Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Terminal Reservist

As is well known one of the main problems during the Second World War was logistics, especially the securing of ports after a landing on a hostile coast. At first there was some thought of capturing a port intact, such thoughts led to Dieppe and Operations Terminal and Reservist.
Entrance to Oran harbour
The latter two were part of Operation Torch, the US invasion of Vichy North Africa. The plan for both was simple. Run a pair of small ships into the harbour, smashing apart the booms covering the entrance to the harbours, then once alongside unload the troops carried whom could then secure the area and prevent the harbour facilities being destroyed. Upon seeing the Royal Navy vessels loaded down with US infantry, and a small party of six USMC (possibly the gun crew on one of the ships), bearing down on them the enemy would instantly surrender. Or so it was thought.
Its interesting to note that this action is the only time in the Second World War when the USMC saw action in Europe, apart from a few men acting with the SOE in France.
HMS Hartland
The plan for Operation Reservist was for two ex-US Coast Guard cutters (which had been gifted to the Royal Navy and were now know as HMS Hartland and HMS Walney) to carry the forces. The force was led by Captain Frederick Peters, a 53 year old retired Royal Navy officer who had won DSC and a DSO in the First World War. Cpt Peters had volunteered for this mission.
Cpt Peters
As the two ships began their run in towards the harbour at Oran in the early morning of the 8th of November 1941, they saw the city ahead laid out with all its lights blazing. As they neared the harbour word of the invasion must have reached the French defenders, a siren began to wail and the power to the city was cut, plunging everything into darkness. HMS Walney led, with HMS Hartland five minutes behind.
As they approached the engines are turned to full speed, however the line is quickly seen as terrible, and the sloops were destined to miss the harbour mouth by at least a quarter of a mile. The two naval vessels begin a full 360 degree turn to line up and try again. In the area there was a colossal thirteen coastal batteries, with the largest gun being a 9.4" battery. Equally there was somewhere in the order of 10,000 men defending the area. This cacophony of weaponry was turned on the two small Royal Navy vessels as they approached. In reply the ships carried a large US flag and had loud hailers to broadcast a message. The two ships did have a five inch gun apiece.
Speared by a searchlight, and blasted at by all the guns that could be brought to bear, HMS Walney made her second approach, this time she was lined up perfectly and impacted the boom and broke right through it. At that point the searchlight spotted HMS Hartland on her approach and switched to it, taking all the gunners attention away from HMS Walney.

As the battered ship moves into the harbour a French destroyer was seen nearby, HMS Walney then maked an attempt to ram, however the two ships scrape past each other, the French destroyer opens fire at point blank range with all its guns. The devastating barrage blasts the armour plate from the bridge, the impacts knocks Cpt Peters to the deck, and causes even more casualties. HMS Walney is now on fire getting shot at by every calibre of gun you can imagine from every direction. On-board the ammunition stores are on fire and detonating, and the forward gun has been hit and is out of action. Cpt Peters scrambles to his feet, looking about he sees he is the only survivor on the bridge. He is now utterly exposed to the fire coming from all around and he guides the exploding, blazing ship forward. Meanwhile the US soldiers are returning fire with their personal weapons as best they can.
However despite this all, Cpt Peters was not hit, and reaches the mole where he was meant to land the US troops. Peters dashes to the forward deck and assists another officer in securing the first of the lines, then he races along the deck to the quarterdeck to assist in tying up there. All the time as he moves about there are two French destroyers on the other side of the harbour. From what is effectively point blank range, they direct a storm of fire at HMS Walney, and at in particular the naval officer rushing about on its deck. Cpt Peters didn't even hesitate or take cover once.
Before the troops could begin to disembark a large shell hits HMS Walney in the boiler room and destroys all power. Finally the damage begins to tell and HMS Walney begins to sink, and the order to abandon ship is given.

HMS Walney at rest
HMS Hartland fared little better. On her second approach her captain was hit and blinded, the ship impacted into the outer harbour wall. The wounded Lt Commander GP Billot, her captain, ordered her backed off and she tried again. All the time the fire was savaging the ship. This time she succeeded in entering the harbour. However as HMS Hartland passed another French destroyer it too raked the RN ship, putting her out of action and disabling her completely. She had to be abandoned immediately and drifted for a while before sinking.
HMS Hartland drifting on fire.
A similar plan was carried out for Operation Terminal. This time two Royal Navy ships, of similar size to HMS Walney and Hartland, tried to force an entry into Algiers harbour. The first ship, HMS Malcolm, broke through the boom, however she lost three of her four boilers to the storm of defending fire and she had to withdraw. Her companion was HMS Broke (no, not the HMS Broke from the battle of the Dover Straits).
HMS Malcom, with US troops on-board
 HMS Broke took four attempts to breach the boom, all the time under fire, however she managed to eventually enter the harbour and land her troops before withdrawing. However while heading for safety she was hit by coastal batteries and sunk. The troops she landed managed to fight off the French for seven hours until they were forced to surrender.
US troops in Algiers after the French surrender.
Algiers harbour a week after the surrender, the facilities remain intact, due largely to the few troops managing to hold on for those critical hours and denying the French time to destroy the harbour.
Operation Reservist suffered casualties in excess of 90% of the force, they totalled 307 killed and 250 wounded, the terminal casualties were much lighter with 22 killed and 55 wounded. One of the few Reservist survivors was Cpt Peters, who for his actions was awarded the Victoria Cross. All the prisoners were released when the French surrendered on the 10th. Cpt Peters was then sent back to the UK by Sunderland. However it crashed in fog in Plymouth Sound, Cpt Peters made it out of the plane along with the pilot. The pilot struggled to keep him afloat for 90 minutes until they were found and rescued, but Cpt Peters was dead when he was pulled from the water.

Image credits:
warfarehistorynetwork.com, liberationtrilogy.com, www.wrecksite.eu and wwww.iwm.org.uk