Malta is one of the most popular destinations in the world for wreck divers. As a British and Allied Mediterranean stronghold during the First and Second World Wars, a staggering amount of tonnage was sunk around Malta’s shores and those of its sister islands, Gozo and Comino. Over the years, Malta’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit (UCHU) has located a number of deep wrecks around the islands, many of them previously unexplored by divers. In May this year, 11 of the new wrecks were made available to technical divers: two aircraft, a submarine and eight warships. In this series of articles, we’ll preview the new wrecks, starting with HMS Olympus and HMS Russell, with thanks to information and photographs provided by the UCHU.
- Part 1 – HMS Olympus and HMS Russell
- Part 2 – Fairey Swordfish and Junkers Ju88
- Part 3 – HMS Southwold
- Part 4 – HMS Nasturtium and Le Polynesien
- Part 5 – SS Luciston and HMS Trusty Star
- Part 6 – ORP Kujawiak and Schnellboot S-31
The wrecks have been declared as Archaeological Zones in the Sea by the Cultural Heritage Act of Maltese law, and it must be remembered that most are also war graves. As such, the wrecks can only be dived through dive centres approved and registered with the Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit of Heritage Malta, and protective measures to prevent unauthorised diving are strictly enforced.
HMS Olympus was an Odin class submarine designed primarily for long-distance patrols. During the Second World War, she was sent to the Mediterranean as part of the ‘Magic Carpet Service’, transporting medicine, fuel, and Special Forces to Malta.
By 1942, Axis forces had deployed more than 50,000 underwater mines around Malta, and three Royal Navy submarines had been destroyed in quick succession during a bombing campaign against Allied submarines known as the ‘Axis Attacks’. HMS Olympus was charged with picking up the survivors and returning them to England but struck a mine shortly after leaving the port of Valetta on 8 May 1942.
The crew attempted to send out a distress signal by firing the deck gun to alert others to their presence, but the shell jammed and no help came. The surviving members of the stricken submarine began a gruelling seven-mile swim back to Valetta. Out of the 98 crew that set sail that day, only nine survived.
HMS Olympus was first located in 2011 using high-frequency sonar, and rests upright on the seabed at a depth of 115m. There is serious damage to the submarine’s starboard side, but the gun remains intact, still pointing upwards after failing to fire the shell that would have signalled her distress. The hatches are open, indicating where the crew escaped as the submarine began taking on water.
HMS Russell was launched 19 February 1901 at the shipyard of Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Ltd. in the county of Durham, England. She was one of six Duncan-class battleships, built with reduced armour protection to gain a speed advantage over the supposedly faster Russian Peresvet-class battleships.
She was named after Admiral Edward Russell, First Earl of Orford and Commander-in-Chief of the British Royal Navy from 1690-1692. Prior to 1914, HMS Russell served in the Mediterranean, Home (later Channel) and Atlantic Fleets, becoming assigned to the Grand Fleet – the Royal Navy’s primary battle fleet – at the start of the First World War. She was subsequently deployed in 1915 to support the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, and thereafter remained stationed in the eastern Mediterranean.
In April 1916, HMS Russell was returning to Malta to spend a fortnight resupplying, undergoing repairs and allowing the crew an opportunity for shore leave. Unfortunately, the German minelayer submarine U-73 (which would later be responsible for sinking the hospital ship Britannic), had laid 22 mines at the entrance to Grand Valetta Harbour. On the morning of 27 April, HMS Russell was proceeding towards the Grand Harbour when she struck two of the naval mines laid by SM U-73.
The first explosion ‘struck the port side aft, abreast the Ward Room hatch’, after which fire broke out and the order to abandon ship was given. Shortly afterwards, a second explosion struck near the 12-inch turret, and the ship took on a dangerous list. The ship sank slowly, and most of the 720 men that had survived the initial explosions managed to escape. However, 124 (possibly 126, according to different reports) of her crew were lost, including 27 of the officers.
The wreck was dived for the first time in 2003, and now lies upside down, with the stern section separated from the main body of the ship, in 115m of water.