Likely still to contain the bodies of its 71 crew, the T-class submarine was located lying in more than 100m of water near the island of Tavolara, off Sardinia’s north-east coast.
It was dived twice by Genoa-based wreck-diver Massimo Domenico Bondone, supported by divers from the local Orso diving club from Poltu Quatu.
Commissioned in March 1942, P311 was designated HMS Tutankhamen but was lost before it could be formally named. As part of the 10th Submarine Flotilla under Cdr Richard Cayley, it left Malta on 28 December on its first mission, charged with the challenging task of sinking the Italian cruisers Trieste and Gorizia at anchor off the Sardinian island of La Maddalena.
Two other T-class submarines departed at the same time as part of Operation Principle, all carrying Chariots. These piloted midget submersibles, which could be used to place explosives on the hulls of the Italian targets, had been inspired by the success of Italian naval commandos using such vehicles.
P311 never made it to La Maddalena. The last signal received from the submarine was on 31 December and it was thought to have struck an Italian mine in the Gulf of Olbia. Fishermen were said to have heard an explosion, but as it had been a stormy night the reports were inconclusive.
Bondone’s first attempts to dive the wreck-site were hampered by bad weather, but the team finally managed to reach the submarine on 22 May. It was reported to be intact apart from its bow, which showed explosion damage, and a gun was visible in front of the conning tower. The two Chariots were still attached to the hull.
Bondone told La Nuova Sardegna that from the moment he saw the outline of the submarine from 80m down “you think of the fate of those who died down there, a fate shared by many people of different nations, submariners in particular”.
“The compartments may still have been airtight so the crew would have suffocated. We must have the utmost respect for these wrecks, and especially in this case. Life in a submarine was very difficult, with the confined spaces, poor living conditions and constant fear of being hit by a torpedo or depth-charge.”