The Insect Gunboats

A class of almost forgotten WW I gunboats of the Royal Navy were involved again and again in operations along the Libyan coast, starting with bombarding Sidi Barrani at the start of Operation COMPASS, O’Connor’s offensive in 1940. At least one of them, HMS Aphis, was involved in Operation CRUSADER over a year later, e.g. when she joined Australian destroyers in bombarding Axis positions at Sollum and Halfaya., or during bombardments of the coastal road from Derna to Tobruk. Her companion HMS Gnat had been involved in bombardment action against the Axis forces in October, but had been torpedoed by U-79 on 21 October and her bow shot away.  She was never repaired.  HMS Ladybird had been bombed and sunk in shallow water in Tobruk harbour on 12 May 41, and continued to serve as an AA platform, so I guess one can say she was involved as well. You can see HMS Ladybird in a very interesting movie from around 1943 at this link, together with some good shots of Italian San Giorgio.

The insects’ main armament were 6″ guns, and they had a very distinctive look with their twin funnels arranged abreast, instead of in line, a bit like Mississipi steamers, as can be seen in the picture of HMS Cockchafer below. Although it is likely that by World War 2 most of them had been rebuilt, and lost the twin funnels, as can be seen on the picture of HMS Aphis below.  They were very small vessels of only 625 tons displacement, smaller than e.g. the Italian escort torpedo boats of the Spica class, or a German Type VII submarine, and they were designed to operate on what amounts to no more than a wet meadow, or a larger river such as the Danube.  I like the fact that the class naming makes a lot of sense – the boats were tiny, but packed a big sting (an article on modern ship naming can be found at this link – it features Insect-class HMS Cockchafer, which may have been involved in CRUSADER).

HMS Cockchafer underway, probably WW2

HMS Cockchafer underway, probably WW2

HMS Aphis during WW2 - note the good view on the 6 gun and the additional AA armament.

While HMS Cockchafer had been involved in incidents of high political drama, in China in 1924 and again in 1926, and in Iraq in 1941, when the regent escaped the insurgency on her, the service these ships saw in the Med was more mundane, but not less dangerous. HMS Gnat, Cricket and Ladybird were all lost – the former torpedoed, Cricket bombed and near-missed while on a Tobruk convoy in June 1941 off Mersa Matruh, and declared a constructive loss after towing into Alexandria, and the latter bombed and sunk in harbour at Tobruk.  Lt. A.O. McGinlay of 7 RTR in Tobruk (see this older post) was an eyewitness to the loss of HMS Ladybird, dive-bombed and sunk in shallow water  in Tobruk harbour, which commented on the extraordinary heroism of the sailors manning her anti-air armament, who continued firing throughout the attack and after she had settled.  She continued to serve as an AA platform in the harbour, presumably until it was lost in 1942. HMS Aphis, Scarab, Cockchafer continued service in the Mediterranean until the end of war, with HMS Cockchafer maybe being reduced to depot duties from 1944 onwards. HMS Gnat was beached off Alexandria and became an AA defense installation, while Cricket seems to have gone on to Cyprus to serve as target ship for air crew training.

Yesterday night I came across the following entry in the German daily report for 13 January, the day lower Sollum was lost, stating that the naval forces supporting the attack by 2nd South African division included a battleship.  This is of course not possible (although the Axis forces could not know this), since there was no operational battleship left in the eastern Mediterrenean after the sinking of HMS Barham on 25 November by U-331 (commanded by Freiherr von Friesenhausen) and the disabling of the older battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant in Alexandria harbour by Italian frogmen of Decima MAS.  So that leaves only one of the gunboats as the ‘battleship’ in the bombardment.  According to this site, none of the heavy gun monitors of the Royal Navy was available in the eastern Mediterrenean at the time, HMS Terror having been sunk in February of 1941.  So that raises the question of who bombarded Sollum/Halfaya that night (on 31 December it was apparently HMS Ajax together with a group of Australian and British destroyers). The likely answer is HMS Aphis. For 8 January, Enrico Cernuschi in a recent article claims that she bombarded the harbour and sank a small German assault boat (Pionierlandungsboot).

I have found a website about this (to me) completely unknown class of ships, originally built to serve on the Danube, but ending up in China, Archangelsk and all places inbetween.  Fortunately enough there is a good bit of information on them available, e.g. this site, focussing on the China service of the fleet:

http://www.hmsfalcon.com/index.htm#Aphis

Technical information on these small  gunboats can be found on Wikipedia (use with care):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insect_class_gunboat

If somebody could provide information on whether the ships had been rearmed between the war, I would be quite interested in it. Somehow the German claim that a 6″ gun indicates presence of a battleship does not sound right to me. Maybe somebody else can clear up the riddle.

4 thoughts on “The Insect Gunboats

    • Those were night bombardments, I think. Also, any gunner (and most laymen) should be able to tell whether a crater or splash is from a 6″ or a 14″ gun.

  1. My father Edward (Ted) Shaw was CERA on the Aphis – I have a 3 page account of her journey from China to the med with her sister ‘insect’ gunships. Incredible little boats that could sneak into harbour and do almighty damage to enable the big guns to follow them and finish the job…and get the glory. My dad did get a mention in dispatches after the attack on Bardia. One interesting fact was that swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks Jnr who was a US LT Commander directed several operations on the Aphis. He was apparently a really nice man…and a superb tactician…he gained great respect.
    I wish I could remember all the tales told of his exploits but dad generally only talked ‘war’ with his two friends whose families we used to spend Xmas with when I was young… I remember being in awe when I’d hear him say….’when I was in Sidi Baranni ….’ or it might be Tobruk..Port Said..Malta…all sounded very exotic and exciting! I’d sit and listen to these great adventures rather than hang out in the kitchen with mum and the wives…basting the turkey and imbibing the sherry!
    However, there was a minor casualty, my brother (14 years older) who was only a toddler in the war didn’t see his dad for 4 years and it a cast a shadow over their relationship until he was an adult and a marine engineer too. When my dad left the Aphis my mum had left Pompey (temporarily) for the safety of Llandudno and dad brought back several beautiful pieces of Chinese porcelain including a large statue of Quan Yin…they had survived 4 years of bombardment and daring do….AMAZING!
    Dad was acting warrant officer after 29 years in the Navy…very reluctantly as he was a very hands on engineer…hated anything involving a desk! He died in 1974 aged 73 from emphysema probably from asbestos in the engine room… And Ringers A1!!!!

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