French troops wade through water during an amphibious landing. Official caption on front: “MM-44-1431.” Official caption on reverse: “Sig Corps photo-17-6-44. Elba invaded! French troops wading ashore from landing craft in the invasion of the tiny island of Elba. White smoke billowing from stern of ship caused by smoke pot.” Elba, Italy. 17 June 1944
On 18 November Auchinleck’s troops in North Africa, now designated the Eighth Army, commenced Operation Crusader, designed not only to relieve Tobruk but also to smash the Axis forces in Cyrenaica. During its advance, the Eighth Army, commanded in the early stages of the operation by Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham, the admiral’s younger brother, and later by Major-General Neil Ritchie, bypassed the fortified frontier zone of Sollum-Halfaya Pass-Bardia, and advanced on Tobruk along two separate axes; simultaneously, the Tobruk garrison commenced a break-out operation intended to effect a junction with the relief force. The battle proved to be a far tougher and more protracted struggle than anyone had imagined, so that it was not until 7 December that Rommel took the decision to abandon Cyrenaica in order to save the remnant of his army. His isolated frontier garrisons, beyond hope of relief, were then methodically crushed. Overall, Axis casualties amounted to 38,000 killed, wounded and missing as against 18,000 British and Commonwealth; some 300 German and Italian tanks were destroyed compared to 278 British, although a high proportion of the latter could be recovered and repaired.
During the battle, Aphis, now commanded by Lieutenant John Cox, shelled the Gazala airfields on the night of 24/25 November, evidently to such good effect that over the next two days Tobruk harbour was subjected to a vindictive bombardment. Secure beneath their camouflage nets in Gnat Cove, Aphis’s crew watched the shells burst among the wrecks littering the water. On the night of 1/2 December, Aphis sallied forth again, but this time set her course eastwards to Gambut, around which elements of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions were leaguered. During an hour-long shoot, eighty-four 6-inch shells slammed into these already mauled formations. The treatment was repeated on 4 December, and again three days later. Aphis supported the Eighth Army’s advance as far as Derna, ferrying stores and personnel as well as escorting smaller vessels. While so engaged, she contemptuously evaded a torpedo dropped by a Heinkel He 111, turning so quickly on to a parallel course that the pilot was mortified to see his fish miss by a good 50 yards.
By now the ship’s 6-inch guns were completely worn out. They were replaced by Cricket’s, which retained their accuracy but were so slow to run out from full recoil that they required manual assistance. On 31 December, while the 2nd South African Division was fighting its way into Bardia, Aphis, Southern Maid and the cruiser Ajax of River Plate fame provided gunfire support. As the enemy’s return fire was falling uncomfortably close, Cox led the two smaller ships out to extreme range, dropping a smoke float which effectively distracted the enemy’s gunners. The 8000-strong garrison surrendered at dawn on 2 January. The South Africans also took Sollum, although Halfaya Pass held out until 17 January, by which time many of its garrison were close to dying of thirst.
With the relief of Tobruk, the most important function of the Inshore Squadron came to an end. Three of the four gunboats to serve with the squadron had been lost and, for the moment, Aphis alone remained, her contribution eclipsed by great events on land and the epic siege of Malta.
Just as, a year earlier, Wavell had been forced to send troops to Greece, so now Auchinleck was required by Japan’s entry into the war to despatch reinforcements to the Far East, thereby weakening the Eighth Army. In the third week of January 1942, Rommel, having himself been reinforced, returned to the offensive. He did not achieve quite the same runaway success as he had the previous year, but he did recover the Benghazi Bulge. The line was stabilised at Gazala and a new front established, running south to Bir Hacheim. Both sides prepared for the next round but it was Rommel who struck first, on 26 May. During the ensuing Battle of Gazala/Knightsbridge the Eighth Army sustained the worst defeat in its history. It was during this that one of the Royal Navy’s most famous gunboat captains, Admiral Sir Walter Cowan, whom we have already met bombarding the Mahdi’s tomb and in the Baltic, went into captivity. Although long retired and in his seventies, the outbreak of World War II provided him with a chance for yet more fighting. He was absolutely adamant that he was not going to be left out and in due course he was found the task of naval liaison officer to an Indian brigade with the honorary rank of commander. His duties cannot have been exacting, for during the Gazala battle the brigade was operating 40 miles from the sea. When it was overrun, Cowan climbed stiffly from his slit trench and emptied his revolver point blank at a German tank. Gentlemanly instincts still existed on the battlefield, for the crew did not return fire and led him away with the respect due to his age and rank. The following year he was exchanged for an Italian officer of equivalent standing. On his return he swore to Admiral Cunningham that if he had been properly supported, and possessed a few more rounds of ammunition, he would have captured the tank!
In the immediate aftermath of his victory Rommel stormed Tobruk, an event which won him his field marshal’s baton. He then decided to use the huge quantities of captured fuel and stores to pursue the badly rattled British into Egypt. As his advance rolled eastwards beyond the frontier, it captured Mersa Matruh, the former base of the Inshore Squadron. Auchinleck assumed personal command of the Eighth Army and in the month-long, bitterly contested First Battle of Alamein fought the Axis army to a standstill. Despite this, Churchill felt that a change at the top was needed. General Sir Harold Alexander took over as Commander-in-Chief Middle East while Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery arrived from England to command the Eighth Army.
Across the lines, Rommel was beginning to regret his opportunism. He now lay at the end of a long and very difficult supply line, had burned most of the fuel captured at Tobruk. and was receiving barely sufficient to meet his daily requirements. At Alam Halfa on 31 August, he made one last attempt to regain the initiative but was thwarted by a rock-solid defence.
Montgomery continued to restore his own army’s morale, building up its strength until he was confident of victory. The Second Battle of Alamein, commencing on 23 October, reduced Rommel’s German divisions to skeletons and destroyed most of the Italian divisions where they stood. Rallying such survivors as he could, Rommel began his long retreat, knowing that this time there could be no halting on the Egyptian frontier or on the border of Tripolitania, for on 8 November the Anglo-American First Army had landed in French North Africa. In such circumstances the best he could hope for was to reach Tunisia, which Hitler and Mussolini had decided would become a Fascist redoubt.
During the final stages of the North African campaign, Aphis, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Frank Bethel, was based first at Tripoli and then at Sousse. On 21 March 1943, as part of a feint to distract the enemy’s attention while Montgomery outflanked the prepared defences of the Mareth Line, she carried out a bombardment of Gabes, flattening the railway station and reducing a staff officers’ accommodation block to rubble. More importantly, wild rumours circulated that the entire Mediterranean Fleet was firing the preparatory bombardment for a landing resulted in troops being withdrawn from the Mareth Line, as intended.
Following the Axis surrender in North Africa, plans were immediately made for the invasion of Sicily. Before they could be activated, however, the heavily fortified Italian island of Pantellaria, lying between Sicily and Tunisia, would have to be neutralised. On 11 June Aphis formed part of the bombardment force which softened up the defences, firing accurately at targets in the harbour area. Hardly had the assault wave gone in than the island’s commander, Admiral Pavesi, indicated that he wished to surrender because of a water shortage. This was simply an excuse, for his men were already giving up in droves, providing a clear indication that the average Italian was no longer interested in fighting for Hitler and Mussolini.
It was now apparent that impending naval operations in the Mediterranean theatre of war would again involve a considerable amount of inshore activity. Because of this two more Insect class gunboats, the Cockchafer under Lieutenant Arthur Dow, RNVR, and the Scarab under Lieutenant E. Cameron, RNZVR, were detached from their station at Basra in April 1943 and sent under tow to join the Mediterranean Fleet. They joined Aphis at Malta, where final preparations for the invasion of Sicily were under way. As a result of experience, the Insects’ light automatic anti-aircraft weapons had been augmented, most being mounted forward. In addition to her heavier weapons, Aphis now possessed an Oerlikon and two 20mm Bredas, while Cockchafer and Scarab, having disposed of their pom-poms, mounted seven Oerlikons each.
Thereafter, the Insects took part in the preliminary bombardment for the landings in Sicily, where Cockchafer’s gunners shot down an enemy aircraft off Catania, and in the toe of Italy, being joined sometimes by the monitor Erebus, sister ship to the Terror. By now, however, the elderly gunboats were beginning to show their many years of hard usage, Cockchafer’s engines in particular giving much cause for anxiety. In normal circumstances the Insects would have been scrapped long since, but the fact was they were doing a useful job and, since they could not be replaced, they were sent to Egypt for overhaul. As part of this they were each rearmed with a later and more powerful mark of 6-inch gun.
During the autumn of 1943 the French had gained control of Corsica. The following spring it was decided that this would serve as a base from which the island of Elba, lying off the west coast of Italy and dominating the coastal shipping routes between with its coastal batteries, could be captured. Elba, once the pocket kingdom of Napoleon Bonaparte’s first exile, is eighteen miles long, nine miles across at its widest point, and mountainous. Its garrison was said to consist of some 800 Poles and Czechs who had been conscripted into the German Army and whose morale was low. The truth was that there were 2600 good-quality German troops manning well-prepared defences throughout the island.
Nevertheless, nothing was left to chance. The assault force, consisting of French Commandos and the French 9th Colonial Division, would receive gunfire support from Aphis, Cockchafer and Scarab, the last now commanded by Lieutenant E. A. Hawksworth, RNVR. Having completed their refit, the gunboats sailed via Malta to Porto Vecchio in Corsica where the invasion fleet was assembling. It consisted of the headquarters ship Royal Scotsman, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Thomas Troubridge, 124 landing craft of various types and a flotilla of minesweepers, escorted by 28 British and American torpedo boats.
The invasion force sailed on 16 June, approaching Elba during the early hours of the following day. The gunboats commenced their bombardment and the commandos slid ashore in their assault boats to neutralise the coast defence batteries. Then, as in any military operation, unforeseen events induced a radical change of circumstances. At Marina di Campo, the principal landing area, a British naval beach commando unit stormed into the harbour to capture an armed lighter and cut the wires of the enemy’s demolition charges on the mole. Unfortunately, enemy artillery fire detonated the charges. The immediate result of the explosion was that 35 of the beach commando were killed and 18 wounded; furthermore, as the light strengthened, yet more enemy guns began concentrating on the area and the landing craft standing off the beaches. At this point the Insects, which had been engaging their designated targets, joined in the fray, systematically eliminating the enemy’s field batteries one after another under the direction of their Royal Artillery Forward Observation Officers, enabling the landing to continue. Elsewhere, although a commando attack on a coast defence battery at Cape Enfola destroyed four of its 6-inch guns, a similar battery at Cape Ripalti beat off its attackers and was only neutralised when the gunboats intervened. Throughout the day, while the French consolidated their gains ashore, the Insects continued to engage numerous targets, earning the highest praise from the FOOs for the accuracy of their shooting. By evening they had expended a total of some 500 rounds of 6-inch ammunition. Scarab, her magazine empty, returned to base to replenish, followed the next day by Aphis and the day after by Cockchafer, which at one stage had become the target of heavy coast defence guns firing from Piombino on the Italian mainland. On the morning of 19 June the remnant of the garrison surrendered, having sustained the loss of over 500 killed. French casualties amounted to 400 killed and 600 wounded, while those of the Royal Navy were 65 killed and 58 wounded. The operation had succeeded, but at such a price that it was later described as ‘a bloody little sideshow’.
In the wider sphere the Allies were now firmly ashore in Normandy, though facing a fanatical defence. The Supreme Command decided that the moment had come to activate Operation Dragoon, a landing on the French Riviera by the French First and US Seventh Armies which would effectively turn the flank of the German army groups in northern France. As Cockchafer’s engines were again giving trouble, Aphis and Scarab alone were detailed to work under American naval command as part of a group known as Task Force 80.4, the function of which was to jam the enemy’s radar and, using reflector balloons, create false radar targets with the object of confusing the Germans as to precisely where the landings would take place; once this phase had been completed, the two Insects were to close the range and bombard targets between Antibes and the River Var for an hour. Operation Dragoon took place on 15 August and was a complete success. According to German radio broadcasts seeking excuses for the invaders’ success, Antibes and Nice had been shelled by four or five battleships, a claim which gave the gunboat crews much satisfaction.
On the misty, drizzling morning of 17 August, Task Force 80.4 was approaching the main assault area when one of the American torpedo boats picked up strange contacts on her radar. When challenged, the strangers opened fire. The PT boat turned away, signalling a warning of the hostile presence to those astern.
The enemy ships were the former Italian corvette Capriola, armed with two 3.9-inch and eight 37mm guns, and an armed yacht, the Kemid Allah, both now flying the German naval ensign. Hoping to make a killing among the smaller craft, they pursued the retreating PT boat. Simultaneously, Aphis and Scarab broke out their batde ensigns, working their speed up to a rivet-rattling 15 knots for which they had not been designed. Some 20 minutes after the initial contact report they had the enemy in sight and opened fire at a range of 12,000 yards.
During the ensuing battle most of the technical advantages lay with the enemy, for although the British ships threw the heavier weight of metal, the Germans had the better fire control system and were much faster. Soon the gunboats’ decks were being lashed with spray and shell splinters. It was known that the American destroyer Endicott, with Lieutenant Commander John D. Bulkeley, Task Force 80.4’s commander, aboard, was coming up fast, and that she would soon be in a position to cut off the enemy’s retreat. To conceal the fact, the Insects made smoke. From time to time they would emerge from the screen to loose off a salvo or two, then retire into concealment. An hour after the engagement had begun, one of their shells penetrated the Capriola’s hull amidships. The corvette blew up in a tremendous eruption of flame and smoke.
Simultaneously, another 6-inch shell burst on the foredeck of the Kemid Allah. The auxiliary made off to the west as fast as she could go but she was already too late. With her ensign streaming and a bone in her teeth, the Endicott was already closing in at 36 knots. Three of her four 5-inch guns were overheated after bombarding coastal batteries at La Ciotat and the fourth could only be operated with difficulty, firing one round a minute, so Bulkeley also engaged with his 40mm anti-aircraft armament. Within an hour the gunboats and the destroyer had reduced the German ship to a burning wreck. Over 200 survivors were picked up, the older hands pleased that their war was over, the younger still sufficiently self-confident to give the Nazi salute as the Kemid Allah rolled over on her way to the bottom. It was a reaction that the gunboatmen found difficult to understand, given that the days of Adolf Hitler and his evil regime were now so obviously nearing their end. During the battle the only casualties sustained by the Allies were three of Endicott’s men wounded by shell splinters. In passing it should be mentioned that Bulkeley was a distinguished PT boat commander who, two years earlier, had rescued General Douglas MacArthur from the besieged fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay, for which feat he was awarded the Medal of Honor; also that one of the PT boats forming part of Task Force 80.4 was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, the film star.
Aphis and Scarab were rewarded with permission to splice the mainbrace, followed by a rest period in Naples. Shortly after, they moved to a new base at Ancona on the Adriatic coast of Italy. During the autumn of 1944 they provided gunfire support for the Eighth Army as it fought its way through the formidable defences of the Gothic Line. There we shall leave them to fade away, as old warriors do, for early in 1945 they were, like Cockchafer, reduced to care and maintenance status.
The Insect class, hard working and hard hitting, had served their country well throughout two world wars and the years between. Scarab was the last of them to go, being sold for scrap at Singapore in 1948.