The first radar assisted attack of a submarine in WW2: The story of HMS Proteus and the German steamer Ithaka torpedoed in the Aegean on 10 November 1941

Interviews, WW2, WW2 in Greece, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos submitted by William McGowan and used by permission

Burial photos submitted by Dimitris Skartsilakis and used by permission

The transport ship “Ithaka”, carrying 507 German soldiers, as well as cargo, including 80 tons of ammunition, sailed from Piraeus to Souda in Crete.

She was escorted by patrol boats 11 V1 and 12 V4.

HMS Proteus detected by radar the small convoy at a range of approximately 7 kilometers (7800 yards) and sighted at 5.5 kilometers (6000 yards).

The British submarine torpedoed the “Ithaka”, which sank in two minutes, leaving only 78 survivors to be picked up by the escort patrol boats.


This was, according to, the first attack of World War 2 by a submarine using radar, while other sources mention that the first such victim, again torpedoed by HMS Proteus was the Italian tanker “Tampico” east of the Greek island of Andros on November 3rd, 1941.

Captain Robert Ziegler was an intelligence officer in the German army (713 div.) and was William McGowan’s grandfather.

Here is his story, as told to by Mr. McGowan

“Ziegler lived in the town of Künzelsau in Germany, with his wife Ilse Beyer-Ziegler and their daughters Ilse, Eva, Hanna and Gudrun.

I am his grandson and live today in Montclair New Jersey, in the USA. My mother Gudrun came over on a work visa and applied for citizenship, where she studied and upon completing her test, she was naturalized as a US Citizen.

She has since passed away but I’m going through all of the boxes of material and came across the photos of my grandfather.


In the early hours of November 10, 1941 “Ithaka” was torpedoed by the English submarine HMS Proteus.

On that particular night, Ziegler and the other officers were sleeping on a truck that was on deck, which was cooler than staying inside the ship.


Upon impact the truck flipped over the side of the ship and everyone drowned except for one officer.

He returned to Germany many years later and met with my grandmother to tell her that story, that the ship went down in just a few minutes and her husband, my grandfather, did not survive.

I have been told that this sinking took place off the island of Crete, that there was a monument that was created to honor them but it’s not clear where that may be or if it’s still intact.”


The German troop transport Ithaka (1773 GRT, built 1922) was torpedoed by HMS Proteus and sunk 2 nautical miles south-west of Milos, Greece.

According to the official report of HMS Proteus (C.O. Lt. Cdr. P.S. Francis, RN.) the torpedo attack was as follows:

9 November 1941

2030 hours – When in position 090°, St. Georgios lighthouse, 8 nautical miles, sighted a darkened ship to the westward at a range of 7800 yards according to RD/F.

On closing to 6000 yards a merchant vessel and two escorts were visible. Lt.Cdr. Francis decided to attack from periscope depth at dawn.

Burial of the
Burial of the Ithaka casualties in Crete, 1941. CREDIT: Dimitris Skartsilakis archive

10 November 1941

0320 hours – Dived to attack.

0345 hours – The target was visible through the periscope.

0405 hours – Fired four torpedoes from 600 yards. It is thought that three hits were obtained.

No depth charges were dropped following the attack.

George Hunt was the second in command on board HMS Proteus, operating out of Alexandria. He describes how the first radar sets operated on submarines:

“The only thing you had was a rectangular screen about 8 inches by 6 inches.

There was a row of green vertical uprights across the bottom of the screen about an inch in height and looking like grass.

William McGowan's grandmother and three children, including his mother Ilse
William McGowan’s grandmother and her children, including his mother Ilse

When the radar detected an object, it got a return echo or pulse. This showed up on the screen as a ‘spike’ of ‘grass’ higher than its neighbours by, perhaps, another inch, depending upon the range and, therefore, the strength of the signal.

In those early days the aerial was only geared up to show the bearing of the ‘target’ relative to the ship’s head, so, of course, that had to be noted at the same time in order to obtain the true bearing.

And that was about as far as we had got in a submarine with radar in those days.

However, on one occasion we did actually detect a small convoy of ships taking Germans to Crete, and the first detection that we had of this convoy was at night, was from the radar cabinet, so this was a plus for the radar.

Another photo of William McGowan’s grandmother, mother and aunts.

And because it was brand new and nobody knew very much about it we had two Dundee University students manning the radar set.

Anyway the radar on this occasion did produce this contact and sure enough there was a convoy.

We couldn’t see it, of course, but we shadowed the convoy all night by radar and got ahead of it and dived in position so that it would go across the path of the rising sun and we would be at periscope depth.”

Burial of the Ithaka drowned in Crete, 1941. CREDIT: Dimitris Skartsilakis archive
Burial of the Ithaka casualties in Crete, 1941. CREDIT: Dimitris Skartsilakis archive