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.
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.
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.
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.
The Chief Officer of the “ARANDORA STAR” summarises the events:
SINKING OF S.S. “ARANDORA STAR”.
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.
S.S. “ARANDORA STAR” .
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.
The most notable operation was the raid on the Schamhorst at Kiel, carried out by five Whitleys and eleven Hampdens on the night of the lst-2nd July. Weather conditions were ideal, and complete surprise appears to have been achieved The bombs dropped by the first aircraft started five large fires which provided illumination for the rest. Direct hits were seen on the ship with one 2,000-lb. bomb and with 500-lb. and 250-lb. bombs, and oil fires were started which were visible eighty miles away. Daylight reconnaissance on the 3rd July largely confirmed these reports. Photographs appear to show that hits were obtained on the starboard side of the ship, and on both sides of the floating dock. The whole harbour area for a distance of eight miles from the south end is covered with oil.
All along the coast of Britain defence emplacements and fortifications were being rapidly established. The overall strategy was that any invasion force would be severely disrupted, hopefully destroyed, by the Royal Navy. The main British Land forces would be held inland and directed to the landing points when they became known.
This still called for a relatively thin crust of defensive positions on the coast itself, ready to disrupt any initial landings and contain them until re-inforced:
‘We can and must … inflict as heavy casualties as possible on the enemy and disorganise him during the actual landing. Our second and more important task is to prevent him exploiting an initial landing success by blocking all main approaches until such time as Tps [troops] from the mobile Division can arrive in the area and effectively deal with the enemy’
163 Infantry Brigade Operating Instructions:
TNA WO 166/1036
The 2nd/4th South Lancashire Regiment were based at Walberswick in Suffolk, facing potential invasion forces from the North Sea. The 450-500 men in this former Territorial Army unit were responsible for seven miles of coast line to a depth of 6 miles. By the end of June they felt that they were reasonably well prepared:
Bulcamp June 30th
The Battalion, as a result of a really hard month’s work in which every man has played his part is now fully prepared for any eventuality. We can assure any prospective visitors, whether they are coming to protect us or not, of a warm welcome. All forward companies have completed very good defensive positions. In the interior there is plenty of room and the men are very comfortable when they have to sleep at their posts. On the exterior there is a diversity of camouflage varying from rubbish heaps to innocent looking fishing huts. Along the beach both at Dunwich and Southwold, also Walberswick, there is an imposing array of concrete anti-tank obstacles, which in some places pass right in front of the section post.
All personelle have fired their rifle and L.M.G. courses and each company in turn fired at toy balloons by way of A.A. practice. Several balloons were shot down. D. Company with four were the top scorers. As many men as there were ammunition for fired the Anti-Tank rifle. They found it to be far less frightening than they had expected. It has now been found possible to allow one platoon of each company to go out training locally each day.
2nd/4th South Lancashire Regiment War Diary
TNA WO 166/4680
For much more on the coastal defences of Britain at this time, including animated reconstructions, see WALBERSWICK.
Following the fall of France the British Government decided that the Channel Islands, located close to the French coast, could not be defended without great loss. They offered the Islanders the option of whether they wished to be evacuated to the British mainland or not, and made ships available for this purpose. The majority on Alderney chose to leave, most on Sark chose to stay, children were evacuated from Guernsey but on Jersey most people stayed.
The islands were demilitarised by the British but this was not communicated to the Germans – they were not ‘invited in’. As a consequence the Germans bombed St Peter Port on 28th June and 44 civilians were killed. Subsequently the islanders were instructed to paint white crosses on the aerodromes and fly white flags – and the occupation proceeded without further casualties.
For Fred Gallienne it was an unforgettable day, although not a very pleasant one:
I was eight years old when the Germans arrived, and I can remember the day they arrived as if it were yesterday. We lived near the airport and the German aircraft were circling the airport for a while, and my mother said, ‘We can’t stay here; we’re too close to the airport, so we’ll go down and hide under some trees.’
So we went down this lane and hid under some trees because we didn’t know if the Germans were going to bomb the airport. Two days earlier they’d bombed the harbour where several people were killed. So in the end, it was a question of safety I suppose; my mother felt it was too dangerous to stay near the airport.
Anyway, we stayed out there for a while, when all of a sudden we saw the planes land on the airport. Within half an hour, I’d say, we looked up the lane and at the top of Farras Hill, there was a German officer up there, talking to one of our neighbours!
So our mother said, ‘Well, not much point staying under these trees now, we might just as well go and see what he wants. They’re obviously not going to bomb now that they’ve landed.’
So, up the lane we went, and we saw this German officer who had his revolver in his hand. There were several soldiers around, also with their rifles at the ready, and he was asking our neighbour if he knew where the telecommunications centre was between here and the UK. Someone says, ‘Oh, it’s a few miles down the road.’
So, without ‘by your leave’, or ‘do you mind?’ this officer sent one of his soldiers into our yard, which was alongside, and picked up our brand new Hillman Minx that had hardly been run in, and the last we saw of this car for five years was these Germans driving down the hill!
So that was that. As I say, that’s as if it was yesterday. To make matters worse, not long after, there was a knock on our door, and German soldiers were there, with rifles in hand again saying ‘We want your house now. You have two days to leave. Collect all your furniture, and away you go.’ So that was that. So, my early introduction to the German occupation wasn’t a very happy one, to say the least.
Britain and Italy were at war but so far there had been little fighting as they confronted each other over the Egyptian – Libyan border in North Africa. In the main hostilities were confined to sporadic bombing raids by both sides. These were of nuisance value – causing few casualties.
In this context the phrase ‘light casualties’ conceals a great deal, especially for those who happened to be among the casualties.
In the last week of June twenty year old Ray Ellis moved with his unit of gunners up to the front line outside Mersa Matruh. They first had to survive their first sandstorm – then came an even worse ordeal.
The following morning I was ordered to go as part of a fatigue party into Mersa Matruh to help with the unloading of stores. By this time the wind had eased somewhat and the worst of the storm was over, but it was still very hot and dusty as we made our way towards the cluster of buildings and I realised that Mersa Matruh was a very small town. The air raid damage was immediately apparent: shattered houses, splintered trees and huge blackened craters bore testimony to the fact that this place had been under heavy attack.
We parked by the side of the road and the officer in charge of the party went off in search of orders. I decided to have a closer look at the damage and so I dismounted and wandered off a little way down the street. I heard the noise of aircraft very high in the sky and I saw people running for cover and then suddenly there was a succession of tremendous explosions and it seemed as if the whole world had gone mad all around me.
The noise was ear-splitting, the ground shook and the air was filled with flame and smoke. There had been no warning at all, just a screaming, whistling sound and then this terrifying series of detonations. It was my first experience of any type of bombardment and I was totally unprepared and just stood transfixed as everything seemed to blow up all around me.
Then, just as suddenly, it was all over and the noise stopped, only to be replaced by a different kind of shriek; this time it was made by a human voice and a figure lurched into view from behind a building. It was a soldier and he was screaming. He had his hands pressed against his stomach and his entrails were spilling out between his fingers.
I watched, horrified, as he sank to his knees, his screams changing to a whine, and then he toppled over, kicking and gurgling in a pool of blood and slime. Within seconds I was on the ground beside him as a second stick of bombs came whistling down to explode nearby.
I had never been so frightened in my life as I lay there trembling and bewildered; it had all been so sudden and I couldn’t believe that it was all happening. When it was all over I climbed to my feet. The air was filled with dust and smoke, the soldier was lying in a grotesque heap and I could hear a lot of shouting.
My first impulse was to run away as far as possible from this awful place. In those few minutes the war had become a reality.
I was thankful to find that none of our party had been injured in the attack and we were able to continue with our duties. It was significant that we were no longer singing and our work was punctuated by repeated fearful glances into the cloudless blue sky.
I could not get the sight of the dying soldier out of my mind. Although I was to witness a great many horrifying scenes in the years that followed, that poor man has always remained in my memory.
Italo Balbo was a charismatic Fascist, a re-knowned aviator in his own right. He had led two transatlantic expeditions of Italian flying boats that were magnificent advertisements for Italian air industry and the new ‘modern’ Italian state.
Italo Balbo’s plane was shot down by Italian guns as he came in to land at Tobruk in North Africa just moments after a British air raid on the Italian base. Balbo was known to have reservations about the alliance with Germany, to have opposed the anti-semitic policies that followed as a consequence and to have a realistic appreciation of the capabilities of the Italian armed forces that was at odds with the usual Fascist rhetoric.
Subsequent conspiracy theories have suggested that he had argued with Mussolini over the North African strategy and was assassinated as a consequence. There is no evidence to suggest that these arguments were leading to any exceptional rift between the ‘Il Duce’ and his commander in chief in the field. There is evidence to show that Balbo was planning to start the invasion of Egypt in July, plans that were now delayed. Furthermore it would have been extraordinarily difficult to engineer a ‘friendly fire’ assassination taking place co-incidental with a surprise British bombing raid.
Contemporary Italian newsreel of Italo Balbo personally leading a bombing mission:
NAVAL, MILITARY AND AIR SITUATION to 12 noon June 27th, 1940
THE Armistice between France on the one hand and Germany and Italy on the other came into force at 0035 on the 25th June. In consequence, naval action has been concerned mainly with the evacuation of British refugees and Allied (Polish and Czech) troops from France and with taking such action as has been possible to prevent French warships falling into enemy hands. Shipping losses from submarine attack have increased. Enemy heavy ships have been operating from Trondheim.
Western Front. Germany.
65. The armistice between Germany and France was signed on the 22nd June, and came into force on the 25th June, when an armistice between Italy and France had also been signed. The redistribution of the numerous Italian divisions on the Franco-Italian frontier will probably be delayed until the attitude of the French colonial possessions in North Africa becomes definite. Up to the date of the armistice no major military activity had been reported, and, although the Italians referred more than once to operations on the Franco-Italian frontier, there is no eonfir ma tion that they were at any time heavily committed on this front.
74. Bomber Command has been engaged in the reduction of the scale of air attack on this country. German attacks have continued, though not in great strength, and comparatively little major damage has been done. Our fighters have successfully operated over the French coasts. Coastal Command have continued their operations off the Norwegian and Dutch coasts and successfully attacked Scharnhorst. Our operations in the Middle East have continued and reports indicate that the Italian air effort in East Africa has virtually collapsed.
75. There were extensive enemy raids over Great Britain on the nights of the 21st/22nd, 24th/25th, 25th/26th and 26th/27th June. On the first of these nights about 40 aircraft were engaged, coming from bases in France, Belgium and Holland. Bombs were dropped at points on the East Coast from Tyneside to Clacton and, while the enemy’s objectives may have been aerodromes and R.D.F. stations, little damage was done except to small houses, to transport facilities at Grimsby and to electric pylons near Ravenscar. The raiders appear to have dropped bombs from about 10,000 feet, and there was considerable haze at lower altitudes; our fighters made only one interception, which had no conclusive result.
The last remaining British troops in France had not yet been evacuated but attention rapidly switched to the threat to Britain herself. The threat of invasion appeared very real and was underlined by the issue of an official leaflet ‘If the Invader comes” to every household in the land during the course of this week.
The government was very concerned that the flight of refugees that had hindered military movement in France should not be repeated if invasion came to Britain. The straightforward message to everyone was “Stay Put”.
Another high priority was the reduction of rumours and panic. This was perhaps more difficult to combat – since so many diaries from the time make mention of stories circulating about parachutists and similar events, many of which are presented as fact.