Sunday 29 May 2011

Escape to Victory (2)

Lancastria sinking in St Nazaire Harbour (IWM image)

In our previous blog article, we began to examine the evacuations of the British Expeditionary Force and perhaps more belatedly, their French allies from the French Channel ports. Because of the sheer magnitude and the huge number of troops returned to these shores, the main evacuation at Dunkirk, known at the time as Operation Dynamo, has rightly secured it's place in British history as one of the turning points of the war, which enabled the British to secure the nucleus of it's Army, around which a new and much larger force would be formed and which would return to France as part of the great army of liberation some four years later.

Operation Dynamo was completed on June 4th, when the final French elements were brought across to Dover. However, approximately 20,000 British soldiers remained in the Abbeville-Rouen-Le Havre triangle, facing the Germans across the River Somme. This included the bulk of the 51st Highland Division, which had been undertaking a tour of duty on the Maginot Line. The Germans were advancing at such a rapid pace, there was no option but to order an evacuation from Le Havre and the operation, code named 'Cycle' was put into effect on June 9th. On this night, no British troops were evacuated but the French were able to complete their own evacuation. One of the ships involved was HMS Wellington, which today is moored on the Victoria Embankment in London as the headquarters ship and livery hall of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. The following day - June 10th, destroyers were sent to investigate the possibility of evacuating troops from the coast between Le Havre and Dieppe but at 1530 these vessels came under fire from shore batteries, which revealed that the Germans had broken through to the coast, thus cutting off the escape route of 51st Highland Division to Le Havre.

It was therefore decided to concentrate the shipping required on the small fishing port of St Valery en Caux and began to arrive accordingly in the early hours of June 11th. Unfortunately, the bulk of the Highlanders had been delayed in their withdrawal and the only troops evacuated that night were some forty stretcher cases, some walking wounded and a handful of able bodied British and French troops. It was reported to the Royal Navy beach party that the majority of the Division would be ready for evacuation on the night of 12th June but shortly afterwards, the port came within range of German artillery and due to this, combined with patchy fog descending on the beaches, meant that the evacuation was far from smooth and many ships were hit by German artillery fire. By 0830 on the 13th, it became clear that further evacuation was impossible; the beaches were under intense fire from east and west and an hour later, the evacuation fleet was withdrawn to sea. No further troops had reached the beach and some 8,000 men of the 51st Highland Division under the command of Major General Victor Fortune surrendered. Unlike Dunkirk, this evacuation had fallen foul of the weather and the speed of the German advance. However, Operation Cycle had not been a complete failure and including the evacuations from Le Havre, some 14,500 British and 900 French troops were evacuated to Britain.

Despite these evacuations, British forces elsewhere in France were still being reinforced and a Second British Expeditionary Force was formed, under the command of General Alan Brooke, himself only recently returned to Britain from Dunkirk. This force was designed to show solidarity with Britain's French allies but as Brooke himself reported to Churchill, it was impossible to make a corpse have feelings and it was quickly concluded following a three way telephone conversation between the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, Brooke and Churchill, that Franch collapse was imminent and that all remaining British personnel should be withdrawn as soon as possible.

Therefore on June 15th, preparations were made for the evacuation of some 140,000 troops from Cherbourg, Granville, St Malo, Brest, St Nazaire, Nantes and La Pallice. Unlike at Dunkirk, it was possible on this occasion to salvage a certain amount of equipment in the shape of equipment, stores and vehicles. The operation started on the same day with the withdrawal of British troops from Nantes and continued over the coming days at the ports mentioned above. It was whilst British personnel were being evacuated from St Nazaire a couple of days later that disaster struck.

By 2200 on June 16th, some 17,000 men had already safely embarked in four large liners, the Georgic, Duchess of York and the Polish Batory and Sobieski. These vessels were immediately replaced in the port by the Orient Line's Oronsay and the Cunarder Lancastria. Troops were being ferried out by French tugs, smaller British merchant ships and the destroyers HMS Havelock and Beagle. The Lancastria was not one of the glamorous Cunarders like the Queen Mary but was one of the workhorses of the fleet, having been built in 1922 for use on the North Atlantic run and also for Mediterranean cruises, which suited her rather plodding 17 knots rather well.

The Lancastria was at anchor and had been loaded with British soldiers, airmen and civilian evacuees since early in the morning but because of the sheer numbers of people being loaded on board, the crew's discipline had lapsed somewhat in as far as the exact numbers boarding were not being recorded in the latter stages of the embarkation. Some witnesses recalled hearing the Chief Officer Harry Grattidge reporting to the Master, Capt Rudolph Sharp that over 6,700 passengers were on board, which combined with the ship's crew of 330 would have put the total number on board at around the 7,000 mark. However, with the lack of an accurate count, the number of passengers on board could possibly have been much higher - indeed many people were witnessed boarding without anyone to count them on board the vessel and as a result, some sources stated that as many as 11,000 people were on board, although there would have to have been a major discrepancy in the counting process for this latter figure to be correct.

At around 1200, the first air raid of the day started but the Lancastria had almost completed loading by this time. Despite repeated advice from the Senior Naval Officer, Captain Barry Stevens, in HMS Havelock to get underway, Captain Sharp was reluctant to sail without an escort, preferring to wait for the Oronsay to complete loading and to sail as an escorted convoy in case of U-Boat attack. The Oronsay was hit and damaged during this raid at 1350 but despite this warning, Captain Sharp still refused to sail or even to weigh anchor and manoeuvre slowly thus making a more difficult target for the bombers.

A second raid started at 1545 and Lancastria (pictured above in her death throes) was soon struck by four bombs which ripped through the ship's side and caused her to sink inside 30 minutes. Many of those lost were trapped in horrendous conditions inside the vessel's holds, whilst many others perished in the oil polluted waters, either choked by the oil itself or strafed by attacking aircraft. Over 2,400 oil soaked survivors were picked up by other vessels in the port, but because of the uncertainty as to exactly how many were aboard in the first place, the precise death toll is unknown. The number of known fatalities was put at 1,738 but assuming there were 7,000 on board and given the known number of survivors picked up, the death toll could possibly have been as high as 4,600. Whatever the exact figure, this remains the worst disaster in British maritime history but one which is strangely overlooked. Perhaps this was because the tragedy occurred relatively early in the war and was soon to be overtaken by many other tragic events over the next five years. Captain Sharp himself survived this incident, only to perish when a subsequent command, the Laconia was torpedoed in the Atlantic in 1942, with major loss of life and not without more than a tinge of tragedy.

In spite of this disaster, Operation Aerial, as this part of the evacuation had been codenamed, saw the return of a further 139,812 British troops as well as 46,515 Allied servicemen, which as well the French included 24,000 Poles and nearly 5,000 Czechs. These forces would face four long years before returning to France but in the meantime, the French airfields which had fallen into German hands would soon bring the British people into the range of the Luftwaffe.

Published Sources:

BEF Ships before, at and after Dunkirk - John de S Winser, World Ship Society 1999
Dunkirk, Fight to the Last Man - Hugh Sebag Montefiore, Viking 2006
Epitaph for Forgotten Thousands - Nicholas Monsarrat, Daily Telegraph 1970

Friday 20 May 2011

Escape to Victory (1)

The title of this week's blog doesn't refer to the cheesy 1981 movie starring Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Pele and sundry Ipswich Town footballers of the day, which quite possibly ranks as one of the worst war films of all time. Neither does it relate to those brave men who escaped Nazi Prisoner of War camps to return to Great Britain, but covers the great evacuations of May and June 1940, which enabled the British Army to escape home from France and thus become the nucleus of those forces which would return in 1944 to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Even those with only a passing interest in the history of the Second World War are probably aware of Dunkirk, the French Channel port through which nearly 200,000 British and 110,000 French troops were evacuated between May 27th and June 4th 1940 but what is not so well known is that although Dunkirk saw by far the largest number of Allied troops evacuated from the clutches of the advancing Germans, it was by no means the only evacuation from the French coast and was just one of a series that saw over half a million mainly British and French servicemen evacuated to Britain, as well as significant numbers of Poles and Czechs who had made their way to France in order to continue the war.

The first of these remarkable mass withdrawals came at the channel port of Boulogne. This port did not originally contain a British garrison but was one of the primary ports used to maintain supplies to the British Expeditionary Force or BEF as it was known, which had been sent to France on the outbreak of war in 1939 to stand alongside the French Army, in what was widely seen as being a repeat of the static warfare seen during 1914-18. By the spring of 1940, this force was some 300,000 strong but although numerically strong, many of the units were still woefully undertrained and poorly equipped despite the best efforts of rising stars of the British Army such as Generals Alan Brooke, Bernard Montgomery and Harold Alexander.

On May 10th, the long awaited German offensive against the Low Countries and France began and despite the early success of the BEF in holding the Germans in their sector, it soon became apparent that the French Army was a shadow of it's former self during the Great War and the British were soon hard pressed to stem the relentless German advance. The French Army was in disarray and coupled with the imminent collapse of the Belgians, the BEF was dangerously exposed and a withdrawal to the coast soon became the only option open to the British if they were going to stand any chance of not losing their Army.

To return to Boulogne, by May 21st the Germans had reached the French coast near Abbeville and became clear that the British were in a race against time to reach and hold their section of the Channel coast before the Germans could complete an encircling operation and cut off the BEF from any chance of escape. It was originally intended to evacuate the BEF from all of the northern Channel ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk but the speed of events would ensure that Dunkirk and it's adjacent beaches would be the centre of the withdrawal.

Although Boulogne did not contain a British garrison, it did contain a 1,500 strong contingent of No. 5 Group Auxiliary Pioneer Corps, who had been engaged on dock labour work unloading the various cargo ships supplying the BEF. These men were largely unarmed and not trained in combat but were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Donald Dean VC, who had won this highest award for bravery with the Royal West Kent Regiment in the Great War. Dean was a determined commander and although many of the Pioneers in Boulogne were later reported to have been ill-disciplined and disorderly, the men under Dean's command were made of different stuff. Despite having no anti-tank guns, they improvised road blocks with abandoned lorries and petrol bombs and thus managed to hold off the German tanks long enough to enable them to withdraw to the inner harbour to join up with the Brigade of Guards who had been sent across the Channel to stiffen the port's defences whilst the port was evacuated. The 20th Guards Brigade, comprising the 2nd Irish Guards and 2nd Welsh Guards had originally been sent in the hope of not only holding the town but also of linking up with the British garrison at the neighbouring port of Calais

This idea very quickly proved to be wishful thinking in the extreme and shortly after first light on the 23rd May, the Germans completed their encirclement of the port when they captured the Fort de la Creche. The Germans then mounted an attack on the main defences of Boulogne but although heavily pressed, the Irish and Welsh Guards held firm, supported by makeshift platoons of the Pioneers who had been armed with rifles taken from the wounded and from those who had already managed to embark for England.

The evacuation was now in full swing and as always, it was the Royal Navy that came to the rescue with a succession of destroyers entering the port whilst under heavy fire from the German armour, which was now well within firing range of the harbour. During the late afternoon, whilst HM Ships Keith and Vimy were alongside the Gare Maritime embarking a mass of troops and evacuees, they also came under air attack from Stuka dive bombers. By a miracle and also the intervention of the RAF, no hits were registered on the British destroyers but another hazard was about to manifest itself. Due to the state of the tide, the bridges of the British vessels were exposed above the level of the quayside and as the air raid was clearing, Captain David Simson of the Keith fell dead, hit by a German sniper located in an adjacent hotel that overlooked the harbour. The enemy was moving ever closer and shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Commander Donald, commanding officer of the Vimy was also hit, as were several others - both officers and men of the destroyers and also their passengers. The destroyers then left port under the command of their First Lieutenants and on their passage back to Dover performed the melancholy task of burying their dead at sea.

The Navy was undeterred and as these destroyers left, their place was taken by HMS Whitshed (pictured) and HMS Vimiera which began the task of embarking the Irish Guards and Brigade HQ whilst at the same time disembarking a demolition party from the Royal Engineers tasked with the destruction of the port's facilities so as to deny their use to the Germans. Following the embarkation of these men, it was the turn of the Welsh Guards to leave and two further destroyers, Venomous and Wild Swan moved into the port to fulfil this task. A third destroyer, the Venetia was also ordered in but as she entered the harbour was struck hard by German artillery. It was clear that the Germans wanted to sink her in the harbour entrance, thus blocking the port and bottling up the remaining destroyers inside. By skilled ship handling though, she was able to manouvre full astern out of the harbour and on fire aft, managed to escape back to England.

The Germans were now getting ever closer and as enemy columns were seen moving through the town, the destroyers deployed their 4.7 inch (120mm) main armament against the Panzers with absolutely devastating effect. It was probably the first effective anti-tank fire that the Germans had encountered; at least one tank was seen to somersault through the air following a near miss from a 4.7 inch shell and two tanks were obliterated by direct hits from HMS Whitshed. According to one eye witness who saw the destruction of the tanks:

"The shout of triumph that went up from the embarked troops was more suitable for the football ground than the field of battle and order had to be restored by megaphone, also at point blank range!"

Soon after 2100, Venomous and Wild Swan slipped their moorings and left the harbour. Even so, British troops still remained within Boulogne - many Welsh Guardsmen including almost three companies who had become separated from the main body of the Guards Brigade during the fighting and about 800 Pioneers remained along with the Sappers of the Demolition Parties as well as some wounded men being cared for by the Padre and Medical Officer of the Pioneers. So, at about 2230 the destroyer HMS Windsor entered the harbour and took off 600 men including most of the Pioneers and Demolition Parties and at 0140 the following morning, HMS Vimiera, making her second trip entered the port and embarked an incredible 1,400 men in just over an hour - the last to embark was the redoubtable Lieutenant Colonel Dean, who only just made it; he had been knocked out by a nearby explosion but had recovered just in time to make it onboard. He had wanted to return to the port to bring more men who were taking cover underneath railway wagons but had been dissuaded from doing so by Lieutenant Commander Roger Hicks in command of Vimiera, whose ship was jammed full and who understandably wanted to sail before daybreak.

Vimiera then returned to England in a dangerously overloaded condition. Sadly, the three companies of Welsh Guards - just over 300 men - began to arrive just after Vimiera sailed but even then could still have been saved had a further destroyer, HMS Wessex not been diverted to Calais at the last moment. No further vessels were sent to Boulogne and these fine soldiers mostly all became prisoners of war for five long years. Despite this, some 4,300 men had been evacuated from Boulogne, although the garrison along the coast at Calais was to be largely sacrificed to the Prisoner of War camps in an attempt to buy time for the main evacuation at Dunkirk.

As mentioned earlier, Operation 'Dynamo' as the embarkation at Dunkirk was officially titled, is well known but in the next part of this article, we shall take a look at the post-Dunkirk evacuations which brought a further 140,000 British and 46,500 Allied servicemen back to these shores but which also brought Britain's worst disaster at sea.

Published Sources:

B.E.F. Ships before, at and after Dunkirk - John de S Winser, World Ship Society 1999
Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man - Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Viking 2006
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory - Major General Julian Thompson, Sidgwick & Jackson 2008

V and W Class Destroyers 1917-45 - Anthony Preston, Macdonald & Son 1971

With Ensigns Flying - David A Thomas - William Kimber 1958

Sunday 8 May 2011

When the lights came on again; VE Day, London 1945

‘When the lights go on again’ was one of the many evocative wartime songs by Vera Lynn and although released in 1943 when the end of the war seemed a long way off, by May 1945 the lights really were coming on again. The wartime blackout had been relaxed slightly in the autumn of 1944 and had become known as a ‘dim-out’ but this was nowhere near the full level of lighting that older Londoners were accustomed to. In May 1945 though, Britain had been at war for getting on for six years and some children had never known anything but dark nights and the fear of German bombs penetrating the darkness.

By early 1945 it was plain that the Germans were finished and despite the onslaught of V-2 rockets that fell on London until the end of March, it was only a matter of time before the war would be over and to paraphrase the words of the song, the boys would be home again.

However, as with all things connected to war, the end of the European War was shrouded in chaos and uncertainty. On 7th May, everyone knew that Hitler and Goebbels were both dead and that a group of high ranking Germans had surrendered to Field Marshal Montgomery on Luneburg Heath. It was common knowledge that Berlin had fallen to the Russians and that at some point the unconditional surrender demanded by the Allies was about to be signed at General Eisenhower’s headquarters in Rheims but despite all of this, there was no formal announcement as to what was happening for the simple reason that the situation in Europe was ever changing.

In the meantime, the crowds began to converge on London in preparation for the end of the war and the extra paid holiday that had been promised by the Government to mark the end of the war with Germany. The pubs were doing a roaring trade and seemed to have suddenly found extra supplies of booze from somewhere. Everywhere, there was the anticipation of a mass celebration but the British, being then as now a basically reserved nation of people, were reluctant to start partying prematurely.

On the 8th May, it was officially over. Winston Churchill had broadcast to that effect and by that afternoon vast crowds – Londoners and Foreign servicemen and women alike – were flowing into Whitehall, where it had been announced that Churchill would speak at 3 o’clock. Right on time, he appeared on the balcony of the Ministry of Works and told the crowds that hostilities would cease at midnight that night. This naturally was greeted by cheers and when he spoke the words “The German war is therefore at an end” the crowd erupted. His voice cracking with emotion, Churchill ended his speech with the words “Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!” The buglers of the Scots Guards the sounded the ceremonial ‘Cease Fire’ and then the band struck up the National Anthem, which was sung with great reverence by everyone present, young and old, civilians and soldiers alike, many of whom would have been doubtless thinking of absent friends who had not lived to see this day of final victory.

After this moment of reflection, there were of course wild celebrations to be seen, not only in London but in New York, Paris, Brussels and every major city and town in the Free World. Despite these celebrations, there were many who chose not to be with the crowds and preferred to be on their own or just with their families. Many of these people had lost loved ones during the Blitz or on service overseas with the services and whilst they were still glad to see the end of hostilities, they were naturally in a more sombre mood on this special day. It must also be remembered that many thousands of servicemen were still serving overseas, not only in Europe but also fighting the Japanese and the relatives of these men were also not inclined to go overboard with their celebrations.

For the children though, there were the street parties as in the example shown above in Woolwich. Hurriedly organised affairs, they were widespread across the country and as in the case of the pubs, food still strictly rationed seemed to suddenly appear as if by magic and ensured that these street parties were memorable affairs for all concerned.

For those adults still celebrating, London was ablaze with floodlighting, switched on to illuminate buildings rather than German bombers and for those in the suburbs where there was no floodlighting, some huge bonfires were lit on the many bomb sites and these bonfires gave the National Fire Service one of their busiest nights since the Blitz. Many of the large fires got out of hand and as senior fire officer Cyril Demarne recalled, the Fire Brigade soon discovered (or re-discovered) that the public could be very fickle. Only a few weeks ago, the firemen were being cheered as heroes for fighting the fires lit by the German bombs and rockets; now they were being booed as party poopers for dousing the bonfires that were threatening to get out of hand.

Peace had returned to London and although the Japanese war was to continue until August 1945, the people of the capital could at last begin to think about rebuilding their city and their lives.

Published Sources:

Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1974
London at War 1939-45 - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991