Captain Wilson defends Observation Hill

The British Somaliland Camel Corps was led by 14 British officers. Although only lightly armed they inflicted significant casualties on the invading Italians.

In British Somaliland a fighting retreat was being conducted in the face of the superior forces of the invading Italians, who had crossed the border on 3rd August.

The gap in the hills at Tug Argan provided a natural defensive position.

A stand was made at the Tug Argan Gap on 11th August where the 27 year old acting Captain Wilson deployed his Somaliland Camel Corps machine gun sections. He was wounded by artillery fire that killed some of those around him but continued to lead resistance from the position. He never received orders that were issued to withdraw on the 13th. He was finally knocked unconscious by an assault on the position on the 15th August. His citation reads:

The KING has been pleased to approve of the award of The Victoria Cross to: – Lieutenant (acting Captain) Eric Charles Twelves Wilson, The East Surrey Regiment (attached Somaliland Camel Corps).

For most conspicuous gallantry on active service in Somaliland. Captain Wilson was in command of machine-gun posts manned by Somali soldiers in the key position of Observation Hill, a defended post in the defensive organisation of the Tug Argan Gap in British Somaliland. The enemy attacked Observation Hill on August 11th, 1940. Captain Wilson and Somali gunners under his command beat off the attack and opened fire on the enemy troops attacking Mill Hill, another post within his range.

He inflicted such heavy casualties that the enemy, determined to put his guns out of action, brought up a pack battery to within seven hundred yards, and scored two direct hits through the loopholes of his defences, which, bursting within the post, wounded Captain Wilson severely in the right shoulder and in the left eye, several of his team also being wounded. His guns were blown off their stands but he repaired and replaced them and, regardless of his wounds, carried on, whilst his Somali sergeant was killed beside him.

On August 12th and 14th the enemy again concentrated field artillery fire on Captain Wilson’s guns, but he continued, with his wounds attended, to man them. On August 15th two of his machine-gun posts were blown to pieces, yet Captain Wilson, now suffering from malaria in addition to wounds, still kept his own post in action. The enemy finally over-ran the post at 5 p.m. on the 15th August when Captain Wilson, fighting to the last, was killed.

The London Gazette: 14 OCTOBER, 1940

Eric Wilson VC

In fact Captain Wilson had survived, coming round amidst a pile of bodies he emerged to be taken prisoner. The British authorities were not made aware of his survival until he was liberated from a POW camp in 1941 and he did not receive his Victoria Cross from the King at Buckingham Palace until 1942. The publicity surrounding the award of the ‘posthumous VC’ convinced many people that he was dead and he was subsequently accused of being an imposter on at least one occasion.

Wilson went on to serve with the Long Range Desert Group and retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel. He died in 2008, aged 96, following a career with the Colonial Service.

British fighter production re-assures Churchill

Winston Churchill inspecting 9.2-inch guns of 57th Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery, during a tour of East Coast defences, 7 August 1940.
Winston Churchill inspecting 9.2-inch guns of 57th Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery, during a tour of East Coast defences, 7 August 1940.
A gas decontamination party from of 167th Field Ambulance dress in protective clothing during a training exercise near Canterbury, 10 August 1940.
A gas decontamination party from of 167th Field Ambulance dress in protective clothing during a training exercise near Canterbury, 10 August 1940.
King George VI talking to a member of the Home Guard during an inspection in Kent, 10 August 1940.
King George VI talking to a member of the Home Guard during an inspection in Kent, 10 August 1940.

The 10th August saw thundery showers and poor visibility which brought a lull in the fighting over Britain, with just a few bomber attacks by the Luftwaffe. Around the south coast the Army continued its preparations for the anticipated German invasion.

At the Prime Minister’s country retreat, Chequers, Winston Churchill spent the weekend in discussions with a wide variety of different political and military figures, including De Gaulle.

His principal Private Secretary John Colville was keeping a fascinating diary of these deliberations at the heart of government, as well as Churchill’s private views on the course of the war.

Of the many issues facing Churchill that weekend the progress of (what would later become known as) the Battle of Britain was uppermost in his mind. He knew that much depended not only the RAF prevailing in the air battles – but that aircraft production had to be able to make good the losses they sustained:

Saturday, August 10th

In a telegram to the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand, promising that we will abandon the Mediterranean and send our fleet eastwards in the event of Japan attacking Australia or N.Z., Winston has written: “If Hitler fails to invade and conquer Britain before the weather breaks he has received his first and probably fatal check.”

Later on, at lunch, Winston gave me his own views about war aims and the future. He said there was only one aim, to destroy Hitler. Let those who say they do not know what they are fighting for stop fighting and they will see. France is now discovering what she was fighting for.

After the last war people had done much constructive thinking and the League of Nations had been a magnificent idea. Something of the kind would have to be built up again: there would be a United States of Europe, and this Island would be the link connecting this Federation with the new world and able to hold the balance between the two. “A new conception of the balance of power?” I said. “No,” he replied, “the balance of virtue.”

Lord Beaverbrook [Minister of Aircraft Production] rang up to say that the Germans had bombed an important factory at Rochester heavily but had contrived to miss with all their bombs. The Almighty is not always against us, he said, “In fact God is the Minister of Aircraft Production and I am his deputy. ”

[At Dinner they were joined by General Pownall, commanding the Home Guard, and Professor Lindemann, the Governments chief scientific adviser]

I … listened to Winston. He mentioned the numerous projects, inventions, etc., which he had in view and compared himself to a farmer driving pigs along a road, who always had to be prodding them on and preventing them from straying.

He praised the splendid sang-froid and morale of the people, and said he could not quite see why he appeared to be so popular. After all since he came into power, everything had gone wrong and he had had nothing but disasters to announce. His platform was only “blood, sweat and tears”.

He sent Prof. and me for some of his cherished graphs and diagrams and began to expound the supply position. Beaverbrook, he said, had genius and, what was more, brutal ruthlessness. He had never in his life, at the Ministry of Munitions or anywhere else, seen such startling results as Beaverbrook had produced; and Pownall, looking at the Aircraft Production charts, agreed that there had never been such an achievement.

W. regretted that the Ministry of Supply had shown themselves incapable of producing similar results for the army.

He proceeded to examine the statistics, calling on Prof. for frequent explanations, and declaring that we were already overhauling the Germans in numbers (our production already exceeds theirs by one third). It was generally agreed that Hitler’s aircraft position must be less good than we had supposed; otherwise why the delay, why the sparsity of attack?

After dinner (i.e. about 11.15!) we walked up and down beneath the stars, a habit which Winston has formed…

See John Colville: The Fringes Of Power. 10 Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955

UK-FLAG
US FLAG
Universal carriers and cyclists of 6th Battalion, The Black Watch, passing through Haven Street on the Isle of Wight, 10 August 1940.
Universal carriers and cyclists of 6th Battalion, The Black Watch, passing through Haven Street on the Isle of Wight, 10 August 1940.
Troops of 6th Battalion, The Black Watch, stage a bayonet charge over trenches during a training exercise on the Isle of Wight, 10 August 1940.
Troops of 6th Battalion, The Black Watch, stage a bayonet charge over trenches during a training exercise on the Isle of Wight, 10 August 1940.

1945: Nagasaki – the second atomic bomb

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima by Hiromichi Matsuda
Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima by Hiromichi Matsuda

At Potsdam on the 26th July the Allies had issued a declaration calling on the Japanese to surrender or face:

the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland

After the Hiroshima bomb on the 6th August the United States had widely publicised the nature of the new bomb and its destructive power, its awesome potential was immediately recognised by people around the world. At the same time President Truman had re-inforced the Potsdam declaration with a more explicit message about what would happen if Japan did not surrender:

We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.

It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth…

The Japanese government met on 7th August but were still not prepared to accept the Allied surrender terms.

With no sign of any surrender forthcoming from Japan, the military team responsible for the Atomic bombing programme were still under orders (at this time) to continue the bombing, using the bombs as they became available. They had the ‘Fat Man’ available and knew that a third bomb would become available later in August. Because of impending bad weather over Japan the decision to use ‘Fat Man’ was brought forward from 11th to the 9th August.

The original target for the second atomic bomb was the city of Kokura but this was obscured by smoke from a conventional American bombing raid on nearby Yahata the previous day. The B-29 ‘Bockscar’ piloted by Major Charles W. Sweeney therefore diverted to the secondary target, the city of Nagasaki.

In Urakami Hospital, Nagasaki, Dr Tatsuichiro Akizuki was just returning to his ward round which had been delayed by an earlier air raid warning. The two high flying planes seen approaching Nagasaki just before 11am had been assumed to be reconnaissance planes, and no air raid warning had been given:

I heard a low droning sound, like that of distant aeroplane engines. “What’s that?” I said. “The all-clear has gone, hasn’t it?” At the same time the sound of the plane’s engines, growing louder and louder, seemed to swoop down over the hospital. I shouted: “It’s an enemy plane! Look out – take cover!” .

As I said so, I pulled the needle out of the patient and threw myself beside thebed. ‘ There was a blinding white flash of light, and the next moment — Bang! Crack! A huge impact like a gigantic blow smote down upon our bodies, our heads and our hospital. I lay flat — I didn’t know whether or not of my own volition. Then down came piles of debris, slamming into my back.

The hospital has been hit, I thought. I grew dizzy, and my ears sang.

Some minutes or so must have passed before I staggered to my feet and looked around. The air was heavy with yellow smoke; white flakes of powder drifted about; it was strangely dark.

Thank God, I thought — I’m not hurt! But what about the patients? As it became brighter, little by little our situation grew clearer. Miss Murai, who had been assisting me with the pneumo-thorax, struggled to her feet beside me. She didn’t seem to have been seriously injured, though she was completely covered with white dust. “Hey, cheer up!” I said. “We’re not hurt, thank God!”

[ Akizuki struggled to make sense of what had happened because he realised that if they had received a direct hit then they would have suffered much more structural damage to the hospital.]

If the bomb had actually hit the hospital, I thought, they would have been far more badly injured. “What’s happened to the second and third floors?” I cried. But all they answered was “Help me! Help!”

One of them said: “Mr Yamaguchi has been buried under the debris. Help him.”

No one knew what had happened. A huge force had been released above our heads. What it was, nobody knew. Had it been several tons of bombs, or the suicidal destruction of a plane carrying a heavy bomb-load?

Dazed, I retreated into the consulting room, in which the only upright object on the rubbish-strewn floor was my desk. I went and sat on it and looked out of the window at the yard and the outside world. There was not a single pane of glass in the window, not even a frame — all had been completely blown away.

Out in the yard dun-coloured smoke or dust cleared little by little. I saw figures running. Then, looking to the south-west, I was stunned. The sky was as dark as pitch, covered with dense clouds of smoke; under that blackness, over the earth, hung a yellow-brown fog. Gradually the veiled ground became visible, and the view beyond rooted me to the spot with horror.

All the buildings I could see were on fire: large ones and small ones and those with straw-thatched roofs. Further off along the valley, Urakami Church, the largest Catholic church in the east, was ablaze. The technical school, a large two-storeyed wooden building, was on fire, as were many houses and the distant ordnance factory. Electricity poles were wrapped in flame like so many pieces of kindling.

Trees on the nearby hills were smoking, as were the leaves of sweet potatoes in the fields. To say that everything burned is not enough. It seemed as if the earth itself emitted fire and smoke, flames that writhed up and erupted from underground. The sky was dark, the ground was scarlet, and in between hung clouds of yellowish smoke. Three kinds of colour – black, yellow and scarlet – loomed ominously over the people, who ran about like so many ants seeking to escape.

What had happened? Urakami Hospital had not been bombed – I understood that much. But that ocean of fire, that sky of smoke! It seemed like the end of the world. I ran out into the garden. Patients who were only slightly hurt came up to me, pleading for aid. I shouted at them: “For heaven’s sake! You’re not seriously wounded!” One patient said: “Kawaguchi and Matsuo are trapped in their rooms! They can’t move. You must help them!”

I said to myself: Yes, we must first of all rescue those seriously ill tubercular patients who’ve been buried under the ruins.

I looked southwards again, and the sight of Nagasaki city in a sea of flames as far as the eye could reach made me think that such destruction could only have been caused by thousands of bombers, carpet-bombing. But not a plane was to be seen or heard, although even the leaves of potatoes and carrots at my feet were scorched and smouldering. The electricity cables must have exploded underground, I thought.

And then at last I identified the destroyer— “That’s it!” I cried. “It was the new bomb — the one used on Hiroshima!”

This account first appeared in Tatsuichiro Akizuki: Nagasaki 1945: The First Full-length Eyewitness Account of the Atomic Bomb Attack on Nagasaki.

Nagasaki, Japan, before and after the atomic bombing of August 9, 1945.
Nagasaki, Japan, before and after the atomic bombing of August 9, 1945.

Air attacks ‘comparatively few and mostly unsuccessful’

Downed aircraft became a familiar site, especially in south east England.
Photographs of downed enemy aircraft were given wide publicity.

The ‘Battle of Britain’ as it was later to be officially designated had been under way for almost a month. However the Chiefs of Staff Weekly Resume, for the benefit of the War Cabinet, gives a rather re-assuring picture of bombing attacks not getting through:

AIR SITUATION.

Great Britain.

27. German bomber operations during the week were almost exclusively concentrated by day against seaborne targets, and, apart from the 8th August, attacks were comparatively few and mostly unsuccessful. On the 8th August three separate attacks, each of about 100 enemy aircraft, were directed against a convoy off the Isle of Wight, and several ships were sunk or damaged. All these raids were engaged by fighters, and fifty-two enemy aircraft (seventeen Junkers 87 and the remainder fighters) were definitely shot down, with a further fourteen unconfirmed. Our casualties amounted to seventeen fighters and a Blenheim engaged on a training flight. Several of our pilots have been rescued.

28. On numerous other occasions formations of aircraft approached our coast but turned back on sighting British fighters. On the 5th August a threatened attack in the Dover area was driven off before it could develop, and three of the escorting fighters were shot down by Spitfires, a further four probably being destroyed. Except on two occasions land objectives were attacked at night, but these raids were sporadic and caused little damage.

HOME SECURITY SITUATION.

General Review.

45. During daylight enemy air activity overland has been very small and attacks have been concentrated on our convoys off the East and South Coasts. During darkness enemy aircraft have flown over the whole of England, most of Wales and the whole of Scotland except for the West Coast. The flights have mvariably been made by single aircraft which have consistently used the same routes. For the first time there has been a marked tendency to fly over the Midland Industrial Area.

46. Bombing has been on a very small scale and nearly ten per cent, of the high-explosive bombs did not explode and a number of incendiary bombs also failed. Leaflets consisting of extracts from Hitler’s recent speech, headed “An Appeal to Reason,” have been dropped over various parts of England.

TNA cab/66/10/38

A contemporary German newsreel (with english subtitles) provides a different perspective:

1945: The World adjusts to the Atomic Age

Rare color photograph of the first nuclear test at Trinity site, July 16, 1945. Blurriness is in the original photograph (done when color photography was still fairly new).
Rare color photograph of the first nuclear test at Trinity site, July 16, 1945. Blurriness is in the original photograph (done when color photography was still fairly new).

The news of the atomic bomb was soon spread around the world. Although a startling innovation the implications of the new super weapon were quickly recognised.

The changing outlook for the human race, and the prospect for future wars, was readily grasped by people who had no experience of military strategy. Sy M. Kahn a member of the 495th Port Battalion of the Army Transportation Corps whose principal role was loading and unloading ships. He heard about the bomb while on a ship in mid Pacific:

This afternoon I heard over the radio about the “greatest war invention.”

It’s called the atomic bomb. The information we know about it is as follows: When a test explosion was made in New Mexico, where the research took place, it vaporized a steel tower and left a huge crater. The pressure waves knocked men down at a distance of five miles; forest rangers 150 miles away thought there had been an earthquake, and it rattled windows 250 miles away.

The bomb is equivalent to the bomb load of 2,000 Superforts or 10,000 tons of TNT. President Truman stated that this invention is capable of destroying civilization, wiping out everything that stands above ground. The first of these bombs was dropped on Hiroshima yesterday. Further facts are that the research involved two billion dollars and five years. The bombs are in production now at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Seattle, Washington.

This must be an almost unbelievably powerful weapon. If it is as powerful as stated, then it should bring this war to a speedy close.

In the letter I received from Mom today, she included an article that stated that many Washington big-wigs thought that Japan might surrender as early as the end of this month, but at least by Christmas. Naturally I scoffed at this, for even the latter date seemed improbable, and I was annoyed to read these optimistic predictions handed to the people at home. However, this new weapon may bring a much quicker end than we anticipated.

It has long been known that atomic energy is extremely powerful, if it could be harnessed. Such a weapon as has been developed forecasts what is in store in future wars.

Although these words may sound fantastic now, they may prefigure the destruction of future civilization or, at least, destruction beyond the realm of imagination.

The U.S. has stated that the secret of the weapon will be carefully guarded while a defense against it is developed. Once again we have the vicious circle of powerful, new, destructive weapons and more intricate defenses against them, until this frenzy of diabolical invention shall backfire into the faces of all humanity.

As other eras have had their rise, peak and decline, perhaps we are reaching the peak of our machine age and beyond lie the black pits of decline.

Meanwhile, we are harassed with endless and petty army regulations…

See Sy M. Kahn: Between Tedium and Terror: A Soldier’s World War II Diary, 1943-45

There was only misapprehension in the claims that the U.S. made about the bomb

The U.S. has stated that the secret of the weapon will be carefully guarded while a defense against it is developed.

No-one in the U.S. High Command was yet aware of how many nuclear secrets the Soviets had already managed to obtain.

Little Boy in the bomb pit on Tinian island, before being loaded into Enola Gay’s bomb bay. A section of the bomb bay door is visible on the top right.
The nuclear material to arm the bomb had been brought, in great secrecy, by USS Indianapolis.

ALSO ON THIS DAY ….

The survivors from the USS Indianapolis, sunk on the 30th July, were now beginning to discover how the Navy would be treating the loss of their ship and the delayed rescue operation. ‘Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man‘ published in July 2018 reconstructs events:

On August 7, some Indy survivors landed at Base Hospital No. 18 on Guam. There, news of the atomic strike and its connection to Tinian Island zipped through the wards like a firecracker string. Finally, the mystery was solved. One by one, the survivors understood the sudden departure from Hunter’s Point, the secrecy, the strange drills, and the presence of the two Army ofcers who had sailed with them.

At Guam, McVay submitted to another press interview, this one with three reporters. Leo Litz of the Indianapolis News, George McWilliams of the International News Service, and Paul Hughes of the Louisville Courier-Journal sat with the captain on a portico overlooking the Pacific. McVay sat in a wheelchair, a notebook in his hand. Already, he had been ordered to file a report on the sinking and had been writing down events as he remembered them.

“My guess is that the Indianapolis was hit in an underwater torpedo attack,” McVay told the reporters. He went on to explain how, as soon as he got to the bridge, he tried to get word down to other parts of the ship. “But all the lights were out and I found that the explosion had paralyzed the communications system. I sent word to the radio room to see that the calls went out for help and later myself went to see about messages.”

At first, McVay said, he was not sure the ship would sink. But as the ship began to list sharply, it became clear that she suffered from “serious, gaping damage.”

Litz, McWilliams, and Hughes also interviewed Dr. Haynes at Guam. He sat with them, his hands bound in bandages. “I’m still in a daze,” Haynes said, relating the horrors of four days drifting at sea. The reporters asked the doctor whether he had any criticism of McVay’s actions.

No, he said. “It was the most terrible thing that could be imagined,and everywhere there was confusion. Nothing worked — fire and blast had severed all wires – and it was impossible to make any kind of progress from one place on the ship to another.”

Paul Hughes went on to talk with several more survivors, all of whom expressed their unqualied support for the captain.

Admiral Spruance arrived at the hospital bearing Purple Hearts, and McVay accompanied the admiral as he bestowed medals on the wounded. Those who were able stood to receive their awards. Others received theirs lying in bed.

Conflicting emotions tore through the men. Seaman Don McCall didn’t think he deserved the honor. Joseph Kiselica, a big, tall fellow from Connecticut, seethed with resentment. “I’m proud of you,” Spruance told Kiselica as he affixed the Purple Heart to his chest.

Kiselica wasn’t proud at all. Not of what the Navy had done to him. And not of what the Navy had done to his shipmates, some living but most dead. First they ignore us for four days, he thought. Now they want to pin medals on us. Kiselica, a second-class machinist’s mate, didn’t dare say anything to the admiral, but after that day, he never wore his Purple Heart again.

When Spruance and McVay got to the quartermaster, Bob Gause, the captain said, “If you decide to stay in the Navy, I’ll see to it that you make chief.” “Thank you, sir, but no thanks,” Gause said. After what he’d just been through, he was going to get out of the Navy double-quick and go home to Florida.

Letters from home caught up with the men. Cleatus Lebow, who had felt that strange dread about returning to Indy at Mare Island, received one from his mother. “I had a dream,” Minervia wrote. “I heard you call me, and I got up from bed and went out on the porch to get you. Papa came out and got me and put me back to bed. It was midnight. At 12:15, I heard you call me again, and I got up and went out again to find you.”

After Lebow read the letter, he looked at the date. His mother had written it on July 29, the day before the ship sank.

As the survivors’ health improved, they asked to be allowed to let their families know they were still alive. The Navy let them — after a fashion. They were given a sheet of Red Cross stationery and a strict set of rules: They were not allowed to mention their whereabouts, the fact that Indianapolis had sunk, their nurses or doctors, or refer in any way to the ordeal they’d just survived.

And so Machinist’s Mate George Horvath wrote lies to his wife:

I’m still doing all right and getting along, or maybe I should say I’m getting settled to the routine life at sea. Three meals a day and a couple of watches to stand. Sounds thrilling, don’t it? I love you – George.

At least, Horvath thought, Alice Mae and their two boys would know he was okay.

Also back at Guam, Malcolm IJhnson and the other reporters drafted their articles. At Peleliu, Johnson’s first look at the survivors had scored his memory like a diamond cutting glass. Some were still bleeding, skin boiled and aflame, faces blistered over, some missing chunks of flesh, others unable even to speak.

In the perverse gallows ethos of journalism, the sinking of Indianapolis was a “great” story, full of drama, tragedy, and heroism, with particulars almost too awful to believe. But it was also an important story that revealed flaws in the Navy’s system of tracking its ships.

Was it possible, Johnson wondered, that as the last, climactic fight loomed to the north, complacency had set in among senior officers in the rear? Was the Navy guilty of negligence on a catastrophic scale?

Through official channels, Guam public affairs personnel asked the Navy Department whether the journalists’ stories about the sinking could be released from Guam. The reply came back: no. They would have to first be sent to Washington. Johnson prepared his story accordingly. Soon, his piece, along with those of the rest of the Guam press corps, was en route to D.C. by air.

Troopship SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir torpedoed

The SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir had previously operated out of Alexandria before being requisitioned as a troopship in 1940.

From the War Diary of Captain Lieutenant Liebe, Commandant of ‘U–38’ :

21.00

Surfaced. After surfacing, again surprised by 1 passenger steamer (10,000t) escorted by two destroyers forward to port, distance 8–9000m. Owing to swell and heavy sea, full view not possible before surfacing, an unpleasant situation, which has twice already led to surprise situations.

21.46

Torpedo spread within escort. Distance 1000m. Two clicks, then detonation. 1 torpedo definite hit. According to acoustic surveillance, steamer immediately stopped. Further observation not possible owing to immediate pursuit, depth–charges, s–equipment. Heavy damage definitely to be assumed. More exact details on steamer could not be established. In course of pursuit, 3 more depth–charges further away. At one point s–equipment precisely overhead. Impression of steel wire dragging over boat, heavy knocking and noise, as if glass being crunched. However, no depth–charges dropped at this point.

The Chief Officer of the SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir , Mr L.C. Hill was interviewed by the Shipping Casualties Section, Trade Division, Admiralty, on the 12th August 1940 and provided a full account of the sinking:

‘We were bound from Avonmouth to Gibraltar with a cargo of military stores. The colour of our hull was black, superstructure buff and funnel buff. Wireless was fitted and we were armed with a 4″ HE gun and 6 Lewis guns belonging to the military. We were flying a Red Ensign at the time of the attack. The crew including the Captain numbered 164 of whom 2 are slightly injured, 4 Europeans (Captain, Chief W/T Operator, Doctor and a quartermaster) and 6 natives are missing. We also had on board 26 officers and 706 other ranks. I believe some 40 or 50 of these are missing, and I know that 36 are injured and in hospital. The confidential books were all thrown overboard in the weighted bag. The ship had just been degaussed at Liverpool and the apparatus was switched on.

We left Avonmouth at 20.00 BST on 5 August bound for Gibraltar, sailing independently with one destroyer as escort. We continued without incident at a speed of 15 knots, zig-zagging on No. 15 (a predetermined sequence of course changes), until the 7 August. On this day there was a big swell, but not much sea, a moderate breeze, good visibility but overcast. The destroyer kept ahead of us most of the time, but also on a zig-zag course.

At 20.45 BST on 7 August when in position 550 North 150 West about 250 miles from land, there was an explosion aft. I was amidships on the promenade deck, I felt the ship vibrate, as if a gun had been fired. I could not see aft from where I was, but as far as I know there was no flash or smoke, but a column of water was thrown up which I saw descending on the port side. There was no smell. The ship immediately settled aft, but did not list. When the explosion occurred, the destroyer was on our port quarter. A few hours earlier she had been listening, but I do not think she was doing so then, as there was no sign of the U-boat, nor of the wake of the torpedo.

I immediately went to the bridge to report to the Captain, then I saw that the watertight doors were properly closed (they were operated electrically from the bridge) and went aft to see what damage had been done. I think we were hit slightly on the starboard quarter, very near the stern, at the after end of the gun platform. The gun had fallen forward, against the davits of a boat, jamming the falls. At the point of the explosion was a house, then the poopdeck with the dynamo house, the gun and 4 boats. The magazine was between the dynamo house and the hospital on the after side of the gun with the steel house intervening. We had two bulkheads in the engine room, the after peak bulkhead which presumably went right away, and another bulkhead between nos. 4 and 5 holds.

The 2nd. Officer who was aft heard the second bulkhead go. The deck at the after end was sloping into the water, there was no fire, and amidships everything was intact. I went back to the bridge and reported the damage to the captain. He had already given orders to man the boats; I superintended the lowering of them and launching of rafts. The outboard boats were perfectly alright, as they were ready for lowering, but the inner boats (we had two rows) were more difficult. One of these inner boats was smashed by the explosion, another had the davits buckled, all the after boats were put out of action. None of the boats capsized.

The ship was badly down by the stern but upright during the launching of the boats, and all serviceable lifeboats and rafts were got away before she went down. Everyone had a Board of Trade lifebelt.

The last I personally saw of the Captain we were both on the bridge together, he gave the order to jump, so I went onto the deck and thought he followed me. I jumped into the water and was picked up by the destroyer about half an hour later.

The destroyer immediately after she saw the explosion, dropped depth charges one side, swept straight across our quarter and dropped more charges on the other side. After about 1hr 50 minutes, the ship which had been going down by the stern all the time, rose absolutely vertical, with the bow out of the water, then plunged straight down. After that the destroyer dropped no more depth charges, but began picking up the various boats and rafts. She lowered two whalers in the position where the ship sank, then returned and took the whalers back on board, after steaming round in all directions.

She brought us back to Greenock where we arrived at 5 am on Friday 9th August. A number of men had their legs broken by the explosion. Everybody of every rank was exceedingly helpful. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the naval ratings on board, they were magnificent. Some of the military personnel spoke very highly of Quartermaster Anderson, particularly the way he kept up morale of the boat’s crew and got them away from the ship.’

TNA ADM 199/ 2133

Surgeon Lieutenant G J Walley was the Medical Officer on board the destroyer HMS Griffin, which effected the rescue, later recorded the treatment of the casualties:

Late in the evening this ship was called on to rescue the survivors of the troopship Mahomet el Ali Kebir. For various reasons rescue work proceeded throughout the night. A variety of injuries were encountered – the majority being fractures of the leg and arm – splints were entirely inadequate for such a large number and a large amount had to be contrived.

Open fractures were reduced under local anaesthesia (2% novatex) roughly splinted and debridement followed by instillation of powdered sulphonamide. Debridement was assisted by staining the wound with an alcoholic solution of 1/1000 Gentian Violet – all stained and dead tissue being removed. Only one death occurred – a naval rating, name unknown (body transferred to Naval Authorities, Greenock) from multiple fractures of tibia, femur, pelvis and humerus.

It was reported in the Times that many deaths occurred on board from exposure. In view of the facts, this was felt to be a gross error and was much resented by my willing helpers in the ship’s company and myself.

In all, 766 survivors were landed at Greenock comprising 704 uninjured or mildly injured, and 62 discharged to Hospital (59 to the Military Hospital and 3 to Naval Hospital).

I should like to mention the superb assistance given by members of the ship’s company during a trying 36 hours, special reference being made to RNASBR Dix and Chief Stoker Kent RN.

TNA ADM 101 /564

For much more on the ship and the sinking see Mohamed Ali el-Kebir

It may be possible to access this from the

<a href=”https://archive.org” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>internet archive</a>

try searching for:

http://mohamed.ali.el-kebir.freewebspace.com/index.htm

1945: Hiroshima – Age of Atomic warfare begins

Colonel Paul Tibbets waves from the recently named 'Enola Gay' B-29 bomber before he starts his mission to Hiroshima.
Colonel Paul Tibbets waves from the recently named ‘Enola Gay’ B-29 bomber before he starts his mission to Hiroshima.

It was a just few weeks since the first and only nuclear weapon test yet conducted. The Little Boy bomb had been immediately dispatched to the Pacific theatre by the USS Indianapolis. The final decision on its use had ben taken by President Truman during the Potsdam conference.

Colonel Paul Tibbets had practiced the special procedure for dropping the bomb in the B-29 bomber. On 5th August he selected the aircraft to undertake the mission and decided to name it after his mother, Enola Gay – it was then that the aircraft was given the simple nose art that was to make it so famous.

After a six hour flight from Tinian island in the Pacific to the port of Hiroshima on the Japanese mainland. Then it became a simple technical process, beginning with an eleven minute bomb run:

Up to this point it was common practice in any theatre of war to fly straight ahead, fly level, drop your bombs, and keep right on going, because you could bomb several thousands of feet in the air and you could cross the top of the place that you had bombed with no concern whatsoever.

But it was determined by the scientists that, in order to escape and maintain the integrity of the aircraft and the crew, that this aeroplane could not fly forward after it had dropped the bomb. It had to turn around and get away from that bomb as fast as it could. If you placed this aeroplane in a very steep angle of bank to make this turn, if you turned 158 degrees from the direction that you were going, you would then begin to place distance between yourself and that point of explosion as quickly as possible.

You had to get away from the shock wave that would be coming back from the ground in the form of an ever expanding circle as it came upwards. It’s necessary to make this turn to get yourself as far as possible from an expanding ring and 158 degrees happened to be the turn for that particular circle.

It was difficult. It was something that was not done with a big bomber aeroplane. You didn’t make this kind of a steep turn — you might almost call it an acrobatic manoeuvre — and the big aircraft didn’t do these things. However, we refined it, we learned how to do it.

It had been decided earlier that there was a possibility that an accident could occur on take-off, and so therefore we would not arm this weapon until we had left the runway and were out to sea. This of course meant that had there been an accident there would have been an explosion from normal powder charges but there would not have been a nuclear explosion.

As I said this worried more people than it worried me because I had plenty of faith in my aeroplane. I knew my engines were good. We started our take-off on time which was somewhere about two-forty-five I think, and the aeroplane went on down the runway. It was loaded quite heavily but it responded exactly like I had anticipated it would. I had flown this aeroplane the same way before and there was no problem and there was nothing different this night in the way we went.

We arrived over the initial point and started in on the bomb run which had about eleven minutes to go, rather a long type of run for a bomb but on the other hand we felt we needed this extra time in straight and level flight to stabilize the air speed of the aeroplane, to get everything right down to the last-minute detail.

As I indicated earlier the problem after the release of the bomb is not to proceed forward but to turn away. As soon as the weight had left the aeroplane I immediately went into this steep turn and we tried then to place distance between ourselves and the point of impact. In this particular case that bomb took fifty-three seconds from the time it left the aeroplane until it exploded and this gave us adequate time of course to make the turn.

We had just made the turn and rolled out on level flight when it seemed like somebody had grabbed a hold of my aeroplane and gave it a real hard shaking because this was the shock wave that had come up. Now after we had been hit by a second shock wave not quite so strong as the first one I decided we’ll turn around and go back and take a look.

The day was clear when we dropped that bomb, it was a clear sunshiny day and the visibility was unrestricted. As we came back around again facing the direction of Hiroshima we saw this cloud coming up. The cloud by this time, now two minutes old, was up at our altitude. We were 33,000 feet at this time and the cloud was up there and continuing to go right on up in a boiling fashion, as if it was rolling and boiling.

The surface was nothing but a black boiling, like a barrel of tar. Where before there had been a city with distinctive houses, buildings and everything that you could see from our altitude, now you couldn’t see anything except a black boiling debris down below.

This account first appeared in Mark Arnold-Forster: The World at War.

The mushroom cloud rises above Hiroshima minutes after the 'Little Boy' bomb exploded.
The mushroom cloud rises above Hiroshima minutes after the ‘Little Boy’ bomb exploded.
A post raid photo reconnaissance of the flattened city of Hiroshima where around 80,000 people died.
A post raid photo reconnaissance of the flattened city of Hiroshima where around 80,000 people died.

Air raid warnings ignored

In the absence of conventional weapons the Home Guard prepared \’Molotov cocktails\’.

The Ministry of Information compiled daily reports on the state of morale in the country, paying particular attention to the reaction of the man in the street to events in the war:

Tuesday, 6th August, 1940

The Prime Ministers leadership is unchallenged but evidence suggests that there is no such close identification between the people and the Government as a whole. There are comments which suggest that the people ore not fully informed about Government policy and they do not consider themselves closely in touch with it. Grumbling at personal discomforts and wartime dislocation is low but there is vague and somewhat bewildered criticism of Government activity.

Reports show that press criticisms have confused the mind without disturbing it seriously. Verbatims show this: ‘I suppose something behind it all’, ‘There’s something hidden but I don’t know what it is’ , ‘I wish there were a few more men like Winston’, ‘Does the Government what it’s doing ‘At the same time there is confidence in the armed forces, especially the Navy and the Air Force,and there is evidence of increasing satisfaction at the state of our land defences.

The siren controversy continues. From various regions come reports showing concern that people do not take cover in the daylight raids, and there is some evidence that taking cover is ceasing to have the sanction of public opinion.

Points from Regions
The regional reports continue to endorse the value of the Prime Minister’s warning against complacency about invasion, and some suggest that this complacency is still not yet removed. Leeds the warning is timely.

Cambridge states that there is danger that the warning has not been fully driven home; over-optimism is still general except in parts where bombing has been heavy. Reading welcomed the statement as an antidote to the growing unimaginative complacency, adding that the complacency is not yet destroyed.

Many people argue that we are now so well prepared that Hitler will hardly dare to attack, and the Dover success has encouraged hopes that our air defence will be able to deal with the enemy.

North-Eastern (Leeds)
Plans to make Home Guard a second line army are popular. Many people anticipate a blitzkrieg’ next weekend. Confusion about who is to ring church bells in the event of invasion is still prevalent. Many reports of dissatisfaction with local leadership of Home Guard. Shop assistants who had to work over Bank Holiday are upset because many large munition works in the Region closed down.

See TNA INF 1/274

England: Coastal areas prepares for invasion

The government wanted to avoid a mass movement of refugees if invasion came. A leaflet issued to every household in the potential invasion areas of southern England in August 1940.
The government wanted to avoid a mass movement of refugees if invasion came. A leaflet issued to every household in the potential invasion areas of southern England in August 1940.
Bren gun carriers of 53rd Striking Force, Royal Armoured Corps, passing through a town in southern England, 9 August 1940.
Bren gun carriers of 53rd Striking Force, Royal Armoured Corps, passing through a town in southern England, 9 August 1940.

The ‘invasion scare’ in England was now at its height. The prospect of a German invasion was taken very seriously by everyone. Military fortifications were being built all along the south coast as well as many other coastal locations around Britain. Although there was some confidence that the Germans would have to win air superiority first, the possibility of a surprise attack could not be discounted.

After the refugee crisis in France, which had blocked many roads and impeded military movements, the government wanted to avoid the same situation arising if the invasion came.

In Lindfield, a village in Sussex in southern England, sixty-six year old Miss Helena Hall was noting almost everything in her diary:

August 5th Monday

The leaflet Stay where you are was in the letter box this morning. Copies are being delivered by the postmen to every house in the country. At 7.30 a company of Scots were being drilled on the Common opposite my house. I took a snapshot from the front door and did not care to go closer for I think it is not allowable to take snapshots of the military, harmless though the scene is …

Concrete emplacements are being built in many places now, chiefly at crossroads to make motor or other traffic difficult. There is quite a collection of them at Sussex Square where the road crosses the Scaynes Hill, Ditchling, Lindfield and Haywards Heath roads. I should think the barriers would also impede our own motor units, like many ideas it will hit both ways.

August 6th Tuesday

The US have declined to send food to the hungry peoples of Europe which would only undo our blockade, much as we dislike helping to starve those we regard as friends and hope still to benefit. No doubt Americans will find it just as hard as we do….

The red Cross of Lorraine, the emblem carried by Joan of Arc, has been adopted by General de Gaulle for his forces in addition to the national flag. Warships will fly the Tricolour at the stern and the Cross of Lorraine at the bows.

Before going to see Jock in the Eye Hospital this afternoon I went down to Brighton sea front to see if the rumour current here that the piers or one of them had been blown up for our own defence was true or not. Both the piers are standing but in the middle of each a space has been made by blowing up. Palace Pier was blown last night, West Pier early this morning. It is a clever piece of work, for any one going on to the pier, or landing at the sea end, could not possibly see the vacant place.

If therefore the Germans did try the landing stages they would not get far without disaster. One can hardly recognize Brighton beach, at this time of year usually crowded with holiday folk all gay and happy.

And now there is first, nearest the sea a line of barbed wire festooned entanglements supported at intervals on posts. Next on the flat beach there are mines, all fairly close to one another, circular with white tops, then another line of barbed wire similar to the other.

The place was alive with soldiers, some laying the mines. In one place were a number of blocks, wood I should think, painted white and in red letters ‘danger, laid mines’. Along the sea front in several places are erections with holes on all sides, obviously for men to shoot from.

Shops are holding their sales just the same, but one misses the usual crowds.

See A Woman Living in the Shadow of the Second World War: Helena Hall’s Journal from the Home Front

See also 12 July 1940 for another Helena Hunt Diary entry.

UK-FLAG
US FLAG
The second side of a leaflet issued to every household in the potential invasion areas of southern England in August 1940.
The second side of a leaflet issued to every household in the potential invasion areas of southern England in August 1940.
Pillbox camouflaged as a car in Felixstowe, 24 August 1940.
Pillbox camouflaged as a car in Felixstowe, 24 August 1940.

Condor aircraft join the Battle of the Atlantic

The Focke Wulf 200 became operational in August 1940 and immediately posed a new threat to shipping in the Atlantic.

The FW 200 Condor began patrols from Bordeaux-Merignac airfield in western France in August 1940. Flying in wide sweeps out over the Bay of Biscay and into the Atlantic west of Ireland it would continue round the north of Britain and land in Norway, a route that encompassed most of the possible convoy routes. It proved highly effective not only because of its bomb load, but also in its capacity as a reconnaissance aircraft capable of calling in U-Boat attacks.

Often described as ‘the scourge of the Atlantic’, attributed to Churchill, in fact he said:

To the U-boat scourge was now added added air attack far out in the oceans by long range aircraft. Of these, the Focke Wulf 200, known as the Condor, was the most formidable.

The title now so widely used ‘The Battle of the Atlantic’ did not come into use until the 6th March 1941, when Churchill issued his Directive on giving the U-Boat menace high priority.

See Sir Winston Churchill: The Second World War