COMPAT:THE WAR WITH
Edited by Don Congdon
First Publication in
Published as a
Mayflower- Dell Paperback 1964
Copyright ,1963,by Don Congdon
"We were setting our topsail to carry out this operation when a large number of German planes appeared overhead and immediately started bombing and machine-gunning us."
This was the beginning of the heaviest air attack of the operation.Skipper H. Miller of the barge Royalty had been ordered to beach his ship opposite the first houses of Malo-les-Bains. "We were setting our topsail" when the "whole weight of two air fleets was unleashed for the second time against the crowded anchorage.
Up to this moment, the embarkations of the first hours of the day had achieved new records .The paddle mine sweeper Whippingham had started loading, under shellfire, about ten o'clock the previous evening. By 1:30 a.m. she estimated that she had loaded 2,700 men and, with her sponsons only about twelve inches above the water, she cast off from the Mole, worked her way out between the wrecks" that now, more thickly than ever, studded the narrow channel, and got clear. Her commander, Lieutenant Eric Reed, R.N.R., says that her passage back was slow because she was "very much overloaded!'*" Again this is a classic example of understatement.
Royal Sovereign had been picking up off La Panne. She sailed at 2:30 a.m. with a heavy load, and her master, usually verv spare of words, wrote that the beach had come under "terrific bombarding and shelling."
One of the best accounts of the abandonment of La Panne is that of Captain R. P. Pim, R.N.V.R., formerly Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Government of Northern Ireland and, at this time, keeper of Winston Churchill's Map Room. Captain Pim had been on leave at the beginning of the evacuation. He volunteered and crossed with one of the tows. The report of his work says:
"By midnight all the troops which he could find were embarked and placed in ships which sailed for England. Just before midnight he went along some of the beaches to look for stragglers and was told by a staff officer that no more troops would embark from those beaches, but that it was anticipated that the beaches would be shelled and would probably be in German hands the following day. This was a correct forecast.
"He estimates that, from the pontoons and beaches, about 5,000 were embarked. He was impressed by the kindness that was shown to the tired soldiery in the various ships in which they were embarked and also by the fact that the military chaplains were always among the last of their respective parties to leave the beach.
"Anchorage had to be shifted during the night as shells meant for the beaches were ricocheting over H.M.S. Hilda [which had towed them over] ..."
Another tow of small craft was operating nearer to Malo-les-Bains.
The Belgian fishing boats were over again in this period.
The Anna Marguerite lifted 120 French soldiers and, on her return journey, picked up thirty survivors of a French cargo ship which had been sunk by a magnetic mine. The Georges Edouard, which was commanded by a Merchant Marine officer, picked up nearly 500 men this day and, with an earlier trip, carried a total altogether of 1007. The Guido Gazelle carried 403 on two trips.
The destroyers Icarus, Vanquisher and Windsor carried 3000 men between them. Despite the difficulties of the beaches, the loads throughout were tremendously heavy. Mine sweepers, Dutch skoots, trawlers, drifters, paddle-steamers—they all carried enormous numbers of men.
The sun rose and still they loaded. Through this night the Germans had bombed the harbour area intermittently, using brilliant flares. Now, with the sun, the raids redoubled. At five o'clock heavy bombing attacks developed over the whole area from La Panne to Dunkirk, and fighters began to make almost incessant strafing runs along the beaches. The first R.A.F. patrol had been ordered to be over the area soon after 5 a.m. It was heavily engaged on arrival. A second patrol followed at 6 a.m. and again met exceptionally strong opposition. Thereafter there was a gap until nine o'clock, and in this gap the Luftwaffe pounced.
The barge Royalty, as has been recorded, set her topsail under fire and ran herself ashore. She was loaded with food, water, and ammunition, and her job was to beach herself as high up the sands as possible so that the troops could unload her as the tide turned. Having carried out his operation immaculately, Skipper Miller rowed out to the tug Qervia, which had towed him across. On the way he picked'PP a launch, with twenty-five soldiers on board, that had broken down. When he joined her, Cervia closed the barge Tolles-bury, which had picked up 180 men.
"At 7:20 A.M.," said W. H. Simmons, Cervia's master, "we dropped our anchor and watched the barge. Soldiers began to run down the beach towards her, but guns started to bang away on the outskirts of Dunkirk, and an air-raid siren blew and the soldiers went back to shelter."
The wail of that siren ushered in the attack which, had it been made earlier, might have been decisive in the history of Dunkirk. It is possible that this devastating raid was synchronized with the German's first assault of the day on the perimeter line. At 7:20 a.m. a very heavy force of enemy bombers—predominantly Junkers 87 dive bombers, but with the support of twin-engined Junkers 88s, elaborately escorted by fighters—made its appearance. There were no Allied aircraft in the air at the time; there was no escort for the ships in that narrow channel of destruction. The destroyers themselves, fighting against attack through almost every hour of the past days, were desperately short of ammunition. Many of them had had no time to re-ammunition in the brief spells at Dover. There was only time to discharge their troops, to take on fresh oil, to slip and put to sea again. Keith, after fighting all the previous day, had thirty rounds of A.A. ammunition left.
At once the attacks developed on the nearest ships. There is an appalling grandeur in that scene. From behind the beaches, from the harbour, from those ships whose guns could still answer the challenge of the air, the sky was filled with the pock-marks of bursting shells, with the thin trails of tracer bullets, with the whistle and roar of projectiles. Below the sea was flecked with small plumes as the splinters of the shells sang down into the water, between them lifted the monstrous, swirling fountains of the bombs.
Keith was heavily attacked by the first wave. Twisting, turning, at the utmost speed that she could manage in the narrow waters of the roadstead, she eluded the bombs. The account by the master of Cervia of these moments—cool, almost dour in its absence of emotion—conveys a graphic picture.
"A British destroyer outside of us began to fire at the enemy planes and bombs began to fall'near her as she steamed about. At full speed with her helm hard to port nine bombs fell in a line in the water, along her starboard side, and they exploded under water, heeling the destroyer over on her beam ends, but she was righted again and a sloop joined in the gunfire, also shore batteries, and as the raiders made off over towards the land they machine-gunned us and we returned the fire with our Lewis gun."
To avoid being rammed, Cervia weighed anchor and got under way. She made toward the damaged Keith but, as she was doing so, a further air attack took place and the destroyer was again straddled by a stick of bombs. The tug St. Abbs and a sloop were also going to the help of Keith, so Cervia turned round and picked up a motorboat full of soldiers.
Actually Keith was damaged in the first attack, though she did not suffer a direct hit. A near miss jammed her rudder, and she turned in small circles for some time. In the second attack she was hit almost at once down her after-funnel and very near misses damaged her side severely. She was moving at high speed and turning at the moment of impact, and she at once listed heavily to port. Enormous clouds of steam came up through the after-funnel and boiler room casings. Still turning, she lost speed rapidly as the steam went, and in a little her commander was compelled to bring his ship to anchor. Captain E. L. Berthon (he had won his D.S.C. at Zeebrugge during the great attack on St. George's Day, 1918) had taken the place of Captain D. J. R. Simson, Captain (D) of the 19th Flotilla, who had been killed at Boulogne on May 24. By the time the anchor took hold, Keith was listing almost 20 degrees to port and had no more than two feet of freeboard on that side. At this point, however, she seemed to steady up and sank no farther for the time being.
Though Keith was still afloat, she was clearly out of action. Admiral Wake-Walker, with his staff, disembarked into M.T.B. 102, which had closed the destroyer imme^ diately after she was damaged the second time, and'iheaded down the roadstead to call up tugs. But the tugs"*'had already turned towards the battered ship—the Admiralty tug St. Abbs, the tug Vincia, and the tug Cervia. Captain Pim, in H.M. Skoot Hilda, was also making his best speed towards the wreck. Before they could reach her she was hit in a third attack. This time the bombs dropped under the bridge, and she heeled right over and sank almost instantly. Hilda picked up fifty survivors from the water, including Lieutenant General W. G. Lindsell, the Quartermaster General, and other staff officers. The tug Vincia
19 picked up 108 officers and ratings, including staff officers from both British and French headquarters, and St. Abbs, which closed her just before she sank, took off Captain Berthon and more than 100 survivors.
All the while there was no cessation in the fury of the Luftwaffe's attack. Farther down the water the dive bombers were peeling off at 10,000 feet and coming down with a terrifying snarl of their motors to within a few hundred feet of the water. While the work of rescue was in progress the destroyer Basilisk, which had been held ready to give supporting fire in the event of enemy attack along the beach, was bombed. St. Abbs, under the orders of Captain Berthon, turned towards the spot to rescue survivors. Aircraft were flying overhead continuously and a Junkers 88, at high level, let go a single bomb. By a thousand-to-one chance it hit the hurrying tug amidships. She disintegrated and sank, leaving Captain Berthon and the comparatively small number of men who now survived, a second time in the water.
Shortly after, the destroyer Whitehall on her first trip— she made two trips this day—found the still-floating hulk of H.M.S. Basilisk and sank it. She was herself dive-bombed and suffered damage from near misses. H.M.S. Worcester was also damaged by bombing and was to be in collision as she struggled back to Dover.
The gunboat Mosquito, which had done magnificent work now for many days, was hit in the same period, badly damaged, set on fire, and had to be abandoned. The Fleet minesweeper Salamander was damaged and tugs were sent in search of her. There were other naval casualties, other ships damaged in this period. Admiral Wake-Walker, hurrying to Dunkirk itself in the M.T.B. which had picked him up, was dive-bombed but not hit. All up and down the long, narrow channel of the roadstead there was havoc and the thunder of the bombs. All up and down the roadstead were the long and lamentable pools of oil which marked the new ship graves; and with them, floating on the tide, was the pitiful wreckage of smashed boats and empty rafts, of battered furnishings and splintered planks.
Within little more than an hour the Royal Navy had lost three destroyers, a Fleet minesweeper and a gunboat, and four destroyers had been damaged.
Nor was this the end of disaster. At 1 p.m. the French destroyer Foudroyant, the last surviving ship of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla, came in through Route X. Four miles from the West Mole she was "submerged in a cloud of Stukas," according to a French account. The channel at that point was narrow and manoeuvring was impossible. In less than a minute she was hit by a number of bombs and capsized instantly. Small craft and the minesweeper Sainte-Bernadette-de-Lourdes, herself damaged by splinters from near misses and listing heavily, picked up her survivors.
The naval losses were desperately serious but the personnel ships suffered almost equally heavy loss in the same period. Prague, coming in by Route X, reached Dunkirk at the very height of the first attacks. Her armament was one Lewis gun and one Bren gun, but she closed the entrance and went inside. She berthed at the western side of the outer harbour, close outside the locks, and loaded about 3000 French troops. On the return voyage towards the Downs, the ship was shelled off Gravelines and dive-bombed off No. 5 buoy. Although not actually hit on either occasion, she suffered severe internal damage and the starboard engine was put out of action. Captain Baxter reported:
"From the time of the explosion (10:25) the ship was kept going ahead as fast as it was possible to do on the port engine which was the only one left in service, craft in the vicinity were warned and several naval auxiliaries agreed to stand by us and the ship slowly progresSetl'home-wards. It was evident, however, that the water was gaining, and such measures as getting as many troops as possible forward to ease the weight on the after part of the ship were giving only temporary respite, so I decided to try to transfer the troops while the ship was still under way so as to lose as little time as possible. H.M. Destroyer Shikari and a sloop and a paddle-minesweeper whose names I was unable to obtain came alongside in turn and very skilfully managed to transfer all except a handful of troops while the ship was steaming as fast as possible towards the Downs.. .."