The last dive: Commemorating the worst British submarine disaster of World War 2

Interviews, Shipwrecks, WW2, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos by Dr. Timmy Gambin 

It has been described as the largest British submarine loss of life during WW2.

For decades, the exact location of the wrecked submarine was eluding researchers, up until a team from the Aurora Trust was able to locate the wreck in 2011 and capture images with a ROV later in the year.

The wreck sits upright in 115m of water and is largely intact.

An early photo of the HMS Olympus (private collection, taken from Dr. Timmy Gambin's HMS OLYMPUS A TALE OF TRAGEDY AND HEROICS)
An early photo of the HMS Olympus (private collection, taken from Dr. Timmy Gambin’s HMS OLYMPUS A TALE OF TRAGEDY AND HEROICS)

On 8 May 1942 HMS Olympus  struck a mine and sank off Malta in approximate position 35°55’N, 14°35’E.

She had just left Malta on her way to Gibraltar with personnel including many men of the crews of the submarines Pandora, P36 and P39 which had been sunk previously in air raids in Malta.

There were just 9 survivors out of 98 aboard. The survivors had to swim 7 miles (11 km) back to Malta. 89 crew and passengers were lost with the submarine.


Recently, the 75th anniversary since the loss of HMS Olympus was commemorated, marking the deaths of 89 submariners -the largest loss of life in the history of the Royal Navy Submarine Services.

DSC00790Credit: Oloturia Sub

Besides a wreath-laying ceremony at sea and the unveiling of a memorial, a team of divers descended for the first time on the submarine wreck, at a depth of 115 metres, in order to lay a memorial plaque and a British Ensign at the wreck.

Dr. Timmy Gambin said: “Mission accomplished – the team completed every planned assignment to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Olympus. Descending to -115 meters, our team placed a specially-made memorial plaque on the shipwreck and unfurled a White Ensign in remembrance of the 89 young men who lost their lives. It was an extremely poignant and moving moment in the deep and silent Mediterranean Sea”. 

unnamedCredit: Oloturia Sub

Marine archaeologist and HMS Olympus project director Dr. Timmy Gambin,  the man who initiated the search and positive identification of the wreck and the commemoration of the 89 lost seamen, spoke to about the recent ceremony:

Dr. Timmy Gambin pays tribute to the 89 souls lost with HMS OLYMPUS
Dr Timmy Gambin explaining memorial to Mr Stuart Gill, British High Commissioner to Malta. Credit: D. Gration

“The 89 submariners lost 75 years ago finally have a fitting monument for the ultimate sacrifice that they made. The various ceremonies held in early May 2017 are reflective of the closeness between Malta and Britain and now, due to the HMS Olympus – of the inextricable bond that exists between Malta, HMS Olympus and the people of Peterborough.”



Dr. Timmy Gambin
Dr. Timmy Gambin

Aviation Archaeology: Research, project experiences and concepts on Aviation Heritage. 


DSC00793Credit: John Wood

Here are the details of the sinking in 1942 and discovery in 2011 of the wreck by Dr. Timmy Gambin:

The sinking of HMS OLYMPUS

Leaving Malta in the dark on the morning of 8 May 1942 HMS OLYMPUS is recorded to have headed eastwards so as to avoid mines that were systematically laid across the approaches to Grand Harbour.


A couple of hours later a large bang was heard by those on board and crewmembers automatically assumed that their vessel was under attack and scrambled to dive the submarine. Despite the obvious confusion on board it soon became evident that the submarine was taking water and there was little that could be done to save her.

DSC00796Credit: John Wood

The crew, in typical British style, calmly exited the hatches and stood on the deck. Some of them attempted to attract attention by signaling Malta,
which was still blacked out, with a torch as the distress signals on the periscope had failed to ignite. A proper signaling light was also available but this too did not function. In desperation an attempt was made to fire the gun but the shell got jammed.


Some thought was given to removing cordite from the cartridges in order to ignite this on the deck. However, this idea was dismissed as it would have taken too much time and time was something that these men did not have. Within a few minutes water started splashing over the sides and all men were instructed to abandon ship and jump overboard.

One of nine survivors recalled how the Olympus sank gracefully ‘on her last dive’ under the waves. She took with her between 10 and 20 men from the P39 as these were trapped in the battery section of the vessel.

Initial shouts of men looking for their friends died down and the men began to swim back towards the island in silence. Ironically it was the enemy planes conducting an early-morning raid that guided them towards Malta. Members of this loose group of swimmers occasionally called out to each other but eventually they swam in silence.

They also died in silence with only one or two crying out before raising their arms and sink below the surface.

article-2085595-0F6DD5A200000578-847_634x451 Credit: Aurora Trust

The wreck

The WW2 submarine wreck lies upright in 115 meters of water and on a seabed that is made up of sandy mud. Except for the damage caused by the mine explosion on the starboard side she is in extraordinarily good condition. Her gun is intact and indeed pointing upwards as described in the eyewitness accounts.

DSC00800Credit: John Wood

Hatches are open confirming that the crew got out of the submarine in a conventional manner. Furthermore, her radio mast is almost intact. Subsequent visits to the submarine were made to the side in order to obtain high-resolution images and footage that may eventually form part of a documentary that will pay homage to this remarkable vessel and its heroic crew.