side scan sonar image revealed what might be the Olympus in 115 meters (377 feet) of water.  Technical divers Mark Powell and Stuart Jones of Dive-Tech in the UK together with  Jonathan Thomas of Tec Deep Blue in Malta went onto the wreck and took  photos, but visibility was too poor to be able to confirm identity.  In 2011, a team from Aurora Trust, an American company, relocated the wreck and documented it with ROVs.  These images confirmed what was suspected since 2008, the wreck was the HMS Olympus.

She sits upright, in good condition, the mine damage located mainly beneath her on her keel.  Hopefully, now that her location is known, and considering her deep depth, she will be left in peace.


For more information:

Charles Maw’s memory of the siege of Malta

Article on Olympus’s location, including photo of deck gun of wreck

2008 announcement of possible discovery

Interesting post on Olympus and crew including survivor Gordon Selby

Best quick article about the development and end of the siege of Malta

discovery of the HMS Olympus

Obituary of Gordon Selby, who survived P 39, Olympus, and had a number of close calls in his long and fascinating career


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