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NAVY NEWS, DUNKIRK 70th ANNIVERSARY SUPPLEMENT JUNE 2010

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● ‘We have lost the battle...’ Troops and refugees stream back towards Dunkirk

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● ‘Red fl ames lick various places...’ Calais burns

Paul Reynauld was inconsolable. “We have been defeated,” he told Britain’s newly-installed prime minister, Winston Churchill. “We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” Fast Heinz was determined that the foe remained beaten. Klotzen, nicht Kleckern! – Bash ’em, don’t tickle ’em! – was his motto. Guderian ignored or exceeded orders to push his panzers westwards. The goal was the sea, cutting off Allied forces in northern France and Belgium from their comrades in southern France – the cut of the sickle. By dawn on Tuesday May 21, the cut was complete. North and South were severed.

For ten days, the Royal Navy had largely remained aloof from this battle – understandably. Land was not its domain. It had brought Queen Wilhelmina safely to Britain in the face of the German invasion of the Netherlands. Otherwise its role had largely been passive. The Admiralty kept more than an interested eye on proceedings across the Channel, of course, but information was sketchy, out of date, or just plain wrong. When generals and admirals met in Whitehall to discuss the growing crisis in northern France, including the “hazardous evacuation of very large forces”, they dismissed the idea as “unlikely”. The next day German forces reached the Channel.

Perhaps they considered it unlikely because they still believed the setbacks in France were temporary. On May 21, British armour rolled southwards, determined to slice through the German corridor to the sea and re-establish contact with Allied troops south of the Somme. The British tanks ran headlong into German panzers west of Arras, 7 Panzer Division to be precise – the ‘Ghost Division’ – led by one Erwin Rommel. They gave Rommel a severely bloody nose and drove him back a good half dozen miles, but in the end they were halted. Unlike the Ardennes, the German corridor to the sea was impenetrable. The Battle of Arras had lasted only one day, but its consequences reverberate down the decades. The attack unnerved Germany’s High Command. Britain’s military leaders began to look increasingly at evacuating its men from the continent.

● ‘Every hour that you hold out is of inestimable value to the Expeditionary Corps...’ The aftermath of the brief but bitter defence of Calais

For the armour

of XIX Panzer

Corps, Tuesday May 21 had been a wasted day. The panzers sat by the sea and waited for orders. Their commanders dithered. In which direction should they send their tanks: north or south? Finally, they chose north. 2 Panzer Division would seize Boulogne, 1 and 10 Panzer Divisions Calais. In doing so, the panzers would “deprive the enemy – especially the English [sic] Expeditionary Corps – of his escape routes to England,” Heinz Guderian noted in his diary. In doing so, “all the enemy’s equipment and hundreds of thousands of men” would fall into German hands.

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cross the Channel, the Admiralty was stirring. It began rounding up shipping – warships and civilian vessels – with the aim of evacuating the Continent. It gave this mustering of craft a codename: Dynamo. It fell upon the Vice Admiral Dover to enact Dynamo, one Bertram Ramsay. Ramsay was a great admiral. Not a great admiral in the Nelsonian sense, or even the Cunningham sense. Bertram Ramsay was a great admiral because he was the Navy’s greatest organiser, a man with an ability to plan like no other. That ability was thanks not least to Ramsay’s willingness to delegate – unlike some of the stuffier gold braid inhabiting the Admiralty in the 1930s. The clash between modern thinking and the old school led to Ramsay resigning from the Navy. Come wartime, he was re-employed, charged with directing operations in Dover.

And there in the third week of May 1940, Bertram Ramsay was finding the physical and mental burden of war increasingly intolerable. Plans and orders would be obsolete almost as soon as they had been drafted, overtaken by events across the Channel. There was little, if any, sleep for the admiral and his staff.

“The situation becomes more and more difficult from hour to hour,” Ramsay confided in his wife. “Things are so desperately serious.” The admiral had seen war before: he’d commanded a destroyer on the Dover patrol a generation earlier and taken part in the Ostend Raid. He knew what he was asking of his sailors – and it troubled him. “It’s hateful having to order ships to do things and go places where one knows they are going to get bombed to blazes and to send troops into what I know to be an inferno.”

That inferno on May 23 was Boulogne.

It was mid-afternoon by the time destroyer HMS Keith arrived off the Channel port – already invested by German forces. The Napoleonic bastion of Fort de la Crèche, a couple of miles north of Boulogne, was held by the enemy, who quickly trained its guns on the port. In turn, French and British warships trained their guns on the town’s airfield, occupied by the Germans.

Scenes in the port were no less chaotic. French civilians vied with the men of the Irish Guards for space in the awaiting destroyers. Cars packed with all wordly goods were toppled into the harbour. Many of the soldiers were drunk. Little consideration was shown for the wounded, lying on stretchers on the jetty. People simply trampled over them. On the bridge, Keith’s navigator

Lt Graham Lumsden watched 30 Stukas “in a single line” bear down on his ship and HMS Vimy astern. A few men on the quayside aimed their rifles skywards, the warships’ pom- poms pounded away, but otherwise there was little standing in the way of the bombers.

“All hell erupted as their bombs exploded on the jetty hurling large chunks of timber and concrete over the gun decks,” recalled 19-year- old anti-aircraft gunner AB Iain Nethercott.

Near the harbour entrance, Lt Sam Lombard-Hobson aboard HMS Whitshed was transfixed by the sight of this “superbly co-ordinated” dive- bomber attack. Some of the bombs plunged into the harbour, showering Whitshed with mud and water. A piece of shrapnel cut the wire to the fog horn. It “wailed continuously,” Lombard-Hobson recalled, “and must have sounded to others like the final death throe.”

The Stukas were not the only instruments at this hellish concert. From warehouses, hotels and houses overlooking the harbour, German troops directed small arms and mortar fire. The bridges of Vimy and Keith were swept by fire. Keith’s commander, Capt Simson, was shot in the chest and killed instantly. His

counterpart on Vimy, Lt Cdr Donald, was fatally wounded by snipers. After several minutes gunning furiously – and possibly indiscriminately – at shore targets, Iain Nethercott’s gun suddenly swung off target. He looked across and saw that something had taken the head clean off his shipmate, the gunlayer.

“He was just lying in the harness, spouting blood everywhere,” Nethercott remembered. There was no time to mourn. A shipmate took the gunlayer’s place, resting the corpse against a locker, sand was thrown over the deck to dry the blood, and the gunnery resumed. It was time for Keith and Vimy to leave Boulogne. They did so reversing out of the harbour at full speed, before turning for England. As Vimy did so, the dive-bombers appeared again. Fortunately for the Britons, they concentrated on four French patrol ships bombarding the port. One, the torpedo boat Orage, was hit by four bombs in quick succession. She “disappeared in a gigantic mushroom of flame and smoke”.

Until now, Whitshed had remained

offshore. Her captain, Cdr Edward ‘Crazy’ Conder, was not as rash as his nickname suggested. He had

observed Vimy and Keith’s narrow escapes alongside and refused to place his ship next to the quay until an air umbrella was provided. It arrived shortly before 7.30pm. Whitshed entered Boulogne, accompanied by HMS Vimiera. The panic and chaos Vimy and Keith found four hours earlier had been replaced by horror.

“There was rubble and masonry along the quay, like the aftermath of an earthquake,” wrote Lt Lombard- Hobson. “Dead and dying were lying about everywhere, and being trampled on by the milling crowd of military and civilians, many of whom were either dazed or drunk.” The two destroyers were in harbour less than an hour. As they withdrew, three more destroyers entered: Wild Swan, Venomous and Venetia. In the fading light, the warships were engaged by the armour of 2 Panzer Division. The German tanks thought nothing of grappling with the British warships. “You’ll be sorry, destroyer, soon you’ll encounter German panzers!” one tank commander wrote in a breathless propaganda account. He trained his gun at the bridge and turrets on the fo’c’sle at a range of under 1,500ft.

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