- Editorial Staff
- WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
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- September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A previous article by Vince Fazio in our June 2011 edition concerned the involvement of HMAS Australia with Vichy French forces off Dakar. Australia had been sent as a late replacement for the battle damaged cruiser HMS Fiji. Fiji had been a unit of “Force H” to which this article relates.
At the outbreak of WW II Allied responsibilities for naval affairs in the Mediterranean was divided on a geographical basis between the French Fleet in the west based at Toulon and the British Fleet in the east based at Alexandria. By June 1940 with the French capitulation Britain was alone and gravely concerned that the powerful French Fleet might fall into German hands and dramatically change the naval balance of power. A combined German—Italian-French fleet would be superior to that of the Royal Navy. To prevent this a formidable battle group known as “Force H” was assigned to the Mediterranean. While the composition of “Force H” varied according to tasking it included the carriers Ark Royal, Eagle and Illustrious, the battleships Malaya, Nelson and Valiant, battle cruisers Hood and Renown and the cruisers Aesthesia, Calcutta, Coventry, Fiji, Hermione, and Sheffield, in addition there were 19 destroyers and a number of submarines. The Fleet was under the command of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville, initially flying his flag in Hood, who reported directly to the First Sea Lord.
“Force H” was extremely active firstly with the unenviable task of ensuring French neutrality it was obliged to fire upon French warships seeking refuge in the French Algerian ports of Mers-el-Kebir and Oran. One battleship Bretagne was sunk and five other ships damaged with significant loss of life. Somerville was personally opposed to this task which he found highly offensive, nevertheless orders had to be and were obeyed without question. Other engagements were against the large Italian Fleet and in supporting Malta Convoys. The most notable encounter was with the German battleship Bismarck which after sinking Hood on 24 May 1941 was seeking refuge in Axis occupied French ports. A few days later, Bismarck was damaged by aircraft from Ark Royal and, then sunk by units of the Home Fleet on 27 May 1941. Shortly afterwards Ark Royal was herself to be sunk by U-81 in November 1941.
We have recently been provided with a unique piece of history from these times concerning the Royal Naval bombardment of Genoa known as “Operation Grog” which occurred on 9 February 1941. One of our sprightly 95 year old contributors LCDR Ron Bagley, VRD, RANR (Rtd) was presented with some old yellowed wartime papers by a neighbour Mrs Pauline Herring who was the daughter of Royal Naval Signalman Basil Box who had served in “Force H”. Signalman Box inadvertently failed to destroy an original message from Flag Officer H (HMS Renown flagship) to the rest of the Fleet after completion of the Genoa bombardment. This message written in pencil in his own hand (his daughter confirms the writing) on Admiralty Naval Message Form 1320b Revised December 1935, was received in plain language by signal light at 16:34 on 9 February 1941 and reads:
Observed results of this morning’s engagement at Genoa. Hits on merchant ships, oil tanks and marshalling yards. Large fires in both Ansaaldr electrical works and boiler works. Main power station, dry docks and round inner harbour. Fleet Air Arm attacked Azienda refinery at Leghorn with five tons H.E. and 150 incendiaries in industrial areas. Pisa aerodrome and railway junction hit. I congratulate all concerned on a first class shoot under extremely difficult conditions and especially those responsible for the initial practices and training. (End page 1)
After the bombardment had continued for 30 minutes the British force withdrew. Whilst leaving the Gulf two Italian aircraft attempting to shadow were shot down. Two enemy bombers attacked the Fleet but their bombs fell harmlessly wide. (End page 2)
British forces consisting of Renown, Malaya, Ark Royal, Sheffield and the destroyers Duncan, Iris, Encounter, Jupiter, Jersey, Fortune, Firedrake, Fury, Foresight & Fearless proceeded towards Genoa in the hope and expectation that their appearance in the Gulf would encourage the Italian Fleet sheltering in Northern Italian bases to put to sea and accept action in defence of the bases. In this the British force was disappointed throughout the passage to and from Genoa not a single (End page 3)