HMS Hermes (D 95)
Aircraft Carrier of the Hermes class
|Navy||The Royal Navy|
|Built by||Armstrong (Newcastle-on-Tyne, U.K.) : Parsons|
|Laid down||15 Jan 1918|
|Launched||11 Sep 1919|
|Commissioned||7 Jul 1923|
|Lost||9 Apr 1942|
|Loss position||7° 35'N, 82° 05'E|
HMS Hermes was the first purpose-designed aircraft carrier built for the Royal Navy and fitted with an off-centre island containing the funnel and operations spaces. Although very narrow, the island was quite long and massive for a ship this size. The island located forward of amidships made the ship trim by the bow, the weight of the off-set island also caused a list to starboard. This imbalance had to be corrected by carrying more water ballast and fuel oil in the port side and aft tanks than in the starboard side and forward tanks. It was a time of trial and error. The basic hull had been built along the lines of a light cruiser.
From 1920 until 1938 Hermes served mainly on the China Station. During 1928 and again in 1934 she received refits at Chatham.
In September 1939 Hermes was employed against U-boats off the in the south-west Approaches to the North Atlantic, and supplied air cover for the British Expeditionary Force to France. In October she was a unit of Force N based in the West Indies, she joined a British and French hunting group operating from Dakar, in search of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee which was harassing shipping in the south Atlantic. In November she was deployed in patrolling the area off Dakar, and covered the passage of convoys passing through that area.
In July 1940 Hermes and the Australian cruiser HMAS Australia left Freetown to rendezvous with the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire whose task it was to observe the movements of the French naval forces off Dakar. On July 10th in a sudden violent tropical rainstorm Hermes collided with the armed merchant cruiser HMS Corfu, she suffered severe damage to the bows and to the fore ends of the flight deck, but she managed to reach Freetown under her own steam. In August the carrier left for Simonstown, South Africa for more permanent repairs, where extensive work was carried out to her bows, from keel to flight deck, and opportunity was made for a long overdue refit. Echo sounding gear was fitted, and only after twelve weeks, she was back at sea. In December the German pocket batleship Admiral Scheer which had been harassing merchant shipping in the South Atlantic captured a British merchant vessel which was able to transmit a distress signal. Some British squadrons were then deployed to the last reported area, these consisted of Hermes, with the cruiser HMS Dragon, and the armed merchant HMS Pretoria Castle from the St. Helena area, search operations unfortunately, produced no results.
In February 1941 Hermes gave support to the British offensive against Italian Somaliland. The C-in-C East Indies Vice Admiral Leatham formed Force T. This force consisted of Hermes the heavy cruiser HMS Shropshire and the two old light cruisers HMS Capetown and HMS Ceres, they supported the advance on land with their combined fire power. During March – May 1941 Hermes was assigned to the Persian Gulf where her aircraft were to assist the British and Indian forces in frustrating any German intervention in Iraq. From June to November the carrier was employed in the protection of commerce convoy escorts, and the interception of enemy shipping in the Indian Ocean. On December 6th she was docked in the Selborne dry dock at Simonstown.
On 23 January 1942 Hermes was undocked and successfully completed her sea trials. In March, Hermes was transferred to the Eastern Fleet based at Ceylon as a unit of Force B, she then sailed for Trincomalee. On April 8th a Catalina flying boat reported the sighting of a Japanese Carrier Fleet approaching Trincomalee. The British ships then received orders to withdraw, however the following day, 91 high level bombers and dive bombers with 38 fighters from the carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu (all offsite links) attacked the British ships, 80 dive bombers with fighter escort diverged on Hermes (Capt. Richard Francis John Onslow, MVO, DSC, RN) and she and her escorting Australian destroyer HMAS Vampire were sunk south-east of Trincomalee, Ceylon in position 07º35'N, 82º05'E. Fortunately the attack had been witnessed by the hospital ship Vita which immediately set about rescuing and treating the survivors.
The aircraft carrier`s badge can still be seen proudly displayed on the side of the Selborne dry dock wall.
Commands listed for HMS Hermes (D 95)
Please note that we're still working on this section.
|1||Capt. Fitzroy Evelyn Patrick Hutton, RN||25 Aug 1939||7 May 1940|
|2||Capt. Richard Francis John Onslow, DSC, RN||7 May 1940||9 Apr 1942 (+)|
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Notable events involving Hermes include:
20 Sep 1939
HMS Kelly (Capt. L.F.A.V.N. Mountbatten, GCVO, RN) escorted the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN) during exercises off Plymouth. Upon completion of these exercises Hermes returned to Plymouth while Kelly proceeded to Portland. (1)
1 Oct 1939
1 October 1939, an enemy raider reported in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. The chase of the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee
Movements of the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee 21 August 1939 – 13 December 1939.
Before the Second World War had started, on 21 August 1939, the German ‘pocked battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee departed Wilhelmshaven bound for the South Atlantic. On 1 September the Admiral Graf Spee was off the Canary Islands where she made rendes-vous with the supply ship Altmark and supplies were transferred.
On 11 September another rendes-vous was made with the Altmark in the South Atlantic. The Admiral Graf Spee had launched her Arado floatplane to scout in the area as supplies were transferred. The aircraft spotted the British heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland (Capt. W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN). The German ships then immediately parted company and cleared the area at high speed. Two days later, on the 13th, the ships again met and fueling was completed. The Admiral Graf Spee was still under orders to remain unseen.
On 20 September 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee and Altmark met again to fuel. On the 26th the Admiral Graf Spee was ordered to start raiding the British trade lanes. She then proceeded towards the Pernambuco area.
On 30 September 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee found her first victim, the British merchant vessel Clement (5050 GRT, built 1934) that was en-route from New York, U.S.A. to Bahia, Brasil. She then sank the ship in position 09°05’S, 34°05’W. The Admiral Graf Spee then proceeded eastwards and found three more victims between 5 and 10 October. On the 5th she captured the British merchant Newton Beech (4644 GRT, built 1925) in position 09°35’S, 06°30’W. This ship was en-route from Capetown to the U.K. via Freetown. On the 7th she sank the British merchant Ashlea (4222 GRT, built 1929) in position 09°52’S, 03°28’W. This ship was en-route from Durban to Falmouth. The crew of the Ashlea was transferred to the Newton Beech. The next day both crew were transferred to the Admiral Graf Spee and the Newton Beech was scuttled. On 10 October the Admiral Graf Spee captured the British merchant Huntsman (8196 GRT, built 1921) in position 08°30’S, 05°15’W. This ship was en-route from Calcutta to the U.K. On 15 October 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee met the Altmark again to receive supplies and fuel. On the 17th the crew of the Huntsman was transferred to the Altmark and the ship was scuttled in approximate position 16°S, 17°W. The next day the crews of the Newton Beech and Ashlea were also transferred to the Altmark and the German ships then parted company.
On 22 October 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee sank her next victim, the British merchant Trevanion (5299 GRT, built 1937) which was en-route from Port Pirie (Australia) to Swansea. This ship was sunk in position 19°40’S, 04°02’E. On 28 October 1939, near Tristan da Cunha, the Admiral Graf Spee once more refuelled from the Altmark. The Admiral Graf Spee then set course for the Indian Ocean.
On 15 November 1939 she sank the small British tanker Africa Shell (706 GRT, built 1939) in position 24°45’S, 35°00’E. This ship was in ballast and en-route from Quelimane (Portugese East Africa now called Mozambique) to Lourenco Marques (now Maputo, also in Portugese East Africa / Mozambique). Next day the Admiral Graf Spee stopped the Dutch merchant Mapia (7188 GRT, built 1923) but had to let her go as she was a neutral ship. The Admiral Graf Spee then set course to return to the South Atlantic where she met once more with the Altmark on 27 November 1939 and the next day she fuelled from her about 300 miles from Tristan da Cunha.
On 2 December 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee sank her largest victim, the British merchant Doric Star (10086 GRT, built 1921),in position 19°15’S, 05°05’E. This ship was en-route from Auckland, New Zealand to the U.K. The next morning the Admiral Graf Spee sank the British merchant Tairoa (7983 GRT, built 1920) in position 19°40’S, 04°02’E. This ship was en-route from Brisbane, Australia to London. On 6 December 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee refuelled once more from the Altmark. She then set course to the River Plate area where the British merchant traffic was the thickest. She was to sink more ships there and disrupt British shipping movements in that area before returning to Germany.
On 7 December 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee sank what was to be her last victim, the British merchant Streonshalh (3895 GRT, built 1928) in position 25°01’S, 27°50’W. This ship was en-route from Montevideo to Freetown and then onwards to the U.K.
Then in the morning of 13 December 1939, her smoke was sighted by three cruisers from the South America Division. More on this in the article ‘The Battle of the River Plate, 13 December 1939’.
British Dispositions in the South Atlantic / South America area
Shortly before the outbreak of the war the South America Division of the America and West Indies Station was transferred to the newly formed South Atlantic Station. The South America Division at that moment consisted of the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (Capt. F.S. Bell, RN, flying the flag of Commodore H.H. Harwood, OBE, RN) and the light cruiser HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN). In late August 1939 HMS Exeter was at Devonport with her crew on foreign leave when she was recalled to South American waters. On 25 August 1939 she sailed from Devonport. HMS Exeter arrived at Freetown on 1 September 1939. Commodore Harwood then met the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic Station, Vice-Admiral G. D’Oyly Lyon, CB, RN. Later the same day HMS Exeter sailed for Rio de Janeiro.
Meanwhile four destroyers from the 4th Destroyer Division, Mediterranean Fleet, the HMS Hotspur (Cdr. H.F.H. Layman, RN), HMS Havock (Lt.Cdr. R.E. Courage, RN), HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicholson, RN) and HMS Hunter (Lt.Cdr. L. de Villiers, RN) had left Gibraltar on 31 August 1939 for Freetown.
HMS Ajax was already on station off the coast of South America. Shortly after noon on 3 September she intercepted the German merchant vessel Olinda (4576 GRT, built 1927) in position 34°58’S, 53°32’W. This ship was en-route from Montivideo to Germany. As HMS Ajax had no prize crew available the ship was sunk by gunfire a few hours later. In the afternoon of the next day, the 4th, HMS Ajax intercepted another German ship, the Carl Fritzen (6594 GRT, built 1920) in position 33°22’S, 48°50’W. This ship was en-route from Rotterdam to Buenos Aires. This ship was also sunk with gunfire.
On 5 September two of the destroyers from the 4th Destroyer Division, HMS Hotspur and HMS Havock departed Freetown to join the South America Division. They were ordered to examine Trinidade Island on the way. On 8 September 1939 the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland (Capt. W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN) departed Freetown to join the South America Division as well. This cruiser came from the Home Fleet and had arrived at Freetown on the 7th.
On 7 September 1939, HMS Exeter entered Rio de Janeiro where Commodore Harwood had a meeting with the Brazilian Secretary-General of Foreign Affairs and H.M. Ambassadors to Brazil and Argentine. HMS Exeter departed Rio de Janeiro the next day. Later that day Commodore Harwood was informed by the Admiralty that the German merchant ships General Artigas (11343 GRT, built 1923), Gloria (5896 GRT, built 1917) and Monte Pascoal (13870 GRT, built 1931) were assembling off the Patagonian coast. He decided to move both HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax south, and ordered the Ajax to meet him at 0800/9. They actually made rendezvous at 0700 hours. The Commodore considered it possible that the German merchant ships might embark German reservists and raid the Falkland Islands therefore he decided to sent HMS Ajax there. HMS Exeter proceeded to the Plate area to cover that important area.
On the evening of the 10th, Commodore Harwood was informed that the transportation of German reservists by the three German merchant ships was very unlikely but as it appeared probable that the German ships were converting themselves into armed raiders the Commodore decided to start short distance convoys from the Santos-Rio and Plate areas. He therefore ordered HMS Cumberland to refuel at Rio de Janeiro on her arrival there and to organize and run ‘out’ convoys in that area with HMS Havock as A/S escort. The convoys were to leave at dawn and be protected against submarines and surface raiders until dusk. The ships were then to be dispersed so that they would be far apart by dawn the next day. At the same time the Commodore ordered HMS Hotspur to join him in the Plate area after refuelling at Rio de Janeiro, so that similar convoys could be started from Montevideo. If one of the German ‘pocket battleships’ was to arrive of South America, HMS Cumberland was to abandon the convoy sheme and join HMS Exeter in the Plate area. Also on the 10th, Commodore Harwood was informed by the Admiralty that the German merchant Montevideo (6075 GRT, built 1936) was leaving Rio Grande do Sul for Florianopolis but decided not to intercept her as this would divert HMS Exeter 500 nautical miles from the Plate area.
On the night of 12 September 1939 the Commodore was informed by the British Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, that a concentration of German reservists was taking place in southern Argentina with the Falklands as a possible objective. He therefore ordered HMS Ajax to remain in the Falklands till the situation cleared, and the Commodore then proceeded south of the Plate area to be closer to the Falklands himself and yet remain in easy reach of the Plate area. During the next few days HMS Exeter intercepted several British and neutral vessels.
In view of a report that the German merchant vessels Porto Alegré (6105 GRT, built 1936) and Monte Olivia (13750 GRT, built 1925) were leaving Santos on 15 September 1939 Commodore Harwood decided to start the short distance convoys from Montevideo as soon as possible. HMS Cumberland had meanwhile arranged a twelve-hour convoy system from Santos. Ships from Rio de Janeiro for Freetown would sail at dawn on odd numbered days, and ships for the south on even numbered days with HMS Havock as anti-submarine escort and HMS Cumberland in distant support. HMS Cumberland left Rio de Janeiro on 16 September and during the next eight days sighted 15 British and neutral ships while on patrol.
On 17 September 1939, HMS Hotspur joined HMS Exeter in the Plate area. HMS Exeter then made a visit to Montevideo and resumed her patrol off the Plate area on the 20th. Fuelling was done from the oiler RFA Olwen (6470 GRT, built 1917, Master B. Tunnard) in the mouth of the River Plate. Soon after leaving Montevideo on 20 September Commodore Harwood learned from the British Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, that the local German authorities were endeavoring to inform German ships at sea that the British merchant Lafonia (1872 GRT, built 1911) was on her way to the Falklands with British reservists for the Falkland Islands defence force. It was also reported that on 17 September an unknown warship had passed Punta Arenas eastwards. In view of these reports and of other pointing out that German merchant ships in southern waters were being outfitted as armed raiders the Commodore ordered HMS Hotsput to escort the Laofona to Port Stanley. As the volume of trade in the Plate area was greater than in the Rio de Janeiro – Santos area, HMS Havock was ordered to proceed southwards to the Plate area.
The first local convoy outward from Montevideo sailed on 22 September 1939. It consisted of the British merchant ships Sussex (11062 GRT, built 1937), Roxby (4252 GRT, built 1923), El Ciervo (5841 GRT, built 1923) in addition to the earlier mentioned Lafonia, and was escorted by HMS Hotspur. HMS Exeter met this convoy during the forenoon and covered it throughout the day. At dusk the merchant ships were dispersed on prearranged courses while HMS Exeter remained within supporting distance and HMS Hotspur escorted the Lafonia to Port Stanley.
On 24 September 1939, Vice-Admiral Lyon (C-in-C, South Atlantic) and Commodore Harwood learned from the Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, that ‘according to a reliable source’ arrangements had been made for a number of German ships and a submarine to meet near Ascension on 28 September 1939. HMS Cumberland was ordered to proceed there and HMS Ajax was ordered to leave the Falklands and take up her place in the Rio de Janeiro area. HMS Neptune (Capt. J.A.V. Morse, DSO, RN) was also ordered to proceed to the area off Ascension with the destroyers HMS Hyperion and HMS Hunter which departed Freetown on the 25th. No German ships were however encountered off Ascension and all ships then proceeded to Freetown where they arrived on 2 October 1939 with HMS Cumberland low on fuel.
While HMS Cumberland left the station to search for the German ships, HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax were sweeping of the Plate and Rio de Janeiro – Santos area respectively. On 27 September 1939, HMS Havock escorted a convoy made up of the British merchants Miguel de Larrinaga (5231 GRT, built 1924), Pilar de Larringa (7352 GRT, built 1918) and Sarthe (5271 GRT, built 1920) out of the Plate area. The next day another convoy, made up of the British merchants Adellen (7984 GRT, built 1930), Cressdene (4270 GRT, built 1936), Holmbury (4566 GRT, built 1925), Lord Byron (4118 GRT, built 1934), Ramillies (4553 GRT, built 1927) and Waynegate (4260 GRT, built 1931) left the Plate area escorted by HMS Havock and with cover from HMS Exeter.
At daylight on 29 September 1939 HMS Ajax was off Rio de Janeiro ready to escort ships sailing northward. She sighted none until the early afternoon when she met the Almeda Star (12848 GRT, built 1926) and a few hours later the tanker San Ubaldo (5999 GRT, built 1921). That night several neutral steamers were sighted off Rio de Janeiro and the next day the British La Pampa (4149 GRT, built 1938) was met and escorted during daylight on her way to Santos. So far on the work of the South American Division during September 1939. The ships assigned to Commodore Harwood had been busy patrolling and escorting ships near the focal areas.
A surface raider reported, 1 October 1939.
When a report that the British merchant Clement had been sunk on 30 September 1939 by a surface raider off Pernambuco was received by the Admiralty in the afternoon of October 1st, the C-in-C, South Atlantic was informed that he should retain the 4th Destroyer Division and that his command would be reinforced by the cruisers HMS Norfolk (Capt. A.G.B. Wilson, DSO, RN), HMS Capetown (Capt. T.H. Back, RN), HMS Effingham (Capt. J.M. Howson, RN), HMS Emerald (Capt. A.W.S. Agar, VC, DSO, RN) and HMS Enterprise (Capt. H.J. Egerton, RN). Also the battleships HMS Resolution (Capt. C.H. Knox-Little, RN), HMS Revenge (Capt. E.R. Archer, RN) and the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN) were to proceed to either Jamaica or Freetown. These dispositions however never materialised being superseded on 5 October 1939 by a more general policy (the institution of hunting groups) which cancelled them.
The institution of hunting groups, 5 October 1939.
On 5 October 1939 the Admiralty formed five hunting groups in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean of sufficient strength to destroy any ‘pocket battleship’ or Hipper-class cruiser. These were; Force F; area: North America and West Indies. HMS Berwick (Capt. I.M. Palmer, DSC, RN), HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), Force G; area: S.E. coast of South America. HMS Cumberland, HMS Exeter Force H; area: Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. HMS Sussex (Capt. A.R. Hammick, RN), HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN), Force I; area: Ceylon. HMS Cornwall (Capt. C.F. Hamill, RN), HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.S.C. Martin, RN), HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN), Force K; area: Pernambuco, Brazil. HMS Renown (Capt. C.E.B. Simeon, RN), HMS Ark Royal (Capt. A.J. Power, RN), Force L; area: Brest, France. Dunkerque (Capt. J.L. Nagadelle, replaced by Capt. M.J.M. Seguin on 16 October), Bearn (Capt. M.M.A. Lafargue, replaced by Capt. Y.E. Aubert on 7 October), Georges Leygues (Capt. R.L. Perot), Gloire (Capt. F.H.R. de Belot), Montcalm (Capt. P.J. Ronarc’h), Force M; area: Dakar, Senegal. Dupleix (Capt. L.L.M. Hameury), Foch (Capt. J. Mathieu), and Force N; area: West Indies. Strasbourg (Capt. J.F.E. Bouxin), HMS Hermes.
The institution of the hunting groups were not the only measures taken. The battleships HMS Resolution, HMS Revenge and the light cruisers HMS Emerald and HMS Enterprise were ordered to proceed to Halifax, Nova Scotia to escort homeward bound convoys. Light cruiser HMS Effingham was to join them later. The battleship HMS Ramillies (Capt. H.T. Baillie-Grohman, DSO, RN) left Gibraltar on 5 October for the same duty but was recalled the next day when the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. I.B.B. Tower, DSC, RN) and the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (Capt. G. D’Oyly-Hughes, DSO and Bar, DSC, RN) were ordered to leave the Mediterranean and proceed to the Indian Ocean where they formed an addition hunting group, Force J which was to operate in the Socotra area off the entrance to the Gulf of Aden.
Now back to the South Atlantic, on 9 October 1939 the C-in-C, South Atlantic had informed the Admiralty and Commodore Harwood that he intended to co-ordinate the movements of ‘Force G’, ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’. As this would entail long periods of wireless silence in ‘Force G’ he proposed that Commodore Harwood should transfer his flag to HMS Ajax, leaving Capt. Fallowfield of HMS Cumberland in command of Force G. The Admiralty approved of this. Commodore Harwood stated that it was his intention to transfer his flag from HMS Exeter to HMS Ajax in the River Plate area on 27 October. He also stated that the endurance of HMS Exeter was only half the endurance of HMS Cumberland and that this would prove problematic when they were to operate together and he proposed that the Exeter would be relieved by another 10000 ton cruiser but for the moment no suitable cruiser was available to relieve her.
On 12 October 1939 the first of the hunting forces arrived on their station when HMS Renown and HMS Ark Royal reached Freetown that morning coming from the U.K. They were soon followed by three more destroyers of the H-class coming from the Mediterranean; HMS Hardy (Capt. B.A. Warburton-Lee, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN) and HMS Hostile (Cdr. J.P. Wright, RN). On 13 October 1939 the cruisers HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire arrived at Simonstown from the Mediterranean and one day later HMS Hermes arrived at Dakar from Plymouth.
The South America Division during the first half of October 1939.
When the news of an enemy raider in the South Atlantic reached the C-in-C at Freetown on 1 October 1939 he immediately suspended sailings from Pernambuco and Natal and he ordered HMS Havock and HMS Hotspur to escort British ships clear of the area. But next morning he cancelled these dispositions and ordered Commodore Harwood to concentrate HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and the two destroyers off Rio de Janeiro. By this time, however, the raider was far away from the South American coast. On 3 October 1939 the Commodore signalled the C-in-C that he intened to concentrate the Exeter and Ajax off Rio and have the Hotspur to cover the Rio – Santos area and keep the Havock off the Plate but upon receiving the orders from the C-in-C to concentrate he ordered to destroyers to join the cruisers after fuelling but not later then 0800 hours on 4 October. Reports that the enemy raider was not a ‘pocket battleship’ however kept coming in and the Commodore decided that he could not leave the heavy traffic in the Plate area without some form of protection and he ordered HMS Havock to return there but when a report coming in from Bahia, Brazil confirmed that the Clement had been sunk by the ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Scheer the Commodore once more ordered HMS Havock to join him. In the end HMS Ajax joined HMS Exeter at 1700/3, HMS Hotspur at 0500/4 and finally HMS Havock at 1300/4.
The Commodore was also informed by the Admiralty that the New Zealand cruiser HMNZS Achilles (Capt. W.E. Parry, RN) would join his station coming from the west coast of South America. HMS Cumberland left Freetown at 1900/3 to join the Commodore in the Rio de Janeiro area as well.
Commodore Harwood’s policy against enemy raiders and a new raider report coming on on 5 October 1939.
Commodore Harwood had decided to keep his forces concentrated and as no new raider reports had come in to patrol the Rio de Janeiro area in accordance with the C-in-C, South Atlantic’s order. If he met a ‘pocket battleship’ he intended to shadow it until dusk. He would then close and attack in the dark hours. If, on the other hand, he made contact at night, his destroyers would at once close the enemy’s beam and attack her with torpedoes.
On 5 October 1939, the British merchant Martand (7967 GRT, built 1939) informed HMS Cumberland that a German armed raider had attacked an unknown ship, this unknown ship was in fact the Newton Beech that was attacked about 900 nautical miles away. This information was not acted upon by the Commanding Officer of the Cumberland. The Captain of the Cumberland assumed the raider report would have been intercepted by other ships and passed on to the C-in-C, South Atlantic. He considered it was important to keep radio silence and decided against breaking it. The Admiralty however later was of the opinion that the report should have been passed on to the Commander-in-Chief.
By 5 October 1939, the Exeter, Ajax, Havock and Hotspur were concentrated in the Rio de Janeiro area ready to engage the raider if she came south from the Pernambuco area. HMNZS Achilles was on her way round Cape Horn.
When HMS Ajax visited Rio de Janeiro on 7 October 1939, Commodore Harwood directed her to suggest to the Consular Shipping Advisers there, and at Santos, that, owning to the small volume of shipping leaving these ports, the local convoy systems, which had been instituted on 22 September against armed merchant raiders, should be suspended, and Allied merchant ships be routed independently.
The Commodore intended to meet HMS Cumberland at 1700/8, but at 1600/7 he received a message from the Consular Shipping Adviser at Rio de Janeiro in which he desired an escort for a 13 knot convoy that was to sail at 0430/8 and that had received much local publicity. The Commodore thought that this publicity might draw the enemy raider to the area and he therefore took his entire force back towards Rio de Janeiro and sent HMS Hotspur ahead to make contact with the convoy, while keeping his other ships in support. The convoy consisted of the British merchants Highland Chieftain (14131 GRT, built 1929), Nariva (8723 GRT, built 1920) and the French merchant Alsina (8404 GRT, built 1922).
Meanwhile the Commodore had directed HMS Cumberland to meet him at dawn on October 9th. When the convoy was dispersed at 1800/8 the Exeter and Ajax steered to meet her while the Havock was detached to fuel at Rio de Janeiro. At 2200/8 HMS Ajax was detached. HMS Cumberland made rendezvous with HMS Exeter at 0500/9. They were ordered by the C-in-C, South Atlantic to make a sweep northwards but this could not be carried out as HMS Exeter was short of fuel. The Commodore therefore decided to make a sweep southwards towards the Plate area where HMS Exeter could refuel. He also decided to keep HMS Hotspur with the two cruisers as long as possible.
On 12 October 1939, Rio Grande do Sul reported that the German merchant Rio Grande (6062 GRT, built 1939) was about to sail. The Commodore at once ordered HMS Cumberland to proceed there and intercept. She arrived off Rio Grande do Sul at 1600/13 but on finding it all quiet in the harbour she shaped course for the Plate area at nightfall. Meanwhile the Commodore had ordered HMS Hotspur to fuel at Montevideo when HMS Havock left that port early on the 14th.
about this time RFA Olwen informed the Commodore the the German merchant Bahia Laura (8611 GRT, built 1918) was leaving Montevideo at 1000 next morning and might protest if HMS Havock sailed the same day. Instead, therefore, of entering Montevideo HMS Hotspur at once fueled from the Olwen and then remained out on patrol. The Bahia Laura however, showed no signs of leaving and at 0800/14, HMS Havock put to sea. At 1200 hours HMS Hotspur entered Montevideo. Later that day HMS Exeter and HMS Cumberland fueled from the Olwen in San Borombon Bay at the southern entrance to the Plate estuary. At 1430 hours they were joined by HMS Havock. Commodore Harwood then ordered her to patrol off Montevideo to watch the Bahia Laura. When HMS Exeter finished fueling she immediately put to sea. HMS Cumberland rejoined him next morning at 0700 hours. HMS Havock was then ordered to join the cruisers. On 16 October the commodore learned that the Bahia Laura had sailed at 1015 hours the previous day. By the time the signal reached him the German ship was far out at sea well past his patrol line. But as the whole area was enveloped in dense fog the Commodore decided against trying to catch her.
The South America Division during the second half of October 1939.
Meanwhile Commodore Harwood had informed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic on 13 October that as HMS Exeter required certain minor repairs he proposed to proceed to the Falklands on the17th and then return to the Plate area on the 27th. The Commander-in-Chief replied that he preferred that HMS Exeter would stay in the Plate area till the Commodore would transfer his Broad Pendant to HMS Ajax on the 27th. As HMNZS Achilles was due in the Plate area on this day also, she and HMS Cumberland could then operate as ‘Force G’ during the Exeter’s absence. This would mean that there would be no cruiser in the Rio de Janeiro area until HMS Exeter would return from her repairs at the Falklands. The Commodore therefore ordered HMS Havock to sail on 21 October for a four day patrol in the Rio – Santos Area, where HMS Hotspur, which could remain at sea until 2 November, would relieve her. From that date until the relief of HMNZS Achilles there would be no warship in this area. The Commodore therefore asked the Commander-in-Chief to allow ‘Force G’ to operate in that area from 2 to 10 November. When HMS Hotspur joined the Exeter and Cumberland from Montevideo on 17 October the Commodore ordered her to patrol off Rio Grande do Sul to intercept the German ships Rio Grande and Montevideo if they would come out, and sent HMS Havock to patrol inshore with orders to anchor the night clear of the shipping route.
This proved to be the last duty of these two destroyers with the South America Division. On 20 October the Admiralty ordered their transfer to the West Indies. Three days later the Commodore sent them into Buenos Aires to refuel, and as the distance to Trinidad, 4000 miles, was at the limit of their endurance, also obtained permission to refuel them at Pernambuco. They both left Buenos Aires on the 25th and, bidding the Commodore farewell, proceeded northwards. They sailed from Pernambuco on 1 November but on the 3rd HMS Havock was diverted to Freetown with engine trouble. The two remaining destroyers of the 4th Division, HMS Hyperion and HMS Hunter, had left Freetown with convoy SL 6 on 23 October. Off Daker their escort duty was taken over by the French light cruiser Duguay-Trouin (Capt. J.M.C. Trolley de Prevaux). The destroyers then fueled at Dakar on the 27th and sailed for Trinidad early on the 28th.
Meanwhile HMS Cumberland had entered Montevideo at 0800/26. At 0900/26 HMNZS Achilles joined HMS Exeter in the Plate area and after fueling from RFA Olwen sailed to meet HMS Cumberland off Lobos the next day and then patrol with her as ‘Force G’ in the Rio – Santos area. The Olwen was now nearly out of fuel and filled up HMS Ajax ,which had arrived from the Rio area on the 26th, with her remaining fuel minus 500 tons for her passage to Trinidad. In the morning of 27 October, Commodore Harwood transferred his Broad Pendant to HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter then parted company to proceed to the Falklands for repairs.
Meanwhile the newly formed ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’ were busy on the other side of the South Atlantic. ‘Force H’, made up of HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire had reached the Cape on 13 October. As HMS Cumberland had not passed on the report of the Martland, no news on the raider had reached the Admiralty or the Commander-in-Chief since October 1st. On 14 October ‘Force H’ sailed to search for her along the Cape – Freetown route as far as the latitude of St. Helena. That day ’Force K’ (HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown) left Freetown with HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hero (Cdr. C.F. Tower, MVO, RN) and HMS Hereward (Lt.Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN) to search westwards towards St. Paul Rocks, the direction of their sweep being determined by the complete lack of any further raider information.
Finally a raider report on 22 October 1939, Sweeps by ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’.
The three weeks old ‘mystery’ of the raiders whereabouts was partially solved on 22 October when the British merchant vessel Llanstephan Castle (11293 GRT, built 1914) intercepted a message from an unknown ship ‘Gunned in 16°S, 04°03’E’ at 1400 G.M.T. There was however no immediate confirmation of her report and the Commander-in-Chief ordered ‘Force H’ to sail after dark on the 27th to sail for the latitude of St. Helena. At noon on 31 October this Force was in 15°S, 02°51’E, the north-eastern limit of it’s patrol, when a Walrus aircraft failed to return to HMS Sussex from a reconnaissance flight. It was never found, though the two cruisers spend over three days searching for it. Being short of fuel they then returned to the Cape by the same route they had used outwards.
Sweep by ‘Force K’, 28 October – 6 November 1939.
To cover the northern end of the route from St. Helena onward, HMS Neptune and the destroyers HMS Hardy, HMS Hasty, HMS Hero and HMS Hereward had left Freetown on 28 October. HMS Neptune was to sweep independently from position 03°20’S, 01°10’W and then through 14°30’S, 16°50’W back to Freetown. On 30 October a report from Dakar stated that the German merchant Togo (5042 GRT, built 1938) had left the Congo on 26 October, that the German merchant Pionier (3254 GRT, built 1934) had sailed from Fernando Po (now called Bioko Island) on 28 October and that five German ships had left Lobito (Angola) the same day. When the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers, received this information her detached HMS Hardy and HMS Hasty to sweep north-westward for the Pioneer, while ‘Force K’ and the remaining two destroyers searched for her to the south-westward. Both searches were unsuccessful. Meanwhile a message from Lobito had stated that the five German ships that were stated to have left the harbour were still there. On 5 November the German merchant vessel Uhenfels (7603 GRT, built 1931), that had left Laurenco Marques (now called Maputo, Mozambique) on 16 October was sighted by an aircraft from HMS Ark Royal. Only energetic action from HMS Hereward saved her from being scuttled in position 06°02’N, 17°25’W. She was brought into Freetown on 7 November by HMS Herward, a few hours behind ‘Force K’.
’Force H’ and ‘Force G’, first half of November 1939.
The first half of November was relatively quiet on both sides of the South Atlantic At the start of the month ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’ were still on the shipping lane between Sierra Leone and the Cape. On 3 November 1939 the Admiralty informed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic that all German capital ships and cruisers were apparently in home waters. It appeared therefore that the pocket battleship, which was still thought to be the Admiral Scheer, had returned home and that the raider reported by the Llangstephan Castle on 22 October was nothing but an armed merchantman. Here was a good opportunity for resting the hunting groups and on 4 November the Admiralty issued orders that ‘Force G’ and ‘Force H’ should exchange areas. This exchange would not only give ‘Force G’ an opportunity of resting and refitting at the Cape, but would also provide Commodore Harwood with the hunting group of long endurance that he desired.
The Commander-in-Chief had planned that ‘Force H’ which had returned to the Cape on 7 November would then sweep towards Durban, arriving there on 16 November. However on the 11th they were ordered to sail for patrol in the Atlantic and on the evening of the 17th, while west of St. Helena, exchange patrol areas with ‘Force G’. The exchange of areas however did not take place as ‘Force G’ was delayed due to HMS Exeter being damaged while casting off from the oiler in heavy seas. Before the exchange now could take place it was cancelled.
South America Division, first half of November 1939.
After hoisting Commodore Harwood’s Broad on 27 October the HMS Ajax had swept the Plate focal area. When the Commodore received the signal of the Commander-in-Chief on the 5th regarding the changeover over patrol areas between ‘Force G’ and ‘Force H’, he ordered HMS Cumberland to proceed to the Plate at 20 knots to refuel. About this time a message reached him from Buenos Aires that the Argentinian Foreign Minister had drawn attention to cases of fueling in the Plate by HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax. Although the Argentinian Government had no apparent intention of raising the issue he decided to cut down the fuellings in the inshore waters of the Plate as much as possible. He therefore cancelled the fuelling of HMS Exeter, due to take place on 7 November from the oiler RFA Olynthus (6888 GRT, built 1918, Master L.N. Hill), which had relieved RFA Olwen. He ordered HMS Cumberland to fuel at Buenos Aires on 9 November. HMS Exeter which had arrived at the Falklands on 31 October for repairs, sailed again on 4 November to meet up with HMS Cumberland off the Plate on 10 November, but the Commodore ordered her to enter Mar del Plata for a 24-hour visit on the 9th. As this gave her some time at hand, he ordered her to cover the Plate while HMS Ajax visited Buenos Aires from 6 to 8 November during which the Commodore discussed the question of fuelling his ships in the River Plate Estuary with the Argentine naval authorities. During his visit to Buenos Aires, the Commodore discussed the matter of fuelling his ships of English Bank with the Argentinian Minister of Marine and his Chief of Naval Staff they both suggested that he should use San Borombon Bay which was most acceptable. He had in fact been using it for some time.
When HMS Ajax left Buenos Aires on 8 November she patrolled the Plate area. HMS Exeter arrived at Mar del Plata the next day but fuel could not be obtained there. She was ordered to fuel from RFA Olynthus in San Borombon Bay on the 10th and then meet up with HMS Cumberland off Lobos Island at 0600/11. On the 10th HMS Ajax also fueled from RFA Olynthus as did HMS Exeter after her while HMS Ajax was at anchor close by. However weather quickly deteriorated and the Olynthus was forced to cast off, damaging the Exeter in doing so. Besides that she was still 600 tons short of fuel. As she could not reach the Cape without a full supply the sailing of ‘Force G’ to exchange areas with ‘Force H’ was delayed. The Exeter finally finished fuelling on the 13th and sailed with HMS Cumberland for Simonstown. Before the exchange of areas could be effected, however, a raider was reported in the Indian Ocean and the order was cancelled.
Another raider report, 16 November 1939.
On 16 November 1939 the Naval Officer-in-Charge, Simonstown, reported that the small British tanker Africa Shell ( GRT, built ) had been sunk off Lourenco Marques the previous day by a raider identified as a pocket battleship. After the usual conflicting reports from eye-widnesses during the next few days, however, it was doubtful how many raiders there were or whether they were pocket battleships or heavy cruisers.
The presence of an enemy heavy ship in the Mozambique Channel called for new dispositions. When the raider report reached the Admiralty on 17 November they immediately cancelled the exchange of areas between ‘Force G’ an ‘Force H’. ‘Force H’ was ordered to return to the Cape and ‘Force G’ was ordered to return to the east coast of South America. They also ordered the dispatch of ‘Force K’ towards the Cape with instructions to go on to Diego Suarez in Madagascar. That morning a report reached the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic that the German merchant vessels Windhuk (16662 GRT, built 1937) and Adolph Woermann (8577 GRT, built 1922) had left Lobito. He at once ordered ‘Force H’, which was at that moment west of St. Helena in the approximate latitute of Lobito to spend three days searching for them.
Next day, 18 November 1939, ‘Force K’ left Freetown together with HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hero and HMS Hostile to sweep west of St. Helena through position 16°30’S, 10°W and thence on to Diego Suarez. The destroyers parted company at 2300/18 to search for the German ships. On 20 November 1939, the Commander-in-Chief ordered ‘Force H’ to return to the Cape of nothing of the German merchant vessels had been sighted. HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire did so on 23 November.
The Adolph Woermann had not escaped. Early on 21 November 1939, the British merchant Waimarama (12843 GRT, built 1938) reported her in position 12°24’S, 03°31’W. At 1127/21, ‘Force K’ (HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown) was in position 05°55’S, 12°26’W, altered course to close, and HMS Neptune, which was still with them, went ahead at high speed. Shortly after 0800/22 she made contact with the Adolf Woermann in position 10°37’S, 05°11’W and went alongside. Despite efforts to save her the German vessel was scuttled and when HMS Neptune returned to Freetown on 25 November 1939 she had 162 German survivors on board.
’Force H’ and ‘Force K’, second half of November 1939.
As the search for the Adolf Woermann had taken ‘Force K’ nearly 200 miles to the eastward, the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers decided to proceed to the Cape by the route east of St. Helena to save fuel. In hindsight this might have saved Altmark for being intercepted as she was waiting for the Admiral Graf Spee in the area ‘Force K’ would have otherwise passed through. On 23 November 1939, the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, ordered ‘Force H’ to sail from the Cape the next day and patrol the ‘diverse routes’ as far as 33°E until 28 November.
At the northern end of the South Atlantic station HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hero, HMS Hostile, HMS Hasty and the submarine HMS Clyde (Cdr. W.E. Banks, RN) had established a patrol between 22 and 25 November 1939 to intercept escaping German merchant ships or raiders. No ships were however sighted and they were recalled to Freetown on 30 November.
In the meantime the Admiralty had ordered, ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’ to conducted a combined patrol on the meridian of 20°E. The two forces met early on 1 December. The plan, according to the Commander-in-Chief, appeared to be a good one in theory but was found unsuitable in practice that on account of local weather conditions. These permitted flying off aircraft from HMS Ark Royal only once in five or six days, so that the patrol could not be extended far enough to the south to intercept a raider bent on evasion. In fact, only once, on 2 December weather was suitable for flying off aircraft.
South America Division, second half of November 1939.
After HMS Cumberland and HMS Exeter (‘Force G’) had sailed from San Borombon Bay for Simonstown on 13 November 1939, HMS Ajax patrolled the Plate area and escorted the French Massilia ( GRT, built ) that was bound for Europe from Buenos Aeres with French reservists. After parting from the Massilia she closed Rio Grande do Sul and ascertained that the German merchant vessels Rio Grande and Montevideo were still there. For the next two days she patrolled the normal peace time shipping routes.
When the Admiralty cancelled the exchange of ereas between ‘Force G’ and ‘Force H’ on 17 November, Commodore Harwood sent ‘Force G’ to cover Rio de Janeiro. He ordered HMNZS Achilles to fuel off the Olynthus in the Plate area on 22 November and then relieve ‘Force G’ in the Rio area as HMS Exeter would need to refuel in the Plate area again on 26 November. HMS Cumberland was to remain with the Exeter to keep ‘Force G’ together so she could refuel from the Olynthus as well. They were then to patrol the Plate area so that HMS Ajax could visit the Falklands.
On 18 November the Commodore was informed that the German merchant Ussukuma ( GRT, built ) might sail from Bahia Blanca for Montevideo at any time. He at once ordered the Olynthus to watch for her between Manos and Cape San Antonio and took the Ajax south to the same vicinity.
On 22 November 1939 HMNZS Achilles heard the German merchant Lahn (8498 GRT, built 1927) calling Cerrito by wireless, and when HMS Ajax arrived half an hour later a search was carried out. It was insuccessful for both cruisers but both the Lahn and another German merchant the Tacoma (8268 GRT, built 1930) reached Montevideo safely during the forenoon.
HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles then both fuelled from the Olynthus at San Borombon Bay during the next afternoon. The Achilles the sailed for the Rio de Janeiro area. She had orders to move up to Pernambuco and show herself off Cabadello and Bahia as a number of German ships in Pernambuco were reported ready to sail to Cabadello to load cotton for Germany. She was to return at once to the Rio area if any raiders were reported in the South Atlantic.
HMS Ajax left the Plate area on 25 November 1939 and sent up a seaplane to reconnoitre Bahia Blanca. The Ussukuma showed no signs of sailing so HMS Ajax proceeded to the Falklands, arriving there on the 27th. By this time HMS Cumberland and HMS Exeter were in urgent need of refits after long periods at sea, and Commodore Harwood ordered the Exeter to proceed to the Falklands forthwith. She arrived at Port Stanley on 29 November 1939 and her defects were immediately taken in hand as far as local resources permitted.
8 December 1939 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Falklands, and thinking the enemy might attempt to avenge the defeat, the Commodore ordered HMS Cumberland to patrol off the Falklands as of 7 December for two days after which she too was to enter Port Stanley for rest and refit.
French Forces at Dakar in November 1939.
During November them most important event at Dakar, where the French were maintaining a number of more or less regular patrols, was the reorganisation of ‘Force X’. On 1 November 1939 the large destroyer L’Audacieux (Cdr. L.M. Clatin) sailed from Dakar to the westward to 26°W and thence south-west to search for the German merchant Togo. She returned to Dakar on 4 November having sighted nothing. That day the French light cruiser Duguay-Trouin sailed to sweep round the Cape Verde Islands and then on to St. Paul Rocks. She returned to Dakar on 10 November. The old ‘Force X’, the Strasbourg (Capt. J.F.E. Bouxin), Algerie (Capt. L.H.M. Nouvel de la Fleche) and Dupleix (Capt. L.L.M. Hameury) sailed on 7 November to sweep west of the Cape Verde Islands. It returned to Dakar on 13 November 1939. Meanwhile French submarines based at Casablanca were maintaining a continuous patrol round the Canary Islands between 25°N and 30°N.
On 18 November a new ‘Force X’ was formed, now made up of the Dupleix and her sister ship Foch (Capt. J. Mathieu) and the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. On 21 November the Strasbourg, Algerie and the destroyers Le Terrible (Cdr. A.E.R. Bonneau) and Le Fantasque (Capt. P.A.B. Still) left Dakar to return to France. The next day the new ‘Force X’ sailed with the destroyers Milan (Cdr. M.A.H. Favier) and Cassard (Cdr. R.A.A. Braxmeyer) to cruiser towards 08°N, 30°W. That day L’Audacieux departed Dakar with a convoy for Casablanca.
On 25 November, the Duguay-Trouin sailed to patrol the parallel of 19°N, between 25° and 30°W. Two days later the British submarine HMS Severn (Lt.Cdr. B.W. Taylor, RN) docked at Dakar. On the 30th the Dupleix and Foch returned from patrol being followed the next day by HMS Hermes and her escorts Milan and Cassard.
Dispositions of South Atlantic Forces at the beginning of December 1939.
At the beginning of December 1939, HMS Ark Royal, still flying the flag of Vice-Admiral Aircraft Carriers, and HMS Renown (‘Force K’), were patrolling the meridian of 20°E, south of the Cape together with HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire (‘Force H’) to intercept the raider reported in the Mozambique Channel on 15 November 1939.
In the north the light cruiser HMS Neptune with the destroyers HMS Hardy, HMS Hero, HMS Hostile and HMS Hasty and the submarine HMS Clyde were returning to Freetown after patrolling between there and Cape San Roque for escaping German merchant ships or raiders. The French cruiers Dupleix and Foch and the British carrier HMS Hermes (‘Force X’) and their two escorting destroyers Milan and Cassard were approaching Dakar. The French cruiser Duguay-Trouin was patrolling the parallel of 19°N, between 25° and 30°W. The British submarine Severn was refitting at Dakar. Across the South Atlantic, Commodore Harwood, in HMS Ajax was at Port Stanley as was HMS Exeter. HMS Cumberland was patrolling of the Plate area and HMNZS Achilles was off Rio de Janeiro.
Forces ‘H’ and ‘K’, 1 – 13 December 1939.
No further reports have been received of the raider which had sunk the Africa Shell off Laurenco Marques on 15 November and it seemed clear that she had either gone further into the Indian Ocean or doubled back into the South Atlantic by going well south of the Cape. On 2 December 1939 the Admiralty ordered ‘Force K’ and ‘Force H’ to their patrol line south of the Cape after refueling, and the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic at once ordered them to proceed for the Cape ports to fuel. That day a reconnaissance aircraft of the South African Air Force reported a suspicious ship south of Cape Point at noon. HMS Sussex intercepted her but her crew set her on fire. She proved to be the German merchant Watussi (9521 GRT, built 1928). She was eventually be HMS Renown. Her survivors were taken on board HMS Sussex and were landed at Simonstown.
No news of the missing raider had been coming in since 16 November but then the mistery shrouding her whereabouts was again partially solved. At 1530/2 a raidar signal ‘R.R.R., 19°15’S, 05°05’E, gunned battleship) reached the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic. It came from the British merchant Doric Star. As this signal placed the raider in the South Atlantic he immediately ordered to abandon the patrol south of the Cape and ordered ‘Force H’ to cover the trade routes between the Cape and the latitude of St. Helena at 20 knots on completion of fuelling. As it was too late for ‘Force K’ to reach the Freetown-Pernambuco area in time to intercept the rainder if she was to proceed to the North Atlantic he proposed the Admiralty that ‘Force K’, after fuelling should sweep direct from the Cape to position 20°S, 15°W. This was changed at the request of the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers to place his force in a more central position for proceeding to Freetown, to the Falklands or to Rio de Janeiro. At 1030/3 a report reached the Commander-in-Chief that the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer had been in 21°20’S, 03°10’E at 0500 hours, clearly indicating that the raider was moving westwards, clear of the Cape-Sierra Leone trade route. ‘Force H’ left Simonstown at 1700 that afternoon and ‘Force K’ sailed from Capetown at 0915/4.
The Commander-in-Chief estimated that if the enemy was proceeding northwards to the North Atlantic she would cross the Freetown-Pernambuco line between 9 and 10 December. He therefore arranged that ‘Force X’ should take HMS Neptune and her destroyers under her orders and patrol the parallel of 3°N between 31° and 38°W from 10 to 13 December. ‘Force K’ would meet HMS Neptune and the destroyers on the 14th and then return with them to Freetown to refuel. The destroyers of the 3rd Division of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla (HMS Hardy, HMS Hostile and HMS Hero) left Freetown on 6 December with the oiler RFA Cherryleaf (5896 GRT, built 1917). They had orders to meet the Dupleix, Foch, HMS Hermes and their escorting destroyers Milan and Cassard and HMS Neptune in position 03°N, 31°W on 10 December. On 7 December ‘Force X’ left Dakar for the rendez-vous. That day the submarine HMS Clyde left Freetown to patrol between 03°N, 23°W and 03°N, 28°W and thence to 05°15’N, 23°W between 9 (PM) and 13 (AM) December.
On the evening of 8 December 1939 the German merchant ship Adolf Leonhardt (2989 GRT, built 1925) sailed from Lobito for South America. ‘Force H’ which was by then between St. Helena and the west coast of Africa, was at once ordered to intercept her. The Walrus from HMS Shropshire made contact at 0952 hours next morning and alighted alongside in position 13°S, 11°44’E. At 1250 hours HMS Shropshire arrived at that position but the German ship was scuttled by her crew and could not be saved. ‘Force H’ then returned to the Cape to refuel where they arrived on 14 December.
At 0800/11 the submarine HMS Severn left Freetown for Port Stanley. She was to protect the whaling industry in South Georgio and was to intercept hostile raiders or supply ships. The cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, which arrived at Simonstown from Colombo on the 9th to finally relieve HMS Exeter in the South America Division left Simonstown on 13 December for Port Stanley. She was to call at Tristan da Cunha on the way. On that day, 13 December 1939, was fought the action between the British South America Division and the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, known as the Battle of the River Plate.
The South America Division, 1 to 13 December 1939.
At the beginning of December 1939, HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter were at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. HMS Cumberland was off the River Plate and HMNZS Achilles was patrolling the Rio de Janeiro area. On 2 December HMS Ajax left Port Stanley for the Plate area. That evening the Commodore learned that the Doric Star had been sunk by a raider to the south-east of St. Helena. Two days later the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic informed him that HMS Dorsetshire would arrive at Port Stanley on 23 December to relieve HMS Exeter which was then to proceed to Simonstown for a much needed refit.
Early on 5 December the British Naval Attaché at Buenos Aires reported that the German merchant Ussukuma had left Bahia Blanca at 1900 hours the previous evening. The Commodore immediately ordered HMS Cumberland which was on the way south to the Falkland Islands to search for her. Meanwhile HMS Ajax turned south and closed the Argentinian coast in case the Ussukuma, which was known to be short of fuel, should attempt to reach Montevideo inside territorial waters. At 1910/5, HMS Ajax sighted her smoke to the north-north-east but the Germans managed to scuttle their ship and despite the efforts to save her she sank during the night. At 0615/6, HMS Cumberland came up and embarked the German survivors and made off for the Falklands. HMS Ajax then refuelled at San Borombon Bay from the Olynthus.
About the same time the Brazilian authorities asked that HMNZS Achilles should not refuel in any Brazilian port at an interval less then three months. The Commodore, therefore, ordered her to return south and refuel at Montevideo on 8 December. HMNZS Achilles then joined HMS Ajax at 1000/10 in position 35°11’S, 51°13’W, 230 miles west of English Bank. At 0600/12 they were joined by HMS Exeter in position 36°54’S, 53°39’W.
Ever since the beginning of the war Commodore Harwood’s cruisers had worked off the east coast of South America either single or in pairs. The concentration of these three cruisers off the River Plate on 12 December 1939 was, however, no mere matter of chance.
Concentration of British Force in the River Plate area, 12 December 1939.
When a pocket battleship was located in position 19°15’S, 05°05’E on 2 December by the sinking of the Doris Star, her position was over 3000 miles from any of the South America focal areas. The Commodore however recognised that her next objective might be the valuable shipping off the east coast of South America. He estimated that at a cruising speed of 15 knots the enemy could reach the Rio area on 12 December the Plate area on 13 December and the Falklands on 14 December. As the Plate area was by far the most important of these three focal areas he decided to concentrate all his available ships off the Plate on 12 December.
The three cruisers then proceeded together towards position 32°N, 47°W. That evening the Commodore informed the Captains of his cruisers that it was intention that if they met a pocket battleship to attack immediately, by day or by night. By they they would act as two units, the light cruisers were to operate together and HMS Exeter was to operate diverged to permit flank marking. By night the ships were to remain in company in open order.
At 0614/13 HMS Ajax sighted smoke bearing 324° in position 34°28’S, 49°05’W and Commodore Harwood then ordered HMS Exeter to investigate it.
20 Nov 1939
Around 2200Z/20, HMS Hardy (Capt. B.A. Warburton-Lee, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN), HMS Hero (Cdr. C.F. Tower, MVO, RN) and HMS Hostile (Cdr. J.P. Wright, RN) parted company with HMS Renown (Capt. C.E.B. Simeon, RN), HMS Ark Royal (Capt. A.J. Power, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral L.V. Wells, CB, DSO, RN) and HMS Neptune (Capt. J.A.V. Morse, DSO, RN).
The destroyers were to form part of a patrol line and conduct a search for German merchant vessels.
In order to intercept escaping German merchant ships or raiders a patrol line was to be established after parting company with force K by HMS Neptune and the destroyers as well as the submarine HMS Clyde (Cdr. W.E. Banks, RN).
The line was joining Freetown and Cape San Roque (in Brazil) and ships were to take up positions as follows; 1)The destroyers from dawn on 23 November, 230 mile length bearing 240° from position 04°00'N, 20°00'W. 2)HMS Clyde from the morning of 22 November, 150 miles bearing 060° from position 05°00'N, 20°00'W. 3)HMS Neptune was to sail from Freetown on 25 November, as she first had to land her German prisoners taken on 22 November, to prolong the patrol line for a further 300 miles 240° from the destroyers section. The RFA tanker Cheffyleaf (5896 GRT, built 1917) was to proceed up and down the line to provide fuel for the ships involved in the search.
To support these ships the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN), the French heavy cruisers Dupleix (Capt. L.L.M. Hameury), Foch (Capt. J. Mathieu) and the large destroyers Cassard (Cdr. R.A.A. Braxmeyer) and Milan (Cdr. M.A.H. Favier) (Force X) departed Dakar on 22 November. They were to patrol parallel to the British line 130 miles north-north-west of it and between 21°00'W and 28°00'W between 24 and 28 November. (3)
9 Mar 1940
The French battleship Provence (Capt. G.T.E. Barois), the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN), the French heavy cruiser Duquesne (Capt. G.E. Besineau) and the British destroyers HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, RN) and HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. St.J.R.J. Tyrwhitt, RN) departed Dakar for a patrol in the mid-Atlantic near the equator. (6)
16 Mar 1940
The French battleship Provence (Capt. G.T.E. Barois), the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN), the French heavy cruiser Duquesne (Capt. G.E. Besineau) and the British destroyers HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, RN) and HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. St.J.R.J. Tyrwhitt, RN) returned to Dakar. (6)
16 Jun 1940
Dakar, the French battleship Richelieu and the fall of France Timespan; 16 June to 7 July 1940.
The fall of France, 16 June 1940.
On 16 June 1940, less then six weeks after the invasion of France and the low countries had started on May 10th, all military resitance in France came to an end. The question of control of the French fleet had thus become, almost overnight, one of vital importance, for if it passed into the hands of the enemy the whole balance of sea power would be most seriously disturbed. It was therefore policy of H.M. Government to prevent, at all costs, the French warships based on British and French harbours overseas from falling into the hands of Germany.
The bulk of the French fleet was at this time based in the Mediterranean. There drastic steps were taken to implement this policy. Elsewhere the most important units were the two new battleships completing, the Jean Bart at St. Nazaire and more importantly as she was almost complete, the Richelieu, at Brest.
Events during the Franco-German negotiations 17-25 June 1940 and politics.
It was on the 17th of June 1940, when the newly-formed Pétain Cabinet asked the Germans to consider ‘honourable’ peace terms in order to stop the fighting in France. At 1516 (B.S.T.) hours that day the Admiralty issued orders that British ships were not to proceed to French ports. On receipt of these orders Vice-Admiral George D’Oyly Lyon, Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic, ordered the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt R.F.J. Onslow, DSC, MVO, RN) then on her way to Dakar after a patrol off the Canary Islands to proceed to Freetown instead at her best speed. At the same time he recalled the British SS Accra which had sailed from Freetown for Dakar at 1730 hours (zone +1) with 850 French troops on board. She returned to Freetown at 0800/18. The British transport City of Paris with 600 French troops on board from Cotonou was ordered to put into Takoradi. On the 18th the Commander-in-Chief was also informed by Commander Jermyn Rushbrooke, RN, the British Naval Liaison Officer at Dakar that the Commander-in-Chief of the French Navy, Admiral Darlan had ordered Admiral Plancon at Dakar to continue fighting and also that the shore batteries and AA personnel there had declared for the British. At 0245/18 Vice-Admiral Lyon passed this information to the Admiralty, cancelled his orders to HMS Hermes to proceed to Freetown and directed her with the armed merchant cruisers HMS Carnarvon Castle (Capt. M.J.C. de Meric, RN) and HMS Mooltan (Capt.(Retd.) G.E. Sutcliff, RN), which were on passage to Freetown from the Western Approaches, to proceed to Dakar at full speed in order to strengthen the French morale. That afternoon the Admiralty ordered HMS Delhi (Capt. A.S. Russell, RN) to leave Gibraltar and proceed to Dakar and join the South Atlantic Station. She left Gibraltar on the 19th with an arrival date of the 23rd. In the morning of the 18th the French troopship Banfora reached Freetown, from Port Bouet, Ivory Coast with 1000 troops on board, and sailed for Dakar without delay. The French armed merchant cruiser Charles Plumier, which had been on patrol south of the Cape Verde Islands reached Dakar at 1015/18.
Meanwhile the British Naval Liaison Officer, Dakar’s signal had been followed by a report from the Naval Control Service Officer at Duala that an overwhelming spirit existed amongst the military and civilian population of the French Cameroons to continue fighting on the British side, but that they required lead, as the Governer was not a forceful character; but that morning the Governor of Nigeria informed the Commander-in-Chief that he considered steps to be taken to prevent a hostile move from Fernando Po (off the entrance to the Cameroon River). Accordingly, at 1845/18, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Bulolo (A/Capt. C.H. Petrie, RN) sailed from Freetown at 14 knots to show herself off San Carlos on the morning of the 23rd, and thence to anchor of Manoka in the Cameroon River the next day (her draught prevented her from reaching Duala). A/Capt. Petrie was then to proceed to Duala and call a conference.
It was difficult to arrive at a clear appreciation of the situation in French West-Africa but on the morning of the 19th June the Commander-in-Chief informed the Admiralty that, as the evidence pointed to an established resolve on the part of the West-African Colonies to join Great Britain whatever happened, he intended to allow French troop movements to continue. This he anticipated would avoid French exasperation and mistrust. During the early afternoon he heard from the Governors of Nigeria and the Gold Coast that French officers and non-commissioned officers were planning to leave the Cameroons and to join the British forces in Nigeria. At 1900/19 the Commander-in-Chief held a conference with the Governor of Sierra Leone at which it was decided that the Governor should cable home urging immediate action to persuade the French colonial troops and authorities to remain in their territories and hold their colonies against all attacks. In the evening the Commander-in-Chief reported to the Admiralty that French Guinea was determined to keep fighting on the British side. Meanwhile the Governor-General of French Equatorial Africa at Brazzaville was wavering and suggested leading his troops to the nearest British Colony. Late that night, still on the 19th, the Commander-in-Chief informed him that it was essential that he should remain at his post and that it was the expressed intention of French West Africa to fight on to victory.
Next morning, on the 20th, the Admiralty informed the Commander-in-Chief that the new French battleship Richelieu (about 95% complete) had departed Brest for Dakar on the 18th. Her sister ship, Jean Bart (about 77% complete) had left St. Nazaire for Casablanca on the 19th. During the afternoon of the 20th the British Liaison Officer at Dakar reported that according to the French Admiral at Dakar the French Government had refused the German armistice terms and would continue the fight in France. This was entirely misleading. For nearly two days the Commander-in-Chief had no definite information till at noon on 22 June when a BB C broadcast announced the signing of a armistice between France and Germany, which was to followed by one between France and Italy. Still there was much uncertainty, and the rest of the day was apparently spent in waiting for news. Early next morning, the 23rd June, the Admiralty informed the Commander-in-Chief that the French Bordeaux Government had signed an armistice with Germany. As the terms were not fully known the attitude of the French Navy remained uncertain. Shortly after 0200/23 the Admiralty gave orders that HMS Hermes was to remain at Dakar, and gave the Commander-in-Chief the text of the British Government’s appeal to the French Empire and to Frenchmen overseas to continue the war on the British side. The final collapse of France naturally exercised an important influence on the dispositions and movements of the South Atlantic forces. Also on the 23rd the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN) and the destroyer HMS Watchman (Lt.Cdr. E.C.L. Day, RN) departed Gibraltar for Dakar and Casablanca respectively, and the same morning HMS Bulolo arrived off Fernando Po and showed herself of San Carlos and Santa Isabel. At noon she anchored off Manoka, in the Cameroon River, in the hope of restoring morale at Duala. Meanwhile HMS Mooltan had arrived at Freetown from Dakar and the United Kingdom, and during the afternoon (1500/23) the armed merchant cruiser HMS Maloja (A/Capt. V. Hammersley-Heenan, RN) reached Dakar from the Northern Patrol to join the Freetown escort force. Half an hour later the Richelieu and escorting destroyer Fleuret arrived at Dakar.
For a time the attitude of the French Governor-General at Dakar, the French North African colonies and the French Mediterranean Fleet, and the battleship Richelieu remained in doubt. Then owning to the anticipated difficulty of maintaining French salaries and supplies if the French did not accept the British offer, the situation at Dakar rapidly deteriorated, and by the evening of the 23rd reached a critical state. Early on the 24th, therefore, the Admiralty ordered the Commander-in-Chief to proceed there as soon as possible. The Commander-in-Chief replied that he intended to proceed there in the ex-Australian seaplane carrier HMS Albatross (Cdr. W.G. Brittain, RN), which was the only available ship, and expected to reach Dakar around noon on the 25th. At 1015/24 he left Freetown and reached Dakar around 1600/25. Meanwhile the Richelieu had put to sea. From then on the naval operations centred mainly on the battleship.
The problem of the Richelieu, 25-26 June 1940.
The Richelieu which had been landing cadets at Dakar, had sailed with the Fleuret at 1315/25 for an unknown destination. She was shadowed by an aircraft from HMS Hermes until 1700 hours. She was reported to be steering 320° at 18 knots. At 1700 hours the Admiralty ordered HMS Dorsetshire to shadow her, and at 2200 hours HMS Dorsetshire reported herself as being in position 16°40’N, 18°35’W steering 225° at 25 knots, and that she expected to make contact with the Richelieu at midnight. At 2126 hours, the Admiralty ordered the Vice-Admiral aircraft carriers (Vice-Admiral L.V. Wells, CB, DSO, RN) in HMS Ark Royal (Capt. C.S. Holland, RN) to proceed with dispatch to the Canary Islands with HMS Hood (Capt. I.G. Glennie, RN) and five destroyers (actually only four sailed with them; HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN), HMS Fearless (Cdr. K.L. Harkness, RN), HMS Foxhound (Lt.Cdr. G.H. Peters, RN) and HMS Escapade (Cdr. H.R. Graham, RN)). They departed Gibraltar in the morning of the 26th.
Early on the 26th, the Admiralty informed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, and the Vice-Admiral, aircraft carriers, that His Majesty’s Government had decided that the Richelieu was to be captured and taken into a British port. They were to take every step to avoid bloodshed and to use no more force then was absolutely necessary. It was understood that the French battleship had H.A. ammunition on board but no main armament ammunition, that forenoon however, the British Liaison Officer Brest reported that she had embarked 15” ammunition before leaving there. HMS Hood was to perform this task if possible but that there were a risk that the Richelieu might get away before her arrival, or if she tried to enter a neutral port such as La Luz in the Canaries, HMS Dorsetshire was to take action. After the capture she was to be taken to Gibraltar. The battleship HMS Resolution (Capt. O. Bevir, RN) was detailed to intercept the Jean Bart in case she would depart Casablanca and deal with her in the same way.
Vice-Admiral Wells reported that HMS Ark Royal, HMS Hood and their escorting destroyers would pass through position 36°00’N, 06°35’W at 0300/26, steering 225° at 20 knots. HMS Dorsetshire, meanwhile, having seen nothing of the Richelieu by 0015/26, had proceeded to the northwestward, and then at 0230/26 turned to course 030°. At 0530/26 she catapulted her Walrus aircraft to search to the northward, and at 0730 hours it sighted the Richelieu in position 19°27’N, 18°52’W on course 010°, speed 18.5 knots. Eleven minutes later she altered course to 195°. The aircraft proceeded to shadow, but missed HMS Dorsetshire when it tried to return and in the end was forced to land on the sea at 0930 hours about 50 nautical miles to the southward of her. The Dorsetshire which had turned to 190° at 0905 hours was then in position 18°55’N, 17°52’W. She turned to search for her aircraft. Around noon she abandoned the search and steered 245° at 25 knots to intercept the Richelieu, which she correctly assumed to be continuing to the southward. She made contact soon after 1430 hours and at 1456 hours reported that she was shadowing the battleship from astern.
In the meantime the French Admiral at Dakar had informed Vice-Admiral Lyon that the ‘Admiral Afrique’ had ordered the Richelieu and the Fleuret to return to Dakar. At 1512 hours the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic asked the Admiralty whether, under these circumstances, HMS Dorsetshire was to attempt to capture the Richelieu. He was confident that any interference would antagonise all the local authorities and the French people in general. He also pointed out that His Majesty’s ships at Dakar would be placed in a most difficult position.
At 1630/26, HMS Dorsetshire, reported that she was in position 17°21’N, 18°22’W with the Richelieu within easy visual distance. Relations between the two ships remained cordial. The French ship had not trained her guns when she sighted the Dorsetshire, and she expressed regret that, having no aircraft embarked, she was unable to co-operate in the search for her missing Walrus aircraft but she signalled to Dakar for a French plane to assist. In view of her declared intention to return to Dakar, Capt. Martin took no steps to capture her and at 1700 hours he was ordered by the Admiralty to only shadow the Richelieu. At the same time HMS Hermes left Dakar to search for HMS Dorsetshire’s Walrus.
Shortly after 1900/26, the Admiralty ordered Ark Royal, HMS Hood and their four escorting destroyers to return to Gibraltar. At 2015 hours, the Admiralty ordered HMS Dorsetshire to cease shadowing the Richelieu and to search for her missing Walrus. On receipt of these orders she parted company with the Richelieu and Fleuret at 2300/26, being then some 70 nautical miles from Dakar. HMS Dorsetshire then proceeded to the north-north-eastward at 23 knots.
At first light on the 27th, HMS Hermes, then some 30 nautical miles to the southward, flew off seven aircraft to assist in the search. It was however HMS Dorsetshire herself which eventually found and recovered her aircraft at 1107/27. Meanwhile the Richelieu had arrived off Dakar at 0900/27 but did not enter the port. Shortly afterwards she made off the the north yet again. HMS Hermes then steered to the northward to be in a position to intercept if needed. Nothing was seen of the Richelieu until she was again located off Dakar at 0500/28. HMS Hermes, by that time about 400 nautical miles north of Dakar, was ordered to proceed southwards and return to Dakar.
The Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, at Dakar 26-29 June 1940.
While these movements were going on at sea, the position at Dakar was steadily deteriorating. At about 1830/26, the Commander-in-Chief had reported to the Admiralty that the French Admiral at Dakar had informed him, on Admiral Darlan’s instructions, that the presence of British warships at Dakar was in contrary to the terms of the Franco-German armistice. At 1700/26 (zone -1) however, the Admiralty had signalled to the Commander-in-Chief that, as the French codes were compromised, that French authorities could no longer be sure that orders came from Admiral Darlan but Admiral Plancon refused to question the authenticity of any signal he received. During the night the appointment of the British Liaison Officer at Dakar was terminated.
At 0500/27 the Richelieu was seen approaching Dakar, but 25 minutes later she turned to seaward again and the Commander-in-Chief ordered a Walrus aircraft from HMS Albatros to shadow her. That afternoon he informed the Admiralty that the Richelieu had put to sea to escort five French armed merchant cruisers [according to another source these were the armed merchant cruisers (four in number and not five) El D’Jezair, El Kantara, El Mansour, Ville d’Oran and the large destroyers Milan and Epervier which came from Brest] to Dakar. The Admiralty was clearly anxious that the Richelieu should not escape and at 0021/28, they ordered Vice-Admiral Wells with HMS Ark Royal, HMS Hood escorted by four destroyers (HMS Faulknor, HMS Fearless, HMS Foxhound and HMS Vidette (Cdr.(Retd.) D.R. Brocklebank, RN) to proceed to the Canaries to intercept her if she continued to steam to the northward. These ships (with HMS Escapade instead of HMS Vidette) had only returned to Gibraltar late the previous evening from their first sortie to intercept the Richelieu. Now they left again around 0600/28 but were quickly ordered to return to Gibraltar and were back in port around noon.
Around 0500/28 HMS Dorsetshire, proceeding back towards Dakar after having picked up her lost aircraft encountered the Richelieu about 10 nautical miles north of Dakar. Admiral Wells was then ordered by the Admiralty to return to Gibraltar. The rapid deterioration of the situation in West Africa is clearly shown in a series of signals which passed between the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic and the Admiralty on 28 June. At 1100 hours, the Commander-in-Chief signalled that the French had refused HMS Dorsetshire permission to enter Dakar and that she was therefore proceeding to Freetown with all dispatch to fuel and return to the Dakar area as soon as possible. HMS Dorsetshire arrived at Freetown at 0545/29. At 1415/28 the Commander-in-Chief informed the Admiralty that the French Admiral at Dakar had issued orders to prevent H.M. ships from communicating with, or receiving stores, from the shore. In reply he had told the French Admiral that HMS Hermes would enter Dakar on the 29th to embark aircraft stores and fuel, and that he himself would sail from there in HMS Albatros after seeing the commanding officer of HMS Hermes. At 1515/28 the Commander-in-Chief informed the Admiralty of the steps he would take in case the Richelieu would proceed to sea again. The Admiralty then issued orders that Dakar was to be watched by an 8” cruiser within sight of the French port by dayand within three miles by night. HMS Hermes was to remain off Dakar until relieved by HMS Dorsetshire after this ship had returned from fueling at Freetown.
HMS Hermes arrived at Dakar at 0900/29. During the day she embarked Fleet Air Arm personnel and stores which had been landed there earlier. She then completed with fuel and sailed at 1800/29. She then patrolled off Dakar until she was relieved by HMS Dorsetshire at 1800/30. The Commander-in-Chief had sailed from Dakar in HMS Albatros at 1030/29. He arrived at Freetown at 1800/30 and transferred his flag to the accommodation ship Edinburgh Castle.
Deterioration of Franco-British relations, 1 – 3 July 1940.
The first few days of July saw a swift deterioration of Franco-British relations everywhere. The paramount importance of keeping the French fleet out of the hands of the enemy forced the British Government to take steps. According to the armistice terms the French fleet had to assemble at ports under German or Italian control and be demilitarized. To the Government it was clear that this would mean that the French ships would be brought into action against us. The Government therefore decided to offer the French naval commanders the following options; - to continue the fight against the Axis, to completely immobilization in certain ports or to demilitarize or sink their ships.
Already a powerful squadron, known as ‘Force H’ had been assembled at Gibraltar, in order to fill the strategic naval vacuum in the Western Mediterranean caused by the defection of the French fleet, and on 30 June Vice-Admiral J.F. Somerville hoisted his flag in HMS Hood. His first task was to present the British alternatives to the Admiral commanding the French ships at Oran, failing the acceptance of one of them, he was to use force.
To return to West-Africa, HMS Hermes reached Freetown with the Fleet Air Arm passengers and stores from Dakar on 2 July. Early that afternoon the Commander-in-Chief asked the Consul General at Dakar to obtain, if possible, assurance from the French Admiral there that if British warships were not allowed to use Dakar, enemy men-of-war should also be forbidden to use it. At 1915/2, the ex-British Liaison Officer, who had not yet left Dakar, reported the arrival of a British merchant ship which had not been diverted. He also reported that the French ships Katiola and Potiers might be sailing for Casablanca, escorted by armed merchant cruisers and destroyers. The Admiralty however ordered HMS Dorsetshire, which was maintaining the watch on Dakar, to take no action. At 2310/2 the Commander-in-Chief asked the Consul-General whether there was any chance of the Polish and Belgian bullion which was in the armed merchant cruiser Victor Schoelcher being transferred to either the Katiola or Potiers. He received no reply, and the continued silence of the British Consul led him to believe that the Consul’s signals were either being held up or mutilated.
Next forenoon, 3 July, the Commander-in-Chief informed the Admiralty that he intended to divert all British shipping in the South Atlantic from all French ports. Early that morning Vice-Admiral Somerville’s Force H had arrived off Oran. For the next ten hours strenuous efforts were made to persuade the French Admiral to accept one of the British alternatives, but without success. At 1554 hours (zone -1) Force H sadly opened fire on the ships of their former ally at Mers-el-Kebir, inflicting heavy damage and grievous loss of life. None could predict the result of these measures on the Franco-British relations, but it was sure they would not be improved.
During the afternoon of July 3rd the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, on Admiralty instructions, directed all British Naval Control Officers and Consular Shipping Advisers to order all Biritsh and Allied ships to leave French ports as soon as possible, if necessary disregarding French instructions. All British warships in French ports were to remain at short notice and to prepared for every eventuality. The only warship in a French port within the limits of the South Atlantic Station at the time was HMS Bulolo, which was at Manoka in the Cameroons. At 2048 hours (B.S.T.) the Admiralty ordered all British warships in French ports to proceed to sea and at 2223 hours the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic ordered HMS Bulolo to proceed to Lagos, where she was to remain with HMS Dragon (Capt. R.G. Bowes-Lyon, MVO, RN) until further orders.
HMS Dorsetshire off Dakar, 3-7 July 1940.
Meanwhile HMS Dorsetshire had continued her watch off Dakar. On 3 July 1940 there were sixteen French warships and seven auxiliaries in the harbour. This number included the battleship Richelieu, the large destroyers Fleuret, Milan, Epervier, the armed merchant cruisers El D’Jezair, El Kantara, El Mansour, Ville d’Oran, Ville d’Alger, Victor Schoelcher and Charles Plumier, the colonial sloop Bougainville, the submarines Le Heros and Le Glorieux. At 0917/3 the Admiralty asked the Commander-in-Chief for the Richelieu’s berth at Dakar. HMS Dorsetshire informed him that at 1125/3 she was in position 045°, Cape Manuel lighthouse, 2.6 nautical miles, ships head 230°. Captain Martin seems to have drawn his own conclusions from this question and at 1350 hours he signalled to the the Commander-in-Chief his opinion that the Richelieu’s propellers could be severely damaged by depth charges dropped from a fast motor dinghy, and he asked permission to carry out such an attack about 2300 hours that night. Vice-Admiral Lyon replied that he had no instructions from the Admiralty to take offensive action against the Richelieu. At 1625 hours, however, the Admiralty ordered HMS Dorsetshire to get ready, but to await approval before actually carrying out an attack. This was followed at 1745 hours by a signal that the proposed attack was not approved as it was feared to be ineffective and for the time being the idea was ‘shelved’. [More on this idea later on.]
At 1904/3, the Admiralty ordered HMS Hermes to leave Freetown with all despatch to join HMS Dorsetshire off Dakar at 0500/5. At 2112/3 the Admiralty ordered HMS Dorsetshire to shadow the Richelieu if she sailed and proceeded northwards. If the vessel however made for the French West Indies, the Dorsetshire was to make every effort to destroy her by torpedo attack, and, if that failed, by ramming [ !!! ]. Late that evening the French Government decreed that all British ships and aircraft were forbidden, under penalty of being fired upon without warning, to approach within 20 nautical miles of French territory at home or overseas. Just before midnight the Admiralty gave orders that HMAS Australia (Capt. R.R. Stewart, RN), after refueling at Freetown, was to join HMS Dorsetshire off Dakar. At 0926/4, the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic ordered HMS Hermes and HMAS Australia to rendez-vous with HMS Dorsetshire 21 nautical miles from Dakar instead of the 15 nautical miles previously arranged and at 1037 hours he informed all three ships that as the French Air Force and submarines had orders to attack British ships off Casablanca and Dakar. He therefore issued orders that French aircraft and submarines were to be attacked and destroyed on sight. During that afternoon the Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons that, as an alternative to the German demands, French warships might proceed to the West Indies. At 2041 hours the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic asked whether, in view of this, the Admiralty intended that the Richelieu should be attacked if she was to proceed to the West Indies. Before this message was received, a signal was sent at 2050 hours cancelling the orders for the Richelieu’s destruction and at about midnight the Admiralty directed that she should be shadowed only.
Early on the 5th the Consul-General at Dakar reported that the merchant vessel Argyll with Commander J. Rushbrooke, RN, the ex-British Naval Liaison Officer, Dakar and his staff onboard, had, in accordance with instructions from the French authorities left Dakar the previous day but that she was recalled on reaching the outer boom, an order which had led the Consul-General to make a protest. Soon after midnight 4/5 July orders were received from the Admiralty that the sloop HMS Milford (Capt. R.J. Shaw, MBE, RN) should be sent to join the patrol off Dakar to provide A/S protection. She left Freetown for Dakar at 1000/5.
At 0723/5, in view of the French order forbidding the approach of British vessels and aircraft within 20 nautical miles from French territory at home and overseas, the Commander-in-Chief ordered his ships off Dakar not to approach within 20 nautical miles of the shore and replied in the affirmative when HMS Dorsetshire asked whether this rule also applied by night. During the afternoon he informed his command that French warships was orders not to attack the British unless they were within these 20 nautical miles. He later added that also submarines had the same orders.
At 1853/5, the Commander-in-Chief ordered HMS Dorsetshire, HMAS Australia, HMS Hermes and HMS Milford not to attack French submarines outside the 20 mile zone unless they were obviously hostile. An Admiralty report then came in the the Richelieu was reported to have put to sea but HMS Dorsetshire quickly contradicted that report.
Dispositions off Dakar at 0300 on 7 July 1940.
At 0300/7, two of the British warships off Dakar which were under the command of Capt. Martin (being the senior officer) were patrolling of Dakar (HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Hermes). The third ship (HMAS Australia) was patrolling about 35 to 40 nautical miles further to the north. The fourth ship HMS Milford was approaching Dakar from the south. At 0307 hours a signal from the Admiralty was received which gave a completely different complexion to their operations.
7 Jul 1940
The attack on the French battleship Richelieu, 7 / 8 July 1940.
The Admiralty orders operations against the Richelieu.
The Admiralty had originally intended that the Richelieu should be dealt with by Vice-Admiral Somerville’s Force H from Gibraltar but later they decided to employ Force H in the Mediterranean and that the Richelieu was to be put out of action by aircraft from HMS Hermes (Capt. R.F.J. Onslow, RN). Both on account of his up-to-date local knowledge and his air experience Captain Onslow was chosen to take charge of this operation, with the temporary rank of Acting Rear-Admiral. The Admiralty orders to him were contained in a signal sent at 0144/7 (zone -1), which read as follows; ‘H.M. Government have decided question of Richelieu and other French warships at Dakar must be settled without delay. 1) You have been selected to take charge of the operations on account of your recent local and air knowledge, and are hereby promoted to Acting Rear-Admiral until further orders. 2) You are to take HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN), HMAS Australia (Capt. R.R. Stewart, RN) and HMS Milford (Capt. R.J. Shaw, MBE, RN) under your command. 3) You should communicate with the French Naval Authorities at Dakar in manner you think best and transmit text of message which will follow in another signal soon. A decision must be asked within four hours so as to give the Richelieu no time to get underway. 4) Shoud alternative 3 be accepted you take such measures of demilitarization to ensure that ships could not be brought into service for at least a year even at a fully equipped dockyard port. [Seven suggestions to archive this were then given] 5) If all alternatives are refused you should as soon as possible carry out an attack on Richelieu with torpedo aircraft and maintain this attack until it is certain she is sufficiently disabled. Approximately half your torpedoes should have Duplex pistols and half contact pistols and endeavor should be made to obtain a hit in the vicinity of the propellers with a contact pistol. All attacks should be from one side if possible. 6) Bombardment by 8” cruisers should not be carried out in view of the small damage to be expected on the Richelieu and streght of defences. 7) HMS Dorsetshire and HMAS Australia should show themselves at intervals during the operation, but no unnecessary risk of submarine attacks should be accepted by any ship. French naval authorities should be informed your forces are kept at a distance until this decision on account of their submarines. 8) Should it be possible after Richelieu have been dealt with, the two light cruisers should also be attacked. Armed merchant cruisers should not be attacked. 9) Any ship endeavours to put to sea should be brought into action. Whether Richelieu can be attacked under these circumstances by the 8” cruisers should depend on her 15” main battery being operative and effective. 10) H.M. Government desires operation to be carried out as soon as possible subject to your plan as being as proposed. 11) Should Richelieu have left Dakar before receipt of these orders she is to be called upon to stop. If she obeys this order the procedure outlined above is to be carried out. If she refuses to stop she is to be attacked with torpedo aircraft. 12) Inform Admiralty in due course whether operation will take place and of various phases of operations as they occur.
This signal was followed almost immediately by another which gave the terms of communication which Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow was to make to the French authorities at Dakar. Four alternatives were to be offererd; 1) To sail their ships with reduced crews and without ammunition, under British control, to a British port. The crews would be repatriated as soon as possible, and the ships restored to France at the end of the war, or compensation paid if damaged meanwhile 2) To sail with us with reduced crews and without ammunition to some French port in the West Indies, where the ships are to be demilitarized or perhaps entrusted to the United States. Crews to be repatriated. 3) To demilitarize the ships at Dakar to Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow’s satisfaction within 12 hours, to such an extent that they would be incapable of taking part further in the present war. 4) To sink their ships within 6 hours. A reply was required within 4 hours, failing the adoption of one of the alternatives, force will be resorted to.
Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow’s proceedings, 7 July 1940.
After these clear and unequivocal signals had been deciphered Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow’s first concern was the delivery of the British ultimatum to the French authorities. He decided to concentrate HMS Hermes, HMS Dorsetshire, HMAS Australia and meet up with HMS Milford as soon as possible. HMS Milford would then proceed into Dakar with the full text of H.M. Governments terms. By 0800 hours that morning the three ships were steaming south in company, but there was some delay in meeting HMS Milford, as owning to pressure of work in the wireless office of HMS Hermes, Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow had told HMAS Australia to pass a signal to HMS Milford to join his flag, and the Australia used a cypher not held by the Milford. Meanwhile, at 0900 hours the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic had asked Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow whether he wished any signal to be made to the Consul-General at Dakar. He replied with a request that the Consul-General to be informed that HMS Milford was being sent into Dakar with an important message for the French Admiral.
It was not until 1155 hours that HMS Milford joined. No time was then lost, and havig embarked Paymaster-Lieutenant R.S. Flynn, RN as interpreter, she left for Dakar at 1214 hours, with a copy of the British ultimatum on board. At 1300 hours, Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow informed the Admiralty that she was on her way and that she should arrive around 1400 hours. On her arrival off Dakar however, the French Admiral declined to accept the British communication and threatened to open fire unless she retired. A request that he should reconsider his decision was met with a blank refusal and at 1448 hours HMS Milford reported that she was returned towards HMS Hermes. Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow then reported this information to the Admiralty without delay, adding that he intended to attack at dusk.
From the first appearance of HMS Milford off Dakar the French kept the British force under aerial observation. Aircraft from HMS Hermes have been keeping Dakar under observation during daylight hours as of 0600/5. At 1700/7 a special reconnaissance was carried out by the Squadron Commander with the senior observer in view of the attack that had to be carried out soon. Shortly afterwards Admiralty approval for the dusk attack was received.
Meanwhile the French authorities seem to have thought better of their abrupt refusal to receive the Milford’s communication, and at about 1615 hours a signal was made to her to the effect that the Governor-General approved of her message being passed by W/T. A further signal seemed to indicate that Admiral Plancon was now prepared to receive it. These signals were interpreted by HMAS Australia and passed on to Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow, who decided to deal with the matter himself, and on receipt of the second message started to pass H.M. Government’s full terms in English by wireless; but in order to allow time to prepare for offensive action during the night he reduced the time limit for a reply from four hours to two. These developments he reported to the Admiralty and the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic at 1700 hours. Dakar W/T station acknowledged the receipt of the message at 1805 hours and the ultimatum was thus due to expire at 2005/7. This however was over an hour after sunset and the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic therefore suggested that the attack with torpedo planes should therefore be carried out at dawn the next day. The possibility that the Richelieu might put to sea during the night could not be overlooked and Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow deployed his ships in such a manner and closer inshore then 20 miles that the most likely routes were covered.
Disposition of Dakar during the night of 7/8 July 1940.
Air reconnaissance had shown that a definite lane leading from the Richelieu in a north-easterly direction had been purposely made through the large number of merchant ships anchored in the Outer Roads, and it seemed that a passage through the outer boom might have been made between Gorée Island and R’solue Shoal to facilitate her escape in that direction. To guard against this HMS Milford was ordered to patrol further eastward then originally intended.
At 1914/7 the Acting Rear-Admiral detached HMS Dorsetshire and HMAS Australia to take up their patrol lines, while HMS Hermes and HMS Milford in company proceeded towards the west end of the latter’s patrol line. No reply to the ultimatum had been received from the French authorities, and at 2003 hours (two minutes before it’s expiration) Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow made a polite signal asking for an answer. There was no response and at 2020 hours he decided to take offensive action. This was to consist of a depth charge attack by the Hermes’s fast twin-engine motor-boat on the Richelieu during the night, followed by a torpedo attack with aircraft at dawn. At 2050 hours HMS Hermes and HMS Milford stopped, being then 17 nautical miles due south of Cape Manuel, the motor-boat was lowered, and started on the first stage of its adventurous trip.
Depth charge attack on the Richelieu.
The motor-boat, which was manned by a volunteer crew of nine with blackened faces, commanded by Lt.Cdr. R.H. Bristowe, RN, had been painted matt black all over during the afternoon (much to the distress of the Boat Officer) and had been armed with a Vickers machine-gun. It carried four depth charges, a portable wireless set, which would prove to be much useful, and extra petrol, oil and provisions. Lt.Cdr. Bristowe’s orders were to proceed with HMS Milford to the western end of her new patrol line within 10 nautical miles of Dakar harbour and thence to go on alone into the outer harbour, passing over and around booms as he thought best. He was to drop the four depth charges under the Richelieu’s stern if he discovered her at anchor, or across her bows if he found her under way. If he failed to find her he was to report that by wireless at once. After the operation he was to endeavor to get in tow of the Milford on her patrol line by 0300/8 but if he found this impossible he was to make a rendezvous with Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow’s force at 0530/8.
At 2100/7 the crew manned the boat and proceeded with two depth charges from the Hermes to pick up two more from the Milford. A considerable swell was running and when the first depth charge was being hoisted in from the Milford it struck one of the crew of the motor-boat and struck him out. It also wrecked the port engine. Fortunately the new starboard engine which had been fitted during the afternoon, but which had not been tested due to lack of time, was running beautifully.
When HMS Milford got under way at 2145/7, she ordered to motor-boat to follow her at 12 knots if possible. The depth charges slung outboard upset the boat’s stability and it had a perilous trip. Near its point of departure from the Milford a large ship hove into sight which, at first, looked like the Richelieu but it answered the Milford’s challenge correctly and proved to be HMAS Australia.
The motor-boat then parted company and, when out of sight, stopped while the crew lifted the last depth charge into position. When this task was completed, all hands, except the two Royal Marines, which were manning the Vickers machine-gun in the bows carried out a drill with the depth charge throwers. Then they continued their was towards Dakar. Gorée Islands hove into sight after what appeared to have been hours. Actually it was now 0015/8. Shortly afterwards the boat almost collided with a destroyer that was patrolling outside the boom but remained unseen. It then proceeded slowly at only three knots until off the outer boom. The engine was then stopped and it slid over safely. It then went ahead at dead slow speed with engine muffled until it encountered a colonial sloop (must have been the Bougainville), which it at first mistook for the Richelieu and had nearly attacked. Again the motor-boat remained unseen and it now steered for the merchant ships which formed two straight lines running in a north-easterly direction from the Richelieu as she lay about three quarters of a mile due east of the inner harbour entrance. Then passing round the north-eastern end of the inner boom, it steered towards the reported position of the Richelieu, keeping close to the nearest line of merchant ships until the battleship with a merchant vessel laying almost dead astern of her, came into sight. Lt.Cdr. Bristowe steered for the merchant ship which afforded an excellent position from which to attack. As he approached her, however, he sighted a harbour launch under way just astern of the battleship, and decided to attack at once from the quarter instead of from astern. Events followed quickly. The motor-boat was challenged but before the challenge was completed Lt.Cdr. Bristowe had given orders to attack at full speed. As he approached the Richelieu he was challenged again six times, but although he could not reply the French held their fire.
The coxswain’s orders were to go alongside the stern of the battleship, to graze their port side steering towards her bow, and then, as soon as Lt.Cdr. Bristowe gave the order ‘over’ to dash cover amongst the merchant ships. At the last moment a lighter lying right aft along the battleship’s port side, and her port quarter boom with a boat made fast to it, came into sight in the light of the half moon. These the coxswain avoided most skillfully and at 0210 hours put the motor-boat alongside about 30 yards from the battleships stern over what Lt.Cdr. Bristowe hoped was the vital spot for which he was looking. The depth charges then went over. Frenchmen on the quarterdeck of the Richelieu stood looking over the side, apparently at first wondering about what was happening below. When they finally discovered they beat a hurried retreat. Meanwhile the motor-boat dashed for safety amongst the mechant ships. The complete absence of any explosions came as an anti-climax.
Although the Richelieu very quickly sent a general signal which was acknowledged quickly by the shore batteries and the ships in the harbour but no searchlights were switched on. Lt.Cdr. Bristowe decided to get away as soon as possible at full speed to take full advantage of the remaining two hours of darkness. He made a dash for the outer boom. As he approached the boom, however, an auxiliary vessel sighted the motor-boat and gave chase, and, being unable to shake of this pursuer, Lt.Cdr. Bristowe steered at full speed towards the boom with the French vessel only 50 yards behind. The motor-boat passed safely over the nets around 0300 hours but its pursuer got caught in the nets. Another patrol vessel then came into sight and took up the chase, but with steering a zig-zag course the moto-boat managed to escape. Neither French vessel had opened fire. It was already too late to make rendezvous with HMS Milford so Lt.Cdr. Bristowe set course to make rendezvous with the main force. At 0355 hours he informed HMS Hermes by wireless that he had dropped his four depth charges under the stern of the Richelieu at 0210 hours.
At about 0505 hours there were a number of explosions coming from the direction of the French battleship followed by heavy gunfire. A few minutes later a Swordfish aircraft passed overhead, flying to seaward. The Fleet Air Arm attack had taken place. As dawn broke the Richelieu came into sight, shrouded by a pall of yellow smoke, some two to three miles away. There was a heavy barrage of French AA fire and Lt.Cdr. Bristowe turned south to avoid it. A French bomber appeared overhead and for 15 minutes the motor-boat zigzagged to throw it off, but it dropped no bombs.
At 0545 hours, Lt.Cdr. Bristowe decided that he could not reach HMS Hermes so he set course for Bathurst, over 70 nautical miles away. Soon however, a signal was received from the Hermes to stop engines. About noon HMS Hermes picked up the motor-boat 13 nautical miles south of Cape Manuel, after it had been away from the ship for 15 hours.
Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow considered the conduct of Lt.Cdr. Bristowe and the remaining crew of the motor-boat in the highest degree of praiseworthy. It was just said that the depth charges did not explode in the shallow water. The venture clearly deserved better success.
The Fleet Air Arm torpedo attack on the Richelieu at dawn on 8 July 1940.
At 2300/7, Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow had ordered Lt.Cdr. Luard, the leader of 814 Squadron to carry out a torpedo attack with the greatest possible number of aircraft on the Richelieu at dawn the next day. As only three of the available pilots had previously taken off at night Lt.Cdr. Luard decided that the six crews should consist of one pilot and one observer only and that no air gunners were to be part of the crews (to their disappointment). They were to form up in two sub flights in line ahead at a height of 2000 feet, one mile ahead of the Hermes. The pistols carried by the first, second and fourth Swordfish were fitted with Duplex pistols and were set to run under the Richelieu at 38 feet. Those carried by the other three Swordfish were contact pistols set to run at 24 feet. All six were set to run at 40 knots.
The attack was only possible from one side owning to nets, shipping and depth of the water. From this direction, the north-east, the six aircraft were to attack in line ahead, and were then to return to HMS Hermes independently. At 0415/8 they all took off successfully from HMS Hermes which was then in position 14°37’N, 17°46’W about 20 nautical miles west of Cape Manuel, and at 0445 hours took departure about 2000 feet over her. At 0452 hours they sighted the Cape Verde peninsula and at 0500 hours when they were approaching Gorée Island they formed a single line ahead. At 0502 hours, Lt.Cdr. Luard went into a shallow dive from the south to keep a good background as long as possible, turning south-west at 0505 hours. Fortunately the Richelieu was swung heading south-east broadside on. He aimed his torpedo at her port side, two-thirds of the way aft from a range of 800 yards. When he had completed his attack he turned to port and made a rapid get-away to the south before turning west to rejoin HMS Hermes. The other five Swordfish dropped their torpedoes in quick succession. As Lt.Cdr. Luard made his attack a large number of AA guns opened fire and engaged all six Swordfish. The third aircraft to attack saw the two previous torpedo tracks running straight for the Richelieu and the last aircraft reported seeing four tracks proceeding towards her. Two of the aircraft saw a large column of smoke rising from the Richelieu and all the pilots considered that they had made good drops. Owning to the lack of light and the necessity of getting away quickly they found it imposible to observe the effect of their torpedoes but Lt.Cdr. Luard estimated that at least four or five of them had run correctly towards the target. He landed without mishap on board HMS Hermes at 0526/8 and all the other Swordfish did the same afterwards. One had been hit twice and another one once by AA fire but they had received only minor damage.
The exact amount of damage done to the Richelieu was not easy to determine. Lt.Cdr. Luard estimated that four or five of the torpedoes dropped by the six aircraft had run correctly towards their target and that HMS Dorsetshire reported hearing five distinct explosions between 0500 and 0515 hours. A pall of smoke shrouding the Richelieu was reported by one of the pilots and his observer. As the day wore on, further evidence convinced Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow that she had been disabled. Air reconnaissance reported her as being down by the stern, with large quantities of oil all around her. Of this he informed the Admiralty at 0930/8.
On the recovery of the motor-boat at noon Lt.Cdr. Bristowe reported hearing explosions while his motor-boat lay broken down off the end of the inner boom at 0230 hours, which he naturally attributed to his depth charges exploding underneath her stern. Like the Dorsetshire he had heard a number of explosions around 0510 hours and had noticed the pall of smoke reported by the airmen.
Between 0930 and 1235 hours, French aircraft made intermittent attacks on the British force. They failed to press these attacks home but after picking up the motor-boat Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow ordered his ships to the south and south-west to avoid the French aircraft whilst still keeping the Richelieu under observation from the air. Photographs showed her down by the stern and slightly listing to port.
At 1314/8 the Admiralty replied to the report of 0930 hours. ‘Good, but further attacks should be made and report made’. But it was too late. During the afternoon the Richelieu was moved to the inner harbour and berthed alongside the detached mole where she rested on the bottom at low tide. At this position she was immune from further torpedo attack. This information was passed to the Admiralty at 1710 hours, together with the opinion that the Richelieu was definitely disabled. It was suggested that the British force should proceed to Freetown to fuel. HMS Milford was detached after dark. The other ships took up night patrolling positions but just after midnight Admiralty approval to proceed to Freetown was received. HMS Hermes and HMS Dorsetshire indeed did so but HMAS Australia proceeded to the U.K. The passage to Freetown by HMS Hermes and HMS Dorsetshire was not without incident. In a sudden dense tropical storm during the middle watch on 10 July HMS Hermes collided with the armed merchant cruiser HMS Corfu (Capt. W.G. Agnew, RN) which was escorting convoy SL 39 coming from Freetown. HMS Corfu was badly holed, while HMS Hermes suffered severe damage to her bow and the forward end of her flight deck but was able to proceed under her own steam to Freetown where she arrived at 1800/10. On 11 July 1940 Temporary Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow reverted to his rank of Captain.
Damage to the Richelieu.
The Admiralty tried to find out if Richelieu was indeed ‘definitely disabled’ as Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow had claimed. Before the end of the month further reports became available. Commander Rushbrooke, the former British Naval Liaison Officer at Dakar was at Dakar in the merchant vessel Argyll during the attacks which was moored only 3 cables away from the Richelieu on her port beam. Commander Rushbrooke had had a ringside seat. On his arrival at Freetown he reported that at 0230/8 funnel explosions were heard from the direction of the Richelieu which gave the impression that the fuel supply to her furnaces was not normal. These explosions had occurred before and one must take into account that the Richelieu was brand new and not fully completed at that time let alone be fully worked up and possibly suffering from small defects which had not fully be remedied during her trial period. Following these explosions, two officers, which were on the bridge of the Argyll did not see any special activity on board the Richelieu nor in the harbour. These funnel explosions were probably the explosions heard by Lt.Cdr. Bristowe around 0230 hours.
Shortly after 0500/8, Commander Rushbrooke and the same two officers witnessed the air attack and at 0507 hours heard two dull thuds. When full daylight broke they saw a patch of oil round the Richelieu’s stern, which also appeared to be slightly down in the water. Later she lowered her main aerials but soon rehoisted them.
After pursuing all available reports, the Admiralty considered that the attack had been well conceived and executed, but that certain technical aspects required comment. The depth of the water at the time was 42 feet and the Richelieu’s draught was 26 feet 10 inches. In those conditions the setting of the torpedoes intended to run under the ship would have been about 3 feet more then the expected draught, or at most 33 feet (instead of 38 feet) and the setting of the contact torpedoes should have been at least 6 feet less the the draught, 21 feet at most (instead of 24 feet). In view of the shallowness of the water and the fact that the target was at anchor, too, the high speed setting of 40 knots should not have been used, as it was known that these torpedoes were liable to have an excessive initial dive on the 40 knot setting, and a much reduced one on the 29 knot setting.
It was also pointed out in the Admiralty that 18” torpedoes containing about 440 lbs. of T.N.T. hitting the ships side within the length of the citadel would not defeat the main protection. They would cause little flooding but would allow oil to escape into the sea. Torpedoes fitted with Duplex pistols exploding under the ships bottom would not produce damage visible from outside the ship. Broken aerials are a feature of underwater explosions and new aerials may have been hoisted to replace broken ones, but from Commander Rushbrooke’s report it would appear that not more then one torpedo could have exploded under the Richelieu’s main machinery compartments. It was considered, therefore, that she could not be regarded as out of action, but still as seaworthy and able to steam at at least three-quarters speed with all her main armament capable of use.
Actually the damage was more serious then this assessment. According to French sources which later became available, only one torpedo hit. It blew a hole 25 x 20 feet, fractured stern post, distorted the starboard inner shaft and flooded three compartments. She was rendered incapable of steaming more than half power, and repairs to restore seaworthiness took a year. But her main armament was intact which would be shown a few months later. (8)
10 Jul 1940
Shortly after 0300 hours (zone +1), in bad weather, HMS Hermes (A/Rear-Admiral R.F.J. Onslow, DSC, MVO, RN) and HMS Corfu (Capt. W.G. Agnew, RN) collided with each other. The ships got stuck together and only came loose around 0520 hours. Most of the crew of the heavily damaged Corfu had evacuated to the Hermes but later the engine room staff returned. HMS Hermes then proceeded to Freetown while HMS Corfu got underway for Freetown als at dead slow speed and proceeding astern under escort by HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN).
At 1830/10 HMS Dorsetshire commenced towing HMS Corfu but after two minutes the bollard was carried away and the tow parted. At 1845 hours Corfu again proceeded astern at dead slow speed.
At 0520/11 HMS Milford (Capt. R.J. Shaw, MBE, RN) arrived on the scene for A/S protection and at 0600/11 the Dutch tug Donau arrived on the scene as well. She took HMS Corfu in tow shortly after 0800 hours.
HMS Hermes arrived at Freetown later the same day. HMS Corfu, HMS Dorsetshite and HMS Milford arrived at/off Freetown on the 12th. (9)
11 Feb 1941
HMS Kandahar (Cdr. W.G.A. Robson, DSO, RN) joins 'Force T' off the coast of Kismayu, Italian Somaliland. 'Force T' is made up of the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. R.F.J. Onslow, DSC, MVO, RN), heavy cruisers HMS Hawkins (Capt. H.P.K. Oram, RN), HMS Shropshire and the light cruisers HMS Capetown (Capt. P.H.G. James, RN) and HMS Ceres (Capt. E.G. Abbott, AM, RN).
During this day two Italian merchant vessels that try to escape from Kismayu were captured by HMS Hawkins. These were; Adria (3809 GRT, built 1914) and Savoia (5490 GRT, built 1922). Prize crews were put on board and the ships were taken to Mombasa. The captured Adria came across another Italian merchant ship, the Erminia Mazzella (5644 GRT, built 1917). This ship was then also captured. (10)
19 Feb 1941
The aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. R.F.J. Onslow, DSC, MVO, RN), heavy cruisers HMS Hawkins (Capt. H.P.K. Oram, RN), HMS Shropshire and the destroyer HMS Kandahar (Cdr. W.G.A. Robson, DSO, RN) all returned to Mombasa from operations off the coast of Italian Somaliland. (10)
19 Oct 1941
The battlecruiser HMS Repulse (Capt. W.G. Tennant, CB, MVO, RN) and the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. R.F.J. Onslow, DSC, MVO, RN) departed Mombasa for a patrol in the Seychelles area. (11)
29 Mar 1942
Operations by the Eastern Fleet from 29 March to 13 April 1942. Enemy air attacks on Colombo and later Trincomalee and the loss of HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on 5 April 1942 and HMS Hermes, HMAS Vampire on 9 April 1942.
Dispositions of the Eastern Fleet on 29 March 1942.
On 29 March 1942 the disposition of the Eastern Fleet was as follows; At Colombo: Aircraft Carrier HMS Formidable (Capt. A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN), heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. A.W.S. Agar, VC, DSO, RN) (refitting) and HMS Cornwall (Capt. P.C.W. Manwaring, RN), light cruisers HMS Enterprise (Capt. J.C.A. Annesley, DSO, RN), HMS Dragon (Capt. R.J. Shaw, MBE, RN) and HMS Caledon (A/Capt. H.J. Haynes, DSO, DSC, RN), the destroyers HMS Paladin (Cdr. A.D. Pugsley, RN), HMS Panther (Lt.Cdr. R.W. Jocelyn, RN), HMAS Nestor (Cdr. A.S. Rosenthal, DSO and Bar, RAN), HMS Hotspur (Lt. T.D. Herrick, DSC, RN), HMS Arrow (Cdr. A.M. McKillop, RN) and HMS Express (Lt.Cdr. F.J. Cartwright, RN).
At Trincomalee: The flagship of the Eastern Fleet, the battleship HMS Warspite (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.F. Somerville, KCB, KBE, DSO, RN), the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. R.F.J. Onslow, DSC, MVO, RN), light cruisers HMS Emerald (Capt. F.C. Flynn, RN) and HrMs Jacob van Heemskerck (Cdr. E.J. van Holte, RNN), the destroyer HMAS Vampire (Cdr. W.T.A. Moran, RAN). HMS Warspite departed Trincomalee this day and arrived at Colombo in the evening.
At Addu Atoll; The battleships HMS Resolution (Capt. A.R. Halfhide, CBE, RN , flying the flag of A/Vice-Admiral A.U. Willis, DSO, RN, second in command Eastern Fleet), HMS Ramillies (Capt. D.N.C. Tufnell, DSC, RN), HMS Royal Sovereign (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN), HMS Revenge (Capt. L.V. Morgan, CBE, MVO, DSC, RN) the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable (Capt. T.H. Troubridge, RN, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral D.W. Boyd, CBE, DSC, RN) and the destroyers HMAS Napier (Capt. S.H.T. Arliss, DSO, RN), HMAS Norman (Cdr. H.M. Burrell, RAN), HMAS Nizam (Lt.Cdr. M.J. Clark, DSC, RAN), HMS Fortune (Lt.Cdr. R.D.H.S. Pankhurst, RN), HMS Foxhound (Cdr. G.H. Peters, DSC, RN), HMS Griffin (Capt. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO, RN), HMS Decoy (Lt.Cdr. G.I.M. Balfour, RN) and HrMs Isaac Sweers (Cdr. W. Harmsen, RNN).
The Japanese had been operating in the Indian Ocean in early March and more attacks were expected in this area by the Allies. The most likely target would be the island of Ceylon and the harbours of Colombo and Trincomalee.
30 and 31 March 1942.
Admiral Somerville therefore planned to concentrate the Eastern Fleet on the late afternoon / early evening of 31 March 1942 in position 04°40’N, 81°00’E. The fleet would then be divided in two groups; Force A (the fast division) was made up of the flagships, battleship HMS Warspite, both fleet carriers, HMS Indomitable and HMS Formidable. They were escorted by the cruisers HMS Cornwall, HMS Enterprise, HMS Emerald and six destroyers; HMAS Napier, HMAS Nestor, HMS Paladin, HMS Panther, HMS Hotspur and HMS Foxhound. This force would try to intercept the enemy and deliver a night air attack on the enemy with their carriers as the main target.
Force A would be covered by the slower Force B which was made up of the battleships HMS Resolution, HMS Ramillies, HMS Royal Sovereign and the light carrier HMS Hermes. Escort to these ships was proviced by the cruisers HMS Dragon, HMS Caledon, HrMs Jacob van Heemskerck and a total of eight destroyers HMS Griffin, HMS Decoy, HMAS Norman, HMS Fortune, HrMs Isaac Sweers, HMS Arrow and one of the old destroyers that had managed to escape from the China station also joined, this was HMS Scout (Lt.Cdr.(Retd.) H. Lambton, RN). They were to remain about 20 nautical miles to the west of Force A. If Force A encountered a superior enemy force the would withdraw towards Force B.
At 1400/30 the ships mentioned earlier at the top of this article departed Colombo. HMS Hotspur and HMAS Nestor carried out an A/S sweep of the searched channel before Force A sailed.
By 1600/31 the fleet had made the pre-arranged rendez-vous and formed up. It then proceeded northwards. After dark, to avoid detection from the air by the enemy, Force A altered course to 080° and proceeded at 15 knots until about 0230 hours when it was thought they would be in the estimated position from where the enemy would fly off their aircraft for the expected attack on Ceylon. If nothing was sighted or located by 0230/1, Force A was to turn back to the south-west and to withdraw outside the enemy’s air search area. Force B was to act as a supporting force for Force A, keeping 20 miles to the west of it and confirming to the movements of Force A through the night. This procedure was carried out as planned during the night of 31 March / 1 April but nothing was seen or located.
In the late afternoon / early evening of 31 March HMS Indomitable briefly separated from the fleet for flying operations during which she was escorted by HMS Emerald. From 2100/31 to 0600/1 a search was carried out, to a depth of 120 miles from 050° to 110°, by three A.S.V. fitted Albacores from HMS Formidable. Also two Albacores fitted with long-range tanks were kept standing by for shadowing purposes if required. One of the Albacores crash landed on HMS Formidable upon return at 0340/1.
1 April 1942.
At 0940 hours HMS Decoy reported the breakdown of her main feed pumps. She was detached to Colombo to effect repairs.
Around noon several of the destroyers reported submerged contacts. HMS Scout reported sighting a periscope. The fleet took avoiding action in each case, but nothing further transpired from these contact which are now considered to be non-sub.
At 1400 hours, HMS Scout, one of the oldest destroyers of the Royal Navy with a short enducance, was detached to oil at sea from RFA Appleleaf (5892 GRT, built 1917, Master E. Mills) in position 04°00’N, 80°00’E. Upon completion of oiling HMS Scout was to proceed to position 05°40’N, 81°08’E by 0800/2. RFA Appleleaf and her escort, HMS Shoreham (Cdr. E. Hewitt, RD, RNR), were to proceed towards a new waiting position 05°00’N, 80°30’E.
In the afternoon, around 1420 hours, HMS Dorsetshire joined Force A. This cruiser had been refitting at Colombo but this refit was cut short to enable her to take part in this operation. Air searches were carried out from Ceylon as the days before but they sighted nothing of the enemy. Also from 1430/1800 hours a search was carried out by aircraft from HMS Indomitable between 142° to 207° to a depth of 215 miles. Admiral Somerville decided to carry out the same sweep to the north-east as had been done the previous night. Again nothing was seen and Force A made rendez-vous with Force B at daybreak on 2 April 1942.
2 April 1942.
At 0800 hours the destroyers HMS Fortune and HMAS Vampire were detached to fuel from RFA Appleleaf in position 05°00’N, 80°30’E. and an Albacore was ordered to search for HMS Scout and order her to rejoin the fleet. Shortly after noon the fleet sighted RFA Appleleaf, HMS Shoreham, HMS Fortune and HMAS Vampire. The last two ships then rejoined the fleet while the tanker and it’s escort were ordered to proceed towards Colombo at 1200/3.
During the day the Eastern Fleet cruised in an area about 50 miles further to the west then the previous day to avoid being detected by enemy submarines that had been reported. Throughout the day several of the escorting destroyers obtained unconfirmed echoes. Two more destroyers fuelled during the afternoon, HMAS Napier and HMS Arrow took in fuel from HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall.
As the enemy had not shown herself by 2100 hours, Admiral Somerville decided to proceed to Addu Atoll to fuel and to take on fresh water as the R-class battleships were running out of this as they had been unable to top up at Addu Atoll before they sailed.
3 April 1942.
At 0520 hours, the destroyer HMS Fortune was detached to search for survivors from the merchant vessel Glensheil (9415 GRT, built 1924) that had been torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-7 in position 00°48’S, 78°35’E at 0230 hours. HMS Fortune picked up 88 survivors and then proceeded to Addu Atoll where she arrived at 1130/4.
As at this time Admiral Somerville felt confident that something must have held up the Japanese or that their intentions were incorrectly appreciated. At 0940 hours, he sent HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall to Colombo. The former to continue her refit and the latter to act as escort for the Australian troop convoy SU 4. HMS Hermes and the destroyer HMAS Vampire were also detached but to Trincomalee as HMS Hermes was to prepare for the upcoming operation ‘Ironclad’, the attack on Madagascar.
Late in the morning three of the destroyers of the screen oiled from the battleships; HMAS Norman from HMS Warspite, HMS Griffin from HMS Revenge and HMS Foxhound from HMS Royal Sovereign.
At 1820 hours Force A proceeded ahead to Addu Atoll at 19 knots followed by Force B at 15 knots. Force A arrived at Addu Atoll at 1200/4. Force B at 1500/4.
4 April 1942.
In the early morning hours, and while approaching Addu Atoll, a simulated air strike was carried out on Force B by aircraft from HMS Indomitable and HMS Formidable. One aircraft crashed into the sea, it’s crew was picked up by the Dutch AA-cruiser Jacob van Heemskerck. A second simulated air attack was made on Force A later in the morning.
At 1630 hours, Admiral Somerville received a report that a large enemy force was in position 00°40’N, 83°10’E at 1605/F. Enemy course was 315°. Shortly afterwards this report was confirmed by another report in which they gave an enemy course of 330°. This positioned the enemy in a position 155° from Dondra Head, 360 miles, the distance from Addu Atoll being 085°, 600 miles. There was no indication about the composition of this force.
The condition of the Eastern Fleet at Addu Atoll at that time was as follows; Owning to the limited number of oilers available, the vessels comprising Force A had taken about half their fuel and Force B had not yet commenced fuelling. In addition the ‘R’-class battleships were very short of water which had to be taken in before they could sail. This meant that Force A could sail immediately, minus HMS Emerald and HMS Enterprise. These cruisers could sail shortly after midnight. Force B could not leave until 0700 hours the following morning at the earliest.
It appeared that the enemy’s probable plan was as follows. All the evidence supported Admiral Somerville’s original appreciation that the enemy would attack Colombo (and possibly Trincomalee) with carrier borne aircraft either before dawn or shortly afterwards and would return to the carriers in a position about 150 miles south-east of Ceylon. On completion the whole force would then withdraw to the east. The enemy’s reported position made it apparent that this attack was to be made on the morning of 5 April 1942.
Admiral Somerville considered his possible courses of action were as follows: 1) Force A, less HMS Emerald and HMS Enterprise to proceed immediately at best speed to the area to the south of Ceylon and to be joined there by HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall coming from Colombo and attack any enemy force located. 2) Delay the sailing of Force A until HMS Emerald and HMS Enterprise, valuable units with their strong torpedo armament, had completed refuelling and sail about midnight. Force B could sail in the morning of the 5th and follow astern to act as a supporting force. 3) Delay the sailing of Force A until both force could leave together on the morning of the 5th. 4) Force A and Force B would remain at Addu Atoll and leave the RAF to deal with the enemy attack.
The choise Admiral Somerville made was governed by the following considerations: 1) First and foremost the total defence of the Indian Ocean and it’s vital lines of communication depend on the existence of the Eastern Fleet. The longer this fleet remained ‘in being’ the longer it would limit and check the enemy’s advances against Ceylon and further west. This major policy of retaining ‘a fleet in being’, already approved by Their Lordships, was, in Admiral Somerville’s opinion, paramount. 2) The only hope of dealing the enemy an affective blow was by means of a carrier borne air striking force preferably at night. To operate both carriers escorted by HMS Warspite out of supporting distance of the ‘R’-class battleships would offer the enemy an opportunity to cripple our only offensive weapon. Admiral Somerville considered it a cardinal point in any operation the Force A should not proceed out of the supporting distance from Force B unless it could be presumed that that enemy capital ships would not be encountered. 3) No matter what course of action Admiral Somerville would take the enemy force could not be intercepted either before or during the attack on Ceylon on the morning of the 5th. The only hope was that the air striking force from Ceylon might inflict damage to the enemy so that the Eastern Fleet could ‘finish them off’, or that the enemy attack on Ceylon would be delayed 24 hours.
Admiral Somerville therefore decided to adopt ‘plan 2’. So he sailed Force A including both E-class cruisers at midnight and ordered Force B to proceed as early as possible the following morning.
Admiral Somerville therefore instructed HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall to sail from Colombo and to make rendez-vous with Force A at 1600/5 in position 00°58’N, 77°36’E. The position of this rendez-vous was based on their expected time of departure from Colombo and estimated as being the earliest possible time at which they could cross the track of Force A, taking into consideration that HMS Dorsetshire had resumed her refit and was at extended notice. Admiral Somerville considered that the course to be steered should take them well clear of any enemy forces operating in the vicinity. Actually these instructions had been anticipated by the Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet and these two cruisers, at his discretion, sailed at 2300/4 for Addu Atoll. On receipt of the signal from Admiral Somerville the Deputy Commander-in-Chief amended his instructions accordingly at 0409/5.
5 April 1942.
Force A sailed from Addu Atoll at 0015 hours and proceeded 070° at 18 knots towards a position which would bring it 250 miles south of Ceylon by dawn on the 6th. Shortly before departure the destroyer HMS Hotspur conducted an A/S search of the entrance to Addu Atoll.
During the night Admiral Somerville received reports from the Catalina reconnaissance aircraft on patrol from Ceylon of an enemy destroyer in position 01°59’N, 82°20’E, course 315°, speed 20 knots; six enemy destroyers in position 02°54’N, 82°10’E, course 325°, speed 21 knots; and at 0701 hours a report of one battleship, two cruisers an four other ships in position 195°, Dondra Head, 110 miles. Later this message was subsequently amplified to the effect that the vessels previously reported were definitely hostile and consisted of two battleships, two cruisers and destroyers.
At about 0825 hours an air raid on shipping and harbour facilities at Colombo was commenced in which some 75 aircraft were taking part. These were later reported to be mainly Navy ‘O’ fighters, armed with one bomb each. This enemy force withdrew from Colombo before 0900 hours and was seen by several merchant ships to the south-west of Ceylon probably returning to the carriers. In several cases these merchant were machine gunned.
From 0645 hours an air A/S patrol was maintained ahead of the fleet. HMS Indomitable also sent four Fulmars to commence a search to the eastward. This search covered the area between the arcs 055° to 105° to a depth of 215 miles. It proved negative except for the sighting of an enemy seaplane at 0855 hours, 076°, 150 miles from Force A. This suggested that the enemy was carrying out reconnaissance in a south-westerly direction by means of cruiser aircraft, or a seaplane carrier, in a position 70 miles of the main enemy force. There was no indication that this aircraft sighted any of our surface forces or our air search.
Between 0702 and 1145 hours, Admiral Somerville received reports of battleships in approximate positions 03°55’N, 80°40’E, steering 290° at 0648 hours, steering 120° at 0730 hours, and at 1004 hours in position 04°00’N, 80°25’E steering 282°. This suggested that the battleships were making time while the carriers recovered their aircraft. The estimated position of HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall at this time was 150 miles from the enemy and opening.
At 1327 hours a mutilated ‘Shad’ signal was received from what was thought to be Colombo but was identified half an hour later as coming from HMS Dorsetshire whose position was estimated as being 037°, 90 miles from Force A at 1400 hours. No contact could be established.
At 1344 hours an enemy air formation was detected by RD/F, 030°, 84 miles from Force A. This had faded after five minutes and it later it became clear that this was the enemy attacking the Dorsetshire and Cornwall. At 1552 hours, a reconnaissance aircraft from Force A, reported wreckage in position 02°08’N, 78°08’E.
The destroyer HMS Panther was then detached to search but was recalled about one hour later when a reconnaissance aircraft from Force A reported a force of 5 ‘unknown’ ships in position 03°38’N, 78°18’E at 100 hours. There was no indication of the course or speed of the enemy but it could be either a force previously unreported or the force previously and last reported 1004 hours.
No relief shadowers were however sent off by the Rear-Admiral aircraft carriers as soon s the report was received and Admiral Somerville omitted to obtain confirmation that this had been done. At 1700 hours, Admiral Somerville, received a report from Ceylon that there were indications of enemy aircraft carriers steering 230° at 24 knots from an unknown position at 1400 hours. This was thought to be subsequent to the attack on our 8” cruisers and Admiral Somerville’s deductions from this enemy moves were as follows. If the enemy held on this course they would at 0400 be in a position to deliver a night attack on Addu Atoll. This seemed quite a possible course of action. In any case it was necessary for Force A to keep clear to the southward and for Force B (estimated to be 135 miles astern of Force A) to steer to the southward so that Force A and B could close for supporting action at daylight the following morning (April 6th). It was also necessary for Force B to steer to the southward to keep clear of the enemy carrier force should it be proceeding to attack Addu Atoll.
At 1726 hours, therefore, Force A altered course to 210° at 18 knots and a signal was made to Vice-Admiral second-in-Command and to HMS Dorsetshire to steer south, although at this time Admiral Somerville feared about the fate of the two heavy cruisers. As he had received no signal from them that they had been attacked he thought it possible they had escaped and maintained W/T silence.
At 1800 hours Admiral Somerville received a signal from the Rear-Admiral Aircraft Carriers, stating that a reconnaissance aircraft reported the estimated enemy position as 020°, 120 miles at 1710 hours. This position was very close to the previous position reported at 1600 hours. The course of the enemy had not been given in either of these reports but the positions fitted in well with the course received earlier (230°).
At 1817 hours, a further signal was received from the Rear-Admiral Aircraft Carriers, adjusting the 1600 hours position of the enemy’s force, amplifying it to include two carriers and three unknown vessels and giving the course north-west. This was the first indication Admiral Somerville had of the enemy now proceeding to the north-west. He immediately ordered force A to alter course to 315° and instructed the Vice-Admiral, second-in-Command to conform. These movements had to object of keeping Force A within night air striking distance of the enemy force, trusting to an A.S.V. (airborne surface vessel radar) search to locate the enemy and to bring Force B within supporting distance should it be necessary to retire in that direction. A dawn rendez-vous was arranged with Force B in approximate position 03°00’N, 75°00’E.
As no news had been received of HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall it was assumed they had been sunk.
At 1930 hours a night search with A.S.V. aircraft was commenced to cover the sector 345° to 030° to a depth of 180 nautical miles. Northing was located on this search.
6 April 1942.
From 2100/5 to 0600/6 further A.S.V. searches were carried out to cover the sector 020° to 080° to a depth of 200 miles. These searches also failed to make any contact with the enemy but reported that Force B was 220°, 25 miles from Force A at 0400 hours.
At 0615 hours, Force A altered course to 135° and sighted Force B ten minutes later. By 0720 hours the Fleet was formed up and course was altered to 090°.
Whilst no furher information had been received regarding the enemy’s movements nothing had occurred to diminish the possibility of the enemy’s being in the vicinity of Addu Atoll, either to attack it by air this morning or to await the return of the Eastern Fleet.
Admiral Somerville intended to keep clear of the superior enemy forces by day. It was still his intention to get into a position to attack them with a night air striking force on their possible return from at Addu Atoll area, and also rescue the possible survivors from HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall. He therefore steered east and at 1115 hours course was altered to south-east in the direction of the wreckage that had been reported the previous evening. During the morning reports came in from merchant ships being attacked in the Bay of Bengal. There must be a second Japanese force operating there.
At 1300 hours HMS Enterprise, HMS Paladin and HMS Panther were detached to search for survivors in the vicinity of the wreckage position. Air search was provided to assist and fighter escort was sent to cover the operation. These ships were successful in picking up a total of 1122 survivors from both heavy cruisers. They rejoined the fleet at noon the following day. At 1800/6, when about 50 miles from the wreckage position course was reversed and the fleet retired to the north-west. All-round air searches were carried out to a depth of 200 miles but again nothing was seen.
At about 1400 hours a signal was received from the C-in-C, Ceylon estimating that a strong Japanese force was still somewhere between Addu Atoll and Colombo. Admiral Somerville therefore decided to keep clear of the Addu area until daylight on the 7th.
7 April 1942.
At 0200 hours the Eastern Fleet altered course to the west, 270°.
At 0427 hours, an A.S.V. aircraft located two submarines in position 02°08’N, 75°16’E and 02°46’N, 75°10’E, to the southward of the course of the Eastern Fleet. This indicated that the possibility of an enemy submarine patrol having been established to cover the eastern approaches to Addu Atoll. Admiral Somerville therefore decided to pass through Veimandu Channel to the west of the Maldives and make an unexpected approach to Addu Atoll from the west. At 0700 hours the course of the fleet was altered to 210°.
At 1335 hours, HMS Fortune was detached to investigate a ship contact made by HMS Emerald but no ship was sighted. Fortune only rejoined the fleet at about 0600/8.
At 1600 hours, HMS Enterprise, HMS Paladin and HMS Panther rejoined with the survivors they had picked up and medical stores were transferred from HMS Warspite to HMS Paladin for treatment of the wounded. Enterprise and Paladin were then detached to proceed immediately to Addu Atoll.
At 2100 hours, the Eastern Fleet altered course to 160°.
8 April 1942.
At 0700 hours aircraft were flown off from the carriers to carry out an all-round search to a depth of 175 miles. Again nothing was seen and at 1100 hours the Eastern Fleet entered Addu Atoll. Refuelling commenced immediately, Force B being refuelled first.
Admiral Somerville held a conference on board HMS Warspite with Flag and Commanding Officers in the afternoon.
Having discussed the situation Admiral Somerville decided to sent Force B to Kilindini and to proceed to Bombay with Force A. This later decision coincided with Their Lordships views as later in the day he received Their Lordships instructions that Force A was not to be sent to Colombo for the time being. Further by proceeding to Bombay the could arrange a meeting with the Commander-in-Chief, India and discuss the situation in the Far East with him.
At 1800 hours HMAS Nestor departed Addu Atoll to maintain an A/S patrol in the sector between 090° to 150° to a depth of 35 miles from the Port War Signal Station. One hour earlier HMS Resolution launched her Walrus aircraft for a ‘round the island’ A/S patrol. It returned at dusk.
9 April 1942.
Force B sailed for Kilindini at 0200 hours where it was due to arrive on April 15th. Force A sailed at 0600 hours for Bombay shaping course to pass to the westward of the Maldives.
During the morning Admiral Somerville was informed of further Japanese attacks in the Bay of Bengal and on Trincomalee and the sinking of several ships, including HMS Hermes and HMAS Vampire but nothing could be done about this.
10 April 1942.
At 1000 hours HMS Panther closed HMS Warspite to transfer Staff Officers for passage to Colombo where they were to inform the Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet of Admiral Somerville’s views and make preliminary arrangements to transfer Admiral Somerville’s administrative staff and secretariat to Kilindini.
13 April 1942.
At 0705 hours, HMS Paladin rejoined Force A bringing back the Staff Officers who had been transferred to her on 10 April and also Rear-Admiral Danckwerts, Admiral Somerville’s Chief of Staff ashore. Force A arrived at Bombay later that morning (1040 hours) and commenced oiling.
Japanese operation in the Indian Ocean in late March 1942 and April 1942.
On 26 March 1943 the 1st Japanese Carrier Fleet departed Staring Bay, Celebes, Netherlands East Indies for a raid on Ceylon. This Fleet was made up of the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu, Soryu, Zuikaku, Shokaku, battlecruisers Kongo, Haruna, Hiei, Kirishima, heavy cruisers Tone, Chikuma and the destroyers Urakaze, Tanikaze, Isokaze, Hamakaze, Kasumi, Arare, Kagero, Shiranuhi and Akigumo. This force then proceeded west of Timor and to a position to the south of Java where they fuelled from oilers on April 1st.
On 1 April the Japanese Mayala Force departed Mergui for operations in the Bay of Bengal. This force was made up of the heavy cruisers Chokai, Kumano, Mikuma, Mogami, Suzuya, aircraft carrier Ryujo, light cruiser Yura, and the destroyers Fubuki, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki and Murakumo. On 4 April the estroyers were substituted for four other destroyers; Amagiri, Asagiri, Shirakumo and Yugiri.
On 5 April the Japanse 1st Carrier Fleet launched their air attack on Colombo. 53 bombers, 38 dive bombers and 36 fighters were launched. They destroyed 19 Hurricane fighters, 1 Fulmar fighter and 6 Swordfish torpedo bombers. At Colombo the harbour facilities were heavily damaged and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Hector and destroyer HMS Tenedos were sunk.
Then around noon a reconnaissance aircraft from the Tone sighted the heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall. The 1st Carrier Fleet immediately launched an attack force of 53 dive bombers that sank both cruisers with the loss of 424 members of their crews (Dorsetshire 234 and Cornwall 190). The Japanese then retired to the south-east.
In the evening of 5 April the Japanese Malaya-Force was ordered to commence attacking Allied shipping along the Indian east coast. On 6 April the northern group (Kumano, Suzuya and Shirakumo destroyed 9 ships off Puri (Orissa). The central group (Chokai, Yura, Asagiri and Yugiri) sank 4 ships. The southern group (Mikuma, Mogami and Amagiri sank 3 ships and damaged 2 more. Meanwhile aircraft from the carrier Ryuju, which operated with the central group, sank 4 more ships and damaged 1 more. In all about 92000 GRT of shipping was sunk.
On 8 April 1942 a Catalina aircraft spotted the Japanese 1st Carrier Fleet proceeding for an attack on Trincomalee but the Eastern Fleet was approaching Addu Atoll to refuel and could do nothing. Shipping at Trincomalee was ordered to leave port and proceed to the southward. In the morning of the following day 91 Japanese bombers and 41 fighters attacked Trincomalee. They destoyed 9 Hurricane and Fulmar fighters and 14 aircraft on the ground. The harbour most mostly empty but they sank a merchant vessel and 4 aircraft it had on board and not unloaded yet. Also the British monitor HMS Erebus (Capt. H.F. Nalder, RN) was damged. The Japanese 1st Carrier Fleet was then attacked by 9 Blenheim bombers but they inflicted no damage for 5 of their own lost to Japanese fighter cover. Then Japanese reconnaissance aircraft from the Haruna sighted ships escaping southwards. 85 Dive bombers and 3 fighters were then launched which sank HMS Hermes and HMAS Vampire as well as the corvette HMS Hollyhock (Lt.Cdr. T.E. Davies, OBE, RNR), two tankers and a merchant ship.
By mid-April 1942 all Japanese forces had returned to their bases. (12)
- ADM 53/109434
- ADM 186/794
- ADM 53/110181 + ADM 199/380
- ADM 53/111946
- ADM 53/111947
- ADM 199/380
- ADM 53/112432
- ADM 234/318
- ADM 234/318 + ADM 53/111848 + ADM 53/112037 + ADM 53/112435
- ADM 199/408
- ADM 53/114983
- ADM 199/1389
ADM numbers indicate documents at the British National Archives at Kew, London.