FR Commandant Duboc
Minesweeper of the Elan class
|Navy||The French Navy|
|Built by||A & Ch Dubigeon (Nantes, France)|
|Laid down||Dec 1936|
|Launched||16 Jan 1939|
|End service||Jul 1963|
Seized by the British on 3 July 1940 while at Plymouth.
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Notable events involving Commandant Duboc include:
21 Apr 1940
Commandant Duboc departed Brest in escort of Convoy FS 3, en route Greenock, Scotland. Arrived at Greenock on 24 April. (1)
28 Aug 1940
Operation Menace, the attack on Dakar, 23-24 September 1940.
Part I, initial movements of the Allied naval forces
The actual attack on Dakar took place on 23 and 24 September 1940 but preparations off course started earlier.
28 August 1940.
The battleship HMS Barham (Capt G.C. Cooke, RN) departed Scapa Flow for Gibraltar. She was escorted by HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Eclipse (Lt.Cdr. I.T. Clark, RN) and HMS Escapade (Cdr. H.R. Graham, DSO, RN). They were joined at sea by HMS Echo (Cdr. S.H.K. Spurgeon, DSO, RAN) which sailed later.
29 August 1940.
The transports Anadyr (British, 5321 GRT, built 1930), Casamance (French, 5817 GRT, built 1921), Fort Lamy (British, 5242 GRT, built 1919), Nevada (French, 5693 GRT, built 1918) and the tanker Ocean Coast (British, 1173 GRT, built 1935) split off in position 54’N, 18’W from convoy OB 204 (which had departed from the British east coast on 26/27 August) to proceed to Dakar. When they split off their escort towards Dakar were the Free French sloop Savorgnan de Brazza and the Free French A/S trawler President Houduce.
31 August 1940.
On this day three groups of ships departed from British ports.
From Scapa Flow the following ships sailed; troopships Ettrick (British, 11279 GRT, built 1938), Kenya (British, 9890 GRT, built 1938) and Sobieski (Polish, 11030 GRT, built 1939). These were escorted by the light cruiser HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) and the destroyers HMS Ambuscade (Lt.Cdr. R.A. Fell, RN), HMS Antelope (Lt.Cdr. R.T. White, DSO, RN), HMS Volunteer (Lt.Cdr. N. Lanyon, RN) and HMS Wanderer.
From Liverpool the following ships sailed; troopships Karanja (British, 9891 GRT, built 1931), Pennland (Dutch, 16082 GRT, built 1922) and Westernland (Dutch, 16313 GRT, built 1918) and the transport Belgravian (British, 3136 GRT, built 1937). These were escorted by the destroyers HMS Mackay (Cdr. G.H. Stokes, RN), HMS Vanoc (Lt.Cdr. J.G.W. Deneys, RN) and the corvette HMS Erica (Lt.Cdr. W.C. Riley, RNR).
From the Clyde the following warships sailed; HMS Devonshire (Capt. J.M. Mansfield, DSC, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.H.D. Cunningham, CB, MVO, RN, the Commander of the upcoming operation), the destroyer HMS Harvester (Lt.Cdr. M. Thornton, RN) and the French sloops (minesweepers) Commandant Dominé and Commandant Duboc.
All these ships were expected to arrive at Freetown on 13 September where they would be joined by ships coming from Gibraltar and ships that were based at Freetown.
1 September 1940.
The outward passage was initially uneventful and Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s group joined up with the group that came from Liverpool at 0600/1 (zone -1). But that evening misfortune occurred when HMS Fiji was torpedoed by the German submarine U-32 when about 40 nautical miles north-northeast of Rockall in position 58°10’N, 12°55’W. She then returned to the Clyde. Her convoy then continued on escorted by the four destroyers until they met Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s force at 0900/2. The convoy was now known as ‘Convoy MP’. The place of HMS Fiji in the operation was subsequently taken over by the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (Capt. R.R. Stewart, RN).
2 September 1940.
HMS Barham (Capt G.C. Cooke, RN), HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Echo (Cdr. S.H.K. Spurgeon, DSO, RAN), HMS Eclipse (Lt.Cdr. I.T. Clark, RN) and HMS Escapade (Cdr. H.R. Graham, DSO, RN) arrived at Gibraltar from Scapa Flow.
The destroyer escort for the MP convoy parted company at 1400/2 and was ordered to join HMS Revenge (Capt. E.R. Archer, RN) which was escorting Canadian troop convoy TC 7 to the Clyde.
Passage of the MP convoy southwards was relatively uneventful except for some submarine alarms and also some engine defects during which speed had to be reduced a bit.
6 September 1940.
HMS Barham (Capt G.C. Cooke, RN), HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), HMS Echo (Cdr. S.H.K. Spurgeon, DSO, RAN), HMS Eclipse (Lt.Cdr. I.T. Clark, RN) and HMS Escapade (Cdr. H.R. Graham, DSO, RN) departed Gibraltar for Freetown in the evening but now accompanied by ships from Force H; the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. C.S. Holland, RN), battleship HMS Resolution (Capt. O. Bevir, RN) and the destroyers HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, RN), HMS Foresight (Lt.Cdr. G.T. Lambert, RN), HMS Fortune (Cdr. E.A. Gibbs, DSO, RN), HMS Fury (Lt.Cdr. T.C. Robinson, RN) and HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall A'Deane, DSO, DSC, RN).
After passing between Madeira and the Canary Islands on the 8th this force, which constituted the major part of the warships involved in the upcoming operation, turned south at 0900/9. By 0800/11 the force was in position 20°18’N, 19°54’W about 1000 nautical miles south of Casablanca.
Vice-Admiral Cunningham in HMS Devonshire was then in position 16°50’N, 22°00’W, about 240 nautical miles to the south-west ward of the main force. He had just sighted the MS convoy (the five transports), escorted by Savorgnan de Brazza, some 300 nautical miles north-west of Dakar. Vice-Admiral Cunningham ordered the convoy Commodore to take the convoy into Freetown.
A signal was then received that Vichy-French warships had passed the Straits of Gibraltar and had turned south. Three light cruisers and three large destroyers were reported to have made up this force. It was not known where they were bound for but possibly Casablanca. Their appearance seriously affected the whole operation.
The Vichy-French cruiser force.
At 1850 hours on 9 September 1940, H.M. Consul General, Tangier, had informed Admiral Sir Dudley North, Flag Officer commanding North Atlantic, and repeated to the Foreign Office, that a French Squadron in the Mediterranean might try to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar within the next 72 hours. This report received confirmation the next day when the French Admiralty requested the British Naval Attaché, Madrid, to advise the Naval authorities at Gibraltar of the departure from Toulon on the 9th of three light cruisers of the Georges Leygues class and three large destroyers of the Fantasque class. They would pass through the Straits of Gibraltar on the morning of the 11th, no mention was made of their destination. This information reached the Admiralty at 2350/10 and Admiral North at 0008/11.
The Government policy with regards to Vichy warships at that time had been defined in a signal sent to all Commanders-in-Chief and Flag Officers commanding shortly after the attack on the battleship Richelieu at Dakar in July. This message, after stressing the importance of terminating the state of tension then existing between the French navy and ourselves, stated that His Majesty’s Government had decided to take no further action in regard to French ships in French colonial and North African ports, and went on to say ‘ We shall, of course, however, reserve the right to take action in regard to French warships proceeding to enemy controlled ports.’ Recent intelligence had indicated that it was highly improbable that any warships would make for the German occupied Biscay ports, and a Admiral North had not been informed of the Dakar project, he saw no reason to take any steps to interfere with the movements of the French warships.
Early on September 11th, the destroyers HMS Hotspur (Cdr. H.F.H. Layman, DSO, RN), HMS Griffin (Lt.Cdr. J. Lee-Barber, DSO, RN) and HMS Encounter (Lt.Cdr. E.V.St J. Morgan, RN), which were hunting a reported submarine to the eastward of the Strait of Gibraltar. At 0445 they sighted six French warships steaming fast to the westward and reported them. At 0617/11, Admiral North informed the Admiralty that the lights of six ships, probably warships, steering west at high speed, had been reported by HMS Hotspur at 0515 hours in position 36°03'N, 04°14'W (60 miles east of Gibraltar) and that he had ordered the destroyers to take no further action. At 0711 hours he added that he intended to keep in touch with this force by air and that he would report probable destination.
Meanwhile, Vice-Admiral Somerville, commanding Force H, on receiving the signal from HMS Hotspur had brought HMS Renown (Capt C.E.B. Simeon, RN) and the only destroyer available, HMS Vidette (Lt. E.N. Walmsley, RN), to one hour’s notice for full speed. He did not put to sea because he too, believed the Government’s policy was to avoid interference with French warships as stated in the signal of 12 July.
The French squadron passed Gibraltar to the westward shortly after 0830/11 having given it’s composition in reply to the demand as the light cruisers Georges Leygues, Gloire, Montcalm and the destroyers Le Malin, Le Fantasque and L’Audacieux. This information reached the Admiralty at 1043/11 in a signal sent by Admiral North at 0917/11.
No further action was taken during the forenoon and the situation at noon was that the French Squadron was in position 35°00'N, 06°40'W (about 75 nautical miles south-south-west of Gibraltar) steering 213° at 20 knots. They were being observed by reconnaissance aircraft from RAF 200 Sq. based at Gibraltar. The Admiralty and Air Ministery were being kept informed.
Here was a complication that might well effect the Dakar operation should Dakar be the destination of the French Squadron. It does not seem to have been viewed in this light at the Admiralty, until the 1st Sea Lord himself, who was attending a meeting in the Cabinet Offices that forenoon, telephoned orders for HMS Renown and all available destroyers to raise steam for full speed. A signal to this end was then sent to Admiral Somerville at 1239/11. This was over twelve hours after the original message from Madrid had reached the Admiralty.
Movements of Force H, 11 to 14 September 1940.
The noon position and their course indicated Casablanca as the most probable destination of the French Squadron and at 1347/11 the Admiralty ordered Admiral Somerville to sea to intercept them. Further instructions followed at 1429 hours. These was no objection with them going to Casablanca but they could not be allowed to proceed to Dakar. Shortly after 1600 hours aircraft reported that the French Squadron had entered Casablanca.
Admiral Somerville left Gibraltar at 1630 hours in the Renown escorted by the destroyers HMS Griffin, HMS Velox (Cdr.(Retd.) J.C. Colvill, RN) and HMS Vidette. At 2006 hours he was ordered by the Admiralty to establish a patrol to intercept the French Squadron if they sailed southwards from Casablanca. In the early morning hours of the 12th at 0235 hours, HMS Vidette, encountered a four-funneled French destroyer (this was Milan) in position 33°55'N, 08°31'W (west-north-west of Casablanca). She sighted a darkened ship some 6 miles on her port bow. She challenged but got no reply. A searchlight was turned on and revealed a four-funneled French destroyer. Vidette then fired two salvoes and the French destroyer, ignoring a signal to stop, then retired at high speed behind a smoke screen. Shortly afterwards Vidette was recalled from her patrol and ordered to rejoin Renown.
The French squadron was still at Casablanca at 0923/12 according to an aircraft report. At 0934 hours, Admiral Somerville turned north to meet three more destroyers coming from Gibraltar. These were; HMS Hotspur, HMS Encounter and HMS Wishart (Cdr. E.T. Cooper, RN). These were met at 1300 hours, in position 33°05'N, 09°40'W. They then turned to the south-west again. HMS Hotspur was stationed to patrol closer inshore.
At 0405/13, HMS Renown sighted three darkened ships in position 31°25'N, 11°30'W. These were thought to be the three Fantasque class destroyers. They were steaming north at 20 knots and were allowed to proceed. Admiral Somerville continued his patrol but fuel began to become an issue. The weather was to rough for the destroyers to fill up at sea and two of them will have to be detached that evening to refuel. This would much reduce the chance to intercept the French Squadron and Admiral Somerville informed the Admiralty of this. Adding tat he considered a patrol should be established off Dakar. His signal crossed one from the Admiralty stating that according to French sources the Squadron would remain only shortly at Casablanca before proceeding to Dakar.
This forecast proved correct. At 1530/13 aircraft reported that the light cruisers were no longer at Casablanca. Due to his fuel situation Admiral Somerville signalled that he would leave his patrol area for Gibraltar at 2000 hours that evening. But at 1916 hours the Admiralty ordered him to steer for Dakar at 18 knots. This was being done but Vidette and Velox were detached to Gibraltar to fuel.
At 2335/19 the Admiralty cancelled the order so at 0121/14, Renown and the four remaining destroyers set course to return to Gibraltar which they reached at 2000/14.
Patrol of Dakar by Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s forces.
To return to Vice-Admiral Cunningham. He knew that the French Squadron had left the Mediterranean at 1542/11 and that Vice-Admiral Somerville had been ordered to intercept them. Within a couple of hours he learnt that the French Squadron had entered Casablanca. The next forenoon (0947/12) he was informed that Vice-Admiral Somerville had been ordered to establish a patrol and to prevent them from proceeding to the south.
Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s forces were then approaching Freetown. At 1145/12, an aircraft from HMS Ark Royal approached HMS Devonshire to report that the Ark Royal would be in position 13°59'N, 20°08'W at 1300 hours and expected to arrive at Freetown with HMS Barham, HMS Resolution and ten destroyers at 0700/14. The next morning, 13 September, at 0820 hours an aircraft again closed HMS Devonshire. An order was then passed that four destroyers were to be detached to join HMS Devonshire and the convoy before dark. At 1008 hours HMS Devonshire left the convoy to close Ark Royal’s force, sighing it an hour later 20 nautical miles to the north-north-east. Devonshire remained in visual touch until 1700 hours when course was set to return to the convoy taking the destroyers HMS Faulknor, HMS Foresight, HMS Forester and HMS Fury with him.
Shortly after 1800/13, Vice-Admiral Cunningham was informed that the French cruisers had left Casablanca and that Vice-Admiral Somerville in the Renown had been ordered to proceed to the Dakar area.
Shortly after midnight 13th/14th, a signal came in from the Admiralty ordering Vice-Admiral Cunningham to establish a patrol immediately to prevent the French cruisers from reaching Dakar, employing every available ship. The same orders went to the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic. HMS Cumberland (Capt. G.H.E. Russell, RN), which had departed Freetown for the U.K. at 2000/13 was placed under Vice-Admiral Cunninham’s orders and HMS Cornwall (Capt. C.F. Hammill, RN), on her way from Simonstown to Freetown, was ordered to increase speed.
The original operation was now swallowed up in the task of intercepting the French ships. Time had become a factor of the utmost importance and without waiting for daylight, Vice-Admiral Cunningham and General Irwin, went over to see General de Gaulle on board the Westernland at 0120/14, who immediately roused Capitaine Thierry d’Argenlieu and armed him with a letter forbidding any French warship to proceed to Dakar. Within twenty minutes they were on their way back to the Dorsetshire with Capt. D’Argenlieu and the following measures were taken;
HMAS Australia which was coming from the Clyde to take the place of HMS Fiji was ordered to close HMS Devonshire, which would be steering for Dakar, then 400 nautical miles distant.
The Ark Royal was ordered to sent her six remaining destroyers; HMS Inglefield, HMS Greyhoud, HMS Fortune, HMS Echo, HMS Eclipse and HMS Escapade to Freetown to fuel and herself proceed with despatch to position 16’N, 17°40’W.
HMS Barham and HMS Resolution and the other four destroyers; HMS Faulknor, HMS Foresight, HMS Forester and HMS Fury, were to fuel at Freetown and leave for the Dakar area as soon as fuelling had been completed.
Convoy’s MP and MS were to proceed to Freetown with their French escorts.
HMS Devonshire meanwhile had altered course to the northward for Dakar at 0230/14, speed 18 knots. It was not possible to transfer General Irwin and his staff and the General thus found himself speeding northward with the orders for the landing while his troops went on to Freetown. HMAS Australia joined HMS Devonshire at 0300 hours and half an hour later the cruisers had worked up to 27 knots. HMS Cumberland and HMS Ark Royal were approaching from the south.
At 1000/14, HMS Devonshire and HMAS Australia were 200 nautical miles south of Dakar in position 11°23’N, 17°42’W, with HMS Cumberland and HMS Ark Royal respectively 45 and 100 miles astern of them. Aircraft from Ark Royal carried out reconnaissance ahead of Devonshire and Australia from this time onwards. Also flights over Dakar were carried out. That afternoon a large amount of shipping was reported in the harbour and also a submarine was sighted on the surface at 1533 in position 260°, Cape Manuel, 10 nautical miles, steering 260°. It could not be seen if the French cruisers had arrived at Dakar.
At 1900/14 the Devonshire and Australia, reduced to 17 knots on reaching the latitude of Dakar and then turned back to join Cumberland. She was met at 1940 hours and then the cruisers turned northward once more. They established a patrol line at 2320 hours, 4 miles apart, courses 270°-090°, between the meridians 17°30’W and 18°00W in latitude 16°00’N.
But they were too late. Just before midnight 14/15 September a message was received from the Admiralty that a Vichy report had announced that the cruisers had arrived safely at Dakar. The Vichy cruisers actually had arrived at Dakar at 1600/14.
Dawn air reconnaissance on the 15th failed to spot the cruisers at Dakar and by this time the three heavy cruisers were running low on fuel and at 1001 hours Vice-Admiral Cunningham sent a signal to the Admiralty to ask if he should withdraw to Freetown to refuel and prepare for operation ‘Menace’, leaving HMS Cumberland to patrol off Dakar, or to report the patrol about 0001/17 and accept indefinite delay of operation ‘Menace’. He recommended the first alternative.
At 1027 hours, however, the Ark Royal signalled that the cruisers had been located at Dakar. All ships then set course for Freetown to refuel except HMS Cumberland which was left to patrol off Dakar. The next day, the 16th, she met the Vichy French merchant vessel Poitiers (4185 GRT, built 1921) 100 miles south of Dakar and fired a salvo across her bows. Her crew then set her on fire and abandoned her. She was then sunk by gunfire from the cruiser.
Cancellation of Operation ‘Menace’.
By the evening of 15 September, Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s forces were all making once again for Freetown. A destroyer had been sent on ahead with the operation orders and two staff officers. The escape of the French cruisers, however, called for a drastic re-consideration of the original plan.
In London the War Cabinet met at 1000/16 to consider the new situation. The Prime Minister pointed out that in his view the operation had to be cancelled and at 1346/16, Vice-Admiral Cunningham received a signal that the landing of troops at Dakar in ‘Operation Menace’ was impracticable. It was proposed that General de Gaulle’s force should land at Duala with the object of consolidating his influence in the Cameroons, Equatorial Africa and the Chads. The British portion of the force was to remain at Freetown. Unless de Gaulle had any strong objection, this plan had to be put into operation forthwith.
Vice-Admiral Cunningham and General Irwin were reluctant to take this view. They replied at 1642 hours suggesting that if HMS Cornwall and HMS Cumberland would be added to their force they should be enough to deal with the French cruisers. The answer came at 2245 hours; they were left a liberty to consider the whole situation and discuss it with de Gaulle, whom they informed of the new proposal.
HMS Devonshire arrived at Freetown at 0630/17. The Vice-Admiral and the General proceeded to consult with General de Gaulle. The latter was much perturbed at the possible cancellation of the original plan and that very morning he sent a telegram to the Prime Minister desiring ‘to insist’ that the plan should be carried out and emphasising the vital importance to the Allies of gaining control of the basis in French Africa. He now urged on the Force Commanders that if the unopposed landing failed the Free French troops should attempt a landing at Rufisque. They decided to support this proposal and shortly after midnight they forwarded their recommendations to the Admiralty for consideration. The reply from H.M. Government came at 1159/18; ‘ We cannot judge relative advantages of alternative schemes from here. We give you full authority to go ahead and do what you think is best, in order to give effect to the original purpose of the expedition. Keep us informed.’
With a free hand such as is seldom enjoyed in these days of rapid communication by the leaders of an overseas expedition in unbroken touch with their Government, the Joint Commanders decided to proceed with ‘Menace’ on 22 September.
The French cruisers again, 19 to 26 September 1940.
The naval and military staffs were working hard at preparations for the landing when the next day, 19 September, French cruiser appeared again on the scene. HMAS Australia, which had left Freetown the day before to relieve HMS Cumberland on patrol, at 1019/19 in position 10°23’N, 16°54’W, north-west of Freetown, sighted the three La Galissonniere class cruisers 14 nautical miles off steering south-east. Once more the naval forces had to raise steam with all despatch. HMAS Australia and HMS Cumberland were already had on the trial. General de Gaulle again arranged for Captain Thierry d’Angenlieu to carry a message requisting the French cruisers to return to Casablanca.
General Irwin and his staff, with Admiral Cunningham’s Chief Staff Officer, Capt. P.N. Walter, were transferred to the troopship Karanja, and at 1400 hours HMS Devonshire left Freetown at 27 knots with the destroyers HMS Inglefield, HMS Greyhound and HMS Escapade. It was hoped to sight the French cruisers before dark. HMS Barham with HMS Fortune and HMS Fury made for a position to the south-east of the French. HMS Ark Royal, which had engine trouble to repair first, was to follow at 0500/20. A message came from the Admiralty that the French cruisers were not to return to Dakar.
The French cruisers turned back to the north-west and increased speed to 29 knots. Torrential rain was falling, hiding everything from view, but HMAS Australia and HMS Cumberland were able to keep in touch and at 1830/19 HMAS Australia managed to pass directions not to return to Dakar. She was then in position 09°02’N, 15°14’W, just keeping in touch while doing 31 knots. Then the French cruiser Gloire broke down and separated from the other two cruisers. The British then lost touch with these two cruisers. HMS Devonshire meanwhile was steaming to a position to cut off the way to Conakri in French Guinea. HMS Cumberland then regained touch with the two French cruisers (Georges Leygues (flag) and Montcalm) who were speeding north while HMAS Australia picked up the Gloire which was steering eastwards at reduced speed. Night had fallen when HMS Devonshire with HMS Inglefield still in company showed up. HMS Inglefield took Captain d’Argenlieu on board of the Gloire. The French captain refused to accede to his representations, but when Vice-Admiral Cunningham intervened he agreed to proceed to Casablanca. HMAS Australia escorted her until 21 September, leaving her then, on Admiralty instructions, to proceed unescorted.
HMS Cumberland meanwhile managed to keep in touch with the other two cruisers. Her attempts at parley failed, but the French signalled that ‘under no circumstances shall my cruisers pass under German control’. HMS Cumberland followed them all the way to Dakar but was unable to prevent them from entering, which they did at 0550/20.
Meanwhile, on 18 September, far away to the southward, a fourth French cruiser had been sighted escorting a naval tanker. This was the Primaguet escorting the Tarn. HMS Cornwall had departed Freetown on 16 September to meet HMS Delhi (Capt. A.S. Russell, RN) and HMS Dragon (Capt. R.W. Shaw, MBE, RN) off Cape Formosa (south Nigeria). They swept towards Fernando Po [now called Bioko] to intercept any French forces bound for the Cameroons with instructions to direct them back to Casablanca. On 17 September at 2000 hours information came that a French warship and an oiler had been in position 07°25’N, 14°40’W at 1500/15. The Cornwall proceeded to search and on the 18th her aircraft picked up the cruiser Primaguet and oiler Tarn 35 nautical miles ahead. The Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic ordered her to be shadowed.
Her lights were sighted at 2142/18 but disappeared at 0425/19. When dawn broke the horizon was clear. She was picked up again at 1009/19. A boarding party from HMS Delhi went on board. The Captain, after making a formal protest, asked to be allowed to remain stopped until 1700/19 after which she proceeded, first westward, then northward, being shadowed by HMS Cornwall and HMS Delhi until 1830/21 when HMS Delhi had to proceed to Freetown to refuel. HMS Cornwall shadowed her alone untul the 23rd when she was rejoined by HMS Delhi. For two days they followed her close, still steaming north. On the 25th Primaguet fuelled from the Tarn. They were then off the Cape Verde Island. The next day the Admiralty approved the cruisers to return to Freetown. The Primaguet gave a promise that she would proceed to Casablanca with the Tarn where they indeed arrived in due course. The British cruisers then turned south. They had kept the Primaguet and Tarn in sight for five days. Thus two out of the four cruisers in the area had been diverted to Casablanca without the use of force. (2)
31 Aug 1940
Convoy MP was part of the upcoming Dakar operation. The convoy departed Scapa Flow on 31 August 1940 for Freetown.
The convoy was made up of the troopships Ettrick (11279 GRT, built 1938), Kenya (9890 GRT, built 1930) and Sobieski (11030 GRT, built 1939). Escort was provided by the light cruiser HMS Fiji (Capt. W.G. Benn, RN) and the destroyers HMS Ambuscade (Lt.Cdr. R.A. Fell, RN), HMS Antelope (Lt.Cdr. R.T. White, DSO, RN), HMS Volunteer (Lt.Cdr. N. Lanyon, RN) and HMS Wanderer (Cdr. J.H. Ruck-Keene, DSC, RN). The next day the convoy was joined to the north of Ireland by the heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire (Capt. J.M. Mansfield, DSC, RN), the destroyer HMS Harvester (Lt.Cdr. M. Thornton, RN) and the Free French sloops (minesweepers) Commandant Dominé and Commandant Duboc which came from the Clyde.
At 1709/1 (zone -1), HMS Fiji was hit by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-32 when about 40 nautical miles north-northeast of Rockall in position 58°10’N, 12°55’W. She then left the convoy 10 minutes later and set course for the Clyde. She was joined by the destroyer HMS Antelope soon afterwards. The forward boiler room and five adjacent were flooded and five ratings had been killed.
Around 2030 hours HMS Fiji and HMS Antelope were joined by the destroyers HMS Ashanti (Cdr. W.G. Davis, RN), HMS Bedouin (Cdr. J.A. McCoy, DSO, RN) and HMS Volunteer. Fiji and her escort arrived at the Clyde around 1700/3. After inspection it was estimated repairs would take three to four months.
At 1930 hours on 1 September 1940 the destroyers HMS Punjabi (Cdr. J.T. Lean, DSO, RN), HMS Tartar (Capt. C. Caslon, RN), HMS Jaguar (Lt.Cdr. J.F.W. Hine, RN) and HMS Javelin (Cdr. A.F. Pugsley, RN) to join HMS Fiji. Later they joined convoy's.
All destroyers that had been with the convoy parted company with the convoy on September 1st except for HMS Harvester which parted company with the convoy on the 3rd.
The place of HMS Fiji in the upcoming Dakar operation was taken by HMAS Australia (Capt. R.R. Stewart, RN) which departed the Clyde for Freetown on 6 September.
The convoy, escorted by the two Free French sloops (minesweepers), arrived at Freetown on 14 September 1940.
23 Sep 1940
Operations Menace, the attack on Dakar, 23-24 September 1940.
Part II, the actual attack.
By 20 September the attack force was assembled at Freetown. It was made up of the following warships; battleships HMS Barham (Capt G.C. Cooke, RN, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral J.H.D. Cunningham, CB, MVO, RN), HMS Resolution (Capt. O. Bevir, RN), aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (Capt. C.S. Holland, RN), heavy cruisers HMS Cumberland (Capt. G.H.E. Russell, RN), HMS Cornwall (Capt. C.F. Hammill, RN) (detached), HMAS Australia (Capt. R.R. Stewart, RN), light cruisers HMS Delhi (Capt. A.S. Russell, RN) (detached) and HMS Dragon (Capt. R.W. Shaw, MBE, RN), destroyers HMS Echo (Cdr. S.H.K. Spurgeon, DSO, RAN), HMS Eclipse (Lt.Cdr. I.T. Clark, RN) and HMS Escapade (Cdr. H.R. Graham, DSO, RN), HMS Faulknor (Capt. A.F. de Salis, RN), HMS Forester (Lt.Cdr. E.B. Tancock, RN), HMS Foresight (Lt.Cdr. G.T. Lambert, RN), HMS Fortune (Cdr. E.A. Gibbs, DSO, RN), HMS Fury (Lt.Cdr. T.C. Robinson, RN) and HMS Greyhound (Cdr. W.R. Marshall A'Deane, DSO, DSC, RN) and HMS Inglefield (Capt. P. Todd, DSO, RN), sloops HMS Bridgewater (A/Cdr. (Retd.) H.F.G. Leftwich, RN), HMS Milford, Savorgnan de Brazza (Free French, Lt.Cdr. A. Roux), Commandant Dominé (Free French, Lt. J.P.Y. de la Porte des Vaux) and Commandant Duboc (Free French, Lt.Cdr. M.A.F. Bourgine) , auxiliary patrol vessel Président Houduce (Free French, Lt. L. Deschatres) and the net tender HMS Quannet (T/Lt. C.E. Richardson, RNR).
Vice-Admiral Cunningham then transferred his flag from HMS Devonshire to HMS Barham accompanied by General Irwin and his staff. All was ready for the passage to Dakar but at General de Gaulle request the opening day was deferred to 23 September.
The task force would arrive off Dakar at dawn on 23 September. It would patrol in groups while French airmen would take off in aircraft from HMS Ark Royal and land at Ouakam airfield to endeavour to win over the French air force. British aircraft meanwhile would drop proclamations and announcements of the arrival of de Gaulle on the town of Dakar and the forts.
An hour later, Captain d’Argenlieu would land in a motor boat with a communication from General de Gaulle to the Governor requiring a reply within two hours. The Free French sloops carrying de Gaulle’s troops would approach and, if necessary, force the anti-submarine boom. Meanwhile Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s Force with fighter and anti-submarine patrols would lie off the harbour as follows.
Group A) The two French troopships, Pennland and Westernland, ten miles to the south of Cape Manuel.
Group B) HMS Barham, HMS Resolution and the cruisers, two miles to the seaward of group A.
Group C) The four British troopships, two miles to the seaward of Group B.
Group D) The other transports, six miles to the seaward of Group C.
Group E) HMS Ark Royal further to the seaward.
If there appeared to be a good chance of a favourable reception the Free French sloops would land their troops at one of the wharves while the French troopships made for the harbour.
It was hoped that the forts would be reluctant to fire on French ships and as soon as de Gaulle was firmly established the British Force would withdraw. If the forts offered serious resistance General de Gaulle would call on Vice-Admiral Cunningham to quell it with a minimum of force. If it was clear that an organised and continuous resistance would be offered and local authorities refused to parley, the Free French ships would withdraw out of range while the British force broke down resistance and landed troops to capture the town and its defences.
The possible contingencies would be referred to as situation ‘Happy’, ‘Sticky’ or ‘Nasty’ according to events. ‘Happy’ would mean a favourable reception and unopposed landing. ‘Sticky’ would mean resistance of a formal or sporadic nature. ‘Nasty’ would mean serious resistance. HM ships then would move in to engage the forts, and British troops would prepare to land.
Commencement of operations.
The forces left Freetown in three groups;
Group I consisted of the five transports escorted by HMS Bridgewater, HMS Quannet and President Houduce. It had already left Freetown on the 19th of September.
Group II consisted of the French troopships Pennland and Westernland, the food ship Belgravian and the three Free French sloops and also of the British troopships Ettrick, Karanja, Kenya and Sobieski escorted by HMS Devonshire, HMS Faulknor, HMS Forester, HMS Fury and HMS Milford (Capt.(Retd.) S.K. Smyth, RN). This group departed Freetown at 0600/21.
Group III consisted of HMS Barham, HMS Resolution, HMS Ark Royal, HMS Inglefield, HMS Greyhound, HMS Foresight, HMS Fortune, HMS Echo and HMS Escapade. This group departed Freetown at 0900/21. Early the next day this group was joined by HMS Cumberland, HMAS Australia and HMS Dragon.
The weather was fine and the sea was calm. Passage north to Dakar was uneventful. Aircraft from the Ark Royal conducted photographic reconnaissance on the 22nd.
At Dakar there were the following French warships; the uncompleted battleship Richelieu, the light cruisers Georges Leygues and Montcalm, the destroyers Le Fantasque, Le Malin, L’Audacieux and Le Hardi, three submarines Ajax, Perseé and Bévéziers (this last one was in dock) and some smaller vessels.
Zero hour for the commencement of the attack was set at 0550/23 and all ships managed to get into their assigned positions at that time. Visibility was however very poor due to mist, and was no more then 3 to 5 nautical miles. The fog was expected to clear during the day but in fact the opposite happened and visibility decreased steadily during the day. The shore was rarely sighted.
During the forenoon, the warships and transports patrolled up and down. Punctually at daybreak (0505 hours), HMS Ark Royal, then some 25 nautical miles from Dakar, flew off five aircraft most of which were manned by Free French flying officers. Two of these aircraft landed safely at Ouakam airfield at 0554 hours. Within 10 minutes a signal was displayed indicating ‘success’. This however proved to be premature. At 0608 hours a third aircraft landed on the airfield. Disembarked her three passengers and then took off without much interference. Two minutes later the ‘success’ signal was removed and a fourth aircraft broke off her attempt to land. Nothing more was heard from the Free French officers that had been landed. Two fighters were then seen to take off and they chased away the three remaining aircraft together with AA fire from the Richelieu and from the battery on Gorée Island. The attempt to win over the airfield had failed.
HMS Barham had sighted the Westernland at 0600 hours and Vice-Admiral Cunningham had sent a message of goodwill to General de Gaulle. The Free French sloop Savorgnan de Brazza was of the boom at 0555 hours and her two motor boats, with Captain d’Argenlieu and the Generals other emissaries were on their way to the boom gate at 0605 hours. The gate was open and at 0640 hours they were entering the harbour.
Visibility was poor, and the Savorgnan de Brazza took station of the boom to keep the boats in sight. The emissaries landed and encountered a hot reception. They were fired on and wounded in resisting an attempt to arrest them, but managed to re-embark and withdraw under fire. A blank round was fired at the Savorgnan de Brazza at 0745 hours followed by three salvoes, which fell astern. Just then the motor boats were sighted and at 0750 hours Captain d’Argenlieu sent a signal that he had met serious resistance. This reached Vice-Admiral Cunningham at 0807 hours. The other French sloops were to be at the boom at 0905 hours to pass it (or force it if needed) and land their troops. If the reception had been favourable the French troopships were then to enter the harbour to disembark the main body of troops. The Commandant Dominé and Commandant Duboc were actually at the boom at 0805 hours, one hour early. They encountered no opposition until they approached the mole. They were taken under fire with heavy machine guns and were ordered to stop. The Richelieu fired a blank round and then opened fire with small guns. Both sloops then turned for the gate under the cover of a smoke screen. Also the guns from the Gorée Island battery were joining in. At 0820 hours the Commandant Dominé and Commandant Duboc were sighted by the Savorgnan de Brazza which was intended to lead them in at 0905 hours. The sloops had not expected such a hostile reception and retired on the British Fleet which was sighted a 0900 hours.
Meanwhile HMS Barham at 0706 hours had turned north-north-west towards the land, and at 0740 hours Cape Manuel was in sight some 5 nautical miles away. At 0827 hours, with the land still just visible from HMS Barham Vice-Admiral Cunningham asked General de Gaulle whether he wished the British ships to close the shore and show themselves at the risk of being fired on. Five minutes later came the signal ‘proposals rejected’. At 0840 hours General de Gaulle signalled that the Richelieu and Gorée Island guns had been firing and that he had ordered his own ships to make a determined effort; if they failed he suggested that the Vice-Admiral should show himself of Dakar. Just then, one minute later, came the signal from the Savorgnan de Brazza confirming the emissary’s proposals had been rejected.
It was clear by this time an unfavourable situation was rapidly developing. General de Gaulle’s proposals to the Governor had been rejected and two of his emissaries had been seriously wounded, his sloops had been fired upon and the Vichy French ships in the harbour were raising steam. In spite of these manifest tokens of hostility the General apparently still hoped for a peaceful solution. At 0905 hours, however, Vice-Admiral Cunningham warned his force that the situation was developing towards ‘Sticky’.
Valuable and comprehensive reports were coming in from the British aircraft reconnoitring Dakar. Although these aircraft were fired on by all the French ships in the harbour and by machine guns on the jetty, Vice-Admiral Cunningham gave orders that a French flying boat over the fleet should not be attaked, for there still seemed to be hopeful signs that the French air force might join de Gaulle. At 0948 hours a signal arrived from HMS Ark Royal to say that one of the Gloire class cruisers had slipped. The Vice-Admiral at once instructed HMS Foresight, the northern destroyer of the anti-submarine screen, to order any French cruiser sighted to return to harbour. At 1005 hours, however, the shore batteries opened fire on HMS Foresight and the Vice-Admiral ordered her to withdraw following this with a signal to HMS Ark Royal to stand by with six aircraft to bomb Gorée Island. He also warned the French Admiral that if the fire were continued he would regretfully be compelled to return it. The French Admiral replied that if Vice-Admiral Cunningham did not wish him to fire he should remove himself more then 20 nautical miles from Dakar. Meanwhile the force had turned westwards at 1016 hours. Two minutes later Vice-Admiral Cunningham detached HMAS Australia to examine a ship reported to the north. At 1025 hours, HMAS Australia, identified two Le Fantasque class destroyers steering westwards and ordered them to return to harbour, backing up this order with a warning shot. They at once turned back and the Australia then resumed her place in line after having been fired upon by shore guns.
At 1030 hours, two La Galissonnière class cruisers were reported leaving Dakar and Vice-Admiral Cunningham at once informed the French that if their ships left the harbour he would use force to compel their return. Two French submarines were also reported to be underway and at 1050 hours Vice-Admiral Cunningham warned the French Admiral that if they left Dakar harbour he would attack them. One minute later a report came in that the submarines were passing the entrance and when a torpedo missed HMS Foresight Vice-Admiral Cunningham cancelled the order for HMS Ark Royal to bomb Gorée Island but to bomb the submarines instead. At the same time he detached HMS Inglefield and HMS Foresight to attack them and he also turned the remained of the force to close Gorée Island to support them. Almost immediately HMS Foresight came under fire and at 1051 hours she was hit forward by a shell. Thus the actual first hit was made by the French.
By 1100 hours the whole force was under fire from the guns at Cape Manuel. HMS Inglefield reported also being missed by a torpedo. Two minutes later HMS Inglefield and HMS Foresight were were engaging one of the submarines (the Perseé) on the surface to the north-westward. Events followed rapidly. HMS Inglefield was hit by a shore battery. By 1104 hours the submarine was sighted on the Barham’s port bow. She was engaged by the 6” guns from HMS Barham, HMS Resolution and HMS Dragon. She was badly hit and soon abandoned by her crew, finally sinking at 1137 hours in position 065°, Cape Manuel lighthouse, 2740 yards. Simultaneously HMS Barham fired five 15” gun salvoes at the Cape Manuel battery but accordingly to a subsequent French broadcast they caused heavy civilian casualties ashore.
When the force turned back to the south-westwards at 1107 hours, HMS Inglefield was again hit aft by a shore battery. With HMS Foresight she engaged the second submarine (the Ajax) which at once made for the harbour entrance, and Vice-Admiral Cunningham, still hoping for a peaceful solution, and in accordance with the agreement to use no more force then necessary to overcome sporadic resistance, ordered the force to cease fire.
At 1119 hours however, HMS Dragon, ordered to attack the second submarine, came under fire from the guns at Cape Manuel. The whole force at once turned west but though the land was barely visible through the mist, HMS Foresight and HMS Cumberland, which were close to HMS Barham were hit almost immediately by the shore guns. The damage to HMS Cumberland was serious. She was struck by what was thought to be an 11.2” shell (actually it was a 9.4” shell) just above the armour belt on the port side. The engine rooms became temporary untendable and she was forced to withdraw, taking no further part in the operation. Nothing further was to be gained by remaining close inshore and at 1135 hours the force turned to the southward.
At 1154 hours a signal from the High Commissioner, French West Africa was received stating ‘We confirm that we will oppose all landings, you have taken the initiative in causing French blood to flow’. The situation at noon was thus far from hopeful but it was decided a final attempt to land the Free French troops at Rufisque would be undertaken (operation ‘Charles’).
Operation ‘Charles’ was to be a final attempt for a peaceful landing of the Free French troops at Rufisque Bay before beginning a systematic reduction of the Dakar defences as a preliminary to a British landing.
It was considered essential in this plan to maintain the French character of the landing as far as possible; the Free French transports were to be accompanied as far as possible by their own warships, and by two British destroyers only, HMS Inglefield and HMS Forester, which would lead them in and, if necessary, provide flanking fire.
At 1158 hours, Vice-Admiral Cunningham signalled to de Gaulle, ‘what about operation ‘Charles’ now ?’. The General replied at 1212 hours that he desired to to ahead with operation ‘Charles’ but that he required the latest reports. He was then given the latest aircraft reports, which showed no surface ships outside the boom. A zero hour for ‘Charles’ was then set at 1530 hours if the Generals ships could reach Rufisque Bay in time. A signal was sent to the entire force that the situation was now ‘Sticky’.
General de Gaulle then asked Vice-Admiral Cunningham what opposition might be expected from shore batteries and the Vice-Admiral replied that the bad visibility would help the forces taking part in ‘Operation Charles’. At 1335 hours HMS Barham proceeded westwards to endeavour to locate the General’s flagship the Westernland but she could not be found. HMS Barham then spent three hours searching for her in the mist.
A baffling phase of uncertainty followed. In the thick weather which precluded visual signalling between Barham and Westernland radio telephony and wireless communication between Vice-Admiral Cunningham and General de Gaulle, though at first satisfactory, deteriorated progressively during the afternoon. This was due to jamming of radio telephony by a heavy traffic of military signals between the Westernland herself and the Free French sloops. At the root of the trouble was the fact that General de Gaulle was in a separate ship. Everything possible had been done to improvise additional lines of communication, but these proved inadequate to meet the situation. For some three hours that afternoon all contact was lost with General de Gaulle and the French transports.
At 1358 hours Vice-Admiral Cunningham informed the Admiralty that de Gaulle was attempting a landing but at 1445 hours a signal was received from de Gaulle to say that he was awaiting instructions to which the Vice-Admiral replied at 1504 hours ‘carry out Charles, report zero hour’.
But to carry out ‘Charles’, however, HMS Inglefield and HMS Forester had to get in touch with the French transports, and despite repeated calls for their positions no one knew where they were.
An ultimatum was made ready to be sent to the authorities and people of Dakar informing them that failing to accept General de Gaulle proposals, the British fleet would open fire on the fortifications of Dakar. This was misunderstood by General de Gaulle and he thought that the ultimatum had already been delivered so he suspended ‘Operation Charles’. Troops would not be landed by the transports but only a smaller number would be landed by the French sloops. Vice-Admiral Cunningham was only informed about this after two hours.
Meanwhile further complications had arisen. Aircraft reported a French destroyer off Gorée Island (this was the L’Audacieux), threatening the approach to Rufisque Bay. HMAS Australia, HMS Fury and HMS Greyhound were detached at 1608 hours to ward her off. The French destroyer was engaged and set on fire after she had fired two torpedoes at HMAS Australia.
Around 1630 hours HMS Devonshire finally sighted the French transports some 20 nautical miles from Rufisque Bay. This meant that ‘Charles’ could not be completed before dark. These was at least one enemy submarine (possibly two) in the area. In these weather conditions it was not though possible to give sufficient protection to the transports in Rufisque Bay. On these grounds Vice-Admiral Cunningham cancelled ‘Operation Charles’ at 1642 hours.
Two minutes later an air report reached him reporting two La Galissonniere class cruisers three nautical miles north-north-east of Gorée Island which were steering towards Rufisque Bay at 17 knots. Vice-Admiral Cunningham at once turned the battleships towards Rufisque to cover the Westernland and Pennland in case they were still making for it. He held this course until 1710 hours and then altered to the southward to regain contact with the British transports. A signal timed 1635 hours from General de Gaulle that he expected to arrive at 1650 hours, which would be zero hour, reached Vice-Admiral Cunningham at 1720 hours. Actually at that moment the Free French sloops, having parted from the French transports at 1648 hours reached Rufisque Bay. It is not clear how they were missed by the Vichy cruisers, which and air report placed, together with a large destroyer, two nautical miles were of Rufisque at 1740 hours. This was the last air report, for at 1745 hours weather conditions obliged HMS Ark Royal to withdraw all reconnaissance aircraft. It did not reach Vice-Admiral Cunningham until 1835 hours.
Meanwhile at 1805 hours, General de Gaulle’s signal timed 1620 hours had at last arrived and the Vice-Admiral knew that the Free French sloops would probably be attempting a landing. He immediately sent off HMS Inglefield and HMS Forester, which found the Westernland in position 155°, Rufisque Bay, 10 nautical miles at 1835 hours.
Free French sloops at Rufisque, 23 September 1940.
As mentioned previously the Free French sloops parted company with the Westernland and Pennland at 1648 hours some 7.5 nautical miles from Rufisque to carry out ‘their mission’. There seemed to be considerable doubt as to what this mission was. It certainly was not ‘Operation Charles’ as had been intended. The landing party in each sloop consisted of about 60 ‘fusilier marines’, making it about 180 in total. They arrived off Rusfisque at 1720 hours. The Savornan de Brazza, whose draught was greater then the other two, anchored about 500 yards from the shore. The Commandant Dominé and Commandant Duboc pushed in right towards the jetty, and all three lowered their boats. Fire was almost immediately opened on the Commandant Duboc by a 4” gun in a blockhouse at Cap de Biches. She was hit and one officer was killed and three men seriously wounded. Fire was opened by the sloops and the battery was knocked out. The Commandant Duboc then retired behind a smoke screen. Two of the Savorgnan de Brazza’s motor boats towing whalers were making for the beach to the right of the jetty. When within 300 yards from the shore they met with heavy machine gun fire and stopped, while the Commandant Dominé, covering them, opened fire on the shore emplacements, but could not locate them in the failing light and mist. But then at 1758 hours a signal was received from the Westernland cancelling ‘Operation Charles’. The landing parties were then re-embarked and at 1838 hours the three Free French sloops left for their patrol line.
The day was drawing to a close. All hopes of a friendly reception had been scattered. The ships were lying in a fog off a hostile coast with submarines in the vicinity. Vice-Admiral Cunningham and General Irwin considered landing British forces at Rufisque, but decided against it.
At 1910/23, while the Free French sloops were closing the Westernland and Pennland, Vice-Admiral Cunningham with the ‘battlefleet’; HMS Barham, HMS Resolution and HMS Devonshire, turned west to cover the transports (which were still to the southward) for the night.
Ten minutes before, at 1900 hours, the Vichy French Governor General, M. Pierre Boisson, had in a broadcast stated emphatically that Dakar would not submit. There could be no further hope of a peaceful settlement and at 2052 hours General de Gaulle was asked whether he agreed that the situation was now ‘Nasty’ and to the issue of the ultimatum. The Admiralty had been kept fully informed of the situation and at 2105 hours a personal message from the Prime Minister arrived ‘Having begun we must go on to the end, stop at nothing’.
General de Gaulle reply arrived at 22235 hours, he agreed that the situation was now ‘Nasty’ and that the ultimatum should go out. It was broadcast at 2345 hours in French and English to the Admiral, Governor General and people of Dakar. They had prevented General de Gaulle from landing. Dakar might be seized by the Germans / Italians and the Allies were bound to prevent this. Their forces were approaching. The conditions offered must be accepted by 0600/24 or the guns of the Allies would open fire.
The Governor General’s answer reached Vice-Admiral Cunningham at 0400/24. It was an unqualified refusal; ‘I shall defend Dakar to the end’. There was nothing more to be said. At dawn the battlefleet was approaching the coast to take up their bombardment stations.
The attack on Dakar, the attack opens, 24 September 1940.
HMS Ark Royal had orders to carry out a reconnaissance as early as possible backed up by bombing attacks on the Richelieu, Forts Manual and Gorée, and the two light cruisers lying off Dakar.
Visibility had greatly improved since the previous day and was six nautical miles at 0625 hours when the first striking force of six Skua’s of No. 800 Squadron, loaded with 500 lb. S.A.P. bombs, took off from HMS Ark Royal to attack the cruisers and other suitable targets.
At 0703 hours aircraft reported a destroyer damaged off Rufisque, two cruisers in the roads and three destroyers coming slowly out. It was seven minutes later when the Skuas carried out a high level bombing attack on the Richelieu and one of the destroyers. By this time the battlefleet was on its bombardment course and the Barham’s spotting aircraft was in the air. They were followed by six Swordfish of No. 820 Squadron loaded with G.P. bombs for an attack on the town of Dakar, which was to synchronise with the ships bombardment.
It had been calculated that at 0725 hours the battlefleet would be within 16000 yards of the forts and fire could be opened, but unfortunately when the moment arrived nothing could be seen of them in the prevailing mist. A long range bombardment was clearly impractical, and the fleet turned away temporarily in order to re-dispose the cruisers and destroyers for a short range attack. At the same time HMS Fortune was detached to obtain a shore fix, but she came under accurate fire from the forts and her fix proved unreliable.
The Ark Royal’s first Swordfish striking force was diverted to bomb Cape Manuel. At 0800 hours she despatched another striking force of six Swordfish of No. 810 Squadron loaded with S.A.P. bombs to attack the Richelieu. It was hoped that by the time it attacked the Richelieu the opening of the naval bombardment would provide a diversion, but this did not occur; one Swordfish was shot down and two others failed to return.
A diversion was also provided on the enemy’s side. At 0805 hours HMS Fortune, which had rejoined the battlefleet, reported a submarine contact inside the screen and dropped three depth charges. At 0831 hours the Vichy French submarine Ajax surfaced. She was unable to dive or move and surrendered. Her whole crew was rescued before she sank. The Fortune’s boarding party found six ‘tube ready’ light burning, and it was evidently only the destroyers depth charges that saved the fleet from attack.
The incident still further delayed the bombardment and it was not till 0920 hours, forty minutes after the first Swordfish striking force had attacked the Richelieu with S.A.P. bombs, that Gorée Island was sighted. At 0935 hours the shore batteries opened fire and one minute later the Barham and Resolution replied with their 15” guns, firing on the Richelieu at ranges of 13600 to 15000 yards respectively, while the cruisers HMAS Australia and HMS Devonshire engaged a destroyer of the Le Fantasque class.
The first bombardment.
As soon as the British ships opened fire a French destroyer of the Le Fantasque class steamed south laying a smoke screen to the eastward of the anchorage and Gorée Island. The French cruisers inside the boom to the northward, sheltering amongst the many merchant vessels, also made a smoke screen, which drifted slowly south and, combining with the mist and heavy smoke from the vicinity of the Richelieu, eventually obscured all targets.
Shooting became extreme difficult, for range taking was nearly impossible. There were other serious handicaps. HMS Barham, which was newly commissioned after repairs, had never carried out any bombardment practice. Neither battleship had done any concentration firing, and neither had its customary observer in the air.
After engaging the Richelieu for nine minutes the Resolution’s director training gear failed and she shifted fire to the Cape Manuel battery, on which she probably obtained a hit. The Barham’s aircraft reported several straddles across the Richelieu, which was thought to have been hit. The smoke-laying cruiser was still active, and at 0942 hours the Barham’s 6” guns engaged her without success.
Meanwhile the Devonshire and Australia had engaged and damaged a large destroyer of Rufisque which was subsequently engaged by the Inglefield, Foresight and Forester, and left burning.
The fire encountered by the fleet consisted of occasional one- and two-gun salvoes (yellow splash) from the Richelieu’s 15” guns, salvoes of 9.4” from Cape Manuel (white splash), Gorée Island, and an unseen battery, and a number of smaller rounds from the Richelieu and various shore batteries. The French fire was slow but accurate. By 1010 hours the targets were wholly obscured by smoke, and shortly afterward the fleet withdrew to the southward, leaving the Ark Royal to report the result of the bombardment.
As the fleet made to the south, Vichy Glenn-Martin bombers made high level attacks on it without success, though three bombs fell close to HMAS Australia.
At 1141 hours the Ark Royal reported the results of the bombardment; several near misses with bombs on the Richelieu; one near miss with a bomb on a destroyers; one 15” hit on the Cape Manual battery, which had ceased fire; one 15” hit and repeated straddles on the Richelieu; straddles across the cruisers in Hahn Bay, one of which was set on fire aft. No hits had been obtained on the Gorée Island battery.
The second bombardment.
At 1146 hours relief spotting aircraft for the battleships were ordered and targets for a further bombardment at 1315 hours were allocated as follows; the Barham on Richelieu; the Resolution on Goréé Island; the Devonshire on Cape Manuel; the Australia on the cruisers inside the boom. The spotting aircraft took off from HMS Ark Royal at 1220 hours and as a report reached her about this time that Vichy cruisers and destroyers were proceeding towards Rufisque, a torpedo striking force was got ready to attack them immediately after the second bombardment.
French aircraft were still busy. At 1217 hours a French bomber dropped six bombs close to HMS Barham. It was driven off by Skuas. Shortly afterwards a shadowing cruiser was sighted while the fleet was approaching Gorée Island. She was engaged from 14500 yards by the main armament from HMS Barham and HMS Resolution. She then turned away under a smoke screen. Fire was then checked. At 1248 hours, Vice-Admiral Cunningham ordered the Devonshire and Australia to engage her, but cancelled this order five minutes later when his destroyers, which were coming under an accurate fire from shore batteries, were told to take station on his disengaged side. By an unfortunate mischance the first order – to engage the cruiser – never reached the Devonshire and she interpreted Vice-Admiral Cunningham’s second signal ‘cruisers negative engage’, which referred only to the hostile cruiser, as an order to take no further part in the bombardment. Accordingly at 1300 hours she turned away to the east with HMAS Australia and neither ship took part in the subsequent bombardment.
The bombardment was reopened in the afternoon, at 1300 hours HMS Barham obtained a shore fix and turned north-west on her bombardment course. Five minutes later she engaged the Richelieu bearing 330°, range 17000 yards. HMS Resolution opened fire on Gorée Island from 16000 yards. The batteries at Cape Manuel, which had been reported hit, Gorée Island and Dakar Point at once replied. The Richelieu also opened fire with her 15” guns firing two gun salvoes with fair accuracy. She continued firing until her fire was blanked by the mole.
The French gunfire concentrated on the Barham and was heaviest between 1312 and 1320 hours. At 1315 hours an 9.4” projectile hit the Barham. At 1320 hours she was hit again and two minutes later she was hit twice.
The smoke screen tactics of the forenoon were repeated as soon as the British ships were sighted, and by 1311 hours the targets again became obscured. Although spotting aircraft reported that the Barham was straddling the Richelieu, the salvos appeared to be out for line, and apparently the Vichy French battleship was not being hit. The Resolution did not succeed in silencing the main Gorée Island battery and it is doubtful whether she was being spotted on the correct target. She was straddled by several salvoes of 5.4” and 6” shells from the shore batteries. At 1323 hours the Richelieu ceased fire. A minute later HMS Barham and HMS Resolution broke off the attack and at at 1326 hours the shore batteries also ceased firing.
The results of the bombardment were not encouraging. Despite the expenditure of nearly 400 rounds of 15” ammunition, none of the larger shore batteries had been silenced. The Richelieu was still in action, and the position of several 5.4” batteries, whose fire had proven effective against the destroyers, and would be still more so against the transports, had not even been located.
In spite of the poor visibility the fire of the shore batteries had been remarkably accurate and indicated that their fire was directed by listening devices rather then from forward observation posts, from which the battlefleet would generally had been out of sight. French air action had increased considerably since the previous day and the French will to resist appeared unimpaired. A report from HMS Ark Royal stated that the hostile attitude of the French fighters had made it hazardous for her aircraft to operate in the Dakar harbour area.
The question of a landing in force still remained. In these circumstances Vice-Admiral Cunningham decided to consult General de Gaulle and at 1400 hours the Barham withdrew to the southward to meet the Westernland before dark.
Swordfish aircraft attack the French cruisers.
Then minutes later, at 1410 hours, HMS Ark Royal’s striking force of nine Swordfish aircraft of No. 820 and 810 Squadrons took off while a fighter escort of three Skuas to attack the Vichy-French cruisers proceeding towards Rufisque. At 1440 hours the leader was forced down with engine trouble, his crew being picked up by the destroyer HMS Escapade. At 1500 hours the eight remaining Swordfish Swordfish attacked the two La Galissonnière class cruisers and a destroyer in the bay. In the prevailing haze the attack, which was made from an east-south-easterly direction, took the French by surprise. When the first sub-flight came down just outside the anti-submarine nets the three vessels were barely moving, but they immediately put their helms hard over and turned to port at full speed. The Swordfish claimed hits on one of the cruisers and the destroyer but this seemed to be doubtful. One Swordfish was forced down by AA fire on her way back to the Ark Royal. The crew was rescued by the destroyer HMS Echo.
Conference with General de Gaulle.
HMS Barham stopped at 1615 hours. General de Gaulle then came on board to confer with Vice-Admiral Cunningham and General Irwin. General de Gaulle, though deeply distressed and surprised about the nature of the defences, was still confident that the situation in French West Africa would improve as the power of his movement grew stronger. He explained that in view of the determined opposition encountered, and the probable destructive effects of the bombardment, it was imperative, from the point of view from the French opinion, that he should not be closely connected with the destruction and loss of French life, which had presumably taken place, lest his further utility to the common cause should be hopelessly compromised.
Though he would prefer not to use his troops he was prepared, if really needed, to support a British landing regardless of consequences. He considered, however, that a British landing was no longer feasible, and emphasised that a reverse would be a most serious check to the Allied cause.
He blamed himself for undue optimism in underestimating the possibility of a resolute defence, and suggested that the bombardment should be suspended at his direct request and Dakar so informed; that his forces should go to Bathurst for exercises, with a view of a possible advance upon Dakar over land; that British naval action should be taken to cover his passage and prevent the reinforcement and revictualling of Dakar.
General de Gaulle returned to the Westernland at 1800 hours. The situation was considered by Vice-Admiral Cunningham and General Irwin in the light of these proposals. A Swordfish, which had crashed near the Barham at 1830 hours, reported that one cruiser was beached and burning east of Rufisque, one buring in Gorée Bay, and two detroyers were beached in Hann Bay (this information was subsequently found to be incorrect). It was essential to immobilise the Vichy French cruisers and neutralise the main armament of the French forts before attempting a landing. It was decided that the attack on the defences must be renewed the next day if weather conditions were favourable. General de Gaulle and the Admiralty were informed accordingly and dispositions were made for a landing of British troops at Rufisque, to follow up any success obtained by the bombardment.
Final bombardment. HMS Resolution torpedoed.
The next day, 25 September 1940, broke fine and clear with extreme visibility. The Ark Royal at 1531/24 had proposed bombing Ouakam and Gorée at dawn and at 2348/24 was ordered to do so, but owning to wireless congestion, this was not received until 0200/25 when Captain Holland considered it too late. The targets allocated to the battleships and cruisers were the same as for the second bombardment; spotting aircraft, with fighter protection, were to be in position at 0900/25. At 0530 hours three reconnaissance aircraft took off from the Ark Royal, but by 0700 hours, two had been driven back by French fighter patrols. At 0754 hours, HMS Devonshire sighted a submarine submerging some eight nautical miles to the east of the battlefleet, which was then some 25 nautical miles to the south of Dakar. HMS Forester was at once detached to hunt it, leaving only two destroyers to screen the battlefleet.
At 0803 hours they were ordered to withdraw to the disengaged flank as soon as the shore batteries opened fire. The battleships were then steaming towards Gorée Island ready to open fire, with the cruisers three miles away to the east. HMS Resolution had orders to take independent avoiding action if necessary during the bombardment. At 0857 hours a circular buoy was sighted which HMS Barham fired on, suspecting it to be a sound locating device. One minute later the Richelieu opened fire on HMS Barham from a range of 23000 yards.
At 0901 hours the signal to turn to the bombarding course (050°) was hauled down in HMS Barham. It was not only the British which acted on this signal. Captain Lancelot of the Vichy submarine Bévézièrs was watching the approaching battleships though the periscope. Experience with the Royal Navy before the fall of France had taught him our manoeuvring signals. On seeing ‘Blue 7’ hoised, he waited for it to be hauled down; then fired his torpedoes at the turning point. Thus it came about that as the Resolution was turning, five torpedoes were seen approaching her port beam. Already committed to the turn she could only apply full helm in the hope of turning short and combing the tracks. In this she almost succeeded, for three torpedoes passed ahead and another narrowly missed her astern. The fifth, however, struck her on the port side amidships causing serious flooding, but fortunately no loss of life. HMS Barham avoided the three torpedoes that had missed the Resolution ahead and they passed astern, exploding harmlessly on the bottom.
HMS Resolution, which had developed a list of 12° to port, was still able to steam. At 0905 hours HMS Barham opened fire on the Richelieu from 21000 yards and also the cruisers engaged their targets, HMS Devonshire firing on Cape Manuel and HMAS Australia on the French cruisers inside the boom. Fire from the Richelieu and shore batteries was deliberate and accurate; it was concentrated on HMS Barham and frequently straddled her. The British cruisers were also under heavy fire. HMS Barham was hit once and HMAS Australia twice. HMS Resolution was badly damaged and it was necessary for her to withdraw and at 0912 hours HMS Barham turned to cover her. About this time HMS Foresight reported that she had sunk the French submarine with depth charges (but this was not the case). She and HMS Inglefield were then ordered to cover HMS Resolution with a smoke screen. The two cruisers were recalled. About 0918 hours Vichy French fighters shot down the Australia’s Walrus aircraft. HMS Forester was ordered to try to rescue the crew but she came under heavy fire from shore batteries and had to retire.
At 0921 hours, HMS Barham ceased fire and took station close astern of HMS Resolution with HMS Devonshire and HMAS Australia on each quarter. The Ark Royal was ordered to provide maximum fighter protection, and the battlefleet withdrew to the southward.
HMS Resolution was steaming at 10 knots and between 0940 and 0950 hours two high level bombing attacks were made on her, both of them were unsuccessful. The whole force now steered south-west at the best possible speed and by 1134 hours the flagship, HMS Barham had the whole force in sight.
The Vice-Admiral now had to decide whether to continue the attack on Dakar or to withdraw his force. The chance of capturing Dakar was clearly remote and in the end it was decided to discontinue the attack and to withdraw his force to Freetown without further delay. A signal to this effect was made at 1152 hours.
Withdrawal to Freetown.
Before a signal could be passed to the Admiralty a signal was received from the Prime Minister who was aware of the damage to HMS Resolution. Vice-Admiral Cunningham was ordered to abandon the enterprise against Dakar.
By 2000/25, HMS Barham was about 100 nautical miles south of Dakar steering south at 7 knots. The next day the sea was smooth as the weather was fine. HMS Resolution was taken in tow by HMS Barham. On the 27th the tow parted but was quickly secured again and the battleships were able to continue southwards at 6 knots.
HMS Cumberland rejoined the force having effected temporary repairs at Freetown. HMS Cornwall and HMS Delhi had also joined after having chased the French cruiser Primaguet and the tanker Tarn.
At 0550/29, HMS Barham passed the boom at Freetown followed by the rest of the force. So ended a difficult operation. No British warship had been sunk but several had been damaged. HMS Cumberland was out of action for 13 day and HMS Fiji for six months. HMS Resolution was temporarily patched up at Freetown but was not fully operational. She returned to England six months later but was then sent on to the U.S.A. for full repairs. It was a full year later before she was again ready for active service. Five more ships HMS Barham, HMAS Australia, HMS Dragon, HMS Inglefield and HMS Foresight were also damaged but their fighting efficiency was not seriously impaired. (2)
- Personal communication
- ADM 234/318
ADM numbers indicate documents at the British National Archives at Kew, London.