NAVY NEWS, DUNKIRK 70th ANNIVERSARY SUPPLEMENT JUNE 2010
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Something about the magnificent spectacle of those columns of ships, to-ing and fro-ing endlessly between Dunkirk and Dover or Ramsgate, so that from the air it looked as though it would be possible to use them as stepping stones and walk across the Channel, fired the imagination of all of us who had the experience of looking down from the air at history in the making. From above, the pattern of little ships, nose to stern – so close that it was difficult to see any water between them, and so small but so steadfast – were packed tightly together into parallel lines stretching right across the Channel and back.
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To most of the ‘little ships’ the first sight of Dunkirk was forbidding. The port “was under a pall of smoke,” wrote Grenadier Guardsman Lt Col R L Hutchins, in charge of the motor launch Swallow. “There were numerous wrecks outside the harbour and along the beaches.” The sands had vanished, replaced by a mass of men and abandoned vehicles. The foreshore was strewn with capsized, damaged and abandoned craft, while shells and bombs landed sporadically on the beach. To speed the evacuation from the beaches of Bray and La Panne, sappers had built makeshift piers from trucks and cars driven on to the sand, with decking lashed to the roofs.
Many soldiers improvised. They used the inner tubes from trucks as life belts, rifles served as paddles. Some men even struck out for England in a 12-man cutter. “I saw several boats capsize,” LS
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On May 30, the perimeter around Dunkirk ran for more than two dozen miles, as far as Nieuport. By June 1, the defenders had been squeezed into an area of perhaps 60 square miles as two German Armies – 6 Armee and 18 – determined to crush the Dunkirk pocket.
Ernest Eldred of HMS Harvester remembered. It was less a case of indiscipline as lack of seafaring knowledge. There were no sailors supervising the rowing boats, just soldiers anxious to escape. Boats intended for ten men carried perhaps 15. With just a couple of inches of freeboard, they were quickly swamped by the slightest of swells. La Panne, on the eastern edge of the Dunkirk pocket, was becoming increasingly dangerous.
Anxious to get away whilst fully- laden, HMS Icarus ran down a tug packed with troops, slicing it in half. The waters off the port and beaches were filled with corpses – almost all of them naked, and all of them covered in oil. “Perhaps they stripped before they swam for the ships, or maybe their clothes were ripped from their bodies by explosions.” The ebb tide carried the bodies out into the Channel; the flow deposited them back on the shore.
German artillery finally found the range of the beach at La Panne – helped by two observation balloons. Shells began to crash among troops resting. One hit an ammunition hut. “We were under constant fire,” the skipper of the motor boat Marsayru recalled. “The days and nights – it’s all a complete jumble in my mind.” A jumble indeed, for the Marsayru that only made one trip to Dunkirk.
The selflessness of the cockle fishermen particularly impressed Bertram Ramsay. The boats had rarely, if ever, left the confines of the Thames Estuary. None had gone beyond Ramsgate before.
“They were all volunteers who were rushed to Dunkirk in one day, probably none of them had been under gunfire before and certainly none of them under Naval discipline,” Ramsay wrote. A reservist naval officer shepherded the six boats to Dunkirk. Only five returned. The cockle boats ferried men from the Mole to larger vessels waiting offshore. In the small hours of June 1, the drifter Ben and Lucy was towing a line of lifeboats and cockle boats filled with soldiers out to sea. The darkness was lit by a flash, then a shower of wood crashed down on the column of boats. The crew of the Letitia pulled at the tow rope. It was severed. The Renown, astern of them, had been blown apart, taking her crew from Leigh-on-Sea with her.
The loss of the Renown was one of a myriad of horrors rescuers and rescued experienced at Dunkirk. The evacuation, remembered Chief Stoker Bill Stone, was “a living nightmare”. Stone had served in the Navy for more than two decades – but he had never experienced war before. One word appears repeatedly in his account of the evacuation: hell. Stone’s ship, HMS Salamander, made three trips to Dunkirk – “each time the experience was worse than before”.
Horrors abounded at Dunkirk. Many soldiers had ‘acquired’ dogs during the retreat to Dunkirk. There was no room for the canines on the ships. Redcaps on the quayside simply shot the animals and tossed their cadavers into the harbour.
When the French destroyer Bourrasque, mainly carrying 600 of its countrymen plus some North African troops, was mined panic ensued. So many people tried to enter the lifeboats that they sank. A Thames fire-fighting barge picked up some 40 survivors. “They were covered in oil, so when you pulled them out, they just slipped through your hands,” recalled fireman Richard Helyer. His colleague Francis Codd remembered the sea was filled with “screaming men and dead bodies”. Every space on the fire barge – even the heads and galley – was filled with Frenchmen. Sickbay attendant Bob Bloom saw a stoker in HMS Grenade whose ribs were sticking out of his chest after the destroyer was bombed. Bloom himself was hideously burned by a bomb which ignited the ship’s oil tanks; the skin hung off his hands, his lips swelled, his nose had all but vanished; only the septum was left. Aboard destroyer HMS Keith, AB Iain Nethercott saw men with “their face blown away, shoulders blown away, and bad stomach wounds”. Some men kicked out, others quietly bled to death. A not insignificant number died on the crossing. In Dover, army surgeons covered their faces with blanket. Their corpses were carried to a makeshift morgue established in the port’s new customs house.
Rhodes watched a Naval officer try to enforce order. “Go back to the place you’ve come from or I’ll shoot you,” he yelled at one soldier. Breakdowns in discipline weren’t confined to the ordinary ranks. Three Army officers rowed up to HMS Ross demanding to be rescued. The minesweeper’s commanding officer, Lt Kenneth Gadd, was having none of it. “Go back to the beaches and take charge of the men!” One of the officers protested. “But I’m a major,” he insisted. Gadd was unyielding. “Get back on the beaches. There are men wanting someone to command them!”
Staffordshires watched a French officer try to barge his way aboard a British destroyer. A young lieutenant on the bridge ordered the Frenchman to stop. He did not. He continued running up the gangway. The naval officer shot him dead.
L/Cpl John Wells of the South
And yet elsewhere, discipline was impeccable. Aboard the paddle steamer Medway Queen, S/Lt John Graves watched NCOs shouting encouragement, passing up and down “long lines of men, standing like human piers stretching out into the water – knee, waist and even neck high in it, standing so patiently there in full equipment”.
Several Scotsmen made their way aboard HMS Windsor. “Which part of France are you taking us to?” they asked. “We’re taking you back to Dover,”
They marched back down the gangway.
the concrete jetty and dozed. “What those 15 minutes did for me was quite incredible,” he recalled. Nor was there any let-up across the Channel. In Dover, Wrens commandeered a hotel to cater for the wounded being brought ashore. They drove cars from the port to hospital and back repeatedly. They made sandwiches, cups of cocoa, provided pillows. “Any job, every job was our job,” said the senior WRNS officer Nancy Currie. “Few of us had time to change our clothes, except for a wash. “We grudged the time when we had to eat, and hardly slept for more than an hour or two at a time. “I never once heard a Wren say that she was tired.” Nor too was their master. If Bertram Ramsay was close to breaking point, he did not show it to the sailors under his charge. Whatever the time of day, however exhausted, the admiral was “immaculately dressed, cheerful and fully alive”. Privately, however, the admiral’s letters to his wife betray his inner misgivings. “No-one can foresee what tomorrow will be like,” he wrote home. “Perhaps it’s as well.”
an officer called back. “Well, we’re not bloody well coming!”
None of which especially fits in with the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ or the idea of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. Nor is there room for un-British failures of morale. But they occurred. “They stole wine, alcohol, jewels, valuable items, clothes, everything, absolutely everything,” the mayor of Malo-les-Bains complained. “Military authority collapsed.” For some men the strain of three weeks of battle and retreat, compounded by waiting at Dunkirk and incessant Luftwaffe attacks became too much. They rushed into the sea wailing, screaming, and drowned. The coxswain of the Margate lifeboat Lord Southborough felt “we were doing more harm than good” waiting off the port. Soldiers saw the boats and swam for them. “Troops were rushing out to us from all directions.” In their heavy kit, many drowned. Troops threatened to swamp one small whaler. Her skipper drew his pistol and shot a soldier clinging to the stern. “There was such chaos on the beach that this didn’t seem to be out of keeping,” recalled Sgt Leonard Howard of the Royal Engineers. On the Mole, some men broke rank during a bombing raid and tried to force their way aboard the waiting ships rather than queue. Royal Engineer Capt
“The men’s spirits varied,” recalled Lt Bruce Junor. “Some straggled down in ones and twos, some marched on in good order. I expect it depended on what they had been through previously and what sort of officers they had.”
What was not in doubt was that every man was tired. Some suffered from shock and were shivering uncontrollably. Most fell asleep as soon as they got onboard – wherever they sat or lay down. It wasn’t unusual for exhausted Tommies to sleep through the entire crossing – and even sail back to Dunkirk again before awakening, oblivious to all the noise around them. “We were just scattered all over the ship – we just got into whatever room we could, wherever we could get laid down. It didn’t matter. We were just laid out flat,” remembered Robert Copeland, an NCO with the East Riding Yeomanry.
fter two days of poor weather, which hampered air activity on both sides, Saturday June 1 promised to be a fine day. The RAF flew eight patrols over Dunkirk this day, the Luftwaffe attacked constantly from first light – shortly before 4am – until early evening; German aircraft flew more than 1,000 sorties against Dunkirk on the first day of June. The Royal Navy would pay a terrible price during the gaps in fighter cover.
NAVY NEWS, JANUARY 2010
crew were lost with the vessel they believed was their saviour. Above decks, Maj Rupert Colvin of the Grenadier Guards made a rush for the side. “I took a deep breath, said a short prayer and thought this was the one end I least desired.” He survived clinging to the wreckage of another sunken steamer.
HMS Salamander had arrived off the beaches at Bray at first light. “I could see troops coming down to the beach, wading out to the ships – literally thousands of them,” wrote Bill Stone. “It was almost biblical.” After three hours of constant air attacks, the Salamander’s crew were physically and mentally exhausted. Their ship was spared, while just 50 yards away HMS Skipjack was struck by several bombs in quick succession. Bill Stone watched as she turned turtle, her upturned hull remaining above the waves briefly before vanishing. That was not the end of it, for the men who’d jumped overboard were strafed in the water. “There were floating corpses and parts of bodies everywhere,” Stone recalled. “I had to say ‘God help us’ to gather whatever mental fortitude I had left. I always find it helps to say that and I believe to this day that He did.” Stone’s ship was leading a charmed
The continuous hunt for E-boats and U-boats by the Fleet Air Arm – two squadrons of Swordfish and one squadron of Skua dive-bombers patrolled the skies – put an equal strain on air crew. “We snatched sleep whenever we could, while our aircraft were being refuelled and re-armed, stretched out on the grass in the warm summer air, using our parachutes as pillows,” recalled Charles Lamb, who lived on a diet of “corned beef sandwiches, innumerable cups of tea and the occasional gin”.
After 48 hours working non- stop, a colleague urged Lt Bruce Junor to grab 15 minutes’ sleep. The junior officer lay his cap on
The first such gap occurred shortly after 7.30am, as destroyer HMS Keith steamed off Bray. She was pounced on by a succession of dive-bombers. Out of anti-aircraft ammunition after four days of fighting at Dunkirk, the best defence she could offer was evasive action. It was not enough. After a near-miss restricted her steering, a bomb down her aft funnel inflicted the mortal blow. It exploded in No.2 boiler room, killing every man in it. It felt as if the entire ship was lifted out of the ocean. The lights went out, the electricity supply failed and there was the hiss of steam escaping. Two more bombs struck the dying destroyer, causing her to heel to port. There was no hope of saving her. Keith’s torpedoes were fired off and her depth charges rendered safe. The confidential log books were stuffed into a weighted bag and thrown into the water, followed by 130 of the ship’s company who had survived the bombing. The Channel offered little salvation. The bombs kept falling. And the Germans now strafed survivors in the water. It was impossible to dive to escape. The impact of each bullet in the water was like a punch “right in the stomach”, gunner Iain Nethercott recalled. He was picked up by a lighter. Many of his shipmates scrambled aboard the tug St Abbs. Their fate was particularly bitter. Barely ten minutes after HMS Keith had been abandoned, the Luftwaffe dropped four delayed- action bombs ahead of St Abbs. The tug broke in two instantly. She sank in under a minute. Any man below decks died or drowned. Perhaps as many as 100 of HMS Keith’s
life. A near-miss lifted Salamander out of the water then threw her back down again. The force of the impact tossed the wounded across mess decks on their stretchers and knocked out the lighting. The captain ordered confidential papers thrown over the side, convinced the minesweeper was about to sink. A rescued soldier buttonholed a senior rating. Would
the ship make it back to England?
“Son, the British Navy has never lost a Salamander yet through enemy action,” the petty officer assured him. She returned to England, but played no more part in the evacuation.
HMS Basilisk was bombarding 18 Armee positions – its troops were bearing down on the eastern edge of the perimeter – when several Stukas appeared in the morning sky. One landed a bomb between the destroyer’s boilers and engine room, killing everyone in both compartments. The escaping rush of steam flayed a sailor, blowing him over the side. The water saved his life and ensured he was not scarred in later life.
After attempts to tow Basilisk failed, her captain gave orders to abandon ship. Some men were picked up by a Belgian fishing vessel, others made for England in one of the destroyer’s whalers. They got there, too.
Destroyer HMS Havant had decided it was high time to leave Dunkirk. Carrying 500 troops transferred from HMS Ivanhoe, badly damaged in the same series of raids which destroyed Keith, Skipjack and Basilisk, Havant was hit by two bombs which wiped out her engine room. Out of control, she began to career towards sandbanks until a chief stoker braved the inferno in the engine room to let the steam out of the boilers. During 50 frantic minutes, the troops and ship’s company were transferred to other vessels – all the time under Luftwaffe attack. By 1015, it was all
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ep sand, in terrible heat was a tremendous effort.
and staff offi cers were exhausted.”
– 56 Infanterie Division
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