The loser of a rare submarine vs. submarine battle was found 80 years after being sunk

The loser of a rare submarine vs. submarine battle was found 80 years after being sunk
  • In July 1941, a British submarine sank an Italian submarine in the Mediterranean Sea.

  • In November 2021, a team of divers found the wreck of the Italian sub in waters south of Mykonos.

  • "The confrontation of 2 submarines is a rare naval event," the leader of the team said.

Submarines are a relatively new military weapon. Initially designed to hunt enemy surface ships, subs have evolved into multi-role platforms capable of eavesdropping on communications, deploying commandos, sinking an aircraft carrier, or launching a nuclear-armed missile.

Submarines played a major role in a war for the first time during World War I. The Germans used them to attack shipping going into France and Great Britain. One of the most famous incidents was the sinking of the ocean liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915, killing more than 1,000 people, including scores of Americans.

When World War II broke out in 1939, German submarines were ready to resume the hunt. Submarine warfare was soon raging across the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, with German U-boats and British subs looking to attack each other's shipping.

Submariners on both sides were on alert for enemy warships and aircraft, but duels between submarines were incredibly rare because of the difficulty of finding and attacking another sub.

There were battles between subs, however. Indeed, the loser of one was recently found — more than 80 years after being sunk.

HMS Torbay vs. Jantina

Souda Bay in Crete World War II
A German aerial attack on a British naval base at Souda Bay in Crete in May 1941.ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

In July 1941, Greece had recently fallen to the Axis after Nazi Germany came to the rescue of the Italians, who launched an ambitious campaign to capture Greece in October 1940 but were sent packing by the poorly equipped but highly motivated Greeks.

Greek, British, and New Zealander forces had made a final stand on the island of Crete. With German forces occupying the island, Allied ships and submarines were conducting daring nighttime rescue attempts to save as many survivors as possible.

It was against this backdrop that the Royal Navy submarine HMS Torbay and the Italian submarine Jantina squared off in the Aegean Sea near the island of Mykonos.

HMS Torbay was one of 53 T-class submarines built before and during the war and designed to be smaller than their predecessors. With a complement of about 60 men, Torbay sported 10 torpedo tubes (six internal and four external) and was ideal for shallow-water operations.

On the evening of July 5, Torbay was conducting an offensive patrol in the Aegean, sailing at periscope depth, when it detected the surfaced Jantina heading west. The Italian sub was unaware that it had been spotted.

British Royal Navy submarine HMS Torbay
HMS Torbay in Plymouth Sound on August 23, 1943.British Royal Navy

A little after 8 p.m., Torbay launched a salvo of torpedoes from 1,500 yards away. The first two passed in front of the Italian sub, but the next struck it and exploded. The Italian sub sank quickly, and only six of the 48-man crew survived, swimming to a nearby island.

The wreck of the Jantina was discovered in November 2021 by Greek diver Kostas Thoctarides. Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle, Thoctarides' team located the wreck south of Mykonos in more than 330 feet of water.

"The confrontation of 2 submarines is a rare naval event," Thoctarides wrote on Facebook.

The HMS Torbay had a successful war record, operating in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific.

In August 1941 — less than a year after entering service with the Royal Navy — the sub evacuated 130 men from Crete, "establishing a record for the number of people ever jammed into one submarine," according to historian Antony Beevor.

By the end of the war, Torbay had sunk more than 40 German, Italian, and Japanese warships, merchant ships, and other vessels. Torbay was decommissioned and sold in late 1945 and scrapped in early 1947.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master's degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.

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