HMS Corfu (F 86)
Armed Merchant Cruiser
|Navy||The Royal Navy|
|Type||Armed Merchant Cruiser|
|Class||[No specific class]|
|Built by||A. Stephen & Sons Ltd. (Glasgow, Scotland)|
|Launched||20 May 1931|
|Commissioned||25 Nov 1939|
|End service||17 Feb 1944|
laid down as Chefoo, completed as Corfu.
Displacement: 14170 BRT
On 17 February 1944 returned and used as troopship by the Ministry of War Transport (MoWT). On 31 July 1947 returned to owner.
Commands listed for HMS Corfu (F 86)
Please note that we're still working on this section.
|1||Capt. Sir William Gladstone Agnew, RN||18 Sep 1939||15 Sep 1940|
|2||A/Cdr. (retired) Noel Charles Mansfeldt Findlay, RN||15 Sep 1940||9 Dec 1940|
|3||Capt. (retired) John Palmer Landon, RN||9 Dec 1940||11 Nov 1942|
|4||A/Cdr. (retired) Arthur Kenneth Baxendell, RAN||11 Nov 1942||15 Jan 1943|
|5||Capt. (retired) Charles Courtenay Bell, DSO, RN||15 Jan 1943||early 1944|
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Notable events involving Corfu include:
7 Jul 1940
The attack on the French battleship Richelieu, 7 / 8 July 1940.
The Admiralty orders operations against the Richelieu.
The Admiralty had originally intended that the Richelieu should be dealt with by Vice-Admiral Sommerville’s Force H from Gibraltar but later they decided to employ Force H in the Mediterranean and that the Richelieu was to be put out of action by aircraft from HMS Hermes (Capt. R.F.J. Onslow, RN). Both on account of his up-to-date local knowledge and his air experience Captain Onslow was chosen to take charge of this operation, with the temporary rank of Acting Rear-Admiral. The Admiralty orders to him were contained in a signal sent at 0144/7 (zone -1), which read as follows; ‘H.M. Government have decided question of Richelieu and other French warships at Dakar must be settled without delay. 1) You have been selected to take charge of the operations on account of your recent local and air knowledge, and are hereby promoted to Acting Rear-Admiral until further orders. 2) You are to take HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN), HMAS Australia (Capt. R.S. Stewart, RN) and HMS Milford (Capt. R.J. Shaw, MBE, RN) under your command. 3) You should communicate with the French Naval Authorities at Dakar in manner you think best and transmit text of message which will follow in another signal soon. A decision must be asked within four hours so as to give the Richelieu no time to get underway. 4) Shoud alternative 3 be accepted you take such measures of demilitarization to ensure that ships could not be brought into service for at least a year even at a fully equipped dockyard port. [Seven suggestions to archive this were then given] 5) If all alternatives are refused you should as soon as possible carry out an attack on Richelieu with torpedo aircraft and maintain this attack until it is certain she is sufficiently disabled. Approximately half your torpedoes should have Duplex pistols and half contact pistols and endeavor should be made to obtain a hit in the vicinity of the propellers with a contact pistol. All attacks should be from one side if possible. 6) Bombardment by 8” cruisers should not be carried out in view of the small damage to be expected on the Richelieu and streght of defences. 7) HMS Dorsetshire and HMAS Australia should show themselves at intervals during the operation, but no unnecessary risk of submarine attacks should be accepted by any ship. French naval authorities should be informed your forces are kept at a distance until this decision on account of their submarines. 8) Should it be possible after Richelieu have been dealt with, the two light cruisers should also be attacked. Armed merchant cruisers should not be attacked. 9) Any ship endeavours to put to sea should be brought into action. Whether Richelieu can be attacked under these circumstances by the 8” cruisers should depend on her 15” main battery being operative and effective. 10) H.M. Government desires operation to be carried out as soon as possible subject to your plan as being as proposed. 11) Should Richelieu have left Dakar before receipt of these orders she is to be called upon to stop. If she obeys this order the procedure outlined above is to be carried out. If she refuses to stop she is to be attacked with torpedo aircraft. 12) Inform Admiralty in due course whether operation will take place and of various phases of operations as they occur.
This signal was followed almost immediately by another which gave the terms of communication which Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow was to make to the French authorities at Dakar. Four alternatives were to be offererd; 1) To sail their ships with reduced crews and without ammunition, under British control, to a British port. The crews would be repatriated as soon as possible, and the ships restored to France at the end of the war, or compensation paid if damaged meanwhile 2) To sail with us with reduced crews and without ammunition to some French port in the West Indies, where the ships are to be demilitarized or perhaps entrusted to the United States. Crews to be repatriated. 3) To demilitarize the ships at Dakar to Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow’s satisfaction within 12 hours, to such an extent that they would be incapable of taking part further in the present war. 4) To sink their ships within 6 hours. A reply was required within 4 hours, failing the adoption of one of the alternatives, force will be resorted to.
Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow’s proceedings, 7 July 1940.
After these clear and unequivocal signals had been deciphered Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow’s first concern was the delivery of the British ultimatum to the French authorities. He decided to concentrate HMS Hermes, HMS Dorsetshire, HMAS Australia and meet up with HMS Milford as soon as possible. HMS Milford would then proceed into Dakar with the full text of H.M. Governments terms. By 0800 hours that morning the three ships were steaming south in company, but there was some delay in meeting HMS Milford, as owning to pressure of work in the wireless office of HMS Hermes, Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow had told HMAS Australia to pass a signal to HMS Milford to join his flag, and the Australia used a cypher not held by the Milford. Meanwhile, at 0900 hours the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic had asked Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow whether he wished any signal to be made to the Consul-General at Dakar. He replied with a request that the Consul-General to be informed that HMS Milford was being sent into Dakar with an important message for the French Admiral.
It was not until 1155 hours that HMS Milford joined. No time was then lost, and havig embarked Paymaster-Lieutenant R.S. Flynn, RN as interpreter, she left for Dakar at 1214 hours, with a copy of the British ultimatum on board. At 1300 hours, Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow informed the Admiralty that she was on her way and that she should arrive around 1400 hours. On her arrival off Dakar however, the French Admiral declined to accept the British communication and threatened to open fire unless she retired. A request that he should reconsider his decision was met with a blank refusal and at 1448 hours HMS Milford reported that she was returned towards HMS Hermes. Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow then reported this information to the Admiralty without delay, adding that he intended to attack at dusk.
From the first appearance of HMS Milford off Dakar the French kept the British force under aerial observation. Aircraft from HMS Hermes have been keeping Dakar under observation during daylight hours as of 0600/5. At 1700/7 a special reconnaissance was carried out by the Squadron Commander with the senior observer in view of the attack that had to be carried out soon. Shortly afterwards Admiralty approval for the dusk attack was received.
Meanwhile the French authorities seem to have thought better of their abrupt refusal to receive the Milford’s communication, and at about 1615 hours a signal was made to her to the effect that the Governor-General approved of her message being passed by W/T. A further signal seemed to indicate that Admiral Plancon was now prepared to receive it. These signals were interpreted by HMAS Australia and passed on to Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow, who decided to deal with the matter himself, and on receipt of the second message started to pass H.M. Government’s full terms in English by wireless; but in order to allow time to prepare for offensive action during the night he reduced the time limit for a reply from four hours to two. These developments he reported to the Admiralty and the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic at 1700 hours. Dakar W/T station acknowledged the receipt of the message at 1805 hours and the ultimatum was thus due to expire at 2005/7. This however was over an hour after sunset and the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic therefore suggested that the attack with torpedo planes should therefore be carried out at dawn the next day. The possibility that the Richelieu might put to sea during the night could not be overlooked and Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow deployed his ships in such a manner and closer inshore then 20 miles that the most likely routes were covered.
Disposition of Dakar during the night of 7/8 July 1940.
Air reconnaissance had shown that a definite lane leading from the Richelieu in a north-easterly direction had been purposely made through the large number of merchant ships anchored in the Outer Roads, and it seemed that a passage through the outer boom might have been made between Gorée Island and R’solue Shoal to facilitate her escape in that direction. To guard against this HMS Milford was ordered to patrol further eastward then originally intended.
At 1914/7 the Acting Rear-Admiral detached HMS Dorsetshire and HMAS Australia to take up their patrol lines, while HMS Hermes and HMS Milford in company proceeded towards the west end of the latter’s patrol line. No reply to the ultimatum had been received from the French authorities, and at 2003 hours (two minutes before it’s expiration) Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow made a polite signal asking for an answer. There was no response and at 2020 hours he decided to take offensive action. This was to consist of a depth charge attack by the Hermes’s fast twin-engine motor-boat on the Richelieu during the night, followed by a torpedo attack with aircraft at dawn. At 2050 hours HMS Hermes and HMS Milford stopped, being then 17 nautical miles due south of Cape Manuel, the motor-boat was lowered, and started on the first stage of its adventurous trip.
Depth charge attack on the Richelieu.
The motor-boat, which was manned by a volunteer crew of nine with blackened faces, commanded by Lt.Cdr. R.H. Bristowe, RN, had been painted matt black all over during the afternoon (much to the distress of the Boat Officer) and had been armed with a Vickers machine-gun. It carried four depth charges, a portable wireless set, which would prove to be much useful, and extra petrol, oil and provisions. Lt.Cdr. Bristowe’s orders were to proceed with HMS Milford to the western end of her new patrol line within 10 nautical miles of Dakar harbour and thence to go on alone into the outer harbour, passing over and around booms as he thought best. He was to drop the four depth charges under the Richelieu’s stern if he discovered her at anchor, or across her bows if he found her under way. If he failed to find her he was to report that by wireless at once. After the operation he was to endeavor to get in tow of the Milford on her patrol line by 0300/8 but if he found this impossible he was to make a rendezvous with Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow’s force at 0530/8.
At 2100/7 the crew manned the boat and proceeded with two depth charges from the Hermes to pick up two more from the Milford. A considerable swell was running and when the first depth charge was being hoisted in from the Milford it struck one of the crew of the motor-boat and struck him out. It also wrecked the port engine. Fortunately the new starboard engine which had been fitted during the afternoon, but which had not been tested due to lack of time, was running beautifully.
When HMS Milford got under way at 2145/7, she ordered to motor-boat to follow her at 12 knots if possible. The depth charges slung outboard upset the boat’s stability and it had a perilous trip. Near its point of departure from the Milford a large ship hove into sight which, at first, looked like the Richelieu but it answered the Milford’s challenge correctly and proved to be HMAS Australia.
The motor-boat then parted company and, when out of sight, stopped while the crew lifted the last depth charge into position. When this task was completed, all hands, except the two Royal Marines, which were manning the Vickers machine-gun in the bows carried out a drill with the depth charge throwers. Then they continued their was towards Dakar. Gorée Islands hove into sight after what appeared to have been hours. Actually it was now 0015/8. Shortly afterwards the boat almost collided with a destroyer that was patrolling outside the boom but remained unseen. It then proceeded slowly at only three knots until off the outer boom. The engine was then stopped and it slid over safely. It then went ahead at dead slow speed with engine muffled until it encountered a colonial sloop (must have been the Bougainville), which it at first mistook for the Richelieu and had nearly attacked. Again the motor-boat remained unseen and it now steered for the merchant ships which formed two straight lines running in a north-easterly direction from the Richelieu as she lay about three quarters of a mile due east of the inner harbour entrance. Then passing round the north-eastern end of the inner boom, it steered towards the reported position of the Richelieu, keeping close to the nearest line of merchant ships until the battleship with a merchant vessel laying almost dead astern of her, came into sight. Lt.Cdr. Bristowe steered for the merchant ship which afforded an excellent position from which to attack. As he approached her, however, he sighted a harbour launch under way just astern of the battleship, and decided to attack at once from the quarter instead of from astern. Events followed quickly. The motor-boat was challenged but before the challenge was completed Lt.Cdr. Bristowe had given orders to attack at full speed. As he approached the Richelieu he was challenged again six times, but although he could not reply the French held their fire.
The coxswain’s orders were to go alongside the stern of the battleship, to graze their port side steering towards her bow, and then, as soon as Lt.Cdr. Bristowe gave the order ‘over’ to dash cover amongst the merchant ships. At the last moment a lighter lying right aft along the battleship’s port side, and her port quarter boom with a boat made fast to it, came into sight in the light of the half moon. These the coxswain avoided most skillfully and at 0210 hours put the motor-boat alongside about 30 yards from the battleships stern over what Lt.Cdr. Bristowe hoped was the vital spot for which he was looking. The depth charges then went over. Frenchmen on the quarterdeck of the Richelieu stood looking over the side, apparently at first wondering about what was happening below. When they finally discovered they beat a hurried retreat. Meanwhile the motor-boat dashed for safety amongst the mechant ships. The complete absence of any explosions came as an anti-climax.
Although the Richelieu very quickly sent a general signal which was acknowledged quickly by the shore batteries and the ships in the harbour but no searchlights were switched on. Lt.Cdr. Bristowe decided to get away as soon as possible at full speed to take full advantage of the remaining two hours of darkness. He made a dash for the outer boom. As he approached the boom, however, an auxiliary vessel sighted the motor-boat and gave chase, and, being unable to shake of this pursuer, Lt.Cdr. Bristowe steered at full speed towards the boom with the French vessel only 50 yards behind. The motor-boat passed safely over the nets around 0300 hours but its pursuer got caught in the nets. Another patrol vessel then came into sight and took up the chase, but with steering a zig-zag course the moto-boat managed to escape. Neither French vessel had opened fire. It was already too late to make rendezvous with HMS Milford so Lt.Cdr. Bristowe set course to make rendezvous with the main force. At 0355 hours he informed HMS Hermes by wireless that he had dropped his four depth charges under the stern of the Richelieu at 0210 hours.
At about 0505 hours there were a number of explosions coming from the direction of the French battleship followed by heavy gunfire. A few minutes later a Swordfish aircraft passed overhead, flying to seaward. The Fleet Air Arm attack had taken place. As dawn broke the Richelieu came into sight, shrouded by a pall of yellow smoke, some two to three miles away. There was a heavy barrage of French AA fire and Lt.Cdr. Bristowe turned south to avoid it. A French bomber appeared overhead and for 15 minutes the motor-boat zigzagged to throw it off, but it dropped no bombs.
At 0545 hours, Lt.Cdr. Bristowe decided that he could not reach HMS Hermes so he set course for Bathurst, over 70 nautical miles away. Soon however, a signal was received from the Hermes to stop engines. About noon HMS Hermes picked up the motor-boat 13 nautical miles south of Cape Manuel, after it had been away from the ship for 15 hours.
Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow considered the conduct of Lt.Cdr. Bristowe and the remaining crew of the motor-boat in the highest degree of praiseworthy. It was just said that the depth charges did not explode in the shallow water. The venture clearly deserved better success.
The Fleet Air Arm torpedo attack on the Richelieu at dawn on 8 July 1940.
At 2300/7, Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow had ordered Lt.Cdr. Luard, the leader of 814 Squadron to carry out a torpedo attack with the greatest possible number of aircraft on the Richelieu at dawn the next day. As only three of the available pilots had previously taken off at night Lt.Cdr. Luard decided that the six crews should consist of one pilot and one observer only and that no air gunners were to be part of the crews (to their disappointment). They were to form up in two sub flights in line ahead at a height of 2000 feet, one mile ahead of the Hermes. The pistols carried by the first, second and fourth Swordfish were fitted with Duplex pistols and were set to run under the Richelieu at 38 feet. Those carried by the other three Swordfish were contact pistols set to run at 24 feet. All six were set to run at 40 knots.
The attack was only possible from one side owning to nets, shipping and depth of the water. From this direction, the north-east, the six aircraft were to attack in line ahead, and were then to return to HMS Hermes independently. At 0415/8 they all took off successfully from HMS Hermes which was then in position 14°37’N, 17°46’W about 20 nautical miles west of Cape Manuel, and at 0445 hours took departure about 2000 feet over her. At 0452 hours they sighted the Cape Verde peninsula and at 0500 hours when they were approaching Gorée Island they formed a single line ahead. At 0502 hours, Lt.Cdr. Luard went into a shallow dive from the south to keep a good background as long as possible, turning south-west at 0505 hours. Fortunately the Richelieu was swung heading south-east broadside on. He aimed his torpedo at her port side, two-thirds of the way aft from a range of 800 yards. When he had completed his attack he turned to port and made a rapid get-away to the south before turning west to rejoin HMS Hermes. The other five Swordfish dropped their torpedoes in quick succession. As Lt.Cdr. Luard made his attack a large number of AA guns opened fire and engaged all six Swordfish. The third aircraft to attack saw the two previous torpedo tracks running straight for the Richelieu and the last aircraft reported seeing four tracks proceeding towards her. Two of the aircraft saw a large column of smoke rising from the Richelieu and all the pilots considered that they had made good drops. Owning to the lack of light and the necessity of getting away quickly they found it imposible to observe the effect of their torpedoes but Lt.Cdr. Luard estimated that at least four or five of them had run correctly towards the target. He landed without mishap on board HMS Hermes at 0526/8 and all the other Swordfish did the same afterwards. One had been hit twice and another one once by AA fire but they had received only minor damage.
The exact amount of damage done to the Richelieu was not easy to determine. Lt.Cdr. Luard estimated that four or five of the torpedoes dropped by the six aircraft had run correctly towards their target and that HMS Dorsetshire reported hearing five distinct explosions between 0500 and 0515 hours. A pall of smoke shrouding the Richelieu was reported by one of the pilots and his observer. As the day wore on, further evidence convinced Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow that she had been disabled. Air reconnaissance reported her as being down by the stern, with large quantities of oil all around her. Of this he informed the Admiralty at 0930/8.
On the recovery of the motor-boat at noon Lt.Cdr. Bristowe reported hearing explosions while his motor-boat lay broken down off the end of the inner boom at 0230 hours, which he naturally attributed to his depth charges exploding underneath her stern. Like the Dorsetshire he had heard a number of explosions around 0510 hours and had noticed the pall of smoke reported by the airmen.
Between 0930 and 1235 hours, French aircraft made intermittent attacks on the British force. They failed to press these attacks home but after picking up the motor-boat Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow ordered his ships to the south and south-west to avoid the French aircraft whilst still keeping the Richelieu under observation from the air. Photographs showed her down by the stern and slightly listing to port.
At 1314/8 the Admiralty replied to the report of 0930 hours. ‘Good, but further attacks should be made and report made’. But it was too late. During the afternoon the Richelieu was moved to the inner harbour and berthed alongside the detached mole where she rested on the bottom at low tide. At this position she was immune from further torpedo attack. This information was passed to the Admiralty at 1710 hours, together with the opinion that the Richelieu was definitely disabled. It was suggested that the British force should proceed to Freetown to fuel. HMS Milford was detached after dark. The other ships took up night patrolling positions but just after midnight Admiralty approval to proceed to Freetown was received. HMS Hermes and HMS Dorsetshire indeed did so but HMAS Australia proceeded to the U.K. The passage to Freetown by HMS Hermes and HMS Dorsetshire was not without incident. In a sudden dense tropical storm during the middle watch on 10 July HMS Hermes collided with the armed merchant cruiser HMS Corfu (Capt. W.G. Agnew, RN) which was escorting convoy SL 39 coming from Freetown. HMS Corfu was badly holed, while HMS Hermes suffered severe damage to her bow and the forward end of her flight deck but was able to proceed under her own steam to Freetown where she arrived at 1800/10. On 11 July 1940 Temporary Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow reverted to his rank of Captain.
Damage to the Richelieu.
The Admiralty tried to find out if Richelieu was indeed ‘definitely disabled’ as Acting Rear-Admiral Onslow had claimed. Before the end of the month further reports became available. Commander Rushbrooke, the former British Naval Liaison Officer at Dakar was at Dakar in the merchant vessel Argyll during the attacks which was moored only 3 cables away from the Richelieu on her port beam. Commander Rushbrooke had had a ringside seat. On his arrival at Freetown he reported that at 0230/8 funnel explosions were heard from the direction of the Richelieu which gave the impression that the fuel supply to her furnaces was not normal. These explosions had occurred before and one must take into account that the Richelieu was brand new and not fully completed at that time let alone be fully worked up and possibly suffering from small defects which had not fully be remedied during her trial period. Following these explosions, two officers, which were on the bridge of the Argyll did not see any special activity on board the Richelieu nor in the harbour. These funnel explosions were probably the explosions heard by Lt.Cdr. Bristowe around 0230 hours.
Shortly after 0500/8, Commander Rushbrooke and the same two officers witnessed the air attack and at 0507 hours heard two dull thuds. When full daylight broke they saw a patch of oil round the Richelieu’s stern, which also appeared to be slightly down in the water. Later she lowered her main aerials but soon rehoisted them.
After pursuing all available reports, the Admiralty considered that the attack had been well conceived and executed, but that certain technical aspects required comment. The depth of the water at the time was 42 feet and the Richelieu’s draught was 26 feet 10 inches. In those conditions the setting of the torpedoes intended to run under the ship would have been about 3 feet more then the expected draught, or at most 33 feet (instead of 38 feet) and the setting of the contact torpedoes should have been at least 6 feet less the the draught, 21 feet at most (instead of 24 feet). In view of the shallowness of the water and the fact that the target was at anchor, too, the high speed setting of 40 knots should not have been used, as it was known that these torpedoes were liable to have an excessive initial dive on the 40 knot setting, and a much reduced one on the 29 knot setting.
It was also pointed out in the Admiralty that 18” torpedoes containing about 440 lbs. of T.N.T. hitting the ships side within the length of the citadel would not defeat the main protection. They would cause little flooding but would allow oil to escape into the sea. Torpedoes fitted with Duplex pistols exploding under the ships bottom would not produce damage visible from outside the ship. Broken aerials are a feature of underwater explosions and new aerials may have been hoisted to replace broken ones, but from Commander Rushbrooke’s report it would appear that not more then one torpedo could have exploded under the Richelieu’s main machinery compartments. It was considered, therefore, that she could not be regarded as out of action, but still as seaworthy and able to steam at at least three-quarters speed with all her main armament capable of use.
Actually the damage was more serious then this assessment. According to French sources which later became available, only one torpedo hit. It blew a hole 25 x 20 feet, fractured stern post, distorted the starboard inner shaft and flooded three compartments. She was rendered incapable of steaming more than half power, and repairs to restore seaworthiness took a year. But her main armament was intact which would be shown a few months later. (1)
10 Jul 1940
Shortly after 0300 hours (zone +1), in bad weather, HMS Hermes (A/Rear-Admiral R.F.J. Onslow, DSC, MVO, RN) and HMS Corfu (Capt. W.G. Agnew, RN) collided with each other. The ships got stuck together and only came loose around 0520 hours. Most of the crew of the heavily damaged Corfu had evacuated to the Hermes but later the engine room staff returned. HMS Hermes then proceeded to Freetown while HMS Corfu got underway for Freetown als at dead slow speed and proceeding astern under escort by HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN).
At 1830/10 HMS Dorsetshire commenced towing HMS Corfu but after two minutes the bollard was carried away and the tow parted. At 1845 hours Corfu again proceeded astern at dead slow speed.
At 0520/11 HMS Milford (Capt. R.J. Shaw, MBE, RN) arrived on the scene for A/S protection and at 0600/11 the Dutch tug Donau arrived on the scene as well. She took HMS Corfu in tow shortly after 0800 hours.
HMS Hermes arrived at Freetown later the same day. HMS Corfu, HMS Dorsetshite and HMS Milford arrived at/off Freetown on the 12th. (2)
- ADM 234/318
- ADM 234/318 + ADM 53/111848 + ADM 53/112037 + ADM 53/112435
ADM numbers indicate documents at the British National Archives at Kew, London.