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Chapter 5: Operations in the Persian Gulf

Mention has been made earlier that at the outbreak of war HMIS Hindustan in company with HMIS Indus proceeded from Bombay on 5 September 1939 to join the Persian Gulf Division of the East India Squadron under the command of Senior Naval Officer, Persian Gulf. Towards the end of October 1939 HMIS Clive and HMIS Lawrence joined the Force in the Gulf. The duties of the ships were to patrol the straits of Hormuz so as to protect British and Allied shipping in the Gulf and to prevent the entry of hostile raiders and the escape of interned German ships from Iran. These duties were very vital for war effort as the principal traffic consisted of oil-tankers carrying oil from Abadan, Basra or Bahrein to the Middle East and returning to refill again. The Clive, the Indus and the Hindustan performed duty in the Persian Gulf for short periods only but the Lawrence remained in the area till the capture of Bandar Shahpur.

In 1940 the Indus left to join the Hindustan in patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab Zone. It was then expected that the German ships in the Khor-Musa river would try to break through. By May there were indications that Italy would soon join the war. Actually two of her 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 then that the Italian submarines would interfere with trade routes in the Indian Ocean. In fact, early in July, an Italian submarine was reported at the northern end of the Gulf.

To the British Government the safety of the oilfields and pipelines in Iraq was of prime importance. It was necessary also to prevent German penetration into this region which might threaten the eastern flank of the Middle East Forces. Under treaty rights with Iraq, Britain was permitted to maintain troops in that country in time of war or during threat of war. But until 1941 there were no British troops in Iraq. There was only a training centre for the Royal Air Force at Habbaniya, the British Air Station sixty miles west of Baghdad.

On the outbreak of war in September 1939 the boy King of Iraq was only four years old and his uncle, the pro-British Amir

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Abdul I Hah was the Regent. The Iraqi Government broke off diplomatic relations with Germany but on Italy’s entering the war in June 1940 they did not take similar action against that state, and the Italian Legation at Baghdad became the centre of nationalist agitation. Axis prestige was greatly enhanced by the German victories in the west and the arrival of the Italian Armistice Commission in Syria, while that of the Allies suffered a decline.

By the end of September 1940 the situation in Iraq caused great anxiety in London. The Prime Minister of Iraq, Rashid Ali el Gailani, was obviously pro-Italian and the grand mufti of Jerusalem, exiled from Palestine, was known to be actively in contact with the Germans. The majority of Iraqi army officers also showed signs of pro-Axis feelings. It became necessary for the British Government to stop the anti-British activities, and the War Cabinet decided on 7 November to send a diplomatic mission to Iraq headed by a prominent personality known and respected by the Iraqis and likely to exercise a steadying influence.

General Wavell (Commander-in-Chief, India) had always been anxious not to become involved in operations in Iraq and on 8 March 1941, in agreement with the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, he suggested to the Chiefs of Staff that if any operations occurred in Iraq they should at first be under the control of India. With this the Chiefs of Staff agreed. The situation continued to deteriorate. All attempts to compel the Iraqi Government to break off diplomatic relations with Italy were unsuccessful. On 31 March 1941, the Regent learnt of a plot to arrest him, and fled from Baghdad to Habbaniya, whence he was flown to Basra and given refuge in HMS Cockchafer. Rashid Ali, with the support of four prominent Iraqi army and air force officers, known as “The Golden Square”, seized power on 3 April and proclaimed himself Chief of the National Defence Government. Thereupon troops were hurried to Iraq, and early in April the Indian Government decided to divert to Iraq a convoy which was at that time in the process of embarking at Karachi prior to sailing for Malaya. The force in this convoy was under the command of Major-General W. A. K. Fraser, CB, CBE, DSO, MVO, MC, Commander 10th Indian Division and consisted of two senior Staff Officers, 10th Indian Division Artillery, 3rd Field Regiment, 20th Infantry Brigade and certain ancillary troops.1

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The object of this expedition was to occupy Basra-Shaiba area in order to ensure the safe disembarkation of further reinforcements and to enable a base to be established in that area. Instructions were given to Major-General Fraser to act in the closest concert with the Officer Commanding the Naval Forces, to overcome opposition by force and occupy suitable defensive positions ashore as quickly as possible, should the embarkation be opposed and to take the greatest care not to infringe the neutrality of Iran.

The Force sailed from Karachi on 12 April 1941. As the Force had originally been prepared for despatch to Malaya, it had not been specially embarked with a view to immediate tactical employment on arrival at destination and consequently a risk was accepted in diverting it to Iraq where an opposed landing was not ruled out. In addition to the troops proceeding by sea, 400 men of the 1st King’s Own Royal Regiment were flown from Karachi to Shaiba. The arrival of the first air party was timed to synchronise with the arrival of the convoy. Troop-carrying aircraft used were seven RAF Valencias and four Atlantas supplemented by 4 D.C. 2’s which had recently arrived in India.

The seaborne force arrived in Basra on 18 April and by the evening of 19 April the disembarkation was completed. All evidence indicated that no organised resistance would be encountered on arrival. The initial advantage gained undoubtedly had an important bearing on the subsequent operations.

The naval vessels which covered the operation consisted of HMS Emerald, HMS Falmouth, HMS Seabelle, HMIS Lawrence and HMAS Tarra. The convoy, composed of 8 transports escorted by HMAS Tarra, was met at sea by HMS Seabelle from Basra on the morning of 15 April. Later in the day the escort was reinforced by HMS Falmouth who became Senior Officer (Escort). On 17 April the convoy was joined by HMIS Lawrence and proceeded towards the entrance of the Shatt-al-Arab. The following day the convoy moved up the Shalt-al-Arab and reached Basra at 0930 hours. HMS Emerald was already there.

The movement in the Shatt-al-Arab was made in two sections, each being preceded by two warships:–

Section I – Cockchafer and Falmouth.

Section II – Tarra and Seabelle.

The Lawrence remained to mask the Control Battery at Fao, while “ the Emerald continued at Basra throughout the operation.

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On 21 April the Iraq Government formally agreed to the arrival of the British troops in Iraq. On 29 April British ancillary troops disembarked at Basra.2 About 1 May 1941 HMIS Lawrence conveyed the Regent of Iraq, his Prime Minister and two other Ministers to safety from the Shatt-al-Arab river to Kuwait. A severe sand storm persisted all the way and during this difficult passage the ship was set about 30 miles to the southward, dangerously close to the rocks. The Lawrence was not fitted with radar, or A/S equipment, and with the sounding machine out of order had to be navigated by hand lead. She arrived at her destination only one minute late (2100). His Royal Highness remained on board that night and left by air the next day for an unknown destination. On 7 May Lieutenant-General E. P. Quinan, CB, DSO, OBE, arrived in Basra by air from India and took over command of all British and Indian land forces in Iraq from Major-General Fraser who resumed command of the 10th Indian Infantry Division.

The progress of the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade group was slow. Therefore, preparations were well in hand for another force to advance by the Tigris. This force, under Brigadier Weld, Commander 21st Indian Infantry Brigade, was to proceed by river to Kut and thence by motor transport to Baghdad. All available barges and steamers were collected, many from up-river, and the barges decked so as to take motor transport, guns and armoured cars. These plans were made in conjunction with the Senior Naval Officer Persian Gulf (Commodore C. M. Graham, RN) and the convoy sailed on 12 June under command of a naval officer with naval escort. The land force consisted of the 21st Indian Infantry Brigade (less two battalions), two troops of 13th Lancers (armoured cars), one troop of 157 Field Regiment and ancillary units. It reached Kut on 17 June and Baghdad on 19 June. This move up the Tigris had a most salutary effect on the tribes along the route, who otherwise might have been troublesome.

At the end of 1940 Hitler had realised that Britain could not be destroyed by direct air assault. The Battle of Britain had been his first defeat. He then turned his attention to the invasion of Russia in the early summer of 1941. The German Operation “SEA LION” (against Britain) was then replaced by “BARBAROSSA” (operation against Russia). His directive No. 21 of 18 December

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1940 for “BARBAROSSA” had laid down the general grouping and primary tasks of the forces to be concentrated against Russia. At that time the total German strength on the Eastern Front was 34 divisions. In May 1941 the German deployment in the East grew to 87 divisions. A delay of five weeks was imposed upon that supreme operation as a result of British resistance in the Balkans and on account of the Yugoslav revolution.

Hitler had decided to strike at Russia and defeat her in a single campaign. He was aware of the risk involved but believed that the campaign would be over in two months or three at the most. On 22 June 1941 the Germans attacked the Russian front in great strength. The British reaction was immediate and decisive. The same evening Mr. Churchill broadcast to the nation and made the British position clear. He declared that Britain would give to the Russians whatever help she could.

Danger in the Middle East

In the Middle East the danger was even more pressing, for, the attack on Russia, it was feared, might be the first move in a general south-easterly advance. If Russia collapsed, the large German forces would be readily available for exploitation to the south-east, and the Middle East base would then be exposed. The security of Egypt, Palestine and Syria might be threatened from the direction of the Caucasus and Persia or through Anatolia towards Syria or both. If there was a very early Russian collapse the Germans might reach the Caucasus by mid-August but poor road and railway communications would delay them so much that even if Persia offered no resistance they could hardly be in a position to operate against Iraq, except from the air, before April 1942. These considerations engaged the attention of the Commander-in-Chief at that-time.

The Chiefs of Staff considered that the first British object should be to secure the Anglo-Iranian oilfields and the Abadan refinery, for their loss would make it very difficult to carry on war in the Middle East. Basra was a potential base for air reinforcements to the Middle East and a staging point on the air route to India; it was also the port for the land route between the Persian Gulf and Egypt. For all these reasons the security of Basra and of its sea communications was essential. The loss of the Allied position in the Middle East was viewed as a military calamity of the first magnitude, as it threatened their vital communications to the east.

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In all those plans and preparations a great deal obviously depended on the attitude of Turkey. Her territory contained the best natural position for defence against a German advance. But Turkey vacillated. On 18 June, only lour clays before the Germans attacked the Russians, Turkey and Germany signed a treaty of friendship and non-aggression. A week later, it was ratified. By the. end of July, Syria had passed into Allied control, the German attack had made great progress towards Moscow, and the Turks, feeling that they might well be the next victims, expressed a wish for secret Staff talks with the British. It was agreed that no German attack was likely before the spring of 1942 and the Turks accepted the proposal to receive British forces.

Nazi In filtration Into Iran

Iran, an independent neutral country, with oilfields and refineries, lying between Russia and the Persian Gulf, commands a strategical situation. From the time of the Russo-German pact in 1939, until Hitler’s sudden attack on Russia in 1941, the danger to Iran’s security was apprehended from the latter. A crisis was brewing in Iran3. At the outbreak of war there were about three thousand German nationals in that country. Throughout the latter part of 1940 the British Minister in Teheran had drawn attention to the danger from their presence. More Germans entered Persia after the British occupation of Iraq in May 1941 and many of them obtained important positions on the railways and in government service. This meant that the vital supply line from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian, by which it was intended to send material aid to Russia was in danger of being interrupted and closed altogether. Both General Auchinleck (Commander-in-Chief Middle East) and General Wavell were in favour of taking a very firm line with the Persian Government and, when it became clear that the Persians would not agree to expel those Germans, it was decided to concert action with Russians. A joint Anglo-Soviet note was accordingly presented on 17 August. A few days later, the Chiefs of Staff ordered General Wavell – (who as Commander-in-Chief in India, was responsible for Persia and Iraq) – to take military action in order to bring pressure on the Persian Government. He was first to occupy the oilfields at Ahwaz, near the head of the Persian Gulf, and at Khanakin to the north-east of Baghdad. With the help

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of the Russians he was then to obtain control of the communications through the country.


In July 1941 the British Government considered measures to counter the menace of the influx of Axis nationals into Iran and decided to apply Anglo-Soviet diplomatic pressure backed by force, if necessary, on the Iranian Government. Operation “COUNTENANCE” was prepared to be put into effect in the middle of August. It involved the occupation of Kuzistan by British and Indian forces while Russian land forces were to advance simultaneously from the Caucasus into North Iran (25th August).

Preliminary arrangements were made by Lieutenant-General Quinan for:–

The concentration of a military striking force on the Iranian frontier in the Basra area, the object of which was to occupy the oilfields and refinery at Abadan.

The assembly of a naval/military force at the head of the Persian Gulf consisting of three or four sloops and two companies of infantry to occupy Bandar Shahpur and seize the port and shipping.

The naval aspect of the operation was the responsibility of the Senior Naval Officer Persian Gulf (Commodore C. M. Graham, RN) who worked in conjunction with the Commander of the 8th Indian Division (Major-General C. O. Harvey). It involved the transport and covering of the army landing forces, the immobilising of the Iranian Navy, and the capture of the German and Italian merchant ships laid up* at Bandar Shahpur.

A feature of the operation was that the warships employed, ranging from an Armed Merchant Cruiser to Eurekas, were obliged to operate in hostile waterways so restricted as to deny them any real freedom of action.

This mixed naval force included the H M.S. Kanimbla4 (Senior Officer’s ship), the RIN sloop Lawrence, the sloops HMS Shoreham and Lilac, the corvette Snapdragon, the gun boat Cockchafer, the armed trawler Arthur Cavanagh, two Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s tugs, one dhow complete with sail and one RAF picket boat.

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The force sent against Khurramshahr included the HMS Falmouth and HMAS Tarra and small craft.

The Iranian naval force comprised two sloops and four gunboats. Simultaneous attacks were planned against Khurramshahr (the Iranian naval base situated at the junction of Karun river with the Shatt-al-Arab), Abadan (town and island, the Headquarters of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) and the port of Bandar Shahpur.

Operation “COUNTENANCE” was postponed more than once and D1 day was finally fixed for 25 August 1941.

The Iranian Navy had its base at the mouth of the Karun river just opposite Khurramshahr. The town and wireless station were situated on the west bank, while the naval barracks were situated on the east bank. At Khurramshahr three of the five “T” jetties were occupied by the Persian sloop Babr, the Naval School Ship Ivy and two gunboats. The task was to capture the naval base at Khurramshahr and neutralise Persian forces there. The naval force employed in this operation included the sloops Falmouth and Tarra and small craft. It was believed that there were about 1,000 men at the base, which was under the command of Admiral Bayendor.

The 18th Infantry Brigade advanced from Tanuma on the night of 23/24 August and, making a wide detour across the desert, arrived to the north of Khurramshahr about one mile from the wireless station at 0410 on 25 August.

At the same time the Falmouth and Tarra left Basra on the night of 24/25 August with a company of the 3rd Baluch Regiment, arriving at the mouth of the Karun at 0415 on 25 August. In the action which followed, the Iranian sloop Babr was sunk, and two gunboats captured. The naval barracks were captured by the soldiers. Admiral Bayendor who commanded the Persian Navy and the local military force was killed while defending the wireless station building. His death, wrote Cosmo Graham,”was regretted by all who knew him. He was intelligent, able, and faithful to Persia.”5 Admiral Bayendor was buried in the Khurramshahr Naval Base which, with its capture, became HMS Euphrates Depot for the Royal Navy in the Gulf throughout the war.

Capture of Abadan

Abadan Island lies between the Shatt-al-Arab and Bahmanshir at the head of the Persian Gulf. The left bank of the Shatt-al-Arab

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Persian Gulf – Off 

Persian Gulf – Off Abadan

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from its mouth to the junction with the Karun river, a distance of forty miles, is the western side of the Abadan Island. Eleven miles downstream from the Karun River junction, and round an abrupt bend in the river, the refinery and town of Abadan and the adjacent Bawarda, with numerous berths for large ships, stretched for some three miles along the island bank of the Shatt-al-Arab. Abadan was the headquarters of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company whose oil refinery was also situated there. There was an aerodrome for the Company’s planes. Abadan port town exported oil and imported stores and machinery for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The employees of the company at the time of the operation were 1,000 British and 1,500 Indians. The population of the town was between 70 and 100 thousand.

The 24th Indian Infantry Brigade (less one battalion) embarked in naval craft from Basra on the night of 24/25 August and moved down the Shatt-al-Arab so as to reach Abadan at 0410 on 25 August. While one section of field artillery was embarked, two sections proceeded overland to Seeba on the opposite bank of Abadan. The flotilla consisted of the sloop (HMS Shoreham) as armed yacht (HMS Seabelle), the Auxiliary minesweeper (HMIS Lilavati), two river paddle steamers (Ishan and Zenobia), five Eureka motor-boats and four dhows. The operations went according to plan except that some of the Eurekas carrying the first wave of the 24th Indian Infantry Brigade ran aground and were delayed. In consequence the second wave arrived first, although it did not affect the success of the plan. The Seabelle and Lilavati reached Abadan in time.

The Abadan force reached its objective precisely at 0410. Fire was opened on machine gun posts on shore and within ten minutes the first troops were landed. Most of the Iranian soldiers were asleep in their barracks. HMS Shoreham opened fire on the Iranian sloop Palang lying at one of the jetties, setting her alight. The firing awakened the Iranians who were completely taken by surprise. A large number fled, escaping in lorries across the Bahmanshir creek. But a few manning posts along the wharves put up a stout resistance. In the ensuing street fighting it was difficult to dislodge the Iranians without blowing up the refineries. However, the refinery area was cleared by 1700 and the troops bivouacked for the night.

Operation “BISHOP”

The southern half of Abadan Island was mopped up on 26 August. This operation was conceived with the object of

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capturing five German and four Italian merchant ships at Bandar Shahpur together with the port itself whose importance lay in the fact that it was the terminal port of the Trans-Iranian Railway. This operation was simultaneous with a combined operation to capture Abadan south Iran as far as Ahwaz.

The naval and army units which took part in the operation “BISHOP” were known as force “B”. The Senior Officer Force “B” Captain Adams, RN, in HMS Kanimbla. Force “B” consisted of:– HMS Kanimbla (armed merchant cruiser), HMIS Lawrence (sloop), HMIS Investigator (sloop-ex-survey vessel), HMS Snapdragon (corvette), Cockchafer (ex-Yangtze gunboat), St. Athan and Delaver (Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s tugs), Arthur Cavanagh (H.M. armed trawler), one Dhow, one RAF Picket Boat, and two companies of 3/10 Baluch Regiment.

The general plan of the operation was completed before the arrival of the Kanimbla in the Persian Gulf. It was clear that with such a mixed force careful training was necessary if the object of capturing the merchant ships was to be achieved. By good fortune it was possible to train boarding parties with a fair degree of secrecy in an open anchorage, 11 miles from the nearest land, off the entrance to the Shatt-al-Arab river. In this position weather conditions were at times bad for boats. The Dhow and the RAF Launch also suffered damage. Amongst the steps taken to preserve secrecy was a ban on ships returning to the Shatt-al-Arab. In addition, efforts were made by the use of painted canvas to make the Kanimbla look as much like a passenger ship as possible; and so successful were all these precautions that it seemed unlikely that even in the bazaar there was any hint that the large “troop ship” which was ashore outside was the mother-ship for a force about to capture the port and the German and Italian ships in Bandar Shahpur.

Eight boarding parties were required, three of which were provided by the Snapdragon, Cockchafer and Lawrence and the remaining five by the Kanimbla. In principle they were organised on similar lines, and consisted of an upper deck and engine-room party, whose guiding principle was that men boarding must always work in pairs and work quickly.

HMIS Lawrence was informed by the Senior Officer Force “B” that she should make every endeavour to capture the Iranian gunboats without firing, which in the event she did. Similar instructions were given to all units of the force in relation to the floating

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dock, in case any of them were subsequently detailed to lake it. The Cockchafer also took this dock without a shot being fired.

HMIS Lawrence embarked a detachment of 3/10 Baluch Regiment at Basra at 1600 on 10 August. The detachment consisted of “A” and “D” companies, in all 10 officers and 256 other ranks. At 2030 the Lawrence left the jetty and proceeded quietly down the Shatt-al-Arab. At 1100 on 11 August, the Lawrence rendezvoused with HMS Kanimbla in mid-ocean and transferred the army detachment. Between 11 and 16 August force “B” went through a period of intensive training. On 16 August force “B” was able to report as being fully trained and equipped and from this time until the operation took place on 25 August, intensive training was relaxed. On the night of 23 August orders were received that zero hour would be 0410 Iraqi time, on 25 August.

All units rendezvoused with the Kanimbla and were berthed alongside by noon on 24 August, when the final instructions were issued. Dhow “8” was the first unit to sail at 1332, the RAF launch “20” and Tug “A” left at 1500, and the remainder of the, force got under way at 2015. In addition to reconnaissance, Dhow “8” and the RAF Launch “20” were provided with a number of Hurricane lanterns which they were to attach to any unlighted buoys in the Channel of Khor Musa. In the event, all buoys and beacons were alight. Dhow “8” however, kept the Senior Officer Force “B” fully informed by wireless of all navigational matters including the characteristics of the lights which were not in accordance,, with the blue print.

The passage up the Khor Musa was uneventful in good visibility, the Kanimbla leading with Tugs “A” and “B” on either bow. Astern of her were the Cockchafer, the Lawrence, the Snapdragon and the Arthur Cavanagh. All buoys up to 13 were passed within 5 minutes of the time laid down in the time table. The Kanimbla, leading the force, reached buoy 13 at 1315. There she fell behind in accordance with the plan. The ebb-tide was then at least two knots and so all units were ordered to proceed ahead at 10 knots. But the RAF Launch 80 and Arthur Cavanagh were unable to make this speed and were consequently late in arriving at their objectives. The Lawrence now forged ahead overhauling the two tugs and also the Cockchafer in the last lap, thus getting her nose in front.6 At 0415 the Lawrence proceeded alongside and boarded the Iranian

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gunboats Karkas and Shahbaaz. No resistance was encountered due to the complete surprise. By 0430 without incurring any casualties, the gunboats were captured and the crews were put under guard. A floating dock belonging to the Iranian Government was captured intact by the Cockchafer.

Meanwhile, the Axis merchant ships which had been prepared for scuttling got the alarm. Explosions were heard and fires were seen to break out almost simultaneously in the three Italian ships and two of the German ships. This was the sight which awaited the Kanimbla as she turned into the straight in the wake of the flotilla. Two American ships were berthed in the available space by the jetty. The Kanimbla went straight to the Italian tanker Bronte which was blazing fiercely amid ships, while the Lawrence after leaving the prize crews aboard the captured gunboats was ordered to proceed to the Caboto. The Lawrence captured the Caboto and put a party of officers and ratings on board to fight the fire. She then went alongside the Barbara and ran hoses and a chain of buckets to deal with a fierce fire under her bridge. By 0745 both ships had been saved from destruction.

With all hoses rigged, the Kanimbla poured water into the Bronte. The latter was filled with stacks of kerosene tanks which were bursting all over the place, and the heat was terrific. A foothold was obtained after the first rush of flames was beaten back, and in some three hours the ship was saved. The Kanimbla had 16 officers and 111 men away on boarding parties round the harbour and the Bronte’s fire was tackled by the few remaining.

The German ship Weissenfels was lost. The German preparations were most efficient and it appeared from intelligence obtained later that the Chief Engineer of the Weissenfels had taken action to scuttle and fire his ship before the alarm came from the Hohenfels.

The situation ashore at 1700 on 25 August, was calm. The position afloat was as follows:–The Marienfels and the Wildenfels anchored and apparently were ready to be brought forward. The Sturmfels was at anchor, with No. 4 hold full of corn still smouldering. There was a possibility that this corn saturated with fire-fighting water might swell and burst the bulkheads. There was also the fear that the fire might spontaneously ignite the Barbara, Caboto and Bronte. The Hohenfels was beached 1½° by the stern with a list of 3° to starboard. The Weissenfels was still burning furiously, all oil fires apparently out, but in a condition impossible to get into her to shut valves etc. She sank in deep water at 0500 on 26 August.

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Naval casualties on the Indian side were nil. Despite much firefighting, there were no serious burns and only a few minor injuries were sustained. The absence of casualties and the partial success of the operation may be ascribed to the following causes:–

(a) The sound training given to the boarding parties, (b) The skill and determination with which the ships were boarded and, in particular, the magnificent way in which the engine-room boarding parties penetrated into the depths of ships which were filling with water and in some cases were on fire, (c) The high morale and spirit of the force, as a whole, (d) The success of the communications inside the force, with so small a personnel. Every Signalman and Telegraphist was continuously on watch from the time of sailing on 24 August, until at least 1700 on the next day. Between 1600 on 24 August and 1200 on 25 August, no less than 141 signals were passed between Kanimbla and units of Force “B” by V/S and W/T.

The seven captured Axis merchant vessels at Bandar Shahpur – The Wildenfels, Sturmfels, Marianfels (German), the Caboto, Bronte, Hilda and Barbara (Italian) – were first taken to Basra and thence to India where they arrived in September 1941.

Capture of Bandar Shahpur

Having achieved the first object of the operation viz. the capture of Axis shipping in the harbour of Bandar Shahpur, the Allies sought to capture the port and town of Bandar Shahpur. The Commanding Officer, HMIS Kanimbla (Captain G.H. Adams, RN) commanded the whole operation. He also exercised operational control of aircraft which were detailed to co-operate. They were:–

244 Squadron 4 Vincents (Army Co-operation)
31 Bomber Transport Douglas (Air Borne Troops) Squadron
26 Fighter Squadron Hurricanes and Gladiators
84 Bomber Squadron Blenheims

The senior Military Officer was Major Maxwell (3/10 Baluch Regiment). Lieutenant Bowen, RNR, took up the duties of Naval Officer-in-Charge, Bandar Shahpur after the operation during which he acted as the Sea Transport Officer and Principal Beachmaster at the landing.

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Khor Musa Area, showing A

Khor Musa Area, showing A.I.O.C. Tank Installations

Bandar Shahpur is situated 30 miles up the Khor Musa Channel and lies on the seaward edge of a large mud flat which extends back some 7 miles before what may properly be called the mainland is reached. At high tide this mud flat is flooded to a depth of two to three feet. The port is on the deep water channel and consists of a reclaimed area about one mile long and 400 yards wide at its widest point and filled to a height of 5 to 8 feet above the natural level of the mud bank. In 1940 about 80 ships entered and cleared in the foreign trade of the port while 5 German and 3 Italian ships had taken permanent refuge since the outbreak of war.

The Iranian naval organisation consisted of two Iranian naval sloops anchored in the channel, a naval barracks which was being built with a handful of naval ratings living on shore. Apart from the sloops the only defence force consisted of an infantry detachment of about 75 men who were quartered in three blue-painted wooden huts. There were no defence works.

The port was the terminus of the Iranian State Railway which ran north by a single track to Ahwaz, Teheran and Bandar Shah on the Caspian Sea. On the raised area there were four main railway sidings and a Y for turning locomotives. The main line ran length-wise through that area and led out on to a jetty over a wooden viaduct some 300 yards long. The original jetty was also a timber construction but an extension on steel piles was added giving a total length of 850 feet. The jetty carried a triple track but its capacity was limited by a single track approach.

After the Kanimbla had put out the fire from the blazing Italian tanker Bronte and her berthing parties secured the latter, she opened fire on a train pulling out of Bandar Shahpur, and suspected to carry some German tourists. Some straddles were obtained but there was no direct hit and the train got away intact. Very soon a decision to land troops without naval support was taken as there were no signs of military activity on shore.

Major Maxwell, of 3/10 Baluch Regiment, embarked with “A” Company and a couple of Bren gun detachments for the jetty about a mile away. “D” Company was to follow as the second wave on the return of the tug. “A” Company seized its bridgehead and went on to the Railway Station and its large sheds without any opposition. There was an exchange of fire with some Iranian soldiers dying of wounds. One local fireman and one coolie were killed in the loco shed.

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The town of Bandar Shahpur was occupied on 25 August and by that evening the whole area as far as the Railway Causeway over Khor Dorak, 2½ miles from the town had been occupied. A defence post was established at the Causeway and direct telephone communication from it to the bridge of the Kanimbla alongside the jetty was established. So flat was the land that the whole of the area was plainly visible from the Kanimbla’s bridge. There was not a tree in sight. The ground was sand and silt.

On 26 August, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company camp at Mashut was visited by the Officer Commanding Troops. From information received on that date, it appeared likely that Iranian police and land force might attempt to arrest the small British community at the camp. The Officer Commanding Troops carried out reconnaissance over a radius of some 20 miles on 28 August.

On receiving a signal from the Senior Naval Officer Persian Gulf, it was made known generally on shore that an armistice had been signed on the forenoon of 29 August 1941. All ships present were dressed with mast head flags, with Iranian ensign at the fore. A number of local officials were entertained by the Kanimbla and the health of the King of England and the Shah of Persia was drunk.

Iranian Gun-Boats and Axis Merchant Ships

The Iranian gunboats were four in number. They were Italian built and of about 700 tons each, mounting two 3-inch guns on the: forecastle on either side with a speed of 15, engines were Fiat Diesel. Their condition was mechanically poor.

The Karkas and Shahbaaz were captured by HMIS Lawrence. These two ships, in charge of two officers from the Lawrence operated under their, own captured officers during 25 August and morning of the 26th. On the last date they both went to Malnu , one carrying Officer Commanding Troops and the other to obtain divers and diving gear for the Hohenfels.

At noon on 26 August rumours of the operations at Abadan filtered through to the officers and men of these gunboats. As soon as they realised that their compatriots had put up some form of resistance, they requested to be relieved of the necessity of running their ships. Though measures to de-militarise the gunboats had been taken on the forenoon of 25 August, the armament was again put into full working order and they were commissioned as His Majesty’s Ships – tenders to the Kanimbla.

The senior Iranian officer was Captain Fosuni, who was retained in the Kanimbla as a prisoner of war. Lieutenant Dabeer

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Ali of the Iranian Navy was persuaded to remain on board as a pilot for the first trip to Basra and back. Seven Iranian ratings were retained as care and maintenance party, with these exceptions, all officers and men of these gunboats numbering 97 .were sent to Basra in the Karkas, as prisoners of war leaving Bandar Shahpur on 26 August.

Despite every endeavour of the Kanimbla’s attenuated engine-room staff, the main engines of the Shahbaaz failed to work satisfactorily until October and both ships required lengthy overhaul. The Italian engineer attached to these two ships of the Iranian Navy, was taken prisoner of war and retained to work in the engine-room of these gunboats. He did a great deal to keep the engines of the Karkas working and to repair the engine of the Shahbaaz. On 22 September 1941 the port propeller of the Karkas was damaged underweight.

On 3 October 1941 both gunboats were docked in the floating Dock and undocked on 4 October after both propellers of the Karkas and Shahbaaz had been exchanged. An attempt to straighten the tips of the bent propeller resulted in one tip being broken off and abandoned. The general condition of the dock was good. Both the gunboats were simultaneously docked and undocked.

Other craft captured from Iranian Navy were (a) one small diesel tug re-named “V” for victory (b) three Lighters of approximately 200 tons each and one of approximately 70 tons.

All the German and Italian ships had been prepared for scuttling. The German ships were prepared for scuttling by opening the main inlet valve and placing H.E. Charges where they would cause the most damage to the ships watertight structure. As a secondary measure, arrangements were made to fire the cargo-holds. Long lengths of Bickford’s type fuse were used for the ignition of the H.E. Charges. These were led to the upper deck in the vicinity of the Quartermaster’s watch keeping station, boxes’ of matches and short lights were always kept handy for the Quartermaster. These fuses took on an average 15 minutes to burn down to the charge. Firing of ships was done by kerosene oil and tar being splashed over dunnage in the holds. This was lighted either by black powder bombs or short lights. An ample supply of both was kept in each ship.

The Italians apparently sabotaged their ships with electrically fired TNT and gelignite charges through a temporary switchboard and batteries. Italian incendiarism was confined to stacks

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of 10 gallon kerosene drums interspersed with powder bombs fitted with varying lengths of Bickford’s fuse.

In this evolution time was the most important factor and the Chief Engineer of the German ship Hohenfels said some days later, “If you had given us more time, we would all have joined the Weissenfels”. The boarding parties had, however, done some fast and efficient work and in many cases had ripped off the ignited fuses before they reached the explosive and incendiary charges.

The Weissenfels was the only German ship which successfully scuttled herself by a combination of incendiarism and demolition. The boarding party was never able to get into the engine-room on account of the heat and smoke. It reported hearing five charges explode. The other German ships which prepared to scuttle themselves were the Wildenfels, Sturmfels, Marienfels and the Flag-ship of the German Hansa Fleet Hohenfels. The Italian ships which followed suit were the Caboto, Bronte and Barbara. The boarding parties were in each case in time to prevent scuttling or damage done to their ships.

The German and Italian ships adopted entirely different methods of sabotage. No attempt was made by the Italians to sink their vessels but merely to damage the machinery with demolition charges and the superstructure and accommodation by incendiarism. By contrast the German ships were very thoroughly prepared for sinking by the opening of all the main ballast lines and sea inlet valves. The German plan obviously could not be applied until the last moment whereas the Italian method of sabotaging the main and auxiliary machinery could be done at any time. There was some evidence that the Italians did, in fact, damage their machinery prior to 25 August when the British attack on Bandar Shahpur was made.

The Role of Investigator, Lawrence and Lilavati

HMIS Investigator sailed from Bombay on 20 Jan. 1941 for Khor and joined the Persian Gulf Division on 24 January. She maintained the Khor Kuwai patrol from 5 May 1941 and was almost continuously at sea till 19 June when she was relieved by HMS Falmouth. She left Karachi on 15 July and reached Bahrein on the 20th. Owing to operational requirements she had to be sent back to Khor Kuwai patrol. During the occupation of Iran in August 1941 HMIS Investigator and other HMI ships were employed in covering the landing of troops at Abadan, Khurramshahr and Bandar Shahpur and stood by to evacuate British residents from Bushire.

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The good work done by Indian sloops and other escort vessels of the Royal Indian Navy during World War II was appreciated. During Operation “COUNTENANCE” in the capture of Abadan, Royal Indian Naval personnel were called upon to perform important duties. In one of the actions Lieutenant N. Krishnan of the Royal Indian Navy of HMIS Investigator won the Distinguished Service Cross. He was second-in-command of an 80-ton tug, manned by twelve Indian naval ratings and intended to provide transport for landing parties. As events turned out, those on board the tug came in also for a spell of hard fighting.

While warships belonging to the Royal Navy and the Royal Indian Navy were engaging the larger vessels of the Axis near the shore, the tug was lying in midstream. Her complement had instructions not to fire on the machine gun positions ashore lest the RIN landing parties be injured. Suddenly, an armed tug of the Axis began “to do a real bit of target practice” at the Royal Indian Navy tug, which at once replied suitably. The hostile force had taken cover between decks and was also firing from portholes, while their opponents had little protection. Accordingly, it was decided to board the craft, and four ratings were detailed off to fix bayonets and follow Lieutenant Krishnan into her, while the three remaining seamen and the Stoker Petty Officer were to give covering fire.

The tug was brought alongside a barge which was secured to the hostile tug. Lieutenant Krishnan boarded the barge. Immediately, the craft he had just left was carried clear by the current, and he found himself alone, with three men in the barge firing at him and snipers busy from the tug. He wounded two of the men in the barge; the third dropped his rifle. He then boarded the tug, which seemed to provide better cover. Meanwhile, the rest of the party had come alongside again, and followed him aboard.

A fierce struggle now began in the dark. The hostile force had divided itself into several parties. The after-hatch was rammed down on those below, and a Seaman posted to guard if. While the rest of the party was engaging gunmen at point blank range, Lieutenant Krishnan dashed across the deck and covered an open door through which most of the firing came. The boarding party then closed the watertight doors to the forward hold and lower decks and bolted them, thus completely isolating their adversaries below. While some of his men engaged the hostile force forward, Lieutenant Krishnan, with the aid of a torch, inspected hold No. 1 aft. It looked empty, but as he turned to go, he saw something move in the corner. Firing and flashing the torch at the same time, he saw

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three men armed with rifles. The noise of battle had evidently unnerved them, and they surrendered.

Since the boarding party had now been sufficiently reinforced to take the offensive, and as little was being gained by exchanging fire with the men opposite, they charged another of the lairs on the upper deck, and after a scuffle eight armed men surrendered.

In the meanwhile continuous fire was coming up the forward hatchway, and one of the Indian Petty Officers nearly became a casualty. The hold was in pitch darkness, and the only means of entry was rope ladder covered by the hostile force. Accordingly, Lieutenant Krishnan tried a ruse. He shouted: “Here’s a bomb. Come up or I will kill you”. Pandemonium at once broke out below; give rifles were banged on the deck, and the men trooped up to surrender.

The bridge was reported clear, but a man in officer’s uniform observed there earlier had smuggled himself into a cabin where he waited to shoot at anybody passing. Warned by a shout from a rating accompanying him, Lieutenant Krishnan fired with his revolver at. the same time as the hostile officer did, wounding him in the neck and arm. With that incident resistance ended. A report was sent to the Senior Officer, and the Royal Indian Navy tug proceeded alongside one of the warships, where medical attention was given to the wounded.

The Indian seamen gallantly led by an Indian officer had shown great courage, coolness and initiative against superior numbers and only one was injured. On the other side, four were killed and 20 captured.

HMIS Lawrence

HMIS Lawrence (Lt. Cdr. H. E. Passmore-Edwards) with the British gunboat HMS Cockchafer and the Australian armed merchant cruiser HMS Kanimbla in company led the assault on Bandar Shahpur in the early morning hours of 25 August 1941. The increasing activity of German agents and the urgent need to open a southern supply route to the valiant Red Army had made necessary the Allied occupation of Persia, which was completed in a few days with a minimum of bloodshed.

It was known that five German and three Italian merchant ships were lying at Bandar Shahpur, sheltering from the Allied Naval Forces blockading the Persian Gulf. While Indian troops were put ashore from the Kanimbla, the Lawrence was instructed to

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Lieut. N. Krishnan, DSC, RIN


Lieut. (E) D. Shankar, DSC, RIN

take possession of the Axis ships and prevent their crew from scuttling them. Speed was essential if that task was to be successfully accomplished.

The following is a brief account of the exploits of HMIS Lawrence at Bandar Shahpur, of which the Indian Navy is justly proud. Many of its Ship’s Company were decorated for gallantry and outstanding work during this operation. As soon as the Lawrence rounded the last bend of the river leading to the port, she was sighted by a look-out on one of the German ships. The warning was given and almost immediately smoke and fire began to pour from two of the German ships and all three Italian ships. Obviously the Germans were attempting to scuttle their ships. Each ship of the attacking force had its own objective, that of the Lawrence being the Iranian gun-boats, the Karkas and Shahbaaz. As the Lawrence approached the gun-boats, she slowed down and gently moved up alongside one of them. Lt. Coltham RIN (the Executive Officer), at once boarded, followed by Able Seaman Mushkur Ali, Engineer S/Lt. Harper and two or three stokers. But before others could also accompany, the tide took the ship away and the party was left alone. Nevertheless it did splendid work and in a quarter of an hour captured the two gunboats. Officers in one of them were sleeping aft when the Lawrence came alongside. They woke up presently but were covered by Able Seaman Mushkur Ali with his pistol and neutralised. Lieut. Coltham then went to the Mess Deck and managed to lock up all the Iranians there. By that time S/Lt. Harper had secured the engine-rooms of the two ships and conducted a thorough search for any sabotage material. He then captured the Harbour Master’s launch as it came alongside and proceeded to carry out despatch duties with it. Not content, he took some advance troops to the wharf and captured some Iranian Liverymen as they returned from night leave. Mr. Loynes, Gunner, Petty Officer Kaka Bawoo and Greeser Miran Chandu all helped him considerably in his exploits.

The capture of the two gunboats was effected completely by surprise so that no resistance was met with and no casualties incurred. But while HMIS Lawrence was thus engaged, fires were observed on the Axis vessels in the vicinity, followed by explosions. She was ordered to get alongside the Italian ship Caboto and to prevent her from scuttling herself. As she secured alongside, her boarding party got busy with hoses and fire-extinguishers but the fire had got so strong a hold on the ship that, in order to save herself, the Lawrence had to leave. Her officers and men did excellent work in this

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operation. After leaving the Caboto, the Lawrence went alongside the Barbara and proceeded to organise hoses and a chain of buckets to put down the fierce fire under the bridge. The work was soon done but not before she had put many of her officers and men on board the other vessels. After about two hours, she returned to the Caboto and found that the fires had been brought under control.

She then went alongside the German vessel Weissenfels which was blazing away fiercely amid ships. She could not be saved and eventually she sank. The Lawrence then proceeded to clear the jetty. With the launch captured on board the gunboats, she helped in landing troops. About noon the Lawrence received orders to proceed with all despatch to evacuate British subjects from Bushire and accordingly she left the scene of her valiant labours. During the month of July 1941 she landed troops at Abadan, Khurramshahr and Bandar Shahpur. In September 1941 she went to Basra to land troops and then left for Bombay for refit. After refitting there she was detailed for local naval defence duties.

The Commanding Officer of HMIS Lawrence, Lieutenant Commander H. E. Passmore-Edwards, RINR, specially commended the following officers and ratings of his ship for their outstanding work during the Persian Gulf operations.

Lieutenant W. G. Coltham, RIN (Executive Officer)

This officer worked very hard in organising the Ship’s Company for the operation. He led the party which boarded the Persian gunboats and was the first aboard. He was also prominent aboard the Italian vessel Caboto. Later, he took a motor boat to the wharf and requested the USA vessels to shift berth. He then returned to the Persian gunboat Shahbaaz, got it under weigh and carried out several further duties in command of the gunboat. Later he was mentioned in despatches.

Engineer Lieut. D. Shankar, RIN

He boarded the Italian vessel Caboto. At considerable risk to himself he went through the blazing bridge deck and captured the crew. He then searched the ship for scuttling charges and was to the fore in fighting the fire. The cool and sensible manner in which he conducted himself was very praiseworthy. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his gallantry.

Engr. Sub. Lieut. C. L. Bhandari, RIN

This Officer was in charge of the engine room department during the weeks which preceded the operation. During the

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operation he was the only Engineer Officer left aboard the Lawrence. He worked hard in extinguishing the fires in both the Caboto and Barbara and was always to be seen operating a hose where the fire was fiercest. For his good work in the operations, he was mentioned in Despatches.

O. No. 1215 Abbas Abdul Ghafur, Ch. Mechanician

He worked hard and for long hours in the Engine room and was at the main valve during the operation. A man whose example was always of great value. He was mentioned in Despatches.

O. No. 2491 Fazil Illahi, Stoker Petty Officer

He boarded the Caboto and himself removed unexploded charges from the E.P. cylinder and condenser. He was mentioned in Despatches.

O. No. 2642 Kaka Bawoo, Petty Officer (Ty) Q. R. 2

This Petty Officer remained in the Persian gunboats and rendered assistance in getting them under weigh. He was left in the gunboats when the Lawrence proceeded to Bushire. He was also a member of the towing party put aboard the Barbara for passage to India and worked hard and cheerfully under all circumstances. He was mentioned in Despatches for his good work.

O. No. 3195 Mashkur Ali, Able Seaman Q. R. 3

This rating was the first aboard the Persian gunboats where he did good work in capturing the crew. He was also prominent aboard the Caboto doing valuable work with a fire extinguisher. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

Lastly, the work of the Commanding Officer of the Lawrence during the Persian Gulf Operation was thus praised by Acting Captain G. H. Adams, Commanding Officer of HMS Kanimbla and also the Senior Officer Force “B” of the Operation:–

“I would further mention the assistance and intelligent cooperation which I received during this period from the Commanding Officer of HMIS Lawrence, Lieutenant Commander H. E. Pass-more-Edwards, Royal Indian Naval Reserve, whose sage comments and helpful suggestions led me to place complete confidence in the ability of HMIS Lawrence to carry out her part in the operation with discretion and initiative, a trust which it will be seen was not misplaced. In particular, I would mention the skill which was required to place this unhandy ship alongside two Iranian gunboats

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in the tide conditions prevailing, thereby capturing them without a shot being fired.”7

Lieutenant Commander H. E. Passmore-Edwards was mentioned in Despatches.

The Lilavati

HMIS Lilavati, an Auxiliary Minesweeper, was engaged in Local Defence duties at Bombay from February to May 1940. After her refit in Bombay, she was transferred on 12 May 1941 for duties in the Persian Gulf. She took part in the General Operation “Dover” whose main object was the occupation of Abadan. To achieve that object three simultaneous operations – ”CRACKLER”, “MARMALADE” and “RAPIER” were carried out. The naval tasks in these operations were:–

(a) The destruction or capture of the Iranian warships lying near Abadan (b) the transport and landing of troops in the Abadan Refinery Area (c) the support of the landing by gunfire, if required (“CRACKLER”) (d) the destruction or capture of the Iranian warships lying in or near the entrance to the Karun river and the simultaneous landing of troops to occupy and hold the naval barracks situated on the left bank of the river Karun (“MARMALADE”) (e) the capture of Khurramshahr (“RAPIER”) (f) the transport and landing of troops at Khazalabad (Khosrowabad) and support of the operation by gunfire, if required (Operation “MOPUP”).

HMIS Lilavati along with HMS Seabelle, HMS Shoreham, HMS Zenobia, HMS Ihsan, 6 Eurekas, Dhows RAF 43 and 20 took part in Operation “CRACKLER.” HMS Falmouth, HMAS Tarra, Launch Baeleka and RAF Brooke Launch were in Operation “MARMALADE”, and HMIS Lawrence, HMS Snapdragon and HMS Arthur Cavanagh in Operation “RAPIER”. The Operations, as a whole were under the joint command of the Senior Naval Officer, Persian Gulf (Commodore C. M. Graham, R N. ) and Brigadier R. le Fleming, the Commander of the 24th Infantry Brigade, embarked in HMS Seabelle (Headquarters Ship).

The Lilavati (with Lieutenant H. J. Gahan, RINR, as Officer-in-Charge) was given the task of disembarking 288 men of the 2/6 Rajputana Rifles and 15 men of the 5 Field Company Sappers and Miners from Jetty 11A at 0840. The force was to leave Basra

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Operation DOVER Embarkation 

Operation DOVER Embarkation Plan. Diagram of Anchor Berths and Jetties

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and proceed down river in the following order:–

Jetty No Leave Time


7 1100


7 1200


11 D 0040


11 A 0045

On reaching Satan’s Gap, the Ihsan and Zenobia passed through the channel south of Dabbah and Um-Al-Labani islands and maintained station on the starboard beam of the Seabelle and Lilavati respectively. After passing Seeba, the Ihsan and Zenobia proceeded direct into Breim Creek and disembarked troops there. The Seabelle and Lilavati proceeded so as to arrive off Dabbah Spit Buoy at 0245 and 0250 respectively and off Seeba Creek, at 0407 precisely. As the force approached Seeba Creek the Lilavati closed up on the Seabelle and passed her. The Shoreham and Lilavati were ordered to proceed to patrol the river between Khurramshahr and Seeba after the troops were disembarked.

During the landing of troops at Abadan two of the Lilavati’s ratings displayed great courage in the midst of hostile fire. They were O. No. 1465 Ordinary Seaman Ghulam Mohd. Ali and O. No. 595 Ordinary Seaman Sheikh Ali Fakir. Both won the Distinguished Service Medals, and Lieut. H. J. Gahan, of HMIS Lilavati, who was in charge of the Boarding party was mentioned in Despatches. Another rating of the Lilavati to win the Distinguished Service Medal for gallant service in the action at Abadan was Leading Seaman Ghulam Ahmed.

HMIS Lilavati remained engaged on the Basra patrol till 30 December 1941. Then she left for Karachi. She reached Karachi on 5 January 1942 and resumed the Local Naval Defence duties.