Submarine HMS P311, sunk in January 1943: “Only the forgotten are truly dead”

Interviews, Shipwrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Britain’s Royal Navy says it is currently looking into claims by Massimo Domenico Bondone that he located the long-lost wreck of the HMS P311 submarine, which sunk off Sardinia in January 1943.
Diver Massimo Domenico Bondone found the P311 at a depth of 80 meters off the isle of Tavolara, with logistics assistance by Orso Diving Club.
Massimo Domenico Bondone positively identified the sub by the two Chariot “human torpedoes” affixed to the outside of the sunk submarine.
“We are examining our records to determine whether or not this is a Royal Navy submarine,” a British Navy spokesman said to international newswire AP, on condition of anonymity, in line with navy regulations.
The spokesman stressed that if it is indeed the P311, the wreck belongs to Britain and any possible remains on board must be respected.
The P311 left Malta in December 1942 with 71 crew on board to take part in Operation Principle, an Allied attack on Italian warships in Sardinia.
Contact was lost Dec. 31 after the sub apparently hit a mine.
The discovery of the submarine’s wreck was a shock for the families of the lost sailors.
For 73 years they knew nothing of their loved ones’ fate, some of them died without ever knowing the truth, while the surviving relatives carried the weight and the agony of the loss with them.
Paul Denison, a relative of Able Seaman Leonard Auty, who was lost with P311, was the first to come out and talk about his feelings:
“Sir on behalf of the family of Able Seaman Leonard Auty, I would like to thank you for finding HMS P311 and the care and respect that you have shown to those that perished. You have my grateful respect.”, Paul Denison wrote to Massimo Domenico Bondone
Giving the lost seamen families’ closure, to help them know where they loved ones are, after 73 years lost at sea, is the most important element of this discovery, in my opinion.
Here is what Heather Robinson, Mike and Louisa Nesbitt and Chris Lee, who all lost dear family members with P311 had to say.
What comes out is a deeply touching story, that puts war on a human perspective, something that we tend to ignore when we look at the bigger picture of war as a series of epic battles, generals’ decisions and strategic analyses.

Heather Robinson

The first I heard about the finding of P311 was my step dad casually mentioning a WW2 submarine that had been found in the Mediterranean.
I’ll be honest, I paid little attention to him until he said that it hadn’t had a name only a number…
A shiver went down my spine and I got goose pimples.
A 70+ year mystery finally solved and the resting place of my Great Uncle George finally known.


I’m so thankful my grandmother passed away before she knew what happened.
She took comfort in George not suffering and she believed he died a quick, painless death.
George Lord was born in 1921, the second child of James and Hilda Lord.
The eldest, my grandmother, Elsie was born in 1920 and as there was only 18 month between the two of them they were extremely close.
‘Baby’ Jim was born in 1925 but did not survive long after birth.
Their younger brother, Eddie followed in 1928.



Growing up I knew a lot about George, my grandmother would talk about him and as children we knew he had been lost in a submarine but she was never sure where, when or how.
At the same time George was lost my grandmother also lost her fiance, Edward out in the far east and this time marked an extremely difficult period in her life.
She went on to meet my grandfather and they had two sons – Barry (my dad) and James.



During the war my great grandparents ran a public house, The Prince of Wales in Oldham which George refers to in his letters.
Perhaps the most shocking part for me is the normality and his desire for a ‘proper’ drink! He talks about how the end may be near and seems in great spirits.



There was another George Lord in our family, my great great uncle… He was killed in WW1.

Louisa Nesbitt
When my sisters and I were young we were fascinated by the mystery of what had happened to our grandfather’s submarine.


We used to fantasise that he had survived and been shipwrecked on an island where he was living like Robinson Crusoe.Or perhaps he had lost his memory. We couldn’t accept that he was dead, and we felt so sorry for our father.




My grandfather was on HM Submarine P311 when it sank.
I think it is fantastic that the submarine has been found after all this time, and I am full of admiration and gratitude to the divers who persevered in looking for it, particularly Massimo Bondone.
My grandfather was Able Seaman William Frederick Nesbitt, known as Fred, and he was on the P311 when it was mined.
He was 39 years old and he left a wife and two sons, the younger of whom was my 6 year old father (now deceased).
His elder son, Colin Nesbitt, is still living as are his grandchildren who as well as myself include Mike Nesbitt, Rob Nesbitt and Sally Betts.
I remember my father telling me that he had only the easiest memory of his father.
Even before the war started, Fred would have been away from home for long periods of time serving on various submarines before he eventually joined the crew of the P311 on 10 July 1942.
By that time Fred had been serving on submarines, as an Able Seaman, for almost 10 years – he joined submarines on 13 September 1932.
His loss affected the family quite badly – my grandmother struggled both emotionally and financially.
A few years later she married again and had two more children, both girls.
However Fred’s sons didn’t get on with their stepfather and resented his authority.
It didn’t help that both boys, but particularly the elder one (my uncle Colin) physically resembled Fred and that they idolised their dead father.
So the rest of my father’s childhood wasn’t very happy, but nevertheless he worked hard and went to university, where he met and married my mother, and then joined the RAF.



On my feelings now that the submarine has been found – it was very emotional, a complete mixture of feelings.
Sadness that my father isn’t here to share the news;
Joy for all the families who have lived all this time without knowing;
Deep sadness for all the men on the P311 who gave their lives;
A determination that the remains of the men must be honoured.
I first heard that the submarine had been found by Massimo Bondone and his fellow divers when I was driving my partner to the station for him to catch a train to work.
It was 6am, and the news came on the radio.
I knew it was the P311 even before the reporter said the name – I had researched the submarine a few years ago and knew when, and roughly where, it was lost.
It never occurred to me that there were divers searching for it, but strangely a few months ago I heard about another wreck being discovered and I wondered then if my grandfather’s submarine would ever be found, or if we could get someone to look for it. It is just fantastic news.
One thought keeps troubling me, and that is the thought of the mental and physical agony of all those men at the bottom of the sea, before the air ran out.
How long would that have taken?
What did they do in the meantime?
Would they have been in darkness, or was there emergency lighting?
I am guessing a lot of time would have been spent trying to get the submarine moving again.
But when it became known that it was hopeless, what then?
The commander, Richard Cayley, no doubt would be keeping his men calm and helping them to prepare for the end.
I wonder if the men had access to paper, is it possible that some, if not all, might have wanted to write some last words to their loved ones, in the hope that one day they might be read?
Perhaps the letters were put into a watertight container.
Am I being too fanciful?
I think not – I am imagining what I would try to do in that situation, if it was possible.
It is a dilemma because to find the answer you would have to disturb the submarine, which is now a war grave.
I personally would be happy for the submarine to be raised and for the crew to be given a proper burial but I know other families think it shouldn’t be disturbed.
Unfortunately I think it is inevitable that at some point in the future the P311 will be looted if it is left – and of course it is still carrying its weaponry, apart from many items that would be desirable ‘souvenirs’.
I believe it is a fitting tribute to the men who died that their bodies should be brought back to the UK and buried in a war cemetery.
A very sad story, and I am glad that my grandmother never knew that the P311 sank with its hull intact and the men inside still alive.
Louisa Nesbitt, lives with her partner Tom and their daughter Julia, age 17.
They live in a village called Balderton, in Nottinghamshire.
Louisa is a teaching assistant in a local primary school and is Mike Nesbitt’s cousin who also contributed to this tribute to the lost sailors of P311.

Mike Nesbitt

When I first found out I was at a function.
I got a text from my Brother Robert Nesbitt, who just said,
“Amazing news! call dad!”
I tried calling my Dad who is in a sleepy village called Arleuf in Burgundy France but I didn’t get an answer.
So I texted my brother back and told him “Sorry can’t get hold of him”, so my brother texted back:
“They have found the P311!” 
I couldn’t believe it then my brother texted the link to the Telegraph story.
I then went into disbelief mode for about 2 minutes, doing searches on other news streams.
It began to sink in.
I was so emotional as I have always wanted to know what happened to my grandfather, but was sure I would never find out.
Remembering a booklet a made in February 2012 and that I had picked where I though he could be from the anecdotal evidence of sea mine placements and the fishermen that heard a whining and an explosion, I could not wait to get home and dig it out and compare.
To my delight and from the reports of 8 km east of the Tavolara I was, I think, about 10 mm north of that position.
When I read more about to the find and that the ship was intact and still full of air, I couldn’t stop thinking about their last moments which could have been hours.


I am so proud of my grandfather and how he gave his life without question and now so happy that we finally know what happened and where he is.


Chris Lee


My Grandfather Arthur Stephen Kingston Lee was Chief Petty Officer aboard HMS P311.
I didn’t know a lot about him for most of my life, as sadly my father died when I was 3 years old and we never really kept in touch with his side of the family.
All I knew about Arthur was that he’d died whilst serving in the Royal Navy during the war.
About ten years ago I decided to try and find out more and was amazed to discover he’d been part of a submarine crew, and that is was HMS P311.
I applied to the Royal Navy and obtained his service record, and saw that he’d signed up as a teenager in the 1920s.
He started out on ships and then transferred to submarines in the mid-thirties, serving on a number of vessels including HMS Utmost.
It was whilst serving on the Utmost that Arthur was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1941.
This was announced in the London Gazette on 29 July 1941, for which the citation reads:


“For courage, enterprise and devotion to duty during successful Submarine patrols:
The Distinguished Service Medal
Petty Officer Arthur Stephen Kingston Lee, P/J113443, HMS Utmost.”
Arthur was presented with his decoration at an Investiture on 19 May 1942
He was born in Croydon, Surrey, on 23 September 1909 and married my grandmother Grace in 1935. They had two boys, the older being my father.



Several years ago I went to Portsmouth to see the memorial at the Submarine Museum and was very moved when I found his name.
When I found out that the submarine had been found,  first of all I was shocked – it was totally unexpected and I never thought that would happen.
And then I was filled with great emotion because I had an overwhelming sense of pride, even though I never knew him, but at the same time great sadness when thinking of the crew’s fate.
I personally wish to thank all contributing family members: 
Paul Denison, Heather Robinson, Mike and Louisa Nesbitt and Chris Lee 
for sharing their family stories and I hope my approach will be considered as deeply respectful to their decades of grief and agony.
May the lost sailors now rest in peace and the discovery bring closure to 73 years or agony and sorrow to their families.
All period photos are owned by the family members Paul Denison, Heather Robinson, Mike and Louisa Nesbitt and Chris Lee  and were gracefully offered to me for this story. I thank you all for that!
I also wholeheartedly thank Massimo Domenico Bondone for his discovery and for sharing with me details and photographic evidence of the wreck.
Pierre Kosmidis