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The Loss of HMS Foylebank

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Leading Seaman Jack Mantle, V.C.

Formerly a merchant ship owned by the Bank Line and recently converted by Harland and Wolff to an auxiliary anti-aircraft ship the 10 year old HMS Foylebank under the command of Capt. H P Wilson, RN, left Belfast on 6 June arriving at Portland on 9 June 1940 and took up a position within the harbour at 'A' buoy.

With the advance of the German armed forces to the English Channel the South West coast of England was now under threat from E-Boats and the Luftwaffe, who were now less than 30 minutes flying time away, however, the true threat of what now lay across the Channel still hadn't been realised by the authorities and Portland Harbour was still being used by ships and submarines "working up" and preparing themselves for sea and war, despite inadequate anti-aircraft facilities and support: the nearest air cover being in Hampshire.

The morning of American Independence Day started fine with good visibility and a light wind and as per normal routine half the ship's armament was manned whilst the rest of the ship's company took breakfast and went about the start of the day as normal.

By 0825, the Foylebank's duty watch had reported unidentified aircraft some thirty to forty miles to the South East, over the English Channel, which the RAF at Uxbridge identified as six plus aircraft and as a result the ship was brought to a state of immediate readiness. A further report confirmed that the aircraft were now only fifteen miles away and by 0840 a formation of about twenty six aircraft came into view at about 5000 feet.

Although properly identified as Stukas by the bridge look-out there appears to have been some initial confusion elsewhere on the ship over the identity of the aircraft, but this didn't last long as they soon broke formation and attacked their targets, most of them heading for the Foylebank, a sitting duck, moored at 'A' buoy.

The ship was repeatedly straffed for some 8 minutes with bombs and machine gun fire during which time it was hit many times, A and B turrets being put out of action almost immediately, when bombs fell between the ship's bridge and the guns: Y turret managed to get off about 40 rounds before falling silent. The support armament of pom-poms and machine guns were fired until the ship was abandoned.

One among the many heroes that day was Leading Seaman Jack Mantle, of Southampton: the following details are given in the London Gazette of 4th September, 1940:-

Leading Seaman Jack Foreman Mantle was in charge of the starboard pom-pom when H.M.S. Foylebank was attacked by enemy aircraft on 4th July, 1940. Early in the action his left leg was shattered by a bomb, but he went on firing his gun, with hand gear only, as the ship's power had been damaged. He suffered several further wounds, but his great courage bore him up until the end of the fight, when he fell by the gun he had so valiantly served. For his heroism Jack Mantle was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the first ever to be awarded in British home waters.

Jack Mantle was buried in the grounds of the Naval Cemetery, overlooking Portland harbour, the scene of the attack:-


J.F. MANTLE, V.C.
LDG. SMN. RN. P/JX.139070
H.M.S. "FOYLEBANK"
4TH JULY 1940  AGE 23
"FOR VALOUR"

BECAUSE WE DID NOT CHOOSE
TO LIVE AND SHAME THE LAND
FROM WHICH WE SPRUNG

Jack Mantle's monument

A little quieter these days, especially now that the Royal Navy has left Portland. I understand that Navy still awards the Mantle Cup for skill in anti-aircraft gunnery.

Leading Seaman Cousins and Leading Seaman Gould, who also operated the ship's close range weapons, were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

Harbour support vessels took off the wounded and survivors, but had to withdraw due to exploding ammunition. HMS Foylebank became a total loss and was eventually removed from Portland Harbour circa 1952. Of her ship's company of 300, 13 officers and 144 men were saved.

As a direct result of the attack the Navy realised that it was not possible to defend the harbour against a sustained air attack and Sea Training and other Admiralty work was transferred to more distant parts of the country for the duration of the war, returning to Portland on the cessation of hostilities and continued in the area until the 1990s when the Peace Dividend allowed for the rationalisation of western defence forces.

Portland, however, was found to be ideal an ideal base for coastal forces work, which were used to counter the E-Boat threat from across the Channel and to carry out attacks on German shipping along the French coast and around the Channel Islands. As the risk of air attack subsided as German aircraft were diverted to the Russian Front Portland played a major role in the preparation for the Normandy invasion.

Sources:

The Royal Navy at Portland since 1845 by Geoffrey Carter
The Dorset Echo

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