Archived RFA Stories

RFA Fire Ships in World War 2

Operation Lucid

Captain Augustus Agar VC was in charge of the planning and execution of Operation Lucid in September 1940, an attempt to hit the German wooden invasion barges at Boulogne and Calais, France, with incendiary material and set them alight. The plan had the personal backing of Winston Churchill, it was a desperate time and any measure, however risky, that could frustrate the German invasion plans was welcome.

Accompanied by various auxiliary vessels, Agar set off for Boulogne several times in September and October 1940 with four ‘fire ships’ - old oil tankers including RFA War Nawab and RFA War Nizam filled with incendiary fuel – 50% FFO, 25% Diesel and 25% petrol (called Agar's special mixture).

The wartime need for oil tankers was so great that only vessels unfit for convoy work were available to Agar. The very poor mechanical condition of these ships hampered the enterprise.

RFA War Nawab



Late on 25th September RFA War Nizam sailed from Sheerness towards Calais while RFA War Nawab sailed from Portsmouth towards Boulogne. A third ‘fire’ ship broke down and the MTB guarding the tankers found the weather too much for them. The operation was called off.

A second attempt was tried on the 3rd October when a fourth ‘fire ship’ developed a heavy list and again, due to bad weather, the operation was recalled.

A third attempt was scheduled for the 4th October with the two RFA tankers to go to Calais. This was called off, without sailing, because an RAF diversion had to be cancelled due to bad weather.

The fourth and what was the last attempt on the 7th October with RFA War Nizam and one other ‘fire ship’ seemed set to be successful until the command ship with Agar aboard, HMS Hambledon, a Hunt class destroyer, triggered an acoustic mine mid-Channel and had her stern blown off. She had to be towed back to Sheerness, being shelled by German coastal batteries on the French coast on the way back, but without receiving a hit. Both tankers also broke down.

The season was now too late for another attempt and, in any case, the threat of invasion had receded. Operation Lucid was cancelled.

 

RFA War Nawab Ships BellRFA War Nawab continued in RFA service (mainly as an oil hulk) until arriving at the breakers at Troon in July 1958. Having succumbed to the breakers torch it would be usual to expect that would be the end of this RFA however a small part of the War Nawab continues in regular use to this day. Her ships bell has been proudly cleaned and rung, since 1962,  on the Quarter Deck of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s Sea Cadet Unit T.S. Calliope based at Wanganui on New Zealand’s North island.

Copyright © 2008 – 2014 Christopher J White