We’re continuing with Dr Alex Clarke’s series on the Tribal Class destroyers. In this article, he discusses HMS Ashanti. To quote the author, ‘Soft power is something that is often believed to have been invented in the current age; but in reality it has been a constant as long as there has been power. After all it simply implies a way of showing strength, without actually using that strength; winning the war without having to fight it has forever been the dream of all commanders and governments. For the Tribal destroyer this reality was part of their very conception, something which HMS Ashanti demonstrated most fully’.
HMS Ashanti was another prime example of the pre-WWII activity undertaken by the Tribal class; that despite being destroyers by designation, the ships of the class were very much involved with even peacetime cruiser missions (for more information about design/concept, please look at the other papers in this series, HMS Sikh & HMS Afridi). Her story starts not with her commissioning, but with Ashanti being the only vessel to do as was planned for the whole class, and visit the tribe she was named after.[i] Now this could have been a very interesting event with her sisters HMS Cossack or HMS Tartar, as it is unknown whether 1930s/40s Soviet Russia would have been that keen on such a visit – although, with possibilities of reciprocal visits and potential intelligence/grand standing that could provide it may have even proved attractive to Stalin. Most of the names though, were like Ashanti, named for tribes which were important to various parts of the British Empire.
Ashanti was named for the Ashanti(who can also be called the Asante) tribe. A tribe that still today makes up the largest population proportion of modern Ghana; but which in the late 1930s was even more important. The Gold Coast was not just a colony, but a vital one – as its name suggests there was gold, rather a lot of it, but also wood and other vital war materials. Therefore going to the effort of honouring such a tribe was worthwhile, anything which served to remind them of the power of Britain was useful, and if something was found which could not only do both, but which also bound them to it, then that would be the golden trifecta of imperial power play – HMS Ashanti achieved all of that embodied in 1,850 tons of steel. Therefore bearing this all in mind puts an interesting slant on what actually happened when she went to visit her namesakes.
HMS Ashanti arrived in Takoradi (modern day Ghana) on the 27th of February 1939.[ii] This was the site of the first harbour which the British had built in the Gold Coast – it had only begun during the tenure of Frederick Gordon Guggisberg (Gold Coast Governor 1921-1927), and completed after he had left in 1928. The harbour therefore itself was something the colonial authorities had been shouting about, due to its economic and political significance. The fact that a little over a decade after its completion a warship named for the tribe turned up, just provided another opportunity to crow.
After docking a party of officers and men then travelled to Kumasi, where the then Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Arnold Hodson, held a ‘Durbar’ (a sort of Imperial era civil-military party) in the Prince of Wales Park.[iii] That it was held in Kumasi was important, the Gold Coast was originally three regions, with the coast being the original colony, then the Ashanti region and above that the Northern Territories. The gold was mostly found in the Ashanti region; Kumasi had been the capital, when it was Ashanti Confederacy. British colonial power had changed this, but after a 30 year exile the king had been allowed to return in 1926, and by 1935 a lot of regional power had been returned to that city – so it was good politics, good ‘hearts & minds’ for the 80 RN personnel to make the journey inland to Kumasi. So with the location sorted, now came the real opportunity for ‘soft power’, for imperial ‘buy in’.
At the ‘Durbar’, the party hosted by the Governor; it wasn’t the governor who took the centre stage. Instead it was the Asanthene, the king of the Ashanti, Chief Prempeh II who greeted the sailors and presented the gifts(in an example of realpolitik of empire, he had returned from exile only 13 years before this).[iv] Gifts which themselves illustrate the value of the colony. They were a silver bell and a golden shield.[v] The shield made by local smiths, and it featured crossed weapons that symbolised protection as well as the emblem and moto of the Ashanti. Prempeh was most emphatic, that whatever happened or befell the destroyer, these items with stay with her through war and peace. There was then of course a parade and a party, as befitted the occasion. This though was not the end of the ceremonies, when the party returned to HMS Ashanti, she was opened to visitors in Takoradi for about a week. On the first day Ashanti Obayifoɔ arrived, and presented further emblems of good fortune and cast spells of valour and survival upon her.[vi] Thousands came to look and visit; she really did succeed in being taken to the heart of the Ashanti people. A success which augured well for her career.
After this happy period, HMS Ashanti returned to 6th DF, the Home Fleet Tribal Destroyer flotilla, and was almost immediately thrust into the fore of diplomatic efforts again. This time it was closer to home, Cherbourg for a goodwill visit with the French fleet. This was again a premium moment for diplomacy, although this time she was part of a whole division (comprised of Somali, Matabele and Eskimo) of Tribals. This visit was important because in May 1939, war was looming large, and it was presumed that destroyers would have to operate closely together; making it crucial they were not only allies but friends.[vii] With this in mind, everything that could be done to build such a relationship, parties and dances of all kinds, excursions and of course sports, along with as many ‘professional’ meetings as possible – even found time for some harbour exercises.[viii] Unfortunately such was not to be her whole service; but she was to deliver on the friendship created in Cherbourg though, although this would be later in her service.
HMS Ashanti really did fight her way through WWII, the 6th DF was heavily involved with the Home Fleet providing protection, and anti-submarine sweeps. One incident, near Trondheim, during the Norway campaign set the tone for much of the war. On the 26th of April, 1940, while her sisters Sikh and Mohawk patrolled the mouth of Trondheimsfiord, while Ashanti and Nubian went in, and then to Kraakvaagsfiord, looking for German destroyers. The Luftwaffe were not too happy about having the RN quite so close to their newly acquired airfield; unfortunately the hundred bombs they dropped didn’t stop any of the destroyers getting away – although Ashanti did manage, thanks to one near miss, have her main turbo-generator blown off its bedplate. Despite losing electricity she got away, and after a moderately eventful trip home and some repairs she was back in service. This as is said, set the tone for much of her service – Ashanti would take part in high risk operations, not get sunk, but get enough damage she needed to require some time in a shipyard. The important thing though was she survived, and would move from 6th Flotilla to 10th Flotilla which is what the remaining vessels of the Tribal class had been grouped into by 1944.
It was while in 10th Flotilla that HMS Ashanti delivered on her friendship, when she and the rest of flotilla were employed extensively on channel sweeps in the run up to D-Day. They were in effect being employed as a blocking force to prevent German surface vessels interfering, this went on even after D-Day, and on the 9th of June the 10th Flotilla (consisting at this time of Tartar, Ashanti & Eskimo, the two Canadian Tribals, HMCS Haida & Huron, the “J” Class HMS Javelin and two Polish destroyers, the “N” class ORP Piorun and the Grom class ORP Błyskawica) engaged the German 8th Destroyer Flotilla.[ix] What resulted was a hard fought action, which has been overshadowed largely by the enormity of other events, but honestly deserving a lot more attention than it has received. The Battle of Ushant as some call it, or the ‘Action off Ille De Bas’ as the RN refer to it in their records, really mattered.[x]
The battle took place while the Allies were still getting ashore, and if the German destroyers had made it to the supply ships bringing in more soldiers, more materiel, more everything that was essential to warfighting effort ashore, then Allied operations would have been severely disrupted. Instead, the three destroyers and single torpedo boat (an Elbing class destroyer sized vessel, T24, which had early that year sunk the first Canadian Tribal class ship to bear the name HMCS Athabaskan) the Germans sent never reached their target[xi]. The fight started with an almost melee as the two opposing forces engaged each other, but once this initial contact phase was over it, Ashanti tag teamed with Tartar against one of the destroyers.[xii] This was probably ZH1(a captured Dutch destroyer, Gerard Callenburgh).[xiii]. What is interesting is the way it was destroyed – it emerged from smoke, traditionally something with gave an attacking destroyer an advantage; but thanks to radar (and number of guns), it was immediately dazzled by gunfire from Tartar, then quickly disabled by a torpedo from Ashanti – which then closed and finished the job with gunfire. A second, Z32(a type 1936A class), was driven ashore by HMCS Haida & Huron, two Canadian Tribals; whilst the remaining two vessels escaped after hiding in a British minefield- which the RN ships didn’t have a map for.[xiv]
There were many occasions like this in HMS Ashanti’s career – times when her presence changed things, changed the course of events. Despite this HMS Ashanti was one of just four RN Tribal class ships to survive WWII; and in fact stayed in service till 1949.[xv] The tokens and spells are possibly as good a reason as any that despite this very, very, active WWII she made it through when others did not.[xvi] Arguably though, all her service in WWII whilst of an amazing nature, was in a way not quite as important as the service she’d rendered the empire in 1939 before war even began. That visit was not only significant, but of tangible diplomatic value; value which created for the RN and for Britain a lot of positive feeling in the Gold Coast at what was a very dangerous time.[xvii] Which meant that for the course of WWII Britain could rely upon its Gold Coast colony, for treasure, for material and for men – men who would fight in the Far East with distinction – HMS Ashanti was a big part in making that not just a possibility, but a reality.
[i] (Brice, 1971, p. 40)
[ii] (TNA – ADM 1/10160, 1939; TNA – CO 323/1694/8, 1939)
[iii] (TNA – ADM 1/10160, 1939; TNA – CO 323/1694/8, 1939)
[iv] (Brice, 1971, p. 40; The National Commission on Culture, 2007; TNA – ADM 1/10160, 1939; TNA – CO 323/1694/8, 1939)
[v] (Brice, 1971, p. 40; The National Commission on Culture, 2007; TNA – ADM 1/10160, 1939; TNA – CO 323/1694/8, 1939)
[vi] (TNA – ADM 1/10160, 1939)
[vii] (Brice, 1971, p. 41)
[viii] (Brice, 1971, p. 41)
[ix] (TNA – ADM 1/15784, 1944)
[x] (TNA – ADM 1/15784, 1944)
[xi] (Brice, 1971, p. 69)
[xii] (TNA – ADM 1/15784, 1944; Brice, 1971, p. 122)
[xiii] (TNA – ADM 1/15784, 1944; Brice, 1971, p. 122)
[xiv] (TNA – ADM 1/15784, 1944; Brice, 1971, p. 122)
[xv] (Manning, 1979, p. 100)
[xvi] (Konstam, 2013, p. 38; Winton, 1986, p. 152; Brice, 1971, pp. 40-65; Smith, Pedestal, 2002, pp. 152-5; TNA – ADM 1/15784, 1944)
[xvii] (TNA – CO 323/1694/8, 1939)