Warrior (1861)

Warrior is a ship of imposing appearance. The hull was painted black, unlike the chequered style of sailing frigates, and seemed immensely long to contemporaries. The great space between foremast and mainmast is very noticeable. When it and the similarly painted Black Prince joined the Channel Fleet they were described as ‘two black snakes among the rabbits’. They were the only British ironclads with wooden lower masts and caps, though at an early design stage four or even five iron masts had been considered. The original bowsprit was 14.9m (49ft) long but because of the ship’s excessive weight in the forward section it was halved in length in March 1862, and the full head-gear was not restored until the poop deck was added between 1872 and 1875, giving the vessel a better balance. Total sail area was 4496.5m2 (48,400sq ft) including stunsails.

The steam ironclad Warrior was planned as a direct response to France’s Gloire. Laid down at Mare’s yard at Blackwall on the Thames on 25 May 1859, launched on 29 December 1860, commissioned at Portsmouth in August 1861 and finally completed on 24 October that year, it cost £377,292.

Its hull construction marked a clear break with the old wooden-hulled tradition. It was to carry 40 large guns on a single deck. But the design showed compromises between the new and the old: Warrior’s heavy ‘knee bow’ design was a convention rather than a structural requirement, and weighed the vessel down at the bow end until a shelter-deck was erected at the poop. The wide stern was simply copied from existing sailing frigate models. Warrior was one of the last three Royal Navy ships to be given a carved figurehead. Another traditional feature, not necessary on an ironclad, was the solid timber bulwarks surrounding the upper deck.

The teak-backed armour plating was applied to the midships section only, 64.9m (213ft) long and 8.23m (27ft) vertically, with 1.83m (6ft) below the waterline. Two bilge keels were fitted to reduce any propensity to roll. The Penn horizontal trunk engine was the most powerful yet installed on a warship.


The new ship presented a problem of classification: its single gun deck defined it as a frigate but as it was expressly designed to overtake and defeat any existing warship, that was clearly inappropriate. The solution was to use its 707-man complement (equivalent to that of a third-rate) as a reason to classify it and its sister ship Black Prince as third-rates. The 114mm (4.5in) steel plating was impenetrable by any naval gun of the time (but by 1863 guns had been introduced to pierce such armour). Warrior’s 103.6m (340ft) length was notable: great length was identified with the ability to go fast. Sir Baldwin Walker, Controller of the Navy, considered that speed was of the utmost importance ‘and absolutely essential in seagoing ships cased with iron’. Care had been taken in designing the underwater lines – even under canvas alone, Warrior recorded 13 knots under plain sail and stunsails, and under combined power on 15 November 1861 it made 16.3 knots.

Auxiliary equipment

Warrior was still a broadside ship, its guns arranged in traditional fashion facing outwards. In 1867 the ship was completely re-gunned, with 24 178mm (7in) MLR, 4 203mm (8in) MLR, and 4 9kg (20lb) breech loaders. The Admiralty was slow to take advantage of steam power for auxiliary equipment. Originally the only extra was a steam pump. The two-bladed, 9 tonne (10 tons) screw (the largest hoisting screw ever in service) was said to need 600 men to hoist it using the sheerlegs mounted above the double sternposts. Black Prince received a steam capstan before Warrior, geared to the pump engine. Prior to that, 90 men were needed to work the main capstan. Steering gear was done with a fourfold handwheel set abaft the mizzen mast, and directed from a low bridge mounted on the quarter-deck bulwarks, with an armour-plated blockhouse structure beneath. But the steamships’ length had an adverse effect on manoeuvrability. The Navy Controller’s specification required only three turns of the wheel to give a full degree of helm, as with narrow-ruddered sailing ships; this made steering of a long screw-driven ship an immensely heavy task (a fourth turn was conceded in 1861 for steamships of more than 298kW (400hp). Warrior carried two bower and two sheet Admiralty-pattern wooden-stocked anchors, each weighing 4.3 tonnes (4.75 tons), 1.42 tonne (1.67 tons) iron-stocked stream anchor, and two iron-stocked 0.87 tonnes (0.96 tons) kedge anchors.

Years of service

In 1904 it was a torpedo school and later an oil hulk before restoration to original condition in the 1980s. It is now a museum ship at Portsmouth. With Black Prince it towed a floating dock across the Atlantic from Madeira to Bermuda in 1869. Another refit between 1872 and 1875 saw it provided with the poop deck and steam capstan, and it served as coastguard ship at Portland, then from 1881 to 1884 as a training ship for reservists on the Clyde. In 1881 it was re-classified as an armoured cruiser. In 1904 it was adapted for service with the HMS Vernon torpedo school and the cut-down hull was finally transferred to Pembroke to provide a pier for an oil pipe-line.

General characteristics

Class and type:   Warrior-class armoured frigate

Displacement:    9,137 long tons (9,284 t)

Length:  420 ft (128.0 m) (o/a)

Beam:    58 ft 4 in (17.8 m)

Draught:              26 ft 10 in (8.2 m)

Installed power:

    5,772 ihp (4,304 kW)

    10 rectangular boilers

Propulsion:         1 shaft, 1 Trunk steam engine

Sail plan:             Ship rig

Speed:   14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph)

Range:   2,100 nmi (3,900 km; 2,400 mi) at 11 kn (20 km/h; 13 mph)

Complement:     706 officers and enlisted men


    26 × Smoothbore muzzle-loading 68-pounder (206 mm) guns

    10 × Rifled breechloading 110-pounder (178 mm) guns

    4 × Rifled breechloading 40-pounder (121 mm) guns


    Belt: 4.5 in (114 mm)

    Bulkheads: 4.5 in (114 mm)


The End of the Milk Cows – U-490 et al Part I

June 1944 to May 1945

Doenitz sent out another nine U-boats to remote areas at the end of May 1944, and the last U-tanker, U-490, was sent out from Germany in support. By mid-May, U-490 was in the Northern Transit area. Apart from these boats there were only five U-boats in remote theatres (excluding the Indian Ocean) tying down Allied forces, and on 4 June one of these, U-505, was captured by the Guadalcanal carrier group off Dakar. The code books were recovered intact, but there was little to be gained from them at this late stage of the war. Indeed, the US ‘10th Fleet’ discovered that the codebooks and other documents on board U-505 were less up-to-date than their own records, since the U-boat had been at sea for some months. Much more useful, however, was the capture of the short-signals books.

On 1 June, Doenitz reviewed the U-boat war in the U-boat Command diary. ‘Our efforts to tie down enemy forces have so far been successful,’ he wrote. ‘The numbers of enemy aircraft and escort vessels, U-boat killer groups and aircraft carriers allotted to anti-U-boat forces, far from decreasing, has increased. For the submariners themselves the task of carrying on the fight solely for the purpose of tying down enemy forces is a particularly hard one.’

At this time Doenitz and all members the armed forces were mostly concerned with the impending Allied invasion of Normandy, with large numbers of U-boats lying in bomb-proof pens along the French and Norwegian coasts with a view to impeding the invasion of either country. The ‘electric’ U-boats had been held up by Allied bombing and were not expected to enter service until January 1945 (in fact, the first long-range ‘electric’ U-boat did not commence operations until the last days of the war).

However, there was some hope with the advent of the schnorkel. This originally Dutch invention was essentially an air mast raised to the surface of the sea that enabled a submerged U-boat to run its diesel engines and thereby recharge its batteries without having to come to the surface. The invention was, of course, a major advantage at a time when aircraft were sinking so many surfaced U-boats, and the Germans claimed to have invented it independently of the Dutch. The schnorkel was by no means a cure-all as it emitted a stream of gases in operation that could be seen a long way off, so schnorkelling was conducted at night. Even so, the head of the schnorkel could be detected by the new 3cm radar entering into Allied service. However, the improved Naxos-U radar search receiver could pick up these radar transmissions, enabling the U-boat to submerge again almost instantly. Use of the schnorkel reduced the U-boats’ speed to about 5 knots, whereas on the surface they had been accustomed to making 17 knots. Even a slow convoy would leave a schnorkelling U-boat behind, but the new device proved to be so useful as a defensive measure that on 1 June, Doenitz ordered that no U-boat should proceed on operations without one.

The schnorkel was ideally suited to milk cows, which had no interest in chasing convoys but only wanted to preserve themselves from air attack. But the development was too late for the U-tankers. On 1 June, the last survivor, U-490, was already at sea, cruising through the North Atlantic air gap on a southerly heading. The U-boat Command war diary lists U-490 as one of several boats recalled that day to France for fitting with a schnorkel. Presumably this was a typing error in the diary, for U-490 already possessed the equipment and made no effort to return to France. On the 7th, U-boat Command ordered U-490 to continue southwards as planned.

U490 was commanded by the experienced Oberleumant zS Gerlach, and had left Kiel on 4 May with instructions to proceed to the mid-Atlantic where she was to support operations for the remote theatres, before heading on into the Indian Ocean to assist the return of the U-boats remaining there. The 39-year-old Gerlach was another sailor promoted from the lower deck, having served on the successful U-124 between July 1940 and September 1941. He had then been selected for officer training, after which he had returned to U-124 as a watch officer in 1942 before being sent on the commanders’ course in 1942-3. He had commissioned U-490 on 27 March 1943 and the boat had remained in the Baltic for correction of bombing damage and subsequent serious flooding, and for training until her services were required.

U490 successfully negotiated the difficult Northern Transit area as she passed from the North Sea into the North Atlantic, and reported a convoy on 4 June. Meanwhile, the crew had difficulty with her schnorkel, which appeared to be usable only in fairly calm seas. U-490 was located by H/F D/F in the middle of the ocean as she made a weather report on the 10th. Gerlach, described by his crew as nervous about Allied air activity, wanted to maintain radio silence, but he could not ignore a direct order requiring him to transmit information about the weather as he passed through the Atlantic. The American escort carriers were at this time making a concerted drive against the handful of U-boats stationed in the Atlantic to provide weather reports. On 11 June, U-490 made another weather transmission, but it was to be her last. She was caught on the surface within hours by aircraft from the Croatan carrier group, but managed to submerge and went very deep.

She was then hunted all through the night and the next day by the carrier’s destroyer escorts, which dropped 189 depth-charges in all. U-490 carried some experimental guinea pigs aboard. These kept squealing during the attacks and had to be destroyed to reduce the noise. Eventually her air ran out and she was forced to return to the surface. The destroyers in the meantime had played the trick of moving off in opposite directions at decreasing speed (giving the sound effect of a high-speed departure), and then creeping slowly back to the target area. The U-tanker surfaced and when it was at once attacked with heavy gunfire, Gerlach ordered his boat to be scuttled; all sixty crew members were rescued. American interrogators described the crew as ‘undistinguished’, but remarked on the unusual seniority of the petty officers. The crew volunteered to answer ‘honourable questions’ provided they were not handed over to the British, but they had little new to report.

As U490 had not refuelled a single U-boat when she was sunk, this effectively wrecked the last of Doenitz’s hopes for overseas operations, and only one or two U-boats were able to patrol in remote waters, with occasional refuelling by fuel sharing with one another. The war diary of U-boat Command shows that just three U-boats were successfully refuelled by other attack U-boats in the period June 1944 to May 1945.

However, the loss of U-490 was not immediately appreciated as her crew had been too agitated to remember to send a final distress signal. As late as 27 June, U-boat Command ordered U-490 to make for Penang at high speed, where the boat was to load up with essential war supplies, with a minimum docking time, and return home. While on passage (in either direction), any Type IXC boats in the Indian Ocean (presumed to be U-183, U-510, U-532 and U-843) were to be refuelled for the journey home.

The Type XB minelayer U-233 had been commissioned on 22 September 1943 by the 36-year-old Kapitaenleumant Steen, who had previously been the First Officer on her sister ship, U-117, from October 1941 to February 1943, and had subsequently attended a commanding officers’ course. Most of the crew were new recruits. After the usual working-up exercises in the Baltic, which involved a practice minelaying mission of 132 mines in that sea during the winter of 1943, U-233 received a full overhaul and refitting from February 1944. She left Kiel on 27 May for her first war patrol, with orders to lay sixty-six mines apparently off Halifax, Canada. However the U-boat Command war diary claims that U-233 received ‘alternative orders’ on 17 June to carry out her minelaying operation off Halifax. She was not fitted with a schnorkel and, according to her crew when later interrogated, there had been no plans to deploy U-233 for refuelling purposes after the minelaying operation, neither did the boat carry spare parts for other U-boats.

Travelling on the surface at night to recharge her batteries, U-233 entered the Northern Transit area, which was then the scene of a massive search by Coastal Command for outward-bound U-boats, but she was one of the few fortunate boats to break through, albeit after many tribulations. On 1 June, U-233 sighted many aircraft and next day was suddenly attacked by a four-engined bomber, too late to dive. U-233 defended herself with her 37mm and two 20mm cannons scoring some hits, but the aircraft still managed to drop five bombs that exploded all around the U-boat, remarkably causing no damage. The U-minelayer seized the chance to dive.

After resurfacing, U-233 was again forced to dive by aircraft combing her likely route and changed course in a successful effort to shake off her aerial pursuers. Steen then steered for the east coast of the USA, surfacing at night just long enough to recharge his batteries. The quick-firing 37mm flak gun had repeatedly jammed during the engagement with the bomber and test-firing two weeks later caused a shell to explode in the barrel, rendering it useless.

Then her luck ran out. Now close to Nova Scotia, Canada, she sent a message by W/T. This was intercepted by H/F D/F, leading to a search by the Card carrier group. The carrier aircraft spotted an oil slick on 2 July and dropped sonobuoys, which gave a positive response to underwater sounds, although thick fog interfered with further aerial operations. The US destroyer escort finally gained passive sound contact (i.e. listening only, without using active Asdic) on 5 July. This was not detected by the U-minelayer, which was then floating at a depth of 30 to 50 metres while servicing her stern torpedoes. Suddenly the horrified crew heard the whine of the propellers of the destroyer Baker, followed by the shocking impact of depth-charges all around the boat.

U-233 was badly shaken, the lights went out and the boat plunged out of control to 120 metres. Water poured in through a leak in the stern and a heavy aft torpedo was toppled out of its stay, killing a crew member. When a second pattern of depth-charges drove U-233 to 230 metres, a desperate Steen gave the order to ^low tanks’ and surface. The milk cow managed to reach the surface, where she was instantly engaged with a hail of fire at a range of only 500 metres. Two destroyer torpedoes also struck the hapless U-minelayer, but had been fired from so close that they did not have time to arm themselves and bounced off without exploding. Steen gave the order to abandon ship, while the Chief Engineer went below to scuttle the U-boat. Meanwhile, shells continued to land all around as the crew jumped overboard, many losing their lives at this point.

Then another destroyer, the Thomas, stormed in and rammed the luckless U-233 which subsequently sank. Steen himself was severely wounded, but was supported in the sea by one of the surviving crew members. The American destroyers rescued Steen and twenty-nine other survivors from the sixty-man crew. It transpired that so accurate had been the American fire on the conning tower as the U-boat crew tried to abandon ship that virtually all the rescued survivors were those who had escaped from the forward hatch. Steen died of his wounds the following day and was buried at sea from the deck of the carrier Card. U-233 had been sunk before she could drop her mines and her loss was not recognized by U-boat Command until 11 August. Interrogation of survivors established that the crew were ‘dreadful’, almost devoid of experience, except for Steen himself and a few petty officers added to leaven the mixture. Steen had been well liked and the crew were unusually security conscious.

As a result of the early loss of the cows, the U-boats engaged in the remote waters campaign (excluding the Indian Ocean) sank only twenty ships between January and September, while thirteen of the U-boats engaged in this campaign were themselves sunk.

The Allies invaded Europe on 6 June, and by August the Biscay bases were in such danger of capture, and escort groups in the Bay posed such a threat, that all the U-boats within their pens were despatched either to Norway or, in the case of a few long-range boats, to the Indian Ocean. U-boat Command had already warned boats at sea, on 12 June, that they should retain enough fuel to reach Bergen, if necessary, rather than a French port. Some other U-boats were in no fit state to be sent out to sea and had to be scuttled in the French ports. Among them were: U-129, Type IXC, which we have encountered frequently at fuelling rendezvous and which had returned safely from her last aggressive patrol off Brazil; the U-cruiser U-178, returned from Penang; and U-188, Type IXC/40, returned from the Indian Ocean after an eventful journey. All were scuttled between 18 to 20 August. Kapitaenleumant von Harpe of U-129 had performed an extraordinary job in keeping the boat operating successfully during his tenure (July 1943 to July 1944) while so many were being sunk around him. He would be rewarded with command of one of the brand-new ‘electric’ U-boats, U-3519, in January 1945, but boat and commander were lost off Warnemuende (Germany) in March 1945 after an air attack.

By 25 August, there remained no serviceable U-boats at Bordeaux, and the boatless crews, dockyard workers, army troops and German civilians reassembled at La Rochelle, from where 20,000 would attempt to make the journey back across France to Germany. The unwanted ex-Italian UIT21 had been one of those scuttled at Bordeaux on 25 August and her former crew, including Wilhelm Kraus, now set out for Germany on bicycles. Many of them were captured in mid-France by partisans and Kraus was not released until the end of 1946.

The general chaos, with U-boats attempting to redeploy to Norway from France, resulted in complications for boats returning from remote waters. The homeward-bound U-516 (Kapitaenleutnant Tillessen), low on fuel, was unexpectedly required to steer for Norway instead of her closer French base. She signalled her predicament on 16 August and was ordered to meet a U-boat giving weather reports south-west of Iceland. On the 25th, U-858, the weather boat, reported that she had refuelled U539 at the rendezvous (AK1832), but had not seen U-516. U-855 was appointed as replacement weather boat while a fresh rendezvous between U-855 and U-516 was fixed for the same area on 3 September. Tillessen waited two days for U-855 at her rendezvous south of Iceland before signalling to U-boat Command that the supply boat had failed to appear. The Type VIIC boat U-245 was at once directed at full speed to her aid, but on the 9th U-516 was able to report that she had been refuelled by U-855 after all. Both boats returned to Norway.

After her return from the North Atlantic in January 1944, U-219 (Korvet-tenkapitaen Burghagen) had been prepared for a special cruise, as the first blockade runner of her class to the Far East. The minelayer was to be fitted out with supplies, rather than mines (the mineshafts had a huge capacity), but eight torpedoes would also be taken on board to retain some offensive capability from her two stern torpedo tubes. Planning for the event took three to four months, during which time radio equipment was loaded for Japan (the port of Kobe), also substitute machine parts, torpedo parts, medical supplies, operational orders, spare parts for the Arado-196 seaplane at Penang (a parting gift, long before, from a German auxiliary cruiser), duraluminium, mercury and optical items for the Japanese. However, contrary to recent reports, there were no parts for a putative Japanese atomic bomb, nor any foreign personnel aboard.

No one knew how the U-minelayer would behave with such a loading, so the first test cruise of U-219 in April was, to say the least, fraught with interest. Senior engineers from the 12th U-boat Flotilla went on board to give what aid they could. During the first trim-dive U-219 sank like a stone, but the engineers managed to recover her poise. After return to her bunker, as much as possible was done to save weight, including the removal of the large 105mm gun on deck and all its ammunition.

Schnorkel trials began on 1 May. When the Allied invasion began, the bunkers suffered constant air attack but U-219 remained safe in hers, although shortage of supplies caused a long delay in equipping the U-minelayer, which was also fitted with one of the new high-pressure designs of lavatory. This could expel its contents when at great depth, but required careful operation – faulty manipulation was to cause the accidental flooding and loss of one U-boat later in the war.

The two Type IXD1 U-transporters, U180 (Oberleutnant zS Reisen) and U-195 (Oberleutnant zS Steinfeldt), were recommissioned at Bordeaux as the other two blockade runners planned to sail to the Indian Ocean. Both had needed replacement diesel engines to permit this trip and were to be joined by U-219.

The former U-boat bases on the west coast of France were declared by Hitler to be ‘fortresses’, to be fought to the last man, but this meant that munitions had somehow to be ferried to them. U-boats were the vessels of choice, two small attack boats had already carried out a ferry operation, and U-180 and U-195 seemed to the Army to be especially good candidates. They were loaded with dynamite and ammunition for a planned operation to St Malo and Lorient, but the naval staff were singularly unenthusiastic -not to mention the crews – and finally seized on the shortage of supplies at Bordeaux as the excuse not to send the U-transporters out on this mission.

U-219 finally left her bunker on 20 August. It took until the 23rd to reach Le Verdon at the mouth of the River Gironde where she had to wait for U-195 and U-180, which had also sailed on the 20th. (According to a decrypted W/T message, U-219 had attempted to sail from Le Verdon on the 23rd, but an air attack on the escort had caused a withdrawal.) As this valuable assembly of blockade runners waited for a propitious moment to break into the heavily patrolled Bay of Biscay, the crews saw the destroyers Z-24 and T-24 attacked by a cloud of some forty Mosquito fighter-bombers. Both ships would be sunk by air attack at Le Verdon, respectively on the 25th and 24th. The signal announcing the imminent departures of U-180, U-195 and U-219 was decrypted by British Intelligence but, owing to a shortage of suitable escorts, U-219 did not enter the Bay of Biscay until the 24th. Finally the U-boat group emerged in the evening and put to sea with orders to sail to the Far East (Penang), with a paltry escort of only two M-boats. Evidence of heavy Allied aerial activity caused the boats to dive in only 50 metres of water, instead of the more common 200 metres.

It would have been at this time that U-180 disappeared without trace. She is commonly supposed to have hit a mine and sank, the sinking generally being listed as having occurred on 22 August, but this does not fit the information given above, derived from decrypts and survivors of U-219. Meanwhile, U-boat Command continued to give estimates other supposed position until 3 October, when U-180 was presumed lost. The historian Alex Niestle has discovered that the escort left U-180 in deep water late on 23 August, so that a mine sinking is most unlikely. A more probable explanation for the loss, in the view of the author, is a schnorkel defect (compare the troubles experienced by U-219 at the same time, below). Experiences from other U-boats make it clear that a sufficiently serious schnorkel failure could poleaxe an entire crew within sixty seconds.

U-219 began to use her schnorkel on the 26th, despite her lack of experience. The next few days were spent acquiring better knowledge of the schnorkel as the boat headed west. By 2 September, U-219 had reached the Atlantic, and surfaced briefly to clear the air in the boat and to determine her position. Then she began schnorkelling again. But on the 15th the device suddenly failed and could not be repaired, jammed at an angle of 45 degrees. U-219 ran thereafter on the surface at night for the minimum length of time needed to recharge her batteries; otherwise she remained submerged Meanwhile, the homeward-bound torpedo transport U-1062 required more fuel if she was to reach Norway. U-1062 was returning from Penang with a cargo of rubber and other strategic materials and had already had an eventful ride. But now she had been diverted from her originally intended French base owing to the Allied advance towards the Biscay ports. U-219 was conveniently close and U-boat Command radioed orders on 21 September for her to supply U-1062 at sundown south-west of the Cape Verde Islands, at a position of about 11.30N 34.30W.

But the rendezvous had already been revealed when the exchange of signals between U-boat Command and U-1062 on the 18th had been decoded, after the disguised grid reference had been cracked by local H/F D/F indicating the location of U-1062. The Mission Bay and Tripoli carrier groups were moved to the area and they mounted continuous air patrols looking for the U-boats. Arriving at the rendezvous in good time on 28 September, U-219 was alarmed to hear far-off explosions. She surfaced at dusk and the crew manned the anti-aircraft guns. Unknown to her crew, the U-minelayer had been detected by the large radar on the Mission Bay carrier.

Suddenly, in darkness, a carrier aircraft flew over at an altitude of only 70 metres. It saw the cow too late, circled and attacked. Heavy flak from the cow’s 20mm and 37mm guns shot the aircraft down, but not before it had dropped several bombs which exploded all around the boat. As the spray fell away, the stunned crew of U-219 found that their boat had stopped dead in the water, although there appeared to be no serious damage. A second aircraft saw the gunfire and closed, firing rockets that all missed. U-219 remained on the surface and was harried with guns and bombs before diving. Burghagen debated what to do. He thought it prudent to abandon the rendezvous, but U-boat Command ordered him to remain searching. All night the crew could hear the sound of distant explosions, blissfully ignorant of the fact that U-219 had just been chased by a Fido that had failed to make contact, and was even now being hunted with sonobuoys.

At light next day (the 29th), Burghagen sighted searching destroyers but still continued to wait hopefully for U-1062. U-219 surfaced on the 30th to recharge her batteries and then dived again to the constant thud of distant bombs and depth-charges.

Meanwhile, U-1062 had been located by sonobuoys on 30 September, chased repeatedly and unsuccessfully with Fidos, and finally sunk by hedgehog and depth-charge attacks by destroyers of the Mission Bay carrier group while close to the rendezvous, south-west of the Cape Verde Islands. There were no survivors.

On the first day of October another Allied search group was heard at the rendezvous by U-219, looking for the cow whose presence was still suspected. Next day the batteries were again depleted and U-boat Command had made no further pronouncement (the reason for which is unknown. U-boat Command did not recognize that U-1062 had been sunk until 2 December, by which time the staff claimed to have had no word from U-219 either.) U-219 drifted underwater at creeping speed for several days -so many that her crew became ill and it became necessary on 4 October to surface again to vent the boat. She was promptly located by an aircraft from the persistent Mission Bay group, but the intended bombs fell short. Sonobuoys were deployed and another Fido was dropped after a few hours. An explosion was heard but U-219 was unharmed.

On the following day, Asdic echoes came too close for comfort and Burghagen finally abandoned the rendezvous, heading south. The Tripoli carrier group did not, however, abandon the hunt for this valuable U-minelayer. U-219 had crossed the equator by the 11th, submerged but with due ceremony, and thereafter she ran mostly on the surface at night, albeit with constant dives before radar alarms. Unknown to Burghagen, the Tripoli was still in pursuit. On 30 October, aircraft from the Tripoli carrier group finally relocated U-219 with sonobuoys off South Africa and attacked the sound location with depth-charges. Underwater explosions were heard, but U-219 escaped (her crew seems to have been oblivious to this attack).

U-219 finally reached her most southerly point on 11 November, having at last thrown off her tenacious pursuer. Here she had to wrestle with some engine trouble before steering north-east, into the Indian Ocean and towards Penang. U-boat Command altered the destination base to Djakarta on the 20th, citing the new proximity of Allied bombers to Penang as the reason for the change.

When masts were seen well into the Indian Ocean on 26 November, Burghagen made a submerged attack, firing two torpedoes. One detonation was heard but, on coming to the surface, nothing could be seen of the target. U-219 claimed a sinking on the basis of this flimsy evidence, but in fact no merchant ship had been sunk; evidently Burghagen lacked confidence in the claim too, since he did not repeat it to U-boat Command after arrival at base.

U-219 at last reached the rendezvous for her Japanese escort in the Sunda Strait, punctually on 12 December. She hung around nervously, all crew on deck for fear of an attack by an Allied submarine in these infested waters. Burghagen’s fears were not eased when the ‘escort’ proved to be a Japanese fishing cutter that proceeded casually to Djakarta with the helpless U-minelayer tagging slowly along behind. However, she reached port without mishap.

The End of the Milk Cows – U-490 et al Part II

(U-219 Type XB minelaying submarine)

U-195 had enjoyed a fairly uneventful cruise from Bordeaux to Djakarta. She left Bordeaux with a 250-ton cargo comprising optical instruments, mercury, dismantled V-weapons, torpedoes, blueprints, radar sets and a Japanese technical officer. After departing in company with U-180 and U-219, as described above, on the night of 23/24 August, she had been attacked almost at once by small patrol craft (probably MTBs) and chased with the use of hydrophones. The boat had escaped by lying on the sea bottom at 100 metres. Subsequently U-195 had schnorkelled to the Spanish coast to fix minor damage and the crew had repaired the boat on the surface in Spanish waters. Thereafter the boat sailed without difficulty all the way into the Indian Ocean, presumably using her schnorkel through the North Atlantic. Her daily distance travelled at sea near the Azores was around 100 miles. The boat claimed that she had suffered fuel losses, forcing a slower passage at most economical speed, and she was ordered to refuel from U-181 if necessary. U-181 (Kapitaen zS Freiwald) had started on 19 October on the return trip from Djakarta to Norway, sinking a large American merchant ship (2 November) en route, but had suffered near Cape Town from ‘badly burnt bearings’ and was commanded on the 26th to return to Djakarta. U-boat Command prepared a fuelling rendezvous in the south-western Indian Ocean between U-195 and U-181, but the boats failed to locate one another at their joint rendezvous in square KT90 on 12 December, and both continued independently to Djakarta.

U-181 was instead commanded to meet the homeward-bound U-843 at dusk on 20 December in KL6555, and to refuel the smaller boat ‘fully’. By 1 January, U-181 could inform U-boat Command that she had refuelled U-843 and was returning to Djakarta where she arrived on the 6th. On the 11th, the report was amplified: U-181 had supplied U-843 with 60 tons of fuel and 2 tons of lubricating oil in an operation hampered by bad weather and poor equipment. U-181 had sailed from Djakarta with ten cases of acute malaria, three of dysentery and seven of severe boils or skin troubles, and the commander had suffered from diphtheria. However, the crew had returned to base ‘in better shape’. U-195 docked safely at Djakarta on 29 December and two U-cruisers also arrived. The commander’s report (used above) was transmitted to Berlin, together with his favourable opinion on the deployment of the Type IXD1 boat as a transport, while the cargo was removed for transhipment to Japan.

The arrival of U-219 and U-195 sufficed to provide new radar detector equipment (Borkum and Tunis) for all the U-boats then based in the Far East. The signal to this effect from the German radio station at Penang (17 January 1945) was intercepted and decoded by the Australian Defense Agency, but nothing could be done. However, both boats were suffering from numerous mechanical defects, as well as only two-thirds of expected battery capacity. The intention was that both U-219 and U-195 should load up with a cargo of rubber, tin, wolfram and other commodities obtainable with difficulty in Germany, and then return home. But the planned move of U-219 to Surabaya, like Djakarta on the coast of Java, for the purpose of loading up with these strategic materials, was rudely interrupted on 27 December. A large Japanese ammunition ship, the Taicho Mam, suddenly exploded in Djakarta harbour – apparently she had been torpedoed – the blast rocking the port and damaging U-219, whose crew observed the many floating corpses in the harbour – and the sharks. U-532 and U-510, also moored in the port, suffered no damage. Specialists were summoned to the stricken U-minelayer and were commanded to prepare the boat for her return to Germany in February 1945. Meanwhile, her crew enjoyed a lengthened stay at the Tjikopo rest home, high in the mountains, while U-219 was placed in dry dock in January. Djakarta was now abandoned by the Germans as a U-boat base.

In December, U-boat Command ordered all U-boats in the Indian Ocean to return to Germany, filled with such cargoes as they could manage. They were expected to carry the barest minimum of torpedoes home in order to maintain a slight offensive capability against undefended targets. In this connection, U-510 sailed from Djakarta on 11 January 1945, U-532 on the 13th and the U-cruiser U-861 (Korvettenkapitaen Oesten) on the 14th. Since the two Type IXC/40 boats lacked sufficient fuel to reach Norway, the U-cruiser was needed to replenish them in the west Indian Ocean, while U-195 was to sail as a back-up (or, if possible, as another homeward-bound boat). U-195 had arrived at Djakarta after the 27 December explosion. Having been offloaded, she set out on her way back on 19 January 1945, although in urgent need of a refit. Her principal mission was to refuel the returning U-532 as she was carrying no fewer than 437 tons of fuel, 17 tons of lubricating oil and twelve weeks of supplies.

A joint rendezvous was arranged between U-861, U-532, U-195 and U-510 about 900 miles south of Madagascar. The rendezvous position seems to have been agreed verbally among the commanders before departing from base, a wise, albeit very late, innovation. Even so, the rendezvous might have been compromised when U861 wanted a change of date for the replenishment to 7 February. All four boats met together on 8 February 1945, when U-195 refuelled U-532 with 100 tons of oil and U-861 replenished U-510. Surprisingly this left the U-cruiser short of fuel, since part of her fuel capacity had been used to store rubber. Then U-195 returned to Djakarta with diesel defects and her putative return to France abandoned, arriving on 5 March before moving next day to Surabaya.

The other boats then headed into the Atlantic, having begged U-boat Command successfully, with a joint request, that they should not be required to make frequent tell-tale progress reports while en route. U-861 would subsequently arrive safely in Norway just before the end of the war. U-532 would surrender at sea in the North Atlantic after Germany’s surrender, having sunk two single ships in the South Atlantic. U-510 remained short of fuel and was forced to make for St Nazaire in France, which was still in German hands, on 23 April 1945 in search of more fuel, repairs and a schnorkel. All three boats had been advised by U-boat Command on 25 March to put into St Nazaire for schnorkels. Later decrypted messages from the German Navy coastal service show the difficulty of arranging schnorkels for St Nazaire, requiring either hazardous flights by the Luftwaffe or a round trip from Norway by a transport U-boat. U-510 was still there when the European war ended, having sunk one ship in the South Atlantic.

The returning Monsun boats had at any rate escaped the massive Allied aerial minelaying operation that fouled the entire ‘Southern Area’ command on 23 January 1945. Penang, Djakarta, Surabaya and the Malacca Strait were all listed as having been paralysed by mines and the sea lanes were not cleared until 7 February. Burghagen expected U-219 to be ready for sea by March 1945, but battery and other defects caused further delays and a move to Surabaya. Likewise, U-195 was kept waiting until she could have her batteries replaced in a dry dock, which was scheduled for mid-May. The deteriorating situation in Europe caused increasing alarm to the crews of U-219, U-195 and the handful of U-cruisers still present. They feared that any day the war might end, they would be arrested and imprisoned by the Japanese. Those boats with defects were attended to without stint of labour. Then the blow fell. In April, U-boat Command ordered U-219, U-195 and the surviving UIT boats to remain in the Far East for the benefit of the Japanese.

U-183 (Kapitaenleumant Schneewind) had been sent to Kobe for replacement of her batteries in November 1944. However, her planned January return had to be put back to allow the keel ballast to be changed and diesel defects to be corrected. Finally, on 22 February 1945, U-183 left Kobe for Djakarta, arriving on 9 March. The Japanese and local German commands had decided in January that U-183 was to patrol the southern approaches to the Philippines in order to intercept American landing craft, while Japanese submarines patrolled the northern approaches. U-boat Command objected strenuously to the original plan, stating that antisubmarine defences were likely to be weak and U-183 should close right up to the invasion area.

It was not until 21 April that Schneewind could report (in a decrypted signal) that he had departed Djakarta for an operational area south of the Philippines as far east as 122 degrees, the operational area to be reached on 29 April. Two days later (the 23rd), the forewarned US submarine Besugo located U-183 still on the surface and fired a six-torpedo spread. One of the torpedoes struck U-183, sinking her with only one survivor remaining to be picked up by the Besugo. The loss of U-183 would not be recognized by U-boat Command until after the end of the war, when she failed either to return to base or to signal her surrender.

The Japanese finally seem to have appreciated the contribution of the U-boats in the Indian Ocean, and proposed in March and April 1945 that more be sent. Doenitz rejected the request on the grounds of lack of fuelling facilities en route, but the Japanese offered to send up to six of their submarines to refuel the U-boats in the Indian Ocean. Again the offer was rejected, to the embarrassment of the German naval staff in Tokyo, who reported that the Japanese believed them to have the authority to make such decisions. Consequently the Germans in Tokyo had lost face. On 3 April, Doenitz also rejected Japanese suggestions that U-boats could be used to land Japanese agents on Allied-occupied islands.

No further refuelling missions had been carried out in the Atlantic by appointed cows after the failure of U-219 with U-1062. U-boats were now being deployed in coastal waters around Britain and the sinking of U-1062 was to be the last by the American Atlantic carrier groups until April 1945. No U-tankers remained and the last Type XB U-boat outside the Indian Ocean, U234 (Kapitaenleutnant Fehler), remained in German waters.

Fehler had previously been an officer on the auxiliary cruiser Atlantis. After the latter ship had been sunk, he volunteered for the U-boat service and commissioned U-234 on 2 March 1944. U-234 was especially well equipped in anti-aircraft armament, for she was fortunate enough to have an extraordinarily competent black market ‘fixer’ as one of her officers. Originally fitted with three 20mm anti-aircraft guns, he managed to get it augmented by official and unofficial means to two 37mm guns of the new automatic design, a Vierling mounting and two twin 20mm cannon. Later still, a twin 37mm cannon replaced the Vierling. When she finally put sea on active service, U-234 carried a twin 37mm cannon on the aft bandstand behind the conning tower and two single 37mm cannon on the tower itself.

For the remainder of the year, U-234 carried out her working-up exercises and then other trials in the Baltic while others pondered her fate. Now carrying a schnorkel, she was converted in September 1944 into a submarine blockade runner between Germany and the Far East, but experienced considerable difficulty in the Baltic with her schnorkel trials. The trials were carried out under the supervision of an old First World War U-boat ace, Kapitaen zS Valentiner, who imparted this pearl of wisdom: ‘We used to say, he who schnorkels well lives longer. Now we say, he who schnorkels wrongly dies quicker.’

With no more time for trials, U-234 was ordered to practise more with her schnorkel off Norway. Owing to difficulties in equipping her, she did not leave Kiel until 25 March 1945, by which time she was furnished with an active radar mattress, a Kurier flash signal transmitter and a large range of materials amounting to some 240 tons to take to Japan, as well as several important passengers. U-234 also carried seven torpedoes, to maintain some offensive capability, and written orders for two minelaying operations: twenty-one mines were to be laid off Cape Town and twenty-one mines off the port of Colombo, Ceylon. The commander was told to be particularly sure that he noted that the mines off Cape Town should have settings for the southern hemisphere, while those planted off Colombo were required to have settings for the northern hemisphere. However, it was conceded that the mines should be laid only if it was ‘safe’. She then proceeded to Kristiansand, Norway, and started her schnorkel trials again in Hortenfjord on 28 March. Three days later, U-234 was rammed in the stern, while at schnorkel depth, by U-1301. An oil bunker and a diving cell were dented, while the torpedo tubes of U-1301 were so damaged that she took no further part in the war. U-234 was repaired back in Kristiansand.

Departing again on 24 April, U-234 proceeded into the Atlantic, initially using the schnorkel but later, during a strong storm, mostly on the surface through heavy seas (after further schnorkel difficulties), Fehler having decided that he would try to outrun any destroyers that located him rather than be caught at a slow speed underwater. U-234 had orders to schnorkel to the equator and then proceed to Japan, relying on radio signals transmitted from Norway and Spain to fix her position (the Elektra-Sonne radio navigation system). This system did in fact work quite well while the U-minelayer made her way between Iceland and the Faeroes ‘Northern Transit route’. Her total absence from German waters was expected to be about a year, so at least one of the German naval staff must still have been quite an optimist.

U-234 surrendered at sea on 14 May, six days after the cessation of hostilities in May 1945. The crew had lost contact with Germany after radio frequencies had had to be changed as the Russians closed in on Berlin, and it was not until 10 May that orders were heard in English commanding all U-boats to surrender. This had resulted in a long discussion about what to do next. The two Japanese passengers she was carrying committed suicide. When her 163-ton cargo was offloaded in the USA, ten cases of ‘uranium oxide’ for ‘the Japanese Army’ were found aboard in heavy, lead-lined containers. These were found to be so radioactive (unlike ordinary uranium oxide) that one of the German officers was forced to handle the cases. The nature of the contents was finally disclosed as recently as 1995 from American records. Among other items, U-234 was carrying enriched uranium to assist the Japanese with the development of an atomic bomb. Instead, the material was offloaded in the USA and, almost certainly although this has never been confirmed, used to make up the shortfall in enriched uranium required for the bombs dropped by the Americans on Japan.

U-218 had some further minelaying operations to come, in the English Channel on 2 July 1944 and again on 18 August 1944. She had been fitted with a schnorkel prior to these hazardous operations. This Type VIID U-minelayer was then withdrawn from service for refit in German waters between October 1944 and March 1945. She was at sea on her way back to Norway after a final mining operation in the Clyde when the war ended in May 1945. U-218 surrendered at Bergen and was the only one of the five Type VIID U-minelayers to survive the war.

The two surviving Type VIIF torpedo transporters, U-1060 (Oberleutnant zS Brammer) and U-1061 (Oberleutnant zS Hinrichs) had been commissioned respectively on 5 May and 25 August in 1943. After the usual trials and working up, both had been used to operate a shuttle service between Kiel and the U-boat base at Narvik, with intermediate stops at Kristiansand, Bergen, Trondheim and other ports, from December 1943 to July 1944. By then, each boat had completed four round trips and had returned to Kiel. Both boats were then re-equipped, the schnorkel being the most important new item, and in October both were sent, separately, to Horten for schnorkel training.

On 27 October 1944, U-1060 was being escorted by the minesweeper M-433 as she headed southwards back to Norway, after she had picked up survivors from a previously attacked U-boat, when she was herself attacked by carrier aircraft operating in the North Sea. During the assault M-433 caught fire and one of the aircraft was shot down, the pilot being rescued by the U-boat. After a second aircraft attack, M-433 was abandoned and another aircraft was shot down, while the U-boat lost twelve men including her commander. The damaged U-boat was beached by her crew, then destroyed on the 29th by rockets and depth-charges from other aircraft. The last torpedo-transporter, U-1061, was damaged by a bomber while en route to Bergen on 30 October. She returned in stages to Trondheim where repairs took until 29 January 1945. She put to sea again, but was forced to return to Bergen for further repairs, where she remained until 26 April. Now with a new commander (Oberleutnant zS Jaeger), U-1061 moved southwards to Kristiansand with U-991 and U-1307 but, with the end of the war The German Naval Command ordered in April 1945 that all war diaries that could not safely be returned to Germany should be destroyed rather than risk capture. This applied especially to war diaries of U-boats sent to the Far East, all of which were destroyed. Thus there are no original records for operations by U-boats in the Far East, excepting those such as U-178 that had returned to Europe before the end of the war.

When the European war ended on 8 May 1945, the remaining U-boats in the Far East were taken over by Japan, although none was used operationally. U-219 (Type XB) and U-195 (Type IXD1) were among those that shared this fate (the others being UIT24, UIT25 and the U-cruisers U-181 and U-862). All were in a poor state of repair one way or another. Admiral Wenneker, in charge of the German Tokyo office, sent out two signals on 6 May. One was to the U-boat crews in the Far East, and may be summarized thus: ‘U-boats must surrender. Uncertain fate in Far East. Regrettable, but necessary; hope the Japanese will understand your plight. Thanks for loyalty and hope to greet you in the hope of a reunion at home.’ The second was to the German naval staff at Kobe: ‘Carry out “Luebeck” order [general surrender] at 11.00 Tokyo Time and report.’ Next day U-boat Command sent a message to the Southern Command: ‘All U-boats, except Freiwald (U-181), to be handed to Japan. Ask if they want them as free gift or will pay. Crews to be disembarked. Freiwald is to return – in own boat, or a substitute.’

The crew of U-219 (Korvettenkapitaen Burghagen) was, as usual, working on board when Japanese soldiers marched in, saying that the Japanese Navy had taken over the boat as I.505. The German crew was required to leave at once and be interned. However, a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ was speedily reached, whereby the German crews were permitted to stay on their boats as volunteers to aid the Japanese in putting the boats into good order. Surplus crew members could remain at the Tjikopo rest home. The crews ignored an order from U-boat Command on 16 May (sic) to surrender to the Allies – they were requested to leave their harbours, report to an Allied radio station and head for the nearest Allied harbour – together with the admonition: ‘The Grand Admiral [Doenitz] expects it of you.’ Discipline remained until the Japanese surrender in August, although the crews were now neither POWs nor sailors. U-219 was made fully operational, but was never deployed for use.

U-219 and the other U-boats still at Djakarta surrendered to the cruiser HMS Cumberland on 10 September. Tjikopo was occupied by British sailors on 2 November, where Burghagen negotiated for the Germans. All the U-boat crews remained as prisoners until 1946.

All the U-boats that had been requisitioned by the Japanese had survived until the end of the Pacific war, in August 1945. UIT 24 and UIT 25 both surrendered in August from the Japanese port of Kobe. The crews of both boats had been required to train replacement crews for the Japanese, after the German surrender, and it appears that each boat made one transport mission under Japanese command between Japan and the oil terminal in Borneo. Payments by the Japanese to the Kriegsmarine (now under Allied control) for these operations allowed the former crews to live fairly comfortably within a small Japanese hotel until the end of the war with Japan. Subsequently, every one of the requisitioned U-boats was scrapped in 1946.

Italia (1880)

The frontal view shows the flying bridge, the elevated forward control and navigation house, the sponsons, and the rounded hull shape.

From this deck plan the redoubt’s diagonal arrangement is clear. There was an armoured deck just below waterline level, but no citadel or side armour.

A novel battleship design, with four very large guns and no side armour, in many ways Italia was a forerunner of the battlecruiser. For a few years it held the prestige position of the largest and fastest battleship in the world.

The Kingdom of Italy was declared in 1861 and from the start it had difficult relations with the French and the Austrians. For Italy with its long coasts and numerous islands, a naval force was a prime necessity, and by 1866 it had fought one of the first ‘modern’ sea battles, against the Austrian Navy at Lissa in the Adriatic Sea. That was a defeat despite superior numbers on the Italian side, and drove the Italians to further expansion of their fleet.

Fast and powerful

Laid down at Castellamare in 1877 and launched in 1880, Italia took Brin’s revolutionary design of Duilio (1876) to an extreme. The brief was for a very fast ship, heavily-armed, which could also carry a large number of troops (at the time, France and Italy were on the verge of war over Tunis, on the south coast of the Mediterranean Sea). As with Duilio, the guns were mounted in echelon, but the main armament of Italia and its sister ship Lepanto was of even heavier calibre, four 432mm (17in) guns each weighing 93 tonnes (103 tons), firing shells of 907kg (2000lb). The guns were mounted in a huge barbette of oval shape extending beyond the sides, forming an armoured redoubt set diagonally across the hull. Unlike the British Inflexible, it had a high freeboard, 7.6m (25ft), offering more of a target to an enemy. The sides carried no armour, but Italia relied on the power of its guns, and its high speed, to avoid attack. Six funnels in sets of three, linked by high catwalks with the conning tower, a lofty central mast, and a large curved crane on the afterdeck, gave Italia a unique appearance. One of the few more traditional features was an ‘admiral’s walk’ around the curved stern.


The ship was built largely of steel, rather than iron. Internally it had the now-standard armoured deck, curving upwards slightly from the sides 1.83m (6ft) below the waterline, but above it a cellular raft ran the entire length of the ship. The space between them was lined laterally with cork-filled watertight cells separating the hull plating from an inner cofferdam on each side, and two transverse levels, one of empty cells, with coal storage space below. A double bottom was also fitted.

One novel feature of Duilio, not maintained on the new ship, was a stern compartment for a torpedo boat, secured by watertight doors. Italia also had space to hold an infantry division of 10,000 men and its equipment for the relatively short Mediterranean crossing. The main guns could be independently trained and aimed, but as with other very large guns of the time, the rate of fire was slow, no more than one round every four or five minutes.

Construction of Italia and Lepanto stretched Italy’s new warship-building resources, and the Italian government did not proceed to enlarge its battlefleet further. But the size, speed and general innovation of these Italian capital ships had a major impact on ship design and naval planning in both the British and the French navies. Sir Nathaniel Barnaby, Britain’s chief naval designer, observed that ‘We must … regard the first-class ironclad as … being of over 14,000 tons if we accept the reasonings of the Italian architects and the expression of their ideas in the Italia and Lepanto’. In the mid-1880s British designers were still mulling over the kind of ship ‘most suitable for meeting the Italia’. In this way the Italian contribution was to push the greater naval powers towards greater size.


Between 1905 and 1908 Italia was rebuilt, losing two funnels and with the tall single mast replaced by two, forward and aft of the funnels. By this time battleship development had caught up and moved on. Improved armour had disproved Brin’s theory that gun-power had made side-armour pointless, and the formidable guns were sadly out of date. By the 1890s the ship really ranked with armoured cruisers. The secondary armament was changed and reduced in quantity. In 1909–10 it was used for torpedo training.

Still in commission during World War I, but renamed as Stella d’Italia, it was based at Taranto and Brindisi for gunnery training until 1917, when it was disarmed and transferred to the mercantile marine as a grain transport. It was returned to the Regia Marina in 1921, but was almost immediately sold for scrapping.



Length 124.7m (409ft), Beam 22.5m (74ft), Draught 8.7m (28ft 8in), Full load 10.1m (33ft)

Displacement 15,900 tonnes (15,654 tons)

Propulsion 24 boilers, 2 vertical compound engines developing 11,780kW (15,797hp), twin screws


4 432mm (17in) breech-loading guns of 93 tonnes (103 tons), 7 150mm (5.9in) and 4 119mm (4.7in) guns, 4 356mm (14in) torpedo tubes


Redoubt 483mm (19in), Boiler uptakes 406mm (16in), Conning tower 102mm (4in), Deck 102–76mm (4–3in)

Range 9260km (5000nm) at 10 knots

Speed 17.8 knots

Complement 701

Royal Navy Monitors in the Gallipoli Campaign

HMS Abercrombie (1914)

This picture shows the stark, uncluttered layout of the 14 inch monitors. Note the side bulges and the high gunnery control tower at the top of the tripod mast. Her 14 inch main armament was manufactured by Bethlehem Steel for battle cruisers to be delivered to Greece, which became redundant when war broke out. Abercrombie had quite an active war in the Mediterranean, covering the Gallipoli operations and various Allied operations in the Aegean. On one occasion she managed to fire her anti-aircraft gun into a store on petrol on deck, causing a sever fire. Luckily the damage was minor.

Monitor at Anchor in Bay, Imbros, 1.45pm, June 22nd 1915 (Art.IWM ART 4360) image: an annotated sketch of a Royal Navy monitor, effectively a floating gun platform, at anchor in a bay off Imbros island. The monitor is shown from the starboard side with a small vessel immediately before her. A rugged peak is visible on the coastline behind. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/13177

HMS Humber

This picture shows Humber in her original configuration. Later she had a second turret with a single 6 inch gun mounted on the after deck, and the 4,5 inch howitzers were moved onto the upper deck. It is easy to see that her designers intended her for riverine use only. Any sort of sea would swamp the lower decks, and her lack of draft would cause her to skid sideways in a crosswind. However her low profile made her a difficult target and she and her sisters all survived the war with no serious damage.

While the first two monitors were active on the coast of Africa events of far greater importance were taking place in the Dardanelles. It was to prove one of the most disastrous actions ever undertaken by British arms. After Troubridge had been sent home in disgrace for letting Goeben escape, Admiral, Sir Sackville Carden, was placed in command of the force which was to find her, if she dared to emerge from her Turkish lair, and sink her and her consort. His task was not an easy one.

The Narrows, the passage leading from the Aegean to the Sea of Marmora was protected by powerful forts on Cape Helles and Kum Kale and by further batteries of heavy guns at Kephez and Chanak points. Even more dangerous than these was a dense minefield consisting of almost 400 moored mines in the channel which was less than 1 mile wide.

The Straits are dominated by hilly, broken country and are only about 5 miles wide at their widest point. Ships in the Straits are liable to shelling from the forts at the entrance and from others established at strategic points along the shoreline. The forts themselves were venerable structures, but around them had been built, with German advice and help, modern well-designed earthworks concealing heavy guns which could survive anything short of a direct hit on the gun itself. In the hillsides looking down on the Straits were concealed mobile batteries of field guns and howitzers. These were not big enough to damage heavily armoured ships much, but they could be fatal to unarmoured vessels such as trawlers or destroyers. There were also powerful mobile searchlights to spot for the guns at night. Through the Straits runs a current of anything from 2 to 4 knots, constantly running out into the Mediterranean. This current runs strongly in the centre, but is weak or nonexistent near the shores, especially the southern (Asiatic) shore. There could scarcely be a more suitable stretch of water for defensive mining.

The Narrows of the Dardanelles had been mined before the war, in mid-1914, but merchant ships were allowed to pass through a clear channel, accompanied by a Turkish pilot. In September of that year however a British patrol intercepted a Turkish destroyer just outside the Narrows and found German sailors on board. The resulting diplomatic incident caused the Turks to close the gap in the minefields and declare the Narrows closed, cutting Russia off from the Mediterranean. On 31 October Turkey joined the war on the German side. Immediately the minefields were reinforced, and the shore based heavy artillery and mobile field guns were increased in number. Their crews were rapidly stiffened by newly arrived German artillery specialists. More powerful searchlights were sent to cover the minefields and keep away sweepers. The old battleship Messudieh was sent into the Narrows to provide extra protection and fire power. Carden made two attempts to destroy forts guarding the entrance, doing considerable damage, but failing to silence them completely. The protective earthworks, reinforced with German help, ensured that although the guns might be dismounted and the gunners evacuated during a daylight bombardment, it was a relatively simple matter to restore them during the hours of darkness. Only a direct hit on the gun itself would effectively destroy it. The only notable Allied success was the sinking of Messudieh by the submarine B-11, which managed to dive below the mines and stem the current in the Narrows, although her underwater speed was only 4 knots.

By the end of January 1915 the War Cabinet had determined to adopt a more aggressive policy with the hope of forcing Turkey out of the war altogether. A fleet of ten British and four French old pre-dreadnought battleships would force the Narrows and steam towards Constantinople, protected by minesweepers and destroyers. The entrance forts would be silenced by their guns, supported by the great 15 inch main armament of Queen Elizabeth, the navy’s most modern and formidable battleship, which had been sent out by the Admiralty to provide support. She was not allowed to penetrate the Straits themselves – that would be too risky – but she could bombard from far off. Unfortunately accurate long-range indirect gunfire was impossible without good spotting from the air, and this, for various reasons, was not available. Carden had proposed this scheme and it was endorsed by the War Cabinet in the face of opposition from Fisher, the First Sea Lord who correctly foresaw the danger from mines and the problems associated with attacking coastal artillery from the sea.

The attacks on the forts commenced on 19 February, and by 25th most of the guns in the outer forts had been destroyed by the ship’s bombardment and by Royal Marine landing parties. The fleets were now able to move into the mouth of the Straits and silence the inner forts guarding the entrance to the Narrows. This was less successful, once again the Turkish gunners took cover when they were being hit by naval gunfire, only to emerge as soon as it ceased, furthermore, as the ships entered the restricted waters, they came within range of the mobile field guns. These could not do severe damage to heavy ships but they did make matters extremely difficult for the intruders, and forced the unarmoured destroyers to keep moving so as to avoid being hit. Firing on the inner forts at long range did little damage to them and it was clear that the warships would have to get closer for their assault to be effective.

The first section of the Strait was clear of mines, but to move further in and tackle the second pair of forts at the entrance to the Narrows themselves at close range, the minefields would have to be swept. To do this, North Sea trawlers had been provided, and these were given light armour to protect them from small arms fire. They were manned by their regular RNMR (Royal Naval Minesweeping Reserve) crews. It had originally been intended to supplement these with “mine bumpers” – cargo ships with reinforced hulls filled with concrete which would clear a path for each capital ship by steaming through the field blowing up mines as they went. These were not eventually provided. (Strangely the British did not make much use of reinforced mine bumpers to protect capital ships in either world war. The Germans used them, calling them Speerbrechers, extensively in both). The trawlers had to battle against the strong currents in the Straits, so that their speed over the land was only 2 or 3 knots making them easy targets for guns on shore. To give them some protection from shore batteries, the sweepers were detailed to work at night and were supported by destroyers and a light cruiser. On 1 March they set off on their first mission. Before they reached the minefield they were detected from the shore, and illuminated by brilliant searchlights, making them an excellent target for the shore based field guns. No trawlers were hit, but the fisherman crews hastily withdrew. They had not been trained for work under fire and were badly shaken by the experience. Who can blame them? Their little ships were almost stationary in the strong current, and a single hit from the 4 inch or 6 inch field guns would have proved fatal. Three more attempts were made, but with no result. A different tactic was then port to try to silence the tried. This time the trawlers steamed up stream as fast as they could go, with their sweeping gear stowed, then turned and swept down with the current. A handful of mines were recovered, but some of the crews were so scared, especially when they had to turn round and deploy their sweeps under fire, that they did not attempt to sweep at all. After two weeks of failure the regular navy was becoming disillusioned with the fishermen-sweepers. One trawler had been sunk and several damaged, but no one had been killed and there were open accusations of cowardice levelled at the RNMR. On 13 March one final attempt was made with the sweeper crews stiffened with Royal Navy volunteers and supported again by fire from a battleship. This was even more disastrous. The supporting cruiser Amethyst was badly hit, suffering twenty-four men killed, and several trawlers were severely damaged, also suffering casualties. A few mines were swept, and some more were found floating free in the Straits. Possibly these had been deliberately floated down by the Turks. They were easily dealt with and in future operations small picket boats operated alongside major ships to deal with any more “floaters”. This was a pretty high risk operation for the picket boat’s crews, exposed as they were to the fire of field guns on shore. Some of them were actually fitted with explosive sweeping wires and seem to have accounted for several mines.

By this point Carden was coming under severe pressure from Churchill who urged him to make progress regardless of casualties. After all, he argued, thousands were dying on the western front and the Dardanelles operation could relieve pressure on the hard-pressed troops in France. It was well worth hundreds of casualties among the minesweepers to force the passage and achieve their objective. The minesweeper crews, not unnaturally, did not agree.

The unfortunate Carden fell sick and was replaced by Admiral de Robeck, who had been his second in command. He resolved to continue the attack but to use a new tactic, devised by Carden, of making a daylight attack on the shore batteries and to sweep the minefields as he went. He intended to use his full force now consisting of thirteen British and four French battleships, and one dreadnought battle cruiser. The battleships were all pre-dreadnoughts except for the super dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, still attempting to make her indirect fire from outside the Narrows effective. A heavy bombardment at long range would attempt to silence the shore batteries and suppress the guns in the forts, then a second wave of battleships would steam close to the forts and complete their destruction, covering the passage of trawlers into the minefields. The warships could then follow the sweepers and force their way right through the Narrows. Some of the attendant destroyers were adapted to carry light sweeping gear.

The action took place on 18 March. At first things went as planned, the armada steamed into the straight and advanced towards the forts on Kephez Point, Turkish shore batteries replied vigorously, but the only ship badly damaged was the French Gaulois, which had to be beached. Gradually the warships got the better of the shore guns, and things were going according to plan when the advancing second line of battleships, steaming close to the forts to blast them at close range, suffered a series of appalling disasters. Bouvet (French) and Irresistible (British) were sunk by mines where there should have been none, and the battle cruiser Inflexible was severely damaged by gunfire. Shortly afterwards the battleship Ocean was disabled by gunfire and a mine strike and had to be abandoned. Once again, to the disgust of the naval officers present, the trawlers fled from the scene under heavy bombardment. Two of them had tried to deploy their sweeps and steam upstream. They dealt with three moored mines, but fire from the shore was too much for them and they abandoned their attempt in spite of orders and encouragement shouted from the picket boats and destroyers. It was impossible now for the battleships to proceed into the Narrows and de Robeck had no alternative to withdrawing his battered force. What had happened was that a Turkish mine expert, Lieutenant Colonel Geehl, had anticipated a close range attack on the inner forts and had taken a small fast steamer Nousret down the Narrows and laid a small field of twenty mines in exactly the right position. Hence an insignificant little civilian craft had brought about the sinking of three major warships and the disablement of a dreadnought battle cruiser. From that day on de Robeck was determined that no further attempt could be made to force a passage into the Sea of Marmora, until at least the European shore was held by the Allies. The Admiralty supported him and the scene was set for the even greater disaster of the landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

This sorry performance made the navy keener than ever on the idea of the monitors. If big gun monitors, such as the 14 inch, 12 inch and 15 inch vessels then being built, had been available to get close to the coastal guns, things might have gone differently, or so it was argued in Whitehall. The monitor’s big guns could have been brought to bear on the forts from close range, as they could operate in shallow water, close under the enemy guns, and their mine defences and shallow draft would have at least reduced the possibility of their sharing Ocean’s fate. Monitors must be got to the Aegean as quickly as possible.

Humber, it will be recalled, had remained at Malta while her sisters were making their way down the African coast. A small ship with only three 6 inch guns and two howitzers she seems to have been overlooked, in any case her mission had been to act as a river craft when the march up the Danube began. Then the great events taking place at Gallipoli brought a sudden change.

General, Sir Ian Hamilton, who had arrived just in time to witness the events of the 18 March, and was to command military operations on land, had agreed with de Robeck that the army would have to occupy the northern shore and destroy the enemy forts once and for all before any further naval assault on the Narrows could be contemplated. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty objected strongly to this scheme and ordered de Robeck to resume his naval offensive but the order was countermanded at the insistence of Fisher. 75,000 troops had been earmarked for landing at Gallipoli, consisting of Australians and New Zealanders then training in Egypt, the British 29th Division and a French North African Division. Hamilton had been assured that his task would be easy. The whole peninsular would be swept by naval gunfire, the Turks would put up only a token resistance as the bulk of their troops would be busy elsewhere and the affair would be over in a few weeks. It appears that no one had taken the trouble to find out that the ground on which the army would be fighting was rugged and desolate, rising in places to 1,000 feet in height and ideal for defensive warfare. The Turkish army was indeed ill equipped and poorly trained, but it was stiffened by highly professional German officers and supplied with some excellent German weapons, especially machine guns and artillery. In command was the redoubtable General Otto von Sanders.

The Allied army took some time to organise itself, giving von Sanders the opportunity to make an excellent job of fortifying the peninsular. The landings took place on 25 April, gradually and with terrible losses, the troops battled their way inland constantly supported by the guns of the fleet. It soon became clear, however, that naval support, critical as it was to the campaign, could not be maintained. For the first month all went well for the fleet, although their bombardment of the enemy positions ashore was not nearly as effective as everyone had hoped, due to the rugged terrain and the excellent defences built by the Turks. Commodore Roger Keyes, Chief of Staff to de Robeck, who was the strongest advocate of a further attempt to force the Narrows by the now much increased Allied fleet, confessed to being ashamed of the relative inactivity of the navy while so many soldiers were dying ashore. Then, on the 12 May the battleship Goliath, lying just 100 yards off-shore and waiting to be allocated a new target, noticed an unfamiliar looking destroyer approaching her during the night. The officer of the watch challenged the stranger, but he was too late. The ship was the Turkish destroyer Muavenet, her German captain had skilfully brought her down the Narrows, close inshore on the European side and she let loose three torpedoes at close range. Goliath rolled over and turned turtle, rapidly sinking. There was a strong current running at an estimated 4-5 knots so men attempting to swim ashore were all carried away and drowned. Out of 750 men on board only 180 were saved by boats from nearby ships. This disaster set off an almighty row in the Admiralty. Fisher, who had always disliked the whole idea of the Dardanelles campaign, was in a fever of worry about the possibility of Queen Elizabeth, the super dreadnought, suffering the same fate. Churchill pacified him by agreeing to withdraw Queen Elizabeth and replace her as soon as possible with 14 inch monitors. This was set in hand, but as soon as the War Office heard of it Lord Kitchener objected violently. “If she goes,” he said, “we may have to consider . . . whether the troops had better be pulled back to Alexandria”. The navy, it seemed to him, was deserting the army in its hour of need. Fisher was adamant and stated that if Queen Elizabeth did not sail that very night he himself would walk out of the Admiralty. Tempers were temporarily cooled by the promise of sending still more monitors and bringing home some more battleships, but this had the effect of annoying Fisher again as he had hoped to use the monitors for his scheme for a landing on Germany’s Baltic coast. He resigned in a fury and played no further part in the war.

The navy’s problems were only just beginning however, on 17 May U.21 had been sighted passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. Admiral de Robeck was informed but seems to have taken no new precautions. On 25th the old battleship Triumph was standing off Anzac Beach in full view of both armies. She suddenly rolled over and sank, a victim of the first of U.21’s torpedoes. The Turks in their trenches shouted and danced for joy as she went down, mercifully with the loss of only fifty-six men. The following day Majestic, another ancient battleship, was preparing to fire on the Turkish trenches when a seaman said to an officer “Look Sir, there is a submarine’s conning tower.” “Yes” he replied, “and here comes the torpedo.” The old battleship rolled over and lay in the shallow water, her hull just awash. The Allies had clearly lost control of the waters close to the peninsula. The following day a German officer, looking down from the heights, was astonished to see the water which had once been alive with British warships almost deserted. The fleet had retired to safe anchorages around Murdros Island leaving the hard-pressed troops ashore almost without heavy gun support. It was whispered in the trenches that the navy had run away.

Then someone remembered Humber. She was at Malta, she was expendable, there didn’t seem to be much prospect of sending her up the Danube and if she could replace the heavy warships withdrawn she would at least be better than nothing. At the same time some cruisers, hastily fitted with anti-torpedo bulges, were pressed into the bombardment squadron and sent to cruise off the peninsula. On 4 June Humber started to bombard an especially troublesome nest of Turkish artillery hidden among the olive trees in a ravine called Axmah. Her intervention was most welcome to the beleaguered troops on shore and she was able to provide effective bombardment with her 6 inch guns and also use the two 4.5 inch howitzers for high trajectory fire into ravines and trenches. There was a problem the following day when a premature detonation damaged one of her forward guns, but she remained in action until December, becoming a bit of a favourite with the Anzac troops, who were short of artillery of their own, and were constantly pestered by Turkish guns hidden in olive groves which enfiladed the beaches over which all their reinforcements and supplies had to travel. Working very close to the shore she was often fired on by enemy field guns, but never seriously damaged. After the loss of the three battleships, the bombardment squadrons of monitors and cruisers were careful to deploy their torpedo nets and were not troubled by enemy submarines or destroyers. They put up an impressive performance.

The bitter rows in London about the deployment of Queen Elizabeth, and the possibility of attacks on the German coast had resulted in the dispatch of the first of the specially built 14 inch monitors, the four “Generals” with the American built 14 inch guns, to join the makeshift fleet supporting the Dardanelles operation. Their departure was delayed by the need to replace the wrongly designed propellers and correct other faults found on trials. They were so slow and underpowered that they had to be towed for most of the 3,000 mile voyage. Abercrombie, towed by the old cruiser Thesus set off on 24 June, Havelock, Raglan and Roberts leaving a few days later also under tow. They arrived at Murdros in late July, and the sight of their massive turrets must have put new heart into troops on shore.

As soon as she arrived Abercrombie targeted ammunition dumps on shore at Eren Keui on the Asiatic shore, the Turks replied and she was hit by a heavy shell which luckily did not explode. Her own fire seems to have been ineffective, possibly because of lack of proper spotting from aircraft. It had always been intended that large monitors should carry their own spotter planes, but these were found to be a nuisance because they were a fire hazard, and because they had to be removed every time the guns were fired as the shock damaged them. Roberts joined Abercrombie in mid-July and she was tasked to destroy heavy gun batteries on the Asiatic shore, near Kum Kale, which were able to fire on the flank of the troops trying to force their way forward up the Cape Helles peninsula. To do this she anchored off Rabbit Island. This was to be a favourite berth for monitors for many months, it was over 10 miles from their target, well within range of the 14 inch guns but hidden behind the island and far enough away from the enemy to be almost immune from counter fire. The monitor’s own fire was indirect, they could not see their targets, but aiming marks on the island enabled the guns to be correctly aligned. The Turkish batteries were never totally destroyed, but their fire was much reduced. Occasionally aircraft attempted to bomb the monitors but they did little damage.

On 6 and 7 August the Allies landed reinforcements at Sulva Bay, this action was supported by the final two 14 inch monitors, Havelock and Raglan and by some of the small monitors which had now arrived on the scene straight from their builders. Once again the main targets were mobile Turkish batteries and troop concentrations. Naval support was critical to the success of the landing, although on one occasion a naval gun, firing prematurely, landed a shell among British troops causing four casualties. Havelock moved into Sulva Bay itself, giving direct close fire support to troops, but it soon became clear that ammunition expenditure was becoming excessive and had to be curtailed. It seems that the process of spotting and communication between the ships and observers on land and in the air during these operations left something to be desired. The lessons being learnt at almost the same time by Severn and Mersey about developing very close relations between the airmen and the gun crews, working out easily understood codes and keeping the spotter’s job as simple as possible, were not so easy to apply in the complicated situation of the Gallipoli campaign. Frequently the monitors operated very close to the shore in support of ground forces, and were in range of Turkish guns. Most of these were 75mm (approximately 12lb.) which could do little damage to the ships. Splinters could of course kill crewmen in the open, but only on rare occasions was anyone needed on deck during firing operations. There were some bigger guns as well, but Turkish shooting was not the best and no serious damage was done. Occasionally very long range bombardment was called for, and for this the ships would be heeled over by flooding the anti-torpedo bulges so as to give extra elevation. This put extra strain on the guns and turrets reducing the life of the gun barrels, so the technique had to be used sparingly.

As 1915 progressed stalemate developed on the peninsula. The Sulva landings had broadened the Allied front but had been contained by the Turks, who held firm on the high ground. Also the 14 inch monitors were starting to show some weaknesses, especially in their steering engines and, in some cases, in their much abused gun barrels. A repair ship, Reliance, was at Murdros and worked hard to keep them in action. It was obvious that the monitors would never be able to force a passage up the Narrows as they could barely stem the current. In the autumn, as more of the small monitors appeared on the scene, a re-organisation of naval forces was undertaken and four bombardment divisions were formed comprising:

The four 14 inch monitors.

Ten 9.2 inch small monitors M15-M23 + M28.

Five 6 inch monitors M29-M33 + Humber.

Four bulged cruisers.

Gradually, with experience, the fire of the big monitors became more effective. Roberts remained off Rabbit Island, Abercrombie supported the left flank of the Cape Helles beachhead, firing on batteries on the slopes of Achi Baba. Her accurate and effective fire drew heartening compliments from senior army officers. Havelock seems to have specialised in long range bombardment, firing right over the peninsula, on one occasion hitting an armaments dump 17,000 yards away eleven times out of fifteen shots. Raglan continued to support the Sulva Bay position then moved off on another mission.

Serbia was being threatened by Bulgaria and an Allied contingent was landed to support the Serbs. A small naval squadron was dispatched to the Aegean in support, Raglan’s heavy guns were considered a useful addition to the cruisers and destroyers involved, but in the end there was very little fighting (see map 4).

Although it became plain to most observers by the end of the summer of 1915 that the land battle at Gallipoli was making no progress, the momentum of the campaign caused it to drag on until December and more and more monitors of various kinds started to appear as the campaign progressed. The small monitors being faster and handier than the heavy gun ships were particularly effective at harassing the coastline of European Turkey. The 9.2 inch guns, old as they were, proved to be most accurate and effective weapons, although their recoil was such that the little ships lurched violently each time they were fired. They were invaluable in suppressing enemy counter fire aimed at their big sisters and in firing at long range at enemy ships in the Narrows. Their 9.2 and 6 inch ammunition was not in such short supply as 14 inch so they could be more liberally used. One exciting side show action was carried out against Bulgaria during October when the 9.2’s of M15, M19 and M28 bombarded Bulgarian railway installations and barracks at Dedeagatch. Much damage was done and the Bulgarians, fearing an Allied invasion, were forced to adopt a defensive posture in place of supporting their Allies against Serbia.

In spite of their relative simplicity the small monitors did present some problems for the fleet’s engineers. The diesel engine ships often suffered funnel fires due to hot exhaust gasses setting fire to soot deposits in the funnels, although the results of these could be alarming they were seldom serious. M19 suffered a more serious problem when she was moored alongside Abercrombie and joining in a bombardment of the slopes on Achi Baba. Suddenly she appeared to be in the middle of a colossal explosion and chunks of metal rained down all round her. What had happened was that a shell had exploded inside the bore of her gun blowing it to pieces and setting fire to the magazine. Acting promptly and coolly the crew flooded the magazine and got the fire under control. Two men had been killed and another injured by a fragment which came in through the slits in the armoured conning tower, six others suffered serious burns. The ship managed to limp to Malta where she was repaired. Another casualty was M30, patrolling off Smyrna (Izmura) in Asiatic Turkey. She was hit by a well concealed heavy gun onshore and caught fire. This time the fire spread to the fuel and she had to be abandoned. Her guns were eventually recovered and the hull was blown up.

In December the eventual abandonment of the Dardanelles commenced and it was completed by the 8 January. The withdrawal had become strategically inevitable. The army was making almost no progress on land, and losses were mounting steadily, not just from enemy action, but from the bitter cold and freezing rain storms which started in October and grew steadily worse. Bulgaria’s entry into the war meant that there was even less prospect than before of a thrust up the Danube to attack the flank of the Austrian army. Hamilton, who had gloomily forecast that half his men would be lost if the force was evacuated, was relieved of his command. His replacement, General, Sir Charles Monro, arrived fresh from the western front, made no secret of his belief that the whole Gallipoli affair was a waste of time and of resources desperately needed elsewhere. Commodore Roger Keyes still believed that a last attempt to force the Narrows should be made by the fleet reinforced by fast minesweepers, but now that Arthur Balfour had taken over the Admiralty from Churchill, and de Roebeck remained staunchly opposed to any such venture, Keyes’s appeals fell on deaf ears.

In sharp contrast to most of the campaign, the evacuation was brilliantly handled with rifles and artillery arranged to continue firing after the troops had withdrawn so as to disguise the fact that the withdrawal was taking place. Almost all the monitors, including two of the new 12 inch ships which had just arrived from Britain, together with the bulged cruisers, had been assembled to cover the final evacuation from the beaches and the whole operation was completed without a hitch and with minimal casualties. Of the half a million men involved in the Gallipoli expedition almost half had been wounded or became sick, 50,000 died.

This ill-conceived campaign had shown up very well the strengths and weaknesses of the big gun monitors. They had provided useful fire cover and destroyed some important enemy installations but their interventions had not been in any way decisive and their co-ordination with ground forces had not always been good. They were so slow that they were utterly useless for the operation which it had been hoped they could perform – forcing the Narrows. Furthermore their appetite for heavy ammunition was a serious embarrassment on this station, distant as it was from Great Britain. For most of the campaign the 14 inch monitors had to be limited to two or three rounds per day. Land battles in the 1914-1918 war were won by using massed artillery pouring thousands of rounds down in a hail of fire on enemy positions, and this could not be achieved using the great guns of the monitors on this distant battlefield. Introduced as a cheap, quickly constructed force which would allow Britain to project military might overseas and carry the battle to the enemy, these limitations of the monitors must have been a sore disappointment to everyone involved. Conversely the small monitors had been reasonably successful. Their guns had been effective, especially the old 9.2s and because they were small and readily mobile they had done everything that could be expected of them, effectively harassing enemy lines of communication and making movement by land or water along the coastline extremely difficult. They were also useful for patrolling the narrow seas between Greece and Turkey, keeping a lookout for suspicious movements, a task for which they were to be used extensively in later campaigns.

Xebec (Chebeck)

“Xebec,” “zebec,” and “chebeck” or “chebec” are all variations on one term, whose ultimate origins are Arabic. W.H. Smyth, Sailor’s Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, rev. E. Belcher (1867; repr. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1996), defines “Xebec, or Zebec,” as follows:

A small three-masted vessel of the Mediterranean, distinguished from all other European vessels by the great projection of her bow and overhanging of her stern. Being generally equipped as a corsair, the xebec was constructed with a narrow floor, for speed, and of great breadth, to enable her to carry a great press of sail. On the Barbary coast the xebec rig was deemed to vary from the felucca, which in hull is the same, by having the foremast square-rigged.

The xebec, or chebeck, originated in the western Mediterranean during the seventeenth century. The name stems from the Arabic sabak. This suggests that the Barbary pirates, who were closely associated with this type of vessel, may have developed it. Xebecs were designed to emerge from shallow harbours, using their great speed to intercept merchantmen, few of which would be able to outrun or outmanoeuvre the freebooters. The original North African designers of the xebec borrowed from both the galley and the caravel traditions. The Spanish and French. were quick to follow, if only to have a ship that could match the line sailing qualities of the xebeck. Three-masted, and originally with full lateen-rig, it carried 18 oars to assure mobility during calms, and had a distinctive built-out stem platform to stay the mizzen. Although of shallow draught, the xebeck was far from being tub-like, having fine underwater lines. It carried 12 to 15 guns, including four 12pdr guns mounted on the bow.

Length: 31m (103ft 9in)

Beam: 6.7m (22ft)

Depth: 2.5m (8ft 2in)

Displacement: 190t

RIgging: three masts; lateen-rigged

Armament: 12-15 guns

Complement: 24, plus fighting men


The xebec, as in most ship types, possesses origins difficult to trace. It probably began with the Mediterranean Galley, the type used by Italian city-states, Barbary Corsairs, and other Muslim empires since the middle ages. These ships had long, narrow hulls with a bank of oars. They were meant to be fast and manoueverable under oarpower. These ships also carried two or three lateen-rigged masts.

The foremast of the xebec was traditionally raked (bent) forward while the main was straight. There were no topmasts. The immense lateen yards were actually two spars lashed together at the thicker ends to form one. The hull had considerable overhang at the bow and stern. A ram was located at the bow, much above the waterline to form a prow. There was usually no bowsprit.

Although both galleys and xebecs were warships, some of the features of a xebec are also found in the Felucca, the Pink and the Polacre.

The Felucca is closer to the xebec than the galley. It was a smaller version of a galley, but still lateen rigged. In no way was a xebec ever bigger than a galley, so the felucca is a more likely ancestor.

The Pink and the Polacre are more likely derivatives of the xebec. The pink carried a similar rig, while retaining the rake in the foremast and the narrow beak. However, it possessed a characteristic stern to which it gave its name to. According to Culver, “the upper portion of the pink’s stern was drawn out more or less behind the body of the vessel proper and usually terminated in a much restricted quadrilateral transom.” (152). The pink was more than anything a merchant ship so it had a more full hull and much less overhang at the bow and stern. At a glance, the xebec and the pink might be similar if it were not, at a closer inspection, for the unique shape of the xebec’s hull.

In the late 18th century, there are accounts of xebec-frigates, ship-rigged ships with hulls similar to that of a xebec. Such designs can be yielded to the name Polacre. These ships operated in the Mediterranean as frigates would anywhere in the world. They were owned by almost any nation with influence in the middle sea. They had three to four square sails on the main and fore masts, while the mizzen would have a large lateen sail. The hull otherwise was very similar to the xebec. The overhang, the prow, and the narrowness are all present.

From Galley to Xebec

The transition was very simple. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Barbary pirates were a menace to Christian shipping, but if a Christian warship could come to blows with the galleys of the Muslim corsairs, the broadsides could eliminate the oar-driven vessels quickly.

One theory is that in order to be able to run away or even stand up to a fight, galleys needed to be upgraded. The result was a sailing ship with the capacity to carry guns. Rowers had to be removed to fit the guns, so the dependency for speed in a corsair vessel fell to sail. To accomplish this, a hull similar to a galley, long and narrow, was used, but widened to achieve greater stability to mount guns. The graceful lines were maintained, and so a xebec is formed.

Rigs of the Xebec

The basic xebec carried three lateen-rigged masts, however, two other rigs were apparently used on the same xebec hull shape. A square-rigged mainmast appears on some western xebecs, as well as square sails on the mizzen. This would create the effect seen with the ‘polacre’ rig below. However, the fore and mizzen mast retained their rake.

The other rig that has been described is that of a fully-rigged ship, known as a xebec-frigate. This entails three square-rigged masts. This design, however, arguably becomes a true polacre.

The End of the Evolution

The most common form of xebec produced was the traditional lateen-rigged xebec. It had three lateen-rigged masts, the fore sail sometimes being bigger than the main. The foremast was raked well to the bow while the mizzen was raked to the stern. The presence and size of a bowsprit depended on whether or not the xebec had a jib.

The hull was low and narrow, similar to a felucca. The bow retained a long prow and the stern was greatly extended with a grating over the narrow transom, if that was at all present. The unique shape of the hull allowed a small forecastle and an extended quarter deck. In some ships, the grated overhang at the stern would serve as a poop deck.

The Uses of a Xebec

Since the xebec was above all an excellent sailer, her speed could be used for commerce raiding, or piracy. And that it was. Corsairs, mainly out of Algiers, sailed in xebecs with up to 36 guns, and auxiliary oars.

The Spanish used xebecs to fight the Algerian pirates with their own weapon, seeing that the Corsairs would run at first sight of a warship. The French and Italian city states probably adapted the design for the same purpose.

On the Atlantic, the British were already experimenting with different kinds of techniques, and there is no doubt they tested the value to the xebec’s design. It is possible they had a fleet running out of Gibraltar containing xebecs.

The Operators of a Xebec

So far, there have been accounts of Barbary xebecs, as well as Spanish (jabeque), French (chebec), Italian (sciabecco), Russian (shebeck), and to some extents British xebecs (Dart and Arrow). It is interesting to note that the Danish (schierbek), Portuguese (xebeco), and Dutch (Schebeck) have the xebec in their vocabulary too, denoting knowledge of the vessel. As well there are some records of xebecs operating on the Great Lakes and in North America during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (Repulse and Champion). Further there is an account of 12 xebecs in the casualty list on the Danish side of the Bombardment of Copenhagen, 1801. Each mounted 4 guns. Otherwise, the majority of xebec operation appears to have occurred in the Mediterranean.

The French had built seven ships based on the xebec design and these ships even fought successfully against British ships. The Royal Navy had at that time tested with success the qualities of the xebec.

The xebec under sail was noted to be the fastest and most agile craft of the Mediterranean. However, the ship was not suited to heavy weather due to its low freeboard and shallow draught. As well, if it were a Corsair vessel loaded with armed troops, its range would be limited due to the fact that the stores required for that many men would take up a large amount of space. Being lightly built and of typical Mediterranean materials, the xebec was not a strong vessel. As Thomas Jefferson put it, Algerian xebecs were “so light as not to stand the broadside of a good frigate.”

These were the physical disadvantages of the xebec. Added to this was the fact that the gunners on most Barbary (North African) xebecs were poorly trained and very inaccurate. Calibres were not standardized like in modern navies so this also added to the xebec’s disadvantages.

What the xebec lost in weakness and poor crews, it made up for in speed and manoevreability. This ship type was famous for its speed and handling under sail. If the wind died, the xebec could also rely on a set of 10 to 20 oars. With that kind of movement and versatility, it was easy for a xebec to run circles around slower, heavily laden merchant ships. In a time of crisis, a xebec could easily escape naval warships too.

These qualities made the xebec attractive to North African Corsairs, notably Algeria. However, the Knights of Malta, their Christian opposites, did not seem to adapt the design, preferring galleys and eventually a modern Westernized navy. Nevertheless, many European states integrated the xebec into their navies, notably France, Spain, and Britain. Britain built two xebec-based ships (Dart and Arrow) in 1797 and both vessels were particularly successful. France and Spain utilized the design to fight the Corsairs with their own weapon. It is undoubtable that Portugal, Russia, the Italian city-states, and other nations did the same thing.

Two odd accounts of xebecs outside the Mediterranean occur in North America and in the Baltic. There are some records of xebecs operating on the Great Lakes during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (Repulse and Champion). There is also a record of 12 xebecs on the Danish casualty list after the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1801 by Horatio Nelson. Each of them mounted four guns. At the battle of Svensksund in 1790, ‘hemmemas’ were used as gunboats, and greatly resemble xebecs.

Mediterranean Coastal and Torpedo Craft

Known popularly as PT boats, World War II–era patrol-torpedo boats were the American equivalent of German E boats and British motor torpedo boats. They were small, fast, wooden-hulled, shallow-draft vessels that depended on surprise, speed, and maneuverability and thus did their best work in coastal waters.

During World War I, the Italian navy built and used some 299 torpedo-armed motorboats against the Austro- Hungarian navy in the Adriatic. From 1916, the British navy used coastal motor boats in home waters and in the raids against Ostend and Zeebrugge, Belgium, in April 1918. Although the United States did not use such craft in World War I, the Electric Boat Company’s Elco Division in Bayonne, New Jersey, constructed several hundred power boats for Britain and Italy and gained expertise in designing and manufacturing that type of vessel.

In the late 1930s, the U.S. Navy was pushed toward the development of gasoline-powered motor boats by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison, both of whom were concerned about European interest in these craft. They secured a 1938 appropriation of $5 million for the construction of ships of fewer than 3,000 tons displacement. In June, the navy staged an American design competition, selecting seven winners for further testing, but Edison decided instead to put into limited production at Elco a 70 ft craft, with a crew of 10 men, from the British designer Hubert Scott- Paine. Elco’s boat substituted Packard engines for those of Rolls-Royce. By 1941, Elco had progressed to a 77 ft version that demonstrated an average speed of 27.5 knots in rough waters and mounted 2 ÷ 21-in. torpedo tubes and 2 ÷ 50-caliber machine guns in twin turrets. The boats also had the ability to lay smokescreens. Andrew Jackson Higgins, a Louisiana shipbuilder, developed a similar 78 ft vessel. At 80 ft or less, the boats could be carried on long voyages by larger ships.

During World War II, the United States deployed in the Pacific 350 PT boats, mostly of the Elco and Higgins types, along with 42 in the Mediterranean and 33 in the English Channel. Together, they launched in combat a total of only 697 torpedoes, usually with minimal success. All too often, American torpedoes were defective, and firing them accurately from fast-moving vessels was problematic in any case. Nor were PT boats fortunate at antisubmarine warfare, being much too noisy to make effective use of sonar equipment. The most memorable action in European waters by this type of craft came from the Germans when they sent their E boats in an attack on an American landing exercise at Slapton Sands, England, on 18 April 1944. The Germans sank two LSTs (landing ships, tank), damaged a third, and killed more than 700 Americans.

1943 – German Schnellboot S.100. German S-boats of World War II were among the best small combatant vessels ever produced. The armament carried by the S-boats gave them almost the same firepower as that of a destroyer and specially developed paint schemes rendered them almost impossible to see at night. The S-boat had a cruising range of 700-750 miles with speeds from 39-43.5 knots.

S-boats were often used to patrol the Baltic Sea and the English Channel in order to intercept shipping heading for the English ports in the south and east. As such, they were up against Royal Navy and Commonwealth (particularly Royal Canadian Navy contingents leading up to D-Day) Motor Gun Boats (MGBs), Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs), Motor Launches, frigates and destroyers. They were also transferred in small numbers to the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea by river and land transport. Some small S-boats were built as boats for carrying by auxiliary cruisers.

Crew members could earn an award particular to their work—Das Schnellbootkriegsabzeichen—denoted by a badge depicting an S-boat passing through a wreath. The criteria were good conduct, distinction in action, and participating in at least twelve enemy actions. It was also awarded for particularly successful missions, displays of leadership or being killed in action. It could be awarded under special circumstances, such as when another decoration was not suitable.

Although the development of the automotive torpedo in the late 19th century promised to realize the dream of the small warship with the killer punch, the need for this ‘torpedo boat’ to work with and against fleets at sea stimulated too large an increase in size, a trend aggravated by the contemporary technology of steam machinery in displacement hulls. The development of the fast planing hull and the internal combustion engine began the cycle afresh, with progress before 1914 owing much to the commercial prospects of high-speed boating. It was but a small step to mount torpedoes on such craft, and the same specialist yards have tended to remain in the business to this day.

Much effort was put into the production of torpedo-carrying coastal craft during World War l, but only the Italians in the Adriatic and the British in the English Channel and the Baltic ever demonstrated their true potential. Neither employed massed attack, preferring to work singly or in small groups to capitalize on the advantages of agility, surprise and good planning. The Italians were particularly imaginative, evolving craft and tactics to assault an Austro-Hungarian fleet snug in well-defended harbours. The British had to contend with poorer weather conditions and soon learned the value of larger and stronger hulls. They also discovered the threat posed by aircraft and fire from ashore, suffering losses from both despite small size and manoeuvrability. Experience did not turn the British away from hard-chine designs; they accepted a drop in performance in heavy weather in exchange for the benefit of really high speed in calmer water.

After World War I the British totally lost interest in coastal craft, being occupied with deep-sea imperial matters. The Italians went on initially to be joint front runners with the Germans, who saw in the small-torpedo boat a means of constructing useful naval tonnage outside treaty restrictions. Beneath the lax gaze of the regulating authorities they built and evaluated numerous hulls under sporting-club colours and, over a decade, identified what were to be the major S-boat characteristics: displacement hull, wood on light alloy construction, stability reserves for 533-mm (21-in) torpedoes and, finally, the small marine diesel. This type of engine required careful development and, once perfected, remained peculiar to German practice, with foreign navies never producing a satisfactory competitor despite the fire risks associated with petrol engines, for which they treated effect rather than cause by introducing self-sealing tanks and improved fire-extinguishing systems.

The Italian lsotta-Fraschini was an excellent petrol engine, used widely abroad until 1940; it was probably its very availability that inhibited comparable development elsewhere. During World War I the Italians found the small planing hull adequate for their Adriatic operations. Translated into the open-sea war of 1940-3 it proved unsatisfactory and was dropped in favour of a German type of round-bilge form.

A considerable increase in efficiency resulted in the abandoning of direct-drive for purpose-designed reduction gearboxes and propellers, though transmission problems and structural failures proliferated with small hulls that ‘worked’ in a seaway. Wood had the necessary resilience and ease of repair where clad on timber or light alloy frames. All-aluminium alloy hulls corroded disastrous salt-water conditions. As in the pre-transitional navy, it was found that wooden hulls could not exceed a certain length and, for instance in the British SGBs steel had to be used. A great British innovation was to abandon traditional boat-building methods for mass production, using prefabricated techniques. Once certain weaknesses had been rectified, this system realized greater numbers of craft.

Hard-used fast coastal craft have a short operational life and demand continual attention. Specialized depot ships, or tenders, enabled squadrons to operate successfully ‘up-front’. The Americans particularly made great use of them, offering off duty crews accommodation and facilities while undertaking endless hull and machinery repairs, and servicing armament.

It had been assumed between the wars that coastal craft would be needed in inshore ASW role, a belief that hung on until the British SDBs of the 1950s. In the event, submarines generally operated further offshore and those which were destroyed by small craft were despatched by torpedo while navigating on the surface. Specialist AS boats were, therefore, rapidly re-armed as gunboats, their depth charges removed. It remained the practice, however, for many boats to retain a pair of charges for the deterrence of close pursuit.

Small torpedoes of up to 457-mm (18-in) calibre proved to have insufficient ship-stopping capacity, but the size and weight of two or four 533-mm (21-in) weapons tended to dictate the parameters of the boats themselves, to the extent that the Americans developed a special ‘short’ version. To save the weight of tubes, dropping gear was introduced, though this left the torpedoes themselves vulnerable to damage. The Germans preferred to retain their two enclosed tubes forward, with a reload for each stowed safely behind a bulwark.

Close-in fighting was typically brief and bloody, involving large volumes of volumes from light automatic weapons. Armour was gradually introduced as a result the Germans going as far as an armoured wheelhouse. Initially the British were at a disadvantage with only machine-guns to match the German 20-mm cannon, whose explosive or incendiary shells were lethal to wooden hulls loaded with petrol and ammunition.

As ever, armament developed to suit the need. American PT boats, involved in the Far East against the eternal and apparently unstoppable Japanese barge traffic, shed some or all of their torpedoes in favour of weapons such as racked 127-mm (5-in) rockets and 81-mm (3.2-in) mortars. British boats faced similar problems with the German MFPs, or ‘F’ lighters, in such areas as the Aegean and Adriatic. Like the Japanese, these craft were of a draught too shallow to be vulnerable torpedoes and could take aboard a variable armament which often included much-respected 88–mm (3.46-mm) gun. British MGBs responded appropriately, toting guns as large as the short-barrelled 114-mm (4.5-in) gun.

Radar, available to small craft, was a boon in the vicious nocturnal encounters where opponents could usually be seen only fleetingly and for very short periods. Paradoxically, it was radar-controlled gunfire on the part of larger ships that offset the torpedo boat’s advantages by effectively outranging its main weapon.

Come the peace there was no sentiment, the boats being deleted in hundreds destroyed by burning and many surviving a swords-to-ploughshares transfiguration to become houseboats of surprising durability.

Interest in small craft lapsed again on the part of the larger navies until that day in 1967 when the Eilat became the first major SSM casualty.


The scuttled French fleet at Toulon: aerial pictures. On 28 November 1942, the day after the scuttling and firing of the ships of the French fleet in Toulon harbour, photographs were taken by the Royal Air Force. Many of the vessels were still burning so that smoke and shadows obscure part of the scene. But the photographs show, besides the burning cruisers, ship after ship of the contre-torpilleurs and destroyer classes lying capsized or sunk, testifying to the thoroughness with which the French seamen carried out their bitter task. While the vast damage done is shown in these photographs, no exact list of the state of the ships can be drawn up, since the ships themselves cannot be seen in an aerial photograph. Thus the upper deck of the battle cruiser Strasbourg is not submerged, but here are signs that the vessel has settled and is grounded. The key plan C.3296 shows the whereabouts of the majority of the ships and their condition as far as it can be seen from the photographs. Picture shows: damaged and sunk light cruisers and destroyers visible through the shadow and the smoke caused by the burning cruisers.

    left is the Strasbourg (bridge above the water but clearly sunk)

    next to her, burning, is the Colbert

    under the smoke, the Algérie

    to the right, the Marseillaise.

Positions of the main ships during the operation

Darlan’s decision to order a cease-fire in North Africa placed the Vichy leader, Marshal Pétain, in an impossible situation. Pétain immediately countermanded Darlan’s order and declared his action illegal, but too late. The Germans realized just how vulnerable they were if other Vichy officers were to take a similar line as soon as Allied forces approached, and within days had occupied the Vichy zone libre with some help from Italian forces. Darlan had left secret orders for one of the commanders of the Vichy French forces, Lieutenant-General Jean-Marie de Lattre de Tassigny, to resist any German attempt to seize Vichy, and for his actions, de Lattre was imprisoned by the Vichy regime. Otherwise, the Germans met little resistance, and moved to disband the 100,000-strong army that had been permitted Vichy.

Occupying Vichy did not simply give the Germans additional territory, it brought with it a tremendous dowry in that the largest part of the French fleet was stationed at Toulon. There were some eighty ships there, a force which on its own was larger than most of the world’s navies. Indeed, in terms of the number of major surface units, it came close to matching Germany’s own, although by this time the German U-boat fleet had overtaken the French submarine fleet in terms of numbers. Toulon was the French fleet’s main port, and the dockyard itself was well over a mile-and-a-half long and half-a-mile deep.

At Toulon, two other French admirals were in command. Admiral de la Borde commanded the larger warships that pre-war would have constituted the Atlantic and Mediterranean Squadrons. He had been ordered by Darlan to move his ships to Dakar, where they would have been out of reach of the Germans and for the time-being at least, difficult for the Allies to take over as well. When he received Darlan’s order, de la Borde’s response had been brief, and to the point: ‘Merde!’ Admiral Marquis was the port admiral, but he flew his flag in the elderly battleship Provence.

Under de la Borde’s command were the two powerful battlecruisers, Strasbourg and Dunkerque, both 26,500 tons, although the latter had been badly damaged in her encounter with Force H at Mers-el-Kebir. He also had three obsolescent heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, ten large ‘super’ destroyers of the contre-torpilleur type as well as three smaller destroyers. In addition to Provence, Marquis also had the Commandant Teste, 10,000 tons seaplane tender, two destroyers, four torpedo boats and ten submarines. In addition to these ships, which seem to have been fully or nearly fully manned, there were another two cruisers, eight contre-torpilleur destroyers, six smaller destroyers and ten submarines that had actually been decommissioned under the armistice terms and which simply had skeleton crews aboard. Apart from these, there were also minesweepers and other minor naval vessels and auxiliaries.

This was a prize worth having.

The major fleet units, including the destroyers but not the submarines, were steam-powered, which meant that steam had to be raised before they could leave port. Since it could take eight hours to raise steam, once the Germans were at the gates of the dockyard, flight was not an option.

It soon became clear that the Germans were occupying all military and naval installations, and that Toulon could not be far down the list. On 27 November 1942, the personnel at Toulon received the briefest possible warning of what was intended, with German troops and tanks advancing on the port, followed by German naval personnel who were obviously expected to take over the ships.

As in most naval bases, the larger ships were lying alongside the outermost piers with others lying alongside them, while five ships were sitting in the large dry docks, including Dunkerque.

The Germans had intended to take the dockyards and the ships by surprise, using a pincer movement with one group travelling along the road from Nice while another three groups, including the crack Das Reich division seized the Toulon peninsula and the town. While the dockyard had defensive positions, including gun batteries outside the dockyard area, there were just two gateways and a high wall to be passed as well. When Marquis was captured at 04.30, aroused from his sleep by an advance guard of German troops, his staff had time to send a warning signal to de la Borde, although at first he refused to believe that the Germans would attack the base. Nevertheless, he had the presence of mind to immediately order all commanding officers to raise steam on their ships, even though this would take several hours, and to be on their guard to prevent the Germans boarding any vessel. Then the order to scuttle was re-issued, and then repeated as the Germans attempted to enter the dockyard area, but encountered fierce resistance from Vichy forces, who had also been alerted by a dispatch rider sent by a gendarmerie outpost. In the confusion, five submarines, Venus, Casablanca, Marsouin, Iris and Glorieux with their diesel engines providing power almost immediately, managed to slip away and out to sea. The ease with which they did this, their crews manning their deck armament, suggests that the whole procedure had already been rehearsed. Nevertheless, their escape wasn’t easy. They were bombed, strafed and depth charged by the Luftwaffe, leaving Venus so damaged that she had to be scuttled, while Iris, also damaged, was taken by her commanding officer and crew to Spain, where they spent the rest of the war in internment. Nevertheless, the other three boats reached North Africa.

After a German bulldozer forced its way through the main gates, the act of scuttling those ships that could not flee was started. Through the main gate at 05.00, the Germans took another hour to reach the first of the ships, and when they reached the piers alongside which the Strasbourg had been moored, they found that she was already drifting away after her crew had cast of all lines to the shore. Admiral de la Borde was aboard his flagship, and to discourage him from taking the ship to sea, which would have been impossible, a German tank fired an 88mm shell into ‘B’ turret, fatally wounding a gunnery officer. The crew responded, but with machine guns and other light weapons. The officer in command of the German troops demanded that de la Borde return his ship to the pier and hand her over to his forces, but de la Borde replied that scuttling had already started, with her sea cocks opened and the ship settling slowly in the water. Further communication was prevented by the first of a series of loud explosions ripping through the ship. In addition to setting explosive charges, the crew were also setting about wrecking the ship’s machinery with hand grenades and oxy-acetylene cutters. There wasn’t enough depth of water for the ship to sink completely, but instead she settled on the bed of the port, leaving her distinctive superstructure sticking out of the water.

Nearby, the crew of the heavy cruiser Algerie, 13,900 tons, also had opened her sea cocks and her main armament had been destroyed by explosives. This did not prevent a German officer from declaring to Admiral Lacroix that he had come to seize the ship, only to be informed by a bemused Lacroix that he was too late. A brief stand-off then occurred as the German said that he would come aboard the Algerie if the ship would not blow up, to be countered by Lacroix’s declaration that the ship would indeed be blown up if the German boarded. Added emphasis came to the exchange a couple of minutes later when one of the two after twin 8-in turrets blew up. The ship continued to burn for the next two days during which occasional explosions could be heard as her ammunition went up. This was far from a record, as the light cruiser Marseillaise, which had settled at an angle, took more than a week to burn herself out. Another cruiser, the Colbert, was boarded by a German party, but when they saw fuses being set and one of her officers setting fire to his floatplane, they left promptly, but only just in time before her magazine blew the ship apart. The German party that had set foot aboard another cruiser, the Dupleix, also had a narrow escape when she blew up.

Scuttling on its own often causes little damage, and ships scuttled in shallow port waters can be re-floated and salvaged, which was one reason why so much emphasis was given to setting off the magazines and ready use ammunition, not to mention the attacks by grenade and oxy-acetylene cutters. This point was brought home later when another cruiser, a sister ship of the Marseillaise, La Galissonniere, was scuttled, but then re-floated and taken by the Italian navy, although returned to the French in 1944.

In the confusion, the elderly battleship Provence was one ship that was nearly taken by the Germans, as her commanding officer hesitated when he was given the message that the Vichy premier, Pierre Laval, had ordered that there were to be no ‘incidents’. Nevertheless, while he sent an officer to seek clarification, his crew, seeing the other ships sinking and blowing up, opened the sea cocks and the ship began to settle in the water even while the Germans argued with her CO on the bridge.

Nevertheless, it was clear that there were to be victims amongst the French ships. A ship in dry dock cannot be scuttled, and it is usual, for the safety of dockyard workers, for ships entering dry dock to be de-stored. The battlecruiser Dunkerque, sister ship of the Strasbourg and pride of the pre-war French navy, was in dry dock and rather than being refitted and returned to service, she suffered the ignominy of being scrapped by a large gang of Italian workers imported for the purpose, so that she could be sent to Italy in pieces as part of a scrap metal drive intended to rebuild Italy’s dwindling stocks of war materials. The decision to scrap the ship was caused not so much by the damage inflicted two years earlier by the Royal Navy, but by the damage inflicted on her armament and turbines in the brief period between the warning being given and the Germans finding their way to the ship.

Out of the eight contre-torpilleur destroyers, three, Lion, Tigre and Panthere were being refitted and their skeleton crews did not have enough time to sabotage them effectively, so these survived to pass to Italy along with the smaller destroyer Trombe.

Despite having lost his ship, de la Borde was left aboard the Strasbourg when she settled on the bottom of the harbour. He refused to go ashore, remaining aboard and accusing the Germans of breaching the terms of the armistice in attempting to seize the French fleet. Incredibly, the first indication that French naval units in North Africa had of the events at Toulon were when they picked up Pétain’s signal to de la Borde: ‘I learn at this instant that your ship is sinking. I order you to leave it without delay.’ Meanwhile, the Germans had left de la Borde, reasoning that in theory he had gone down with his ship. Certainly, he was no longer a threat.

Not all of the submarines had managed to escape, and the four that were left behind at Toulon were scuttled at their moorings.

In the aftermath of the battle of Toulon and the attempted seizure of the fleet, everyone on the base, including the ships’ crews, were interned, effectively becoming prisoners of war. The Vichy authorities argued that their actions were in accordance with the terms of the armistice, and for once won the argument with the Germans. The internees were all released, and the naval personnel spent the rest of their war on full pay from the Vichy authorities!


The German attempt to grab the fleet at Toulon and Darlan’s orders led Cunningham to expect the French squadron in the Mediterranean, under Vice-Admiral Godfroy at Alexandria to reactivate his fleet, and join the Allies. ‘They have no excuse for remaining inert,’ he wrote home on 1 December 1942. ‘Except perhaps that so many Frenchmen at the present time appear to have lost all their spirit. Doubtless it will revive; but at present the will to fight for their country is completely absent.’