Exocet in Stanley

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Exocet – Land-based firing by MM38 battery at Hooker’s Point, near Stanley, that hit and damaged HMS Glamorgan 12th June. Stanley airfield in the background. DANIEL BECHENNEC

By this time the general intelligence assessment was that Argentina had accepted that the military defence of the Falklands was inevitable and that Great Britain must be dragged to the negotiating table by staging a high-profile incident, for instance targeting HMS Hermes or Invincible. But the Argentinian Navy had lost the maritime battle. Strengthening its military presence on West Falkland to threaten San Carlos and sandwich the British between Stanley and West Falkland with the airborne Strategic Reserve was another option. The Air Force had sufficient transport with its C-47s Dakotas, F-27 Fellowships and C-130 Hercules for a mass drop. The Navy could help with its three L-188 Electras, as could the Army with its three G-222 transports. But the Air Force could not guarantee a lengthy period of air superiority unless the two British aircraft carriers were neutralized, either by the weather or attack.

Soon after the start of British attacks on 1 May the Argentine Navy evaluated the possibility of installing an Exocet surface-to-surface system at Stanley to deter the Royal Navy from bombarding military positions. Transporting a shipboard system would take at least forty-four days and when a simple system needed to be devised, an engineering officer, Commander Julio Perez, and two civilians were tasked to come up with a solution, which they did within ten days. Christened the ‘Do-It-Yourself Firing Installation’, Perez’s development consisted of a generator, supporting hardware and two ramps for the Exocet box launchers all mounted on two trailers. The launchers themselves were cannibalized from two of Argentina’s A-69 corvettes. Perez’s team designed a firing sequence from a box with four telephone switchboard switches; these were manual to save time. Each had to be thrown in specific order timed by a stopwatch. This land-based system was ready in mid-May, but an attempt to fly it and Perez to Stanley on 24 May was thwarted by British air activity. Eventually, in early June, the system was landed, but by this time very wet weather had set in and since there was a danger of the Firing Installation trailer becoming bogged down in the mud, a short stretch of the tarmac road between the town and airport was selected as the firing point. Each night at 6pm the system was dragged from beneath camouflage netting and placed behind a 16-foot high bunker. It had to be ready by 8.30pm when British ships tended to begin their bombardments. The Air Force Westinghouse radars with the 2nd Air Surveillance and Control Group swept a 60-degree arc to the south of Stanley Common for long-range search. The Army provided fire control with its AN-TPS 43 Early Warning radar. Three Exocet missiles were sent. The first one proved to be defective, the second was wasted when a connection to the transformer was incorrectly fitted and veered to the right, as opposed to the left. The third was more successful.

On the night of 27/28 May a large projectile hurtled across the flight deck of HMS Avenger while she was on the gun line south of Port Harriet and out of range of conventional artillery. It was then correctly assessed that Argentina might well have installed an Exocet system on the Falklands and to minimize the risk, Rear-Admiral Woodward created a 25-mile sanitized circumference from the suspected launch pad that no ship was to enter. It is significant that Exocet is a sea-skimming missile and therefore it is suggested that the Argentinians would have some difficulty hitting anything to the west because of the landmass. The problem for the Royal Navy was that Exocet was a weapon widely used by NATO and consequently a counter-measure had not been developed. The sinking of HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyor led to some Royal Navy commanders becoming pre-occupied with it almost to the exclusion of risk-taking.

Four more missiles arrived by C-130 during the night of 5 June, but it was not until about 2.35am on the night of 12 June that a target presented itself. At 2.15am HMS Avenger and the County-class destroyer HMS Glamorgan had both completed the night’s mission of providing naval gunfire support to 3rd Commando Brigade attacking Mount Longdon, Two Sisters and Mount Harriet and left to return to the Carrier Battle Group. Unfortunately for her Commanding Officer of HMS Glamorgan, Captain Michael Barrow, his destroyer clipped the sanitized area and when her radar footprint was detected by the Exocet launch team, a missile launched. Originally mistaking it for a 155mm shell, HMS Avenger recognized the radar configuration to be an Exocet and the target to be HMS Glamorgan. Barrow held his fire and then, when the missile was within a mile and half, he opened up with a Seacat but missed. However, the incoming missile was deflected sufficiently upward to miss the hull of the destroyer, but it slithered across the pitching deck into the hangar and exploded. Burning fuel from a wrecked Wessex helicopter spilled down a hole in the deck into the galley area, causing a major fire, and a fireball ripped into the gas turbine gear room. An officer, six air maintenance crew, four chefs, a steward and a marine engineer, totalling thirteen men, were killed and fourteen injured. Very many of those ashore witnessed the glow of the missile and the tiny explosion on the horizon as the Exocet exploded. Although HMS Glamorgan had an 8-degree list from the weight of water needed to fight the fires, she maintained a steady 18 knots and remained fully operational in spite of the damage.

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The Western Squadron

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HMS Royal George, right, shown fictitiously at the launch of HMS Cambridge in 1755 by John Cleveley the Elder (1757)

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Admiral Sir Edward Hawke defeating Admiral de Conflans in the Bay of Biscay
Artist: Thomas Luny

In 1758 and 1759 British fortunes had sharply improved in most parts of the world except in home waters. The Western Squadron spent much of 1758 under Anson’s command once more, but scurvy and victualling problems limited him to six weeks at sea, though he once victualled at sea from transports on the coast of Brittany. In October 1758, now under Saunders, the squadron again failed to intercept French ships entering and leaving Brest. It was clear to British ministers that the Western Squadron had to do better. It was all the more clear as it became evident that the French government, with its naval strength and colonial position weakening fast, had decided to solve its troubles at a stroke by invading Britain. Once again the English Jacobites were to play their part, and again there were unrealistic hopes of Spanish, Swedish and even Russian participation. By unorthodox financial manoeuvres enough money was borrowed to keep the French navy at sea for another summer. The plan was for the invasion force to sail with the main fleet, which had to come from Brest and Rochefort. It was, however, impossible to assemble the army at Brest, which always depended on food and raw materials imported by coastal shipping from the rest of France, and which by the spring of 1759 was already severely short of timber and unable to feed extra mouths. It was therefore decided to assemble the army around Vannes, in southern Brittany, where it could be fed, and where the inland sea of the Morbihan provided anchorage for transports. It followed that the Brest fleet had to sail down to collect the transports before returning to the English Channel.

It followed for the British that Brest was now the key point. Intermittent cruises in the Western Approaches would not suffice; it was necessary for the Western Squadron to be continually off Brest or very near it. Never before had the Royal Navy faced the dangers of a close blockade of Brest, and the geographical situation needs to be explained, for wind, tide and navigation were as always the limiting factors in naval operations. Brest dockyard lies on a narrow river, the Penfeld, issuing on to a huge enclosed roadstead, which itself communicates with the sea by a narrow channel, the Goulet, lying almost east and west with high ground on both sides. Outside the Goulet are two anchorages, Berthaume Bay on the north and Camaret Bay on the south side, themselves screened from the open Atlantic by extensive reefs and islands through which there are three passages. To the westward the Iroise is open but scattered with dangerous pinnacle rocks. To the northward the narrow and rock-strewn Four with its formidable tide-race leads into the English Channel. To the south the Chaussée de Sein, a long chain of reefs and islands (known to the English as the ‘Saints’ or ‘Seams’), stretches westwards into the Atlantic. Through it there is one deep but very narrow channel, the Raz de Sein, with the Tevennec rock in the middle of the channel at its northern end. The tide runs through the Goulet at three knots, the Four at four and a half knots and the Raz at seven knots. None of them could be passed except with the tide, and as it is twenty-five miles from the Goulet to the Raz it required exact timing to pass both on the same ebb (or, inward-bound, on the same flood), so that squadrons often had to anchor at least one tide in Berthaume or Camaret Bay. The distances are such that there is no one position from which a fleet could watch all three channels out of Brest except close in with the Goulet where they meet, but neither is there any ground high enough for watchers on the mainland of Brittany to see far enough out to sea to locate a blockading squadron in the offing.

In the prevailing south-westerlies it was easy for French ships to enter the Goulet, but to leave required an easterly or northerly wind; commonest in the late winter and spring, between January and May. At other times of the year the chance to sail from Brest usually came when one of the regular depressions blew in from the Atlantic over the British Isles, causing the wind in the Channel to veer northerly and easterly. Overall it is possible to sail from Brest on about 40 per cent of the days in the year. Because they were often sailing in northerly winds, and because they often wished to avoid the British, the French tended to use the Raz de Sein more often than the other channels.

For a different reason inward-bound squadrons often came the same way. It has been explained why Ushant was a dangerous landfall. No sane navigator, unsure of his position after weeks at sea, would head straight for Brest – least of all a navigator plotting on the Neptune François, the official French chart atlas from 1693 until 1822, which lays down the port thirty-five miles out of position. Instead French ships usually came in from the Atlantic on the parallel of Belle Isle, an excellent bold landfall, from which a south-westerly wind would carry a ship on the port tack to Lorient and Brest, or on the starboard to Nantes, Rochefort and Bordeaux. Alternatively they might first make Cape Finisterre or Cape Ortegal to fix their position and then strike north-eastward across the Bay to Belle Isle. From Belle Isle ships approached Brest from the south-east, past the headland of Penmarc’h and through the Raz de Sein. For the British this meant that any close watch on Brest required a squadron between the Seams and the Penmarks (to use English names), in which position the Breton coast is a deadly lee shore and the only possible escape in a westerly gale would be down into the Bay of Biscay, away from home. The only reasonably safe position for a British squadron watching Brest is west or north-west of Ushant, with the Channel open to leeward, but from here it is impossible to see the Raz de Sein.

These were some of the difficulties Sir Edward Hawke faced when he sailed with the Western Squadron in May 1759 under orders to keep as close to Brest as possible. There he developed a system by which the main squadron was kept in relative safety to seaward of Ushant, but in constant touch with an inshore squadron of two small ships of the line under a bold and skilful captain (Augustus Hervey) lying off the Black Rocks at the inner end of the Iroise, near enough to the Goulet to see anything coming in or out of Brest. Another small squadron was detached into the Bay to watch Rochefort and the French transports in the Morbihan. Initially Hawke was to return at intervals to Torbay for victuals and water, but by August he had thirty-two sail of the line, enough to take turns to visit port and still keep twenty or so on station permanently. At the same time a regular system of replenishment with fresh provisions at sea was developed, with transports carrying live cattle, vegetables and beer. This presented many practical difficulties, with deep-laden merchantmen beating up from Plymouth to the blockading station dead to windward, and coming alongside to trans-ship their cargoes in exposed anchorages or even the open sea. Great determination and expense were necessary, but as a result Hawke was able to keep his ships continually healthy and on station throughout the summer and autumn. The naval physician James Lind, like all professional observers, was astonished at what was now possible.

It is an observation, I think, worthy of record – that fourteen thousand persons, pent up in ships, should continue, for six or seven months, to enjoy a better state of health upon the watery element, than it can well be imagined so great a number of people would enjoy, on the most healthful spot of ground in the world.

It had never been possible for a fleet at sea to remain healthy for so long.

With the French fleet commanded by the comte de Conflans believed to be ready to sail, Hawke remained at sea throughout the autumn, but was repeatedly blown off station by gales, to the alarm of the government – but not of Hawke. ‘Their Lordships may depend upon there being little foundation for the present alarms,’ he wrote from Plymouth Sound on 14 October. ‘While the wind is fair for the enemy’s coming out, it is also favourable for our keeping in; and while we are obliged to keep off, they cannot stir.’ A month later he was blown into Torbay by another gale, and on the same day he sailed, so did Conflans from Brest, 200 miles away. On 16 November, approaching Ushant, Hawke met the victualler Love & Unity who told him that the French were at sea. They were unlucky with the wind, which blew them not only out of Brest but far to the westward before they could shape a course for the Morbihan. On their own account, they were also suffering cruelly from a shortage of seamen, with only 70–80 per cent of their established number of able seamen, and a third of those mere novices, equivalent to British ‘ordinary seamen’. In fact most of Hawke’s captains would have thought themselves very well off with that manning: the real difference was between ships which had been continuously at sea for many months during which they had worked up their crews to a high state of efficiency, and those which had not left port.

The Morbihan, where the French transports lay, is itself within the great bay of Quiberon, which is screened from the open Atlantic by the Quiberon Peninsula, prolonged by a chain of islands ending at the southern end in the rocks called the Cardinals (les Cardinaux), with the bulk of Belle Isle further to seaward providing more shelter. On the 20th Conflans’ twenty-one ships of the line were approaching Belle Isle when their lookouts sighted Hawke’s twenty-three ships astern. The scene was dramatic. Both fleets were driving eastwards before a rising gale, the French shortening sail, Hawke’s ships shaking the reefs out of their topsails. Before them in the fading light of a winter’s afternoon lay a dangerous coast of which they had no reliable charts. Conflans was confident that the British would not dare to follow him into Quiberon Bay, underestimated the rate at which Hawke’s ships were closing, and chose to lead a headlong escape rather than form a line of battle. By mid-afternoon the leading British ships were already in action against the French rear as Conflans rounded the Cardinals to lead into the bay, when the wind suddenly veered two points, heading the French and throwing them into confusion. As the night came on, a fierce battle was fought in heavy seas. Trying to open her lower-deck gunports, the Thésée flooded and went down. The Superbe was sunk by two broadsides from Hawke’s flagship the Royal George. The final reckoning the following morning was one French ship taken and six (including Conflans’ flagship the Soleil Royal) wrecked or sunk, with the survivors scattered up and down the coast and six trapped in the Vilaine river with their guns thrown overboard. Two British ships were wrecked, but their crews were rescued. ‘When I consider the season of the year,’ Hawke reported,

the hard gales on the day of action, a flying enemy, the shortness of the day, and the coast we are on, I can boldly affirm that all that could possibly be done has been done. As to the loss we have sustained, let it be placed to the account of the necessity I was under of running all risks to break this strong force of the enemy.

No British admiral ever ran such navigational risks or gained so dramatic a victory. The threat of invasion vanished, and French sea officers fell into rage and despair. ‘I do not know everything about it,’ Captain S. F. Bigot de Morogues of the Magnifique wrote, ‘but I know too much. The battle of the 20th has annihilated the navy and finished its plans.’ ‘This is a consequence of what we have seen for a long time,’ another survivor wrote, ‘blunders, proofs of ignorance and then folly, plenty of zeal but no ability, plenty of gallantry but no sense, arrogance without prudence. That sums up what has just happened.

The Royal Navy Submarine WWII

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Submarines figured prominently in both world wars but in each case attention has focussed mainly on the role of the German U-boats, ignoring the work of British submariners and for that matter their American counterparts who did so much to interrupt supplies from Japan’s newfound empire to the home islands. British submariners wreaked havoc in the Baltic and the Bosphorus in the First World War, and maintained an outstanding campaign in the Mediterranean in the Second World War. So much of this has passed by unremarked and with little attention.

As in the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Navy’s submariners received extra money, but while the former described it rather nobly as ‘flying pay’, the submariners were blunt and to the point; to them it was ‘danger money’. Both these sections of the Royal Navy had been regarded as not very respectable when first formed, and indeed one First World War submariner was turned down for an important posting despite being favoured by an Allied government because the Admiralty thought he was ‘something of a pirate’.

Submariners and airmen were a breed apart. They had come together briefly between the two world wars with the ill-fated M2, the Royal Navy’s only attempt at an aircraft-carrying submarine whose aircrew, flying the diminutive Parnall Peto seaplane, were reputed to have received both danger money and flying pay. The extra money was necessary to attract men into the submarine service, for apart from the extra dangers there were many other hardships including cramped accommodation with the smell of diesel oil always present and a shortage of fresh water, which was why beards, known as a ‘full set’ in the Royal Navy, were so common among submariners. The Submarine Service was organized in flotillas for control and administrative convenience. There was never a set size for a flotilla; it could be just two or many more vessels, but they were usually grouped around a base such as the headquarters, HMS Dolphin , a stone frigate at Haslar, Gosport, or a depot ship such as HMS Forth .

Submarines were more than just another means of striking at enemy shipping. In contrast to the nuclear-powered submarine that spends most of its operational life submerged, Second World War submarines spent much of their time on the surface, only diving when threatened or when needing to be concealed before making an attack. Many attacks were made on the surface, using the deck gun rather than a more expensive torpedo, of which only replenishment stocks could be carried. The submarines of the day could cruise at a reasonable speed on the surface, but were very slow when submerged unless they made a high-speed dash, itself still not very fast, in which case their batteries would need recharging after about an hour.

Submarines could be used for mine-laying, inserting special forces and for reconnaissance or guiding an attacking force towards a landing area and also to carry urgent supplies. They had a greater radius of action than a destroyer and made use of much less manpower. In theory, they could get much closer to an enemy warship than a destroyer without being detected. The Royal Navy’s submarines varied greatly, ranging from the larger boats (submarines were never ships) for mine-laying and smaller craft for operations in confined or shallow waters, and of course there were the X-craft, the midget submarines.

Among the more notable successes of British submarines were the torpedoing and sinking of the German light cruiser Karlsruhe off Kristiansand during the Norwegian campaign by Truant on 9 April 1940. Later the ‘pocket battleship’ or Panzerschiff Lutzow was caught by Spearfish , commanded by Lieutenant Commander John Forbes, as the German ship was on her way from Norway to Germany for repairs to bomb damage. Although not sunk, Lutzow was disabled and had to be towed into harbour at Kiel.

This was not the last British success against a major German warship. The heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen , believed by many to have fired the fatal shell that destroyed HMS Hood and which had participated in the celebrated Channel Dash in February 1942, was discovered in Norwegian waters by Lieutenant Commander George Gregory in Trident on 23 February 1942 and a well-placed torpedo blew off part of her stern. A slow crawl with a temporary rudder to Trondheim was needed for temporary repairs before the ship could go to Kiel for permanent repairs, putting her out of service for the rest of the year.

British Submarine Strategy

Submarine strategy and tactics varied greatly between the belligerent nations during the Second World War. In 1939, the British Admiralty decided that the priority target for British submarines would be enemy warships. Submarines were to wait in their individual patrol areas, submerged, waiting for enemy warships to appear. By 1941 this strategy had been amended, especially in the Mediterranean where submarine commanders were given what amounted to a roving commission to attack anything that appeared worthwhile and, of course, merchantmen supplying Axis forces in North Africa or the Balkans were very worthwhile. The same approach later applied in the Far East.

The Royal Navy did not neglect specialized craft, including the midget submarine. After experimenting with a one-man design known as the Welman – basically a cross between a midget submarine and a human torpedo – British midget submarines evolved into the X-craft with a four-man crew. One or two members of the crew had to leave the craft in wet suits with breathing apparatus to place explosive charges on the target. This was a different approach from the Axis navies, who used midget submarines armed with torpedoes carried externally. The finest hour for the X-craft was on 20 September 1943 when six of these vessels penetrated the defences around the Altenfjord in Norway and placed explosive charges on the hull of the German battleship Tirpitz , damaging her machinery and main armament so that she was out of action for seven months. Tirpitz had earlier been the target for British human torpedoes, known to the Royal Navy as ‘chariots’, that had mounted an unsuccessful attempt to sink the ship in October 1942.

Later, on 6 June 1944, two X-craft undertook beach reconnaissance before the Normandy landings and then provided guidance to the British beaches.

Other targets included a floating dock in Norway, while a development of the X-craft, the XE-craft, was used in the Far East to disable Japanese communication cables and they also damaged a cruiser.

During the Second World War, British submarines sank 169 warships, including 35 U-boats, and 493 merchant vessels, but at a high cost with no fewer than 74 British submarines sunk, a third of the total number deployed during the war. A third of British submarine losses were due to enemy minefields. Just one submarine, Triumph , survived contact with an enemy mine and her survival was all the more remarkable as she lost her bows as far back as frame eight, which meant that she also lost her torpedo tubes and ten torpedoes!

The Malta Submarines

Before the outbreak of war, the Admiralty saw Malta as a base for submarines and other forces able to attack the Italian supply lines supporting their forces in North Africa. Yet, the battle was far from one-sided and within three days of Italy entering the war on 10 June 1940, three British submarines, Grampus , Odin and Orpheus , had been sunk by Italian warships. As the bombing of Malta intensified, submarines in port had to lie submerged on the harbour bed in the hope of being missed.

In 1941 Malta became an operational base for submarines. This was not without difficulty as most of the necessary supplies had been taken to Alexandria, but submarines operating from Gibraltar to Malta overloaded with torpedoes and other supplies until stocks were built up. The use of Malta as an offensive base was helped by the introduction of the new U-class submarines, smaller than many of the other classes but ideal for the clear waters of the Mediterranean in which, all too often, sonar is not needed to spot a submerged submarine.

These clear waters often proved fatal for larger submarines, but the U-class was better suited to the conditions, although the class had had its origins in plans for a smaller training submarine. Nine of the U-class were deployed to Malta as the 10th Submarine Flotilla: Undaunted , Union , Upholder , Upright , Utmost , Unique , Urge , Ursula and Usk . Usk and Undaunted did not survive long, but their place was soon taken by others of the same class. In addition to attacking Axis convoys and warships, these submarines were also ideal for landing raiding parties on the Italian coast and on one occasion wrecked a railway line along which trains carrying munitions for the Luftwaffe bases in Sicily travelled.

The submarines were based at Manoel Island, which lay in the Marsamxett Harbour and was approached by a causeway off the main road from Valletta to Sliema, the island effectively dividing Sliema Creek from Lazaretto Creek. Originally a fort designed to cover the outskirts of Valletta which towered over the other side of the harbour, Manoel Island became a naval base with workshops and accommodation for resting submariners and for artificers, the Royal Navy’s term for skilled tradesmen, who were often senior ratings. The submarines were moored alongside. Substantial anti-aircraft defences were placed on Manoel Island, as being on the opposite side of Valletta from the Grand Harbour did not spare the base from heavy aerial attack.

Offensive submarine operations based on Malta started in February 1941 with patrols by Unique , Upright and Utmost . The first significant engagement was later that month when Upright , commanded by Lieutenant E.D. Norman, sank the Italian cruiser Armando Diaz , one of two cruisers escorting a large Axis convoy. No doubt the Italians had put on two cruisers to impress their German allies, but there were no major British warships in the area and the cruiser, which posed no threat to a submarine, proved an ideal target.

Reconnaissance reports of large-scale shipping movements were received on 8 March and resulted in three boats being sent to sea. This was despite Utmost , commanded by Lieutenant Commander R.D. Cayley, having only been in harbour for twenty-four hours. The following day she found and sank the Italian merchantman Capo Vita . On 10 March Unique sank another merchantman, the Fenicia . Later in the month these submarines were at sea again, with Utmost finding a convoy of five ships on 28 March and torpedoing and sinking the Heraklia , while the Ruhr had to be towed into port. The return voyage for the depleted convoy was no less eventful when Upright torpedoed and severely damaged the Galilea , reported as being a straggler.

In April Upholder joined the Malta flotilla, and for almost a year she and her commander, Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn, played havoc with the Axis convoys. From April 1941 to March 1942, this one submarine accounted for three large troop-carrying liners each of more than 18,000 tons, seven other merchant ships, a destroyer and two German U-boats, as well as damaging a cruiser and three merchant ships. The first two troopships had been in a convoy of three approached by Wanklyn steering on the surface and skilfully firing a spread of four torpedoes at the ships. Two of the troopships managed to zigzag into the path of the torpedoes with one sinking immediately, leaving the other to be finished off by Wanklyn when he returned the following morning. Ursula missed the third troopship which managed to reach Tripoli safely. For his time in the Mediterranean Wanklyn was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British service decoration, and the DSO. It was a sad day when Upholder was lost off Tripoli with all hands in April 1942.

So successful was the Malta-based 10th Flotilla in disrupting the supplies for Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert campaign that his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein, later admitted: ‘We should have taken Alexandria and reached the Suez Canal had it not been for the work of your submarines.’

For about a year the Malta-based submariners exacted a high price from the enemy, but even so, opportunities were missed. More than any other type of warship, submarines needed to practise ‘deconfliction’, largely because of the difficulty of recognizing other submarines. Deconfliction is the deliberate separation of friendly forces. In British submarine practice, this meant placing submarines to operate independently within designated patrol zones known as billets, and any other submarine found in that area was to be regarded as hostile. Off Malta there were often so many British submarines that it was necessary to impose an embargo on night attacks on other submarines because of the difficulty in accurate recognition.

Early one morning in 1942, Upright was on the surface when her lookouts spotted another larger submarine on a reciprocal course and it was not until the two boats had passed that they realized the other submarine was a large U-boat. There were many U-boats off Malta at the time and no one will ever know whether the Germans were working to the same rules or whether their lookouts failed to spot the smaller British submarine. This almost certainly wasn’t the only occasion on which two submarines from opposing navies met and passed each other by. Another instance was when an Italian and a British submarine encountered one another on the surface at night and after exchanging mutually unintelligible signals, both dived.

Even with such missed opportunities, the submarines from Manoel Island accounted for 54,000 tons of Axis merchant shipping between October 1941 and February 1942, as well as a destroyer, two submarines and two other ships off Taranto.

The ‘Magic Carpet’

During the First World War, the Germans had established a company to operate merchant submarines to carry much-needed strategic materials and bring them past the increasingly effective British blockade of German ports. While there was no equivalent British submarine ‘line’, given the strategic importance of Malta and the desperate plight of the islanders and the forces garrisoned there, British submariners were keen to show just what they could do. The submarine supply line that was established became known as the ‘Magic Carpet’.

While at first the Axis hold on Malta had been relatively light, by 1941 the situation was becoming increasingly difficult. Many convoys did not get through at all, and all suffered serious losses. It became the practice for every submarine heading to Malta from Gibraltar or Alexandria to carry at least some items of stores in addition to their usual torpedoes or mines. The true Magic Carpet submarines were the larger vessels, especially the mine-laying submarines Cachalot and Rorqual , as well as the fleet submarine Clyde and the larger boats of the ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘R’ classes. An even better supply-carrying submarine would have been the Royal Navy’s sole aircraft-carrying submarine, M2 , whose aircraft hangar would have made a good cargo hold, but she had been lost in an accident some years before the war. An alternative could have been the French submarine Surcouf , a large 2,800-ton boat also with a hangar and in service with the Free French, but she was eventually lost in the Caribbean.

The ‘P’ or Porpoise -class minelayers and Clyde all proved to be especially efficient supply vessels with plenty of room between their casing and the pressure hull for stores, and sometimes one of the batteries would be removed to provide extra space; the mine stowage tunnel was another good cargo space. Rorqual on one occasion carried 24 personnel, 147 bags of mail, 2 tons of medical stores, 62 tons of aviation spirit and 45 tons of kerosene. Inevitably there was also much unofficial cargo, such as gin for the wardrooms and other officers’ messes on Malta, and even Lord Gort, the island’s austere governor, was not above having a small consignment of gramophone records brought out to him in this way. Cargo was sometimes carried externally in small containers welded to the casing of a submarine.

Impressive though the efforts of the submariners were, they could not compare with a merchant ship which at this time could carry as much as 7,500 tons of cargo compared with the 200 tons or so of a large submarine. For the submariners, there were problems as well, as the cargo gave rise to problems with buoyancy. Once Cachalot had so much sea water absorbed by wooden packing cases that her first lieutenant (i.e. on a smaller warship, the second-in-command) had to pump out 1,000 gallons of water from her internal tanks to compensate. Fuel was another hazard. In July 1941, Talisman carried 5,500 gallons in cans stowed beneath her casing, while on other occasions fuel could be carried in external fuel tanks. When carrying petrol in cans, submarines were not allowed to dive below 65 feet, while high-octane aviation fuel in the external tanks meant that fumes venting in the usual way constituted a fire hazard so smoking was banned on the conning tower and pyrotechnic recognition signals were also banned. These problems were in addition to conditions in the Mediterranean favouring smaller submarines rather than larger.

A good example of what could be done was the case of Saracen . She reached Malta via Gibraltar, sailing with a Malta-bound convoy. Smaller than the mine-laying submarines, Saracen had two of her fuel tanks cleared of diesel and filled with aviation fuel instead, while every space aboard was filled with food with priority being given to medical supplies and powered or tinned milk for children and babies. After reaching Malta, Saracen left to search for Italian merchantmen, but instead sank a destroyer and an Italian submarine.

In peacetime, Malta had been one of the most popular postings for the Royal Navy and an equally popular place to call. In wartime, despite the miserable conditions aboard submarines that had to remain submerged during daytime when in harbour, there was little enthusiasm for a ‘run ashore’, visiting the bars and other attractions of Valletta. Ashore, there was little to eat and not much to drink. Things were so bad that one army officer recalled his pleasure at being invited to dinner aboard a submarine.

In addition to the tradition of flying her ‘Jolly Roger’ at the end of a successful patrol, Porpoise added a second flag beneath the Jolly Roger’s tally of ships sunk. This was marked ‘PCS’ for ‘Porpoise Carrier Service’ with a white bar for each successful supply run, and this boat alone had at least four of these.

After delivering supplies to Malta, the Magic Carpet submarines would take mines from the island’s underground stores and proceed north to lay them off the main Italian ports, such as Palermo, before returning to Egypt or Gibraltar. They also torpedoed Axis shipping, and on one occasion an Italian submarine was torpedoed and sunk before an Italian merchant ship was also torpedoed, and as this stubbornly refused to sink, the submarine surfaced and sank her with gunfire.

The arrival of the famous Malta convoy Operation PEDESTAL in August 1942 reduced the pressure on the submarines to supply Malta and allowed increased offensive patrolling.

Despite this, by October 1942 the situation was again becoming difficult, with a renewed German air offensive. At this time, five submarines – Unbending , Unbroken , United , Utmost and Safari – attacked a convoy of five merchant ships including a tanker escorted by seven destroyers south of the Italian island of Pantelleria, co-ordinating the attack with aircraft from Malta.

The role of the submarine was varied. On 21 April 1941, the British Mediterranean Fleet ventured west for an attack on the Italian-held port of Tripoli. Accuracy was usually a great difficulty when attacking a land target from the sea in the dark, so Cunningham had the submarine Truant positioned exactly 4 miles off the harbour, showing a light to seaward as a navigation mark for the bombardment. Then in July, two submarines helped to confuse the enemy and assist a convoy en passage to Malta. The convoy was code-named Operation SUBSTANCE. While the Mediterranean Fleet steamed west from Alexandria to Malta and Force H escorted the convoy east from Gibraltar, the two submarines were west of Crete making fleet signals to indicate that the Mediterranean Fleet was operating in the area while the fleet itself maintained radio silence.

Truant was one of the new ‘T’-class submarines intended for operation in distant waters, which was to prove useful once Japan entered the war. The class could handle the long Pacific distances. It displaced 1,571 tons while submerged and had eight bow torpedo tubes as well as another aft and two amidships, with a 4in gun and light anti-aircraft weapons. Surface speed was just over 15 knots, but while submerged these boats could manage 9 knots, although the batteries needed to be recharged after an hour so the usual submerged speed was around 2 or 3 knots.

Originally Truant and her sisters had a range of 8,000 miles but on later boats this was extended to 11,000 miles by the use of welding to strengthen the boats during construction and by using some of the ballast tanks to carry fuel. However, this still compared badly with the range of more than 32,000 miles of the German Type IXD U-boat.

U-Boot Demise…

Oberleutnant zur See Herbert Werner commanded U-415 from 17 April 1944 through 14 July 1944. Having joined the Kriegsmarine in 1939, he served as a watch officer in training aboard U-557 under Korvettenkapitän Ottokar Arnold Paulssen for three patrols and ninety-three days at sea. In that time the sub sank five Allied ships. Werner left the boat in November 1941 for another training assignment. On 16 December, U-557 was lost with all hands. From Werner’s book Iron Coffins: “It was past 1700 when I returned to the bunker. The radios had been silenced. Instead, the huge vault-like structure resounded to the songs of our 800 crewmen, who remained eager to sail against the enemy even if it meant sailing straight to their deaths. At 2100, as night descended upon the Normandy battlefields, 15 U-boats slipped out into the Bay. The night was clear. The stars glittered faintly in a still light sky. Soon a full moon would rise and light up our way into the Atlantic.

“The moon had risen fully above the horizon in the southeast. Standing like a giant lantern in the sky, it illuminated the long row of U-boats and was sharply reflected in the calm sea. Contrary to common procedure, all the men had put on their yellow life jackets. The bridge had been stacked with piles of ammunition, the conning tower turned into an arsenal. The gunners hung at their automatics in tense expectation of the first enemy plane. I stood in my nook trying to keep my boat directly in the wake of U-821, and to hold the distance to a prearranged 300 meters.

“2310: The first radar impulses were picked up by our Bug and the Fly as the coast receded. The report from below—‘Six radar impulses, all over forward sector, increasing in volume fast!’—alarmed every hand on the bridge. All ears turned into the wind, all eyes searched the quarters ahead. I kept my gaze circling above the armored superstructure, but the intense moonlight revealed no winged black monsters.

“2320: The head of our procession reached the open sea. With the escorts still in line, the eight boats sliced the silvery surface and drove ever deeper into the enemy’s defense. The scream of high volume radar impulses and the stream of emergency messages from below never ceased.

“2340: Sudden fireworks flared up in the forward port quarter, five miles ahead. We had been warned that several of our destroyers were en route from Lorient to Brest, and we should not mistake them for the British. I focused my glasses on the disturbance and sighted seven destroyers in an athwart formation, fighting off a British air attack. Thousands of tracers were exchanged, and brilliant flares parachuted down upon our vessels, adding their white light to the yellow moonglow. The sound of gunfire and howling aircraft engines increased as we drew closer to the battling forces. The Tommies, noting our approach, halted their wild attacks to avoid being trapped in the crossfire between U-boats and destroyers. The destroyers raced eastward past our long file, and our trawlers, seizing the chance for protected trip home, swerved out of formation and fastened onto the destroyers’ wake. Their sudden maneuver left eight U-boats at the mercy of the British. At that moment all eight U-boats acted in concert, and I ordered, ‘Both engines three times full ahead. Shoot on sight.’

“June 7 At 0015, our long chain of boats was racing at top speed towards the Atlantic. The diesels hacked, the exhausts fumed, impulses haunted us all the way. I found myself glancing repeatedly at my watch as if it could tell me when the fatal blow would fall.

“0030: Radar impulses chirped all around the horizon, their volumes shifting rapidly from feeble moans to high-pitched screams. The Tommies were obviously flying at various distances around our absurd procession. They must have thought we had lost our minds. Sometimes I could hear aircraft engines at fairly close range, but could not spot a plane. The hands of my watch crept slowly ahead while the British waited for reinforcement; our eyes sharpened and our hearts beat heavy under our breasts.

“0112: The battle began. Our leading boats were suddenly attacked. Tracers spurted in various directions, then the sound of gunfire hit our ears. Fountains reached into the sky.

“One of the enemy airplanes caught fire. It flashed comet-like toward the head of our file, crossed over one of the boats, dropped four bombs, then plunged into the ocean. The bombs knocked out Sachse’s U-413. With helm jammed hard aport, the boat swerved out of the column. She lost speed rapidly and sank below the surface.

“0125: The aircraft launched a new attack, again directed at the boats in the front. Three boats, brightly lighted by flares, concentrated their gunfire and held the planes at bay. A spectacular fireworks erupted, engulfing the U-boats and aircraft. Suddenly the Tommies retreated. Radar impulses indicated that they were circling our stubborn parade, regrouping for a fresh attack. I raised myself over the rim of the bridge, straining to see and sound out the roaming planes.

“0145: The boat at our stern, the last one in the column, became the target of a new British tactic. Trying to roll out the carpet of fire from the rear, a four-engined Liberator came roaring down on starboard, diving for the bow of U-256. Boddenberg’s men opened fire. But the aircraft veered off in front of the boat, where her guns became ineffective. That was our chance. ‘Open fire!’ I screamed. Five barrels, all that we had available, blazed away at the Liberator as it dropped four depth charges ahead of U-256 and roared past us. Four giant water columns leaped skyward behind the riddled aircraft as it tried to escape our fire. But some shells from our 37mm gun hit the plane broadside. It exploded in midair, then plunged into the sea. U-256, beaten and mutilated by the depth charges, lay stopped and helpless in our wake, slowly falling out of line. That was the last we saw of her. Realising that her demise left us the first target in any new attack from the rear, I called for more ammunition. Radar impulses increased rapidly. For a while, however, the British held back.

“0220: Impulses now from starboard. I presumed several planes were approaching. Suddenly, a Sunderland shot out of the night from starboard ahead. I yelled ‘Aircraft—starboard forty—fire!’ Short bursts from our two twin 20mm guns followed the sweep of the plane. It cleverly flew in from dead ahead, making our guns ineffective, and dropped four barrels in front of our bow. Simultaneously, a Liberator attacked from starboard bearing 90, firing from all its muzzles. An instant later, four detonations amidships. Four savage eruptions heaved U-415 out of the water and threw our men flat on the deck plates. Then she fell back, and the four collapsing geysers showered us with tons of water and sent cascades through the hatch. This was the end. Both diesels stopped, the rudder jammed hard-a-starboard. U-415 swerved in an arc, gradually losing speed. Above on starboard floated a flare, its treacherous glare enveloping our dying boat. U-415 lay crippled, bleeding oil from a ruptured tank, slowly coming to a full stop—now a target to be finished off with ease. Bewildered, I peered down through the tower hatch into the blackness of the hull. All life below seemed to have ceased. I feared the boat might sink at any moment and ordered, ‘All hands on deck! Make ready dinghies and lifebuoy.’

“Not a sound came from below. The men must have been knocked out by the blows. Interminable seconds passed. From the distance came the drone of planes regrouping for a new assault. It had to be fatal. Suddenly, some men came struggling up the ladder, shaken, mauled, groggy, reaching for air, tossing inflatable rubber floats to the bridge. As they jumped on deck and prepared the dinghies, the gunners raised their barrels toward the invisible airplanes circling their disabled prey. The speed of the attack and the resultant damages prevented us from sending a distress signal. This, I thought grimly, was the way many of my friends had died—the silent way, leaving no word.

“U-415, hopelessly damaged, lay waiting for the coup de grace. Since the boat did not seem to be sinking, I told my men to take cover behind the tower instead of lowering the dinghies into the water. I was determined to remain on board as long as the boat would float and to shoot as long as there was ammunition and men to handle the guns. It turned out, however, that we would not die unreported: the radio mate managed to patch up our emergency transmitter and sent Headquarters news of our destruction.

“0228: Increasing engine noise heralded a new attack, a fresh approach by Sunderland from starboard ahead, guns blazing. Zooming over our bridge, it dropped four canisters. Four deafening booms tossed the boat aloft. At that moment a Liberator attacked at low altitude from port ahead. Our men on two 20mm guns started firing at once and emptied their magazines into the plane’s cockpit. The black monster swept across our bridge, dropped four charges, then zoomed away, blowing hot exhaust fumes into our faces. As the boat made four violent jumps to port and as four white mushrooms soared high alongside our starboard saddle tanks, the gunner at the 37mm automatic sent a full charge of explosive shells into the bomber’s fuselage. The flaming aircraft plunged into the sea. Somewhere, the sound of the Sunderland’s engines faded into the distance.

“Then all was very quiet. The flare still flickered on the surface next to our boat.

U-415 was near death, but still afloat. The Fly and the Bug had been shot away; we were without a warning device. The bridge was punctured by many projectiles. A gunner lay scalped by a shell. Other men had been hit by steel fragments. The Exec moaned in pain, his back badly lacerated by countless splinters. In the aftermath of battle, I felt hot. Assuming I was sweating, I wiped my burning eyes. But my hand came away red, and I realised that blood was streaming down my face. My white cap was punctured like a sieve, and the tiny fragments had torn my scalp.

“Then I heard the Chief’s voice from below: ‘Boat is taking heavy water through galley and bow hatches. Strong leak in radio room. I’ll try to keep her afloat, if you keep the bees away.’

“‘Can you get her repaired for diving?’ I shouted back.

“‘Can’t promise. We have no power, no light. We’ll do our best.’

“I lowered myself to the slippery deck. It was split in several places by the impact of depth charges which had hit the planks before falling into the water where they had exploded. One barrel had bounced off the starboard saddle tank and had left a deep dent. Far more serious, the starboard aft ballast tanks were split wide open. Diesel oil escaped in a thick stream, spreading rapidly over the surface.

“With each minute of truce, the danger of a new assault increased rapidly. The boat swung softly in the breathing ocean, paralyzed, seemingly dead. The next 20 or 30 minutes had to bring the finale. With every heartbeat we expected another attack or the boat to slip away from under us.

“Suddenly the Chief’s creaking voice escaped the hull: ‘Boat is ready for restricted dive. Twenty meters—no more. Only one motor good for eighty revolutions.’

“‘Can you hold her at twenty meters or will she go to the bottom?’ “

‘I can’t tell, we ought to try.’

“I tried. Quickly the men climbed up the bridge and dropped one by one through the round opening into their iron coffin. I watched the deck gradually sink below the surface. As the water crept up to the bridge I slammed the lid shut. Seconds later the floods engulfed the boat.”

THE US COAST GUARD IN VIETNAM

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A Coast Guard cutter cruises along the coast as part of Operation Market Time. (USN K-31519)

Sea and river travel had always been important in South Vietnam and there were an estimated 60,000 junks, sampans and trawlers on its coastal waters, rivers and canals. US Navy’s Vietnam Patrol Force, Task Force 71, was organized in March 1965 to stop the Viet Cong ferrying supplies on the sea and along rivers. Operation Market Time coordinated US Navy and US Coast Guard movements with the South Vietnamese Navy Junk Force, controlling operations on land, sea and air along 1,200 miles of coastline.

Coast Guard Squadron One (Ron One) arrived in July 1965 with seventeen 82ft patrol boats and two support boats crewed by officers and men trained in coastal surveillance techniques. It was split into two divisions and while Division 12 covered the east coast from Da Nang, Division 11 patrolled the west coast from An Thoi in the Gulf of Thailand. Task Force 71 was renamed Coastal Surveillance Force, Task Force 115, at the same time and it set up five Coastal Surveillance Centers at Da Nang, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, Vung Tau, and An Thoi. Minesweeper and destroyer escorts assisted with offshore navigation while Vietnamese junks monitored the shallow waters; Special Forces teams often accompanied patrols.

Naval forces operating in the shallow coast waters and along the rivers across South Vietnam were controlled by the Commander Naval Forces, Vietnam, after April 1966 and Task Forces were divided as follows:

Task Force 115: Coastal Surveillance Force covered the shallow waters along the coast

Task Force 116:River Patrol Force carried out routine patrols of waterways

Task Force 117:Riverine Assault Force was equipped to undertake offensive operations

The Commander was also responsible for Naval Support Activity, Saigon, supplying naval forces across the country (III Marine Amphibious Force controlled the Naval Support Activity covering I Corps from Da Nang) and both the Seebees and civilian contractors working on naval construction projects.

PATROLLING THE COASTAL WATERS

Task Force 115 split the coast into nine sectors, each with three observation zones:

Air Surveillance Zone: Planes identified and photographed targets up to 150 miles from the coast and reported them to the Coastal Surveillance Centers.

Deep Water Zone: US Navy and Vietnamese destroyers and minesweepers patrolled a 40-mile zone, searching trawlers.

Shallow Water Zone: US Navy Coast Guard patrol boats and South Vietnamese junks patrolled out to a 12-mile limit, searching trading and fishing vessels.

Market Time’s priorities were to search craft in the following order:

Vessels passing through an area

Junks fishing or operating in local areas

Anchored fishing boats

Working fishing boats

Squadron One searched over 65,000 craft during the first twelve months, seizing over 100 tons of supplies and arresting dozens of suspects. The patrol boats also aided craft in distress, rescued downed pilots and seamen from the water, guided lost craft and escorted survey boats along the coast and rivers; they also covered many of the Navy’s patrols during the monsoon season.

Another nine patrol boats arrived in February 1966 and they formed Division 13. It was based at Cat Lo and patrolled the Mekong Delta and the Rung Sat Special Zone. After August 1966 the patrol boats also started visiting inhabited islands off the coast to search for Viet Cong bases. During their visits they handed out government literature, administered medical treatment and promoted building projects. Cam Ranh Bay became the center of coastal air patrol operations in April 1967 with the establishment of the US Naval Air Facility with its P-2 Neptune and P-3 Orion patrol aircraft. Coastal Surveillance Force staff moved to the base a few months later and while the Naval Communications Station improved control of Operation Market Time, a new pontoon dock was built for repairing coastal patrol vessels.

The patrol boats were not designed for extended patrols and they only had a restricted range with a limited capacity for ammunition and supplies; living conditions were also austere, particularly on high seas. Five high-endurance cutters arrived in May 1967 to improve the patrols’ effectiveness and they formed Coast Guard Squadron Three. Ron Three, as it was known, patrolled the Gulf of Thailand from Song Ong Doc. Royal Australian Navy craft also joined Market Time in 1967.

One of the cutters was assigned as logistical support for Squadron One. The crew quarters were used as a rest center, allowing crews to work in shifts, while the patrol boats were supplied with stores delivered by passing ships. An onboard medical officer dealt with injuries and sickness for ships in the area. Ron Three also surveyed the coastline and charted the shallow waters.

Modern cutters with improved gunfire control and crew quarters arrived in October 1969 and a flight deck allowed helicopters to deliver fuel, supplies and personnel. Vietnamization began at the beginning of 1969 when the Vietnamese Navy started training with the Squadrons and the last of the cutters were handed over at the end of 1971.

The Viet Cong’s seaborne supply routes had been virtually brought to a standstill by 1967 and attempts to revive them in 1969 failed. Over 8,000 Coast Guardsmen served in Vietnam and their craft covered over 5.5 million miles. Over 900,000 vessels had been reported and over 250,000 had been boarded or inspected. The Coast Guard also detained over 10,000 suspects and killed or wounded nearly 2,000 Viet Cong in fire-fights.

NAVIGATION AIDS

The coast of South Vietnam could be treacherous and the outdated charts were of little use to the crews of the transport ships bringing supplies to the ports. A tender set buoys for offloading fuel at the four main ports in the spring of 1966 before marking safe passages through the coral reefs and sandbars. It also worked with the dredgers, marking channels and moorings with the help of a landing craft.

The Coast Guard took over in May 1967, surveying sea channels and setting off-shore firing range boards for aviation and naval units. It also established the Long-range Aid to Navigation system (or LORAN) so sailors and pilots could safely navigate over the sea during bad weather.

PORT SECURITY AND SAFETY

Coast Guard Merchant Marine Details were organized in December 1966 to take over control of discipline at the ports, establishing law and order on the dockside. They handed over to the United States Consular Missions when the ports were scaled down. Thousands of tons of ammunition were delivered to the US ports along the coast and trained Port Security and Explosives Loading Detachments taught US Army and Vietnamese stevedores how to unload and store their dangerous cargo. They also regulated the delivery of ammunition to inland bases by landing craft.

Royal Navy at Bunker Hill

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The thick darkness over Boston had just begun to dissolve with the first wash of daylight from the east, casting the hint of a glow over the rolling meadows of Noddle’s Island. For nearly a week, Noddle’s had been devoid of life, the Williams house and its outbuildings reduced to ash and charred jutting timbers, the sheep and horses and cattle all gone. But aboard the twenty-gun sloop HMS Lively, no one paid much attention to the dead expanse of land to the east-northeast. All eyes were fixed instead on the shadows off the port quarter, on the slopes near Charlestown, just a few hundred yards northwest of where the Lively rode gently at anchor in the Charles River ferryway.

Charlestown itself was no more alive than Noddle’s, a mournful ghost of a village, its deserted houses and shops and its lifeless wharves shrouded in black silence. Or mostly silence. From the hills above the town floated sounds that were just barely there, not quite masked by the slap of the river against the ship’s sheathing, by the creak of spars and tackle . . . the sounds of digging, the lurching rhythm of mattock and spade overturning parched rocky soil, carrying lazily down through the warm, pungent air above the Charles.

It was now just about four o’clock in the morning, eight bells, the hour when in more peaceful times the watch above decks would change. The sounds had begun some time after midnight. Clearly the provincials were up to some mischief on the Charlestown hills. But until daylight betrayed them, there was nothing that the Lively could do to interfere. No sense in throwing broadsides blindly into the dark toward an invisible foe. That would be a waste of good powder and shot.

Then the dim light of daybreak gave the lookouts aboard the Lively their first glimpse of the commotion on the hills. Hundreds of silhouetted figures scuttled around a great raw gash in the earth. A fort had emerged overnight atop the hill closest to Charlestown, in the tall, unkempt grass of the neglected cow pasture. No one could make out its shape or its dimensions—it was still too dark for that—but it was most likely a simple affair. Simple but definitely functional. And so purposefully audacious. The rebels could have thrown up fortifications elsewhere on the peninsula, sites that were safer, more defensible, sites that would have afforded some protection to the base at Cambridge. Yet they chose a hilltop within easy range of the Lively, tugging at her cable midstream. The fort was an overt challenge.

A couple of nights before, the Somerset—a sixty-four-gun ship-of-the-line that dwarfed the little sloop—had guarded the ferryway, but Graves was so deeply haunted by the Diana’s fiery end that he’d ordered the Somerset withdrawn to the safety of deeper waters farther out in the harbor. The Charles River ferryway was narrow and shallow; there was just too much danger that the Somerset would run aground as the Diana had. The Somerset could not be allowed to share the Diana’s fate. On the sixteenth—just the day before—the Somerset left the ferryway and went to her new anchorage. The Lively would face the rebel challenge alone.

The Lively’s skipper, Captain Thomas Bishop, stood at the quarter-rail with spyglass raised to his eye, but he did not take much time to marvel at the resourcefulness or daring or arrogant stupidity of his enemy. He would act, and act quickly. The captain’s pride still smarted from the sharp blow it had received from Admiral Graves less than two weeks before. Bishop had had the great misfortune to become embroiled in a trifling dispute with the commander of the ill-fated Diana, Lieutenant Thomas Graves. Bishop had done nothing wrong—every officer on post knew it—but that hardly mattered when his accuser was the admiral’s nephew. A court-martial was inevitable, and while the court sitting in judgment in the Somerset’s stateroom sympathized with Bishop, there was no way that the captain could evade the admiral’s sputtering, foul-mouthed wrath. Bishop didn’t want to endure that again. But he also knew an opportunity when he saw one, and an opportunity to redeem his bruised reputation was staring down on him from the heights of Charlestown.

The crew was no less eager. Here was a chance for action after months of dull routine, patrolling the waters off Boston and in the harbor as well. The noxious miasmas arising from the great stinking swamps of the Back Bay made the already grinding boredom unbearable. To a man, too, they were hungry for revenge. Each one of them knew precisely what had happened to the Diana three weeks earlier, even if they hadn’t actually seen the last painful hours of her humiliating end . . . a king’s ship, beached and rolled over on her beam ends, abandoned by her crew, Yankee thieves crawling all over her careening hull as they looted her. Even worse, they burned her. It was an insult to every ship and every tar in the fleet.

Bishop did not wait for orders from Graves. His crew was ready. Half of them had been awake and on deck, anyway, pursuant to the admiral’s orders. The rest had since been piped up from below. The gun crews stood to their pieces, the sleek nine-pounders of the Lively’s starboard battery. Charged and shotted, ten black muzzles protruded menacingly from the gaping square maws of the gun ports. The rest of the crew scrambled to bring the ship about on her cable so that the starboard battery could bear on the hilltop fort.

Within minutes the Lively stood parallel to the rebel earthworks. Bishop studied the target one more time as the gun crews tried to get the range, and then he gave the order to open fire.

The explosion shook the placid dawn. The Lively’s entire starboard side erupted in a vivid sheet of flame, horizontal pillars of acrid white smoke cascading from each muzzle, merging to form a single billowy mass that drifted over the surface of the water, carried by the light morning winds toward the beach. The deck shuddered as the long nines, each gun and carriage weighing nearly a ton-and-a-half, leapt violently backward, slamming hard against the massive breeching ropes and tackle that absorbed the shock of the recoil. Nine-pound iron shot flew over the Charles with an unnerving screech, arcing invisibly—for unlike explosive shell, cast-iron solid shot did not trail a telltale corkscrew of flame and sparks.

The battle for Charlestown had begun.

General Howe issued his orders at seven. All of the “flank companies”—meaning the light infantry and grenadiers, encamped together as a body on the Common—plus five infantry regiments and one of the Marine battalions were to be dressed, armed, and ready to march to one of two embarkation points in the city.

Now for transportation and naval support—both essential components of a successful amphibious assault. Samuel Graves did not attend the Council of War at Province House that morning. Most likely Gage intentionally left him out; the two men did not get along well, and Gage didn’t need the admiral’s input anyway. But Howe did. The two men met aboard the Somerset, then moored in the harbor.

Graves had been awake even before the Lively’s first broadside, catching up on correspondence and routine paperwork, so both he and Howe were already quite tired at the very beginning of what promised to be a long day. Still it was an amicable and productive meeting. Howe hoped very much that the Somerset and the other larger ships, the Boyne and the Asia, could bring their guns into play, and Graves hoped so, too: the massive thirty-two-pounders on the Somerset and Boyne could wreak havoc on the rebel fortifications . . . if they could reach them. All of the third-raters drew too much water; it was dangerous to send them in the shallows of the Charles and the Mystic, and even then it was doubtful that the lower-deck batteries on these big ships could be elevated high enough that their projectiles would hit the crest of Breed’s. Graves reluctantly conceded that the big ships would be of no use that day, except for the boats, men, and ammunition they could supply. So the Somerset’s skipper detailed thirty-eight tars to man the armed transport Symmetry and her battery of eighteen nine-pounders; another twenty left the Somerset to handle the sloop Falcon, while men from the flagship Preston took over the tiny sloop Spitfire. All was improvised; nothing was as Graves or Howe would have preferred it. “As this Affair was sudden and unexpected,” Graves noted sadly, “there was no time for constructing floating Batteries, or Rafts of real Service, as any such would have been a work of some days.”

The remaining craft—the sloops Lively, Glasgow, Falcon, and Spitfire, the transport Symmetry, and a handful of smaller vessels—would perform the primary task: covering the landing. If the ships could destroy or substantially damage the rebel fortifications, that would be a big plus, but the essential thing was to keep the rebels pinned down so that they didn’t make trouble for the Regulars when they waded ashore. Charlestown itself was another consideration. Howe felt that the rebels could take cover in the deserted buildings and harass the British as they deployed. The ships could guard against that, too.

Could Howe and Graves have made better use of their ships? Undoubtedly. As events would prove, a couple of smaller craft placed in the Mystic estuary could have done great damage to the rebels, and perhaps even changed the course of the battle. But Howe and Graves were reacting to what they knew that morning, and their disposition of the warships reflects that. Still, it is impossible not to find a trace of fault with the general and the admiral for not considering the possibility.

The ships alone, though, could not win the battle, no matter how they were situated around the Charlestown peninsula. Ships could not take ground. If the British wanted the heights, no matter how many tons of cast-iron shot the warships hurled at the Americans, sooner or later foot troops would have to land on the peninsula and take physical possession of them.

So everything, the success or failure of the British attack, would come down to the individual Redcoat—his resilience, his fortitude, his courage, his discipline and obedience. Yet even the common British soldier suspected, just as Gage did in his heart of hearts, that the king’s army was shockingly unprepared for what lay in store for it that day.

Even before the guns on the Lively opened up, grumbling began to ripple through the mass of men in the redoubt. Surely this was no accident. Surely their officers had led them to this spot to die, to be sacrificed for some purpose they themselves couldn’t discern, some end in which their individual lives counted for no more than so many hogs led to the pens at Cambridge Store. “We saw our danger, being against 8 ships of the line and all Boston fortified against us,” fumed Peter Brown, still angry as he recounted the events more than a week later. “The danger we were in made us think there was treachery, and that we were brot there to be all slain, and I must and will venture to say that there was treachery, oversight or presumption in the conduct of our officers.”

Perhaps Brown waxed theatrical. There were no “8 ships of the line” facing Charlestown, no eight ships of the line in all of Boston Harbor. The danger was not quite so dire as Brown thought. Nor did the American officers intend anything insidious, nor any stratagem that required the wholesale sacrifice of American lives. There had only been the sins—the grievous sins—of poor thinking, ill-conceived planning, and amateurish generalship. The American commanders had bitten off more than they could chew. And, amazingly, those commanders never fully grasped the fatal depth of their collective mistakes and miscalculations until it was just about too late.

As the maddening, paralyzing suspicion of treachery infected the men in the redoubt, the storm broke over the river.

It was not a surprise to the men, for all knew that the British would not let their deed go unpunished. But for men who had never before experienced an artillery bombardment—at least not one aimed directly at them—it was still a great shock. Those who had been fearfully watching the Lively’s silhouette hulking ominously in the Charles ferryway first saw the flash, the oddly silent explosion of orange blossoming for a fleeting moment along the sloop’s starboard side. Then, almost in the same instant that the deafening report of the nine-pounders buffeted their ears, the balls came flying among them.

In broad daylight, solid shot from medium and larger cannon were perfectly visible—their size, the laziness of their flight, and the arc of their trajectory made them appear almost harmless to the uninitiated. More accurate—or luckier—shots might whistle past their ears, or bury themselves harmlessly into an earthen parapet. Shot that fell short of its target was just as likely to skip along the ground, continuing its flight in a series of bounds until inertia or a substantial target halted it.

But in the half-light of daybreak, the invisibility of the nine-pounder shot made them truly terrifying. Men whose fears were already magnified by hunger, thirst, and fatigue found the experience all but unbearable.

Mercifully, the Lively’s initial bombardment caused scant physical damage, injuring no one and wrecking nothing of value. The moral effect, though, was not trifling. The bombardment left the redoubt’s defenders dazed; they would have proven to be utterly useless if put to the test at that moment. Many if not all of them might have sought refuge in flight. Thank God they were not left to their own devices.

For Prescott had also perceived the trap into which he, Gridley, and Putnam had led their men, at just about the same time that Peter Brown and his friends began to suspect treachery. To his credit, Prescott did not waste time nervously dithering between possible choices. He was no great tactical genius, but he knew something of fortifications and siegecraft from his time at Louisbourg, and most important, he was level-headed and calm. He was inured to the sights and sounds of artillery fire, and his cool presence in the redoubt that morning kept the American fighting men from surrendering to sheer unreasoning panic.

During the Lively’s cannonade, Prescott kept his men low and under cover, but as soon as the firing stopped the veteran colonel acted without hesitation. Correctly adjudging the redoubt’s right flank as the lesser concern, he immediately set the men to work on shoring up the exposed left flank. He laid out a line that extended approximately 165 feet from the redoubt, running from the crest of Breed’s Hill, anchoring in a swamp at the hill’s base.

Somehow his boys summoned up the strength and the will to pick up their tools again, to hack at the unyielding soil. Daylight made the task easier, but fatigue made it harder. Enervated muscles protested at every swing of a mattock; joints cried out in pain every time a shovel blade struck rock with a jarring ring. The men were on the cusp of physical collapse. Only desperation—and Colonel Prescott—drove them on, and at a fevered pace.

As they dug the deep trench, Prescott’s men cast nervous glances behind them and seaward. Behind them they hoped to find relief or reinforcements, but they saw none. Looking seaward, just around eight A.M., they spied something even more disheartening. The Lively had shifted position: Captain Bishop had turned the sloop around again, warping it down the channel and dropping anchor off Morton’s Point. Two more sloops had joined her—the Falcon and the Spitfire—in the channel between Boston and Charlestown. Another two, the sloop Glasgow (armed with twenty nine-pounders) and the armed transport Symmetry (with eighteen nine-pounders), had worked their way well up the Charles so they could rake Charlestown Neck with artillery fire. It was not an ideal point for such a task; a milldam kept the ships some distance from the Charles River shore. Hovering nearby were several small “gondolas” or scows radeaux, small gunboats each armed with one twelve-pounder.

The ships surrounding the peninsula were but yapping pups when compared to the big third-raters like the Somerset and the Boyne. The Spitfire’s main armament of six three-pounders was laughably puny for this sort of work. To the Americans looking down at the smaller craft from Breed’s Hill, though, it seemed as if half the king’s navy was ranged against them . . . eight men-of-war, Peter Brown claimed to see, but given the circumstances, Brown can be forgiven a little hysterical exaggeration. Standing out in the open as they dug the new trench line—the “breastwork,” as it came to be known—the Americans on Breed’s felt horribly unprotected.

Then it began all over again: the flash, the shuddering boom, the thud of solid shot hitting packed earth, only this time it came from several ships and several directions at once. The big twenty-fours of the Copp’s Hill battery joined in about an hour later. The former Admiral’s Battery was much stronger now; during the morning, British soldiers had dragged three more twenty-fours and a large siege mortar up to the battery. Copp’s was too distant for the guns to have much effect on the redoubt or the breastwork, or to have much chance of hitting the men, but still the cannonade worked its dark magic.

The French Navy – Marine Nationale 1939-40

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France was second only to the United Kingdom as a colonial power, with possession stretching from the Caribbean to the Far East where French Indo-China was jealously watched by the Japanese. In between, France was also strong in much of Africa and especially in the north, as well as in the Middle East. Its possessions in North America and India had been lost.

Less dependent than the British on imported food and with land borders with a number of countries that could provide raw materials such as iron ore, the French nevertheless had many similar expectations of their navy, the Marine Nationale, as the British had of the Royal Navy. Greater emphasis was based on defence of the coastline, but the sea lines of communication with the empire were as important, although there was less of a contribution from the French colonies than from the British dominions. The French did not expect their navy to play a part in expeditionary warfare.

As war loomed, the French revised their operational strategy, devising different approaches to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. For the North Atlantic, the Atlantic Squadron started to be upgraded to fleet status, with at its core the two new fast battle-cruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, three modern light cruisers and eight of the most up-to-date contre-torpilleur super-destroyers that would scout for the new battleships. Although the battleships and French light cruisers would have three Loire 130 reconnaissance floatplanes, this force was not built around an aircraft carrier. Different strategies were required for the Mediterranean, where the war at sea was seen as being short engagements, often conducted at high speed, with raids on enemy shipping and coastal towns, as well as defending ports in France and French North Africa from similar efforts by the enemy. This would be a cruiser battleground.

The structure of the French navy differed from that of the Royal Navy. In 1939 France and French North Africa were organized in five commands or maritime regions, régions maritimes, each under a senior admiral who was known as the préfet maritime and who reported directly to the navy minister. These were the 1st Maritime Region based on Dunkirk; 2nd Maritime Region based on Brest; 3rd Maritime Region based on Toulon; 4th Maritime Region based on Bizerte in North Africa; and the 5th Maritime Region based on Lorient. On the outbreak of war this structure was changed, merging the 2nd and 5th regions under Admiral West, and the 3rd and 4th under Admiral South. New commands were created to cover the South Atlantic and West Indies. The new structure meant that the commands became North, based on Dunkirk and covering the North Sea and English Channel; West, based on Brest and covering the North Atlantic; South, based on Toulon but later moved to Bizerte and concentrating on the Mediterranean; South Atlantic, based on Casablanca; and Western Atlantic, based on the French Antilles.

Although French naval aviation was no further forward than the British in the sense that they also lacked high-performance aircraft to fly off the single aircraft carrier, the Béarn, they had at least had continuous control of naval aviation, even including land-based maritime-reconnaissance squadrons.

During the arms race between France and Italy between the two world wars, the French developed a new type of warship, a superdestroyer known as the contre-torpilleur, usually with 5.5in guns and long-range torpedoes, to counter the growing Italian cruiser fleet.

On the outbreak of war the Marine Nationale had 3 battleships and 2 battle-cruisers, with another 3 battleships under construction. The service had just one aircraft carrier and another under construction, while a third had been authorized; there were 7 heavy cruisers and 12 light cruisers, with another building and a further 2 authorized; and there were no fewer than 32 contre-torpilleurs and another 4 authorized. There were also 26 fleet torpedo boats with another 6 building and 6 more authorized, as well as 12 light torpedo boats, another 4 being built and a further 10 approved. Abroad, there were seven colonial sloops, plus two building and another one authorized.

An unusual submarine was a cruiser variant with a heavy-calibre gun and also an aircraft that could be launched and recovered while on the surface. Cruiser submarines had also been tried by the British. The concept was that gunnery was a cheaper means of sinking enemy merchantmen than torpedoes and, of course, only a limited number of torpedoes could be carried by a submarine.

A substantial submarine force included 39 submarines with 3 under construction and plans approved for a further 2, while there were also 40 coastal submarines with a further 8 under construction and 12 more authorized. Coastal submarines were well-suited to the Mediterranean where larger submarines were easily detected, as well as to the confined waters of the English Channel. The disposition of these ships was mainly between the Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleets, with the remainder mainly in the overseas commands at Beirut, Saigon and Casablanca.

The Atlantic Fleet had four main bases at Brest, Cherbourg, Lorient and Dakar, the latter being in West Africa. Brest had the one aircraft carrier, 3 contre-torpilleurs and 12 standard destroyers as well as 12 submarines, while it was also home to the 1st Squadron with 2 battleships, a further 2 elderly battleships that were used for training, 3 light cruisers and 6 contre-torpilleur destroyers. Cherbourg had 3 torpedo boats and 4 coastal submarines, while another 3 torpedo boats were at Lorient. Dakar had four light cruisers, of which one was deployed to Casablanca and another to the French Antilles.

The Mediterranean Fleet had three bases at Toulon, Bizerte and Oran. Toulon had 3 contre-torpilleurs, 6 torpedo boats, 11 patrol submarines, 8 coastal submarines and another 8 submarines used for training, as well as being home to the 3rd Squadron with 6 heavy cruisers and 12 contre-torpilleurs. Bizerte had 6 patrol submarines and 8 coastal submarines, and was home to the 4th Squadron with 4 light cruisers and 6 contre-torpilleurs. Oran was the base for the 2nd Squadron, with 3 elderly battleships and 9 destroyers.

Overseas commands showed the MN to be stretched to the limit. Beirut had 3 patrol submarines; Saigon had a heavy cruiser and a light cruiser; Casablanca had 2 destroyers and 4 patrol submarines. These ships would have been augmented by some of the colonial sloops.

The defeat of France and the armistice signed on 22 June 1940, with Italy having entered the war earlier on 10 June, completely changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean, at sea as much as on land and possibly even more. Overnight, the Royal Navy had lost the not inconsiderable power of the French fleet in the Mediterranean and simultaneously found itself facing the might of the Italian navy, the Regina Marina.

This was bad enough, but the big question that had to be tackled was what would be the fate of the French fleet? Would it be handed over to the Germans? Would the French change sides? This second scenario might seem unrealistic and even insulting to what had been only days previously an ally, but after French surrender with a large part of France left unoccupied and self-governing from Vichy, some members of the Vichy regime offered to ally themselves with Germany. It was German intransigence and their desire to leave the French in no doubt as to who was winning the war at that time that left this offer unused. There were also many in the Vichy regime and at senior level in the Vichy armed forces who had no liking for the British, while many other French people felt let down by the British withdrawal from France. The British for their part were angry that France had negotiated a separate armistice with Germany. Yet, as we will see, the truth was that the French Marine Nationale was to fulfil its pledge not to surrender its ships to the Germans, even when Vichy France was occupied. However, that was not known at the time.

As it was, with Italy now in the war, Malta was within reach of Axis air bases in Sicily and the south of Italy where the Italians had a strong naval base at Taranto. The Royal Navy and the Marine Nationale were sharing a base at Alexandria in Egypt. The Marine Nationale had bases in North Africa at Oran and Mers-el-Kébir, along the main shipping route across the Mediterranean, as well as at Dakar in West Africa, along the shipping lanes from Europe to the Cape. The main French naval base in the Mediterranean was at Toulon in the south of France, Vichy-held territory. There were also French ships that had escaped to Portsmouth and Plymouth, two of the Royal Navy’s main home bases.

The Royal Navy had bases at Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria. Gibraltar was safe as long as Spain remained neutral and was the key to the Mediterranean. Malta, the main base for the British Mediterranean Fleet, was to become barely tenable and would not have been defended had not the Admiralty insisted that it remain as a base for submarines and anti-shipping air operations, but most of the Mediterranean Fleet was moved to Alexandria before Italy entered the Second World War in June 1940.

Plans had been laid in case Gibraltar was invaded by Spanish and German forces. A team of six men was to be incarcerated in the famous Rock, supplied with food and drink for a considerable time and measures were taken to ensure that they could spy and report back on Axis shipping movements. In the end this wasn’t necessary, but German agents in southern Spain and in the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla kept a close eye on Allied shipping movements. The Mediterranean was closed to British shipping unless in convoy.

Tackling the French fleet was an unwelcome task for the Royal Navy which had been fighting alongside the French and both navies had co-operated during the Norwegian campaign. Yet, the overwhelming feeling was that something had to be done. The Kriegsmarine was far from its planned wartime strength and the ships of the Marine Nationale could help to fill the gap.

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Mers-El-Kébir

North Africa was heavily influenced by France, which was one of the colonial powers in Morocco, while Algeria had been settled by more than a million people of French descent who lived alongside the indigenous Arab population. Naturally enough, the French had armed forces based in Algeria with a major naval base at Mers-el-Kébir, just outside Oran, which was also the base for a number of ships. These bases included some of the Marine Nationale’s training facilities.

After the fall of France, ships stationed at Mers-el-Kébir included two elderly battleships plus the modern battle-cruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg as well as six large destroyers of the contre-torpilleur type, sometimes described as super-destroyers and intended as a counter to Italy’s light cruisers. Seven smaller destroyers and four submarines were based at Oran. Dunkerque had only recently returned to Mers-el-Kébir after a visit to Gibraltar.

This fleet had been busy since the outbreak of war escorting convoys between France and Algeria, fearful of an attack by the Italian fleet. The ships based at Mers-el-Kébir would have been valuable both to Germany and to Italy as both navies were short of destroyers, while the Italians had neglected the battle-cruiser; they did have six battleships, but only two of these could be described as modern.

The Royal Navy acted quickly to fill the gap in Allied capability in the Mediterranean following French surrender. On 28 June 1940, Force H was formed, based on Gibraltar. Officially a powerful naval squadron, it was a small fleet with an aircraft carrier – the Royal Navy’s newest, HMS Ark Royal – and capital ships, as well as supporting cruisers and destroyers, capable of ranging far out into the North Atlantic or across the Mediterranean as far east as Malta or the coast of Italy.

One duty that fell to Force H was the escort of convoys to Malta. Mediterranean convoys needed fleet carriers with their larger complement of aircraft, whereas on the Arctic convoys escort carriers were supposed to be sufficient, although with fleet carriers often in a distant escort. On the North Atlantic, MAC ships – merchant aircraft carriers with a primitive flight deck above the cargo holds and cargo of oil tankers and grain carriers – were effective.

Force H was commanded by Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville, brought out of retirement and who had taken a substantial demotion from his previous rank of admiral of the fleet, equivalent to a fleet admiral in the USN, or a drop from five-star rank to three-star rank, to serve his country. Despite his age, Somerville was one of the most daring and competent British naval commanders of the Second World War with a temperament ideally suited to a flexible and independent command such as Force H would become. Earlier, he had assisted Ramsay in organizing Operation DYNAMO.

The British government was unaware that Darlan had ordered that French warships should be scuttled rather than fall into German or Italian hands. Darlan’s anti-British attitude was well-known and in any case, the crew of a warship had to have time to scuttle it and if scuttled in harbour ships could be refloated and recommissioned.

On 3 July those French warships that had fled to British ports were seized. Force H was then ordered to Mers-el-Kébir and Somerville attempted to open negotiations with the French naval commander, Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. Gensoul was in a difficult position as he did not know what the policies of the new Vichy government would be, and whether his government would expect him to continue fighting or accept surrender and perhaps neutrality. Somerville’s emissary was refused a meeting and so negotiations had to begin in writing. This was the main difference between the situation in Mers-el-Kébir and at Alexandria, as at the latter Cunningham already had not just contact with the French naval commander but a good working relationship.

Somerville wrote offering Gensoul the choice of four options. The first of these was that he should take his fleet to sea and join the Royal Navy in continuing the war, although this could mean that he would be branded a traitor by the Vichy regime. Alternatively, he could take his ships with a reduced crew to Gibraltar, closer than Malta which was not an option because of its proximity to Italy, and once at ‘Gib’ the crews would be repatriated. A variation on this option was to take the ships to the French West Indies, where they would be immobilized. Finally, there was the option of scuttling the ships at both Mers-el-Kébir and Oran within six hours. In fact the government had a fifth option in mind, which was that the ships could be immobilized in their Algerian ports but Somerville did not offer this in his letter, realizing that the facilities at Mers-el-Kébir were more than sufficient to return the ships to full fighting condition quickly.

It was made clear to Gensoul that if he did not accept one of these options, his ships would be sunk by the Royal Navy. Gensoul did not pass on the full list of options to his superiors, but simply told them that he had been given six hours to scuttle his ships or they would be attacked by the Royal Navy. Given such a stark choice, he was ordered to resist using all the force available to him.

In common with the rest of the members of the Royal Navy, Somerville was very unhappy with having to use force against a navy that had, only weeks before, been an ally, especially during the Norwegian campaign. In a desperate bid to avoid the use of force, Somerville sent one of his most senior officers, Captain Holland, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, to see Gensoul with an ultimatum. Holland was flown in a Fairey Swordfish seaplane from Somerville’s flagship, the battle-cruiser Hood, but while he was aboard Gensoul’s flagship, the battle-cruiser Dunkerque, the French Admiralty signalled en clair for all French warships in the Mediterranean to converge on Oran and put themselves under Gensoul’s command. This was picked up by the Admiralty in London who immediately ordered Somerville to take action while he only had the French warships already at Mers-el-Kébir and Oran to deal with rather than face the might of the entire French fleet in the Mediterranean.

Captain Holland left the Dunkerque at 1725 on 3 July, and after informing Somerville that Gensoul was refusing to accept any of the options presented to him, needed to regain command of his warship. Aboard Ark Royal, the arrester wires were removed from her flight deck and the Swordfish floatplane flew safely onto her paper-thin flight deck* without damage to the aircraft or the ship, thanks to the very low stalling speed of the Swordfish, an aircraft known affectionately to the Fleet Air Arm as the ‘Stringbag’.

At 1754 Somerville opened fire, joined by aircraft from the Ark Royal. The elderly battleship Bretagne blew up and several other ships were badly damaged, including Dunkerque which although only slightly damaged in the initial salvoes of gunfire was then crippled in an attack by Swordfish torpedo-bombers from the British carrier on 6 July. A single broadside from one British ship blew an army barracks off the top of a hill.

The French warships returned the fire. Aboard HMS Hood, leading seaman Joseph Rockley remembered the French shells passing over the ship:

It was my first experience of naval gunfire. Some shells passed overhead like an express train, but others wobbled, and I learned later that this was due to the rifling in their barrels being worn. They sounded like someone blowing hard into a glass in short, sharp breaths.

It was impossible to tell at the time how much damage we had caused, but we later learnt that it had been considerable.

Aboard the French ships, opinions had been divided. Arsène le Poitevin was one of those who was pressing his superiors to continue the war alongside the British, but that was before the gunnery exchange at Mers-el-Kébir:

It was terrible for us. Lots of sailors dead, and ships sunk or damaged. It was impossible to say anything nice about the British for a long time. Later, people began to say that perhaps they had no choice.

At the same time, rather than simply rejecting the British ultimatum, had the commanding officers had the courage of their convictions, they should have gone to sea and fought, rather than just staying in harbour.

Many British sailors were upset by what had happened, but many maintained that their government had no choice. Everyone assumed that the Germans would take the French warships and use them in the war against the British, who by this time were fighting with the Empire mobilized but with no European allies.

The French lost 1,297 men in this action.