Battle of Cape Spartivento

Our forces engaged the enemy at extreme range, but were unable to overtake them. Fleet Air Arm aircraft from H.M.S. Ark Royal, however, succeeded in attacking with the following results : one torpedo hit on a battleship of the Littorio class; and one almost certain torpedo hit on an 8-inch cruiser. Another 8-inch cruiser was observed to be in difficulties, and a dive-bombing attack was made on three 6-inch cruisers, probably causing some damage by near misses.

Cape Spartivento
HMS RENOWN underway at speed in the Mediterranean, and firing a salvo from A and B turrets during the Battle of Cape Spartivento.
Cape Spartivento
Bombs falling astern of HMS ARK ROYAL during an attack by Italian aircraft during the Battle of Cape Spartivento (photograph taken from the cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD).

The dramatic attack by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm at the Battle of Taranto had disabled significant parts of the Italian Navy. The effect was to make the Italians cautious about risking of their remaining capital ships, and particularly wary about engaging with Royal Navy aircraft.

The Royal Navy clashed with the Regia Marina again on the 27th November. The Italians were initially in a good position to attack a British convoy headed to Egypt, one of their main objectives.

But the Italian Force was under orders to attack only if assured of success – so when discovering that they facing a roughly equal sized force, it retired at speed, leading to an inconclusive engagement.

The Italian commander Admiral Campioni later gave a candid account of how his decision making was affected by the changing information he received about the forces opposing him:

The sighting report (at 1015) persuaded me to alter course to 135° in order to close the English forces, and if possible intercept them. This appeared possible at the time, also I had in mind that the English forces were inferior to the Italian. Furthermore the encounter would be brought about in waters closer to Sicily than Sardinia, that is in conditions favourable to us.

But whilst our forces were taking up station on the new course I received at 1155 a signal, originally made at 1110 by an aircraft from Armera, giving the position of the Renown’s group. This position was 20 miles nearer to the Vittorio Veneto than the one shown by the plot based on previous sighting reports, and was near enough to the other British forces to render their meeting very easy.

A state of affairs was thus created which on the best hypothesis was unfavourableto us numerically and qualitatively. Particularly important was the presence of an aircraft-carrier, which with well-directed action properly synchronized with action of their ships, that were certainly not inferior to ours, would have brought about a situation of the utmost gravity.

It was a situation not only at variance with the directive given to me by the Ministry of Marine, but with that imposed by military necessity.” [The Admiral then explains that in this latter term he was referring to the effect on the Italian navy of the F.A.A. attack on Taranto on 11th November, and the fact that the battleship Andrea Doria was not yet ready.]

Under these conditions, in conformity with the spirit and letter of the orders received and with what at that moment I deemed to be my duty I decided not to become involved in a battle. In theory I should have been able to take into calculation an effective intervention by our shore-based aircraft, but my previous experience discouraged me from putting too much faith on such intervention, having learnt from experience what to expect.

The British aircraft will damage our ships, the Italian aircraft will not damage theirs, the enemy are not inferior in numbers or quality to us, and at present we cannot afford any further reduction in capital ship strength.

From the subsequent British Naval Battle Summaries, available from the Royal Australian Navy.

Cape Spartivento
The Italian Battleship Vittorio Veneto firing a broadside at the Battle Of Cape Spartivento.
Battle of Cape Spartivento chart
Situation at 1315 from Renown’s Plot, during the Battle of Cape Spartivento

From the British Naval Situation Report for the week:

On the 27th November contact was made with Italian naval forces to the southward of Sardinia. The Italian force, which was sighted by aircraft in a position about 30 miles S.S.W. off Cape Spartivento, consisted of two battleships and a number of cruisers and destroyers.

The British force was in two parts : one, consisting of H.M. Ships Ramillies, Berwick, Coventry and Newcastle and some destroyers, was about 50 miles to the south of the Italian force; and the other, consisting of H.M. Ships Renown and Ark Royal with some cruisers and destroyers, was about 90 miles to the south-westward of the Italians when they were first sighted. Both our forces proceeded to make contact, and some three hours later the Renown sighted the Italian battleships at a range of 20 miles. The Italians retired at high speed towards Cagliari and a chase developed.

Planes leaving HMS ARK ROYAL to attack the enemy. As seen from KELVIN accompanying the ARK ROYAL.

Our forces engaged the enemy at extreme range, but were unable to overtake them. Fleet Air Arm aircraft from H.M.S. Ark Royal, however, succeeded in attacking with the following results : one torpedo hit on a battleship of the Littorio class; and one almost certain torpedo hit on an 8-inch cruiser. Another 8-inch cruiser was observed to be in difficulties, and a dive-bombing attack was made on three 6-inch cruisers, probably causing some damage by near misses. The Italians are also believed to have sustained the following casualties by gunfire : one 8-inch cruiser probably severely damaged, one destroyer severely damaged and another damaged.

On our side H.M.S. Berwick was twice hit by 8-inch shell, resulting in slight structural damage and ” Y ” turret being put out of action. Her casualties were one officer and six ratings killed, two ratings seriously wounded. and six slightly wounded. All our aircraft returned except one Fulmar, and another which crashed on landing and was lost overboard.

Bombs bursting round the aircraft carrier HMS ARK ROYAL during an enemy air attack.

After the action our forces were twice bombed by enemy aircraft without result. In the second attack the Ark Royal was missed by only ten yards by one bomb. Both attacks were intercepted by fighters and two enemy aircraft were shot down.

Only much later was it established that the Swordfish pilots were mistaken, none of their torpedoes had struck home.

Cape Spartivento
As seen from the Cruiser HMS SHEFFIELD during The Battle of Cape Spartivento an engagement off Sardinia. A distant view of the Italian Fleet.
Cape Spartivento
A Supermarine Walrus amphibian in flight. This aircraft was used for spotting at Spartivento.

 

On board HMS SHEFFIELD – removing empty cordite cases after the action.

Bi-planes smash Italian Fleet at Taranto

The torpedo aircraft then had to launch their torpedoes from a steady height of 150 feet while travelling at 90 knots in order to cope with the relatively shallow water. This should have made them sitting ducks for the Anti-Aircraft guns of the Battleships and Cruisers that they were attacking, and heavy casualties were anticipated. In fact only two aircraft were shot down, the crew from one of them surviving as prisoners. Three battleships were hit by torpedoes, one was sunk and the two others seriously damaged.

reconnaissance for taranto attack
Aerial-reconnaissance vertical of Italian naval vessels moored in the outer harbour (Mar Grande) at Taranto, Italy. Photograph taken by No. 431 Flight RAF flying from Luqa, Malta.
HMS Illustrious in 1940 with Swordfish aircraft
Twenty one Swordfish were launched from the new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious for the raid on Taranto. Fifty per cent losses were expected.

The potential for Naval Aviation to dramatically alter the strategies and tactics of the war at sea had been considered by many theorists since the First World War. At Taranto a single raid by slow, virtually obsolete old Bi-planes suddenly shattered many long cherished beliefs about the power of Battleships and naval gunnery.

A possible attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto had been planned and prepared by the Royal Navy before the war. The operation called for the Fleet Air Arm to make a surprise attack with the carrier aircraft they had available. In 1940 that meant the Swordfish aircraft would have to make a long distance approach with auxiliary fuel tanks.

The Fairey Swordfish biplane in flight with torpedo
The Fairey Swordfish biplane appeared obsolete but scored many notable torpedo hits during the war.

Lieutenant M.R. Maund describes the reality for the men in the open cockpits of the venerable old Swordfish aircraft:

Six thousand feet. God how cold it is here! The sort of cold that fills you until all else is drowned, save perhaps fear and loneliness. Suspended between heaven and earth in a sort of no-man’s land – to be sure, no man was ever meant to be here Is it surprising that my knees are knocking together?

We have now passed under a sheet of alto-stratus cloud which blankets the moon, allowing only a few pools of silver where small gaps appear. And, begob, Williamson is going to climb through it! As the rusty edge is reached I feel a tugging at my port wing, and find that Kemp has edged me over into the slipstream of the leading sub-flight.

I fight with hard right stick to keep the wing up, but the sub-flight has run into one of its clawing moments, and quite suddenly the wing and nose drop and we are falling out of the sky! I let her have her head and see the shape of another aircraft flash by close over-head.

Turning, I see formation lights ahead and climb up after them, following them through one of the rare holes in this cloud mass. There are two aircraft sure enough, yet when I range up alongside, the moon-glow shows up the figure 5A — that is Olly. The others must be ahead.

After an anxious few minutes some dim lights appear amongst the upper billows of the cloud, and opening the throttle we lumber away from Olly after them. Poor old engine – she will get a tanning this trip.

We are now at 1,000 feet over a neat residential quarter of the town where gardens in darkened squares show at the back of houses marshalled by the neat plan of the streets that serve them. Here is the main road that connects the district with the main town. We follow its line and, as I open the throttle to elongate the glide, a Breda AA gun swings round from the shore, turning its stream of red balls in our direction.

This is the beginning. Then another two guns farther north get our scent — white balls this time — so we throttle back again and make for a black mass on the shore that looks like a factory, where no balloons are likely to grow. We must be at a hundred feet now and must soon make our dash across that bloody water …

I open the throttle wide and head for the mouth of the Mar Piccolo, whose position … can be judged by the lie of the land. Then it is as if all hell comes tumbling in on top of us … the fire of one of the cruisers and the Mar Piccolo Canal batteries …

taranto attack
Taranto Harbour, Swordfish from ‘Illustrious’ Cripple the Italian Fleet, 11 November 1940
by Charles David Cobb (c) David Cobb; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

We turn until the right hand battleship is between the bars of the torpedo sight, dropping down as we do so. The water is close beneath our wheels, so close I am wondering which is to happen first — the torpedo going or our hitting the sea — then we level out, and almost without thought the button is pressed and a jerk tells me the ‘fish’ is gone.

This account, and many others, appears in Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid.

The torpedo aircraft then had to launch their torpedoes from a steady height of 150 feet while travelling at 90 knots in order to cope with the relatively shallow water. This should have made them sitting ducks for the Anti-Aircraft guns of the Battleships and Cruisers that they were attacking, and heavy casualties were anticipated. In fact only two aircraft were shot down, the crew from one of them surviving as prisoners. Three battleships were hit by torpedoes, one was sunk and the two others seriously damaged.

artistic interpretation of taranto attack
A reconstruction of the British raid on Taranto with shipping, flares and searchlights in a night sky. The Italian fleet at anchor in the harbour is under attack from aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. Searchlight beams shine brightly up into the night sky, there are low flying aircraft and numerous shell bursts also illuminate the sky. A torpedo moves rapidly through the water towards the Italian battleship Littorio in the centre of the composition.

[The title to the video mistakenly credits the RAF rather than the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy]

The other aircraft, carrying conventional bombs and flares to illuminate the target area, caused confusion as they attacked other targets. More ships were hit as well as dockyard installations.

The attack established beyond doubt the potential of aerial launched torpedoes, even in relatively shallow harbour waters. It was closely studied by other navies around the world, not least in Japan. Pearl Harbour was just over a year away.

More immediately it shifted the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean. Not only was a significant part of the Italian fleet put out of action, many of the remaining ships were swiftly moved to ports further north, out of harms way but further from their main area of operations.

Littorio-and-Vittorio-Italian-Battleships
The Italian Battleships Littorio and Vittorio in action during exercises before the war. Both were targets of the Fleet Air Arm at Taranto, the Littorio was badly damaged.
RAF reconnaissance view of Taranto harbour
After the Fleet Air Arm attack the RAF flew a series of high level reconnaissance flights to assess the damage caused.
ship sunk during taranto attack
The Italian battleship CONTE DI CAVOUR after the attack. Only her funnels and super-structure remain above the water.

The crew of the San Demetrio re-board their ship

A shell had entered the port bow just above the waterline, exploded, and splinters had holed our collision bulkhead, resulting in our fore-hold making water, which was settling the vessel by the head. The bridge and all midships accommodation was a mass of twisted steel, the main deck under the structure was buckled with heat from the fire, which had been so intense that the brass and glass of the portholes had melted and fused, resembling icicles. Part of this mess was still burning. The main deck abaft the bridge had a number of splinter holes, and the petrol cargo was flooding from this as the ship rolled. All the after accommodation on the port side had been destroyed, also the decks. This area was still on fire. These fires were attacked with fire extinguishers and buckets to begin with, and with fire hoses when the Chief Engineer raised sufficient steam to operate the pumps. The fires were extinguished in about five hours.

Oil tanker San Demetrio
The tanker San Demetrio, battered by gunfire from the Admiral Scheer, finally makes landfall on the 13th November 1940. She had been abandoned on 5th November but was later re-boarded.

John Lewis Jones was an apprentice on board the tanker San Demetrio, part of the convoy HX-84 escorted by the Jervis Bay. He and his fellow crew members watched helplessly as the  Jervis Bay was sunk by gunfire and the Admiral Scheer turned her guns on the remaining ships in the convoy.

In turn the San Demetrio was hit and, fearing an imminent explosion of her petroleum cargo, the order was given to abandon ship. Lewis Jones was in one of two lifeboats that got away, rowing furiously to avoid the fire of the Admiral Scheer which continued to hit surrounding ships until around midnight on the 5th November:

In the early hours of the 6th November the wind freshened from the southwest and blew a full gale, with very high seas and swell by daybreak. Our efforts now were just survival as the seas swamped the boat often, and we bailed for our lives. A few hours after daybreak we sighted a cargo vessel about four miles to windward. We attempted to attract her attention with red flares, but were not successful. A brief period of depression followed, which we soon realised was a luxury we could not afford, and the fight for our lives was resumed.

During the afternoon the weather moderated and we saw another vessel to windward. This was a tanker: she was drifting down towards us and on fire. It took a while to recognise that it was our own ship. We hoisted a fully reefed main sail and jib and sailed to cut her off, arriving close to her before dark, intending a re-boarding attempt. It was obviously an unacceptable risk to attempt to re-board at that time, the vessel rolling heavily and shipping heavy seas over her main decks, and daylight was running out; we would likely lose the boat and also many if not all our lives in such an effort, and it was decided to lay off on her weather side until the next morning.

At dawn, the 7th November, San Demetrio was about five miles to leeward. Sail was set and we were again close alongside at about noon. She was still on fire, but no one objected to re-boarding, which was soon successfully accomplished. Anything was better than remaining in the lifeboat, and it was obvious that further time spent in the boat was going to be a futile attempt to survive. We were only partially successful in recovering our lifeboat, which was left hanging in the falls about six feet clear of the sea. From the boat it was seen that the ship was badly damaged; after boarding, the damage found was appalling.

A shell had entered the port bow just above the waterline, exploded, and splinters had holed our collision bulkhead, resulting in our fore-hold making water, which was settling the vessel by the head. The bridge and all midships accommodation was a mass of twisted steel, the main deck under the structure was buckled with heat from the fire, which had been so intense that the brass and glass of the portholes had melted and fused, resembling icicles.

Part of this mess was still burning. The main deck abaft the bridge had a number of splinter holes, and the petrol cargo was flooding from this as the ship rolled. All the after accommodation on the port side had been destroyed, also the decks. This area was still on fire. These fires were attacked with fire extinguishers and buckets to begin with, and with fire hoses when the Chief Engineer raised sufficient steam to operate the pumps. The fires were extinguished in about five hours.

It was now dark, and as nothing further could be accomplished, watches were set for the night. Four cabins were intact and all enjoyed a few hours of luxurious sleep. The weather worsened during the night and the in-secured lifeboat was lost. The fire aft broke out again, but was extinguished by the watch on deck. Now that our lifeboat had gone, we had no choice but to remain aboard.

Lewis Jones was later awarded the OBE for his part in saving the ship. His full account can be read at Rhiw.com.

The story became the Ealing Studios film San Demetrio in 1943. Several versions of the film are available to see online.

The San Demetrio was a lucky ship – this was not the last time she would survive an enemy attack.

SAN DEMETRIO arriving in the Clyde
Shipping losses: MT SAN DEMETRIO arriving in the Clyde after being torpedoed by U 404 on 17 March 1942. At the time of her being torpedoed she had already been shelled by the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL SCHEER, in 1940.

Captain Fegen wins the V.C. on the Jervis Bay

Captain Fegen, in His Majesty’s Armed Merchant Cruise Jervis Bay, was escorting thirty-eight Merchantmen. Sighting a powerful German man-of-war he at once drew clear of the convoy, made straight for the Enemy, and brought his ship between the Raider and her prey, so that they might scatter and escape. Crippled, in flames, unable to reply, for nearly an hour Jervis Bay held the Germans fire. So she went down: but of the Merchantmen all but four or five were saved.

Jervis Bay merchant ship
The Jervis Bay was armed with only six antiquated guns and was hopelessly outranged and outgunned by the Admiral Scheer.

On 5th November 1940 seaplanes from the German raider Admiral Scheer spotted convoy HX64 in mid Atlantic, escorted only by the armed merchantman Jervis Bay. This was the opportunity to prove that the 280mm guns of the pocket battleship were as effective as the torpedoes of the U-Boat fleet.

Before she could attack the convoy she had to deal with the Jervis Bay. The subsequent citation for Captain Fegen of the Jervis Bay describes the events:

The King has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to the late Commander (acting Captain) Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen, Royal Navy, for valour in challenging hopeless odds and giving his life to save the many ships it was his duty to protect.

On the 5th of November 1940, Captain Fegen, in His Majesty’s Armed Merchant Cruiser Jervis Bay, was escorting thirty-eight Merchantmen. Sighting a powerful German man-of-war he at once drew clear of the convoy, made straight for the Enemy, and brought his ship between the Raider and her prey, so that they might scatter and escape.

Crippled, in flames, unable to reply, for nearly an hour Jervis Bay held the Germans fire. So she went down: but of the Merchantmen all but four or five were saved.

The ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Scheer which roamed the Atlantic seeking out merchantmen. Many in the German navy wanted to prove that warships were as capable as U-Boats in this role.

It might be thought that the action of the Jervis Bay was very similar to that of another armed merchantman, the Rawalpindi. Almost a year earlier on 23 November 1939 the Rawalpindi had taken on the Scharnhorst in very similar circumstances, although not in protection of a convoy. Captain Kennedy of the Rawalpindi had not won an award for gallantry, even though, as the Prime Minister later acknowledged, he and his men faced “certain death” when they sought to attack a vastly more powerful battleship. When it came to the award of the Victoria Cross very fine distinctions could be made, as the Naval Secretary was later to determine:

The Rawalpindi whilst on patrol was surprised by a superior enemy force which came up on her quarter at dusk. She had not the speed to escape and the end came soon.

One feels sure that Captain Kennedy was gallant to the last but there is no evidence to show that any action taken, or order given, by ship or Captain was of such a gallant nature as to merit the Victoria Cross.

In this case of the Jervis Bay there is evidence from a convoy of ships, including that of the Commander of the Convoy, to that Captain Fegen could have, had he wished, turned to Southward with the remainder of the convoy in an endeavour to escape. Had he done so the Jervis Bay might well have got away unscathed but at the expense of more loss in the convoy.

Rather than do this Captain Fegen turned boldly towards the enemy, and to certain destruction thereby giving the convoy greatest time in which to sail and escape. This was a brave decision, made without any apparent hesitation and I think fully merits [the] award of the Victoria Cross.

See TNA ADM 1/10496

Nor were there awards recognising the sacrifice of the entire crew of the SS Beaverford. When the Jervis Bay was sunk the Beaverford took over, although she had only two small anti submarine guns. This action also contributed to the the delaying action, some sources suggest for a great deal longer than the Jervis Bay, enabling the other merchantmen to escape.

Captain Pettigrew and the other 76 crew members of the SS Beaverford all perished. They were not recognised for their part in the delaying action.

The bravery of all who volunteered to sail on these convoys, in the face of such known dangers, was deserving of recognition. Ultimately it was only possible for the authorities to recognise the gallantry of some.

For more links on HX-84 see Warsailors.

HMS Revenge bombards Cherbourg

One hundred and twenty rounds of 15-inch and 800 rounds of 4-7-inch shell were fired and very heavy fires were started. It would appear that the shore defences at first mistook the bombardment for part of the air attack as the only response to shells falling was a marked intensification of anti-aircraft fire, including flaming onions and multi-coloured tracers of all descriptions. After the bombardment had ceased a battery of heavy guns (estimated up to 13-15 inch) to the east of the town opened fire.

One of the 4.7 inch guns on board HMS JUPITER firing on the night of the 10 - 11 October 1940, when heavy and light forces of the Royal Navy carried out a bombardment of the enemy occupied port of Cherbourg, where a concentration of enemy shipping had been detected.
One of the 4.7 inch guns on board HMS JUPITER firing on the night of the 10 – 11 October 1940, when heavy and light forces of the Royal Navy carried out a bombardment of the enemy occupied port of Cherbourg, where a concentration of enemy shipping had been detected.
What the deck looks like from aloft. The view from the Range Finder Control platform perched high above decks.
What the deck looks like from aloft. The view from the Range Finder Control platform perched high above decks.
These sailors are on the coldest spot on a battleship; the range finder control tower high above the deck of HMS REVENGE. The men at this station are the guiding eyes of the guns.
These sailors are on the coldest spot on a battleship; the range finder control tower high above the deck of HMS REVENGE. The men at this station are the guiding eyes of the guns.

The threat of invasion was now rapidly diminishing but the program of bombing the channel ports from which an attack might be launched continued. The targets were the barges that the Germans had commandeered from around Europe to use as landing craft, and the naval ships that would support them. Unknown to the British Hitler had finally decided to “postpone’ the invasion of Britain.

A bombardment from 15 inch guns of the World War 1 Battleship HMS Revenge augmented a bombing raid by the RAF on the night of 10th-11th October.

A force consisting of H.M.S. Revenge, cruisers, destroyers and motor torpedo boats, working in conjunction with heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force, bombarded the port of Cherbourg on the night of the l0th-llth October.

The co-ordination of the attack was excellent, the lighting of fires in the target area and the illumination of Cape de la Hague by flares for fixing purposes occurring at exactly the right moment. One hundred and twenty rounds of 15 inch and 800 rounds of 4.7 inch shell were fired and very heavy fires were started. It would appear that the shore defences at first mistook the bombardment for part of the air attack as the only response to shells falling was a marked intensification of anti-aircraft fire, including flaming onions and multi-coloured tracers of all descriptions.

After the bombardment had ceased a battery of heavy guns (estimated up to 13-15inch) to the east of the town opened fire. Salvoes fell close to the ships for a period of 30 minutes and up to a range of about 36,000 yards. The fire was so accurate that it was thought that some form of R.D.F. was used for ranging. No casualties or damage were sustained by H.M. Ships.

The ship's Chaplain conducting the morning Service under the shadow of the 15 inch guns.
The ship’s Chaplain conducting the morning Service under the shadow of the 15 inch guns.
Physical Training on the quarterdeck being done to the music of the Royal Marine Band.
Physical Training on the quarterdeck being done to the music of the Royal Marine Band.
There is no lack of drill precision as the men fall in preparatory to landing for field exercises.
There is no lack of drill precision as the men fall in preparatory to landing for field exercises.
The 4" High Angle Anti-Aircraft Gun crew in action.
The 4″ High Angle Anti-Aircraft Gun crew in action.
A 6 inch Gun Crew under instruction on board a battleship.
A 6 inch Gun Crew under instruction on board a battleship.

Clyde shipyards and HMS Sussex bombed

I was ordered to help the firemen by guiding them around the ship and assisting with the hoses. It was a long, dirty and scary night. The plates were buckling with the intense heat and black slippery oil was everywhere.

Quite a few, including Navy men, were sent to the Western Infirmary with severe burns. It was then noticed that the torpedoes in the tubes were getting very hot and would probably explode with the heat. Although we tried to pull them out it was a hopeless task, and all we could do was to spray them with water to keep them cool!

HMS Sussex at anchor in the Clyde.
HMS Sussex at anchor in the Clyde.
HMS-Sussex-bombed-on-the-Clyde
During the night of the 17th/18th H.M.S. Sussex which was completing a refit in the Clyde and was lying alongside at the time, was hit by a bomb during an enemy air attack. A serious fire broke out necessitating the flooding of magazines. She is now resting on the bottom aft and the fire is out. Casualties were 12 wounded, 3 seriously.’ War Cabinet report – TNA CAB 66/12/11

Hitler’s decision to turn to ‘terror’ bombing, after he was frustrated by the failure of the Luftwaffe to subdue the RAF, was not confined to London. The great cities of Britain would soon all see the devastation of the Blitz. There was a mixture of objectives, as well as hoping to bring Britain to the negotiating table, by terrorising her population, there was the intention to destroy strategic targets including aircraft and ship building. The huge Clyde shipbuilding area outside Glasgow was an obvious target.

Peter Petts, a nineteen year old Able Seaman on HMS Sussex describes how the bomb hit:

It went through the lower and platform decks and burst in the engine room near oil fuel tanks. Four members of the crew were killed, and twelve others died later of wounds. The lower deck at that point was destroyed, fire and bilge pumps were put out of action, the fuel tanks caught fire and flames were soon spreading fore and aft. But the worst part was the fact that all the magazines were full of ammunition, torpedoes, shells and depth charges, as well as eight torpedoes in the tubes on the upper deck. If the fire reached the magazines, a large part of Glasgow would have been threatend with death and destruction.

The crew that was on board that night started to fight the fire, but due to the lack of the fire and bilge pumps as well as the thick black oil fuel smoke, we were struggling. However, the Fire Brigade soon arrived and we, the Navy lads, were glad to have some help. We got more than that. They took over and soon had pumps going and water being sprayed just where it was required in the fire.

I was ordered to help the firemen by guiding them around the ship and assisting with the hoses. It was a long, dirty and scary night. The plates were buckling with the intense heat and black slippery oil was everywhere.

Quite a few, including Navy men, were sent to the Western Infirmary with severe burns. It was then noticed that the torpedoes in the tubes were getting very hot and would probably explode with the heat. Although we tried to pull them out it was a hopeless task, and all we could do was to spray them with water to keep them cool!

It was then that the Fire Chief called for the Vehicle Ferry to be used as a fireboat, and they manned it with fire engines. She arrived about 5.30 a.m. on the 19th, and soon had sixteen powerful water jets playing on the “Sussex”.

It was not until the 19th, 23 hours after the bomb had hit, that the fire was brought under control and the ship was sunk alongside the wall so that she was flooded to extinguish the blaze and prevent any explosion of the ammunition.

I believe it was in the early hours of the morning that some of the tenements and a Children’s Hospital were evacuated, but strange to tell, the story of the “Sussex” being nearly destroyed in the heart of Glasgow was kept secret ’til long after the war had ended. Even we Navy Lads were told “not to discuss it”, so we didn’t.

Read his full account at Our Glasgow Story

See also John Milloy’s account at Our Glasgow Story, a schoolboy at the time, he felt compelled to get a closer look – evidently efforts to evacuate the area were not very thorough.

A pattern of contrails (or condensation trails) left by British and German aircraft high up in the sky, 18 September 1940.

British fleet sails into the Mediterranean

‘Operation Hats’ consisted of the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious with the battle cruiser HMS Renown and the battleship HMS Valiant supported by three cruisers and seventeen destroyers. For the first time the fleet was defended by all round radar, based on four ships covering different sectors. Although the fleet was spotted by Italian aircraft, the Italian Navy did not attempt an engagement.

The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal with Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes from No. 820 Squadron Fleet Air Arm.

The largest Royal Navy fleet yet assembled in the Mediterranean set out from Gibraltar on the 30th August 1940. Force H led by Admiral Somerville was attempting to provoke the Italian fleet into battle, whilst supporting the escort of a convoy to Malta.

‘Operation Hats’ consisted of the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious with the battle cruiser HMS Renown and the battleship HMS Valiant supported by three cruisers and seventeen destroyers. For the first time the fleet was defended by all round radar, based on four ships covering different sectors. Although the fleet was spotted by Italian aircraft, the Italian Navy did not attempt an engagement.

HMS Renown was a 15 inch gun battlecruiser built in 1916

After joint operations with HMS Ark Royal, in which Swordfish aircraft attacked the Italian airfield at Caglieri, HMS Illustrious and HMS Valiant left the force on 2nd September to join the Mediterranean fleet based at Alexandria.

HMS Illustrious, newly commissioned in August 1940, with her Swordfish aircraft.
The battleship HMS Valiant, built in 1914

Portsmouth bombed, battleship Bismarck commissioned

In the words of the ancient poets during the wars of liberation: “Only iron can save us. Only blood can set us free.” Today, we are being endowed and entrusted with a new and awe-inspiring weapon made from steel and iron, our new ship. Today, it will be brought to life by our young crew which is empowered to blend iron and blood into a powerful symphony of iron-willed devotion to duty and conviction, and with red-blooded vigor and fighting spirit the highest military goals shall be achieved.

A view of Portsmouth Harbour (looking to the Portsmouth side) during an air raid of 12th August 1940.
A view of Portsmouth Harbour (looking to the Portsmouth side) during an air raid of 12th August 1940.
Bomb-damaged houses on the corner of Spring Garden Lane and Grove Avenue in Gosport, Hampshire, after a raid on 12 August 1940. The vicarage on the corner itself was completely destroyed.
Bomb-damaged houses on the corner of Spring Garden Lane and Grove Avenue in Gosport, Hampshire, after a raid on 12 August 1940. The vicarage on the corner itself was completely destroyed.

Alongside the RAF airfields the principal German bombing targets included the Royal Navy bases that were expected to play a key part in repulsing any invasion. They had already been the subject of several dive bombing attacks by Ju 87 ‘Stukas’. However, with unsustainable losses of the vulnerable Stukas, the Germans had decided on 19th August to severely limit their use over Britain. RAF Fighter Command were still reserving a proportion of their fighters to deal with them.

David Crook was flying a Spitfire with 609 Squadron:

Certainly it was typical of our English weather that in a normal summer it is quite impossible to get fine weather for one’s holidays, and yet in war time, when every fine day simply plays into the hands of the German bombers, we had week after week of cloudless blue skies.

24th August proved to be no exception to the general rule, and about 4 p.m. we took off with orders to patrol Portsmouth at 10,000 feet. A number of other squadrons were also operating, each at different heights, and on this occasion we were the luckless ones sent low down to deal with any possible dive-bombers.

We hated this – it’s a much more comforting and reassuring feeling to be on top of everything than right underneath. Superior height, as I said before, is the whole secret of success in air fighting.

However, ‘orders is orders’ and so we patrolled Portsmouth. Very soon a terrific A.A. barrage sprang up ahead of us, looking exactly like a large number of dirty cotton-wool puffs in the sky. It was a most impressive barrage; besides all the guns at Portsmouth, all the warships in the harbour and dockyard were firing hard.

A moment later, through the barrage and well above us, we saw a large German formation wheeling above Portsmouth. We were too low to be able to do anything about it, but they were being engaged by the higher squadrons.

They were now releasing their bombs, and I cannot imagine a more flagrant case of indiscriminate bombing. The whole salvo fell right into the middle of Portsmouth, and I could see great spurts of flame and smoke springing up all over the place.

We spent a very unpleasant few minutes right underneath the German formation, praying hard that their fighters would not come down on us.

However, the danger passed and a very disgruntled squadron returned home, having seen so many Huns and yet not having fired a single round.

See David Crook: Spitfire Pilot, one of the classic memoirs of the Battle, published in 1942. D.M. Crook D.F.C. died in 1944 while training for high altitude photographic reconnaissance, it is believed his oxygen failed causing him to crash in the sea off Scotland.

Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour, 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour, 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Sentries on duty near one of the guns on Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour. 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Sentries on duty near one of the guns on Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour. 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Other ranks sleeping quarters in Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour. 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.
Other ranks sleeping quarters in Horsesands sea fort, in the eastern Solent, one of three guarding the approaches to Portsmouth harbour. 24 August 1940. The forts were manned by Army and Royal Navy personnel.

Meanwhile in Germany the Kriegsmarine were commissioning the ship that they hoped would take the fight to the Royal Navy.

The Bismarck starts sea trails following commissioning. The 50,000 tonne ship was the largest battleship ever built at this time.
Captain Lindemann addresses his crew during the commissioning ceremony
‘Only iron can save us. Only blood can set us free.’

Soldiers of the Bismarck!

The thousand year history of our German nation and Reich were written with iron and blood.

Almost every generation had to reach for the sword to fight for the rights of the survival of the Reich and nation or to defend its existence and its freedom against its hostile surroundings. For us the call has come again to join in the great struggle for freedom and the survival of our nation and the existence of the Greater German Reich that was created by Adolf Hitler.

In the words of the ancient poets during the wars of liberation: “Only iron can save us. Only blood can set us free.”

Today, we are being endowed and entrusted with a new and awe-inspiring weapon made from steel and iron, our new ship.

Today, it will be brought to life by our young crew which is empowered to blend iron and blood into a powerful symphony of iron-willed devotion to duty and conviction, and with red-blooded vigor and fighting spirit the highest military goals shall be achieved.

Shipyard workers cheeer the hoisting of the ensign signalling the handover of the ship.
The Bismarck had a crew of 103 officers and 1,989 men
A close up view of the gun turrets – four of the eight 380mm guns.

1945: USS Indianapolis torpedoed – 900 men in the water

By then we were in very bad shape. The kapok life jacket becomes waterlogged. It’s good for about 48 hours. We sunk lower down in the water and you had to think about keeping your face out of water. I knew we didn’t have very long to go. The men were semicomatose. We were all on the verge of dying when suddenly this plane flew over. I’m here today because someone on that plane had a sore neck. He went to fix the aerial and got a stiff neck and lay down in the blister underneath. While he was rubbing his neck he saw us.

The U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) underway in 1939. An Omaha-class light cruiser and several Clemson/Wickes-class "flushdeck" destroyers are visible in the background.
The U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) underway in 1939. An Omaha-class light cruiser and several Clemson/Wickes-class “flushdeck” destroyers are visible in the background.

As soon as the Trinity nuclear test had been successfully concluded on the 16th July the USS Indianapolis had been despatched from Mare island, San Francisco to Tinian island in the mid Pacific. The heavy cruiser carried the Uranium that would arm the Little Boy bomb.

By 29th July she was en route back to the Philippines across the remotest reaches of the ocean. Her captain had discretion not to zig-zag and it may have made no difference that she was not.

A new study of the sinking published in 2018 reconstructs the events aboard the Japanese submarine I-58, captained by Hashimoto

I-58’s crew waited, breathless. The black shape on the horizon soon gathered itself into the shape of a triangle suspended in the moon’s silver light. But looking through the night periscope, Hashimoto still could not determine her class. Neither could he see the height of her mast in order to estimate the range. This lack of data opened the door to an array of possible mistakes, and his mind ticked through them all.

Without the range, course, and speed of the target, he could not make the proper calculations to obtain a hit. If the class of ship were known, he could estimate the speed by counting the target’s propeller blade frequency, but the hydrophones remained silent. And with the target pointed directly at him, its hull was masking sonar sounds.

He would have to wait until the target was on a broader line of sight to ferret out its speed. Also, changes in the target’s speed and course could throw off Hashimoto’s aim, especially at night, so the moment of firing had to be determined in advance.

A whole kingdom of errors loomed. But if Hashimoto could keep them small and fire six torpedoes in a fanwise spread, he could ensure a hit. Even if he guessed wrong on one of the variables – or even if the target zigzagged, as it was almost sure to do.

A crisp demand interrupted his calculations: “Send us!” It was the suicide pilots. Hashimoto had been so preoccupied with his Type 95 torpedo calculations that he had not followed up on his earlier order for the kaiten. “Why can’t we be launched?” the pilots clamored.

Hashimoto understood their desire. The kaiten could steer to the target, regardless of its speed or course. But the touch-and-go, obscured visibility would make it difficult for the pilots to home in visually on the target over a period of tens of minutes.

To get a Type 95 torpedo hit, all he needed was a reasonable estimate of speed and range, along with one good bearing, and he could send his fish to their target. That was the better option here, so he decided not to use the kaiten unless the oxygen torpedoes failed to hit their mark.

Hashimoto put his eye to the scope again and saw the top of the triangle resolve into two distinct shapes. He could make out a large mast forward and estimated its height at ninety feet. His heartbeat quickened. She appeared to be a large cruiser, ten thousand tons or bigger. Now I-58’s hydrophones gurgled to life, announcing enemy propeller revolutions that were moderately high. Using visual observations, Hashimoto adjusted and put the target’s speed at twelve knots, course 260, range three thousand yards.

He alone could see all this. Without him, the crew could know nothing. As they awaited his word, straining in the deadly quiet, an exhilarating thought formed in his mind: We’ve got her.

Aboard I-58, a sonarman thought he heard the clinking of dishes.‘ Twenty-seven minutes had passed since I—58’s navigator spotted the enemy ship. It now became apparent that the target was approaching off the starboard bow. He ordered the torpedo director computer set to “green sixty degrees”——the torpedoes would turn sixty degrees starboard after launch.

The target closed the distance: twenty-five hundred yards… two thousand… fifteen hundred. “Stand by…” Hashimoto commanded in a loud voice. “Fire!” At two-second intervals, six torpedoes ejected from tubes carved into the sub’s forward hull, one tube after another until all six were away. A report came from the torpedo room: “All tubes fired and correct.”

It was about five minutes after midnight, and six warheads streaked toward the enemy warship in a lethal fan. Hashimoto snatched a look through the periscope, brought his boat on a course parallel to the target, and waited. Every minute seemed an age.

The Indianapolis was steaming straight ahead when she was hit by three Type 95 torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58 at 23:35. Some U.S accounts put the time at 00:14.

USS_Indianapolis-last_voyage_chart

Contrary to US Navy claims during the war and after, the Indianapolis was not observing radio silence because of the secrecy of her mission – she managed to transmit distress signals which were received by three separate US Navy monitoring stations, a matter that has only emerged from later de-classified documents. None of the three stations acted on the information. At 00:27 on 30 July, Indianapolis capsized and sank carrying around 300 men with her. The remainder of her 1,196 crew went into the water, only a limited number of lifeboats had been deployed and a minority of the men had life jackets.

Approximately 900 men now faced a hellish ordeal as they struggled to survive in the warm seas, with little or no water. They faced severe sun burn, dehydration, hypothermia – and sharks. Some have argued that the incident amounts to the largest single shark attack in human history. An account by the surviving Chief Medical Officer on board, Dr Lewis Haynes throws some light on the extent of the shark hazard:

I slowly walked down the side of the ship. Another kid came and said he didn’t have a jacket. I had an extra jacket and he put it on. We both jumped into the water which was covered with fuel oil. I wasn’t alone in the water. The hull was covered with people climbing down.

I didn’t want to get sucked down with the ship so I kicked my feet to get away. And then the ship rose up high. I thought it was going to come down and crush me. The ship kept leaning out away from me, the aft end rising up and leaning over as it stood up on its nose. The ship was still going forward at probably 3 or 4 knots. When it finally sank, it was over a hundred yards from me. Most of the survivors were strung out anywhere from half a mile to a mile behind the ship.

Suddenly the ship was gone and it was very quiet. It had only been 12 minutes since the torpedoes hit. We started to gather together. Being in the water wasn’t an unpleasant experience except that the black fuel oil got in your nose and eyes. We all looked the same, black oil all over – white eyes and red mouths. You couldn’t tell the doctor from the boat seamen. Soon everyone had swallowed fuel oil and gotten sick. Then everyone began vomiting.

At that time, I could have hidden but somebody yelled, ‘Is the doctor there?’ And I made myself known. From that point on – and that’s probably why I’m here today — I was kept so busy I had to keep going. But without any equipment, from that point on I became a coroner.

A lot of men were without life jackets. The kapok life jacket is designed with a space in the back. Those who had life jackets that were injured, you could put your arm through that space and pull them up on your hip and keep them out of the water. And the men were very good about doing this. Further more, those with jackets supported men without jackets. They held on the back of them, put their arms through there and held on floating in tandem.

When daylight came we began to get ourselves organized into a group and the leaders began to come out. When first light came we had between three and four hundred men in our group. I would guess that probably seven or eight hundred men made it out of the ship. I began to find the wounded and dead. The only way I could tell they were dead was to put my finger in their eye. If their pupils were dilated and they didn’t blink I assumed they were dead. We would then laboriously take off their life jacket and give it to men who didn’t have jackets. In the beginning I took off their dogtags, said The Lord’s Prayer, and let them go. Eventually, I got such an armful of dogtags I couldn’t hold them any longer. Even today, when I try to say The Lord’s Prayer or hear it, I simply lose it.

…The second night, which was Monday night, we had all the men put their arms through the life jacket of the man in front of him and we made a big mass so we could stay together. We kept the wounded and those who were sickest in the center of the pack and that was my territory. Some of the men could doze off and sleep for a few minutes. The next day we found a life ring. I could put one very sick man across it to support him.

There was nothing I could do but give advice, bury the dead, save the life jackets, and try to keep the men from drinking the salt water when we drifted out of the fuel oil. When the hot sun came out and we were in this crystal clear water, you were so thirsty you couldn’t believe it wasn’t good enough to drink. I had a hard time convincing the men that they shouldn’t drink. The real young ones – you take away their hope, you take away their water and food – they would drink salt water and then would go fast. I can remember striking men who were drinking water to try and stop them. They would get diarrhea, then get more dehydrated, then become very maniacal.

In the beginning, we tried to hold them and support them while they were thrashing around. And then we found we were losing a good man to get rid of one who had been bad and drank. As terrible as it may sound, towards the end when they did this, we shoved them away from the pack because we had to.

The water in that part of the Pacific was warm and good for swimming. But body temperature is over 98 and when you immerse someone up to their chin in that water for a couple of days, you’re going to chill him down. So at night we would tie everyone close together to stay warm. But they still had severe chills which led to fever and delirium.

On Tuesday night some guy began yelling, ‘There’s a Jap here and he’s trying to kill me.’ And then everybody started to fight. They were totally out of their minds. A lot of men were killed that night. A lot of men drowned. Overnight everybody untied themselves and got scattered in all directions. But you couldn’t blame the men. It was mass hysteria. You became wary of everyone. Till daylight came, you weren’t sure. When we got back together the next day there were a hell of a lot fewer.

I saw only one shark. I remember reaching out trying to grab hold of him. I thought maybe it would be food. However, when night came, things would bump against you in the dark or brush against your leg and you would wonder what it was. But honestly, in the entire 110 hours I was in the water I did not see a man attacked by a shark. However, the destroyers that picked up the bodies afterwards found a large number of those bodies. In the report I read 56 bodies were mutilated, Maybe the sharks were satisfied with the dead; they didn’t have to bite the living.

Their ordeal had been lengthened because the failure of the Indianapolis to arrive in the Philippines when expected was also not reported, and no search for the ship was ever undertaken. Instead they were spotted by chance at 10:25 on 2 August by a PV-1 Ventura on a routine patrol. They still had to spend the rest of the day in the water before help arrived:

It was Thursday [2 Aug] when the plane spotted us. By then we were in very bad shape. The kapok life jacket becomes waterlogged. It’s good for about 48 hours. We sunk lower down in the water and you had to think about keeping your face out of water. I knew we didn’t have very long to go. The men were semicomatose. We were all on the verge of dying when suddenly this plane flew over. I’m here today because someone on that plane had a sore neck. He went to fix the aerial and got a stiff neck and lay down in the blister underneath. While he was rubbing his neck he saw us.

The plane dropped life jackets with canisters of water but the canisters ruptured. Then a PBY [seaplane] showed up and dropped rubber life rafts. We put the sickest people aboard and the others hung around the side. I found a flask of water with a 1-ounce cup. I doled out the water, passing the cup down hand to hand. Not one man cheated and I know how thirsty they were.

Towards the end of the day, just before dark, I found a kit for making fresh water out of salt water. I tried to read the instructions, but couldn’t make sense of it or get it to work right. My product tasted like salt water and I didn’t want to take a chance so I threw it into the ocean. I then went to
pieces.

I watched the PBY circle and suddenly make an open-sea landing. This took an awful lot of guts. It hit, went back up in the air and splashed down again. I thought he’d crashed but he came taxiing back. I found out later he was taxiing around picking up the singles. If he hadn’t done this, I don’t think we would have survived. He stayed on the water during the night and turned his searchlight up into the sky so the Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368) could find us. The ship came right over and began picking us up.

See Lewis L. Haynes, “Survivor of the Indianapolis.” Navy Medicine 86, no.4 (Jul.-Aug. 1995)

I-58(II), modified B type 2 of submarine of the Imperial Japanese Navy, on trial run inside the Tokyo Bay.
I-58(II), modified B type 2 of submarine of the Imperial Japanese Navy, on trial run inside the Tokyo Bay.

The British fire on the French at Mers el Kebir

FOXHOUND’s signal, summarising Admiral Gensoul’s reply (vide paragraph 37 above) and indicating the apparent intention of the French ships to put to sea and fight, was received in HOOD at 1227. Orders were then given to mine the entrance to the port and the Admiralty informed that I was preparing to open fire at 1330. A signal was also made to FOXHOUND asking Captain Holland if, in the light of his discussions, he saw any alternative to opening fire with main armament.

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: