The Fall of France in July 1940 and the real possibility of a German invasion of Britain – with a German codenamed of Operation Sealion - resulted in a British plan, first mooted in the summer of 1940 and codenamed Operation Lucid, to use fire ships to attack the wooden German invasion barges that were known to be gathering in ports on the northern coast of France. This plan had the full backing of Prime Minister Winston Churchill who “wanted to singe the moustache of Adolf Hitler” much as Sir Francis Drake has “singed the beard of the King of Spain” in 1588 with his pre-emptive attack on the Spanish Armada.
Captain Augustus Agar V.C., Royal Navy was chosen to lead this Operation and he then selected Morgan Morgan-Giles Royal Navy (later Rear Admiral Sir Morgan Charles Morgan-Giles D.S.O, O.B.E, G.M,) as his Staff Officer owing to the latter’s experience in setting explosive charges. The plan involved filling oil tankers with a lethal combination of between 2000 and 3000 tons of 50% heavy fuel oil, 25% diesel oil and 25% petrol which had been devised by the Petroleum Warfare Department, to which would be added bundles of cordite, gun cotton and old depth charges. Crews would sail these ships across the Channel at night until they were near to the entrance of the target port when the majority of the crew would be taken off while the remainder steered the ships closer, set the various controls to keep it going unmanned, set detonation timers and then hurriedly escape via speed boat. It was hoped the tidal conditions would then carry the ships into the harbour so hat when the demolition charges exploded, the resulting firestorms on the water would destroy anything in their vicinity.
Only three elderly tankers were available for this task as tankers at this time were obviously in very short supply as they were needed for more important things, and the vessels which were finally made ready consisted of two RFA ships named WAR NAWAB and WAR NIZAM and the commercial vessel OAKFIELD, which had started out life as WAR AFRICAN and which had already served her country as a requisitioned oiler during WW1.
RFA WAR NIZAM
WAR NIZAM and OAKFIELD were of 1918 - vintage while WAR NAWAB dated from 1919.
RFA WAR NAWAB
Of the two Admiralty ships, WAR NAWAB had been withdrawn from seagoing service in May 1939 and was laid up, partly-manned, at Portsmouth while her sister WAR NIZAM had been withdrawn in September 1939 and was laid up, partly-manned, at Rosyth. OAKFIELD too was laid up, suffering from totally unreliable machinery. WAR NIZAM and OAKFIELD were prepared for their new roles at Sheerness while WAR NAWAB underwent similar treatment at Portsmouth. In order to try to maintain secrecy as to their true new roles, word was given out that the ships were to become block ships.
Finally, late on 26 September 1940 all were ready and WAR NIZAM and OAKFIELD sailed from Sheerness, bound for Calais, whilst WAR NAWAB sailed from Portsmouth, bound for Boulogne. Both groups were escorted by a number of destroyers (one of which was HMS CAMPBELL from where Captain Agar commanded the Operation), MTB’s and other smaller vessels.
Whilst enroute, unfavourable weather became a problem and first of all OAKFIELD dropped out with mechanical problems, then WAR NIZAM suffered boiler problems and was unable to continue, so in order to try to maintain the element of surprise and secrecy of their mission, the Operation was cancelled and the ships returned to their respective ports. WAR NAWAB was only seven miles from her target when the recall signal was received.
On 3 October 1940 another attempt was made but again bad weather forced a cancellation to this and also to a further attempt the following night. On the night of 7/8 October a final attempt was made and all seemed to be going well until one of the escorting destroyers, HMS HAMBLEDON, triggered an acoustic mine which blew her stern off. The convoy scattered and returned home with even the hapless HMS HAMBLEDON managing to limp back to port for a successful repair period.
Plans were put forward for yet another attempt to be made in the November of 1940, but by then Hitler had cancelled Operation Sealion and the threat of invasion had receded.
The Plan was again revived in the Spring of 1941 but was never put into action.
Of the three ships, all of which survived the War, WAR NAWAB was disposed of in 1946 and was finally scrapped in 1958, WAR NIZAM too was disposed of in 1946 and was scrapped in 1949 whilst the unreliable OAKFIELD, having served the Admiralty as an oiler for the remainder of the War, was sold in 1946 and was not scrapped until 1955.