The Nigerian Marine's War Effort

by Captain A. L. E. Dennis, N.M.
The Nigerian Marine's War Effort
Nigerian Coastline
"Nigeria . . . Where is it?" That was the question asked of me by several people when I told them that I was going to Nigeria on my appointment to the British Colonial Service in February 1927. Such a question of course would not arise today. However, for readers who are not acquainted with Nigeria, it is situated in the Gulf of Guinea and extends from the Bight of Benin to the Bight of Biafra on the West Coast of Africa and has an area of 372,674 square miles, or more than three times the size of the United Kingdom. It is bound on three sides by French territory and, before it received Independence in October 1960, was the largest territory of the British Colonial Empire. It takes its name from the River Niger which rises in the Futa Zalon mountains N.E. of Sierra-Leone and after flowing two-thirds of its length through French territory enters Nigeria from the West and runs in a S.E.'ly direction until it receives the waters of the Benue River, its principal tributary, at Lokoja, about 400 miles from the sea. Its total length is 2600 miles. (Niger means BLACK and Benue means WHITE). Another important river in Nigeria is the Cross River which is 370 miles long and flows through Calabar and thence for another forty miles to the sea.

Nigeria's population today is estimated at about 140 million but during the war years of 1939-45 it was in the region of just twenty-five millions. Since I am writing about the war years I will continue in the past tense and keep my facts of events to that period.

Briefly, the war effort of the Nigerian Marine was the satisfactory functioning of the ports to enable shipping to collect the country's produce and in this connection to safeguard the approaches to the ports by operating a minesweeping service and an anti-submarine patrol with surface high speed craft.

The Nigerian Marine's War Effort
Lagos Island
The principal port of Lagos, which is at the mouth of the Ogun River, was kept to a uniform depth by an extensive mobile sand dredger system. A detailed description of this and other services of the Nigerian Marine are given in the following paragraphs.

The Government of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria comprised European and African officers, the Europeans being appointed by the British Government in London in the first instance. The policy of the Government was indirect rule through Native Administrations, with an Executive Council and a Legislative Council.

Lagos Island was the capital and the mainland was the protectorate — a geographical analogy would be the Isle of Wight in relation to the mainland of Great Britain. The Legislative Council consisted of twenty members including heads of departments of which the Honourable Director of Marine held a very senior position.

The Marine Department, which was controlled by the Director of Marine, was responsible for all maritime matters in the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria such as harbours, inland waterways, navigation aids including lighthouses, a buoyage system (moulded on that of Trinity House), hydrographical surveys, harbour pilotage, the satisfactory accommodation of shipping and a regular supply of coal for use by the Nigerian Railway, the electricity power station at Ijora (Lagos) and its own dockyard with a 3,000 ton dump sufficient to supply its fleet of sea-going vessels, mobile and moored dredgers (bucket & suction), ocean & reclamation tugs and inland waters steam launches.

The Nigerian Marine's War Effort
Lagos Harbour
Its dockyard, with a 4,000 tons floating dock, a 600 tons slipway and up-to-date workshops was the largest on the West coast of Africa. The dockyard staff designed and constructed launches and coastal craft up to 500 tons displacement. The personnel of the administrative staff and floating staff of the department consisted of fully qualified and experienced officers at the time of their respective appointments in London and the majority of them held a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve. The members of the European staff of the dockyard were also qualified in all respects in their professions and trades at the time of their appointment in London and the African Petty Officers and Ratings were trained by them in the dockyard at Apapa (across the harbour on the mainland and opposite Lagos).

On the outbreak of war many of the Reserve Officers, except the very senior, were called-up for service in British home waters which obviously left the department short of staff. For the remaining members some of the peacetime duties were waived and additional wartime duties imposed.

The Nigerian Marine's War Effort
Sunderland of 270 Squadron
There was very little, if any, Marine activity in the far North of Nigeria so it would be reasonable to say that about sixty-five per cent of the total area of 372,674 square miles was virtually the responsibility of the Director of Marine in so far as it concerned maritime matters and this was divided into six divisions of approximately 40,000 square miles each. The six divisions in order of precedence were:- Lagos, Port Harcourt, Forcados, Calabar, Victoria and Lokoja. A senior officer was appointed to each division and he was designated the Divisional Marine Officer or for the purpose of brevity... D.Mar.O. Included in his multifarious duties was that of harbour master at the port of his domicile and also for the river ports within his division. He visited these sub-divisional ports periodically by launch in peacetime but was perforce restricted in wartime. Besides being harbour master he was the marine surveyor and the regular trading vessels of the coast and inland waters came once each year to his headquarters for him to survey them. (The boilers and machinery, including Diesel engines, were surveyed by his European Engineer).

Soon after the outbreak of war the Marine Department became the Nigerian Naval Defence Force indirectly under the command of His Excellency The Governor & Commander in Chief of Nigeria but directly under the control of the Director of Marine. The N.N.D.F. was accorded Royal Naval status. It performed the naval duties of mines weeping and anti-submarine patrols with fast surface light craft. Confidential movements of merchant shipping were controlled by the Resident Naval Officer, Lagos, through the D.Mar.O's at each port. I should mention here that when Nigeria became an independent state in October 1960 the N.N.D.F. became the Royal Nigerian Navy, under the aegis of Great Britain. (She was and still is a member of the Commonwealth).


Pilotage of shipping at the port and its approaches was compulsory at Lagos and Port Harcourt. At the other ports of Nigeria the shipmasters performed this duty in their own ships, a knowledge of the ports and rivers being one of the qualifications for promotion to command of the regular traders in peacetime. Whenever a 'stranger' entered Nigerian waters the master invariably called upon the harbour master, through his agent, to perform that function. This became rather burdensome during the war years when many 'stranger' vessels were sent by the British Ministry to Nigeria for urgent war supplies. I should mention here that during the earlier years of a D.Mar.O's service he was engaged in hydrographic surveys of the harbours and river estuaries. He also commanded the Government ships and of course conducted his own pilotage.

The principal exports from Nigeria were:- palm oil, palm kernels, ground nuts, rubber, hides & skins, cocoa, cotton lint, glycerine, piassava fibre, tin, wolfram & tungsten, and timber especially for the decks of aircraft carriers. Of the foregoing items the greatest demand was for edible oil in the form of palm oil. These exports were conveyed to Britain in ships of the British Ministry of Transport which of course included the regular peacetime traders of Elder Dempster Lines, The United Africa Company and the John Holt Line.

Cutting out Expedition to Fernando Po
Axis Ships in Santa Isabella
Every Dry Season when the rivers were at low level a junior officer led a party of African 'water boys', usually of the Ijaw tribe, on a waterway clearing operation. The party negotiated the rivers by native canoes for a distance inland of about two hundred miles and en route cleared the channels of fallen trees by using axes and machettes and, where the snags were submerged, by gelignite explosive. For this explosive work the officer was awarded the colossal sum of two shillings a day! The operation took from five to six months and it occurred simultaneously in each Division.

When the French Government collapsed in 1940 and a collaborationist government was set-up in the town of Vichy under the control of Marshal Petain, the underground resistance movement under the direction of General de Gaulle endeavoured to save the French colonies. One such colony was the French Cameroons adjacent to the British Cameroons which, by the way, was a province of Nigeria, under British mandate by the League of Nations. Before the 1914-18 war this mandated territory was a German colony. The Nigerian Marine assisted the de Gaulle movement by sending in a volunteer Senior Marine Officer in charge of a trained African raiding party to seize power in the capital town of Douala. He was dressed like a commando with a black face and camouflaged clothing and I think he used burnt cork to give himself a black face. However, he proceeded with his party through the creeks at night and accomplished a successful raid by taking the key positions by surprise. The intended raid was a very closely kept secret at the time. Once in control of all strategical establishments he was able to prevent the population 'going Vichy' on the side of Germany — the enemy. For this daring and successful exploit the Senior Marine Officer was awarded the Order of the British Empire. You can read an account of this operation by Ronald Bird entitled: Cutting out Expedition to Fernando Po


The Nigerian Marine's War Effort
Robert Hughes Dredger
Another event, but with a sad ending, was the sinking of the Nigerian Marine's biggest and most up-to-date mobile sand suction dredger which dredged the main channel and carried its own spoil. It was the ROBERT HUGHES, named after a former Director of Marine, Captain Robert Hughes, R.D., R.N.R. As usual, the minesweepers left Lagos harbour at daybreak and swept the westerly approach channel. The Oropesa sweeps did not reveal any moored mines and the sweeping vessels plugged along on their slow journey westward. After about five miles the usual sweeping monotony set in; any reader who has experienced minesweeping will appreciate my meaning. With the approach channel declared 'clear of mines' the dredger ROBERT HUGHES proceeded outwards with a 4,000 tons load of sand spoil. She reached the entrance at the end of the West Mole when she blew apart and sank, thus blocking the main channel of Lagos harbour — shipping could neither enter nor leave the port. Consequently the port of Lagos was closed until the divers from the dockyard could remove the wreckage with explosives. The commanding officer and some of the ratings in the vicinity of the bridge of the dredger were killed instantly. The theory advanced at the enquiry was that a German submarine based on the 'neutral' Spanish colony of Fernando Po had observed our sweepers in operation and then moved in to deposit its magnetic mine, or mines, near the entrance to the harbour. As previously mentioned, Lagos is situated at the mouth of the Ogun River and therefore receives all the silt washed outwards by that river; therefore, it can well be understood what a loss this dredger was to the port of Lagos.

Another sad event was the explosion of three naval trawlers whilst handling explosives alongside the dockyard wharf preparatory to refitting. For some reason, not definitely known, the sweepers blew-up and wrecked the dockyard and workshops and smashed windows in the Lagos Secretariat and nearby buildings which were almost a mile away across the harbour. I do not know how many ratings were killed because I was away from Lagos at the time. The unanimous theory was that a leakage from the pipeline of an oil-tanker discharging at the oil wharf had drifted downstream on the ebb tide and surrounded the sweepers. Then, by some mysterious means, it became ignited and the explosion followed. From a materialistic point of view it could be regarded as a blessing in disguise because in consequence the dockyard was rapidly rebuilt under emergency conditions with up-to-date workshops and machinery and concrete administrative buildings. Without that disaster the Nigerian Marine would have plodded along with the old out-of-date equipment ad infinitum.


To switch from a tragic to an amusing diversion I must give an account of the disposal of unwanted produce at Calabar. It was explained to me by local acquaintances that in order to prevent the French Cameroons 'going Vichy' the Nigerian Government decided to buy her produce. In this connection and for reasons unknown to me, part of the cocoa harvest was unwanted; it was either surplus to our requirements or it did not reach the grade required by our Chamber of Commerce. However, at the request of the Resident, who was the senior political officer, the D.Mar.O. arranged for a big lighter load of bags of cocoa beans to be towed twenty six miles down river to Tom Shot Bank buoy, which was the safety limit for inland waters open-cockpit launches. There it was dumped on an ebb tide. It could not be taken out to sea because no sea-going craft were available. However, in due course the lighter was returned to Calabar but that was not the end of the story. Several flood tides later the cocoa beans, which were floating on the surface, were retrieved by a host of canoe fishermen and sold in the market in Calabar, probably with the belief that they would eventually be bought by the European agents for shipment overseas!

The Nigerian Marine's War Effort
Apapa Port
During the war the Forcados Bar was gradually silting-up. At the same time reports were coming in to headquarters at Lagos that the Escravos Bar was scouring. Since this entrance would be a good alternative to Forcados Bar which gave shipping access to the river ports of Burutu, Warri, Sapele and Forcados, the Hydrographic Officer at Lagos decided upon an exploratory survey of the bar and its approaches. It was at the end of the Dry Season and the weather was beginning to deteriorate with an accompanying South-west swell which of course was unfavourable for a bar survey. The Hydrographic Officer, anxious to complete the job before a break in the weather, decided to carry on sounding after sundown and well into the night — The eight hour day was a dream of the past — So he arranged for kerosene pressure lamps to be exhibited at his beacons and leading marks along the shore line and these were attended by African ratings whose job it was to keep the pressure lamps pumped as required. The lights enabled him to take horizontal sextant angles simultaneously with the soundings from the launch. The buoyage vessel used for surveying was kept within the five fathom line and was therefore comparatively safe from submarine attack. Submarines would not surface because of the presence of patrol craft. Some of the H.O.'s shipmates aboard the buoyage vessel DAYSPRING may have had the idea that perhaps he was creating an impression with the object of ingratiating himself with the head of his department — The Director! Albeit, he got the job done satisfactorily and the Escravos Bar was officially opened to British and allied shipping.

On one occasion during the month of October 1942 when small craft were in demand and were being commandeered for our Naval Service it was necessary for the D.Mar.O. at Forcados to proceed eighty miles by motor launch to the river port of Sapele to inspect a small vessel. During his absence an urgent coded message was received at Forcados and duly decoded by his wife. It is imperative to add at this juncture that the officer's wife had been working at the British Admiralty in London prior to joining her husband in Nigeria and that she was au-fait with the Naval coding system and the working of Naval Intelligence, therefore she was authorised, under the Official Secrets Act, to perform this work voluntarily. However, to continue the story, the coded message was to the effect that a convoy coming up from the South was twelve hours ahead of its original E.T.A. and in consequence all shipping from the Niger Delta ports had to assemble at Forcados in time to receive amended orders and to cross the tidal sand bar on a flood tide and so merge with the convoy coming up from the South. The reader will understand that it would be dangerous to remain hove-to in the vicinity of the Fairway Buoy awaiting the arrival of the convoy. Timing was of the essence, in legal parlance, when arranging for ships from Warri, Sapele and Burutu to arrive at the focal point at Forcados in time for crossing the bar. The prospect of M.L.'s arriving from Lagos was no guarantee of safety against a submarine's torpedoes. Mrs. D.Mar.O. (I will call her this for convenience) with her initiative and ability handled the situation admirably: She contacted local shipping agents by a previously arranged code and accordingly advanced the departure of all shipping in time to meet the convoy. For this effort she was commended by the Director of Marine, the Resident Naval officer at Lagos (Captain R.N.) and on his recommendation, the Flag Officer Commanding West Africa — This Admiral was responsible for the safety of all merchant shipping operating off the West Coast of Africa.

The Nigerian Marine's War Effort
Another incident occurred in November 1943 when the merchant ship NORTHLEIGH with a valuable cargo of wolfram and tungsten was ready for departure from Calabar. As already mentioned, pilotage was not compulsory at this port but because the NORTHLEIGH of 7,000 tons was a stranger to the West Coast of Africa her Master requested a pilot. In such circumstances the harbour master who incidentally was the D.Mar.O. came to the rescue. The pilotage distance down the Calabar river to Tom Shot Bank buoy is twenty six miles and since ocean vessels by virtue of their draught can only negotiate the flats at or near high water the pilotage was performed in two movements. However, NORTHLEIGH cast off and proceeded twelve miles down stream to Parrot Island anchorage to await the following flood tide. Approximately twelve hours later when heaving-up to proceed a coasting vessel was seen approaching with flags flying and whistle blowing frantically to attract attention of the NORTHLEIGH. The coaster proved to be the M.V. AA COWAN of the United Africa Company and when she was within hailing distance her Master bellowed through his megaphone: "Your wife says you can't go" — " I repeat, Your wife says you can't go!" So the order to weigh anchor was delayed and the cable run out again to three shackles in the water. The reason for this frantic hold-up was that after the NORTHLEIGH had left Calabar an 'immediate' message was received and decoded by Mrs. D.Mar.O. (The same lady who took the emergency action at Forcados in October 1942). The message was from the R.N.O., Lagos, ordering the suspension of all shipping on account of enemy submarines being active off the estuaries of Calabar, Port Harcourt and Forcados. The lady already mentioned contacted the shipping agent and stated that she would assume responsibility if he would despatch his coasting vessel M.V. AA COWAN to Parrot Island with an urgent request to stop the ship proceeding to Tom Shot buoy. He was aware that her husband was piloting the ship. It had long been the practice of the D.Mar.O. to keep his wife informed in advance of his intended river movements when piloting ships. The D.Mar.O.'s fast motor launch was already on its way to Tom Shot for the pilot's return journey and the other official launches were away on the official duties. The final result was that NORTHLEIGH remained at anchor at Parrot Island for one week and the Master's most earnest request was for cigarettes and fresh water. This was complied with by the agent at Calabar. NORTHLEIGH eventually proceeded and joined a northbound convoy in safety. For this prompt action Mrs. D.Mar.O. was again commended by the Flag Officer, West Africa.

When this lady's husband retired from H.M. Colonial Service at the end of 1949 they followed their son to Australia where she resumed her nursing profession as a Ward Sister in a Government hospital where she retired before enjoying the sunshine of Western Australia.


The Nigerian Marine's War Effort
Aubrey Dennis
Captain Dennis was an apprentice in the Admiralty Transport BEETHOVEN at Gallipoli in 1915 and went on to serve as a midshipman RNR from 1917 to 1919 during which time he served in Coastal Motor Boats of the Dover Patrol (1918) and in the Caspian (1919). After further Merchant Navy Service he joined the Nigerian Marine in 1927 holding various commands of that Service's navaids and hydrographic Fleet. In 1943 he was appointed Harbour Master of the port of Calabar and later Assistant Director of Marine, Lagos (Apapa).

The Lightship

She tugs at her chains with sullen urge,
Twisted around by a strong seas surge,
Stout and squat with her powerful mast,
Topped by a lantern that's shiny and vast.
Not for her the long China run,
Or steam to war with a twelve-inch gun,
No cargo of spice, or silk, or fur,
She lights dark reef where wrecks occur.

The Nigerian Marine's War Effort
The Lightship
No need for her crew to check foreign charts,
No reaching fresh ports in far distant parts,
No voyage to oceans where albatross fly,
Or breaking thin ice where blue whales die,
No turbines to drive her to some cruel fate,
No hard drinking skipper, no buckaroo mate,
She's stuck to her chain, and trusts to her luck,
She lights the rocks that others have struck.

She's hard on her crew who never sail,
But serve the sea in a self made jail,
Chipping and painting and tending her light,
For the safety of shipping it has to shine bright,
Month on, month off, is their grinding shift,
To serve on a vessel that does but drift,
Round and round on her endless trip,
Till storm comes to show she's a rough weather ship.

It's then that her crew pay out more chain,
For it's started to blow and gusting with rain,
The glass is low and on comes fierce gale,
As she heaves and strains and rolls to her rail,
She can't dodge or run for shelter in lee,
She's anchored out there to face the wild sea,
A bitter wind howls in a frenzy of rage,
And breakers foam white on a mad rampage,
Her old plates creaking, she clings to her chain,
This sea won't break her, it strives in vain,
She keeps flashing warnings from her swaying mast,
And Big ships salute her as they sail safely past.

Owen D. Jones

British Colony Map
1961 Map of Coastal Nigeria
Colony Profiles
Trinity House
This article was also published in Flash in 1983


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