The story of HMS Venomous

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Children escape besieged Boulogne on HMS Venomous
Boulogne, 22 May 1940

German forces had reached the coast near Abbeville and were sweeping north east towards the Channel ports. Boulogne was the last major town barring their way to Calais and Dunkirk.The Welsh and Irish Guards were to be taken to Boulogne on requisitioned peacetime ferries to reinforce the defence of  the harbour city. Their escorts would be HMS Keith and seven V & W destroyers. When HMS Venomous returned to Dover from Calais at 18.00 on the 21 May Lt Cdr John McBeath RN was told to prepare to escort the Isle of Man ferry, Mona Queen, to Boulogne the following day.

A collection of stunning photographs taken by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR include pictures of upright nuns in starched white head-dresses with young girls in smart uniforms on the deck of Venomous as it left Boulogne's harbour (see page 106 of A Hard Fought Ship, 2017). Who were these children and would they ever return to their homes again?

Mona Queen, 22May 1940Unloading Mona Queen at Boulogne
Disembarking troops alongside Gare Maritime, Boulogne, 22 May 1940Mona Queen alongside Gare Maritime, viewed from HMS Venomous, 22 May 1940
Top: Venomous escorted Mona Queen to Boulogne where the troops unloaded stores
Bottom: Troops disembarking from the Mona Queen at Boulogne on the 22 May 1940

Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Venomous and Mona Queen left Dover at 10.00 and berthed alongside the Gare Maritime on the west side of the narrow inner harbour where the troops were photographed disembarking with their stores. Soon the quayside was crowded with men and women hoping to escape the encircled city. The only means of escape was by sea.

They included four sisters of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, easily recognisable by their large distinctive starched cornettes (head-dresses). Sister Marie-Marthe Dumont, Sister Jeann Andres, Sister Roudolet and Sister (Lilly Sophie) Ross who was seventy years old and had been at the orphanage since 1913 but was born in London. They were accompanying thirty two girls, some as young as five, from the Daughters of Charity's orphanage on the  Boulevard Daunou and two young women teachers, Renée Mottot and Thérèse Toulotte Jacque.

The children had no idea they were to leave France that morning until they were told that they were to go immediately to the harbour. They walked along the Boulevard Daunou following the river Liane and crossed the swing bridge, the Ponte Marguet, to reach the railway quay, Quai Chanzy, where HMS Venomous and the Mona Queen were berthed. The quay was crowded with refugees hoping to escape the besieged city but the children with the nuns and teachers were amongst the first allowed aboard Venomous. The Sisters hoped to escape with the children to their House at Valognes on the Cherbourg peninsula in Normandy - but Venomous was heading straight back to England.

Venomous leaving Boulogne, deck crowded with refugees, on 22 May 1940HMS Venomous leaving Boulogne on the 22 May 1940
Two photographs of HMS Venomous leaving Boulogne with the sisters and orphan children aboard
The swing bridge, the Ponte Marguet, is visible in the distance and in the photograph on the right a crane on the Quai Chanzy can be seen

Courtesy of Sheena Mackenzie (left) and Erica Pountney (right)

Gisele Gregson was the French born wife of a successful British businessman in Calais, George Gregson, a veteran of the Great War, who left their home on the 15 May to join the British Army. Gisele was determined to get to England where her two sons were boarders at Kings School. She set off in the family car to try and reach Dieppe but was turned back to Boulogne and used her husband's British passport to get a boarding pass for HMS Venomous. She described the voyage to England in a letter to her husband about her adventures written the day after being reunited with her sons at Folkestone:

"The sailors of the destroyer were admirable, giving food and drink to all. Two French children with their grandmother, who had been wounded, were being treated. During the crossing, which was amazing, one hour from Boulogne to Folkestone, Boche planes tried to bomb us, but the ship's guns and the Hurricanes escort defended us and I wept with relief when landing."

George Gregson never received her letter and it was some time before he knew she was safe and in England. He returned to his home in Calais and was interned at Tost in Upper Silesia until 1944.

Venomous left Boulogne with 212 refugees including the thirty-two orphan children, all girls, plus the four nuns and two teachers. As Venomous drew away  from the quay alongside the Gare Maritime the refugees crowding the deck (left) were photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR with the hotels and commerical buildings on the far side of the harbour visible in the background. The head-dress of the Sisters and some of the children can be clearly seen.

he Mona Queen which brought the Guards to defend Boulogne returned to Dover with two thousand non-combatant troops aboard. A week later on the 29 May the Mona Queen hit a mine while evacuating the troops from Dunkirk with great loss of life amongst the Isle of Man crew.

The children are wearing the attractive uniform of the orphanage including distinctive flat topped hats and cloaks with hoods attached. The Sisters and their young charges were the first to be taken aboard HMS Venomous, the last ship to leave. A young man brought his heavily pregnant wife aboard but then decided to remain behind. The ship was so crowded thst they had to remain on deck and twelve year old Marie Paul Sergeant described how as they left the harbour they were fired at by two German planes. They were told to lie down and the English sailors fired back and drove off the attacking German aircraft. Sydney Compston, a gunner on Venomous, recalled that, "although exposed to the greatest danger they were as good as gold - not a murmur".

They were landed at Folkestone and spent two days in a reception centre where everybody including the well-dressed young children were disinfected.  The young pregnant woman gave birth to a boy the day after they landed. Gisele Gregson was reunited with her two sons, boarders at Kings School, in Canterbury, on the quayside at Folkestone but did not see her husband until he was repatriated in 1944.

Nuns and orphans on Venomous, 22 May 1940
Refugees aboard HMS Venomous at Calais on the 21 May 1940
These two photographs were taken by Lt Peter Kershaw on the 22 May 1940
The first is on page 83 of A Hard Fought Ship but the second was only discovered recently amongst the private papers of Lt Cdr Angus A. Mackenzie RNR.
Mackenzie was "No 1" to Lt Cdr John McBeath

After Boulogne had fallen and France had surrendered to the occupying forces, Sister Leplat, Sister Superior of the Boulogne Community wrote to the Superior General at the Mother House in Paris:

"I asked Our Mother Chaplain to give permission to evacuate our children to Valognes (Manche) in case of danger but the German advance has been so rapid that it was impossible to flee except by boat. They embarked on Wednesday 22 May and after an anxious time  we have learnt they have arrived safely in England: we do not know where they are or if they were able to get to Normandy. They were acconpanied by Sister Ross, an English Sister, Sister Dumont, Sister Andres and Sister Roudolet. If you have any news, my most honoured mother we would be very happy to have it for we have been suffering in ignorance for a long time because we do not know their whereabouts."

The story of the voyage of the Daughters of Charity and the orphans to England and what happened to them after their arrival at Dover was uncovered by e-mailing these photographs to a journalist at La Voix du Nord. His story in the paper's Boulogne edition on the 16 June 2011 was read by two of the orphan children, Jacqueline Vicart, who was only five at the time and Marie-Paule Sergent who was twelve, and they described what happened after their arrival in England.

Sister Marie-Marthe, Sister Marie, Sister Jeanne and the young girls went to London where they were interned for two months before spending eight months in a beautiful large house provided by the government. During air raids they gathered round a grand piano and as one of the Sisters played they sang aloud to drown the noise of the attacking planes and keep their spirits up.

When London became too dangerous the children and the four sisters and two young teachers,  Renée Mottot and Thérèse Toulotte, were sent to the Smyllum Park Orphanage in the small town of Lanark midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. The orphanage looked like a castle and had its own farm, a school and was set in many acres of land. It was run by the Daughters of Charity in Britain but the young French children remained in the care of the French Sisters. They were told that the big house had been the castle of William Wallace but the truth was less romantic. It had been built about 1760 for Dr William Smellie (1697-1763), a renowned gynaecologist. 

Smyllum orphanage, Lanark, Scotland.The estate surrounding Smyllum orphanage, Lnark.
The house and grounds of Smyllum Park Orphanage
Courtesy of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul

Lanark like most country towns received large numbers of evacuess from nearby cities which suffered from heavy bombing; in April 1941 alone 2,850 children arrived from Glasgow. There were also large number of servicemen stationed at bases nearby as recorded in this private diary entry for 1940: "During the end of June and early in July thousands of Polish and French soldiers arrived and went into camps at Biggar, Coulter, Douglas, Symington, Abington and Crawford. Crowds of soldiers visited Lanark at night and later many Polish Officers and wives stayed in the town." The town must have been a lively place.
The children were well looked after and happy at Smyllum and were able to keep in touch with their families in France via the Red Cross. Although Jacqueline Vicart was very young she was able to remember all their names from the positions where they slept in the dormitory:

Angeline Laurent, Virginie Huleu, Marie Huchin, Louise Langlois (died in Scotland, heart disease), Marie-Paule Sergent, Gisèle Brebion, Claude Sauvage, Yvette Péta, Georgette Sergent, Isabelle Bocquet, Thérèse Delcourt, Suzanne Lamirant, Dorothée Tricot, Huguette Tricot, Monique Péta, Edmonde Leroy, Lucile Leprêtre, Marie-Rose Dolet, Marie-Madeleine Condette, Louisette Pourre, Rosette Pourre, Irène Dolet, Huguette Leroy, Renée Zarcas, Andrée Comine, Renée Péta, Félicie Froment, Renée Condette, Lucienne Dufeutrel, Andrée Daguebert, Agnès Galopin and Jacqueline Vicart.

The French orpans from Boulogne at Smyllum orphanage, 1942.

They soon grew out  of the clothes they were wearing when they left Boulogne and were wearing a rather drab looking outfit when they were photographed at Smyllum in 1942. They were taught together as a group but Marie-Paul Sergent went to the orphanage school when she got older and learned to speak English. Young American soldiers from a nearby American base were very friendly to the children and a childless Scottish couple who lived nearby welcomed them into their home. They were also invited by charitable organisation to visit Edinburgh, Glasgow and even London where they met General de Gaulle.

Christmas Part for children of the Uniuted Nations at Glasgow, 19 Dec 1942
Christmas Party for children of the "United Nations" at Oakfield House, 18 Great George Street, Glasgow on the 19 December 1942
The name "United Nations", coined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was first used in the "Declaration by United Nations" of 1 January 1942,
when representatives of 26 nations pledged their governments to continue fighting together against the Axis Powers.

BlondeelThe older children grew up and became young women while living at Smyllum. Two of them joined the Free French Forces in Great Britain. Julienne Blondeel (the photograph, right, was taken in 1944) was 14 years old in 1940 and had lost her father the year before. Andrée Daguebert was 17 years old and had lost her parents in 1934. She was an apprentice sewer in the orphanage. When the girls arrived in Scotland, Andrée remained with the others, helping the Sisters to take care of them. She then worked for French priests before becoming an apprentice nurse. During the summer of 1944, both girls, aged 18 and 21, enlisted in the Corps des Volontaires Françaises, the female unit of the Free French Forces in Great Britain.

Sébastien Albertelli supplied these brief details of the two young women who joined the Corps des Volontaires Françaises. Sébastien Albertelli is a French historian living in Paris who is writing a book about the Corps, the equivalent of our Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women's branch of the British Army. It has the provisional title of Elles ont suivi de Gaulle: Histoire du Corps des Volontaires Francaises (They Followed de Gaulle: History of the French ATS) and will be published by Perrin. If you have any information which would be of assistance to Sébastien Albertelli please click on the link to contact him by e-mail.

Victory at Smyllum Orphanage, 1945.

When the war ended they put on a patriotic tableaux featuring  Marie-Paule Sergent as the Virgin Mary with one child in sailor uniform holding the flag of the Cross of Lorraine and Jacqueline carrying the American flag - with the Union Jack and the Scottish flag held by boys in army uniforms.

The orphans at Smyllum
This photograph was taken in 1944 shortly before the death of 21 year old Louise Langlois, fifth from the left in the back row
Courtesy of Jacqueline Vicart, second from right in the front row

Sadly, Louise Langlois died in St Mary's Hospital on the 25 January 1945 from acute broncho-pneumonia (she had a weak heart). Louise, the orphan child of Louis F.J. Langlois, a journalist, was 21 and employed as a domestic servant at Smyllum. Her death was reported by a friend, Genevieve Mendolet. Sister Ross who was born in  London and was now 75 remained at Smyllum where she died in 1952. One of the French sisters also remained at Smyllum. The remainder of the orphan children, the two other sisters and the two teachers returned to Boulogne via Dieppe and Paris in 1945. They returned to a city devastated by war where the orphanage on the Boulevard Danau once again became their their home and the older children had to go out to work, make new friends and, eventually, have families of their own.

In 1955 the friendly Scottish couple who had been so kind to them died and left their estate to the orphan children, each of whom received the equivalent of two thousand Euros. The orphanage closed in 1974, the facade of the "castle" remains but the interior was gutted and converted into luxury flats and a housing estate built on the grounds.

Return to Lanark after Sixty Six Years
Tuesday 6 September 2011

Marie-Paul Sergent had been talking for years about revisiting Lanark and when the article in La Voix du Nord led to her meeting Jacqueline Vicart they decided to go together. As 83 year old  Marie-Paul Sergent said, "it's never too late to do a good thing." They flew to Edinburgh on Sunday 4 September 2011 to revisit the town where they spent five happy years far removed from the war in Europe.

They were met at on a wet and dreary Tuesday at Lanark station by Edith Ryan, a French speaking member of Lanark's twinning association, and a reporter and photographer from the Lanark Gazette. Father Brannigan, the priest at St Mary's, the Catholic church, took them to meet the retired nuns still living in the town who "treated them like princesses" and to see the former Smyllum Orphanage now converted into luxury apartments.

Jacqueline Vicart (right) and Marie Paul Sergeant (left) with "Anna", daughter of the caretaker atSmyllum, Lanark.
Marie Paul Sergeant (left) and Jacqueline Vicart (right) with Anne, the niece of the caretaker at Smyllum, on the steps at Smyllum

Father Brannigan also arranged a meeting with Anne McAllister (neé Mulligan), the niece of the caretaker at the orphanage during the war. She and Marie Paul had played together daily when Marie Paul returned from school. Marie Marie Paul and Anne fell into each others arms.

Posing with bagpipe player in EdinburghBy the gate into the field where Jacqueling played, Lanark
Left: In front of Edinburgh Station     Right: Marie-Paul Sergent (left) with Anne by the gate into the field where the children played.

Jacqueline recognised a gate into a field which she used to run across as a child and they visited the communal grave where one of their friends
, Louise Langlois, who died a few months before they returned to France, was buried. Their return to Lanark was a very emotional experience for both and was reported on the front page of the Lanark Gazette and in the Boulogne edition of La Voix du Nord.


This account of the adventures of the children photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR on the deck of HMS Venomous on the 22 May 1940 is entirely based on the memories of five year old Jacqueline Vicart, twelve year old Marie-Paule Sergent, sixteen year old Gisèle Brebion and Huguette Leroy.

In February 2012 at the invitation of Jacqueline Vicart and Marie-Paule Sergent I spent three days in Boulogne with my wife, who speaks fluent French, and we saw for ourselves where the orphanage used to stand on the Boulevard Daunou and followed the route the children took to where HMS Venomous was berthed alongside the Gare Maritime. Our visit was reported by Frédéric Vaillant in La Voix du Nord.

Sadly, the orphanage was demolished thirty years ago, the course of the river diverted and most of the hotels and commercial buildings lining the opposite side of the river were destroyed by allied bombing in 1944. The close links between Boulogne and Britain suffered when the channel ferry ceased to run but the harbour itself though little used is also little changed from its appearance in May 1940 when on successive days HMS Venomous and its sister ships escorted the ferries which brought the Welsh and Irish Guards to reinforce the defence of the city only to return the next day to evacuate the troops as German forces closed in.

Boulogne, Feb 2012Boulogne, Feb 2012Boulogne, Feb 2012Boulogne, Feb 2012
Top from left: Bill shows Jacqueline Vicart and Marie-Paul Sergent the photographs taken aboard HMS Venomous and they show us the site of the orphanage in the Boulevard Daunou with Frederic Vailant on the right
Bottom from left: Marie-Paul Sergent, Bill Forster and Jaqueline Vicart on the fish quay with the Quai Chanzy where HMS Venomous berthed in May 1940 on the opposite bank.
The bend in the entrance to the narrow harbour with the two jetties projecting into the sea at dusk.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Sister Joan Conroy, Archivist at the Daughters of Charities House at Mill Hill in north London, who obtained a copy of the letter written by the Sister Superior at the Boulogne Community to the Superior General at the Mother House in Paris and also provided the photographs of the Smyllum orphanage and of Paul Archibald of the Lanark Local Studies Library who provided background information about conditions in Lanark during the war.

I am particularly indebted to Frédéric Vaillant, the reporter at
La Voix du Nord whose articles on the 16 and 19 June 2011 were read by the "children". And, of course, to the children themselves, most of whom are now grandmothers.

Bill Forster,
Holywell House Publishing

The following day HMS Venomous returned to Boulogne with six sister ships and fought off German tanks and planes to bring back the troops
Read the story of Lt Cdr Colin G.W. Donald RN who was killed by a sniper while commanding HMS Vimy at Boulogne on the 23 May 1940

The story of HMS Venomous is told by Bob Moore and Captain John Rodgaard USN (Ret) in
A Hard Fought Ship
  Buy the new hardback edition online for £35 post free in the UK
Take a look at the Contents Page and List of Illustrations

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