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Force H

Force H was a British naval squadron during World War II. It was formed in 1940 to replace French naval power in the western Mediterranean that had been removed by the French armistice with Nazi Germany.

It occupied an odd place within the naval chain of command. Normal British practice was to have various naval stations and fleets around the world whose commanders reported to the First Sea Lord. Force H was based at Gibraltar, and there was already a flag officer at the base who commanded one of the British regional naval commands. However, the Flag Officer, Force H did not report to this officer. He reported directly to the First Sea Lord.

Table of contents
1 Operation Catapult
2 Convoy Operations
3 Sink the Bismarck!
4 Britain at Rock Bottom
5 Amphibious Assaults

Operation Catapult

One of the first operations that Force H took part in was connected with the reason for its formation. French naval power still existed in the Mediterranean, and the British Government viewed it as a threat to British interests. It was feared that the Vichy government of Petain would hand the ships over to Germany, despite a vow that would never happen. Such an incidence would almost certainly decisively tip the balance against Britain in the Mediterranean. Consequently, Force H was ordered to execute Operation Catapult.

The most powerful of the remaining French forces was in port at Mers El Kébir in Morocco. It consisted of the French battlecruisers Strasbourg and Dunkerque, two of the most modern and powerful units in the French fleet and two older battleships, along with escorting vessels. Force H steamed to off the Moroccan coast, and an envoy was sent to the French commander. Various terms were offered, including internment of the fleet in a neutral country, joining the British forces and scuttling the fleet at its berths. However, the commander of the French forces reported only the scuttling option to his superiors. He was thus ordered to fight. The reasons for the omission have been debated by many. It is often thought that the anti-British bias of the French commander was to blame.

The result of action was that the remains of the French fleet escaped to Toulon, a French base on the Mediterranean coast of metropolitain France. They did so at heavy cost. An old French battleship blew up under British gunfire, killing over 1,000 French sailors.

Convoy Operations

After this unpleasant operation, Force H settled down to its more normal operations. These involved general naval tasks in the western basin of the Mediterranean. Prominent amongst these tasks was fighting convoys through to Malta. The early convoys came through with relatively light losses. That changed in 1941, when the Germans sent the Luftwaffe unit Fliegerkorps X to Sicily. Its bombers took a dreadful toll of both warships and merchantmen.

Sink the Bismarck!

The most famous incident involving Force H in 1941 did not occur in the Mediterranean, but in the Atlantic Ocean. The German battleship Bismarck had sailed in company with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from Germany to commerce raid in the Atlantic. It went round the north of the UK, passing through the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. There it was intercepted by a powerful British force made up of the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the old battlecruiser HMS Hood. The engagement was a disaster for the Royal Navy, with Prince of Wales being damaged and Hood being blown up by plunging shell fire from the Bismarck. Only three out of the crew of 1,400 aboard Hood survived. Every Royal Navy unit available was then given the task of destroying the Bismarck.

Force H set sail from Gibraltar to intercept the battleship. The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, battlecruiser HMS Renown and light cruiser HMS Sheffield. Despite the loss of Hood, the Bismarck did not come out of the Denmark Strait engagement completly unscathed. A shell from Prince of Wales had ruptured the ship's fuel tanks, causing it to lose oil. The commerce raiding cruise was thus cut short, and the ship headed for the French port of Brest. Bismarck was temporarily lost to the Royal Navy after it evaded the radar of the shadowing cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk\. It was found again, but the only way of stopping it was if something slowed the ship down. To try and do this, Ark Royal launched a strike with its Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers. However, the aircrews were wrongly informed of the location of the Sheffield and attacked it, thinking it to be the Bismarck. This was fortuitous however. The torpedos that the Swordfish had dropped carried a new type of detonator which proved to unreliable. A second strike was flown carrying the older, and totally reliable, contact detonator. Bismarck was found and a torpedo wrecked its steering gear. Unable to evade the British ships closing in, the German battleship was destroyed by HMS King George V and HMS Rodney.

Britain at Rock Bottom

The end of 1941 saw the nadir of British naval fortunes in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Fleet lost its aircraft carrier to bomb damage, had one battleship sunk off Crete and its two remaining battleships put out of action by Italian human torpedoes. Force H in its turn suffered as well: Ark Royal was sunk by the German submarine U-81 in November 1941. It was only Italian lack of action that prevented a complete disaster for British fortunes.

1942 opened on a low note. The most urgent task during the first part of the year was supplying Malta. The island had been under heavy attack for many months, and supply convoys had to be very heavily escorted to stand any chance of getting through. Enough succeeded that Malta was kept from starving, but it was very close. The most heavily escorted convoy in the whole of World War II was the key to this. In August, Operation Pedestal was mounted which lead to enough supplies being sent to the island to keep it going.

Amphibious Assaults

Force H was not actually extant for a portion of 1942. It was stripped bare in May to provide ships for the assault on Diego Suarez in Madagascar. This operation succeeded, but many argue that it was a waste of British naval resources at a critical time in the war.

November saw the turning point of the conflict. Operation Torch saw British and American forces landed in Morocco and Algeria under British 1st Army. Force H was powerfully reinforced to cover these landings. The two main threats were the Italian fleet and French forces. In the end, only French forces fought, and the most significant battles took place at Casablanca where only American naval units were supporting operations.

The end of the campaign in North Africa saw an interdiction effort on a vast scale. The aim was to cut Tunisia completely off from Axis support. It succeeded and 250,000 men surrendered to 18th Army Group; an equal number to those who surrendered at Stalingrad. Force H again provided heavy cover for this operation.

Two further sets of landings were covered by Force H against interference from the Italian fleet. Operation Husky in July 1943 saw the invasion and conquest of Sicily, and Operation Avalanche saw an attack on the Italian mainland at Salerno.

Following the landings on Italy itself, the Italian Government surrendered. The Italian fleet mostly escaped German capture, although German radio-controlled bombs did sink an Italian battleship, killing the Commander-in-Chief of the Regia Marina. Force H met the Italian fleet near Sardinia and escorted it to Malta. Admiral Cunningham sent a very traditional signal to the Admiralty in London:

"Be pleased to inform their Lordships that the Italian fleet lies under the guns of the fortress at Malta."

With the surrender of the Italian fleet, the need for heavy units in the Mediterranean disappeared. The battleships and aircraft carriers of Force H dispersed to the Home Fleet and Eastern Fleet and the command was disbanded. Naval operations in the Mediterranean from now on would be conducted by lighter units.