RN at Dunkirk 1940
The Royal and Merchant Navies Part
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The previous link was: "Calendar Ships Guns"
For ten days the Royal Navy had remained aloof from this battle.
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 been passive.
The Admiralty kept more than a passive eye on proceedings across
the Channel, but information was sketchy, out of date, or just
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 the German forces reached the Channel.
Tha 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 code name: "Dynamo."
Calendar Ships Guns
East India Company
The exceptional Mastermind
It fell upon the Vice Admiral Dover to enact Dynamo, Bertram Ramsey was a great Admiral. Not a great admiral in the Nelsonian sense, he was a great admiral because he was the Navy's greatest organiser. A man with the ability to plan like no other.
In the third week of May 1940, Bertram Ramsey 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.
The situation became more difficult by the hour. Ramsey 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 had taken part in the Ostend Raid. He knew what he was asking of his sailors-and it throubled him.
"It's hateful having to order ships to do things and go places where one knows they are going to be bombed to blazes and to send troops into what I know is an inferno."
That inferno on May 23 was Boulogne
It was mid-afternoon by the time the destroyer "HMS Keith" arrived off the Channel port-already invested with German forces. The Napoleonic bastion of Fort de la Cre'che, 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 theirs on the town's airfield, occupied by the German's.
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 worldly goods were toppled into the harbour. Many of the soldiers had drunk too much alcohol.
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 concret over the gun-decks. Near the harbour entrance. Lt 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 of the fog
horn. "It wailed continuosly." Lombard-Hobson recalled, "and must have sounded to the others like the final death throe."
Early Naval Tactics
The Executive Officer
Sir George Rooke
The Stukas and Sniper attacks
From the warehouses, hotels and houses overlooking the harbour,
German troops directed small arms and mortar fire. The bridges
of "Vimy" and "Kieth" were swept by fire. "Kieth's" commander, Captain 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 at shore targets, Ian
Nethercott's gun sudenley swung off target. He looked across and
saw that something had taken the head clean off his shipmate,
"He was just lying in the harness spurting blood everywhere."
Nethercott remembered. There was no time to mourn. Another
shipmate took the gunlayer's place, resting the corpse against
a locker, sand was thrown over the deck to dry up the blood,
and the gunnery resumed.
It was time for "Keith" and "Vimy" to leave Boulgne. They reversed out of the harbour at full speed before returning to
England, as they did so, the dive-bombers appeared again.
Fortunately for the Briton's, they concentrated on four French
patrol ships bombarding the port. One the torpedo-boat "Orage,"
was hit by four bombs in quick sussession. She disapeared in a
gigantic mushroom of flame and smoke.
Until now, "Whitshed" had remained off shore. Her captain, Cdr
Edward "Crazy" Conder, was not as rash as his name 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.
Sir John Jervis
Prelude to War
Still coming to terms with the situation
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 with horror.
There was rubble and masonry along the quay, like the aftermath of an earthquake, and dead were lying about everywhere.
The "Wild Swan" "Venomous" and "Venetia" had entered harbour in
the fading light. The target of the Panzers' guns was probably
"HMS Venetia." Her bridge was swept by extensive and destructive machine-gun fire, damage was caused by at least two direct hits from tank shells.
The destroyers fought back, at least two German tanks were
destroyed by the naval gun-fire. Time was running out for British troops in Boulogne. Two more destroyers were sent in to pick up troops that night.
"Vimiera" found more than 1,500 soldiers-Briton's, Frenchmen,
Belgians-all waiting to be picked up. Some 1,400 were squeezed aboard, they were hurried and all were aboard in under 90 minutes.
As "Vimiera" withdrew from the quay, shore batteries pounded the
jetty. A few minutes later German Bombers attacked. In all, the
Royal Navy had rescued more than 4,300 soldiers. There would have been more men brought out, but the port of Boulogne fell that night.
Just two Channel ports were still open now: Dunkirk and Calais. "We are racked with anxiety about the situation in Calais," Bertram Ramsey wrote to his wife. He had every reason to be worried, for the enemy stood at the gates of the port.
The enemy were closing in on all sides
The swastika was raised above Calais' grand "Hotel de Ville"
sometime after midnight on May 24th. But a few hundred yards away, the British held on firmly to the harbour and the historic heart of Calais, the Citidel, more than three centuries old.
Twice the Germans asked for the surrender of the Citidel, the
answer they received was: "It's the British Army's duty to fight
as well it is the German's." Claude Nicholson told the German
Officer, carrying a white flag.
Vice-Admiral Dover flashed the signal around the fleet: "Operation Dover is to commence." It is remembered as a triumph of the British spirit. The underdog of young and old men prepared to enter the jaws of hell to save their fellow comrades.
Bertram Ramsey had at his disposal more than 900 vessels; thirty-six destroyers were to protect the evacuation. All provided with charts detailing a safe route avoiding mine-fields, shallows and now the German coastal gun batteries.
The Navy held out little hope for Dynamo's success. There were nearly half a million Allied troops trapped on the beaches. The Admiraly estimated they might be able to save only about 45,000 of those men.
The Battle Of Jutland
Hitler took his General's advice
"It's not worth sacrificing a single panzer tank if we can accomplish it more cheaply using the Luftwaffe." Hitler was advised, and agreed. So the majority of the tanks remained away from the beaches.
Something unexpected was happening in the skies over Calais. It
wasn't the Luftwaffe dominating the heavens, but the Royal Air Force. German aircraft were still operating from bases in Germany, while the British fighters were based just across the channel.
Before the message was sent ships had already set sail to bring their comrades home. Passenger ferries and hospital ships led the force on the hazardous journey to Dunkirk.
After dark on 26th 300 stretcher cases, and another 5,500 on Merchant ships were brought out on the first night; far short of the estimated 45,000 soldiers. Captain Bill Tennant with a dozen officers and 160 men were to direct the evacuation.
It was late afternoon on 27th when Tennant and his sailors arrived at Dunkirk. The destroyer "Wolfhound" was bombed twice on the journey there, and again when she departed. Ten miles of beaches were littered with soldiers waiting to be evacuated. The Mersey ferry "Royal Daffodil" was the only one to get soldiers out on that night some 840 men.
To Bertram Ramsey things looked very black. "I have one of the most difficult and hazardous operations ever conceived," he wrote. Salvation came in the form of an inspired decision by Bill Tennant.
He noticed the Germans were concentrating their attacks on the docks and harbour and the area long eastern mole was untouched at this moment. In the small hours 28th May he ordered a ship to come along side the pier; the paddle steamer "Queen of the Channel" picked up 904 men before it sailed.
The "Queen of the Channel" was attacked from the air and bombs landed on her wrecking her paddles and breaking her back. She sank slowly-slowly enough to transfer the soldiers to a passing transporter. It was the turning point of the evacuation; using the mole was a fantastic idea.
Battle off Beachy Head
The HMS Victories
What Could happen If we Had Other Moles?
More jetties were needed, sappers built makeshift piers by driving trucks and cars driven into a line reaching out into sea on the sand, and placing decking lashed to the roofs for people to walk along and boats to pull alongside when the tide was in.
The Germans there were becoming concerned as they watched the growing evacuation. "Large ships come alongside, planks are run up and the men rush aboard," one staff officer noted. "They leave behind all of their material, but we don't want to find these men up against us later on, freshly equipped.
The German Navy had been mauled badly in Norway. Half its Fleet had been wiped out. Though it could not stop the transport of men; it could if given the chance, harry the British.
When the Netherlands fell and the German E-boats (Fast gun and torpedo Boats) moved two hours closer to Dunkirk. After two weeks they began to see the mechanics of the British evacuation.
"HMS Wakeful" had already carried 631 troops safely home. On her next trip early in the morning on the 29th while ferrying another 640 soldiers. The old destroyer was hit with a torpedo in the forward boiler room and broke in two, sinking in around twenty-seconds.
The soldiers sleeping below decks all died; one trooper having a
cigarette on deck survived, as did the gun crews and other sailors who were on duty. They clung to the wreckage for more than an hour, before the mine sweeper "HMS Lydd" arrived. Shortly after the destroyer "HMS Grafton" came and took over control of the rescue situation.
The "Grafton" was shaken by a tremendous explosion aft, which carried away her stern. She stayed afloat long enough for most of the survivors to be transferred to other ships. "HMS Ivanhoe" dispatched all of the wreckage to the bottom of the sea, and thereafter no more ships would stop to pick up survivors of stricken ships.
That day the weather was overcast, the skies had a ceiling of about 300ft. Luftwaffe raids had been ruled out until 3.30pm when the onslaught began. A Dozen bombers pounded the port with at least two bombs each, crippling the trawler "Polly Johnson" and damaging another fishing vessel, the "Mistral."
The Second Wave of Dive-Bombers
The next wave of attacks crippled the destroyer "HMS Jaguar" which eventually limped back to dover. The passenger ship "Clan Macalister" had spent the day loading troops from the beaches by boat. Crippled by bombs she could move no further, helplessly stranded most of her 750 aboard were rescued before she sank.
"HMS Greyhound" was straddled by two very near misses and only made it back to Dover with 500 men onboard after being towed most of the way. A bomb blew a 6ft diameter hole in the hull of the "Waverley." she sank rapidly taking 150 or so troops with her.
Nearly 2,000 men squeezed aboard the cross-Channel ferry "Canterbury" which struggled back to England after being attacked, "HMS Intrepid" was ablaze with raging fires. Aside from the bombs, the harbour was constantly shaken by exploding ammunitions as the engineers detonated the supplies that needed to be destroyed.
The Fleet Air Arm made no attempt to engage enemy aircraft; their job was to shield the evacuation fleet from the E-boats. The third wave of German bombers hit the Trawler "Calviand" and the steamer "Fenella". Two bombs knocked out the engine room of "HMS Grenade" and set her ablaze.
The wooden "Crested Eagle" made her way out of Dunkirk only to be struck by four bombs. She burned like a torch. And still the
Luftwaffe were not finished. "HMS Saladin" was attacked ten times, she made it home, but took no further part in the evacuation.
Fast Boats Pages
Joe Wezley Pages
Near misses were detonating the ammunitions
A near-miss detonated a depth charge aboard "HMS Bideford," blowing her stern away. under tow she carried 400 troops back to Britain. Twenty-four warships and merchantmen were sunk this day and twelve more were badly damaged.
The British were not dying, they were not drowning, they were not surrendering. They were escaping. "Black Wednesday" it might be, but more than 47,000 had been transported back to England; to fight another day. 70,000 in total since Dynamo began.
By the end of Dynamo 338,226 men had been ferried across the Channel. The Royal and Merchant Navies had never faulted in their duties.
Winston Churchill said: We must be very careful not to assign to
this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations."
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RN at Dunkirk
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