-History of H.M.S. Hood-
The Battle of Oran by Band Corporal Walter Rees
Updated 07-May-2014

In July 1940, H.M.S. Hood led the Royal Navy's "Force H" in the unfortunate action against the French fleet at Oran/Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria. The British were forced to fire upon their former allies and friends with devastating results. The following account of said action is an essay written by Royal Marine Band Corporal Walter Rees in November 1940. Apparently, he gave his friend Fred Mitchell a copy. Fred's asked his fiancee Dolly (Martha Evelyn Oliver Walker) to type it up whilst he was on leave. A copy apparently remained behind when Fred rejoined Hood. Fred was later killed in the sinking of Hood (Walter was transferred before this) and his Dolly saved the paper until her own death in 2008. It was found by her daughter Norma Eaton who scanned it and provided it to our website. It may not be reproduced elsewhere without Norma's permission.

Introduction
When the French surrendered themselves to the Germans in June, the terms of the Armistice tendered to the French Government included complete German Control over the French Navy. It therefore became necessary for the British Government to take steps to see that the French Navy (unlike their Army and Air Force) did not fall into the hands of the enemy. This was vitally important, as the French Navy was the second largest in the World and if coupled with the considerably depleted German Fleet, it would be a menace to our Trade Routes all over the World.

Owing to the fact that at this time the main units of the French Fleet were bottled up in the Mediterranean, Admiral, Sir James Somerville was sent from England to Gibraltar to take over command of the British Naval Force operating from that Base. Admiral Somerville is a great strategist, and has had a vast experience of Naval Operation Warfare. He was responsible for the safe evacuation of a hundred thousand men from the beaches of Dunkirk. He arrive at Gibraltar in H.M.S. Arethusa on Saturday June 29th and struck his Flag aboard H.M.S. Hood the following day. The force now operating in the Western Mediterranean became known as Force "H".

The French Fleet at that time was split into three main groups: the strongest force being at Oran (Algeria). There was also a force consisting of four Battleships and some Cruisers at Alexandria (Egypt), the remainder of the Fleet, which numbered over 200 Craft of different classes, were in British Ports and included a number of Minesweepers and Submarines. Mention should also be made of their very latest Battleship "Cardinal Richelieu", which, although not quite completed, made a dash from her French Dock to Dakar on the West Coast of Africa.

The complete change over of the French Fleet to British protection took place on July 3rd 1940, at Alexandria, the mutual capitulation was uneventful and completed on peaceful terms. The French ships in British home ports willingly agreed to fight on in the Allied Cause. There was, however, a little incident reported from the big French Submarine, Surcouf, lying at Portsmouth. This was due to a slight misunderstanding, but a mutual settlement was immediately established. At Oran, however, owing to the obstinacy of the French Admiral, heavy gunfire was exchanged, which, I regret to say, resulted in the complete destruction of the French Fleet there. This is what I am now going to write about.

The Battle
Tuesday July 2nd. We left Gibraltar at 4.15 P.M. in company with the Battleships "Resolution" and "Valiant", the Cruisers "Arethusa" and "Enterprise", and the many times sunk "Ark Royal", and a Destroyer Force consisting of Forester, Fearless, Foresight, Foxhound, Faulknor, Vortigern, Vidette, Wrestler, Keppel, Active and Escort. Velox, Escapade and Wishart had been sent on ahead earlier in the day to act as scouting force.

As soon as we were clear of the Bay, the Ship's Company closed up at "Action Stations". My action station was in the Transmitting Station (better known as T.S.) situated in the bottom of the ship and where the accuracy of the 15 inch armament is worked out on a number of intricate and delicate instruments. Whilst we were closed up at our action stations the Commander broadcast to the Ship's Company and read out a general signal which had been made by Admiral Somerville to Force "H", giving the nature of the operation and saying that "We are proceeding to Oran to try and persuade the French Fleet there to sail with ut, and should they prove obstinate, it would be our unpleasant duty to sink them."

We were then issued with out emergency rations, which consisted of Bully Beef. Needless to say, foreseeing a trying time ahead of us, we fortified ourselves well with chocolates and boiled sweets. After about an hour at our action stations we reverted to the third degree of low angle readiness, which meant that half the Ship's Company slept while the other half manned the guns.

At 10.30P.M., the Active reported that she had had a Torpedo fired at her, and half an hour later the Vortigern reported that she had been hit by a Torpedo, but it had exploded out of the danger zone. With the exception of these few incidents, no further events of importance occurred that night which passed peacefully and quickly.

Wednesday, July 3rd, 1940. At 3.30 A.M. the Foxhound was detached from the Fleet with Captain Holland aboard. Captain Holland was Captain of the Ark Royal, and incidentally, was the late Naval Attache in Paris. The Foxhound was to proceed ahead of the Fleet, where he, (Captain Holland), was to try and obtain an interview with Admiral Gensoul who was commanding the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, Oran.

We steamed East throughout the night, to arrive off Oran early in the forenoon. We went to "Action Stations" at 4.45 A.M. The day was fine with no wind, but with a land haze which made the coastline difficult to define. We soon sighted the harbour of Mers-el-Kebir, which was, however, covered with a slight inshore mist, but as we got closer we could clearly see the masts and superstructures of the big ships. Arriving off Oran at 9 A.M., we saw that the French Fleet there consisted of two of their very strongly protected new Battle Cruisers, the "Dunkerque" and "Strasbourg" (both of 26,800 tons), completed in 1937/1938 with an armament of eight 13 inch guns.

There was also a large number of Destroyers. Admiral Gensoul commanded the Fleet from the Dunkerque. It is interesting to note that the Hood operated under his Flag in the Atlantic last November and in a talk in the Oran Operation given later by Captain Irvine Glennie (Captain of the Hood) he recalled how some very cheery and friendly signals were exchanged between the Hood and Dunkerque.

However, Admiral Gensoul refused to interview the British Delegates but communication was eventually established through the French Admiral's Flag Lieutenant, whom Captain Holland knew personally. To him Captain Holland present an ultimatum in the form of a document which offered the French Admiral several alternatives, namely:-

  1. To sail and fight on with the Royal Navy,
  2. That they should sail their ships with reduced crews under our protection to a British Port where the men would be repatriated.
  3. To sail to a Port in the West Indies for the duration of the War, the crews being repatriated.
  4. That they should de-militarise or sink their ships there at Oran.

Failing to do any of the above, we would only have to apply the necessary force to ensure that their ships would not fall into enemy hands. This ultimatum expired at 12 o'clock, Noon. At Noon, the eagerly awaited reply came. Admiral Gensoul had refused every one of these reasonable offers. It came as a bombshell to us all.

By this time, the air in the T.S. was beginning to get rather thick. Dinner, consisting of hot soup and bread, was served at our action stations. It was very relishing and welcome and we all felt considerably better after having eaten, for the anxiety as to the outcome of this rather acute situation was very tiring, both mentally and physically.

The Commander then read out a further signal made by our Admiral, saying that it appeared unlikely that the French were going to comply with our terms and warned every ship that they must be prepared to go into immediate action.

Admiral Gensoul referred to the Vichy Government, who told him to fight back if we opened fire. Our next signal to the French was, that if his ships were not blown up within six hours, we much regretted we should have to open fire. Reply:- "Any attempt at force will be met with force". We steamed round and round always keeping within sight of the harbour.

The Ark Royal flew off some of her Skuas and Swordfish aircraft, which throughout the day, while we were steaming up and down the Bay, kept sending in reports about the activities of the French Fleet. During the forenoon, Swordfish Aircraft dropped mines in the harbour entrance, thus preventing the French Fleet from making any attempt to get out. About Noon the aircraft reported that the French ships were raising steam and changing berths. Unknowingly, they presented to us a better arc of fire. This preliminary air reconnaissance was very helpful indeed.

Our Admiral then made a signal to the French stating that if they did not make any further move, we would open fire a 1 o'clock. Then came a series of promises from the French at varying intervals during the afternoon. At 5.55, Admiral Somerville's patience was completely exhausted; peaceful negotiation was a failure and it was manifest that the French were playing for time, hoping to escape in the approaching darkness. We could not delay any longer on account of failing light. At last the climax came. We were all on our toes now. The crucial moment (2 minutes to 6) arrived. Flag five went flying up to the Masthead - "Open Fire". We were then steaming on a course of 100 degrees S.S.E. with a speed of 17 knots.

Resolution and Valiant opened fire first and the Hood's guns went into action 2 minutes later. The bombardment was concentrated on the harbour at a range of 17,500 yards (about 10 miles). Almost immediately after fire was opened, large volumes of smoke rose from the harbour and shot into the sky, making the observation of the fall of shot very difficult. The lighthouse had to be used as a ranging and aiming mark owing the haze and smoke over the harbour. Fire at first was straight down the line of French ships. Strasbourg had slipped her stern wire and was now lying parallel to the Mole. Two minutes after the Hood opened fire, the French ships and the shore batteries (with their 6-inch guns) replied. The Dunkerque's fire causing vivid red splashes in the water, easily distinguishing them from the blue splashes of the Strasbourg and the green splashes of the other ships. In the next few minutes we had several near misses, getting nearer each time.

At one minute to six, we altered course, still firing heavily. 14-inch ricochets started flying over the Bridge, cutting our Wireless Aerials, and three minutes later we altered course again to the West, putting up a terrific Smoke Screen, the Destroyers dropping Smoke Floats to help. We altered course away, firing only with our after guns, Smoke Screen becomes very effective, shore batteries straddle us but luckily we are not hit.

Our observer in the spotting aircraft provided by the Ark Royal lost all his instruments and codes when looping to avoid fighters. The observer only got through three salvoes of our fire, one of which he claimed scored a hit which caused an explosion on one of the Bretagne Class Battleships. This Battleship blew up and disappeared, and another hit was registered on the Commandante Teste.

After altering course to the Westward, Hood engaged the Fort. We opened fire with our 15-inch guns and our third salvo completely wiped out the battery above the cliff. The first few salvoes were considerably over and must have gone some miles into the desert.

At 12 minutes past six we stopped firing as Dunkerque flashed the signal "Cease Gunning"; we also stopped making smoke. We had fired 55 rounds. Nearly 200 tons of High Explosive Shells had fallen on the harbour in 9 minutes. Damage was very extensive.

Then cam the news that one of the two French Battlecruisers had slipped out of the harbour unobserved. This proved to be the Strasbourg. We immediately gave chase and were now racing across the harbour at 28 knots; time was now 3 minutes past seven. Whilst in pursuit of the Strasbourg, we were attacked by a French Destroyer who fired Torpedoes at us, but thanks to some wonderful navigating of the ship by our Captain, none of these hit us. We fired a few 15-inch salvoes at the Destroyer but the Cruisers eventually sank her with their 6-inch and 4-inch guns. We carried on with the chase, and had now left the Resolution and Valiant behind.

Our ships engaged some Aircraft between 8 and 9 o'clock, these were probably French Reconnaissance Planes. Although we fired with our H.A. Guns, these machines were very far away and never came within our range.

At 8.15 P.M. we decided that the Strasbourg was too far away and we went back in case the whole Italian Fleet appears. We rejoined the Resolution and Valiant now firing upon enemy aircraft who are still however out of our range. Soon we too open fire but the planes are a very long way off and are evidently not going to attack us.

Whist in pursuit of the Strasbourg, a small boat was observed waving a White Ensign and Forester was detached to investigate. This proved to be carrying Captain Holland's party who were picked up; the boat, however, had to be abandoned.

Foxhound was just outside the harbour when firing commences and Captain Holland was actually inside the harbour in his Motor Boat. He had a miraculous escape.

At about 9 o'clock we stopped firing at aircraft, the Force joined up and we steamed off in the growing darkness back to Gibraltar, the Ark Royal joining us early next morning. We arrived safely back at Gibraltar at 6 o'clock Thursday evening, 4th of July.

Remarks
Aircraft photos taken of the action revealed Dunkerque aground and one Bretagne Class Battleship half under water. The Provence very seriously damaged on beach. The two Destroyers which preceded the Strasbourg coming out of the harbour were blown up by magnetic mines laid there earlier by our aircraft. Action was taken to ensure that the Dunkerque was properly put out of action. This was eventually achieved by torpedo dive-bombers at dawn while Hood and Valiant remained in company with Ark Royal.

Our aircraft observer had a thrilling adventure after escaping the fighters over the harbour. He saw the Strasbourg (in her bid for freedom) closing on the Ark Royal. Neither ship could see the other owing to the haze and the observer succeeded in warning the Ark Royal of her danger by Aldis Light. Later, this aircraft shadowed the Strasbourg and was fired upon by our own ships. The pilot said our fire was far more dangerous that that of the Strasbourg and he was very happy to be able to identify himself by his last remaining rocket. Finally this aircraft landed in the sea beside a destroyer, having run out of petrol, and all the crew were recovered.

French light forces, consisting of a few cruisers and destroyers escaped to Toulon during the night after the action.

Damage and casualties inflicted on the Hood were of a slight nature. One officer had a piece of shrapnel in his arm and a rating got a piece in his eye, which, unfortunately, has rendered the eye sightless. There were a few splinter marks on the ship, a few on our funnels and in the battery deck, and one right through a U.P. ammunition locker, which, I am happy to report, was at the time empty.

During the day of the battle we had two relaxations; these were at 3 o'clock and about 5 o'clock. We went up from the T.S. (which was by now very stuffy) on to the Admiral's deck were we could see the French ships in the harbour. It was glorious to get up into that fresh air after having had a pair of earphones clasped over my head since 4.45 that morning. I do not think that I have ever experienced a more welcome smoke than the one I had at 3 o'clock. The size of the T.S. is only about 20 feet square, and, despite a lot of room that is taken up by Gunnery instruments, nearly 30 officers and men have to be in there for action stations. Apart from these two short breaks I have mentioned we remained in the first degree of readiness throughout the day, which meant everybody at their action stations.

When we eventually fell out at 10 o'clock that night, true to the traditions of the Navy in the days of Nelson, rum was served out to the ship's company. No matter what happens a sailor must have his tot.

Admiral Somerville left the Hood about five weeks later when we returned to Scapa Flow; he turned his flag over to the Renown. We were all very sorry to lose him. During the short time he had been aboard, he had proved himself to be a real leader of men and had whole-heartedly won our esteem and admiration. It will be remembered that he is also well-known for his many interesting war commentaries given over the radio last winter.

When the Hood was operating out in the Atlantic with the Dunkerque under Admiral Gensoul's flag, we experienced some of the heaviest seas the Atlantic had known for years. Admiral Gensoul took some photos of the Hood in the rough weather, which incidentally were sold in their thousands aboard here.

In an operation which took place about a fortnight later, we and the remainder of Force "H" were escorting the Argus, aboard which were some Spitfires and Hurricanes for delivery to Malta. This was an extremely hazardous expedition inasmuch as we were right alongside the coast of Sardinia where some of Italy's largest aerodromes are located. The operation was successfully completed during the dark hours, but in course of our journey to the scene of operations we were attacked in daylight by Italian aircraft. I was one of the first to observe these planes, which proved to be Savoia Marchetti 99 bombers. At the time I was sunning myself in the battery deck. They attacked the Ark Royal first, and we eventually shot down seven of them between us, and no hits, damage or casualties were inflicted upon our ships or aircraft.

During the night of our return journey to Gibraltar, I regret to say that one of our escorting destroyers named (appropriately enough) the Escort, was torpedoed by a submarine and subsequently sank. One rating lost his life, the remaining survivors being victualled aboard Ark Royal and Hood when we arrived back at Gibraltar.

In conclusion it would be fitting to analyse our feelings both during and after the battle. For myself, and I am sure the majority of the ship's company will agree, it was inconceivable that the French would give battle, and it was with a feeling of horror that we received the Captain's broadcast during the afternoon informing us that "The ship must be ready for immediate action". It was undoubtedly the most unpleasant task that a man could be called upon to perform - to open fire upon our one time allies, and it was with great reluctance that we gave up our last hope of negotiations succeeding.

After the operation was complete, there was a marked absence of the hilarity one would expect following a successful battle; in fact, after the inevitable discussion, the matter was scarcely mentioned except to express our admiration of the heroic, though misguided, resistance shown by the French.