In the age of sail, capturing an enemy’s ships was a standard way to increase the size of your own fleet.
At the Battle of the Nile, Nelson captured nine French Ships-of-the-Line.
At the Glorious First of June, six major French ships were taken.
And at the Battle of the Medway, the Dutch actually managed to pinch HMS Royal Charles, flagship of the English fleet.
Capturing enemy ships, for which crews could expect to be handsomely rewarded with prize money, was a standard tactic pretty much throughout the whole period. But with the end of wooden ships, and the coming of steel and steam, the capturing of an enemy warship by making them surrender in combat pretty much had its day.
But not quite completely.
This is HMS Mendip.
She might not seem to be much, but she is actually, I believe, the last major combat vessel to be captured in action – forced to strike her colours, as they used to say.
First commissioned into the Royal Navy in October 1940, the Mendip was a Hunt-class escort destroyer. These were built at the start of World War Two when the Royal Navy realized they didn’t have anything like enough destroyers to provide escorts to convoys. The Hunts were built as smaller and more lightly armed than the fleet destroyers, being designed with an emphasis on anti-submarine-and-aircraft roles, rather than against surface forces.
HMS Mendip had an active war. She escorted convoys in the English Channel and North Sea, undertook minelaying missions and served at both the invasions of Sicily and Normandy. In 1946, she was paid off and placed in reserve.
The Hunts were, by this point, rather aged from hard use and their equipment was getting out-of-date. So, like many other Royal Navy warships of the war years, it was decided to pass her onto another navy. Initially, this was the Republic of China.
In May 1948 she was loaned to the Chinese Navy for use against communist forces in the Chinese Civil War. This ended up lasting only a few months, because in February the next year another loaned ship, the light cruiser Chung King, defected.
Not wanting any more of their vessels to end up in communist hands, the Royal Navy retook possession, and in November of 1949 the Mendip was sold to a new owner, the Egyptian Navy. Initially named the Mohammed Ali el-Kebir, she was renamed the Ibrahim el-Awal in 1951.
The vessel chugged around for the next few years, representing a substantial part of Egyptian naval strength, until 1956. Then, in October of that year, the French, British and Israelis launched a military operation that is now known as the Suez Crisis.
To give a brief history of this affair, Egypt, under the leadership of President Nasser, had nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956. A critical link in global trade, the Canal had been owned by the French and British, and they weren’t too happy about this. Additionally, both countries were especially concerned on the impact the action would have on their international reputations and on their links with the remains of their declining empires.
Conspiring with the new state of Israel, a plan was formed to both seize back the canal, crush the Egyptian military and remove Nasser from power. The plan was for Israel to attack the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. This would provide justification for a joint Franco-British military intervention to retake the Suez Canal, notionally on the grounds of protecting the Canal and acting as peacekeepers.
And when the Egyptians tried to stop them, as they inevitable would, they would be smashed by air power and an amphibious invasion of the Canal zone.
On October 29, 1956, Israel launched its invasion. With Israeli paratroopers seizing the critical passes through the Sinai mountains, and air attacks and armoured units hitting their defensive positions, things rapidly began to look grim for the Egyptians. Every effort would be needed to fight the attack.
On October 30, the Ibrahim el-Awal put to sea from Alexandria. Its orders where to sail up the coast and bombard the Israeli city of Haifa, the country’s main port and headquarters of the Israeli Navy.
Despite the substantial Anglo-French fleet that was then formed up in the Eastern Mediterranean preparing for their invasion, the el-Awal managed to slip up the coast. She also slipped past an Israeli naval taskforce that was guarding against such an attempt.
At 0330 in the morning, October 31, the Ibrahim el-Awal approached Haifa and opened fire with her four 4″ guns. It was at this point that her luck ran out.
Because anchored in the port was the Kersaint, one of the French Navy’s most modern and powerful destroyers, and certainly more than a match for the aging sub hunter.
Technically, the French were staying neutral until daybreak, at which point their intervention was scheduled to begin. But with 4” shells whistling down all over the place the Kersaint’s captain evidently decided that the plan had gone out the window and promptly returned fire.
The French destroyer had six rapid-fire 5” guns controlled by the latest in radar technology. As a result, her shells were quickly landing around the el-Awal whose Captain, very wisely, decided to call it a day and make his escape.
The plan was to head north for neutral Lebanon. The Egyptians reasoned that returning to their home port would be unviable, so the little destroyer headed for Beirut. Here they would be interred, but likely safe from the wrath of the Israelis and from the Imperial powers.
But the Israelis weren’t going to let the opportunity to sink an enemy ship pass them by. An IAF Dakota transport was dispatched to find the Egyptian ship and at about 0500 as the dawn was breaking, they spotted the Ibrahim el-Awal running north as fast as she could.
The Israeli naval task group, having failed to protect Haifa from attack, was in hot pursuit. This was made up of the Israeli Navy Ships Eilat, Yaffo and Miznak. All of these were, like the Egyptian ship, old World War Two ships of British design.
The Miznak was a former Royal Canadian Navy frigate of the River-class which, like the pursued destroyer, was mainly designed as a lower capability escort vessel. But her colleagues were both Z-class destroyers. These were fleet destroyers that had been built with an emphasis on speed and fighting surface actions, and as such outclassed the Ibrahim el-Awal.
Determined to run down the interloper, the Miznak was directed to follow the coast and head off any attempt by the Egyptian to double back. Meanwhile, the Eilat and Yaffo went to full speed to run the Ibrahim el-Awal down, soon picking her up on radar.
There was a moment of additional excitement when four other warships appeared to the west of the Israeli ships. These turned out to be American vessels from the 6th fleet and once they realized they were about to get caught in a surface action, sensibly reversed course to clear the area.
At 0532, the Israelis had closed to within 11 km of their target and, identifying it as Egyptian, opened fire with their 4.5” guns. A fierce gun fight between the three ships went on for the next half hour, with the Israelis easily gaining the upper hand.
By 0600 the Ibrahim el-Awal had slowed and its return fire was increasingly sporadic. The Israelis continued to pursue and, thinking they may come under air attack themselves at any time from Egyptian or Syrian forces, requested air support. This arrived in the shape of two Dassault Ouragan jets, which proceeded to rocket and strafe the Egyptian ship with their 20mm cannon.
The Ibrahim el-Awal lost steerage and the Israeli lookouts reported that some of the Egyptian crew were jumping off the ship. At 0705 they reported a truly unique sight; the Ibrahim el-Awal had raised a large white flag. The Israelis had already stopped shooting and lowered boats to both rescue the men in the water and to take possession of the surrendered ship.
Reaching the destroyer, they were greeted by the Captain, Rushdie Tamsyn, who confirmed he was surrendering. The Ibrahim el-Awal had two dead and eight wounded, and the ship was taken under tow back to Haifa.
Interestingly, despite the action she had seen, the damage was comparatively minor. The ship had been hit by only five 4.5” shells, probably only one aerial rocket and multiple 20mm cannon shells. Considering that the Israelis fired a reported 436 4.5” shells and 32 rockets, the hit rate was pretty low. However, it had been enough to damage the el-Awal’s rudder and propulsion, making continued resistance suicidal.
In the best traditions of naval history, the prize was taken into the service of the victors, hardly a surprise considering the Israeli Navy itself was at the time made up of only a handful of old ships. She was refurbished and entered service as, no doubt with deliberate irony, the INS Haifa.
She would see action in the “Six-Day War” of 1967 where she may have unsuccessfully attacked an Egyptian submarine with depth charges, though the details are unconfirmed. Then a few years later she was stripped down and in 1969 used as a test target for the new Gabriel anti-ship missiles that Israel was developing.
And so sank the INS Haifa, previously the ENS Ibrahim el-Awal and HMS Mendip, the last major naval combatant to be taken in action.