Air combat over the Channel at Dover

The Junkers 87 ‘Stuka’ dive bomber was vulnerable to attack and invariably had fighter protection, in this case the Me 109.

Following an ‘air battle’ RAF pilots completed a combat report describing in considerable detail their engagement with the enemy. The cumulative intelligence gained from such reports, about the relative performance of aircraft, tactics, weaponry etc, was immensely valuable. For the pilots these reports represented their claims to ‘kills’ so it was important that they presented as much information as possible that might corroborate or support their claim. It is therefore in the official records that we have some of the most vivid accounts of the air war that now began in earnest over Britain. Pilot Officer Jack Hamar was a Hurricane pilot with 151 Squadron who went to intercept Stuka bombers attacking a shipping convoy off Eastbourne, in the English channel:

At 1500 hours the Squadron was ordered off from Rochford to intercept E/As [Enemy Aircraft] south of Dover. At approximately 1520 hours, when the Squadron was almost over Dover, a bunch of Me 109s were sighted about 5,000 feet above our formation, in which I was flying Red Two.

As it looked as though the E/A were about to attack us, the leader ordered our defensive line astern tactics. As we turned sharply to port, two Me 109s were seen diving to attack the last aircraft in our formation. ‘Milna Leader’ attacked the leading Me 109 and I the second.

I turned inside the E/A, which had pulled up into a steep left hand climbing turn. I closed rapidly and opened fire at about 250 yards with a 45° deflection shot. The E/A seemed to falter and straightened out into a dive. I placed myself dead astern at about 50 yards.

I opened fire, closing to almost no distance. I saw a large explosion just in front of the pilot and a large amount of white smoke poured from the E/A, which by this time was climbing steeply.

I was then forced to break away quickly due to fire from the rear, lost sight of the E/A and therefore did not see it crash. This action was also witnessed by Flying Officer Forster.

TNA Air 50

The combat was witnessed by a BBC radio reporter, standing on the cliffs of Dover. Charles Gardner gave a live running commentary that was later to become famous:

The Germans are dive-bombing a convoy out at sea: there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven German dive-bombers, Junkers 87s. There’s one going down on its target now – bomb! No! He missed the ships, it hasn’t hit a single ship – there are about 10 ships in the convoy but he hasn’t hit a single one and – There, you can hear our anti-aircraft going at them now.

There are one, two, three, four, five, six – there are about 10 German machines dive-bombing the convoy, which is just out to sea in the Channel. I can’t see anything! No! We thought he had got a German one at the top then, but now the British fighters are coming up. Here they come.

The Germans are coming in an absolutely steep dive, and you can see their bombs actually leave the machines and come into the water. You can hear our guns going like anything now. I can hear machine-gun fire but I can’t see our Spitfires. They must be somewhere there.

Oh! Here’s one coming down. There’s one going down in flames. Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak – coming down completely out of control – a long streak of smoke – and now a man’s baled out by parachute. The pilot’s baled out by parachute. He’s a Junkers 87 and he’s going slap into the sea – and there he goes: SMASH! A terrific column of water and there was a Junkers 87. Only one man got out by parachute, so presumably there was only a crew of one in it.

Now then, oh, there’s a terrific mix-up over the Channel! It’s impossible to tell which are our machines and which are the Germans. There was one definitely down in this battle and there’s a fight going on. There’s a fight going on and you can hear the little rattles of machine-gun bullets. Crump! That was a bomb, as you may imagine.

Here comes one Spitfire. There’s a little burst. There’s another bomb dropping. Yes, it has dropped. It has missed the convoy. You know, they haven’t hit the convoy in all this. The sky is absolutely patterned with bursts of anti-aircraft fire, and the sea is covered with smoke where bombs have burst, but as far as I can see there is not one single ship hit, and there is definitely one German machine down.

And I am looking across the sea now. I can see the little white dot of a parachute as the German pilot is floating down towards the spot where his machine crashed with such a big fountain of water two minutes ago.

In fact he was mistaken. The pilot shot down was British, although rescued from the sea Pilot Officer Michael Mudie died the next day in hospital. The original recording can be heard in the BBC Archives.

Opinion was divided over the nature of Gardner’s broadcast. There were letters to The Times complaining that mortal combat was being reduced to the terms of a sporting contest. However Mollie Panter-Downes reported in her weekly column for New Yorker magazine:

The majority of citizens, possibly less squeamish, sat by their radios, hanging onto their seats and cheering.

This perspective appears to have been very accurate, it is consistent with a ‘Listener Research Report‘ that was urgently conducted by the BBC, concerned about the controversy, after the broadcast.

German bombing of Britain intensifies

A Dornier 17 begins its bombing run, summer 1940.

Winston Churchill had just sent out a secret memo to senior commanders putting the threat of invasion into perspective, but even those right at the top thought that a surprise attack might come any day now. It was becoming increasingly clear that the crucial issue was how Britain’s air defences stood up to the Luftwaffe.

General Sir Edmund Ironside, formerly Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was now Chief in Command Home Defence, responsible for preparing the response to any invasion. His diary shows that he believed that an attack could come at any time, but that intensive air attack was likely to come first:

July 13

It is curious how one goes to bed wondering whether there will be an attack early the next morning. As we have done all we can in the way of preparation, it doesn’t worry me much. I merely give thanks that we have another day of preparation and issue of defence material.

The attack upon us by air is intensifying. Chiefly against aerodromes, ports, shipping and aircraft factories. But so far the attack has been badly directed and not carried out in great strength.

The R.A.F. say that that is what happened before the German attack in France. Desultory bombing and then one morning a very heavy attack on everything. It may be coming again.

The seemingly desultory bombing may be a method of testing our defences. Certainly the Germans have never been up against such a good fighter defence, such A.A. fire, and such a warning system.

I am inclined to think that Germany will try to wear down our air defence before she tries any invasion. It seems the natural thing to do…

See Time Unguarded: The Ironside Diaries 1937-1940

Royal Artillery gunners manning a 6-inch coastal defence gun at Sheerness, November 1939.
Royal Artillery gunners manning a 6-inch coastal defence gun at Sheerness, November 1939.
Working a 6 inch Coast Gun, the gunner sets the range from instructions received by telephone from range-finders, who also communicate corrections during the raid, July 1940.
Working a 6 inch Coast Gun, the gunner sets the range from instructions received by telephone from range-finders, who also communicate corrections during the raid, July 1940.
A shell being loaded into the breech of a 6 inch Coast Gun, July 1940.
A shell being loaded into the breech of a 6 inch Coast Gun, July 1940.

Britain: everyone prepares for War

Your-Britain-fight-for it-now
One of the famous series of four posters by Frank Newbould, already noted for his travel posters before the war.
The Local Defence Volunteers: Members of the Local Defence Volunteers being taught simple German phrases.
The Local Defence Volunteers: Members of the Local Defence Volunteers being taught simple German phrases.

The nation had already been prepared for the beginning of the ‘Battle of Britain’ by Winston Churchill, a phrase that at this time encompassed every aspect of the threatened invasion not merely the RAF’s defence of Britain. The Local Defence Volunteer’s had been formed in May but the government was struggling to arm and equip them. Although a million ‘LDV’ armbands had been produced, and were in the process of being issued, Churchill was now arguing that the title “Home Guard” would be much more inspiring – his decision would be implemented later in July 1940.

Many diarists were recording how the war was progressing internationally alongside their own observations about how it was affecting people locally. In mid Sussex in southern England, very likely to be in the firing line should any invasion come, Helena Hunt was keeping a journal that reflected many of the issues affecting a typical English village:

July 12th Friday

Mr Duff Cooper broadcasted an appeal last night for recruits for ‘an imaginary regiment, the Silent Column’ composed of men and women resolved to say nothing that can help the enemy. He emphasised the danger of dropping scraps of information, sometimes vital parts of a vast jigsaw puzzle being pieced together by the enemy.

As part of an ‘anti—rumour’ campaign a new poster is published….

I have often wondered how the term Fifth Column came into being and what Fifth Columnists meant originally.. A Fifth Columnist, properly so called, is a man or woman who works against his or her country for the aid and comfort of the enemy, in fact a Fifth Columnist is a traitor…

Many of the most precious art treasures of Paris are to go to Berlin for ‘exhibition’. Herr Otto Greif has arrived in Paris to make the selection. He went on similar missions to Vienna, Warsaw and Amsterdam, and treasures from there are all ‘on exhibition’ in Germany.

Three girls came to the door yesterday saying ‘ARP for animals, have you a dog?’ ‘No’ I said, ‘but there’s a cat next door I’m always shooing off my garden’. They were taking account of all animals.

More details of the central jam making are given in this week’s ‘Mid’. It was begun in the Village Hall here last Wednesday, the 10th. The jam is made on Tuesdays and Thursdays in each week. Fruit must be brought on those mornings when it will be weighed and paid for at Wholesale prices. The jam will be sold at retail prices.

Mid Sussex dairymen have formed a Mutual Aid Assistance Pact. If an air raid causes damage to a dairyman’s business premises, arrangements will be made for his customers to be supplied. On the Emergency Committee formed, Barnett represents Lindfield, and the district comprises of this village, Cuckfield, Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill, Danehill, Hurstpierpoint and Ditchling. Nearly all the dairymen are joining the Pact.

Recruits for the LDVF no.5 Lindfield Platoon are needed. All between 17 and 65 not already serving in Defence may enrol at the Headquarters, Red Lion Yard, any evening between 7.30 and 9.30.

I went to Brighton today and was told that in all the streets near the sea, curfew is enforced at 9.30, the time altering with sunset time. Sentries go along the streets to see that they are clear. No one is allowed on the beach, guns and forts abound.

The London children who were evacuated to seaside places last autumn are to be removed further inland, North Sussex or South Surrey….

Boy Ellis has been called up. He gave me his printed letter of welcome from the War Office signed by the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. I think it an inspiring as well as useful letter.

It was the first time I had been to Brighton since the names of the stations had been removed, no station names are now to be seen.

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

"But For Heaven's Sake Don't Say I Told You!"
“But For Heaven’s Sake Don’t Say I Told You!”
Mrs Carter enjoys a Sunday lunch with her evacuated children Michael and Angela (seated either side of her at the table) during a day trip to their foster home in Hayward's Heath. The children were evacuated from their home in London and are staying with several other evacuees in the home of Mrs Cluton, seen here serving potatoes to Michael.
Mrs Carter enjoys a Sunday lunch with her evacuated children Michael and Angela (seated either side of her at the table) during a day trip to their foster home in Hayward’s Heath. The children were evacuated from their home in London and are staying with several other evacuees in the home of Mrs Cluton, seen here serving potatoes to Michael.

Luftwaffe probe British air defences

Hawker Hurricane Mk I, P2923, VY-R, flown by Pilot Officer A G Lewis of No. 85 Squadron, landing at Castle Camps, RAF Debden's satellite airfield, July 1940. (See also HU 57626 and HU 57627). This aircraft was lost in action on 25 August 1940.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I, P2923, VY-R, flown by Pilot Officer A G Lewis of No. 85 Squadron, landing at Castle Camps, RAF Debden’s satellite airfield, July 1940. . This aircraft was lost in action on 25 August 1940.
An air gunner climbs into a Boulton Paul Defiant of No. 264 Squadron, July 1940.
An air gunner climbs into a Boulton Paul Defiant of No. 264 Squadron, July 1940.
RAF personnel examine the wreck of Heinkel He 111H (G1+LK) of 2./KG 55 on East Beach, Selsey in Sussex, shot down by P/O Wakeham and P/O Lord Shuttleworth of No. 145 Squadron, 11 July 1940.
RAF personnel examine the wreck of Heinkel He 111H (G1+LK) of 2./KG 55 on East Beach, Selsey in Sussex, shot down by P/O Wakeham and P/O Lord Shuttleworth of No. 145 Squadron, 11 July 1940.

The “Battle of Britain” is now generally considered to have begun in mid July 1940 as the Luftwaffe stepped up their attacks on shipping in the Channel. RAF Fighter Command had been carefully nursing its resources, not allowing them to be frittered away in the battle for France, however much they might have been needed.

This policy of maintaining vital reserves continued as the Luftwaffe began probing into British airspace. Even so air activity over southern England had increased and the number of sorties being flown was beginning to increase dramatically.

Flying Officer Alan Geoffrey Page of 56 Squadron, RAF was amongst many pilots who received their baptism of fire during this period:

My first time in combat; six of us — half a squadron – were sent up. As we climbed, the controller advised us that there were 20 bombers coming in to attack a convoy and 6O fighters above them, acting as their escort.

Our leader ordered Taffy Higginson to take three aircraft down to attack the bombers and he ordered the other three of us to climb to attack the 6O fighters. As we climbed, I caught sight of this enormous swarm of aircraft. They were above us and this was dangerous. When you’re climbing, your speed is low whereas the enemy is way up in the sky and flying quite fast. He has a tremendous advantage over you.

Anyway, we got up and we saw two types of aeroplanes, both fighters. One was a twin-engine fighter, the Messerschmitt 110 and the other was the single-engine Messerschmitt 109. The Messerschmitt 110s started flying in a defensive circle when they saw the three of us. That made me chuckle to myself, despite my mouth feeling rather dry with fear.

I dived into this circle, firing rather wildly through absolute inexperience and then the 109s came down on us.

Suddenly came the phenomenon that I saw again and again throughout the war. You’re in a dogfight with so many aeroplanes about and then suddenly it’s as if the hand of God has wiped the slate clean and there’s nothing else in the sky. I found myself alone except for one speck of an aeroplane in the distance.

I approached the speck and he approached me until I saw that he was a Messerschmitt 109. It became the equivalent of tilting at the lists in medieval times. We attacked each other head on and I could see the little white flashes on the leading edge of his wing as he fired at me. I was feeling a bit stubborn that morning so I didn’t budge. He flashed over the top of me and I returned to base and landed.

This account appears in Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle For Britain: A New History in the Words of the Men and Women on Both Sides.

Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron in flight, April 1940.
Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron in flight, April 1940.

Extracts from the WEEKLY RESUME of the

NAVAL, MILITARY AND AIR SITUATION to 12 noon July 11th, 1940


MILITARY SITUATION. German Activities.

27. Increased preparations for a possible invasion of the United Kingdom have been reported, and it is possible that in Norway preparations for a seaborne expedition of two to three divisions, including some A.F.Vs., must now be nearly complete. It is, however, still uncertain if all, or any, of these forces are intended for the invasion of the United Kingdom. Eire, the Shetlands, the Faroes and Iceland are all possible subsidiary objectives. Air reconnaissance of Bremen and Emden has not shown the presence of any abnormal quantity of shipping. No concentration of shipping has been observed in the ports of the Low Countries and Northern France. While there is a considerable number of barges in these ports, this may be due to the interruption of other communications and does not necessarily indicate preparations for invasion.


General Review.

35. Our bombing attacks have been on a lower scale than recently, owing to adverse weather conditions, though minelaying has been more extensive. Fighter operations have been considerably more intense than recently and have been almost entirely over this country. Enemy air attacks were mainly concentrated against ports and shipping and were becoming heavier towards the end of the week. Operations in the Mediterranean and Middle East were of a similar character to those of last week.

Great Britain.
36. Enemy bombing attacks by day have been concentrated mainly on our Southern and South-Western ports and on shipping in the Channel. Casualties have been higher, but little serious damage has been done to objectives on land. Raids on the East Coast and on Scotland have been less frequent and reconnaissance appears to have been their primary objective. There has been little deep penetration except during the hours of darkness, when attacks were relatively light and achieved little success. Activity increased steadily up to the 10th July, when a formation of about 120 bombers and fighters assembled behind Calais and attempted to attack a convoy between Dover and Dungeness. Minelaying appears to have continued nightly during the week off the South and East Coasts.

37. Fighter operations have been of considerably increased intensity. Enemy attacks have been escorted by fighters, which have, also carried out sweeps over the South Coast. Fighter Command flew 1,040 patrols, involving 3,275 sorties, over this country and destroyed 44 enemy aircraft confirmed “and 33 unconfirmed; enemy casualties included 33 fighters. Our losses totalled 18.

See TNA CAB /66/9/42

Secret Churchill Memo – German invasion unlikely

Local Defence Volunteers soon to be renamed Home Guard
The formation of the Local Defence Volunteers was announced on the 14th May, they were renamed the ‘Home Guard’ on the 22nd July at Churchill’s insistence, despite the cost of replacing the million armbands that had been prepared for them. Many did not get proper weapons until much later in the year.

In a memorandum to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, circulated to the War Cabinet, Winston Churchill set out his views on the practicality of an invasion.

His assessment of the prospects of a German landing placed great weight on the strength of the Royal Navy. He was encouraged by the fact that the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Barham would soon be ready for sea and would enable the creation of further battle groups that could break up any invasion force.

He also felt that the largest German ships were under the close surveillance of the RAF and would not be able to mount a surprise breakout. His one caveat is the need for ‘strong Air support’ necessary to protect the Royal Navy during daylight hours.

I FIND it very difficult to visualise the kind of invasion all along the coast by troops carried in small craft, and even in boats. I have not seen any serious evidence of large masses of this class of craft being assembled, and, except in very narrow waters, it would be a most hazardous and even suicidal operation to commit a large army to the accidents of the sea in the teeth of our very numerous armed patrolling forces.

The Admiralty have over 1,000 armed patrolling vessels, of which two or three hundred are always at sea, the whole being well manned by competent seafaring men. A surprise crossing should be impossible, and in the broader parts of the North Sea the invaders should be an easy prey, as part of their voyage would be made by daylight.

Behind these patrolling craft are the flotillas of destroyers, of which 40 destroyers are now disposed between the Humber and Portsmouth, the bulk being in the narrowest waters. The greater part of these are at sea every night, and rest in the day. They would therefore probably encounter the enemy vessels in transit during the night, but also could reach any landing point or points on the front mentioned in two or three hours. They could immediately break up the landing craft, interrupt the landing, and fire upon the landed troops, who, however lightly equipped, would have to have some proportion of ammunition and equipment carried on to the beaches from their boats.

The Flotillas would, however, need strong Air support from our fighter aircraft during their intervention from dawn onwards. The provision of the Air fighter escort for our destroyers after daybreak is essential to their most powerful intervention on the beaches.

Churchill’s conclusion was that the Army had the space and time to regroup and reform inland, rather than be dissipated around the coast:

[I hope] that you will be able to bring an ever larger proportion of your formed Divisions back from the coast into support or reserve, so that their training may proceed in the highest forms of offensive warfare and counterattack, and that the coast, as it becomes fortified, will be increasingly confided to troops other than those of the formed Divisions, and also to the Home Guard.

See TNA CAB 66/9/44

In many ways it is a very re-assuring assessment. It was in fact largely in accord with the assessments being made by the Germans themselves, many of whom, particularly in the Navy, thought that an invasion of Britain in 1940 was an impossibility.

Nevertheless this was a secret assessment. Preparations for a possible invasion were proceeding apace across the country. The mobilisation of tens of thousands of men into the Local Defence Volunteers, soon to be renamed the Home Guard, was transforming the outlook of the civilian population. Churchill was not going to undermine the general stiffening of resolve by going public with the notion that invasion was impracticable.

For more on the Home Guard see The Spitfire Site.

HMS NELSON with HMS BARHAM in the background.
HMS NELSON with HMS BARHAM in the background.
1940 or 1941, on board the Battleship HMS Barham -Taking on board 15" shells.
1940 or 1941, on board the Battleship HMS Barham -Taking on board 15″ shells.
Sponging out the 15" guns after being in action.
Sponging out the 15″ guns after being in action.

HM Submarine Shark surrendered and sunk

HMS Shark was a Royal Navy S class submarine,
in most respects identical to HMS Safari, pictured here.

World War II submarines could only run submerged on electric motors. They routinely surfaced at night to run on Diesel engines and re-charge their batteries. In operations in the northern latitudes off Norway during the summer this posed particular problems – as the in the ‘land of the midnight sun’ the sun never set. The commander of HMS Shark, Lieutenant-Commander Buckley, was well aware of the hazard involved when he surfaced in the evening of 5th July – but the batteries had to be re-charged so that they could maintain their patrol the following day. The risk of being spotted by German aircraft was considerable – and at 2215 this was exactly what happened. HMS Shark made a crash dive that left two members of the deck crew swimming in the water.

Despite managing to submerge the submarine was badly damaged by bombs that hit while she was at a shallow depth. At 2245 the damage sustained forced them to the surface, which they just managed to achieve with the little compressed air they had left. Miraculously they soon came across and were able to rescue the two crew members who had been left swimming in the sea. It was now apparent that the submarine was badly damaged, could not dive and had severely impaired steering. She was a sitting duck when German aircraft spotted her again at about midnight.

HMS Shark put up a fierce fight with her deck gun and many of the crew were injured in the series of attacks that followed, including Lieutenant-Commander Buckley, who sustained wounds to the head and legs. Nevertheless they probably accounted for two German aircraft shot down or badly damaged.

The outcome was never really in doubt:

Some time about 0300, four Messerschmidt 109s appeared from the direction of Stavanger and from now on continued to rake the bridge and guns crew with machine gun and cannon fire. Their fire was devastating and it obvious that the end was now in sight although everyone stuck to their posts in the most magnificent manner until wounded, or in one case, killed outright.

One of the seaplanes now signalled us by light to “stop or steer to.. Stavanger”. No notice was taken of this signal but about a quarter of an hour later, after continuous attacks from the 109’s, our ammunition being expended and having many wounded or dead (l could not tell which), I reluctantly decided to capitulate.

Some time after, the “fighter” attacks had commenced, I called the First Lieutenant on to the bridge as I was feeling particularly shaky and-, from this time on, I have only a vague recollection as to what actually happened.

Wounded men of HMS SHARK stand on the deck awaiting the arrival of one of the German trawler’s boats. At this moment all preparations had been made by the SHARK’s crew for the submarine to sink as soon as she was taken in tow by the Germans.

Lieutenant-Commander Buckley was only able to complete his report on the action when he was released from prisoner of war camp in 1945. It is an extraordinarily detailed account of all the damage sustained, the fight back by the crew, as well as the measures taken to ensure that the submarine was not captured.

Wounded from HMS SHARK being brought on board the German trawler.

HMS Shark did sink shortly after German trawlers arrived and got her under tow. In compiling his report Lieutenant-Commander Buckley would have been very conscious of the very similar circumstances of the surrender of HMS Seal. Lieutenant-Commander Lonsdale of HMS Seal was also released from POW camp in 1945 but he now faced a Court Martial. In the case of HMS Seal, despite his efforts, the submarine had been captured by the Germans.

HMS Foylebank bombed in Portland Harbour

HMS Foyle Bank Anti Aircraft ship
The auxiliary AA ship HMS FOYLE BANK, a former grain carrier converted to an Anti-Aircraft ship, on which Leading Seaman Jack Mantle won the Victoria Cross

On the morning of the 4th July 1940 the auxiliary AA ship FOYLE BANK, anchored off the breakwater within Portland Harbour, was attacked by 33 Ju87 divebombers.

Naval Harbourmaster Edward Palmer was on duty in Portland harbour

I was proceeding down the inside harbour at about 08.30 in the morning, a lovely day, a normal day. I noticed the guard ship was flying the yellow flag, [Yellow flags were for aircraft reported, Red flags were for Air raid imminent] but did not take much notice, for she had been flying that on a number of days lately.

When out of the sun they came, enemy dive bombers. Diving straight down onto the guard ship, machine gunning and bombing. Hell let loose, about 20 planes, they appeared to have caught us napping. I immediately told my crew that we were going in to pick up the hands and ratings who were jumping and being blown into the water alongside of her. There was a barge with work people alongside of Foyle Bank, a bomb dropped alongside the barge turning it upside down.

We got in alongside started to pick up the survivors and dive bombers kept coming, machine gunning and bombing, lifting the launch almost out of the water. Well we loaded the hands on board until we could not carry any more and made for the nearest jetty. Some of the poor fellows were in a sad mess. We landed as quickly as we could and went back for more. By this time the enemy dive bombers had done what they had come to do, the Foyle Bank was on fire and sinking. She went down later in the day. The Lord looked after us that day.

Edward Sidney Palmer won the British Empire medal for his work that day. His full story is at Eddie Palmer.

Launches go to the rescue of survivors from the Foyle Bank as she is dive bombed and machine gunned in Portland harbour.

During the action Leading Seaman Jack Mantle won the Victoria Cross. His citation reads:

Leading Seaman Jack Mantle was in charge of the Starboard pom‑pom when FOYLEBANK was attacked by enemy aircraft on the 4th of July, 1940. Early in the action his left leg was shattered by a bomb, but he stood fast at his gun and went on firing with hand-gear only; for the ship’s electric power had failed. Almost at once he was wounded again in many places. Between his bursts of fire he had time to reflect on the grievous injuries of which he was soon to die; but his great courage bore him up till the end of the fight, when he fell by the gun he had so valiantly served.

The London Gazette, Tuesday 3 September, 1940

See also BBC Peoples war for an account of the raising of HMS Foylebank.

HMS Foylebank was apparently hit by a total of 22 bombs. With one of the attackers shot down, she sank to the bottom with 176 men killed out of a total crew of 19 officers and 279 other ranks.

The British fire on the French at Mers el Kebir

The French destroyer Mogador on fire
The French destroyer Mogador on fire at Mers el Kebir

Relations between the French and British radically altered following the French armistice with Germany. Churchill was determined that the French Fleet should not fall into the hands of the Germans. The British Force H was sent from Gibraltar to confront the main French fleet in harbour. Admiral Somerville, commander of Force H, had orders to seek the French Fleet’s surrender at the French North African maritime base of Mers el Kebir at Oran, French Algeria. The terms contained a number of options designed to allow the French an honourable course of action while denying the French fleet to the Germans, these were:

It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German enemy. We are determined to fight on until the end, and if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget that France was our Ally, that our interests are the same as hers, and that our common enemy is Germany. Should we conquer we solemnly declare that we shall restore the greatness and territory of France.

For this purpose we must make sure that the best ships of the French Navy are not used against us by the common foe.

In these circumstances, His Majesty’s Government have instructed me to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers el Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives;

(a) Sail with us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans.

(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would be repatriated at the earliest moment. If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.

(c) Alternatively if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans unless they break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies — Martinique for instance — where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.

If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within 6 hours. Finally, failing the above, I have the orders from His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German hands.

Admiral Somerville’s report describes how negotiations continued all day. He despatched Captain Holland to speak with the French Commander, Admiral Gensoul:

49. Whilst this long discussion was taking place in the Admiral’s cabin of DUNKERQUE, Admiralty message 1614/3rd July containing instructions to “settle matters quickly or you will have reinforcements to deal with” was received at 1646 in HOOD. A signal was immediately passed visually and by wireless to Admiral Gensoul, informing him that if the terms were not Accepted, fire would be opened at 1730. Simultaneously, “Preparative ANVIL at 1730” was made to all ships of Force “H”. (see para. 25 of Enclosure 3).

50. The message referred to reached Admiral Gensoul at 1715, whilst the discussion with captain Holland was still proceeding. The latter then drafted a brief signal, which was shewn to the Admiral, stating that the crews were being reduced and the ships would proceed to MARTINIQUE or the United States of America if threatened by the enemy. This was received in HOOD at 1729, but as it did not comply with any of the conditions laid down, air striking forces were ordered to fly off and the battleships stood in to the coast.

51. Captain Holland finally left DUNKERQUE at 1725 and at the same time “Action stations” were sounded in the French ships. Transfer to FOXHOUND’s motorboat was effected at 1735 and the boat proceeded clear of the net defences.

52. Fire was opened at maximum visibility range of 17,500 yards at 1754, employing G.I.C. concentration with aircraft spotting. The line of fire was from the north-west, so that fire from the French ships was to some extent blanked by Mers el Kebir Fort and risk of damage to civilian life and property reduced.

53. Simultaneously with opening fire, an aircraft report was received that the destroyers in Mers el Kebir were under way inside the boom.

54. At 1757, three minutes after opening fire, a very large explosion occurred inside the harbour, followed immediately by an immense column of smoke several hundred feet high. There would appear little doubt that this was caused by the blowing up of a battleship of the BRETAGNE Class. It was followed shortly after by a similar but smaller explosion which was apparently a destroyer blowing up. By this time, the harbour was clothed in smoke from explosions and fires, rendering direct spotting almost impossible and air spotting most difficult.

55. Enemy shore batteries opened fire about a minute after the first British salvo. These were promptly engaged by ARETHUSA but the range was too great for ENTERPRISE’s older guns. Shortly afterwards heavy projectiles commenced to fall near the battleships.

56. Enemy fire was at first very short but improved considerably in accuracy, a number of main armament (probably 13.4 inch) projectiles falling close to all ships and in certain cases, straddling. No hits were incurred, but a number of splinters caused minor superficial damage in HOOD and injuries to one officer and one rating.

57. After firing a total of thirty-six 15-inch salvoes, the fire from the French ships died down but the fire from the forts was becoming increasingly accurate. Course was altered 180 ° to port together and ships ordered to make smoke to avoid damage from the fire of forts. Fire on the French ships ceased at 1804.

See TNA ADM 199-391 for the full report and enclosures.

A French newsreel report of the action:

The Arandora Star torpedoed and sunk

Arandora Star
A pre war image of the Arandora Star

On the 2nd July 1940 Gunther Prien the captain of U-boat U-47 faced the prospect of losing his position at the top of the league table of ships tonnage sunk per captain. His fame had been firmly established by the sinking of the Royal Oak. Then he saw the 15,000 ton Arandora Star and found the opportunity to use his last torpedo of the patrol. The ship was self evidently a passenger liner sailing away from Britain, yet she fell within the terms of engagement.

Gunther Prien
Gunther Prien, the German U-boat \’ace\’.

The Chief Officer of the “ARANDORA STAR” summarises the events:


S.S.”ARANDORA STAR” sailed from Liverpool at about 0400, Monday 1st July, 1940 and proceeded without escort. Zig-Zag No.10 was carried out continuously until the vessel was struck at 0615, Tuesday 2nd July, 1940, when the course was 270° and speed 15 knots.

Two Officers were on the Bridge (the 3rd Officer and myself) and four lookouts posted, hut nothing was reported seen by any of these men. The vessel was struck at the after end of the Engine Room, all communications from Bridge to Engine Room and also W/T Office put out of action. Ship’s half hourly position had already been sent to W/T Office and I had sent a messenger with the order to send out an S.O.S. and was soon informed that we were heing answered hy Mallin Head W/T Station.

As soon as the explosion occured, all prisoners appeared upon the Upper Deck and greatly handicapped the crew in launching Life Boats. No.7 Boat was smashed hy the explosion and No.5 lost in lowering, the falls and davits here were probably damaged.

About 90 Life Rafts were carried on the upper deck, more than half of these were thrown overboard as soon as way was lost, but at that time , nobody would go over the side, they were getting into the boats. The boats were eventually cleared with the help of the guard but they were immediately filled to capacity hy prisoners going down the side ladders and falls. The balance of the rafts were then thrown over. The Ship took a list to Starboard which steadily increased and at about 0715 it was apparent that she was about to sink.

It was then that the Captain and Senior Officers walked over the side, many of the Italian internees still refused to leave.

I was picked up by a boat after being in the water about 20 minutes. I saw nothing of the Officers who left at the same time, the vessel turned over and sank stern first almost immediately and I think that they must hare been trapped as she came over.

An Aircraft arrived at about 0900 and stayed until the arrival of H.M.C.S. “St LAURENT” when all survivors were taken onboard.

(SGD). F. Brown.
Chief Officer.

From the statement made by Mr U. LIMANTANI , one of the internees, to the subsequent Enquiry:

When the ship was hit by the torpedo, I was sleeping, and soon got up, advised people to be calm, put on my lifebelt, and went on deck.

I tried to get into a lifeboat,but,when it was launched, it was nearly empty,and soon the stream and waves pushed it far.The other lifeboats were already far away. Many people had jumped into the sea and a good deal of them had already died.

When I realised (about 20 minutes after the torpedoing) that there was not much time left,I got down calmly into the sea,and swam away from the ship, which was quickly sinking.

She had turned on the right side,her bow was submerged people were on the decks poured into the sea, and all of a sudden she sank with a terrible noise.The sea was covered with oil, some where even blazing, with wrecks,and pieces of wood.

I swam for about an hour hanging at a bench,then I arranged with a member of the “Arandora Star” crew who was swimming with me,that we should try to reach a lifeboat which we had seen at about half a mile of distance.

We started pushing our bench, but after a while, he left me and swam towards the lifeboat; when I realised that the bench was a hinderance more than a help to my reaching the lifeboat, I left it and swam freely. Eventually I reached it and was picked up.

Later I understood,from people who were in the lifeboat,that a captain of the Army who was in the boat, insisted that only British people should be taken on board;but the second or third officer of the “Arandora Star” (a certain Mr.Tulip) said that he picked up anybody, without any distinction of nationality.

The lifeboat was nearly full up (There were about 120 people on board) and we were terribly packed and pressed from all sides. Moreover, water was coming in, and I felt it growing higher, as I had to sit on the bottom of the boat.

At about 12.30 a flying boat sighted us and fired some flares. At 2.40 p.m. the destroyer H.83 (H.M.C.S. St. Laurent) arrived,and I was taken on board at about 3.20 p.m.

The Italian authorities were informed via the Brazilian Ambassador:

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs presents his compliments to the Brazilian Ambassador and has the honour to inform His Excellency that the ARANDORA STAR, having on board 734 male Italian internees and 565 German prisoners of war and civilian internees, was torpedoed and sunk on the 2nd instant.

According to the German High Command Communique issued on 3rd July, this vessel was sunk by a German U-Boat.

Every effort was made to save the lives of those on board this ship; rescue ships were at once despatched to her aid and despite the fact that the attack was made without any warning, 264 Italians and 322 Germans were saved.

More lives would probably have been saved had not many of the prisoners of war and internees refused to make use of the numerous rafts which were at once thrown over board when the ship was torpedoed.

The list of the Italians who lost their lives will be sent to the Ambassador as soon as possible.

These documents are representative of the official British position with respect to the tragedy. The incident continues to attract much controversy. The need to intern so many Germans and Italians is questioned, many of them were either refugees from Hitler or were longstanding residents in Britain who posed no threat and were antipathetic to Hitler and Mussolini. And there remains the question as to whether they really were treated equally in the evacuation from the sinking ship.