RFA War Nawab
|Planned by||United Kingdom|
|Objective||Defence of Britain against German invasion|
|Executed by||Royal Navy|
Operation Lucid was a British plan to use fire ships to attack invasion barges that were gathering in ports on the northern coast of France in preparation for a German invasion of Britain in 1940. The attack was initiated several times in September and October that year, but unreliable ships and unfavourable weather caused the plan to be aborted on each occasion.
Following the fall of France in July 1940, the Germans threatened to invade Britain. The British Government made frantic efforts to prepare to meet the threatened invasion and also sought to attack the enemy before any landings took place. As invasion barges were seen to gather in French ports along the English Channel, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was sent to attack them by bombing.
A series of experiments by the Petroleum Warfare Department (PWD) aimed to burn the invader's barges before they could reach the English shore. The first idea was simply to explode a vessel filled with oil, and this was tried at Maplin Sands where a Thames oil tanker, Suffolk, with 50 tonnes of petroleum was blown up in shallow water. Another idea developed was that the oil should be held in place on the water by a trough formed from coir matting. A machine formed the trough from a flat mat as it was paid out over the stern of a ship. Trials with the Ben Hann produced a flaming ribbon 880 yards long and 6 feet wide (800 m × 2 m) that could be towed at four knots. Neither of these experiments were carried forward to produce workable defences.
The Suffolk did, however, provide a trial run for an even more ambitious idea: the invasion barges would be burned even before they left port. The plan was first floated in early June/July 1940 and became known as Operation Lucid. Lucid had the full backing of Churchill. The idea of using fire ships against Hitler's invasion as the English had attacked the Spanish Armada in 1588 appealed to Churchill's sense of history; and, recalling a pre-emptive attack by Sir Francis Drake, Churchill said that just as Drake had "singed the King of Spain's beard", he wanted to "singe Mr Hitler's moustache".
Augustus Agar was chosen to lead the operation. Agar was an officer of the Royal Navy, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) in 1918 (the VC is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces). Agar chose Morgan Morgan-Giles as his staff officer because of his experience with setting explosive charges.
Oil tankers were required for the operation, but these were in short supply. Only the "oldest crocks laid up in our rivers and creeks which had not been to sea for years and were useless except for scrap metal" could be spared. Workers were put to the task of coaxing three of these old crocks back into service. Time was of the essence and Agar regretted that for the sake of secrecy he could not tell the workmen exactly what the ships were needed for, he was certain that they would have worked more enthusiastically had they known the truth. As a cover, the rumour that they were to be used as blockships was encouraged. Another problem with secrecy was the difficulty in acquiring reliable motor-boats on which the crew would escape; there was an unwillingness to release good boats to equip ancient oilers and there was a last minute panic to get speed-boats. The Oakfield and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ships War Nawab and War Nizam having been laid up for years were now coaxed back into service, but they were slow – less than six knots – and unreliable.
War Nizam was built in 1918 and War Nawab in 1919 by the Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company. Both ships were 412 feet (126 m) long and 52 feet 4 inches (15.95 m) abeam with a draft of 25 feet 7 inches (7.80 m) and a gross register tonnage of about 5,600. Oakfield, which had previously served as War African, had been built in 1918 with a grt of 5,218, 401 feet (122 m) long and 52 feet 3 inches (15.93 m) abeam.
The ships were quickly made ready and filled with a cocktail of 50% heavy fuel oil, 25% diesel oil and 25% petrol developed by the PWD. Each ship was filled with between two and three thousand tons of this Agar’s Special Mixture. The leaky bulkheads caused the engine rooms of War Nawab to fill with fumes that caused men to pass out and later resulted in the harbourmaster concluding that the crew were drunk. To this lethal load, bundles of cordite, gun cotton and old depth charges were added to give the ships some punch.
The plan required ideal conditions of wind and tide. The idea was to sail at night until the fire ships were near the entrances of the target ports. Then all but two or three of the crew would be taken off, detonation timers would be set and each ship put to its final heading towards a harbour mouth. The remaining crew would escape in a motor boat at the last minute. When the explosives detonated, the fire ship's hold would rupture and with a ship in, or as close as possible to, the harbour mouth, a slick of burning fuel would be drawn into the harbour by the rising tide.
Chief Petty Officer Ronald Apps later recalled:
In July 1940, I joined a Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker – the War African – that was anchored off Sheerness for an idea that I have always assumed was thought up by Churchill. These tankers were filled up with fuel oil and there were mines and detonators down in the holds. The idea was that we would run them over to Boulogne and about five or six miles out of the harbour, we would set the controls and lash them – with the boilers going full bore – and run them into Boulogne harbour and let them blow up, to destroy the potential German invasion fleet. It was called Operation Lucid and we spent four weeks preparing. We practised setting the controls and evacuating the ship with two speedboats alongside us which had been commandeered from Southend. These speedboats were remarkable things. They could go at 35 or 40 knots and the idea was that at the blowing of a whistle, we had to rush down, get in the boats and we were away. Those four weeks were a bit hairy because the tanker was full up with fuel oil when it came to us and it was primed and ready to explode and there were air raids at night. When you're in a tanker, sitting on all this explosive material and the Germans are coming over and dropping bombs, it's not very ... shall I say 'sleep inspiring' experience. I got round to the idea that I had to sleep or I wouldn't be able to walk around the next day. [ellipsis in original]
Execution and cancellation
Late in the afternoon of 26 September 1940, War Nizam and Oakfield set sail from Sheerness and headed towards Calais; and the War Nawab set sail from Portsmouth to Boulogne. A diversionary bombardment by the RAF was also ordered against Ostend. A number of destroyers, motor torpedo boats and other vessels escorted the sacrificial victims. Agar commanded the operation from the destroyer HMS Campbell. An unfavourable wind soon became a problem and the unreliable Oakfield soon dropped out of the operation; a little later the War Nizam suffered boiler problems, leaving only War Nawab. Unwilling to sacrifice the element of surprise and under orders from Churchill not to hesitate to call things off if the plan did not go well, Agar cancelled the operation. The recall order reached Nawab when she was just seven miles from Boulogne. Another attempt was made on 3 October, this was thwarted by bad weather, as was an attempt for the following night. On another occasion on the night of 7 to 8 October, an escorting destroyer with Agar on board was damaged by an acoustic mine; the convoy scattered and the destroyer limped home. Plans were made for another attempt in early November, but by then Hitler had postponed Operation Sealion and the Admiralty correspondingly postponed Operation Lucid. The plan was revived in the spring of 1941, but never put into action.
RFA War Nawab continued in service as an oil hulk until being broken up in 1958. In 1962, her ships bell was remounted on the quartedeck of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s Sea Cadet unit based at Wanganui on New Zealand’s North island.
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