The Hood under attack from Italian SM79 bombers in the Western Mediterranean, 9 July 1940. The stern of the battleship Valiant can be seen on the left of this photo which was taken from the flight deck of the carrier Ark Royal.
In the early hours of 9 April 1940, Germany launched her attack on Denmark and Norway. Successful landings were made at Kristiansand, Egersund, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik on the Norwegian coast and after initial resistance Oslo fell later that day. Even so, the German position remained precarious and though the British had been taken completely by surprise the War Cabinet immediately resolved to send troops to intervene. Among the plans formulated in London was a pincer attack on Trondheim in central Norway following landings at Namsos and Åndalsnes, the latter to be named Operation PRIMROSE. It is a measure of how thinly stretched were Britain’s resources that the War Cabinet had to turn to the Navy in order to help man the expedition. In the Hood, berthed at Plymouth, the first inkling that something was afoot came on the morning of 13 April when orders codenamed ‘Primrose’ began reaching the ship. Within a few hours the Hood’s ancient 3.7in howitzer, veteran of countless peacetime exercises and the Palestinian revolt at Haifa in 1938, was being swung out onto the quay. By evening an expeditionary force of 250 officers and men had been mustered under Lt Cdr C D Awdry which at midnight boarded a train for Rosyth with a motley assortment of weapons, stores and ammunition. The Royal Marines under Major H Lumley, who formed two-thirds of the force, were equipped with automatic weapons and Lewis guns. In the words of Mid Ian Browne (1939–41) they ‘gave the impression of knowing what they were about and regarded the seamen with some tolerance bordering on condescension’. The seamen, on the other hand, drawn mainly from second part of port watch, did not cut a particularly warlike figure. Mid Browne:
It must however be said that the seamen contingent hardly inspired confidence as a military force. […] Very few of the sailors had ever fired a rifle or ever handled ammunition. Nor, I fear, were the officers particularly familiar with the .45 revolver. It was discovered on the train that not all the sailors had boots, a fact that they had somehow managed to conceal under their green gaiters. However it was understood that the Gunner’s Mate knew something about howitzers which as it turned out was just as well.
After a day’s journey the party reached Rosyth where most of it boarded the sloop Black Swan, the remainder being distributed with similar contingents from Nelson and Barham in HM sloops Bittern, Flamingo and Auckland. Originally destined for the port of Ålesund, Black Swan’s orders were changed for Åndalsnes after the overloaded flotilla was obliged to put in at Invergordon in heavy seas. The Navy was prepared for opposition, but the Germans had yet to reach Åndalsnes and the subsequent landing on 17 April passed off uneventfully. The nineteen-man howitzer detachment under Sub-Lt D C Salter was immediately sent by rail to Dombås sixty miles away, where on 19 April it scored its only success, assisting in the capture of forty-five German paratroopers, several of whose helmets ended up on the Hood’s messdecks. Another party was taken to Ålesund with the task of setting up a number of 4in guns commanding the Indreled (Inner Leads) while a contingent of Marines under Lt E D Stroud RM was charged with defending an airfield improvised on the frozen surface of Lake Lesjeskog. However, once the Germans became aware that the Åndalsnes area was under British occupation the Luftwaffe began to make operations there untenable. From the 20th the main force in Åndalsnes and its various contingents were subjected to constant aerial bombardment which reduced this and the nearby settlements to ashes and wounded nine of the Hood’s party, two seriously.
Meanwhile, the breakdown of the Allied offensive as a whole began to make evacuation inevitable and as the days passed the various forces ashore slowly fell into disarray, the men having to fend for themselves in caves and the surrounding forests as the Germans closed in. Spirits generally remained high in the Hood’s contingent though some began to wilt under the pressure of constant bombardment and it was with a degree of relief that the order to evacuate came at the end of April. The howitzer detachment was embarked in the sloop Fleetwood at Åndalsnes on 29 April followed by the main body in the cruiser Galatea on the 30th, the rest being taken off from Afaianes shortly after. Among the very last to leave was a Lewis gun section from the Hood which held the final roadblock on the outskirts of Åndalsnes before escaping in the sloop Auckland on 1 May. Its Marine crew under Lt Stroud received a DSC and two DSMs. By 6 May, a little over three weeks after they had set out, the Hood’s party was back at Plymouth for the loss of four wounded men, including OD George Walker of Aberdeen, destined to spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Germans, and AB Harris who escaped into the Norwegian hinterland. Also missing was the howitzer which had been sent over a cliff to deny it to the enemy Miraculous though this deliverance was, the Norwegian campaign as a whole had been an utter fiasco, the failure of which now brought on the collapse of the Chamberlain government. As Len Williams put it, ‘So ended our efforts at playing soldiers’.
Early on the morning of 10 May 1940 the German army launched its great offensive in the West. Within two weeks the War Cabinet, its troops outmanoeuvred and its strategy in disarray, was taking the first steps towards the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force from the Continent. As these momentous events unfolded across the Channel the Hood was quietly completing her refit first at Plymouth and then at the Gladstone Dock in Liverpool where Mussolini’s declaration of war was greeted with looting of businesses and boarding of Italian vessels berthed there. A boarding party from the Hood was detailed to take over the freighter Erica whose crew promptly surrendered. The party returned soon after with the Italian ensign, an autographed portrait of Mussolini for the gunroom, and generally rather the worse for drink, the British matelot’s unerring nose for alcohol having taken him directly to the spirit store. When the Hood finally emerged from Liverpool on 12 June it was to find the evacuation from Dunkirk past and the Royal Navy girding itself to lift the remnants of the Allied armies from northern and western France. On 17 June, as the Hood lay at Greenock with the liners of convoy US3 about her, the French government asked Germany for an armistice. Five days later the new premier, Marshal Pétain, accepted Hitler’s terms, thereby bringing the Battle of France to a close. That night in one of his periodic broadcasts to the ship Capt Glennie asked his crew to remember that, though ‘we were likely to have certain dislikes for our previous allies, … we were to treat them, even now, as our friends and try to realise their terrible fate in the hands of the Nazis’. There was certainly frustration but also relief that another dismal episode was over, that ‘On consideration, not having to defend France may be a blessing in disguise’. But, as the Hood’s company was shortly to discover, France’s agony was not yet over.
With the entry of Italy into the war the Admiralty began taking steps to fill the void created by the collapse of French power in the western Mediterranean with a significant force of British ships. However, once the terms of the Franco-German armistice became known in London, as they had by 25 June, it was plain that this squadron must have a far more urgent remit. Under the terms of the armistice, the French fleet, still largely intact, was to be ‘demobilised and disarmed under German or Italian control’. This clause did not satisfy the British government which was already moving to prevent scattered units and squadrons of the French navy falling into the hands of the Axis. The officer chosen to enforce this policy in the western Mediterranean was Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville who assumed command of Force H on 27 June. First constituted as a hunting group during the search for the raider Admiral Graf Spee in October 1939, Force H was now transformed into an independent command based on Gibraltar but directly responsible to the Admiralty in London. Over the next eighteen months Somerville’s ‘detached squadron’ asserted a control over the western Mediterranean which would not be relinquished while the war lasted. This accomplishment, together with the many famous actions in which it was involved, gives Force H a special place in the history of the Royal Navy. It was to join this squadron as flagship that the Hood was ordered south from Greenock on 18 June, reaching Gibraltar five days later with the carrier Ark Royal.
The first task to which Force H was committed was the neutralisation of the French Atlantic Fleet at Mers el-Kebir near Oran in Algeria. After two days of earnest deliberation in Somerville’s cabin, Force H sailed from Gibraltar on 2 July stiffened by units of Admiral Sir Dudley North’s North Atlantic Command. There can be no doubt that Somerville’s task was among the most unenviable ever assigned to a British commander. His brief from the War Cabinet was to lay before his French counterpart, Amiral Marcel Gensoul, the following options for the disposal of his fleet, which consisted of two modern battlecruisers, two elderly battleships, a seaplane carrier and six large destroyers: that he (a) put to sea and continue the fight against Germany; (b) sail with reduced crews to a British port; (c) do likewise to a port in the French West Indies, or (d) scuttle his ships at their berths. Should these prove unacceptable a fifth was to be offered, namely that Gensoul demilitarise his force at Mers el-Kebir. Any measure resorted to would have to be enacted within six hours, a proviso which greatly hindered both admirals’ freedom of manoeuvre. In the event of these proposals being rejected Somerville was to present Gensoul with the ultimatum of having his fleet destroyed at the hands of Force H.
Shortly after 0800 on the morning of 3 July Force H appeared off Mers el-Kebir. Somerville had already sent the destroyer Foxhound ahead with his emissary Capt Cedric Holland, but it was not until 1615 that the latter gained direct access to Gensoul. The story of the protracted and ultimately fruitless negotiations between the British and Gensoul, the stirring of the French navy across the western Mediterranean and the mounting pressure from London all lie beyond the scope of this volume. Suffice to say that by 1730, some three hours after the expiry of his original ultimatum, Somerville found himself with no alternative but to open fire. Within a few minutes Boy Signalman Ted Briggs was hoisting the order for instant action to the starboard signal yard. A little before 1800 it was the order to open fire that he bent on to the halyard:
The response was immediate. Just as I turned round to watch, the guns of the Resolution and Valiant roared in murderous hair-trigger reaction. Then came the ting-ting of our firing bell. Seconds later my ears felt as if they had been sandwiched between two manhole covers. The concussion of the Hood’s eight fifteen-inch guns, screaming in horrendous harmony, shook the flag deck violently.
Moments later the harbour at Mers el-Kebir was being crucified by the first salvoes of British 15in ordnance. Within three minutes the battleship Bretagne had blown up with huge loss of life. Her sister Provence and the battlecruiser Dunkerque had to be beached after sustaining repeated hits, the latter mainly under Hood’s fire. The destroyer Mogador lost her stern to a direct hit which left her a smouldering wreck in waters turned black with oil and writhing bodies. With the harbour shrouded in a dense pall of smoke, at 1804, nine minutes after the action had commenced, Somerville gave the order to cease fire. A few minutes later increasingly accurate salvoes from the shore battery at Fort Santon obliged the Hood to return a withering fire while the squadron sailed out of range under a smokescreen. This might have been the end of the affair except that at 1818 reports began reaching Hood that a battlecruiser was emerging from the harbour. Initially dismissed by Somerville and his staff, by 1830 it was apparent that the Strasbourg, unscathed by the holocaust enveloping her companions, had negotiated the mine barrage laid by aircraft from Ark Royal and was making for Toulon with five destroyers. Hood turned to give chase, working up to over 28 knots at the cost of a stripped turbine, while Ark Royal prepared to launch an air strike in the fading light. The Hood again came under attack as the pursuit developed, first from a salvo of torpedoes fired by the light cruiser Rigauld de Genouilly and then by a flight of bombers from Algeria. However, attacks by Swordfish aircraft failed to slow the Strasbourg and at 2020 a dispirited Somerville called off the chase. A second Swordfish strike at 2055 reported two torpedo hits but the Strasbourg’s speed remained unimpaired and she reached Toulon without damage the following day. Three days later an announcement by Amiral Jean-Pierre Estéva at Bizerta, that ‘The damage to the Dunkerque is minimal and the ship will soon be repaired’, brought Force H back to Mers el-Kebir where Swordfish from Ark Royal put paid to her operational career.
So ended one of the most regrettable episodes in the history of the Royal Navy. As Somerville put it in a letter to his wife,
We all feel thoroughly dirty and ashamed that the first time we should have been in action was an affair like this. […] I feel sure that I shall be blamed for bungling the job and I think I did. But to you I don’t mind confessing I was half-hearted and you can’t win an action that way.
It was, he added, ‘the biggest political blunder of modern times and I imagine will rouse the world against us’. Those who expressed an opinion did so largely in the same vein. Writing to his family on 6 July, Sub-Lt Iago echoed Somerville’s fears for the wider implications of the engagement:
I think that the events in Oran were a great pity – they solved the problem of the French fleet but I hope we shall not look back on it as too much of a mistake. Lord Haw-Haw has evidently been rendered speechless with anger – or perhaps it is that we just can’t pick him up on the wireless.
In fact, Lord Haw-Haw, like the rest of the German propaganda machine, made enormous capital out of the incident, christening Force H ‘Somerville’s assassins’ in one particular broadcast. There was grim amusement to be had from this but also anger; anger at the Axis for precipitating the disaster, and anger at Gensoul for not continuing the war alongside the British. Above all there was chagrin and astonishment that matters should have come to such a pass. But for all that there was no shortage of pragmatic opinion in the Hood. Mid Buckett’s was one: ‘Coming back past the harbour we could still see large columns of smoke and small fires coming from the ships and the town behind. We realised, too, how unpleasant the action had been. Nevertheless it had been our duty and we had done it successfully’ There were other voices too, overheard by Somerville and related with some disgust to his wife: ‘It doesn’t seem to worry the sailors at all as “they never ‘ad no use for them French bastards”.’ Though they certainly existed, surviving accounts suggest that such opinions were neither widely held nor deeply felt. It was a vile episode from which no one could derive any lasting pride or satisfaction. Years later Mid Ross Warden recalled the atmosphere aboard as the Hood made for Gibraltar: ‘There was no elation aboard our ship that night. The gunroom was for once subdued, and from the Admiral down to the youngest seaman there were heavy hearts.’
The Hood emerged largely unscathed from her second action. Towards the end of the engagement she was straddled by a salvo from Dunkerque which blinded AB Patsy Ogan in one eye, wounded Lt G E M Owens in the arm and caused splinter damage to the funnels and starboard side. But that was all and again it seemed that she had got off lightly. For the crew, however, it was a different matter. The engagement off Mers el-Kebir was the Hood’s first prolonged experience of battle and it left an impression on all who endured it. From the time the Hood cleared Gibraltar at 1700 on 2 July to her return at 1900 on the 4th there was barely a moment’s rest for any of the crew. The hands, changed into clean underwear, were piped to the usual dawn action stations at 0445 on the 3rd and then again at 0830 as Force H closed Mers el-Kebir. Then the waiting began. Grog was issued followed by a lunch of soup and bully beef sandwiches for the men and stew and rock cakes for officers in brutal heat, but, as Mid Buckett wrote in his journal, ‘the anxiety of waiting for the French admiral’s decision began to have its effect on us in the afternoon’. At 1600 the ship briefly went down to Defence Stations, giving the Rev Beardmore an opportunity to hand out cigarettes and offer what encouragement he could as the men waited at their posts:
… I remember we had been closed up at action stations since dawn, having had meals at our action stations, but the ship did not open fire until 6pm; thus, the canteen having been shut and the men confined in one space, cigarettes were hard to come by as the evening approached, so that when I went round during a lull in the action and handed out cigarettes, they were as welcome as another meal.
By 1630 he was back at his post as broadcaster on the bridge, after which the ship was in action almost continuously until 2100. The intervening period gave the Hood her first taste of heavy-calibre gunfire as the Dunkerque and then the Strasbourg began to range on her. Ted Briggs:
Suddenly pinpoints of amber light punctuated the blackness. Above the roar of our guns came the high-pitched, blood-curdling, crescendoing, low whine of being under fire ourselves by warships for the first time. There were vivid red flashes as a salvo fell just short of the starboard side. Within seconds came a series of blue flashes.
Peering through the periscope of …B’ turret, OA Bert Pitman watched the French salvoes burst in towering geysers of red and blue water, ingeniously coloured to assist the officiers de tir in spotting their fall of shot. Meanwhile, battened down under armoured hatches in a damage-control party on the lower deck, AB Len Williams struggled to conquer his fear:
It was not a pleasant experience to be fired on, particularly when it is known that the projectiles coming your way weighed almost a ton. I, and most everyone else, was scared stiff. To begin with, my action station was three decks below, in an electrical repair party, and although we could hear the shells passing over us like express trains, we could not see what was going on. We did see our two wounded men being helped down to the dressing station below us, and their blood-stained appearance did not help us any. I had often searched my soul to try and analyse my feelings should I ever be faced with this sort of situation. How would I react? Would I show my feelings? Could I take it? Yes, fear was present without a doubt, but I was consoled by the fact that none of the others looked very happy either! And this made me realise that it was only a question of mastering it, and not breaking down under the strain. Had we been given something to do, it would have helped. We just had to wait for a shell to come through the deck and if it did not either kill or wound us, we could then proceed to repair the damage. We talked when we did not feel like talking and we walked up and down in the limited space at our disposal, and in this way we tried to forget what was going on above us. We were all very thankful when the gunfire ceased and we were told that the action was over. Our highly strung nerves relaxed and we began to live again. It was some time before the memory of Oran faded from our minds.
In the torpedomen’s mess, meanwhile, AB Joseph Rockey and his companions were distracted by one of the ventilation fans, which began to disintegrate in clouds of rust once the Hood’s main armament opened fire.
After it was over came the exhaustion that only battle can bring. Ted Briggs describes the crew’s first rest in perhaps sixty hours of exertion, tension and combat:
When I finally got below at 22.00 [on 4 July] the messdecks were quiet. Everyone was dog tired, and off-duty watches were collapsed all over the ship. Many, like myself, were too exhausted to sling their hammocks. I joined a bunch of friends dozing on top of the hammock stowage. They were still fully dressed, with anti-flash gear on.
It had been, Mid Buckett concluded, ‘a very terrifying experience for all of us, but a very necessary one’.
Seventy years on, the events of 3 July 1940 continue to resist judgement, a mark of the immensely complex situation from which they evolved. In retrospect, the tragedy of Mers el-Kebir accurately reflects the scale of the disaster that had befallen Britain and France in the space of less than two months. It also foreshadowed the dark night of war that lay ahead for both countries. For the Hood there was the lingering sadness that her guns had received their baptism of fire against not only an ally but, in the case of Dunkerque, a companion in arms. The return by the Dunkerque’s officers of souvenirs presented to them by members of the Hood’s wardroom in happier times made this all the more poignant and unpropitious. With them came this bitter note:
The captain and officers of the Dunkerque inform you of the death for the honour of their colours on 3 and 6 July 1940 of nine officers and 200 men of their ship. They return to you herewith the souvenirs they had of their comrades in arms of the British Royal Navy, in whom they had placed all their trust. And they express to you on this occasion all their bitter sadness and their disgust at seeing these comrades having no hesitation in soiling the glorious flag of St George with an ineffaceable stain – that of an assassin.