vi NAVY NEWS, JANUARY 2010
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alongside, planks are run up and the men rush aboard,” one staff officer noted. “They leave behind all their material, but we don’t want to find these men up against us later on, freshly equipped.”
out the Allied armies at Dunkirk, the admirals of the Kriegsmarine baulked at the idea of attempting to stop an evacuation. The German Navy had been mauled in Norway. Half its Fleet had been wiped out or knocked out. Though it could not stop the transport of men from the continent, it could at least harry enemy shipping.
It had wasted no time after the fall of the Netherlands in moving its motor torpedo boats – Schnellboote to Germans (fast boats), E-boats (E for Enemy) in RN parlance – from Borkum in the Frisian Islands to Den Helder, two hours closer to Dunkirk. After a week’s patrolling off the French port, the E-boats were beginning to understand the mechanics of the British evacuation. They knew the ships turned for home at the Kwinte Buoy, 18 miles off Nieuport. And there they waited.
HMS Wakeful had already carried 631 troops safely home on her first run to Dunkirk on the 27th. Late on the 28th, 640 soldiers were ferried aboard the veteran destroyer off the Bray Dunes, half a dozen miles east of Dunkirk. By 12.30am on the 29th, Wakeful was making for England once more at 20kts, racing past the buoy.
of Wilhelm Zimmermann’s S30. She did, however, see two silver streaks racing through the Channel, 30 yards apart: torpedoes. Wakeful’s captain, Ralph Fisher, took evasive action. One torpedo raced past his bow. But not the other. It struck the 23-year-old destroyer in her forward boiler room. Wakeful broke in two, sinking in no more than 20 seconds. So shallow was the Channel here that the bow and stern rose 60ft out of the water. The gun crews floated clear. So too Ralph Fisher and a few sailors who’d been aft. The soldiers, sleeping below decks, died to a man – except for one trooper who’d been grabbing a cigarette.
For more than an hour, Wakeful’s survivors clung to the wreck or to debris. Under the light of an Aldis lamp, Lt Cdr Rodolph Haig on the bridge of minesweeper HMS Lydd
She never saw the low, sleek lines
hile the upper echelons of the Luftwaffe had relished the prospects of wiping
NAVY NEWS, DUNKIRK 70th ANNIVERSARY SUPPLEMENT JUNE 2010
could make out the bow and stern of a ship protruding from the Channel with men hanging on to them. Lydd lowered her boats and sent Carley floats across.
The minesweeper recovered perhaps ten men before destroyer HMS Grafton arrived on the scene to take over the rescue mission. She ordered Lydd to circle the area; there were rumours of a U-boat.
The rumours were true. Kapitänleutnant (Lt Cdr) Hans- Bernhard Michalowski was observing events at the Kwinte Buoy and awaiting his moment. Two hours after Wakeful had been sunk, Grafton was shaken by a tremendous explosion aft which simply carried her stern away. Such was the force of the blast that a drifter by her side, the Comfort, was lifted out of the water. When she crashed back down, the Channel swept over her. The waves carried away many of her crew, and one Ralph Fisher – rescued from the sunken Wakeful.
For the next half hour a terrible tragicomedy was played out in the Channel. The Comfort circled the stricken Grafton and wreck of Wakeful, but was mistaken for an E-boat; Grafton and Lydd opened fire, raking her with fire from machine- guns and 4in armament. When the firing stopped, the ill-starred Fisher struggled aboard. He was safe for a matter of minutes. HMS Lydd was still convinced she was dealing with an E-boat and rammed the drifter at full speed, cutting her in half. Only five men survived, four of them Wakeful crew. They included Cdr Fisher, thrown into the Channel for the third time this night. He trod water and swam for two more hours until he was picked up by a Norwegian steamer.
As for HMS Grafton, her wreck stayed afloat long enough for most of the men aboard to be transferred to other ships. At first light, the guns of HMS Ivanhoe dispatched the hulk. Thereafter, no more ships would stop to pick up survivors of stricken vessels off Dunkirk. And Black Wednesday was only just beginning.
itler weather deserted the Germans for most of Wednesday May 29. It was gone 3pm before the first bombers appeared over Dunkirk – overcast skies and a ceiling of just 300ft had all but ruled out Luftwaffe activity until then. Wolfram von Richthofen promised to commit all his forces against Dunkirk this day. One of the high priests of Blitzkrieg, Richthofen was a distant relative of the Red Baron and a Great War fighter ace in his own right. In the post-war world he had entered industry before joining the secret German Air Force when Hitler came to power. In Spain, he had commanded the Legion Condor – the Luftwaffe ‘volunteers’ who helped
Franco and laid waste to Guernica. His reward in Poland and France was command of Fliegerkorps VIII – 8th Air Corps – four squadrons of bombers, dive-bombers and fighters which were experts in close support of the Army. It was Richthofen’s corps which smashed the French defences on the Meuse at Sedan, then paved the way to the Atlantic, before turning on the Channel ports. All these actions were meticulously recorded in a voluminous personal diary by von Richthofen, a diary which reveals the airman to never be wrong. In his own mind, Wolfram von Richthofen was a man without flaws. He certainly was a man without pity.
“The English are trying to escape from Dunkirk in small craft and rowing boats,” he sneered. “The units are performing outstandingly and really going for it.”
The onslaught began at 3.30pm.
A dozen bombers pounded the port with at least two dozen bombs, crippling the trawler Polly Johnson and damaging another fishing vessel, the Mistral.
The next wave of attacks crippled the destroyer HMS Jaguar which eventually limped back to Dover. Not so the passenger ship Clan Macalister, which had spent the day loading troops by boat from the beaches at La Panne. Crippled by bombs, she began to settle with the Channel lapping her upper decks. She burned for several days. The paddle minesweeper Gracie Fields circled helplessly after being struck by a bomb; most of the 750 men aboard were rescued before the vessel sank in the small hours. The litany of damaged or sunken ships continued. HMS Greyhound was straddled by two very near misses and only made it back to Dover with 500 soldiers aboard after being towed for most of the way. A bomb blew a 6ft diameter hole in the hull of the minesweeper Waverley. She sank rapidly, taking 150 or so troops down with her. Nearly 2,000 men squeezed aboard the cross-Channel ferry Canterbury which struggled back to England after being severely shaken by a near-miss, while fires raged on HMS Intrepid.
Just before 6pm, a third wave of German bombers struck at Dunkirk. “The earth beneath us seems to start breathing fire,” one of Richthofen’s Stuka pilots wrote.
While we struggle in the wisps of cloud and the smoke of the burning port not to lose the man in front, the red tracer of the light flak with its clouds caused by heavy shells exploding forms an almost impenetrable, glowing web which we now slink through, one aircraft behind the other, careful to avoid the streaks of iron. But then the aircraft receives a brief jerk. A hit? I check the engine using the
instruments. I test the rudder with the joystick; everything’s perfect! The radio operator taps me on the shoulder and shows me the left side where shrapnel has torn a hole about the size of a hand. That’s harmless, so onwards!
Below the pilot spied “a sizeable freighter” at the quay. “The few handles are moved in a flash, automatically,” he wrote. “Now push the stick forward! The aircraft turns upside down and I dive down towards the target.” It wasn’t just the accuracy of the Stuka which terrified the enemy, or the sight of it bearing down at an angle of 60-90˚, at speeds in excess of 350mph. It was the sound of the Stuka which gnawed at the nerves, a howl – impossible to describe and difficult to withstand – emanating from small propellers, dubbed the trumpets of Jericho. They had no function, other than to whine as the aircraft dived. The combined effect was terrifying, as one steamer captain recalled:
They came in formations of four; there were at least 12 of them. In each case they swooped low – the two outside planes machine-gunned, the two inner [ones] each dropping bombs, none of which scored a hit. The second formation of four passed over us, flying very low. The shots from their machine-guns dropped like hail all round the bridge and funnels and in the water ahead.
One bomb struck the ship abaft the engine room on the starboard side, and another on the poop deck starboard side. Immediately the third four swooped over us and one of their bombs dropped down the after funnel while the others dropped on the stern. All these bombs had caused extensive damage and the ship was gradually sinking by the stern and heeling over to starboard. I therefore gave orders to abandon ship.
Aside from the bombs, the harbour was constantly shaken by exploding ammunition as engineers detonated the BEF’s supplies in the stores around the harbour, while acrid black smoke rolled over the port from the oil depot similarly torched by British sappers. Put simply, Dunkirk was was “one hellish orgy” one Stuka crewman wrote.
The town has been turned into a burning, smoking sea of ruins by air attacks and concentrated shelling from our artillery. Tall, ravenous columns of fire lick out of the warehouses in the harbour, empty lock basins, burning and exploding oil and gas tanks! Stukas roaring towards the
ground in their dives! Bomb loads hurtle downwards, ruin and destruction! Our gaze dreamily drifts towards the sea! Lying motionless on the water, burning and burned-out wrecks, here and there the outline of sunken ships and sterns sticking out of the water. And there: zig- zagging, trailing a huge wake behind them, ships of all shapes and sizes. Bombs amidships! Explosion! One ship disappears beneath the water!
The skies above Dunkirk did not belong entirely to the Luftwaffe – bad luck ensured that the raids seemed to occur between patrols by Hurricanes and Spitfires. When British fighters did appear over the port, the bombers were gone – but not German interceptors; three RAF squadrons were ‘bounced’ by Me109s. The Fleet Air Arm made no attempt to engage enemy aircraft, but it did try to shield the evacuation fleet from German motor torpedo boats and submarines. Swordfish pilot Charles Lamb was sent aloft by day and night in his ‘stringbag’. He watched “every possible type of aircraft which could be used as fighters fling themselves at the German bombers”, such as Boulton Paul Defiants – a cumbersome fighter with a rear- firing turret – which engaged bombers escorted by far more agile Messerschmitt Me109s and more potent Me110s; the Defiants claimed 40 enemy aircraft downed in a single day (German figures suggest the number was nearer 15). With such a tangled mess of aircraft overhead, it was hardly surprising that sailors regarded everything in the skies above Dunkirk as a threat. Spitfire, Hurricane, Stuka, Messerschmitt – the anti-aircraft gunners opened up on all of them. Aboard his flagship HMS Keith
Rear Admiral William Wake-Walker repeatedly hoisted the No.6 flag – “cease fire” – and sounded his horn in an attempt to prevent ships shooting down their RAF comrades. It was often to no avail, for the men rarely saw the flag, let alone notice the ship’s horn. “Once they started firing, they could hear nothing.”
The third wave of German bombers on May 29 did for the trawler Calvi and the steamer Fenella. Two bombs knocked out the engine room of HMS Grenade and set her ablaze. Her sailors abandoned her for the paddle steamer Crested Eagle, while Grenade drifted across the harbour, spreading the fires. She was eventually towed out of the docks and blew up. As for the wooden Crested Eagle, she made her way out of Dunkirk only to be struck by four bombs. She burned like a torch. Eyewitnesses watched “men
on fire from head to toe, dancing like dervishes, their faces contorted, leaping screaming into the sea.” The sea offered no salvation, for the German aircraft machine-gunned the survivors in the water. And still the Luftwaffe was not finished. HMS Saladin was attacked ten times. She made it home, but took no further part in the evacuation. A near-miss detonated a depth charge aboard the sloop HMS Bideford, blowing her stern away. She remained at her post. Under tow, she carried more than 400 troops back to Britain.
In all two dozen vessels – warships and merchantmen – were sunk this day, another dozen were badly damaged.
It was all ideal fodder for the Nazi propaganda machine. The German military communiqué talked of an enemy army “going to its destruction”. Joseph Goebbels gloated over “a wild rout”, while Hermann Göring scoffed: “Let’s hope the Tommies are good swimmers.” Even the Chief of the General Staff, Franz Halder, a conservative man not prone to rash outbursts of emotion, was delighted that the British were “trying to get across the sea on anything that floats”. It reminded him of Émile Zola’s novel of the Franco-Prussian
war, La Débâcle.
Except that Goebbels, Göring and Halder were misinformed. The evacuation had been in full swing for four entire days when the penny dropped. The British were not dying, they were not drowning, they were not surrendering. They were escaping. Black though ‘Black Wednesday’ was, more than 47,000 men had been transported to England – 70,000 in total since Dynamo began. The numbers were beyond Admiralty expectations, but there was only so much that could be demanded of the men. “Everyone is stretched to the limit, doing magnificently, but flesh and blood can’t stand it much longer,” Bertram Ramsay wrote to his wife. “Officers and men cannot continue at this pace.”
And yet they could. Somehow. The evacuation reached its high point on Thursday (May 30) and Friday (May 31) with 53,823 and 68,014 men rescued respectively.
irst light on the 30th revealed destroyers, sloops and skoots – Dutch barges – off the beaches
at Bray, with launches and rowing boats ferrying men from shore to ship. The wreck of HMS Bideford had been carried ashore. The Crested Eagle was beached and burned out. The sands were littered with grounded boats, some holed, some without oars.
Thursday was the zenith of the evacuation from the beaches. It was
“Fighting in the dunes, in dee
● German troops take up position in the dunes at Bray, east of Dunkirk
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