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The British Royal Navy along with Brazilian and U.S. Navy had relevant participation in war actions in the South Atlantic since the beginning of hostilities in September 1939 and already in action as in the famous episode involving the pocket cruiser Graf Spee. The Royal Navy felt the need to protect this vast area of uboats well as the raiders and exercise effective supervision in order to intercept the merchant and blockade runners which tried to break through between the narrows of Northeast of Brazil and the West coast of Africa.

Nearly 200 ships including those of the South African Navy Seaward Defence Force were deployed in bases across West Africa ranging from Freetown Sierra Leone, to Simons Town and Capetown in South Africa. In the struggle to keep open the sea lanes several British vessels were lost during the war like the loss of cruiser HMS Dunedin hit by torpedoes during a routine patrol with hundreds of deaths. A page devoted to Royal Navy would be more than timely and necessary because it was the glorious British Merchant Navy which suffered by far the heaviest losses in men and merchants in the south Atlantic scenario.

Large view of one British convoy plying the waters of the south Atlantic. Photo Imperial War Museum A 9225

FREETOWN By Dr. Richard Walding

Harbour defences at Freetown included the Depot Ship HMS Eland, five A/S Trawlers, and 15 or so Harbour Defence Motor Launches (HDML) from the 17, 26, 104 and 108 Flotillas. Controlled mining and loop vessels included the trawler HMS Corbrae for deperming and mine retrieval, the Base Mining Ship HMS Alca, the Controlled Minelayer HMS Snakefly (CO Lt OH Pullman RNR), a Base Repair Ship, the Cableships HMS Noss Head and HMS Village Belle, 14 Naval Auxiliary Boats, the Boom Defence boats HMS Barcastle and HMS Bownet, and five Boom Defence tenders. The Commanding Officer for 1941-42 was Vice Admiral Sir Algernon Willis CB, DSO ashore. The port was also defended by the Sierra Leone Heavy Battery RA with two 6" guns.

War Cabinet on 16 July 1940 considered the disposition of French forces after the fall of France. The British government was concerned that French bases and ships would be lost to Germany and that French industry would be diverted to German and Italian purposes. This included 2 battle cruisers (one damaged, one 77% complete), an aircraft carrier, 4 cruisers 8-inch, 9 cruisers 6-inch, 24 Tribals, 10 destroyers and 61 submarines and 11 armed merchant cruisers; a formidable fleet. Admittedly, a number of French ships had been seized including 3 battleships, 5 cruisers, 5 destroyers and a submarine.

As far as security of shipping routes off West Coast of Africa, Cabinet was worried that allied shipping would be attacked by the French, and that they would also attack Freetown although not immediately. The whole of the British trade with the East, a large volume of the Australian and New Zealand trade, as well as all reinforcements and supplies for India, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean was routed through the Cape, and thus Freetown was vital. The most important commitment was to maintain Freetown as a link of first importance in Imperial sea communications. Failure to hold Freetown would mean the use of the undefended harbour at Takoradi as a convoy assembly port.

To bolster the defences of Freetown Cabinet was advised to despatch AA guns, develop better accommodation for white troops, despatch troop reinforcements, and to improve air facilities and increase the number of planes.

To equip Freetown for its role as a convoy assembly point and major operational naval base, the RN built a 'Young Devonport' employing 25000 Africans in its construction. When the Mediterranean route had been closed by the Germans, the Cape route became more important for refuelling and gathering of convoys for merchant ships and RN escorts. The port could now accommodate about 180 ships (typically 80 ships present at any one time) and about 50 ships per day would enter the port at its busiest.

Above a panoramic view of one Sunderland on a patrol mission off Freetown Photo Imperial War Museum.

Above a rare view of Freetown with the Cruiser Devonshire, several other warships and a Walrus seaplane in the starboard side circa 1942. Photo Imperial War Museum.



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