Saturday, 29 May 2010

The RNLI at Dunkirk 1940

To mark last Friday's release of Dunkirk the movie, I'm re-publishig a blog I wrote in May 2010 on the RNLI's role in the rescue. It's an eye-opener and I hope you enjoy it.

Last week, I featured the Royal Escape Race, and on Friday went to Brighton seafront to watch the start. It was surprisingly exciting to see the flotilla glide from Brighton Marina, assemble, turn towards the sea as one, then BANG, race off to the west.

The Escape Race commemorates the flight of Charles 11 from England to France. Today, I'm featuring another flight, but this time going the other way; the flight of the British Expeditionary Force, (BEF) from Dunkirk to Dover.

When war broke out on 3 September 1939, the newly created British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was sent to take up a defensive position along the Franco-Belgian border. Its Commander-in-Chief was John Gort, and by early May 1940 he had 394,165 troops, and 200 tanks in place.

It didn't' last long. On 14th May, one German army group attacked the BEF, pushing them back to the French frontier, whilst another invaded France through the Ardennes. It left the BEF surrounded on three sides and after Gort's unsuccessful counter-attack at Arras, the order was given to withdraw to Dunkirk for evacuation to Britain.

It was a massive undertaking. On 26th May, Operation Dynamo was launched. An order was issued on BBC radio to all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30-100 feet in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty. Their role was to assist the Navy and RAF in the evacuation of the BEF and allied troops. Up to 900 vessels were involved including 39 Destroyers, 36 Minesweepers, 77 Trawlers, 26 Yachts, one of which was skippered by C.H Lightoller, a former officer on the Titanic, and some smaller craft. Between them they took 338,226 troops off the beaches at Dunkirk, including 40,000 from the French Army and 220,000 allied troops from Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Brest and Saint-Nazaire.

Dunkirk was repeatedly described as hell by those who were there. They were constantly attacked from the land and air as they waited helplessly on the flat sandy beaches. The sea was strewn with shipwrecks and bodies. The air stank of burning oil and buzzed with the sound of Stukas. Over 5,000 soldiers were killed, 235 vessels were destroyed, 106 aircraft were lost. Over 100,000 men were left behind and the tanks and large guns were abandoned. Despite the selfless courage that was shown throughout those 10 days, on 4th June 1940 Winston Churchill described what happened in France and Belgian as "a colossal military disaster."

Inevitably, the lifeboats were amongst the smaller craft involved in the evacuation. They had 145 motor lifeboats in their fleet and at 1.15 p.m on 30th May, received a phone call from the Ministry of Shipping asking them "to send as many lifeboats as possible as quickly as possible to Dover."1

The Ramsgate lifeboat, the Prudential, and the Lord Southborough from Margate, sailed direct to France. Another 17 lifeboats, including the Rosa Woodd and Phyllis Lunn from Shoreham, assembled at Dover.

As today, in 1940, the lifeboats were manned by skilled and experienced volunteers who knew the limitations and capabilities of their specially designed boats. Thus when the coxswain of the Hythe lifeboat, the Viscountess Wakefield, was told that he should run his 15 tonne lifeboat on to the Beaches, load up with troops and bring them back to England, he told them it was impossible. He also pressed for written assurances that their families would get pensions, should any of them be killed during the evacuation. The coxswains from Walmer and Dungeness supported him and they were in good company. This was one of Sir William Hillary's concerns when he originally founded the Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, (which became the RNLI), in 1824; that the bereaved families of the lifeboatmen should not be left destitute.

This apparent awkwardness was just too much to bear, "the harassed and overburdened Naval officers were organising..a complicated and perilous operation. They wanted boats. They wanted men. They wanted no more argument."2 They sent the coxswains packing and appropriated their boats. Fearing further arguments from the other coxswains, all the lifeboats answering the call were commandeered and sent to Dunkirk with Royal Naval and RNVR crews.

Eighteen lifeboats worked the beaches at Dunkirk. The nineteenth lifeboat worked in the English Channel rescuing men from ships and boats sunk en route by German aircraft.

James Hill Staff Captain, The Royal Fusiliers, recalls "a great big lifeboat came in, a lovely one...they all got on, and looked over the top and then, of course, the thing stuck on the sand with the weight of them... the Brigadier.. and half a dozen other good chaps got out, and they pushed and shoved, and gradually the lifeboat went off." The Thomas Kirk Wright from Poole, fared better as it was a surf lifeboat with a draft of only 76cm, still, one of her motors was put out of action by a crew unused to her propulsion system.

Turning to the two lifeboats that were manned by the RNLI, the Ramsgate lifeboat rescued 2,800 men and the Margate lifeboat crew were described as "an inspiration to us all as long as we live" by the commander of Icarus, a destroyer with which she worked on 30/31st May.

Apart from the Viscountess Wakefield, the lifeboats returned safely but damaged from Dunkirk. The Viscountess Wakefield did run around on the sands of La Panne and was the only lifeboat to be sunk during the operation.

Regarding the contribution made by the RNLI to the evacuation, "two facts are beyond dispute. The lifeboats did magnificent work at Dunkirk. But if they had been manned by RNLI crews they would have achieved even more."3

So, what happened when the men finally left the hell of Dunkirk? I'll let James Bradley, Gunner, The Royal Artillery, tell you;

"I fell asleep, and I don't know how long it took to get across the Channel, because I slept all the way. And the next thing I knew was a sailor standing over me shouting, "Wake-up!, wake-up! are you going ashore or aren't you going ashore?" ...Where are we?" I said, "where are we?', he said, "Dover, you bloody fool!" And I thought, "well, I don't even mind him swearing at me, it's Dover." So I pulled myself up and went off, went down the gangplank.

And I knew I was back in England..they'd got tables there with loads of tea and buns, and so forth, and I was ravenous. I think I ate six buns, which was greedy really. But I, my stomach was so empty! And then the military police where there too, and they were saying, "Keep moving, Keep moving! And they had the train in the station.

And I said, "Where's the train going?" Nobody knew, but anyway, "Get on the train, you must get out of here, must get out of here!" - because there were masses of troops coming off, although we were now very much the tail end. And then we drove across England and stopped at side stations, and people were all waving...the WVS.. and I thought, "Oh, this is England, you're worth fighting for!"

Ta-ra for now.

1 Riders of the Storm by Ian Cameron Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2002
2 Storm on the Waters by Charles Vince Hodder and Stoughton 1946
3 Riders. ibid

Friday, 21 May 2010

The Royal Escape Race

Hello and welcome to my blog. It's great to see you again.

As the temperature rises, the Independent Republic of Shoreham Beach comes into its' own. Parents cycle children to school, customers linger outside Bakery 2 and BBQ smoke mingles with birdsong. Come and join us.

Failing that, amble down to the end of Brighton Pier next Friday to watch the start of the largest offshore race on the South Coast outside of the Solent.

Eighty boats are involved this year and if you arrive at 7.30am, you'll see them jockey for position before the race starts at 8.00am.

They'll be racing to Fecamp, 67 nautical miles away and on arrival, will be greeted by the Mayor, local dignitaries and 100s of French and English supporters. Once the last boat has moored up, and the prizes have been awarded, the celebrations will begin. Not surprisingly, the Royal Escape Race has become a high point in both the Fecamp and Sussex Yacht Club calendars.

The Royal Escape Race was the brain-child of Linda Morgan, the PR officer for the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton in 1976. She contacted the Sussex Yacht Club with the idea of a race across the Channel to commemorate Charles 11's escape from Shoreham to Fecamp in 1651.

Charles 11's journey on the Surprise, was the final leg in his flight from Cromwell's troops after the Battle of Worcester, and the beginning of nine years in exile. Within two years of Cromwell's death in 1658, Parliament asked Charles to return as King and on his way back to England in 1660, Charles spoke to Samuel Pepys, the diarist, about his escape; " made me ready to weep to hear the stories that he told of his difficulties that he had passed through." Twenty years later, Charles dictated some more of his story to him;

"We went to a place, four miles off Shoreham, called Brighthelmstone, where we were to meet with the master of the ship, as thinking it more convenient to meet there than just at Shoreham, where the ship was. So when we came to the inn at Brighthelmstone we met with one, the merchant [Francis Mansell] who had hired the vessel, in company with her master [Tettersell], the merchant only knowing me, as having hired her only to carry over a person of quality that was escaped from the battle of Worcester without naming anybody."

The boat was supposed to be bound for Poole, but Charles explained, "As we were sailing the master came to me, and desired me that I would persuade his men to use their best endeavours with him to get him to set us on shore in France, the better to cover him from any suspicion thereof, upon which I went to the men, which were four and a boy."

When Charles returned in 1660, Captain Tettersell reminded Charles of that escape by sailing up the Thames and mooring the Surprise opposite the palace at Whitehall. Charles responded by giving Tettersell a commission from the Navy. The Surprise was commissioned as a fifth rate and renamed the Royal Escape.

The Royal Escape Race is now in its 34th year and one of this years competitors is the Moonlight Saunter.

The Moonlight Saunter is a 41 foot Feeling 416 fast cruiser owned and skippered by David Skinner, Captain of the Sailing section at Sussex Yacht Club and one of the clubs' former Commodores.

David has raced in 30 of the 34 Royal Escape Races. During that time he's notched up 4 second places, many top 10 finishes, and in 2004 was the overall winner.

He would be delighted to win again and this year is skippering a crew of 6 strong and experienced sailors and keeping his fingers crossed for a force 5 wind just off the bow. Whether he wins or not will be down to luck on the day as "races are won and lost in seconds."

Good luck to everyone taking part, particulary David and the crew of the Moonlight Saunter. I'll be waving a croissant at you from Brighton Pier.

Have a fabulous weekend and see you next week when I'll be writing about the part the RNLI played in the Dunkirk evacuation.


Friday, 14 May 2010

Congratulations all round.

Hello and welcome to my blog. It's lovely to see you again.

Well, what a momentous week! We finally got a government and, for the first time in over a 100 years, a cannon's been fired at Shoreham Fort.

In case you missed the full results for Worthing East and Shoreham, they were; T Loughton (C) 23,458; J Doyle (LD) 12,353; E Benn (Lab) 8,087; M Glennon (UKIP) 2,984; S Board (Green) 1,126; C Maltby (Eng Dem) 389. Turn out was 65.4% and T Loughton increased his majority from the 2005 election.

The local elections results for the Marine Ward were; Ben Stride (Ind) 1,299; Jennie Tindall (Green) 505; Peter Harvey (UKIP) 333; Nigel Sweet (Lab) 276. Turn-out was 70% and the Conservatives increased their majority on the Local Council.

I voted for Ben Stride because, as a beach resident, I thought he might want to support the tremendous work being done by the Friends of Shoreham Fort.

They were responsible for last Sundays' cannon firing, which was one of the high points of the Military History Day. The event raised over £400 for the Old Fort restoration fund and generated lots of local support. They're now hoping to secure a sponsor who can make the event a regular fixture in the Adur Festival.

If you couldn't make it last Sunday, here are some of the highlights;

the mid-day cannon fired by Fort Cumberland Guard.

the Paul Earley Military Drum Group.

the Royal Sussex Living History Group.

If you'd like to make a donation to the restoration fund or join the volunteers, please visit the Friends of Shoreham Fort website or contact Gary Baines on 07787 994815.

Next week, I'll be blogging on Charles 11 and the Royal Escape Race, one of the largest boat races on the South Coast.

See you then. Ta-ra.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Military History Day at Shoreham Fort.

Hello and welcome to my blog. Lovely to see you again.

Yesterday was polling day so the Beach School was empty and the playground was full. Business was brisk at the polling station. The supervising officer thought the turn out was higher than normal and I sensed excitement in the air. As I joined the steady stream of voters, I wondered whether this was history in the making. It wasn't, but it was nice whilst it lasted. Talking of which, have you seen the state of the Old Fort recently?

Friends of Shoreham Fort have been hard at work after the winter break, and are striding towards their aim to restore the Fort to the state it was in in the 1970s. The eastern gun emplacement (below left), has been restored but work cannot start on the western one, (below right), without more help or donations.

Not content with collecting rubbish, mowing, weeding, and lugging shingle up steep steps, they've also organised the Fort's very first Military History Day this Sunday, 9th May. It starts at 11am and ends at 4pm

The Fort Cumberland Guard are appearing in full Victorian military regalia to fire a cannon; arms used during the Forts' life will be on display; they'll be a round loading competition; Poole Earley Military Drum Group will be performing different Victorian drum beats and there will be a raffle and soft drinks.

This is the first time we've had an event like this and it helps to put us on the map. Please come along and support it.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Have a good weekend and see you next week.


Saturday, 1 May 2010

One Twelfth of a medal

Hello and welcome to my blog. Nice to see you.

It's another glorious day here on Shoreham Beach and it's been a delight to see the kite-surfers back in force. I love seeing the brightly coloured kites ducking and diving in the sky. It's like the wind's got all dressed up and gone to a party.

Talking of which, Sussex's party time kicks off today with the Brighton Festival. It bursts into life with the children's parade which heralds the start of eight weeks of county wide festivals. As the exciting Brighton Festival draws to a close, the rather high-brow Charleston Festival begins, and is overlapped by the community focused Steyning Festival. Then for 10 days you have a choice of enjoying their events or staying near the coast to enjoy the eclectic Adur Festival. The celebrations begins to wind down at the end of June with the Crawley Folk Festival.

Celebrations were the order of the day, in May 1945, when the Germans surrendered in Italy. I know because over the last few months I've been helping one of our oldest residents to write his war memoirs, "One Twelfth of a Medal."

Bill Earl will be 95 on the 12th May and served as a Nursing Orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 2nd July 1940 - 5th July 1946. As a Nursing Orderly 1, he was part of a team collecting the injured from the battlefield and treating them. They were unarmed and could only go out when there was a lull in the fighting or at night. If they got caught in a cross-fire or sudden attack, all they could do was dig a hole and take shelter.

Bill was part of the 214 Field Ambulance 56th London Division and saw action in North Africa and Italy. He was part of the invasion force at Salerno, briefly saw action at Monte Cassino and was almost killed at Anzio; one of the toughest, and arguably, most avoidable battles of the entire Italian campaign.

The Germans surrendered in Italy on 2nd May, and as it's the 65th anniversary tomorrow I thought I'd share an extract from Bill's memoirs.


22 January – 24 May 1945
General Alexander, (“Alexander of Tunis”), commanded the invasion force and there was little opposition when we landed. As hoped, we’d taken the Germans by surprise. He wanted to proceed straight to Rome as the roads seemed open. We were even told a jeep got to Rome and back without seeing any Germans. But General Mark Clarke and the other American generals said no, we must wait a few days to build up the forces and equipment.
I’m still furious about that decision because it cost thousands of lives. We should have gone to Rome when we could but instead we just sat there whilst the Germans built up their forces. They brought in their reserve troops and some from Monte Cassino so when we finally got the order to go forward, they were ready for us.
Anzio was terrifying. The fighting was constant. We must have been 2-3 miles inland and it was very, very bad. The Germans wanted to drive us back into the sea and we wanted to go forward. They positioned their main artillery on the Alban Hills so they could shell us from there and see everything that was happening. Our soldiers were on a Plain with the beach behind them. The only real place of shelter was the wadis and that’s where we were finally able to establish a Forward First Aid Post. The wadi must have been about 50-80 foot long and deep and was vital.
The battle was the closest we’d come to the trench warfare of the First World War. The front lines were so close we could shout to the Germans. For a few days there were no gains on either side and we couldn't get out to get the wounded. We managed to get some white cloth and drew a big red cross on it. We held it up and kept holding it up until both sides noticed and stopped shelling. When they stopped we rushed out to collect the casualties. At one point we had to walk through the German front line to get some of the injured. We were told to look straight ahead not left or right. Twice a day we went out, morning and evening. As soon as we got back to the first aid post and lowered the flag, the shelling started again. Despite the fierce shelling, the Germans never hit the First Aid Post.
During collection times we had to move the wounded we’d already treated back to the other dressing station and make room for those we were collecting from the battlefield. We had an elementary test to see if we could drive because if the driver was killed we had to take over. Ambulances couldn’t get up, so we had to adapt jeeps to carry stretchers on each side. One time we had an English officer on one side of the jeep and a German officer on the other.
Rome and the German surrender
After we’d defeated the Germans at Anzio we marched into Rome and rested. We’d lost 50% of the RAMC and needed reinforcements.
We were camped outside Rome and each day transport would take us into the city. As we disembarked young boys met us and tried to pull us off to go and visit their sisters. We were able to go sightseeing every day. I went to the Opera house to see the famous baritone, Tito Gobbi, in Tosca. But the highlight was to see the Pope in the Vatican. Every morning at 10.00am the Vatican was open to all serving personnel from every country to meet the Pope and see the Sistine Chapel and Vatican treasures. Although I’m not a Catholic, seeing the Pope was a moving experience and one I shall never forget.
Rome was liberated on June 4th. Two days later was D-Day and the Normandy Landings, so the Italian campaign became secondary. Some army divisions were withdrawn to France so no-more reinforcements, and equipment and armaments were rationed. That’s why we made slow progress up the Adriatic coast. I spoke to a gunner who told me that he only had 3 shells a day to fire. He used to fire them in the morning so he could have the rest of the day off.
We made our way up the coast via Ascola, Macerata, Rimini, and Forli. During this time there were many small skirmishes as the Germans were also withdrawing because of the second front. Although their army was depleted they were still a strong fighting force.
The Germans were finally defeated and surrendered on May 2nd 1945. Five days before war ended in Europe on 7th May. We were proud and happy to be the first of the allies on mainland Europe to accept the German surrender.
Back to the present now, I'm off to enjoy our son's 5th Birthday. Have a great Mayday and see you soon.