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Battle of Oranicon for Recommended story

by William House

Contributed by 
William House
People in story: 
William James House, Pattendon
Location of story: 
Oran
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4083455
Contributed on: 
17 May 2005

During the Battle of Oran (Operation Catapult) my father, William James House, served with the RNVR as the Wireless/Telegraphist operator on board HMS Vortigern. He kept war diaries and this is an extract describing his eye witness account of the battle.
July 2nd 1940: Just about to leave Gibraltar in company with Hood, Resolution, Valiant, Keppel, Vidette, Active, Wrestler and ourselves (HMS Vortigern). Our mission this time is some mysterious mission to the Eastward - either the Italians or to destroy a land objective.

This is our last day of refit. Pattendon (believed to be a friend) has not returned yet from the Lord Hotham - they say she has gone home. Lucky Pat! Fortunately we have another Telegraph from the Watchman to take his place. During our refit, the day Mussolini declared war, we were drafted to the Active Ranger. Our very first night we successfully sunk an enemy submarine, and sighted another on the surface - we lost her in the light of Leuta though, as she was too far inside Territorial waters. Then I was sent to Stella Cirius and then, with Pat, to Lord Hotham. I returned before him though and here we are, just about to go out for a spot of excitement.

While in dock this last week and a bit, I have had a whack of climbing the mast and generally fixing up aerials and putting back the batteries. We went into dock for refit on the 6th June and as today is our last day (we are going East about 3 pm) that makes it just over 4 weeks for our refit.

A lot happened during the 4 weeks - the French were over-run and signed their humiliating Armistice with Germany. Now we hope to do our own stuff properly.

July 3rd: The ships in company are as follows:

HOOD (VA i/c)
VALIANT RESOLUTION
ARK ROYAL
ARETHUSA
ENTERPRISE
6 E + F Destroyers and 5 of 13th DF
HMS KEPPEL FORESTER
VORTIGERN FORESIGHT
FOXHOUND
ACTIVE FAULKNOR
VIDETTE ESCORT
WRESTLER

Apparently our task is to go to ORAN where the French Fleet is and try and persuade them to join us. We have a liaison officer there already. If the answer is NO - I guess we will have to destroy their Fleet.

During the night we were hit by a torpedo from an enemy submarine. It hit a glancing blow on our stern and passed under the bows, exploding after it had passed the ship. That was a lucky break! We searched for the sub but could not get a contact - dropped one or two depth charges and then tried to catch up fleet.

Arrived off Oran with the Fleet as ordered. Ultimation sent to French ships i.e. 5 Battleships and 8 Destroyers. Battleships: Dunkerque and Strasburg included also Western Bretagne and Eastern Bretagne, class four submarine and a depot ship. Fleet steamed up and down outside Oran 'til time for zero hour. Nothing was forthcoming, so time was extended to 3.30, then to 1730. Still the French refused to come over to us, or to destroy their ships, so we were left with no alternative but to open fire.

The battleship HOOD opened fire first, with the RESOLUTION (Battle Cruiser) and the VALIANT - these big ships were line ahead approaching Oran from the West firing over a headland, which obscured our position from the French Battleships in harbour. The cruisers went on and our destroyers acted as a screen to the Battleships - making smoke when necessary. The shore batteries opened fire and the air became full of smoke and falling shells, many uncomfortably close. No ship was hit and terrific damage done to Oran and the ships there, also the coastal batteries. It was then reported that the submarines were coming out of harbour, so we and the Vidette were ordered to go in and sink them as they came out (under the fire of battleships and batteries in Oran). However, as we approached the subs apparently changed their mind and did not come out. In the meantime, the Dunkerque and 6 French destroyers slipped out and the Fleet gave chase. The cruisers tackled the Dunkerque - if they ever caught up with her, and the Hood and ourselves engaged the French destroyers. I saw one sunk - don't know what happened to the others. Meanwhile our F class destroyers were bombarding the remainder of the ships in Oran. An aircraft spotter torpedo attack was carried out on the Dunkerque. She was struck by one torpedo.

We withdrew when it became too dark - about 9 pm - to the Westward. We are very lucky - none of our own ships hit - 3 aircraft probably lost from Ark Royal but their crews were picked up safe. Terrific damage done to Oran and the French Fleet. We don't know yet the full extent. All is quiet now. We were at action stations from 8.50 am yesterday, ‘til about 10 pm last night. Boy! what a day! Feel terribly tired as we were up most of the previous night. Have a feeling that there is more in store for us.

The war at sea seems to be concentrating on the Med. It was a very successful engagement, but oh!, how I wish it had been the Italians. The French gave a good show - why on earth they would not accept our terms and come over to us I cannot say. Forgot to mention, there were seven aircraft (enemy) attacks later in the day, but the AA fire from our ships kept them at too great a height to bomb us and were eventually all driven away. The G.I. says he saw at least two huge fires blazing in Oran. The Oran commercial station was calling to us to cease fire for a long time. The Wrestler was very heavily engaged at one time and was eventually ordered to withdraw.

July 4th: Arrived back at Gibraltar at about 7.30 pm today. Had one spasm just outside. A torpedo was fired at the Hood, just missing her bows - we chased the sub, dropping numerous depth charges - all ships returned safely.

The news all over the world today is full of the Oran battle. Churchill had the odious duty of announcing it in Parliament. The Germans are screaming and hurling abuse at us over the air in their propaganda. No one very elated over it - it was successful, but very distasteful to the British Navy. Wrote 2 letters home tonight - Mum and Dad and Peg and Reg. Hope they arrive home safely. We sail tomorrow morning apparently. Repairs are being carried out aboard HMS Valiant tonight - the sound of humming can be heard coming from her Port side. We are alongside the Foresight, a 7 class destroyer, which has come all the way from Acapa and has had no leave for weeks.

July 5th: Have just heard account of Wrestler's miraculous escape at Oran, from a Brighton lad on board. She was Asdic screen just outside the breakwater, for hours before action was commenced, all batteries ashore had their guns trained on her. The instant our big ships opened fire the Wrestler was heavily attacked by the shore batteries - 9.2's. Only the coolness and courage of their Captain saved them from being almost certainly sunk - zig-zagging and dropping smoke floats, it was at least an hour before he could get clear. Shells landed as near to her as it is possible without hitting and sinking her. One landed right in her wake - lifting her stern - shrapnel landed all over her deck - a miracle no one was hit.

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Message 1 - French fleet at Oran, 1940

Posted on: 01 January 2006 by Peter Knight

The account of the destruction of the French fleet at Oran in 1940 mentions the miraculous escape of the destroyer 'Wrestler'. Its captain was my uncle, Rear Admiral - as he later became - Neville Currey (he married Rosemary Knight, my father's sister, in 1941). His obituary in the Daily Telegraph (he died in 1999) included this account of the action at Oran:

"The immediate problem was the formidable French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, the naval base near Oran. It was vital to prevent these ships joining the Axis. Force H arrived off Mers-el-Kebir, where Somerville tried to parley with the French admiral. But negotiations broke down, the ultimatum expired, and on July 3, Force H opened fire on the French, sinking one battleship, damaging two more, and killing over 1,100 French sailors.
Wrestler patrolled outside the harbour entrance all day, to discourage French submarines from trying to escape. When the bombardment began, French shore batteries replied, with Wrestler, only two miles offshore, their main target. She was very fortunate not to be hit. Currey was mentioned in despatches."

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