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.

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:

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

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

The Royal Navy remains on full alert

Two destroyers silhouetted against the skyline.
Two destroyers silhouetted against the skyline.
At sea in a destroyer. 1940, on board the British Destroyer HMS Javelin. Look-out men on the bridge of the destroyer. They scan the sky for an hour at a time, when they are relieved. More than an hour is bad for the eyes.
At sea in a destroyer, 1940, on board the British Destroyer HMS Javelin. Look-out men on the bridge of the destroyer. They scan the sky for an hour at a time, when they are relieved. More than an hour is bad for the eyes.

In Britain, while the focus was very much on the RAF, the first line of defence against invasion was the Royal Navy. As Churchill had identified, the greater part of this work fell to the destroyers. As much as possible they kept out of the direct line of air attack during daylight hours in the Channel – but it was their presence as a screen which would have alerted Britain had any invasion come.

On board one anonymous destroyer was 20 year old Ludovic Kennedy, who would publish his first account of life on board in 1942. Here he describes one incident during August 1940:

Guns, whom I was relieving, had just explained to me the intricacies of the zig-zag. I wasn’t sure if I had the hang of it and was working out the times and alterations on the back of a signal-pad when the Captain, who was on the other side of the bridge, suddenly asked,“ Made a hash of the zig-zag ? ”

I thought for a moment he was referring to my figures, but looking up saw that B-—-, which was on our port beam, had turned the opposite way to us. However M——, which was to starboard, was steering our course.

I looked quickly at the zig-zag book. “ No, sir,” I said, “ I think it’s B—— who’s made a hash of it this time.” “ Oh, well,” said the Captain, “ keep a good eye on her. She’ll probably come round in a minute or two.”

Minutes passed, but B-—- stuck to her course. The Captain turned to the yeoman. “ Make to B-— ‘ Keep in proper station ’,” he ordered. The yeoman took up his. Aldis and was about to pass the signal when B—-— started calling us up. The yeoman answered with a succession of T’s. “ From B——-, sir. ‘ Attention is called to bearing 050 degrees ’.”

We searched the horizon on either side of the bearing with our binoculars, but could see nothing. “ Make ‘What can you see?’ ” ordered the Captain. The reply came, “ Object temporarily lost in mist, but am steering towards it.” ‘

“ We’d better investigate this,” said the Captain. “ Hoist ‘Turn together seventy degrees to port. Speed twenty-five knots’.”

The yeoman translated the orders down the voicepipe to the flagdeck, and the flags were run up on the halyards. B—- and M-— hoisted the main answer close up. “ All answered, sir,” reported the yeoman. “ Haul down,” said the Captain. “ Port twenty. Two four two revolutions.”

B—- began flashing to us again as we made the turn. I read, “ Object in sight now bearing 020 degrees. Am proceeding to investigate.”

“ I’ve got it,” cried Spider, and we followed the line of his glasses. Seven or eight thousand yards away a speck was just visible on the surface of the water. We all began thinking the same thing: could it be a U-Boat charging her batteries on the surface? The Captain was taking no chances, for he ordered B Gun to load and the depth charges to be set.

The yeoman began flashing again. “ From B——, sir. ‘Object is ship’s life-boat containing about a dozen people’” “Right! Set depth charges to safe. Speed fifteen knots.”

Soon we could spot the lifeboat for ourselves. B—, now nearly a mile ahead of us, went cautiously alongside, and through my glasses I could see figures scrambling up the netting to her upper deck. The lifeboat was cast adrift. Then we reformed in line abreast and set course for our area of patrol.

A little later the yeoman wrote out a long signal from B—-. “ Survivors ” it ran “ are from Portuguese ship, torpedoed without warning five nights ago when sailing independently. Three survivors are suffering from gangrene and seriously ill. Master reports second boat last seen drifting north-west two days ago.”

Although darkness was falling, the Captain decided to carry out a sweep to the northward in the hope of finding the second lifeboat; ships were spread five miles apart and speed increased to twenty-seven knots. A man was placed in the crow’s-nest, and the look-outs were instructed to sweep the horizon with their glasses.

We continued the search until night had fallen but saw nothing, and at midnight turned to carry out our original objective, the A/S patrol. Again we were unlucky, and the next afternoon set course for home.

Arrived in harbour a day later, B-——’s Number One came over for a gin while we were alongside the oiler. He told us that the survivors had just gone ashore in a drifter; their gratitude had been almost embarrassing.’

Most of them were still pretty ill ; they had run out of water two days before they were picked up. One poor fellow had got gangrene badly, and the Doc thought that he would probably lose both legs and both hands…

Our feelings were best expressed by the Captain. At dinner that night he said, “ The day we do run into a U-Boat, there won’t be any question whether it’s been sunk or not.” But he didn’t put it quite like that…

See Ludovic Kennedy: Sub-Lieutenant

The destroyers HMS KELVIN (photo taken from on board); HMS JUPITER; and HMS JAVELIN with a convoy.
The destroyers HMS KELVIN (photo taken from on board); HMS JUPITER; and HMS JAVELIN with a convoy.
Photographs from the crows nest of HMS KELVIN showing bow waves and stern wakes, and destroyers of the flotilla behind.
Photographs from the crows nest of HMS KELVIN showing bow waves and stern wakes, and destroyers of the flotilla behind.
Scenes on board a destroyer. 1940, on board the British Destroyer HMS Javelin.Officer on the bridge taking a bearing.
Scenes on board a destroyer. 1940, on board the British Destroyer HMS Javelin.Officer on the bridge taking a bearing.
In the engine room. The Control platform. The big wheels are "astern" and "ahead" manoeuvring valves. On the platform stands the Engine Room Artificer regulating the speed of the engines.
In the engine room. The Control platform. The big wheels are “astern” and “ahead” manoeuvring valves. On the platform stands the Engine Room Artificer regulating the speed of the engines.
Officers listening to the news in the Wardroom of the destroyer.
Officers listening to the news in the Wardroom of the destroyer.
The destroyer HMS JUPITER with her guns trained and ready for action.
The destroyer HMS JUPITER with her guns trained and ready for action.

Watching and listening to the battle overhead

Locals watch as troops and police inspect Messerschmitt Bf 109E-1 (W.Nr. 3367) "Red 14" of 2./JG52, which crash-landed in a wheatfield at Mays Farm, Selmeston, near Lewes in Sussex, 12 August 1940. Its pilot, Unteroffizier Leo Zaunbrecher, was captured.
Locals watch as troops and police inspect Messerschmitt Bf 109E-1 (W.Nr. 3367) “Red 14” of 2./JG52, which crash-landed in a wheatfield at Mays Farm, Selmeston, near Lewes in Sussex, 12 August 1940. Its pilot, Unteroffizier Leo Zaunbrecher, was captured.

As the Luftwaffe steeped up their attacks they moved inland from the attacks on convoys in the English channel. Increasingly people living in the south east of Britain became witnesses to the conflict.

Hubert S. Banner describes how the air battle fascinated those watching below:

Enemy activity was steadily on the increase; for now we were well into the opening phases of the Battle of Britain. Air-raid warnings in our area [Tunbridge Wells] averaged twelve or thirteen a day, and seldom any longer were they false alarms.

Time after time we would hear the heavy rumble up among the clouds which betokened a formation of German bombers, and there you would spot them as they sailed across the intervening patches of blue sky, dainty and silvery like little moths in the August sunshine, with still tinier moths that were their protective fighters weaving in and out and making rings around them as well-trained dogs encircle a flock of sheep.

And then often would be added the sound of our intercepting aircraft as they came tearing across the sky to do battle. Faint bursts of machine-gun fire would reach our ears, and sometimes a shower of the ‘empties’ would descend upon us… to bounce off the roofs and rattle all over the streets, whereupon there would be a frenzied rush of children scrambling to fill their pockets…

There was a period when the pupils of the Maidstone Grammar School had to go over every foot of their football-ground before each game in order to clear it of splinters…

The red-letter days were, of course, those when the exchanges overhead produced visible results in the form of Nazi airmen floating to earth. First you would discern a white speck against the blue, apparently stationary. But the speck would grow larger until you could make out its unbrella-top shape, and then at last you would be able to see the minute figure dangling beneath.

And what a rush there would be in the direction of the spot where the figure seemed likely to descend. Sometimes there was more than one. On one memorable occasion I saw five on their way down simultaneously, and the difficulty then was to decide in which of the five directions to rush…

I saw my first Nazi at close quarters during those memorable days. My wife and I had just finished lunch when we were startled by a ‘zoom’ that ended in a loud crash. Rushing to the window, we saw a column of black smoke rising above the tree-tops, and a few moments later began a crackling fusillade that reminded one of the Fifth of November. ‘Machine-gun ammunition popping off in the bonfire,’ I decided.

We jumped into the car and drove towards the smoke and noise, and soon we were overtaking a throng of cyclists and pedestrians all heading in the same direction.

The scene of the crash was on a golf-course, and a good-sized crowd had arrived there before us… The German fighter-bomber had hit the tree-tops in its descent, and there it lay, sprawling broken-backed on the greensward… It was consuming rapidly in its own flames, and the empty cartridges-cases leaped out of the pyre in all directions. The police had formed a cordon. Sternly they ordered the mob to keep its distance, but the small boys were too much for them. They dived and ducked through the cordon singly and in dozens, cheerfully contemptuous of the awful penalties attached to interfering with captured enemy property…

Beneath the trees… lay the Nazi airman. A First-Aid Party was in attendance. Tender hands were bandaging his cut forehead and broken leg. He was silent now, but I learned afterwards that when first dragged from his burning ’plane he had made noise enough until one of the men saidto him: ‘Be a man and shut up, can’t you? You asked for it, and now you’ve got it.’ Not another squeak had come from him after that rebuke…

Meanwhile the police were examining his effects… They drew forth in turn a carton of Californian dried raisins, a large slab of Cadbury’s chocolate, and – crowning insult – a packet of twenty Gold Flake. Many of the men who had thus far kept silence could no longer restrain their feelings when they caught sight of those Gold Flakes. They might be able to forgive the German for having come over with the intention of blowing them to bits, but not for having brought with him cigarettes looted from our abandoned stores in France.

See Hubert S. Banner: Kentish Fire

Soldiers guarding a crash-landed Junkers Ju 88A-1 of Stab II/KG 54 at Portland Head in Dorset, shot down by a No. 213 Squadron Hurricane over Portland Harbour, 11 August 1940. The censor has obscured the background.
Soldiers guarding a crash-landed Junkers Ju 88A-1 of Stab II/KG 54 at Portland Head in Dorset, shot down by a No. 213 Squadron Hurricane over Portland Harbour, 11 August 1940. The censor has obscured the background.

Italy invades British Somaliland

Italian forces move into British Somaliland

On the Horn of Africa, British Somaliland, a protectorate then covering the northernmost part of modern Somalia, was invaded by Italy on 3rd August 1940. Surrounded on the landward side by Italian occupied territory and considerably outnumbered by the invading Italians the result was perhaps a foregone conclusion.

The Somaliland Camel Corps had only 14 British officers commanding just over 1400 native troops. In total a British Force of around 4,000 faced 24,000 Italians. The invaders had light tanks and armoured cars, the British forces had none, and no anti-tank weapons or artillery.

Yet the invaders found themselves constantly harassed by the more mobile British forces who made use of their superior knowledge of the terrain while conducting a fighting retreat.