- Operation Postmaster
Operation Postmaster Part of SOE operations Date 14 January 1942 Location Fernando Po, Gulf of Guinea Result British victory Belligerents United Kingdom Nazi Germany
Commanders and leaders Major 'Gus' March-Phillipps Captain Specht
Strength Small Scale Raiding Force 11 men
Special Operations Executive 4 men
local volunteers 17 men
Duchessa d'Aosta ships crew 46
Bibundi ships crew unknown
Likomba ships crew unknown
Casualties and losses none 29 crew and three boats captured
Operation Postmaster was a British operation conducted on the Spanish island of Fernando Po, now known as Bioko, off West Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, during the Second World War. The mission was carried out by the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in January 1942. Their objective was to board the Italian and German ships in the harbour and sail them to Lagos. The SSRF under the command of Major 'Gus' March-Phillipps left Britain in August 1941 and sailed the Brixham trawler, Maid Honour, to the Spanish colony.
The British authorities in the area refused to support the raid, which they considered a breach of Spanish neutrality. Permission for the operation to go ahead eventually came from the Foreign Office in London. On 14 January 1942, while the ships' officers were attending a party arranged by an SOE agent, the commandos entered the port aboard two tugs, overpowered the ships' crews and sailed off with the ships, including the Italian merchant vessel Duchessa d'Aosta. The raid boosted SOE's reputation at a critical time and demonstrated its ability to plan and conduct secret operations no matter the political consequences.
In 1941 the British Admiralty started receiving reports that German submarines were using the rivers in Vichy French parts of Africa as a base for refuelling. The unit selected to investigate the reports was the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) also known as No. 62 Commando. The SSRF was formed in 1941, and consisted of a small group of 55 commando-trained personnel working with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). While being under operational control of Combined Operations Headquarters, No. 62 Commando itself was under the command Major Gustavus Henry March-Phillipps.
The Maid Honour, a 65 ton Brixham yacht trawler, left Poole harbour on 9 August 1941, bound for West Africa. The five man crew were under the command of Major 'Gus' March-Phillipps. The remainder of the SSRF under the command of Captain Geoffrey Appleyard had departed earlier aboard a troop transport ship. On 20 September 1941 after six weeks under sail the Maid Honour arrived at Freetown, Sierra Leone. Freetown was the agreed rendezvous for both groups, Appleyard's party having arrived at the end of August. After the Maid Honour's arrival in Freetown the search for the German submarine bases started. Sailing into the many rivers and deltas in the area, they failed to locate any submarines or evidence of a submarine base.
SOE maintained a presence in West Africa, where it could observe Vichy French, Spanish and Portuguese territories with the intention of identifying and hindering any activities that threatened Britain's colonial possessions. While the commandos were searching for the German submarine bases SOE agents had become aware of three vessels in the port of Santa Isabel on the Spanish island of Fernando Po 30 kilometres (19 mi) off the coast of Africa near the borders of Nigeria and the Guinea.
The three ships were the Italian 8,500 ton Merchant vessel Duchessa d'Aosta, the second a large German tug boat the Likomba, the third a diesel-powered barge the Bibundi. The Duchessa d'Aosta had a working radio which was considered a threat, with the potential to provide details of Allied naval movements. Her declared cargo was 3 million pounds of wool, 316,610 pounds of hides and skins, 1.3 million pounds of tanning materials, 4,000,000 pounds of copra, 544,660 pounds of crude asbestos fibre and over 1.1 million ingots of electrolytic copper. The first page of the ship's cargo manifest, was not presented to the port authorities and the ship's Captain refused to provide them with any details, which led to speculation it was also carrying arms or ammunition. In his visits to the island, SOE agent Leonard Guise kept the ships under observation, and in August 1941 submitted a plan to seize the Likomba and disable the Duchessa d'Aosta. Approval for the military operation in a neutral port was given by the Admiralty on 20 November 1941.
To transport the raiders to the island, two tugs, Vulcan and Nuneaton, were provided by the Governor of Nigeria, Sir Bernard Bourdillon. The raiding force would consist of 32 men, four SOE agents, 11 commandos from the SSRF and 17 men recruited from the local population to crew the two tugs. The mission suffered a blow when the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) West Africa Command, General Sir George Giffard refused to support the mission and would not release the 17 men required, stating it would compromise some unnamed plans he had in mind and the act of piracy would have repercussions. Responding to the concerns of the GOC West Africa, the Admiralty suspended the operation. The Foreign Office was also not in favour of the operation, and neither was the British Embassy in Madrid, which was concerned about the possible reactions of the Spanish government. The final go ahead, eventually supported by the Foreign Office, was not given until 6 January 1942, on the grounds that suspicion of British involvement in the raid was inevitable; what counted was the avoidance of any tangible proof. As a safeguard the Admiralty also dispatched Flower class corvette, to intercept the vessels at sea, which would provide the cover story that they had been intercepted while trying to make their way home to Europe.
SOE agent Richard Lippett had obtained employment with the shipping company John Holt & Co (Liverpool), which had business offices on the island. Having taken up the post he started to make preparations for the raid. He became aware that the crew of the Duchessa d'Aosta were in the habit of accepting invitations to parties ashore and had held their own party aboard ship on 6 January 1942. Under the guise of a party-goer Lippett managed to gain information about the readiness of the ship for sea, crew numbers, and the watch arrangements.
The raiders left Lagos in their two tugs on the morning of 11 January 1942, and while en route they practised lowering Folbots and boarding ships at sea under the command of Captain Graham Hayes. They approached Santa Isabel harbour and at 23:15 and 23:30 hours on 14 January 1942; both tugs were in position 180 metres (590 ft) outside of the harbour. Onshore, Lippett had arranged for the officers from the Duchessa d'Aosta to be invited to a dinner party. Twelve Italian officers and two German officers from the Likomba also attended.
The boarding parties assembled on the decks of the two tugs as they entered the harbour. Vulcan, with March-Phillipps and his second in command Appleyard on board, headed for the Duchessa d'Aosta. As they approached, a few men could be seen on the after deck of the merchant vessel, but they seemed to take no notice of the tug other than to shine a torch in its direction. At the same time, Folbots under the command of Hayes from Nuneaton, were being paddled towards Likomba and Burundi, which were moored together. Challenged by a watchman on the Burundi, they persuaded him with their reply that it was the ship's captain coming back on board. The men from the canoes boarded the Burundi and the two man crew on watch jumped overboard. After planting explosive charges on the anchor chain, the commandos guided the Nuneaton alongside the Likomba to take her and the Burundi in tow.
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