REFERENCE DOCUMENTS & RESOURCES - OFFICIAL ADMIRALTY DOCUMENTS
ADM 199/391: FORCE "H" WAR DIARIES
This document is a modern transcription of Admiralty record ADM 199/391. This document concerns the actions of Force "H", the task force that attacked and severely damaged the French Fleet based at Mers el-Kebir in July 1940. The original file is held at the The National Archives at Kew, London. This Crown Copyrighted material is reproduced here by kind permission of The National Archives.
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OFFICE OF FLAG OFFICER COMMANDING
26th July 1940
REPORT OF PROCEEDINGS. 28th June – 4th July, 1940
The Secretary of the Admiralty,
Admiralty, S.W. 1.
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Office of Flag Officer Comdg
26 July, 1940
THE SECRETARY OF THE ADMIRALTY
Be pleased to lay before Their Lordships the following report of proceedings of Force “H” during the period from 28th June to 4th July, together with certain appendices relating to the operations at Oran.
The report commences with the date on which I was first notified that I was to take command of Force “H”.
2. At 1530 I was informed by the First Sea Lord that it had been decided to assemble a force at Gibraltar consisting of H.M. ships HOOD, VALIANT, RESOLUTION, NELSON, ARK ROYAL, ARETHUSA, ENTERPRISE, DEHLI and ten destroyers, in addition to the nine destroyers of the 13th Destroyer Flotilla based on Gibraltar.
The initial task of this force, to be known as Force “H”, would be to secure the transfer, surrender of destruction of the French warships at Oran and Mers el Kebir, so as to ensure that those ships could not fall into German or Italian hands.
3. At a later interview with the First Lord and the First Sea Lord, it was explained to me that whilst every preparation was to be made to employ force in order to complete the task of Force “H”, it was hoped that the necessity would not arise.
4. The opinion I held after this meeting was that the French collapse was so complete and the will to fight so entirely extinguished, that it seemed improbable that the French would, in the last resort, resist by force the British demands.
5. At 1300 I embarked with my staff onboard H.M.S. ARETHUSA at Spithead. ARETHUSA sailed for Gibraltar at 1430, having embarked magnetic mines and other stores. Whist on passage, provisional plans for dealing with the situation were prepared.
At 1455, I informed the Admiralty and other authorities that it was my intention to transfer my Flag to H.M.S. HOOD on arrival at Gibraltar.
At 1724, I received Admiralty message 0006/28th June, addressed to the Commander in Chief, Mediterranean station, informing him that Force “H” was being assembled at Gibraltar and that it was intended to take drastic action against French ships if still at Oran. I was instructed to communicate this message to the Admiral Commanding North Atlantic station on arrival at Gibraltar.
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6. At 0645, I received Admiralty message 0435/29th June, stating certain alternatives which it was proposed to give the French, namely,
- to steam their ships to a British port,
- To sink their ships,
- To have their ships sunk by gunfire,
And I was asked if I saw an insuperable difficulty in carrying out the first alternative.
To this I replied, in a message timed 1514/29th June, that the first alternative might involve considerable delay between initial notification and execution, that there was little prospect of the first or second alternatives being accepted without the threat of the third and torpedo attack might reduce the risk of loss of civilian life, especially at Oran.
At 1443, I received Admiralty message 1346/29th June, ordering PROTEUS to patrol off Oran and PANDORA off Algiers to report and French movements but not to attack.
7. At 0221, I received Admiralty message 0015/30th June, ordering Vice Admiral Commanding Aircraft Carriers to establish a destroyer patrol thirty miles west of Oran and that should DUNKERQUE and STRASBOURG proceed to the westward, they were to be captured and taken to the United Kingdom.
At 0429, I received Admiralty message 0135/30th June, instructing the Admiral Commanding the North Atlantic station to investigate the action which could be taken by Force “H” to neutralise bombardment in the event of Spain becoming hostile.
I was somewhat surprised at receiving this message, since I understood that an number of appreciations of the situation referred to had invariably reached the same conclusion, namely that Gibraltar as a naval base would immediately become untenable except, perhaps, for a few small craft and possibly submarines.
8. At 1130, spoke a French ship, EXPLORATEUR GRANDIDIER bound from Lisbon to Casablanca and full of refugees, I decided no useful purpose would be served by sending her in to Gibraltar and allowed her to continue her voyage.
At 1614, I received Commander in Chief, Mediterranean’s message 1105/30th June, in which he expressed strong opposition to the proposal that ships at Alexandria should be seized forcibly, and to the use of force at Oran, which he considered might have serious repercussions.
9. At 1745, ARETHUSA arrived at Gibraltar and secured at Cormorant berth.
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I called immediately on Admiral Sir Dudley B.N. North, Admiral Commanding the North Atlantic station. He expressed grave concern at the proposal to use force against the French fleet and was strongly of the opinion that this should be avoided at all costs. Discussing Admiralty message 0135/30th June, he considered that since the Germans would be co-operating actively with the Spaniards, it was idle to suppose that Gibraltar could be used as a naval base. Engagement of shore batteries by ships and ARK ROYAL’s aircraft could only silence some of the batteries temporarily.
10. I then called on His Excellency the Governor, who endorsed the views expressed by Admiral North concerning the continued use of Gibraltar as a naval base in the event of war with Spain.
11. That evening I called a meeting of Flag Officers and senior Commanding Officers to discuss the Oran operation.
Vice Admiral Commanding Aircraft Carriers considered that torpedo attack by aircraft would be difficult and unproductive unless anti-aircraft gunfire was first silenced. Net defences and the restricted area of the harbour appeared to rule out torpedo attack by destroyers.
It was decided finally that, in the case of Mers el Kebir, a round or two (aimed not to hit) should be fired to show that we were in earnest, and if this failed to bring acceptance of our terms, a limited period of gunfire and/or bombing should be used to cause evacuation of the ships, final sinking being effected by torpedo-bomber attack or demolition, according to the circumstances.
It was thought that to complete destruction by gunfire would require a great deal of ammunition and cause very great loss of life.
12. In the case of Oran, it was agreed that gunfire would cause very severe civilian casualties and it was hoped that the action taken at Mers el Kebir would induce the French to scuttle their ships at Oran.
The view I held, and which was shared by others present at the meeting, was that it was highly improbable that the French would use force to resist our demands.
13. After the conclusions of this meeting, Admiral North, Vice Admiral Wells and Captain Holland all expressed themselves as strongly opposed to the use of force. They considered that there was little fear of the French allowing their ships to fall into German hands.
14. At 0346 I received Admiralty message 0251/1st July, ordering H.M.S. NELSON to return to Scapa.
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At 0410 received Admiralty message 0225/1st July, giving four alternatives to put before the French, namely
- to bring their ships to British harbours and fight with us,
- to steam their ships to a British port.
- To Demilitarise their ships to our satisfaction,
- To sink their ships.
15. At 0812 I informed the Admiralty that the earliest date on which the Oran operation (now known as “CATAPULT”) could be put into effect was a.m. on 3rd July and that I intended to withdraw the Oran, Casablanca and Straits patrols in order to provide a sufficient destroyer force. I further suggested that Captain C.S. Holland, who I had arranged should act as out emissary in view of his long and recent association with the French, should arrive at Oran p.m. on 2nd July, so that whichever alternative was adopted, the operation could be carried out by dusk on 3rd July.
0942 – I informed the Admiralty that I presumed that the final instructions for “CATAPULT” would contain orders as to the action to be taken should the French refuse all four alternatives.
1000 – At the suggestion of Admiral North, I held a meeting to hear the views of Captain Holland, Lieutenant Commander A.Y. Spearman and Lieutenant Commander G.P.S. Davies, all of whom had been in recent contact with the French naval authorities. They were unanimous in considering that the use of force should be avoided if possible, as this was bound to alienate the French completely and transform them from a defeated ally into an active enemy. I was impressed by their views which I communicated to the Admiralty together with certain alternative proposals in my message 1220/1st July.
To this I received a reply at 1846, that it was the firm intention of His Majesty’s Government that, if the French would not accept the alternatives which were being transmitted to me, their ships must be destroyed; my proposals were therefore not acceptable.
16. Whilst I fully realised that Their Lordships were no doubt in possession of information which was not available to me I felt that I should be failing in my duty if I did not represent as fully as possible the very strongly expressed views of officers who had been so recently in contact with the French. These officers considered that, while it might be possible to persuade the French to adopt one of the alternatives, the threat of force would antagonise them immediately and that they might even be prepared to fight rather than give way.
17. I felt at this time that , although there was a possibility that the French might be prepared to fight, it was impossible that they would do so under the conditions which would obtain at Oran. At the worst, they might fire a few token shots before abandoning their ships.
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18. At 0029, received Admiralty message 2359/1st July stating that Casablanca destroyer patrols must be maintained.
0426 – received Admiralty message 0103/ 2nd July, containing instructions for the course to be adopted at Oran and Mers el Kebir. (See enclosure 1)
0604 – received Admiralty message 0108/2nd July, giving text of communication to be made to the French Admiral at Oran (See Enclosure 2).
19. I held a meeting of Flag and Commanding Officer during the forenoon, at which the orders for operation “CATAPULT” (see Enclosure 3) were explained and discussed. As will be noted, the orders had to be framed in somewhat general terms since the exact situation which would arise could not be foreseen.
In the light of the after events, it is clear that these orders did not make sufficient provision for dealing with any French ships that might attempt to leave harbour after the entrance had been mined and the ships subjected to bombardment.
It will be noted that the orders contain no reference to the laying of magnetic mines.
20. I was informed by Vice Admiral Commanding Aircraft Carriers that aircraft could be armed with mines at short notice and the plan for laying at Mers el Kebir was discussed. It was not my intention, however, to lay mines, except as a last resort, since this would have prevented the French for accepting the first or second alternatives and it would also have prevented the entrance of our destroyers with demolition parties.
21. At about this time. Messages were exchanged with the Admiralty concerning the steps that should be taken to render the ships unserviceable within a space of six hours by means of demolition charges.
23. (sic) Captain Holland having expressed some doubts that Admiral Gensoul might be at pains to conceal from his officers and men the alternatives proposed for acceptance, I decided that FOXHOUND (the ship detailed to embark Captain Holland) as well as selected ships of Force “H”| should signal the following message in French, using a signalling projector trained on DUNKERQUE and as many other ships as possible.
“Pour Amiral Gensoul de Amiral Somerville.
Nous esperons tres sincerement que les propositons seront acceptables et que nous vous trouverons a nos cotes.”
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This message was to be referred to as envelope “F” and sealed copies were distributed to FOXHOUND and capital ships.
23. At 1426, I informed the Admiralty and other authorities that I intended to sail force “H” at 1500 to carry out operation “CATAPULT” and that Captain Holland in FOXHOUND would arrive at Oran at 0700, Force “H” arriving at 0900 on 3 rd July. By a regrettable error, Ark Royal was not included in the list of ships sailing, and this omission led to some subsequent signals until the situation was cleared up.
At 1500, destroyers left harbour to carry an A/S/ sweep of the approaches and Gibraltar Bay.
At 1525, PROTEUS was informed that Force “H” would be operating off Oran from 0600, 3rd July, and instructed to take up a patrol position well clear to the northward.
24. By 1700, Force “H”, consisting of the following ships
HOOD (Flag of Flag Officer Cdg. Force H
ARK ROYAL (Flag of V.A.C. Aircraft Carriers)
FAULKINOR (Captain (D), 8 th Flotilla)
KEPPEL (Captain (D), 13 th Flotilla)
Were clear of the harbour and course was shaped to the eastwards at 17 knots, using screening diagram 7A and zigzag No. 10 until 2130, when the zigzag was stopped and speed reduced to 15 knots.
25. At 2010, I informed Captain Holland the Admiralty had informed me that the French had a scheme for demilitarisation at two hours’ notice. Should necessity arise, he was to question them on this and satisfy himself the proposed measures would be effective, that is, that the ships could not be ready for service again within twelve months, even with dockyard assistance.
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26. At 2247, when in position 36 ° 12 ½ ‘ North 3 ° 4.6’ East (pencil note ‘west?’), a torpedo exploded ahead of VORTIGERN in position “C” on the screen (Screening diagram No. 7A). The U-boat was hunted by VORTIGERN and VIDETTE for sixty-five minutes, but without success. (This incident was reported in my signal 1401/5th July.
27. At 0135, received Admiralty message stating that no time limit was given for the acceptance of our demands, but it was very important that the operation should be completed during daylight hours of 3rd July.
28. FOXHOUND was detached at 0300 to proceed ahead with Captain Holland and closed Cape Falcon at 0545. Communication was established with the Port War signal station and at 0558 permission was requested to enter port.
A similar request was also passed to the Admiral of the Port’s signal station at 0620, together with the following message to Admiral Gensoul:-
“ADDRESSE A AMIRAL GENSOUL.
“L’Amiraute Britannique envoie le commandant Holland conferer acev vous. La Marine Royale espere que les propositions vont vous permettre, la Marine Nationale Francaise vaillante et glorieuse, de se ranger a nos cotes.
En ce cas vos batiments resteraient toujours les votres et persone n’aurait besoin d’aucun anxiete dans l’avenir.
La Flotte Britannique est ua large d’Oran pour vous acuellir.”
29. Permission for FOXHOUND to enter was received at 0742 and ten minutes later the pilot came aboard bringing instructions for FOXHOUND to proceed inside Mers el Kebir and to berth near DUNKERQUE. On the excuse that messages might have to be conveyed to the Flag Officer Commanding Force “H”, and as a precaution against being prevented from sailing, the ship was, however, anchored at 0805 in a position 1.6 miles 115 ° from Mers el Kebir Light, outside the net.
30. Five minutes later, the Flag Lieutenant arrived alongside in the Admiral’s barge and informed Captain Holland that the Admiral was unable to see him but would send his Chief of Staff.
31. At 0847, FOXHOUND received a signal requested her to sail immediately. Captain Holland, accompanied by Lieutenant Commander A.Y. Spearman (late British Naval Liaison Officer (Sud) at Bizerta) at once embarked in FOXHOUND’s motor-boat and FOXHOUND weighed, with hands fallen in on deck.
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32. A reconnaissance aircraft had been flown off ARK ROYAL at 0630, and at 0835 this aircraft reported that the French battleships and cruisers appeared to be raising steam. Forty minutes later, a further report was made that the battleships were furling awnings.
33. At 0910, Force “H” arrived off Oran and message “F” signalled from HOOD, VALIANT, RESOLUTION, ARETHUSA and ENTERPRISE (see paragraph 23 above) by signal projectors trained on the French heavy ships.
Paravanes had been streamed at 0631 and hands closed up at action stations at 0830, but guns were kept trained fore and aft.
The visibility at the time was approximately six miles. The upperworks of the French heavy ships in Mers el Kebir were clearly visible over the breakwater, though only the actual tops and masts could be seen from a position northwest of the fort.
34. Meanwhile, Captain Holland had been met halfway between the inner boom and the breakwater by the Admirals’ barge with the Flag Lieutenant on board. Captain Holland handed the Flag Lieutenant a copy of proposals as contained in Admiralty message 0103/2 nd July (see Enclosure 1) and informed him that he would wait for a reply. The proposals probably reached Admiral Gensoul at about 0935. At 0923, Captain Holland informed me that the Admiral was trying to avoid him and proposed sending his Chief of Staff.
36. Captain Holland then had a long and friendly conversation with the Flag Lieutenant, at the conclusion of which the latter accepted a written statement which captain Holland had prepared previously, and at 1050, returned to DUNKERQUE.
37. As a result of this action, Admiral Gensoul’s Chief of Staff brought out a written reply (Appendix “E” of Enclosure 4) reiterating the Admirals’ previous statements and pointing out that the first round fired would alienate the whole of the French Navy. Captain Holland then returned to FOXHOUND, arriving on board at about 1125.
38. During this period, Force “H” was steaming to and fro across the Bay and making occasional legs to seaward. ARK ROYAL with her destroyer screen was acting independently as necessary for flying off aircraft.
38. Mean while, further reports had been received in HOOD from the reconnaissance aircraft, indicating that the destroyers in Mers el –Kebir had furled awnings, that PARIS was hoisting boats and that the cruisers and destroyers were preparing for sea.
The aircraft was directed to watch the submarines in Oran, but reported there was, as yet, no sign of activity amongst them.
39. On his return to FOXHOUND, captain Holland received the message which I had transmitted at 1046, indicating that it was imperative that the French should know that I would not allow them to leave harbour unless the terms were accepted. This message was sent in by Lieutenant Commander Spearman, who handed it to the Flag Lieutenant at 1140. A the same time, a message was passed to Admiral Gensoul by light informing him of the action being taken by Admiral Godfroy to demilitarise the French ships at Alexandria.
40. At about 1200, FOXHOUND proceeded outside the outer boom in order to avoid having to run the gauntlet of the shore batteries should hostilities commence, whilst still remaining within easy touch by visual signalling with DUNKERQUE.
41. 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.
42. Captain Holland’s reply to this signal, stating that he was waiting in visual signalling touch in case of acceptance before the expiration of the time, left me in some doubt whether Admiral Gensoul had, in fact, been given a time limit in which to decide. A further signal was therefore made to FOXHOUND = “Does anything you have said prevent me from opening fire?”
43. At 13.7, minelaying aircraft were flown off with fighter escort and five mines were laid in the entrance to Mers el Kebir.
Shortly afterwards an aircraft report was received that the boom, which had been opened, was now closed and that boats had not yet been hoisted.
It appeared that the French had no immediate intention of proceeding to sea and in consequence I decided to give them until 1500 to make a decision. I was strengthened in this decision by Captain Holland’s reply to my last signal in which he suggested that the use of force might be avoided if FOXHOUND went in to visual signalling touch and asked if there was any further message.
44. At 1340, FOXHOUND proceeded towards Mers el Kebir to keep in visual touch with DUNKERQUE. Five minutes later, an aircraft report was received that submarines were leaving Oran. VORTIGERN was therefore ordered to proceed towards the entrance to stop and, if necessary, sink any submarine attempting to leave;
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aircraft were also ordered to attack in similar circumstances. Subsequent aircraft reports indicated that the submarines were merely shifting berth inside the harbour, presumably to obtain added protection from the mole.
45. FOXHOUND was directed to instruct Admiral Gensoul to hoist a large square flag at the masthead if he accepted our terms. A further and final message was about to be passed to DUNKERQUE, when a signal was received from Admiral Gensoul at 1440 stating that he was ready to receive a delegate for honourable discussion.
I debated in my mind whether this was merely an excuse to gain time, but decided that it was quite possible Admiral Gensoul had only now realised that it was my intention to use force if necessary.
46. Permission was given for Captain Holland to proceed inshore and at 1506, accompanied by Lieutenant Commander Davies, he embarked in FOXHOUND’s motor boar at a point north of Mers el Kebir just clear of the minefield. This involved a passage of seven and a half miles, and it was not until 1615 that Captain Holland, after transferring to the Admiral’s barge inside the net defences, arrived onboard DUNKERQUE. On the way in, considerable interest was taken by all ships, large numbers of the crews being on the upper deck; in many cases, they stood to attention whilst the boat passed. All ships were in an advanced state of readiness for sea, control positions manned and tugs standing by the stern of each battleship.
47. In the meantime, aircraft had been flown off and two mines laid in the entrance to Oran harbour. WRESTLER was ordered to relieve VORTIGERN off Oran harbour.
48. Captain Holland was received and greeted very formally by Admiral Gensoul in the Admiral’s cabin. The Admiral was extremely indignant at the presentation of an ultimatum and the mining of his harbour. After some considerable discussion, which is described in greater length in Captain Holland’s report (paras. 12 – 18 of Enclosure 4), Admiral Gensoul apparently first began to realise that force might really be used and it was at this stage that he produced a secret and personal copy of the orders received from and signed by Admiral Darlan, dated 24th June (Appendix “F” of Enclosure 4).
When producing these orders, Admiral Gensoul asked and received Captain Holland’s assurances that the contents should not be disseminated, since otherwise immediate German or Italian action would occur.
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
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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 MATRINIQUE 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 sire, 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.
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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.
58. My apprehension of the situation at this time was that resistance from the French ships had ceased and that by ceasing fire I should give them an opportunity to abandon their ships and thus avoid further loss of life. Since the French knew that the entrance to the harbour had been mined, I felt quite positive that no attempt would be made by them to put to sea.
59. Force “H” proceeded to the westwards with a view to taking up a position from which further bombardment of the French ships could be carried out if necessary, without causing casualties to men proceeding ashore in boats and without exposing the ships of Force “H” unduly to the fire of the forts.
60. At 1432 I had received a report that there was activity at the aerodrome and in view of there being a pall of smoke now lying between Force WHW and the shore, I considered it desirable to stand out to seawards to avoid a surprise attack by aircraft under cover of the smoke.
61. Repeated signals were now received from the shore visual and wireless stations requesting fire to be ceased, to which the reply was made – “Unless I see your ships sinking, I shall open fire again.”
62. At 1820 I received a report from ARK ROYAL’s aircraft that one DUNKERQUE had left harbour and was going east. In view of other reports of movements which had been subsequently cancelled, the difficulty of observation to smoke and the certainty I entertained that the French would abandon their ships, I did not attach sufficient weight to this report.
It was not until a subsequent report, received at 1830, confirmed the escape of a battlecruiser and destroyers to the eastwards that I decided to alter course to the east. The resultant delay in commencing the chase, though not appreciably affecting the situation, could have been avoided.
63. Meanwhile, at 1825, six Swordfish, armed with 250lb. S.A.P. bombs, with Skua escort had been flown off to attack the heavy ships in Mers el Kebir. Their departure had been delayed by the necessity of landing on a considerable number of other aircraft which had reached the limit of their fuel endurance. This striking force was now diverted and ordered to attack the battlecruiser already at sea.
64. During this period, WRESTLER, who had been detached to
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watch the entrance to the harbour at Oran, was heavily engaged by shore batteries. She was ordered to withdraw, but at least one hundred shell of 4-inch and 6-inch calibre fell near her before she got out of range.
65. At 1843, cruisers and destroyers were ordered to the van. At this time there was some doubt as to how many heavy ships had left harbour, but when it appeared that only one Dunkerque was actually at sea, HOOD and light craft proceeded ahead, leaving the two battleships to follow unscreened.
66. The bombing attack on STRASBOURG was well pressed home and met with heavy opposition. Although confirmation is lacking, it is believed that at least one hit with a 250lb. S.A.P. bomb was obtained. Two Swordfish failed to return but their crews were picked up by WRESTLER.
67. at 1914 a small boat flying a white flag and a White Ensign was sighted on the starboard bow. FORRESTER was ordered to close, and picked up Captain Holland, Lieutenant Commanders Spearman and Davies and the boat’s crew. By this time HOOD was working up to full power with ARETHUSA, ENTERPRISE and destroyers in the van.
68. Between 1933 and 1945, a French destroyer proceeding west, close to the coast inshore of the Force, was engaged at ranges of 12,000 to 18,000 yards by ARETHUSA and ENTERPRISE; HOOD and later, VALIANT, also fired a few main armament salvoes backwards towards Oran. During this period, torpedoes were reported approaching from starboard to port and course was altered away for four minutes.
69. Six Swordfish, armed with torpedoes, were flown off at 1950 with orders to press home an attach on the French battlecruiser, making use of the failing light.
70. All ships proceeded at their utmost speed until 2020, when I decided to abandon the chase. At this time STRASBOURG and eleven destroyers were reported to be twenty-five miles ahead of HOOD. From the reports received, I calculated that the Algiers force, which included several 8-inch and 6-inch cruisers and destroyers, would probably meet STRASBOURG shortly after 2100.
I considered that a night contact and engagement under these conditions was not justified. I knew that neither the 13th nor the 8th destroyer Flotillas had any recent experience of shadowing and since the French were numerically superior, it appeared to me that the situation could be summed up as follows
- The prospects of locating and engaging the French battlecruiser at night were small
- (page 21) Force “H” would be at a disadvantage, being silhouetted against the afterglow.
- The speed of advance was too high to allow the destroyers to spread.
- The fuel endurance of the “V” and “W” class destroyers would not permit of more than three hours’ chase.
- Unless HOOD was in a position to support the advanced forces, the latter would be numerically much inferior to the French. This support could not be assured under night action conditions.
- I did not consider that the possible loss of British ships was justified as against the possibility of French ships being allowed to fall into German or Italian hands.
- VALIANT and RESOLUTION were unscreened.
71. Course was accordingly altered to the westward and the Admiralty informed that it was my intention to remain to the westward of Oran during the night and to carry out air attacks on the ships in harbour at dawn or as soon after as possible.
I discarded the alternative course of renewing the attack by gunfire owing to the limited endurance of the older destroyers and the greatly increased risk from submarines whilst bombarding.
72. High angle fire was opened at intervals on French reconnaissance and bombing aircraft between 1930 and 2100. A few bombs were dropped, but except for four about fifty yards from WRESTLER, all fell wide. No attacks were pressed home.
73. The torpedo-bomber attack on STRASBOURG took place at 2055, twenty minutes after sunset. This was very well carried out, the aircraft approaching from the land so that the target was silhouetted against the afterglow. Darkness and funnel smoke made observation difficult, but one explosion was seen under the stern and there is some evidence of a hit amidships. No casualties were sustained and no aircraft damaged.
74. PROTEUS, who had been instructed to proceed clear to the northwards, during the day, was ordered at 2150 to patrol off Cap de l’Aiguille and both PROTEUS and PANDORA were ordered to attack any French ships encountered. PANDORA was further informed that STRASBOURG might arrive off Algiers after 2300.
75. Course was set during the night to reach position 36 ° 12’ North 1 ° 48’ West at 0430, 4th July, at which time it was intended to fly off twelve Swordfish and nine Skuas.
Occasional fog persisted and shortly after 0400 the Force ran into
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thick fog. At 0630, Vice Admiral Commanding Aircraft Carriers reported that he had been forced to abandon the attack owing to weather conditions. In view of this, and also of a message I had received from Admiral Gensoul stating that his ships were hors-de-combat and that he was ordering personnel to evacuate their ships, I shaped course for Gibraltar, all ships being secured alongside by 1900, 4th July.
76. During the operations on 3 rd July, three Swordfish and two Skua aircraft were lost, but all crews were rescued with the exception of that of one Skua.
77. Reviewing the operation in the light of what actually occurred, it is clear that I committed an error of judgement in proceeding so far to the westward after ceasing fire.
At the time, I was convinced that as the entrance to the harbour had been mined, the heavy explosions observed, coupled with the request of the shore stations to “cease shelling”, indicated quite clearly that the French intended to abandon their ships. The thought uppermost in my mind was how to complete my task without causing further loss of life to the ill-adviser but very gallant Frenchmen and without bringing Force “H” under fire from the forts or subjecting it to possible attack from any submarines that might succeed in leaving Oran.
78. I was also under the impression that a torpedo flight had either taken off or would shortly take off and would be in a position to complete the destruction of ships still afloat.
In this connection, I must point out that the repeated postponement on “ANVIL” had seriously upset ARK ROYAL’s flying on and off programme. This I failed to appreciate at the time.
79. Nevertheless, it is clear that by exercising better judgement I could have taken up a position which would have enabled me to cover the eastern approaches and at the same time to reach the selected bombarding position before darkness fell should further gunfire be required to complete the destruction of the French ships.
I am of the opinion, however, that my decision to abandon the chase of STRASBOURG at 2020 was correct.
80. Although it is somewhat outside the scope of this report it is, perhaps, not out of place to speculate whether the use of force might not have been avoided had Admiral Gensoul agreed to meet Captain Holland in the first instance. The final offer made by the French Admiral was very near to a British alternative but differed, unfortunately, in the proviso that the action proposed would not be carried into effect unless there was a danger of French ships falling into the hands of the enemy.
Admiral Gensoul claimed that this danger was not imminent; we maintained that it was. I believe that given more time Captain Holland might have succeeded in converting Admiral Gensoul to our point of view. At the actual time when the French Admiral made his offer, it was already too late, since French
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Reinforcements were approaching and the orders of His Majesty’s Government were explicit that a decision had to be reached before dark.
81. I consider that Captain C.S. Holland carried out his difficult task with the greatest tact, courage and perseverance. That he failed in his mission was not his fault – that he so nearly succeeded is greatly to his credit.
82. I have to record with pleasure the good service rendered by the Vice Admiral Commanding Aircraft Carriers, the Commanding Officer, officer and men of Force “H” throughout what provide to be a gruelling day. From 0830 onwards, all ships had to be constantly on the alert, with hands at action stations. The destroyers, in particular, had a difficult and arduous task in maintaining their stations on the screen during continued and drastic alterations of course and speed.
83. During the action I observed with satisfaction the good station-keeping and handling of ships and the promptness with which signals were executed. This is all the more creditable since the ships of Force “H” had no previous opportunity of working together as a squadron.
So far as it was possible to observe, the fire of the ships appeared to be accurate and effective, apart from certain initial errors in line, due probably to a desire that no damage should be caused to civil life or property.
84. The work of the Fleet Air Arm under Vice Admiral L.V. Wells, C.B., D.S.O., was, as usual, most thorough and efficient. In particular, the approach and attack carried out by 820 Squadron under Lieutenant Commander G.B. Hodgkinson on STRASBOURG showed excellent judgement and appreciation of the situation.
85. I consider that credit is due to Lieutenant Commander E.N.V. Currey, Commanding Officer of H.M.S. WRESTLER, who showed great judgement and determination in maintaining his station off Oran whilst under heavy and accurate fire from the forts and subsequently when being attacked from the air. The prompt and well-judged manner in which he handled his ship undoubtedly saved her from severe damage.
86. In addition to the two officers mentioned in paras. 84 and 85 above, I desire to bring to the special attention of Their Lordships the names of the following officer, as meriting special recognition on the occasion of this operation.
Lieutenant P.W. Compton
Lieutenant D. Williams
Lieutenant (A) G.R. Humphries
All of 820 Squadron
Particulars of the services for which awards are recommended
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Are shewn in Enclosure 6 to this report.
87. Finally, I would refer to the excellent work of my staff, carried out under unusual and difficult conditions. Collected hastily from various appointments at the Admiralty, they were required to plan and execute this operation within five days, of which less than three had been spent in H.M.S. HOOD. The latter ship does not carry the additional ratings required for a flagship and this added still further to the difficulties with which they were faced, but which, I consider, they overcame most successfully.
FLAG OFFICER COMMANDING
Enclosure No. 1 – Admiralty message 0103/2nd July.
Enclosure No. 2 – Admiralty message 0108/2nd July.
Enclosure No. 3 – Operation orders.
Enclosure No. 4 – Captain C.S. Holland’s Report.
Enclosure No. 5 – Diagram of Operation.
Enclosure No. 6 – Recommendations for awards.
Enclosure No. 7 – Vice Admiral, Aircraft Carriers’ Report.
All except No. 6 in original only.
HOTE, Vice admiral, Aircraft Carriers’ letter No. 230 of 23 rd July, 1940, addressed to the Secretary of the Admiralty also refers.
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FLAG OFFICER COMMANDING, FORCE “H” – REPORT OF PROCEEDINGS
No. 9 of 26th July, 1040.
Enclosure No. 1 – Admiralty message 0103/2nd July.
Enclosure No. 2 – Admiralty message 0108/2nd July.
Enclosure No. 3 – Operation orders.
Enclosure No. 4 – Captain C.S. Holland’s Report.
Enclosure No. 5 – Diagram of Operation.
Enclosure No. 6 – Recommendations for awards.
Enclosure No. 7 – Vice Admiral, Aircraft Carriers’ Report.
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ENCLOSURE No. 1 TO FLAG OFFCIER COMMANDING, FORCE “H”,
REPORT OF PROCEEDINGS, No 9/2 of 26th July 1940.
To: F.O.C. Force “H” ® C-IN-C MED 881
(C-in-C’s Cypher) ???? No. 102 AIDAC
My O435 or 29th June and your 1514 of 29th June.
His Majesty’s Government have decided that the course to be adopted is as follows
(a)French (Fleet) at ( Oran) and Mers-el-Kebir is to be given four alternatives:-
(i) To sail their ships to British harbours and to continue he fight with us.
(ii) To sail their ships with reduced crews to a British port from which the crews would be re-patriated whenever desired (or) in the case of alternative (i) or (ii) being adopted, the ships would be restored to France at the conclusion of the war or full compensation would be paid if they are damaged meanwhile. If the French admiral accepts alternative (ii), but asks that their ships should not repetition not be used by (British) during the war, say we accept this condition so long as Germany and Italy observe the armistice terms but we particularly do not repetition do not wish to raise the point ourselves.
(iii) To sail their ships with reduced crews to some French port In West Indies such as Martinique. After arrival at this (port) they would either be demilitarised, to our satisfaction, if so desired, or be entrusted to the U.S.A. jurisdiction for the duration of the war. The crews would be repatriated.
(iv) To sink repetition sink their ships.
(b) Should French Admiral refuse to accept all above alternatives and should he suggest he should demilitarise his ships to our satisfaction at their present berths, you are authorised to accept this further alternative provided you are satisfied that measures taken for demilitarisation can be carried out under your supervision within six hours and prevent ships being brought into (service) for at least one year, even at a fully (equipped) dockyard port.
(c) If non of those alternatives are accepted by the French you are to endeavour to destroy repetition destroy ships in Mers-el-Kebir (particularly) DUNKERQUE and STRASBOURG using all means at your disposal. Ships at Oran should also be destroyed if this will not repetition not entail any considerable loss of civilian life.
(d) Communication to be made to the French Admiral follows (108/2/7 ??? No 2)
(e) It is most undesirable that you should have to deal with French Fleet at sea and consequently about twelve hours warning, as suggested in your 0812 of 1 st July is not repetition not acceptable. Hence, you should arrive in the vicinity of Oran with your force at whatever time you select, and send your emissary ashore, subsequently taking such action as you consider fit with your force in period before time limit given.
(f) If first alternative is accepted ships should proceed to United Kingdom port rather than Gibraltar. IF second alternative is accepted ships should proceed to a United Kingdom port unless French prefer Gibraltar.
(g) In view of strength of defence at Algiers and impossibility of avoiding destruction of town it is not repetition not considered justifiable to carry out / against that place.
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(h) These are your final instructions in case you find the French Fleet in harbour which were decided on after receipt of your 1220 of 1st July.
(i) Further instructions follow as regards the action to be taken of French Fleet is not at sea.
T.O.O. 0103 / 2nd July
T.C.R. 0426 / 2nd July
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ENCLOSURE No. 2 TO FLAG OFFICER COMMANDING FORCE “H”
REPORT OF PROCEEDINGS, No. 9/2 of 26th July, 1940.
To: Vice Admiral, Force H. (882)
C in C’s Cypher
AIDCA File No, 03
Following is the communication to be made to the French Admiral at
Algiers Oran referred to in my 0103/2nd July.
- H.M. Government have sent me to inform you as follows:-
- They agreed to French Government approaching the German Government only on conditions for an armistice was concluded the French Fleet should be sent to British ports to prevent it falling into hands of the enemy. The Council of ministers declared on 18th June that before guilty of capitulation on land the French Fleet would join up with British Force or sink (R) sink itself.
- Whilst the present French may consider the terms of the armistice with Germany
caused byRECONCILIABLE with these undertakings, H.M. Government finds it impossible from our previous experiences to believe Germany and Italy will not (R) not at any moment which suits them seize French warships and use them against Britain and allies, Italian armistice prescribes that French ships should return to metropolitan ports and under armistice and France is required to yield up units for coast defence and minesweeping.
- It is impossible for us, your comrade till now, to allow your fine ships to fall into power of German or Italian enemy. We are determined to fight on till 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 we shall restore the greatness and territory of France. For this purpose we must be sure that the best ships of the French Navy will also not (R) not be used against us by the common foe.
- In these circumstances H.M. Government have instructed me to demand that 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 for victory against the Germans and the Italians
- (b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British Port. The reduced crews will 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 war, or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.
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- (c) Alternatively, if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not (R) not be used against Germans or Italians for which these since this would break the armistice, then sail 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 be perhaps entrusted to the U.S.A. and remain safely until end of war, the crew being repatriated.
T.O.C. 0108/2nd July
T.O.R. 0604/2nd July
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Office of Vice Admiral
1st July 1940
ORDERS FOR LEAVING GIBRALTAR
(Short Title – H.L.G.)
Times – All times are Zone (-1)
Destroyers are to be clear of the harbour by zero hour + 30 minutes, as ordered by Captain (D)S. Three destroyers detailed by Captain (D)S (names to be reported) are to join the Vice Admiral (A) when ARK ROYAL leaves harbour and act as A/S screen. Prior to this all destroyers are to carry out and A/S sweep ahead of the fleet as far as the line joining EUROPA and CARNERO points. Destroyers not screening ARK ROYAL are to continue to sweep in Gibraltar Bay until approach of the main body, when they are to proceed as requisite to comply with paragraph 5(a).
2. Ships are to single up wires and get out their own brows.
3. Capital ships and cruisers are to leave harbour in the following order with steam as shown:-
Zero + 40 Mins
Zero + 50 Mins
Zero + 1 Hour 0 Mins
As req for flying
Zero + 1 Hour 20 Mins
Zero + 1 Hour 40 Mins
Zero + 2 Hours 0 Mins
ACTION TO BE TAKEN ON CLEARING THE HARBOUR
4. Capital ships are to remain inside Gibraltar Bay maintaining as high a speed as circumstances permit and altering course frequently. They are to form astern of HOOD on close order as soon as possible after she leaves harbour in the sequence VALIANT, RESOLUTION. ARK ROYAL is to take charge of her own screen and act independently as requisite to fly off outer and inner A/S patrol aircraft subsequently forming in close order astern of the rear battleship. Cruisers are to proceed as requisite to comply with paragraph 5(b)
5. Forming up. HOOD will pass through position 180 ° EUROPA POINT 3 miles steering 083 ° speed 17 knots at zero +2 hrs 50 mins (approx). At this time:-
- Destroyers are to form screening diagram No. 7
- Cruisers are to take station in position 1 mile ahead of the battlefleet.
6. P.V.s. P.V.s will not be streamed on leaving harbour.
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ACTION TO BE TAKEN ON ONE OF THE SCREENS OBTAINING A CONTACT.
7. Destroyers are to act in accordance with Conduct of the Fleet Article 351. Paragraph (b) is to be interpreted that the destroyer obtaining the contact and one other only are to counter attack.
8. Receipt of these orders is to be acknowledged to the Vice Admiral, Force “H”, in HOOD by signal quoting “H.L.G. Received.”
For VICE ADMIRAL
Vice Admiral Commanding, North Atlantic
Vice Admiral (A)
Captain of the Dockyard, Gibraltar
Captain (D), 8th Flotilla
Captain (D), 15th Flotilla
Commanding Officers H.M. Ships HOOD, VALIANT, RESOLUTION, ARK ROYAL, ENTERPRISE, ARETHUSA, FEARLESS, FOXHOUND, FORRESTER, FORESIGHT, ACTIVE, WRESTLER, VELOX, VIDETTE, KEPPEL and ESCORT. (One copy to each)
END OF TRANSCRIPTION