Key Largo divers discover sub in Mediterranean, solve WWII mystery

The Key Largo-based Aurora Trust, a not-for-profit ocean exploration and education foundation, has solved a World War II British mystery.

On May 8, 1942, under the cover of darkness, the British submarine HMS Olympus (N35) was attempting to leave the British Naval Base in the Grand Harbor of Malta, a tiny island nation just south of Sicily and north of Tripoli that was blockaded by the Germans and Italians.

But the Olympus didn’t get far before striking a mine and sinking.

For nearly 70 years, nobody knew exactly where the 283-foot sub’s final resting spot was in the Mediterranean Sea. Only nine of the 98 men aboard survived, swimming about seven miles in cold water and without lights to guide them due to the wartime blackout.

A year ago, the marine archaeology survey team from the Aurora Trust discovered the sub using side scan sonar. But at the time, they weren’t sure exactly what the image showed. The team, which operates from Malta, returned a few months later with deep-sea robotic vehicles to videotape the wreck — twice as deep as recreational divers can go.

“Sure enough, there was a submarine, sitting on the bottom, with the propeller intact and the hatch open,” said Ian Koblick, who co-founded the trust with fellow ocean explorer Craig Mullen in 2003. “We were pretty sure it was the Olympus because of the configuration of the [eight bow] torpedo tubes, the location and the fact that it was armed.”

The video shows cannons onboard, antennas for the radio, machine guns and a blowout at the bottom of the sub, where the mine struck, Koblick said.

The video also showed the distinctive feature of an Odin class sub: a 4-inch deck gun. It was found slightly elevated, looking ready for action.

Still, it took a few more months of further research before Malta’s Superintendent of Cultural Heritage was satisfied the submarine was indeed the Olympus.

In 2008, a team of technical divers from the United Kingdom and Malta claimed they had discovered the Olympus after identifying features that appeared consistent with the submarine’s layout. But their dive was brief with low visibility.

The technical divers said in a release three years ago they would return to positively identify the wreck, but they never did.

Monday, Malta authorities gave the Aurora Trust permission to announce the discovery. “It took time because they are very protective of their cultural resources,” Koblick said.

A trust executive notified the British Embassy in Washington about the submarine discovery on Tuesday. Plans are being made to show a British Navy Admiral the video footage and provide all information they have about the discovery.

The submarine likely is the resting place for at least a few of the military men who didn’t survive.

“It’s quite a sad story,” Koblick said. “These folks were on their way home via Gibraltar. Some had survived two other submarine sinkings.”

During the height of the Italian and German blockade of Malta, the British Navy battled to keep the island, which is south of Italy, supplied with fuel, food and war supplies. Submarines played a key role.

The Olympus was launched in 1927 and served the Royal Australian Navy in China before being deployed to the Mediterranean to support allied efforts.

The trust’s operation has discovered 24 ancient shipwreck sites, many not seen for 2,000 years or more. It also has uncovered other World War II shipwrecks, more than a dozen World War II airplanes and unexploded military mines.

Malta native Timmy Gambin, the trust’s archaeologist, said three months ago that the team was mapping “the underwater landscape of war.”

The Olympus is the best preserved World War II relic that the trust has found.

“It was like somebody took your toy submarine and put it on the bottom,” Koblick said. “There is hardly any growth.”

The trust is hoping to do a documentary about the discovery.


Source:  Miami Herald