The history of WW2: ‘Magic Carpet’ flying underwater

Numerous wrecks lying around Malta dumbly bear testimonies about the past. Many of those sunken ships clearly remember their last days, done in midstream of World War II. Back at those time Malta bravely served as a bastion of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. The country courageously resisted massive attacks of the Axis powers, but supplies were running very low…

In 1941 it became clear that the supply of Malta by surface ship would be a hazardous operation involving both Force H at Gibraltar and the Fleet at Alexandria. From either base, a passage of some 1,000 miles was prepared for merchantmen of which a considerable proportion would be in a daylight, outside British air cover and within range of Axis air bases. Also, from the advent of enemy’s air power such a supplement became essential, and could be provided only at great risk by fast surface warships or by the use of submarines.

It was imperative to keep Malta regularly supplied. Submarines helped in this task. Besides interrupting enemy convoys to Libya, submarines of the 1st Flotilla based at Alexandria operated what came to be known as the ‘Magic Carpet Service to Malta’. Large submarines (P-class submarines) and some of the minelaying ones were used to carry vital supplies to the beleaguered Island.

HMS Porpoise

HMS Porpoise

The first run was made by the submarine Porpoise which embarked a cargo of petrol and mines, and carried out a minelaying operation en route to Malta. Porpoise made another eight trips to Malta as an underwater freighter.

On one occasion, while Porpoise was berthed near No 6 Shed at Alexandria, she was being loaded with aviation fuel and ammunition. “A seaman accidentally dropped one of the ammunition cases. On bursting open we noticed that this contained waste material instead of shells. The captain immediately suspended loading until each case was examined; six others were found to contain similar material. This was a case of sabotage.”

Other submarines utilized in this role included Rorqual, Olympus, Parthian, Regent, Cachalot, Clyde, Osiris and Otus.

HMS Olympus

HMS Olympus

All submarines proceeding to Malta to join the 10th Flotilla there, or calling on passage to Alexandria, undoubtedly carried the maximum of items for the island, however due to small size of the U class vessels based on Malta, very little could be carried for the general benefit of the island by the type and supplies taken in by other boats on passage to Alexandria calling at Malta, must have been incidental to the main effort though appreciated as an aid to the island’s survival.

Without doubt, every effort was made by submariners calling at Malta to supplement the meagre comforts available to their colleagues based in the island, and to convey to Malta the essential “spear gear” for the boats based there. Such items were, in the main, small and the following listing is therefore confined to the main storing passages without in any way detracting from the efforts of all submariners to assist their Malta based colleagues.

In consequence, older submarines were diverted to store carrying from operational patrols or, if no longer deemed suitable for operational service, were altered to increase their carrying capacity. Varying from boat to boat, this involved the removal of part of the battery to provide hold space, the dedication of certain fuel tanks and void spaces to fuel, the carriage of some items externally, and extremely cramped conditions onboard. Extra ballast was embarked and, in Clyde, Olympus and Parthian certainly, one hatch was enlarged to ease loading and permit larger items to be carried. In the cargo role, boats were only capable of passage to and from the island with action reserved as an option “in extremis” due to the limitations imposed by the cargo, passengers and reduced submerged endurance.

Personnel were often carried as submarines were the only means of moving personnel to and from the island in any number which was not subject to excessive delay; passengers were also useful for adjusting the trim of the boat!

HMS Upholder

HMS Upholder

There were also missions of a different kind. For instance, Upholder sailed on 6th April 1942. On board were two Arab agents and an Army officer. The plan was to drop off agents in the Gulf of Sousse in North Africa, the Army officer paddling them ashore in a folbot a collapsible canvas canoe). This was completed successfully on the night of the 9th/10th.

During July 1941, this Magic Carpet Service conveyed to Malta 126 passengers, 84,280 gallons of petrol, 83,340 gallons of kerosene, twelve tons of mail, thirty tons of general stores, and six tons of munitions, including torpedoes for the U-class submarines and the few aircraft which could carry them. It was a brave effort, but considering the fact that each submarine could have only 200 tons of stores, mostly taken up by cans of aircraft fuel, it can be seen that this was only a drop in the ocean. How the island got her supplies remained a mystery to Germans and Italians. In fact, the whole operation was conducted on the wonderful Magic Carpet – but underwater instead of the sky.