Chapter 4: Operations in the Red Sea
General Patrol Duties
During the first six months of the war the East Indies Command was chiefly occupied with routine patrols and the escort of troop convoys. From March 1941, owing to Italy’s attitude, a policy “of moving naval forces from China and the East Indies to the Eastern Mediterranean1 was pursued and six submarines from Hong Kong and four from the East Indies were ordered to proceed there. The Abingdon and 2nd Minesweeping Flotilla also passed through in April from Singapore to the Mediterranean. On 4 April the Admiralty announced their intention to form a Red Sea Force.
The four sloops of the RIN the Hindustan, the Indus, the Clive and the Cornwallis and the auxiliary vessels the Netravati, the Parvati and the Ratnagiri based at Aden, formed part of the Arabian Bengal Ceylon Escort Force (ABCEF ) under the operational control, of the Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Forces. These ships were later joined by HMIS Lawrence, Sutlej and Jumna. All these were empolyed at different periods mostly on general patrol duties in the Aden, Perim and Persian Gulf areas and on convoy escort duties in the Red Sea.
During the month of March 1940 the Lawrence, the Hindustan and the Clive were employed on the Persian Gulf patrol. The Hindustan and the Lawrence assisted the Royal Air Force in the search for the missing Imperial Airways Liner, the Hannibal lost near Jask. The search was fruitless. The Indus and the Cornwallis were employed on the Perim patrol. During April the escort vessels continued their operations in the Persian Gulf and off Aden. In May 1940 the sloops continued to patrol the Persian Gulf and Perim stations. The Cornwallis formed part of the Red Sea Force.
The little island of Perim in the narrow Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb is strategically situated at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. All traffic between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea can be controlled from this point. The Perim control was established soon after the outbreak of war with Germany. German merchant
ships had taken refuge in the Red Sea ports of Massawa and Assab. Besides keeping vigilant watch to prevent their escape into the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, all ships passing to and fro through the Straits were examined and identified.
Italy’s Entry into War
By the end of May 1940, Italy’s intention to enter war as a belligerent had become clear. The British Naval Attaché at Rome reported on 2 June 1940 that Naples appeared to have been practically in military control since 23 May for the transport of troops and stores, and that preparations for war were continuing. Italy announced that from June 6 the waters within 12 miles of her coasts and those of Albania and the Italian colonies would be dangerous to navigation. There were indications also that Italian merchant ships were receiving instructions to proceed to neutral ports. At 1630 on 10 June, the British and French Ambassadors in Rome were informed by Count Ciano that from 11 June, Italy considered herself at war. News of the declaration reached the Mediterranean Fleet at 1900. The Admiralty order to commence hostilities was not received in the Fleet until 2208. But preparations were proceeding meanwhile. The Fleet went to two hours’ notice.
As soon as Mussolini’s intention to join his Axis partner was clear beyond doubt, the Red Sea, then still a part of the Command of Vice Admiral R. Leatham, the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, assumed great importance and the threat of the Italian destroyers and submarines, based at Massawa on the flank of our convoy route to Suez, demanded immediate counter measures. Accordingly, on 24 May the Red Sea was closed to shipping until convoys had been formed and the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlyle, three sloops and a division of destroyers passed southward through the Suez Canal to provide the necessary escorts. As it happened, the Italian threat to this route proved more theoretical than real; the submarines were easily dealt with – of the eight originally based east of Suez, no less than three were destroyed and one was captured intact in June; the destroyers, of which there were initially nine, never interfered effectively with the steady progress of our convoys, and bombing by Italian aircraft was equally devoid of results. The Chiefs of Staff, who at the end of 1939 had stated that “we might expect that even in the early stages (of a war with Italy), it would be possible to pass occasional convoys through the Red Sea,” were proved correct in their somewhat guarded forecast.2
When the outbreak of hostilities with Italy was imminent in June 1940, HMIS Clive (Commander Inigo Jones, RIN) was ordered to reinforce the Red Sea Force. She reached Aden from the Persian Gulf on 12 June, 1940, a day after the war was declared. After fuelling, the Clive immediately joined the Aden patrol and later carried ammunition from Aden which was urgently required at Djibouti. After carrying a consignment of silver to Jeddah, the Clive was ordered to proceed to Suez to join Force “S” for convoy escort duties. Force “S” consisted of HMIS Clive and HMS Grimsby. The Clive escorted the first south bound convoy in early July 1940, meeting the north-bound convoy from Aden in the latitude of Port Sudan where escorts were changed-Force “S” returning to Suez with the north-bound ships. To meet the danger of Italian mining in the Gulf of Suez, Force “S”, in addition to escorting, was required to carry out minesweeping operations in the Straits of Jubal prior to the arrival of convoys in this area. The Clive had a near miss during a bombing raid on Suez.
Actually two Italian ships SS Barbara and Bronte were lying off the Khor-Musa river, and when hostilities broke out, they managed in spite of vigilance, to move up into territorial waters. It was certain now that Italian submarines would try to interfere with the trade routes in the Indian Ocean. In fact, early in July an Italian submarine was reported at the northern end of the Gulf. At once the Indus proceeded to the area but could not contact her. It was HMS Falmouth that accounted for the submarine and sank it.
Evacuation of Berbera
Before the formation of the Red Sea Force in April 1940, it had been decided in principle that British Somaliland should be held. At that time, the military forces there consisted of 650 Somali troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps. Reinforcement began in May when HMAS Hobart went to Berbera to superintend the disembarkation from the troopship Karanja (9,891 tons) of a battalion of the 2nd King’s African Rifles. There were no further reinforcements until the end of June, and the general situation was altered by the collapse of France in that month. British military plans had been based on close collaboration with strong forces in French Somaliland; but the collapse of the French colony followed that of France. Early in July, however, Colonel Chater, Commander of the troops in Somaliland, thought that the British position would not be untenable under certain conditions, one being that naval support was forthcoming on the coast west of Berbera.
From the French Somaliland border in the north-west the British coast-line extended eastwards, some 400 miles to the frontier of Italian Somaliland. Just inside the western boundary was the small port of Zeila. Some hundred miles farther east, and almost opposite Aden, 150 miles distant from it across the Gulf, lay Berbera, the seat of government, and a practically undeveloped port whose normal trade was catered for by dhows and a small weekly steamer. With only two small piers devoid of lifting gear and capable only of accommodating lighters or ships’ boats at between half and full tide, the port was ill adapted for the rapid handling of troops and equipment. The position was aggravated in the summer months by the ‘Kharif’, a strong south-west wind often reaching gale force, which blows for approximately twelve hours every night from June to September, making boat work hazardous, if not impossible in the harbour.
In July 1940, information was received of general mobilisation of the Italian army and navy in Italian East Africa, and on the orders of the Colonial Office, the evacuation of all civilians from Aden and of British Indians from Berbera and Djibouti in British Somaliland was proceeded with.
The Italian invasion of Somaliland began on 3 August when three columns moved on Oadweina, Hargeisa and Garagara. The main attack was from Abyssinia across the mountains towards the coastal plains and Berbera. The British defence line was at Tug Argan Gap, forty miles or so inland from the port. Next day, the small port of Zeila was occupied by the Italians without opposition. They also captured a dhow and put a prize crew on board. Taking the prize to sea, no doubt for exhibition at Assab or some other Italian port in Eritrea, they were caught in a sandstorm, which evidently disturbed the armed guard much more than their captives, who were able to take advantage of the situation, threw the guards overboard and on the evening of 8 August sailed the dhow into Aden. On 7 August, the Black Watch, which had been standing by in Aden, were conveyed to Berbera in one of H.M. Ships. Next day there were three enemy air raids on Berbera. The Hobart (Australian Cruiser), the Auckland (sloop), the Amber (A/S trawler) and other vessels were in harbour; very minor damage by splinters was caused to the Hobart and the Chakdina. A few days later HMIS Hindustan (Commander G. V. G. Beamish, RIN) landed three more 3-pdr. guns for similar service. HMIS Hindustan was present throughout the evacuation of Berbera. In fact her guns covered the withdrawal effectively. The Hobart’s 3-pdr. and detachment were lost on 15 August. The presence of the ships of
the Royal Australian and Indian Navies and their conduct were of the utmost value to the morale of the garrison.3 Ships in the Gulf of Aden and off Berbera were attacked by Italian aircraft on 12, 14, 15, 16 and 30 August. Only the Hobart was slightly damaged by splinters in the attack on 15 August.
At 1054 on 15 August, the Commander-in-Chief East Indies reported that the Commander-in-Chief Middle East, had ordered the evacuation of the Somaliland Force. The projected movement of a battalion to Berbera in HMS Neptune, leaving Suez on 16 August was therefore cancelled. The Force retired on Berbera on the 16th and evacuation was begun immediately. The Chakdina left that day for Aden with 1,100 evacuees including about 300 Abyssinian women and children. At 1040 on the 17th, HMS Ceres patrolling off the coast, engaged an Italian column 40 miles west of Berbera and stopped its advance. The General Staff embarked in Hobart at 1900. During the night of 18 August, the Hobart embarked the remaining personnel and demolition parties and sailed on the 19th after destroying the Government offices. The Shoreham, the Derby and the Protector were also employed. The Hobart was attacked by three aircraft on the 18th but suffered no injury. On the same day, the Caledon and the Kandahar bombarded Bulbar, Berbera roads. The tug Queen was lost during the embarkation. The numbers landed were 5,690 combatants, 1,226 civilians and 184 casualties.4 Another 40 civilians were evacuated from Heis by the Principal Sea Transport Officer. A proposed bombardment of Zeila was deferred on 29 August by the Commander-in-Chief East Indies on the ground that there were probably more British Somalis in the place than Italians.
The evacuation was regretted chiefly for its political effect on the peoples of the Middle East as it served to enhance Italian military prestige. The loss of Somaliland, however, did not affect the overall situation. It rather relieved British forces of a commitment, and they could be employed to greater advantage elsewhere.
Assignment for and Exploits of RIN Ships
In September 1940 the Indus was attacked by some high level bombers but as the bombs missed the target, she remained unhurt. Next month, she left Aden in command of the escort and twenty-three merchant ships to join a north-bound convoy going through the Red Sea. Unfortunately she was soon detached for
patrol duties and thus deprived of the chance of taking part in a successful action which ensued later.
During December 1940, the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies requested the loan of three anti-submarine patrol vessels from the Local Defence Flotillas in India for service in the Red Sea. Owing to the urgency of this requirement, orders were despatched to HMI Ships Netravati, Parvati and Ratnagiri based at Bombay, Calcutta and Cochin respectively to prepare for immediate service abroad. The ships completed degaussing and left India before the end of December 1940. HMIS Netravati (Lieut. D. A. McDonald, RIN) was the first to sail on 20 December 1940 followed by HMIS Ratnagiri (Lieut S.G. Karmarkar, RINR, the first Indian Officer to command a ship) on 24 December 1940 and HMIS Parvati (Lieut HMS Choudri, RIN) on 31 December 1940.
The last ship proceeded first to the Persian Gulf to relieve HMS Seabelle urgently in need of a refit in Bombay. The Parvati was employed in patrolling the Straits of Hormuz based on Khor Kuwai and under the orders of the Senior Naval Officer, Persian Gulf. On relief, she proceeded to join the Red Sea Force and arrived at Aden on 5 February 1941. HMIS Netravati and Parvati were empolyed on the Perim and Aden patrol during January and February 1941. The Parvati escaped narrowly on one occasion leaving Aden harbour which was subjected to air attack by the Italians. Three bombs fell one after another within one and a half cables of the Parvati but luckily no damage was sustained. Soon after the Ratnagiri’s arrival in the Red Sea she was ordered to proceed to Port Sudan where she was based till the fall of Massawa.
Operations “BEGUM” and “BREACH” (Italian Somaliland)
In January 1941, British Forces began simultaneous advances from the Sudan and Kenya into Eritrea, Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland, and by the summer had captured these territories and virtually disposed of the Italian East African Empire, although the process of mopping up continued until the autumn. The armies advanced from several directions, against Kassala, Keren, and Amba Alagi in the north; Harar and Addis Ababa in the centre; Kismayu, Brava and Mogadishu in the south. Naval control of both ends of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean facilitated the progress of the troops by isolating those areas and preventing any large supplies of oil and munitions reaching the Italians. Naval forces co-operated in the attacks on the ports and coastal sectors.
A conference was held at Mombasa on 1 January between naval, army and air representatives to co-ordinate plans for operation “BEGUM” for the denial of supplies to the Italians during the advance of the army against Italian Somaliland. The RN cruisers Shropshire, Ceres, and Colombo were ordered there for this purpose. It was decided to destroy any ships arriving at the port of Kismayu, though the chief need was to capure that port. In the light of later events and information, it was subsequently decided to mine Mogadishu instead.
The aircraft carrier Formidable which was on her way to the Mediterranean via the Cape, was employed for this purpose, escorted by the cruiser Hawkins (Force K) and the operation “BREACH” was carried out on 2 February. The striking forces, after mine laying, acted independently, sighted the town at 1800 and found their targets without difficulty. Nine Albacore aircraft bombed the Ordnance Depot, buildings at the airfield, the railway station, petrol tanks at Ras Sip, the customs shed and other objectives. There was little opposition and all aircraft returned.
Landing at Mersa Taclai
During the advance of the Allied land lbrces from the Sudan into Eritrea, the Royal Indian Navy performed a vitally important role. Indian ships co-operated by maintaining by sea the supply base of an Indian army force which surprised the Italians by pushing in from the coast on to the left flank of the Italian position at Keren. Indian, British, Free French and African troops were transported by RIN vessels to Mersa Taclai, an improvised operational base on the coast of Eritrea. They helped to open the coast road leading down from Port Sudan to Massawa.
With the success of the land operations against the Italians, the role of the naval forces included an increasing number of offensive operations, mainly in conjunction with the army against Italian ports and coastal position. HMIS Ratnagiri set off by assisting landing at Mersa Taclai in February 1941, a difficult task made more hazardous due to the existence of underwater reefs. At this spot, HMIS Ratnagiri was first able to land 750 Free French troops under risky conditions and later numbers of Indian, British and African troops.5
Landing of Chad Battalion at Mersa Taclai:–
HMIS Ratnagiri prepared for troop transport and sea at 1600 on 11 February 1941. At 1800 nine officers and 49 troops were
embarked. The next day she sailed with Capt. Magliveras as pilot, for Suakin, where she arrived at 0930 on the 12th and disembarked two officers and 30 other ranks. At 0615 on the 14th, preceded by the minesweeper HMS Elkebir, she departed from Suakin harbour. On her arrival at Khor Nawarat at 1430 she waited outside the channel for the arrival of Elkebir and in company with her she proceeded at 1550 to anchor in the position 18° 14′ 28″ N, 38° 18′ E at 1550. At 0540 on the 15th, Elkebir left the anchorage and at 0555 ran aground in position 18° 15′ 38″ N, 38° 19′ 48″ E. The Ratnagiri decided to weigh and proceed independently since at that time it was impossible to ascertain how long Elkebir would remain aground.
After leaving the anchorage, at 0630 an explosion on Black Rock was witnessed. The source of the explosion was uncertain but it was assumed to have been caused by an air attack although no planes were visible. The matter was reported by wireless to the naval officer-in-charge, Port Sudan and the Ratnagiri proceeded at best speed.
At 1200 the Ratnagiri sighted one bonfire at Mersa Taclai and in accordance with the instructions, she approached the anchorage. At 1235 she anchored in four fathoms of water Light house bearing 172°, 2 miles. All the boats were lowered at 1250 and the first boat left for the shore at 1300. By approximately 1800 some 600 troops had been landed and off loading of Royal Air Force and Free French Force stores commenced. It was greatly facilitated by the arrival of a dhow from its anchorage near the jetty and some 800 tons of petrol were loaded in it. A larger dhow then arrived alongside and the remainder of the stores and ammunition were placed in it, the boats running continuously with the smaller cases of ammunition stores and the balance of petrol. At 2359 the remainder of the troops who had formed the ship’s working party, began to disembark and were all landed by 0045 on the 16th. After the RAF dummy planes had been off loaded at 0100, Flamingo whalers and power boats returned to their ship. After securing her boats, the Ratnagiri weighed anchor and proceeded in company with the Elkebir at 0210.
In all, the Ratnagiri transported 20 officers, 48 non-commissioned officers, 695 Somalit roops with full equipment, 32 tons of ammunition and stores, 1,800 gallons of drinking water, and 12 tons of petrol for the Royal Air Force . At Taclai she embarked one medical officer, 3 wounded (Sussex regiment), 9 Italian prisoners and three armed guards.
At 1430 on 18 February 1941 the undernoted troops and stores embarked on the Ratnagiri alongside No. 3 Berth, Main Quay, Port Sudan:–
|British Officers||Viceroy’s Com. Officers/W. Officers||BORs/IORs||Followers|
|1st Royal Sussex||3||1||118||–|
|55th Supply Depot||1||1||23|
|7th Indian Supply Brigade||–||–||2||–|
|Grand Total: 575|
|Stores, Rations etc. approximately 5 tons.|
At 1730 the ship was prepared for sea and at 1745 she proceeded out of harbour to Wingate Reef where at 1815 she took station astern of the escort HMS Flamingo. They arrived off Mersa Taclai at 1245 and proceeded close in shore. At 1302 the first boat, which had previously been filled with stores and loaded with troops left for the jetty, closely followed by the other three life boats. At 1315 all available boats fiom the Flamingo and the Ratnagiri carried troops from the ship to shore. The disembarkation was completed by 1627. The Ratnagiri left Mersa Taclai in company with HMS Flamingo.
The landing on this occasion was very quickly effected owing to the comparatively small amount of stores, rations, equipment etc. Another advantage was that the weather conditions permitted of both gangways being employed and all boats were continuously engaged.
A third landing at Mersa Taclai took place on 28 February 1941. The Ratnagiri left Port Sudan at 1600 on 24 February and arrived at Suakin at 0950 where her Commanding Officer along with Lieut. Commander Storey, RNR proceeded to the camp of the French Foreign Legion near Suakin and made necessary arrangements for embarkation. At 0915 with the assistance of 8 requisitioned shore boats, loading of stores, rations etc. commenced. All troops were embarked and the ship prepared for sea at 1900. After some delay in loading additional stores of three tons, the ship weighed anchor and proceeded out of Suakin harbour.
Anchoring for the night off Khor Nowarahat she reached Mersa Taclai at 1140. The off loading of stores and the disembarkation of troops were completed at 1755 with ship’s boats and the ship proceeded to sea.
In all, the Ratnagiri transported on 28 February the following men and stores:–
|F. F. Legion||Indian Supply|
|Stores||approximately 16 tons.|
At Mersa Taclai she embarked for passage to Port Sudan:
|British Staff Officers||2|
|Wounded Br. Other Ranks||16|
|Wounded French Foreign||18|
|Italian prisoners of War||3 Officers|
|European other ranks||8|
|Native other ranks||10 (5 wounded)|
The last landing at Mersa Taclai supported by the Ratnagiri was on 4 April 1941 when the Operation “Atmosphere” was being mounted to capture Massawa from the Italians. Having embarked 9 officers and 288 British, Indian and French other ranks and the Beach Party from HMS Capetown, the Ratnagiri proceeded to Mersa Taclai arriving there at 0650 and joined HMS Sagitta. After the Sagitta had embarked various military personnel and 6 sambuks had been warped out to positions of astern of the towed pontoons, they proceeded to sea escorting a convoy at 0830 for Kuba, arriving there at 1310 on the 5th. The remainder of the escort Force “G” consisting of HMS Capetown and HMIS Indus had joined the convoy at about 1000 on the 5th.
Reoccupalion of Berbera
During the evacuation of the garrison of British Somaliland in August 1940, ships of the Royal Indian Navy had actively cooperated with the Royal Navy. On 16 March 1941 occurred the
first combined landing operation in which units of the Indian army and the Royal Indian Navy had ever taken part – the reoccupation of Berbera.
It was known that the Italians had removed most of their garrison from British Somaliland owing to the threat from the Allied forces advancing from Mogadishu but there were still at least 2,000 men left in Berbera, while there was a considerable number of bomber and fighter aircraft at Diredawa. Hence it was decided to occupy Berbera for which a plan was prepared in which the Royal Indian Navy was assigned a prominent part. The plan was given the code-name “APPEARANCE”.
The object was to re-occupy Berbera and to establish a bridgehead; and subsequently to use Berbera as a supply base for 15,000 troops.
The plan for the navy consisted of:–
i. Embarking a military striking force about 3,000 strong with equipment, including 150 motor transport in eight H.M. Ships and military training transport.
ii. Transporting the striking force from Aden to Berbera, a distance of 140 miles, and the ships also towing tugs and lighters required by the expedition.
iii. To land the striking force in face of hostile opposition on open beaches inside the reefs east and west of Berbera. The landing to be covered by naval bombardment.
iv. To capture the town and seize land equipment.
Naval Aspects Of Plan
There were several Naval uncertainties about this plan,viz:–
i. The possibility of the tows breaking adrift on the trip across the Gulf of Aden and thereby holding up the striking force and the whole operation.
ii. The difficulty of locating Berbera in the event of poor visibility, and the dangers of approaching a featureless, unlighted and virtually uncharted coast at night.
iii. The difficulty of locating the gaps in the reef through which the tows would pass to the beaches.
iv. Doubt as to the landing facilities for motor transport with improvised piers either on the beaches or inside the harbour
The only seaward reconnaissances available consisted of air photographs, which navigationally were incomplete. It was however decided to accept the risks involved, and Zero Hour was fixed at 0300 on 16 March.
The following ships comprised the attacking force, which was termed Force D:–
H.M. ships Glasgow, Caledon, Kandahar, Chantala and Chakdina and HMI ships Parvati and Netravati.
Passage from Aden to Berbera
The expedition was to cross in two parts.
HMS Kandahar, Chantala, Chakdina, HMIS Netravati, Parvati and SS Beaconsfield and Tuna. In two of the abov weree to be three tugs and six lighters, two of the latter comprising the M.T. landing pier. All ships carried troops.
H.M. ships Glasgow, Caledon, Kingston and ML 109, all with troops.
The first part left Aden at 2245 on 14 March and was quickly in trouble with tows breaking adrift and wires round screws, when only ten miles from Aden. In order to avoid postponing the operation the plan was modified. The Kandahar was instructed to turn over all tugs and lighters to SS Beaconsfield and Tuna and to push on with H.M. Ships so as to arrive at the rendezvous (10 miles north of Berbera Light) at 0100 on the 16th as arranged. Shoreham was sent from Aden to assist Beaconsfield and Tuna. This reorganisation was completed by 1530 on 15 March.
The second part left Aden at 1630 on 15 March and overtook the Kandahar with troop convoy at 2330 and in company reached the rendezvous as arranged. It had been hoped to sight Shoreham with transport convoy, but they had been set 7 miles to the westward.
At 0100 on 16 March on arrival at the rendezvous 10 miles north of Berbera Light the position was as follows:–
i. Troop Convoy: Glasgow (Senior officer, Force “D”) in company with H.M. ships Caledon, Chantala, Chakdina, HMI ships Netravati, Parvati and ML 109. The ships were to land their troops (1/2 and 3/15 Punjab) at Main Beach, 2 miles west of Berbera Light,
under cover of the Glasgow’s bombardment. Also in company were the Kandahar and the Kingston. The latter had Force G (R) on board, a Commando of about 200 (mostly Somalis). They were to land on the subsidiary beach east of Berbera under cover of the Kandahar’s bombardment. Speed of advance was to be 12 knots.
ii. Transport Convoy: The Shoreham, Beaconsfield, Tuna with three tugs and six lighters in tow about half-way across the Gulf of Aden, speed of advance 6 knots.
At 0101 on 16 March the Glasgow, Kandahar, Kingston and ML 109 went ahead at 20 knots to make Berbera Light and then locate the gap through the coastal reefs abreast their respective beaches. The Caledon was left with the Chantala, Chakdina, Netravati and Parvati with instructions to arrive off the west beach at 0230 and anchor near the Glasgow who would show a steady red light to seaward. During the approach, a number of lights were observed ashore. These were certainly motor transport on the Hargeisa Road, bound for Berbera.
At 0203 on the 16th, Berbera Light House was sighted, bearing 186° distant 3 miles. The Kandahar and the Kingston then parted company, and proceeded to the beach east of the town, the Glasgow stopped and hoisted out the motor boat and skiff in which Commander Vernon went ahead to locate the gap in the reef abreast the western beach. Coast was approached with caution as the 100-fathom line was very close to the reefs. Considerable difficulty was experienced in finding the gap in the reef opposite the western beach and resulted in a delay of 63 minutes in landing the first tows. On the other hand, the Kandahar and Kingston found their gap in the reef at the eastern beach at 0300 although air photographs indicated this to be the more intricate of the two. This delay caused concern to Colonel Pollock and Captain Hickling (S.O. Glasgow) as the possibility of an opposed daylight landing was not welcome. Meanwhile the landing at the eastern beach timed for 0330 on 16 March was held up.
At 0326, a Somali fisherman in a canoe came alongside the Glasgow. He reported that the Italians were still in the town although some had left by lorry during the night. Some Italians were in the vicinity of the light house. This Somali was then sent to locate the gap in the reefs which actually was discovered by commander Vernon at 0358.
At 0413 the signal “Land, follow Glasgow’s boats” was made. Four minutes later the Glasgow bombarded the main beach with 4”
high explosive and pom-pom. The 4” fire was that used for E-boat attack, (i.e. half the shells bursting on impact, the other half bursting in the air 50 feet over the target]. Firing ceased at 0420. The bombardment was effective and accurate. The Kingston received the order to land on the eastern beach at 0420. The Kandahar bombarded the beach from 0425 to 0435 with effect. Tows then proceeded into the eastern and western beaches. The success signal at the western beach was made at 0448, at the eastern beach at 0526.
While the troops were being disembarked hostile shells burst among the tows and the ships lying off. These were judged to come from four to six guns of about 4” calibre. Their flashes were observed, and concerted fire from 6”, 4” and pom-poms effectually silenced them. There was also some Italian machine gun fire which was not effective. Fire from the Glasgow was directed principally on the trenches near the light house and trenches to the west of the aerodrome. The Kandahar concentrated on the trenches to the east of the native quarter. Fire from H.M. ships was reported to be most effective.
The main landing was carried out by the 2nd and 15th. Punjab Regiment supported by naval vessels which bombarded Italian positions from the sea. The naval bombardment was replied to by guns and machine-guns firing at the boats conveying the troops ashore, but the ships soon dealt with that effectively. The 15th Punjab Regiment which was the first to land was carried by HMIS Parvati (Lieutenant HMS Choudri, RIN) which also towed a tug and barge for the landing. The ship was Straddled by three four-inch shells, which fell close, but the landing tyas carried out without loss and faced very little opposition. The 2nd Punjab Regiment then landed, and advanced through the 15th Punjab Regiment towards the town, while at the same time some of the latter moved inland from the coast to try to cut the road.
All troops were landed well before daylight, and tlie advance on Berbera commenced. Little opposition was met with ashore, and the town was captured at 0920 on 16 March. The British and Indian, troops suffered no casualties. Over 100 prisoners were taken. About 0533 next day some aircraft were heard, A blind barrage was fired and no further Italian aircraft were seen during the day.
The Air Force provided fighter protection at Berbera and reconnaissance of the roads approaching the town that day.
By the time Berbera was captured, the Transport Convoy was in the offing. Tugs swept into the harbour with Oropesa sweeps, and by 1400 on 16 March all ships, tugs and lighters were in the harbour and unloading. It was as well that the latter had been delayed, otherwise they would only have been in the way. The special motor transport pier consisting of two lighters, which was designed by the Sea Transport Officer, Aden, Commander Vernon, was put in place at the spit and motor transport unloaded from the Beaconsfield by 1800. It was a praiseworthy achievement.
The army was well established at Berbera with adequate stores and rations, local water being available. There seemed to be little fear of counter-attack as air reconnaissance reported the surrounding country to be deserted. Naval protection was withdrawn on 18 March with the departure of the Glasgow. Air protection was asked for up to and including 20 March.
Both Shaad pier and customs pier were damaged but these were repaired with local resources. Sabotage of the power station and refrigerating plant was more extensive and assistance from Aden was required to restore these services. The water supply was about to be mined by the Abyssinians but the officer commanding troops frustrated their attempts. The aerodrome was mined and the air officer commanding was informed.
13 officers and 40 Non-Commissioned officers, Italian prisoners of war, were sent to Aden in HMIS Parvati on 16 March. As the hospital ship Karapara was not required, she left for Aden on 16 March.
Thus operation “APPEARANCE” was brought to a successful conclusion. All had worked indefatigably and cheerfully despite arduous conditions to make it a success.
Capture of Massawa
The naval operations against Massawa, which took place at the same time as the attack down the coast from Asmara, were extremely hazardous. There are many islands and the entrance is through a series of narrow channels between coral reefs. All navigation marks had been removed and the channels were liberally sown with mines. A period of intensive minesweeping finally opened up a safe way into the port entailing exciting and sometimes very exacting work. The mines in some places were thick, while there was always the possibility of submarines and E-boats lurking among the islets. One of HMI sloops had a narrow
escape when all her sweeps were destroyed after cutting several mines and she was forced to withdraw. Actually she was just about to come within range of a heavy coast defence battery anxiously waiting to open fire. Another sloop [ Indus) stopped in the middle of a minefield and the captain was horrified to see a mine within four feet of the ship. The re-opening of this port afforded relief to the Army transport services which had to maintain supplies over 500 miles of railway and 250 miles of road.
Operations at Massawa by the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable hastened its capture. On 13 February, fourteen aircraft from the Formidable on her way to the Mediterranean attacked Massawa (Operation composition). Torpedo aircraft scored one probable hit on a ship at the jetty, where a submarine and supply ship had been reported. One merchant ship was sunk outside the northern harbour, and possibly a second. A bombing attack was made on destroyers in the main harbour, one being probably hit. There was strong opposition from Italian fighters and antiaircraft guns and two aircraft did not return.
A further operation by aircraft from the Formidable at dawn on 21 February took the form of dive-bomb attack by seven Albacores. Two of them attacked destroyers in the southern anchorage, one being probably hit and one near missed. Four aircraft attacked destroyers at the main quay, and probably hit two of them. One aircraft bombed a submarine in the northern anchorage from 1,000 ft. All seven returned, bringing back useful information about the 35 or more merchant ships in the line.
The mining of the Suez Canal delayed the passage of the Formidable into the Mediterranean, and she was sent to Port Sudan to await clearance. Meantime, she was available for a third operation against Massawa. This took place shortly after dusk on 1 March when five Albacores attacked the northern harbour. Bombs were dropped on a small floating dock believed to contain a submarine. All the aircraft returned. On 5 March the Admiralty directed that in attacks on Massawa the floating dock should no longer be an objective, as it was hoped it might be of use to the Allies, and the same ruling was applied to merchant shipping as far as possible. On 10 March it was decided not to plant any mines at Massawa.
The conquest of Eritrea was virtually completed by the occupation of Massawa on 8 April. The fall of the port was facilitated by the establishment of an advanced base at Mersa Kuba
(Operation ATMOSPHERE) by Force “G” consisting of the cruiser HMS Capetown, the destroyers Kingston, Parramatta, sloop HMIS Clive, and H.M..I.S. Ratnagiri and Sagita.
Exploits of the Hindustan, the Indus and the Ratnagiri
The position of land operations in Eritrea prior to the naval advance on Massawa was as follows:–Keren had fallen on 27 March and British forces were advancing on Asmara and Massawa from the westward and their left flank reached the coast to the southward of Mersa Kuba where it was considered that a landing might be made unopposed. It was accepted that mines would be a probability in the north Massawa Channel and that coast defences would exist at Ras Harat, Harat Is., Dohul Is., and possibly Difheim Is. The intention was to establish an advance supply base in the vicinity of Mersa Kuba and to supply it by sea from Port Sudan and to move forward by sea supplies already at Mersa Taclai.
From 1 to 4 April Parramatta swept from Kavet to Kuba. No mines were encountered and this area was considered to be free from them. On 4 April the Capetown and Indus sailed as covering force to escort barges, tugs and naval craft from Mersa Taclai. On the 5th the advance took place arriving at Mersa Kuba at 1400 the same day. The force passed within range of Difneim Island. Information obtained later confirmed that the island was not defended but had small anti-aircraft guns and a wireless telecommunication station. On the 6th and 7th, the Indus and the Parramatta were employed in widening the swept channel. During the early hours of the 8th, an E-boat attack was made on the Capetown which was torpedoed. The Indus and the Parramatta joined to screen and tow her. As soon as the cruiser was safely in tow and on her way to Port Sudan, the Indus was ordered to take over command of the force at Kuba6. By day-light the left flank of the army making its final attack on Massawa was heavily engaged on the coast.
At night on the 8th and the 9th, the forces at Kuba were withdrawn to the northward as a precautionary measure. Wide arrangements were being made for a sweep south to Massawa. Naval Staff Officers were in Massawa by the 10th, and the ships at Kuba were waiting for any information of the minefields, which might be obtained. None was forthcoming and the position gradually
became more critical as the road between Kuba and Massawa had become impassable owing to heavy rain. The land forces eventually reported that it was essential that a barge containing urgent stores at Kuba should be brought to Massawa by sea. Upon receipt of this report permission was received for the level forces to proceed.
On the 11th HMIS Hindustan arrived at Kuba. A suggested route to the eastward of Oreste Shoal was signalled by Naval Officer in charge Massawa and arrangements were made for HMIS Indus to sweep a channel with HMIS Ratnagiri acting as dan layer for the barge towed by a tug. On the 13th, HMIS Indus set out towards Massawa with the Parramatta in support. Minefields were passed through and mines swept up to the west and southwest of Harat island and progress was maintained until a position to the north-east of Oreste Shoal was reached. At this point the Indus apparently entered a thick field. Three mines were cut before the starboard sweep parted. Two mines were swept by the Port Sweep, before the Port Sweep was also put out of commission. Another mine was observed alongside the free starboard float.
Information obtained later from the prisoners captured at Dhul Island showed that the Indus was 4,000 yards short of the range of the guns of that Island at the time. The battery was closed up and waiting to open fire but the Italians were robbed of their target by the ships altering course away to the westward, the destruction of the sweeps resulting in the retirement of the force. The ships returned to Kuba to prepare dan buoys and repair sweeps.
On 12 April HMIS Hindustan (Commander G. V. G. Beamish, RIN) joined and took over as Senior Officer, Force “G” from the Indus. At that time the following ships were at Kavet:– Indus Parramatta, Lucia and Ratnagiri. Ships remained off Kavet under way providing an anti-submarine screen to the Lucia at night. The Lucia had on board Naval Staff officers from Aden and instructions were received from the Senior Officer, Red Sea Force, to make the best possible arrangements to land them at Massawa.
On 13 April the Indus swept with double orepesa at seven fathoms. The Ratnagiri danned. The tug El Kebir towed the barge which was heavily loaded with essential stores. HMAS Parramatta left Kuba at dawn. The Hindustan proceeded south towards Kuba. About this time a signal indicating a suggested channel was received from the Naval Officer-in-Charge, Massawa.
On the 14th further information was received that a clear channel probably ran west and not east of Oreste Shoal. Arrangements were accordingly made by the Hindustan to sweep in this
direction and a second and a successful attempt to get through to Massawa was made on the 15th.
At 0500 on 15 April the force proceeded towards Massawa with the Hindustan in the lead followed by the Parramatta in readiness to stream her sweeps in the event of the Hindustan blowing up hers. The Indus with no sweeping gear, these having been lost on the 13th, followed to sink mines. The Hindustan decided to keep the same track as the Indus had taken on the previous day, as far as a position 173° Sheik Abu Light 10 miles, and then keep to the westward passing close to Ras Harb between Oreste Shoal and the mainland subsequently heading straight down towards Massawa.
At 0715 in position 15°58′30″N., 39°21′E, the Hindustan cut two mines and 35 minutes later when in position 15°55′N., 39°24′E. the port sweep was blown off by an exploding mine. The Parramatta immediately streamed her port sweep thus filling the gap left on the Hindustan’s port side. The Indus following, had sunk the cut mines and managed to retrieve the Hindustan’s port float and otter which, strange to say, were undamaged. As a matter of interest, the mines were clearly seen from the ship’s bridge close to and under the ship. It was difficult to assess the depth setting of the mines, but it was roughly from 12 to 15 feet. The Hindustan’s draught was 10’3” forward and 10’4” aft the antisubmarine dome being unshipped.
The advance to Massawa was continued keeping close to the westward of Orestes Shoal buoy. After passing Orestes Shoal, a double line of large mooring buoys was observed. These were laid in a 180° direction as far as position 15°41′N., 39°29”E. Advantage was taken of these to make them the eastern limit of the swept channel and the area was covered as close to them as possible. No further mines were encountered and by noon the force comprising the following was anchored in Massawa harbour:–
Mine clearance of the harbour was necessary and the naval officer in charge intimated that the port would be prepared to accept shipping via the northern channel as from the afternoon of 18 April, but ships had to arrive in convoy led by a sweeper. Although harbour space was limited due to ships scuttled by the
Italians a berth alongside was available for one 425-foot vessel drawing 25 feet and a second ship leading from a pontoon.7
From 15 April Force “G” based on Massawa was employed in clearing and extending the channel, escorting ships to and from Mersa Kuba and Kavet and buoying the channel with permanent buoys and moorings.
The re-opening of the port relieved the transport service which hitherto had to carry army stores along nearly 220 miles of motor road from the advanced base at Kassala, 300 miles by railway from the sea base at Port Sudan.
Towards the end of the month operations were undertaken to mop up possible Italian garrisons in the outlying islands. On 29 April, the Indus landed a party at Harat Island but found the island evacuated and the guns destroyed.
On 2 May the Indus while sweeping ahead of the President Doumer cut three mines ahead of her in position 15°55′N, 39°24′E. The mines were avoided by the prompt action taken by the Doumer by a quick zig-zag. It was probable that those mines were just outside the Channel as the dan buoy marking that side of the Channel was missing. The next day while leading a convoy out of Massawa, the Indus again cut and sank one mine ahead of the President Doumer in about the same position.
On 7 May, the Hindustan and the Indus carried out a clearance sweep outside the dan buoys, the French sloop Commandant Dubo following astern to sink the swept mines. On this occasion the Hindustan swept up three mines simultaneously in position 15°58′N., 39°20′E. The Indus swept one mine in position 15°55′N., 39°24′E and two mines in position 15°58′45″N, 39°20′30″E. During the afternoon, of the same day both ships carried out searching sweeps between Kuba and entrance to searched channel.
On 8 May in the morning both ships carried out a searching sweep between Kuba and the entrance to the swept channel. No mines were discovered in this area which was considered free. In the afternoon again both the ships carried out a further clearing sweep outside the swept channel. This time no mines were cut and the channel was considered to have a safety margin of three hundred yards on either side. The total width of the channel varied between 700 to 800 yards which together with the safety margins gave a total width of from 1,300 to 1,400 yards of swept water. All surplus dans laid during the initial operations were weighed.
On 10 May, at 0615 a floating mine was observed by the Indus in Massawa harbour floating towards the Changte in position 055° from Massawa Light House one mile. This was immediately sunk by sub-calibre gun fire. This mine appeared to be of a different type, being of a flat-topped variety with .horns at right angles from the sides. The mines sunk by gun fire did not explode and it appeared that the mooring spindle safety device was in operation.
Minesweeping, buoying channel with permanent moorings, and escorting ships to and from Massawa to Kuba continued. Since the commencement of operations on 1 April up to 10 May 1941, approximately seventy-five miles of channel was cleared and buoyed. Over thirty mines were accounted for and approximately 19 ships convoyed to and from Kuba and Kavet to Massawa.8
Mopping up Operations in Neighbouring Areas
Towards the end of April 1941, operations were undertaken to mop up possible Italian garrisons in outlying islands. Under instructions from the Naval Officer-in-Charge, Massawa, the Ratnagiri proceeded from Massawa to Nocra at 0610 on the 27th, to take possession of the island. The ship arrived there at 0910 and the army officer in charge of the expedition proceeded ashore at 0945 to the Resident where he formally accepted the submission of the island. Information was obtained regarding the various Italian, German and Eritrean personnel on the island together with the location of various food dumps. To assist in collecting all these at a common base Lieut. T. Edmond and Sub. Lieut. W. Little, RINVR, proceeded in charge of naval and army landing parties and this work was carried out until sunset.
Throughout the days, stores which had been collected on the island were loaded on the Ratnagiri and this work continued until 0945 on the 29th, when prisoners commenced to embark. The embarkation was completed by 1530 when the ship weighed anchor and proceeded to Massawa arriving there at 1815.
In all, the following were carried from the Island:–(a) 866 Italian, German, Eritrean prisoners of war and Abyssinians who had to be imprisoned on the Island for political reasons (b) 80 tons of foodstuffs and stores. At 0850 on 30 April, the ship weighed and proceeded alongside and commenced to disembark prisoners and stores. She was finally cleared at about 2300.
On 2 May 1941 again the Ratnagiri proceeded to Nocra with dhow Bil Bil in tow, arriving at 1350. Until 1705 on 3 May, when the ship returned to Massawa, the following stores and personnel were embarked:–50 native police, 33 Italian prisoners of war and 30 tons of foodstuffs and stores. Loss of the Parvati
At about 0430 on 30 April, while HMIS Parvati was on Perim patrol, an immediate message was received from the SNO Red Sea ordering her to proceed to a position off Assab. The Parvati arrived there at about 0745 and commenced patrol 5 miles east and west of the position ordered. As Assab was still in Italian hands and the presence of mines in the vicinity of the harbour was suspected, the Commanding Officer (Lieutenant HMS Choudri, RIN) exercised ‘Abandon Ship’ and took all the necessary precautions. At about 1440 HMS Ceres arrived off Assab with instructions regarding the operation. On going on board the Ceres, Lieut. Choudri was ordered to take the Motor Launch Eureka with a marine guard under his orders and proceed into Assab harbour to carry out a general reconnaissance. The Ceres was to lead both ships up to the northern entrance of the harbour and then patrol outside. The Parvati was ordered to follow the Ceres to obtain protection from her paravanes.
Returning on board, the Commanding Officer of the Parvati briefed his ship’s company on the details of the operation. The convoy formed up with the Ceres in the van closely followed by the Parvati and the motor launch. Course ordered was 302°, at the speed of 10 knots. In spite of proceeding at her maximum revolutions, the Parvati kept opening out from the Ceres.
At about 1552 the Ceres was about 7 cables ahead of the Parvati in position 13°10′N. and 42°53′E. when she hoisted the signal ‘mine inside ahead’. The weather conditions prevented the Parvati
sighting the mine for some time after the signal was read. She therefore slowed down and “Action Station” was ordered, to bring as many men on the upper deck as possible. Immediately after, the mine was sighted about 1½ cables 5° on the starboard bow, by her First Lieutenant and look-outs. The ship went full speed astern to take the way off. When all way was lost, the ship was manoeuvred till the mine passed clear down the starboard quarter. The ship was steadied on her course astern off the Ceres by the Navigating Officer (Sub. Lieut. J. S. Mehra, RINR) while the Commanding Officer himself signalled to the motor launch (following astern to destroy the mine). The Ceres then commenced turning to starboard signalling to the Parvati by light “Operations cancelled, follow me”.
Very soon afterwards before the Parvati had increased to full speed, at about 1607 while she was steering 302° and still in the track of HMS Ceres a big explosion was heard in the forward part of the ship. The wooden deck overhead of the lower bridge was blown off and the Commanding Officer fell down on the deck. Realising that the ship had struck a mine, he got up immediately and saw that the forward part of the ship was sinking rapidly and diving into the sea. He put the engine room telegraphs to stop and ordered ‘Abandon Ship’ by word of mouth and ship’s siren. He turned round to pick up his own life jacket which had been placed nearby but it had disappeared; probably blown by the shock of the explosion. He looked forward over the bridge and saw no one except one Stoker from the ammunition supply party lying down on the upper deck apparantly dead. The upper deck was almost in level with the sea. She had started listing to starboard. Turning to the boatdeck, he saw the ship’s company assembled at the ‘Abandon ship’ stations and getting the boats ready for lowering. He shouted ‘Lower away boats – out rafts’then with an Aldis lamp lying near him he flashed “SINKING” three times to HMS Ceres as he had sent every one away from the bridge including the Signalman to their boats.
HMS Ceres was by now on the Parvati’s starboard quarter. The forward part of the ship was completely under water by now. The ship had listed heavily to starboard sloping the boat deck to an angle of 40°. Much difficulty was being experienced to lower the boats. The after fall of the starboard life boat appeared to have jammed. The whaler capsized as soon as lowered owing to heavy list. Half of the boat deck was under water then. The Commanding Officer (Parvati) thereupon ordered the use of rafts. He
himself stood on the after starboard corner of the lower bridge which was then sloping at an angle of some 45°. The starboard side of the boat deck was under water up to the foot of the main mast with the stern and the port side sticking up high in the air. Most of the men had jumped off. Water was up to Lt. Choudri’s knees when he started swimming away from her, and while doing so he saw the top of main mast coming down fast on to him. The truck of the main mast was very near him when he was sucked down some forty feet under water. On coming up on the surface, which he only just managed to do, he could see nothing left of the ship except some pieces of wood and some men on rafts too far away from him. He was sucked twice again but not so deep as the first time. When he came to the surface after the third dip, he found a wooden box near him to which he held on for about an hour and a quarter. He was picked up by the motor launch Eureka.
HMIS Parvati sank within one and a half minutes after striking the mine. The big life boat on the starboard side was filled with water before it could be lowered completely. The whaler on the port side capsized as soon as it was lowered, and the third boat could not be lowered at all owing to heavy list to starboard. All boats had been swung out before hand. Five rafts were got out by Sub. Lieutenant Lodge and his party and the remainder floated off after the ship sank.9
There was not the least panic in the ship when she struck the mine and every one behaved calmly and tried to help each other. An example of bravery and selflessness was displayed by H. O. 866 Abdul Rehman, Trimmer. He was lying down on the deck with his legs and lower part of his body rendered senseless when help was offered to carry him by the Second Engineer Mr. J. Bent and others. This man simply refused to be helped saying that his end had come and he wanted others to get out of the ship and save their own lives. Among the officers, the Commanding Officer mentioned the names of Sub. Lieut. J. S. Mehra, RINR, Sub. Lieut. E. Lodge, RINVR and Sub. Lieut. S. M. Cohen, RINVR
Operations at Dante and Guardafui – Operation “CHAPTER”
Cape Guardafui Channel is the most easterly point of Africa. In order to facilitate the passage of this channel, it was decided to undertake a combined operation to capture and operate Cape Guardafui lighthouse and to clear up the north-east corner of Italian
Somaliland. To implement this project the following ships of the Red Sea Force were detailed to carry out the operation:–
HMIS Clive (Commander H.R. Inigo-Jones, RIN), HMS King Gruffydd (Lt. Commander Gabbett, RN)
Both ships weighed anchor at 1000 on 13 May 1941 and proceeded in company to Dante, (70 miles south of Cape Guardafui) with a speed of 8 knots.10 On arrival there they were to be ready to bombard, should the force of Commandos under the command of Brigadier Chater R. M. meet with any opposition when taking the port from landwards. Cape Guardafui was passed at 1730 on 15 May. At 0440 on 16 May the ships were in position 10°47′N, 51°37′E. At 0600 the Clive streamed double “C” sweeps and swept the King Gruffydd into the northern anchorage. No mines were cut, and no opposition from the shore was encountered. The Clive anchored in position 090° Hurdia Point 1.0 mile and the King Gruffydd in position 090° Hurdia Point 1.5 miles. The latter sent in a motor boat to Hurdia landing jetty to make contact with the army. This was done and Italian troops, who had surrendered to Major Musgrave the day before, were taken over to Dante at about 1200.
On completion of this operation, a conference was held on 17 May at Hurdia with Brigadier Chater, a Group Captain, RAF, Commanding Officer, HMIS Clive, Commanding Officer, HMS Gruffydd, Majors Musgrave and Cuppage and a few other officers to decide the tactics for further operations at Tuhom and Guardafui Lighthouse. The original scheme of landing at Bargal and Tuhom was cancelled, largely on account of the bad landing conditions along the east coast and also for strategical reasons. Air co-operation was also arranged. It was decided that the landing of troops would take place at Damo on the north coast, about 1.6 miles west of Guardafui Lighthouse.
The troops were then embarked, one platoon in the Clive and one platoon in the King Gruffydd. Both ships weighed anchor and proceeded at 1600 on 17 May. At 0640 on 18 May both ships anchored off Damo in approximate positions, the Clive 020° Damo 800 ft. Peak 0.9 miles. At about 0700 a party of Italian soldiers was seen retreating inland. The Clive opened fire. The party dispersed and no further activity was discovered. Disembarkation of troops commenced at 0725. Despite bad weather landing was
completed by 1130 by local surf boats without encountering any opposition.
At noon Major Musgrave moved off with two platoons to contact the Italians. At the same time the Clive weighed and proceeded to Tuhom to give support for troops advancing overland from Damo. The Clive anchored at 1435 in position 060° W/T station 1.8 miles and remained in readiness to bombard, if necessary. The King Gruffydd remained at Damo and landed an armed party to occupy Guardafui Lighthouse. This operation was completed by 1730 and the light was functioning correctly by 1830.
At 0400 on 19 May a message was received in the King Gruffydd from Major Musgrave saying that owing to the strong position taken up by the Italians and the bad state of health of his troops who were still suffering from the effects of sea-sickness when landing, he had retired to cover the defence of Damo village and the lighthouse. Major Musgrave himself came off to the King Gruffydd for a further conference. The Clive did not establish contact with Allied land force until about 0700 on 19 May. At 0815 she received a signal from Major Musgrave who was in the King Gruffydd requesting that bombardment of the Wadi to westward of Tuhom village should commence as soon as possible.
At the same time as the signal was received, a party of Italians was seen advancing towards the beach carrying a white flag, hence fire was withheld and Major Musgrave informed of the surrender. During the course of the day all the Italians from positions west of Tuhom village were brought into the village without any resistance being offered by them.
Embarkation of prisoners commenced at 1500 and was completed by 0630 on 20 May. The total number embarked was 19 officers and 61 men. The Clive weighed anchor at 0645 and proceeded to Damo where it anchored at 0750 and all prisoners were transferred to the King Gruffydd.
At 1700 the Clive proceeded to Dante. The King Gruffydd embarked Major Musgrave and his companions leaving one Pilot officer and a platoon to guard the Lighthouse and occupy Tuhom area. The ship proceeded to Alula, arriving there at 0830 on 21 May. A landing was effected without opposition. Four officers and 35 men – Italian prisoners of war – were embarked and the ship proceeded to Aden at 0400 on 22 May calling at Banda Cassim on the way to pick up two Aircraftsmen with personal luggage who were required at Aden. At 0645 on 21 May the Clive anchored in
position 090° Hurdia Point 1 mile and commenced embarking Italian prisoners of war from the Dante in the ship’s boats. Embarkation was completed at 1900, the Clive weighed at 1915 and proceeded to Aden arriving at 1615 on 23 May when all prisoners of war were taken over by the army authorities and landed. The King Gruffydd arrived at Aden at 0800 on 24 May and disembarked prisoners. The total number of Italian prisoners of war disembarked at Aden was 7 officers and 58 men from the Clive “and 23 officers and 96 men from the King Gruffydd.
Capture of Assab – Operation “CHRONOMETER”
Assab lies on the Red Sea Coast commanding the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb. It was the first place in Africa to be occupied by the Italians. It consisted then of a small harbour with a well laid-out town behind. The capture of Assab was decided upon with a view to remove the threat to Allied shipping in the Red Sea.
On 26 May 1941, Rear Admiral R. H. C. Hallifax, CB, Senior Officer Red Sea Force, in company with the Air Officer Commanding, Aden, proceeded to Harar to meet General Cunningham, General Officer Commanding, East African Forces.11 In discussing the possibility of the capture of Assab, General Cunningham expressed agreement with the views of the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies and stated that he himself wished to capture the port (Assab) in order to stop supplies which were being sent to Djibouti and to check intrigues which the Italians from Assab were carrying on in the Yemen. He agreed also to return to Aden 3/15 Punjab Regiment. The Air Officer Commanding agreed that this force with other small detachments would be sufficient to capture Assab if landed and supported by the navy. The Senior Officer, Red Sea Force thereupon reported to the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies and a joint planning committee with the representatives of the three Services was set up and a plan was prepared for the operation which was given the code name “CHRONOMETER”.
On returning from Harar, opportunity, was taken to fly over Assab, and this and other close range reconnaissances tended to confirm the information that all coast defence guns had been removed and that the place was held lightly. HMS Dido which was due to call at Aden on her way to repair damage by bombing received in the Mediterranean, was placed at the disposal of Rear
Admiral R. H. C. Hallifax and the operation was planned to be carried out at dawn on 10 June 1941.
The Admiral hoisted his flag in the Dido and sailed from Aden on Monday, 9 June. Brigadier Dimoline, the Military Commander, and his staff also embarked. HMI ships Indus and Clive were detailed to carry out an exploratory sweep before the main operation commenced. Strong head winds delayed the Clive who was towing the tug Kalisco and Tuna, which ship was carrying motor transport and other important stores. On reaching Perim, the Senior Officer, Red Sea Force decided in consultation with Brigadier Dimoline to postpone the operation by 24 hours. He, therefore, ordered the force to enter Perim harbour and anchor. The postponement enabled 3/15 Punjab Regiment, which had been cooped up in the Chakdina for 2½ days after leaving Berbera, to have some free time ashore on Perim Island. The Senior Officer Red Sea Force decided to leave the tug Kalisco at Perim as, in view of the weather, it seemed improbable that she would arrive at Assab. He therefore arranged to take out of her sweeping gear and hoped that if inshore sweeping were necessary he should be able to use a local tug which he knew was at Assab and which he hoped to capture intact.
The expedition left Perim at 1930 on 10 June 1941 and proceeded northward in two columns. The forces consisted of:–
|(Rear Admiral R. H. C. Hallifax, CB, Senior Officer)|
|(Commander E. G. Hunt, RIN)|
|(Lt. Commander R. R. Caws, RIN)|
HMS Chakdina SS Tuna
|}||Acting as transports for the landing party consisting of 3/15 Punjab, one company of Signallers and a company of Royal Engineers.|
There was a fairly strong northerly wind blowing at the time and therefore the Senior Officer decided to amend the position already laid down in his orders so as to avoid large alterations of course and to pass either within visual distance or at any rate a range which would give accurate results of detection by RDF (Radar Direction Finder) of the Island of Harbi. On the run to the north the instrument proved to be of the greatest value and an accurate range was obtained of the Hanish Islands and later Harbi and Sanah Bor Islands which enabled the expedition to approach and anchor, as previously arranged, with great accuracy.
During the night of 10/11 June, the force approached the Assab anchorage from the north, the Indus using double Oropesa sweeping ahead to a position off the port. The expedition was swept into the anchorage by the Indus, but no mines were encountered. On anchoring at 0330 the Indus carried out searching sweeps towards Sanah Bor and round the position where the Dido was anchored with the object of giving some room to manoeuvre should it be necessary to get under way, and then waited close to the Chakdina to sweep her into the inner harbour when ordered. At 0434 the two Eureka motor boats under Commander Vernon and Lieutenant Commander Black respectively, each carrying 30 men of 3/15 Punjab Regiment, proceeded into the harbour passing close eastward of Sanah Bor Island. At 0505 the Dido commenced a deliberate bombardment and ceased fire at 0512. At the same time aircrafts were sighted over the town and these bombed the roads in the approaches and flew low over the town to drown the noise of the motor boats approaching. At 0519 the Eureka Motor boats arrived off the main pier and landed the soldiers without difficulty or opposition. Commander Vernon seized the Italian tug with promptness and fortitude before it could be scuttled.
On the Italian side there was hardly any sign of vigilance and the bombardment caught many of them asleep on the pier. Two Italian Generals were captured, locked in sleep in their beds. At 0600 the signal indicating success was seen in the Dido and the Admiral ordered the Chakdina followed by the Tuna to enter the harbour, the Indus sweeping in ahead of them, the Clive danning the channel. No mines were encountered, and Chakdina was anchored off the pier and the remainder of 3/15 Punjab Regiment immediately landed. The Tuna was berthed alongside at a partially completed jetty close to the southward No. 1 pier and disembarkation was commenced. At 0700 the Civil Governor and an interpreter were brought off to the Dido by Commander Vernon and they formally surrendered the town of Assab to the Senior Officer Red Sea Force (Rear Admiral R. H. C. Hallifax) and Brigadier Dimoline. The Indus then swept out and buoyed a channel into the harbour and at 1100 the Dido entered and anchored off Ras Gombo Light House.
During the afternoon the Dido sent parties to examine the islands but neither personnel nor material were found. At 1600 the Senior Officer Red Sea Force landed. At 1615 the Union Jack was hoisted in the Assab harbour square, guards being provided by the Dido Marines and the Punjab Regiment. Captain Bolla of the Royal Italian Navy, the Senior Naval Officer at Assab, was captured. Rear Admiral Hallifax interviewed him. Although
the Italian Captain had previously refused to give any information as regards mines, he gave the Admiral the position of three minefields and stated that the channel to the eastward north of Ras Fatma was clear. The following day the Indus carried out a sweep of the eastern channel to the 100 fathom line. No mines were found. Five hundred and forty seven prisoners including two Generals, Captain Bolla and 35 Germans were embarked. At 1615 the Senior Officer of the Red Sea Force sailed by the eastern entrance for Aden being swept out by the Indus; the Clive again danning.
HMIS Indus (Commander E. G. Hunt, RIN) after taking part in the successful operation against Assab carried out further patrols from Aden. On 23 June 1941 Commander J. W. Jefford took over as Commanding Officer. HMIS Indus and HMIS Clive sailed on the 24th to commence the task of clearing the Massawa minefields. The Clive carried out minesweeping operations, in company with the Indus off Massawa till 9 August when she left for Aden for boiler cleaning. She called at Karachi on 21 August for fuelling and arrived at Bombay on 31 August for refit.
The Commanding Officer, Indus reported very favourably on the behaviour of the sailors. July and August are the two worst months in that area. The average temperature on the bridge and the sweeping deck throughout the day was between 150° and 160° and in the Officers’ cabins by day it was rarely less than 100°. The sailors, however bore this heat without any complaint, their slogan being “it will be all right in September.”
HMIS Hindustan left Aden on 4 June 1941. After a delay she arrived at Bombay on 12 June. After refitting she sailed from Bombay on 20 July, arriving at Aden on the 27th. Patrols were carried out from Aden.
HMIS Ratnagiri was based on Massawa during the whole of June and until the latter part of July 1941. She returned to Aden on 23 July to carry out patrols.
On 5 September 1941 the Ratnagiri (Lieut. S. G. Karmarkar, RINR) received orders to proceed to Zeila and the neighbouring islands with a view to investigate smuggling into Djibouti. A party of two officers and 9 other ranks was embarked to carry out that reconnaissance.
On the 9th morning the Ratnagiri anchored off the west side of Aibat Island. A party was landed to search the island. The island was low lying with small shrubs practically covering the whole area. A small shrine was noticed by the reconnaissance party and
traces were found of two or three men having visited the place about 7 days previously. However, no traces of dhow traffic or cargo being landed were seen. At 1100 the island of Saada Din, south of Aibat, was visited. Nothing of importance was discovered there.
The ship then sailed to Boomerang spit and anchored in position 11° 29½´ N., 43° 21´ E. That island was a long strip of sand with a few shrubs in the centre. The motor boat was sent ashore at 1700 in an attempt to land the military personnel on the mainland but owing to reefs, this was found impracticable. Next morning, the Ratnagiri sailed round to the east of the island to investigate three smaller islands and to attempt to land the shore party. There were traces of cargo traffic. The shore party was landed at noon that day. By night a motor boat patrol was maintained and lookouts were placed at the most advantageous positions. No dhow traffic was observed. The French post at Loya Ada was visible from Boomerang Island. It was said to consist of two 75-mm batteries manned by two companies of French Senegalese troops. The Ratnagiri was in visual communication during daylight with her frontier post at Warak Fuli. A continuous night patrol was arranged along the coast to stop any traffic in small dhows.
The Ratnagiri was also employed during September 1941 to repatriate Yemen nationals from French Somaliland. She was also asked to report on the prospect of landing stores on the beach at Riyan for the Royal Air Force Aerodrome. She accordingly surveyed the area and submitted a detailed report on 1 November 1941 on’the impracticability of landing stores at Riyan during the South-West monsoon period owing to the prevailing heavy swell. It was considered practicable to land stores during the rest of the year.
Minesweeping Operations – HMIS “Hiravati” and HMIS “Prabhavati”
Early in October HMIS Hiravati and HMIS Prabhavati received orders to proceed to Massawa via the Northern Massawa Channel. They reached Massawa on 7 October 1941 and commenced minesweeping operations in the Northern Channel on the 9th.
The area to be cleared was defined as a lane 1,000 yards to the eastwards of the buoyed channel, commencing from Oresta Shoal buoy to the buoy marking position Lat. 16° 06’ 40” N, Long. 39° 17’ 30” E and thence close inshore to the westward of the Channel.12
HMS Derby joined in the operations on 16 October, Lt. Cdr. Mc Fee RNR, in command assuming the duties of senior officer Minesweeping Squadron. Operations in the Northern Channel were completed on 21 October. It was then decided to clear an area suspected to contain a minefield within the limits of:–
A 15° 34′ 50″ N 39° 42′ E
B 15° 41′ 45″ N 39° 42′ E
C 15° 41′ 45″ N 39° 48′ 40″ E
D 15° 34′ 50″ N 39° 48′ 40″ E.
Clearing operations in “G” formation commenced on 23 October but no mines, other than floating, were discovered till 30 October. The Madote Light House area was cleared of mines on 31 October, the object being to create a safe channel for ships bound for Massawa via the South Massawa Channel.
The next stage in the proceedings started on 3 November and was in the nature of searching sweeps from the above defined area to a position Lat. 15° 22′ 30″ N, Long. 40° 07′ 30″ E (Howtha point). Although other ships had searched the narrows on four previous occasions, HMIS Hiravati swept up three mines at one time on the first day’s operations’. It was then decided that the narrows be cleared’ and accordingly operations commenced on 4 November.
An analysis of the operations showed that altogether 49 mines were sunk. Of these HMIS Hiravati swept 18 of which she sank 10. She also sank a further 22, seven of which were floating mines. From the minesweeping operations it was found that the Hiravati was an ideal minesweeper. HMS Derby, although built for the purpose and carrying an equal complement, was not so good.
The Prabhavati and the Hiravati left Massawa on 10 November 1941 through the South Channel. A searching survey was carried out in “H” formation from Assarka Island along the centre line through position Lat. 15° 22′ 30″ N, Long. 40° 07′ 30″ E, to a position 342° Umm-es-Sahrig Island Light House five miles distant. No mines were out.
The work of the ships’ companies during these operations was greatly to be appreciated. In spite of the Ramzan fasting and other trying circumstances both officers and men carried out their duties with zeal and efficiency. An instance of the arduous work they performed in temperatures frequently reaching over 95° F in the shade was the danning operations. It was not uncommon to lay 12 dans and pick up a like number during the course of the day.
This work was carried out willingly and without any pressure from the officers.
Though the battles in other theatres of war then raged fiercely, the reduction of Eritrea and the Italian Somaliland and later the prompt action taken in Iran removed for a time the main threat to Indian shipping nearer home waters. It was a tribute to the vigilance of the Royal Indian Navy and to the courage and experience of the Merchant Marine that losses of merchant shipping were insignificant.