A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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CHAPTER SIX

Dunkirk
May 1940


The evacuation of the troops from Dunkirk began on the 27 May while HMS Venomous was under repair in her home port of Devonport, Plymouth. This chapter sets the five trips made by Venomous to the beaches east of Dunkirk and the East Mole at the entrance to Dunkirk harbour in context of the plans drawn up by Vice-Admiral Betram Home Ramsay RN at Dover (VAD) for the evacuation of the BEF and includes the role of Capt William Tennant RN, the SNO at Dunkirk, and the role of the naval beach parties and that of Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker RN (Rear Admiral Dover) directing the evacuation from his flagships offshore.

Within four hours of Venomous arriving at Dover at dusk on the 30 May she left for Dunkirk and over the next five days and nights made five trips and brought back 4,410 troops. It combines first hand accounts by the men on Venomous and some of the soldiers who returned to Dover in her with quotations from the official report written by Lt Cdr McBeath  RN and others. The end notes include links to these reports, online interview in the IWM sound archive and a recording of a popular song played over the tannoy whenever Venomous left the harbour at Dover for Dunkirk.

Illustrations

A US Army map of Dunkirk in 1943 showing the east and west moles and the inner harbour
Courtesy of the University of Texas Map Library

HMS Malcolm approaching the entrance to Dunkirk with the arm of the eastern Mole on the left
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

HMS Basilisk alongside the Mole at Dunkirk
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Troops boarding HMS Vanquisher, a sister ship of Venomous, at the mole
IWM Image Reference HU 1153. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

HMS Venomous  lowers its whaler off the beaches at Dunkirk
From the collection of Cdr R. Bill RN, the CO of the minesweepers off Dunkirk
IWM Image Reference HU 56091. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Capt David “Basil” Dykes
Courtesy of Nicholas Dykes

Evacuating French troops from Dunkirk on the last night
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Distant view of Dunkirk skyline
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Giant plume of smoke over Dunkirk from exploding oil tanks as Venomous leaves Dunkirk for the last time
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR.

Venomous and sister ships wait to berth at Dover after the last trip to Dunkirk
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR
 
French troops disembarking at Dover from Venomous, 2 June 1940
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR


Notes


1. Winston Churchill addressing the Commons on the War Situation, 4 June 1940. See Hansard: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1940/jun/04/war-situation#S5CV0361P0_19400604_HOC_231

2. The main source for the role played by HMS Venomous in Operation Dynamo is McBeath’s report to Captain (D) 16th Destroyer Flotilla dated the 6 June 1940. The figures given for the number of troops brought back on the five trips Venomous made to France differ from those recorded as being landed at Dover. It can be seen here: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Dunkirk.html

3. Vice-Admiral Somerville’s account of his meeting with Nicholson at the Gare Maritime in Calais on the 25 May 1940  is contained in the Somerville Papers (Ref. GBR/0014/SMVL) in the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge, and published by the Navy Records Society, vol. 134 (1995).

4.  Events at Calais between 21 – 6 May 1940 are described in a six page report in Narrative of Operations conducted from Dover in the War Diaries for Dover Command for February – December 1940 (NA ADM 199/360). Brigadier Claude Nicholson (1898-1943), the Senior British Officer (SBO) at Oflag IX A/Z, Rotenburg, took his own life on 26 June 1943, the third anniversary of the surrender. His private diary is in the National Archives at Kew, WO217/1.

5.  The report of Captain William Tennant RN at the National Archives is contained in Operation "Dynamo": evacuation of troops from Dunkirk (NA ADM 199/788A), page 342,  et seq.
 
6. See Rear-Admiral, Dover - Report of Proceedings, 29 May – 3 June in Operation "Dynamo": evacuation of troops from Dunkirk (NA ADM 199/788A), page 342, et seq. The reports of Capt John Howson RN and the naval officers in charge of the landing parties on the three beaches are also in ADM 199/788A.

7.  On the 1 June there was an eleven foot difference between high and low tide. The tidal range also presented problems at the East Mole when troops had to jump or slide down telegraph poles to the decks of destroyers at low water. For an explanation of the effect of the tide on the evacuation see the Dunkirk Revisited web site: http://www.dunkirk-revisited.co.uk/Dunkirk%20Revisited%20-%20Chapter%20III.pdf

8.  Mackenzie was quoted by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR in his “Remeniscences” sent to Bob Moore with extracts from his private diary, captions for his photographs and a covering letter on the 22 September 1987 which are in Bob Moore’s private papers.

9.  For copyright reasons Thames Television’s interview with Rear-Admiral McBeath RN in 1972 (IWM Sound Archive, Ref. 2808) can only be heard by visiting the Imperial War Museum: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80002794
 
10. Begin the Beguine (Cole Porter) played by the Joe Loss Orchestra, sung by Chick Henderson and recorded by Regal Zonophone in 1939 became the first record to sell over a million copies. It can be heard on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJ_Y3AGYRs8

11.  Thames Television, opcit 9.

12.  Opcit 6

13. McBeath also paid tribute to “the outstanding efficiency and devotion to duty of my executive officer “ Lt Angus A. Mackenzie RNR. McBeath’s RoP. Ibid 2.
 
14. For more about Gala see: http://www.adls.org.uk/t1/node/601

15.  Thames Television. Opcit 9.

16.  Opcit 2.
 
17. Naval signal 2000/31 from Venomous to VAD. Pilot Officer R.W. Stokes, crash landed his plane at RAF Manston, near Ramsgate, Kent. The naval signals sent and received by her Wireless Telegraphy Operator, Eric Arnold Poultney, on the 31 May 1940 can be seen here http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/naval_signals-Dunkirk.html

18.  Peter C. Smith, Hold the Narrow Sea (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 53.

19.  MTB 102 is owned by the MTB 102 Trust and you can read about her on their web site: http://www.mtb102.com/

20.  In his RoP (Opcit 2) McBeath states that he was assisted to berth by MA/SB 10.

21.
  Walter Lord The Miracle of Dunkirk (London: Allen Lane, 1982).

22.   Brian Gotto described in a privately published memoir how, close to exhaustion, his father failed to identify himself when challenged and pretended to draw a gun and would have been arrested had he not been identified by another naval officer in Capt Tennant’s team.  Renfrew: a short biography of Captain Renfrew Gotto CBE DSO, Royal Navy; by Brian Gotto. Published privately, 2009.

23.  Corporal King fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa and escaped capture when Tobruk fell. He was commissioned and left the army after six and a half years as Capt D. King. He had a successful career in banking and Sergeant Lou Warn was one of his customers.

24.  Sergeant L. F. Warn’s account was originally published in Hard Lying, the magazine of the V&W Association in June 1999, but an extended version appeared later in Hard Lying: The Story of the V and W Class Destroyers and the Men Who Sailed in Them by Cliff Fairweather (Avalon Associates 2005). ISBN 0952944049. Page 77.

25. The figures given by McBeath in his report for the number of troops brought back on the five trips Venomous made to France differ from those recorded as being landed at Dover.

 26.  These details are taken from the BBC interview with McBeath which is in the Sound Collection of the Imperial War Museum: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80001060

27. On his return from Dunkirk Capt David “Basil” W Dykes (1911-92) was recruited by MI5 and worked with SOE agents in the UK and in France in 1944 and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. The ms of his wartime service was found in the loft of the family home by his son and daughter and published along with Lord John Gort's Reports as Dunkirk (Ledbury: Lathé Biosas Publishing, 2 June 2017).

28. General Harold Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis (1891-1969), was Commander-in-Chief of Allied Land Forces in Burma and then CiC of Middle East Command, responsible for overall conduct of the campaign in the desert of North Africa. After the surrender of Axis Forces in Tunisia in May 1943 Alexander commanded the 15th Army Group during the invasions of Sicily and Italy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Alexander,_1st_Earl_Alexander_of_Tunis
Lieutenant General Arthur Ernest Percival (1887-1966) was appointed General Officer Commanding (GOC) Malaya in April 1941 and was blamed for the surrender of Singapore in February 1942. He was a PoW in Manchuria for the remainder of the war. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Percival

29. Lt Christopher W.S. Dreyer, the CO of MTB 102, claimed in an interview recorded by the IWM in 1985 to have also taken General Alexander back from Dunkirk but the details given by Lt Cdr John McBeath RN when interviewed by the BBC 25 years earlier are persuasive and confirmed by Lt Angus Mackenzie RN.

30. Anthony Preston, V and W Class Destroyers 1917-1945 (London: MacDonald & Co. Ltd., 1971).

31. Ibid., pp. 77-8.

32. Whitehall Histories: Naval Staff Histories, The Evacuation of Dunkirk 'Operation Dynamo’, 26 May - 4 June 1940, Senior Editor: Capt Christopher Page, RN Retired and Editor, Mr. W.J.R. Gardner (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000).

33. The names of all the officers and men in HMS Venomous on 31 May 1940 can be seen as a PDF on the publisher’s website: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Crew_Lists/HMS%20Venomous%20-%2031%20May%201940.htm




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