We don’t tend to think of Algeria as an area of British influence, so it may come as something of a surprise to find out that our forces have been in action here many times. In the early centuries this mainly had to do with Algerian pirates. Britain, of course, has a long history of producing pre-eminent pirates and privateers, but we do tend to object when others play the game too well. The so-called Barbary Corsairs played it exceptionally well. They didn’t even just attack targets in the Mediterranean; they attacked ships and raided coastal areas as far north as Britain itself. All in all we didn’t like Barbary Corsairs. And some of the most successful North African pirates worked from the area around Algiers.
We tried to deal with the problem with a mixture of diplomacy and rather less subtle violence. By the 1630s we had partially effective treaties in force, but then things got messy and a treaty signed in 1671 broke down into open warfare. Defeats by British naval forces under Arthur Herbert forced Algiers to sign another treaty in 1682. It’s worth pointing out at this stage, that even though we do have quite a record of attacking places around the world, it wasn’t just us having trouble with Algiers. Frankly, the city seems to have been a rather unsafe place to live at the time and you have to wonder what happened to the house prices. The French bombarded Algiers on a number of occasions, including in 1682, 1683 and 1688. So did the Spanish on a number of occasions, including in 1783 and 1784. In 1770, the Danish-Norwegian fleet had a go. Even the Americans, rather far from home, got in on the act by sending ships to Algiers in 1815.
We tend to think of military interventions on humanitarian grounds as a modern invention, but in 1816 we carried out what can, in some sense, be seen in these terms. It was our turn to bombard Algiers. With Napoleon finally defeated, we decided that it was time to do something (yet again) about the slave industry in North Africa. Admittedly, in this instance Britain was mainly concerned with preventing Europeans and Christians being enslaved, but it was perhaps better than nothing.
So Lord Exmouth set off for the North African coast to persuade the locals to stop their bad habits. And he took a small squadron of naval ships with him to make his arguments even more convincing. Indeed, the Deys of Tripoli and Tunis found Exmouth’s arguments, or at least the sight of the British Navy, thoroughly convincing and agreed to do as demanded by Exmouth. However, things proved a little more difficult in Algiers. Exmouth thought he’d succeeded only for events to end with a massacre of European fishermen we thought we were protecting.
Not surprisingly, people in Britain weren’t exactly happy about how it had all worked out, so Exmouth was sent back to drop a few less subtle hints on the Dey of Algiers, along with the threat of some even less subtle cannon fire. For his mission, Exmouth took along assorted ships of the line, frigates and various other vessels. In Gibraltar, a Dutch squadron also joined the mission. Just as today, the safety of diplomats could be a problem in such situations, and the day before the attack a party from the frigate Prometheus tried to rescue the British consul and his wife, only to be captured. Not a huge success.
When the fleet was finally in position for the bombardment, an Algerian gun started the battle and a flotilla of small Algerian boats full of men tried to reach the British ships and board them. Neither Algerian guns nor the boarding parties achieved much and, instead, Exmouth fired at both ships in the harbour and the Dey’s military installations before withdrawing and demanding the Dey fulfil his demands about slaves and slavery. The Dey now finally complied.
In 1825, however, we ended up bombarding Algiers again. In some ways it’s surprising that people chose to remain living in Algiers, particularly since, in 1830, the French bombarded it yet again. Oh, and then invaded it as well. Which meant that the next time we returned to the area, it wasn’t the Barbary Consairs we were bombarding any more. Mers-El-Kebir is situated in western Algeria, near Oran. In July 1940, a large number of French warships were concentrated here and Britain feared that because of the Vichy government’s relations with Nazi Germany, these ships could at some stage be used against us. So we shelled them.
In 1942 we were headed back to Algiers yet again, this time for Operation Torch. This operation involved landings in Vichy-controlled Morocco and Algeria, and a lot of the forces involved were American, but British forces also played major roles. The Eastern Task Force aimed at Algiers was commanded by British Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson and included troops from the British 78th Infantry Division and two commando units, No. 1 and No. 6 Commando.
French Resistance forces staged a coup in Algiers, and when the Allied troops arrived they met little local resistance from Vichy forces. The heaviest fighting took place in the port of Algiers where HMS Malcolm and HMS Broke launched Operation Terminal to try to prevent Vichy forces destroying the port facilities. Both ships came under heavy artillery fire in the port and were badly damaged, but HMS Broke managed to land the American troops it was carrying, before withdrawing. HMS Broke was, it turned out tragically, indeed broken, and eventually sank from the damage it received in the operation. The American troops who had landed were eventually forced to surrender, but, at least, the port was not totally destroyed.