and was ordered to Sheerness. This was the time of the Blitz
and Invasion scares. The Germans had control of the entire
Channel coast, and Hitler was expected to order an invasion of
Britain at any time. Arethusa and other ships were not able to
move out into the Thames Estuary because enemy aircraft had
laid large numbers of magnetic mines. In fact we were in dry
dock for a few days. The Gunnery Officer went on leave, I was
left in charge of the anti-aircraft armament which was trying to
join in the defence against German bombers making their
nightly blitz on London. I said to the Gunnery Officer "How on
earth do I aim these things?" He replied (more or less) "You
can't; just point them up and fire them into the sky"!
There was, in fact, no effective control at night-time, and all
our guns did was to contribute to the anti-aircraft barrage, break
a few windows in Sheerness Dockyard and cheer up the
civilian population by making them think that something was
being done in their defence.
Then I went on leave for a week - to my home in Devonshire.
When I returned to Arethusa somebody said to me "Why have
you come back?" "Because my leave's finished". "But didn't
you see that signal the other day about you?" "No, what
signal?". I found the signal which was a day or two previously
ordering me to report forthwith to the Admiralty, Room soand-
so. I had no idea what all this was about. I remember I got
a bus and a train, went to the Admiralty late in the evening and
was shown to the room. When I went in somebody was sitting
at a desk in a darkened room, scribbling furiously under a green
shaded desk-light. It was Captain Agar. He looked up and said
"Sit down". He then went on scribbling, and I can remember his
pen squeaking on the paper. He put his letter in the envelope,
licked it, pressed the bell, said to the messenger "Take this to
the Prime Minister". Then he said, "Come and have dinner,
He explained to me that he had been put in charge of a
special operation (Operation LUCID) to counteract the threat
of invasion. The enemy were known to have collected large
numbers of Rhine barges, which were assembled in Calais and
Boulogne, intended to bring the German Army across the
Somebody in the Admiralty knew that the British Petroleum
Warfare Committee had done experiments with a mixture of
Admiralty Oil, diesel oil and petrol. If ignited on the sea this
stuff would run round on the surface like quicksilver with huge
flames that would burn up anything or anybody that it reached.
Churchill and the Naval staff had decided to mount a Fireship
operation into Calais and Boulogne, making use of four or
five ancient tankers. The idea was to fill them with this "hell's
brew", send them over at night with volunteer crews, leave only
one or two men to steer the ships full speed at the harbour
entrance and these final two would, if possible, escape by a
little speedboat over the side of the tankers. It was hoped that
the tankers would burst into the harbours and burn up the
barges and the waiting troops.
The background to all this was that Churchill, who had
recently become Prime Minister, said that just as Drake had
"singed the King of Spain's beard", he wanted to "singe Mr
Captain Agar had been chosen by Churchill to be in charge
of this extraordinary expedition. He had asked for me as his Staff
Officer and (being his previous Torpedo Officer) to install the
explosive charges for scuttling the tankers and for igniting the
There then followed a period of very intense activity. We had
to collect the old tankers, get them filled up, arrange volunteers,
install the explosives and make detailed plans for attack. This
was all run from the Admiralty in conditions of fantastic secrecy.
Nobody knew what the old ships were intended for. We had to
work day and night to get everything ready.
I remember coming back one night to report to Captain Agar
in the Admiralty, the Blitz was on, huge flames lit up the London
sky, my staff car had to bump over innumerable fire hoses in
Whitehall and when I met Captain Agar he said "They've got the
Anyway, a date was decided, escorts of destroyers and motor
torpedo boats arranged, and we set sail. But unfortunately the
tankers were so old and decrepit that instead of doing just the
slow 6 knots which we hoped, they would only do 3 knots. Also
the skeleton engine-room crew kept coming up on deck,
apparently drunk; but they were not drunk poor fellows, they
were merely anaesthetised by the fumes of the petrol which
leaked through the old rivets in the bulkhead and sizzled out onto
the floor plates in the boiler room.
So the mission had become impossible and we all returned to
Sheerness. (I was in one of the escorting destroyers, HMS
Hambledon, with Captain Agar).
So a further hectic period was spent trying to improvise
repairs on the tankers and getting a replacement for the worst
two, and again we set out one night. But this time a southerly
gale sprang up which not only delayed us but of course was the
last thing we wanted because the petroleum mixture would be
blown out of the harbours instead of into them.
A thing like this is very difficult to keep secret and the joke
was that if you went into a pub in Chatham the barmaid would
say "Are you in the fire-ships, dearie?"
The third time we sailed the omens were bad because, instead
of the German searchlights being up in the sky, they were
sweeping horizontally across the sea. In the "Safe channel"
supposed to be clear of mines, the Germans must have sent a
force of E-Boats to drop some magnetic mines. Soon after we
got clear of the Thames the destroyer that Captain Agar and I
were in detonated a mine which blew her stem off. Of course the
fire-ships following us would be unable to cross this minefield,
so Captain Agar sent an immediate signal "Operation LUCID
HMS Hambledon had to be towed back to Sheerness by
another destroyer. Captain Agar called a MTB alongside and we
climbed into this and raced in as fast as possible so that he could
report to the Admiralty.
So that was the end of Operation LUCID. With hindsight it
was really a completely harebrained idea. But of course it suited
Churchill's urge to take action, and Gussie Agar with his World
War I VC was just the chap to put in charge. I should add that by
this time I knew him extremely well, and kept in touch with him
for the rest of his life. Apart from being such a nice charming
Captain, he was extremely eccentric. There is more about all this
in a book he wrote called "Footprints in the Sea".
This extract from Rear Admiral Sir Morgan-Giles’s memoirs, The Unforgiving Minute”, follows on directly from the last.
You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.
And so as I patrol in the valley of the shadow of the tricolour I must fear evil, For I am but mortal and mortals can only die