The story of HMS Venomous

OfficersRatingsV & W Class destroyersWhat's NewBuy the BookLinksHome

The West Family's
Escape from Calais to England
21 May 1940

Sidney West, a distant relative of Pierre Ratcliffe, also left Calais that day aboard a Royal Navy destroyer, possibly HMS Venomous. He and his elder brother, Robert, were born in Calais the sons of Frederick West, a staff Sergeant in the Royal Engineers, from Gillingham in Kent. In 1918 Frederick married Marguerite Louise Prudhomme, a bank clerk in Calais, and left the army to work as a maintenance engineer at Brampton Brothers. Sidney describes the family's escape to England and their mixed fortunes on arrival in England. They never returned to France.

"The decision to leave the country of our birth and go to England was taken very quickly without much consideration of the consequences on the 21 May 1940, a beautiful sunny day. Father had just returned from the British Consulate in Calais after being told that an important notice would be posted on the door of its office. The notice announced that a Royal Navy destroyer would be arriving at 1.00.pm to evacuate British Nationals and their families. We had been warned the previous evening that the employees of the Brampton Chain Factory, where father and Robert worked, were to be evacuated to the south to escape the rapidly advancing German forces but the latest news was that a Panzer Tank Division had sealed off the Pas-de-Calais at Abbeville making it impossible for British subjects to escape detention and internment by heading south!

A quick family conference took place to discuss what father had found out and our French grandparents reluctantly decided not to leave the home we shared. The breakup of the family was very upsetting to all of us. We did not even have enough time to pack a suitcase, only to take a rolled blanket each across our shoulders and a few personal documents.

The walk to the Gare Maritime seemed endless, despite being only about 3.5 kms. We had to pass through a barricade manned by English and French soldiers. They looked at our documents and let us through. On reaching the station we saw the abandoned cars of people we knew, we may have been the last family to arrive. We were guided to one of the corridors of the Gare Maritime. A young immaculate Naval Officer welcomed us, managing a smile while asking to see our documents yet again! Almost immediately the call to embark was sounded. Following the officer we negotiated a route around some parked cattle wagons, and saw for the first time the Royal Naval destroyer moored in front of us.

There was a warning call came from its deck that enemy aircraft's were approaching and we should take cover (we sheltered under one of the wagons nearby). Almost as soon as the announcement was made two Heinkel 111 bombers flew over, low enough for us to see the pilots, the sun glistening on their cockpits as they swerved over the Place D'armes, the northern square of the city. We could see them opening fire quite clearly, they could have been targeting people on the ground!

Refugees from Belgium and Holland sleeping on the pavements began to panic. The bombers returned having spotted the destroyer. A shout of 'Here they come again!'. We couldn't see them and assumed they were approaching from behind the Maritime Station. The whistle of bombs dropping were heard and explosions behind us, one in front of us just missing the stern of the ship, the soldiers manning the barricade were firing their rifles, the warship's pom-poms also opened fire.

We rushed on board, the steeply slopping gangway was not a problem, we were just so relieved to be aboard. We were ordered to lie down on the deck; we lay on top of each other, our arms around mother, who by then was hysterical. Time was of the essence; it was urgent that we cast off from the quay. Once free and reversing at high speed, the entire armourment of the ship was brought into action! A frightening deafening sound made the deck vibrate under our frightened bodies. We were surrounded by sailors, shouting orders to each other and rushing about.

Once out of the harbour we felt the rapid manoeuvres of the vessel as it changed direction and accelerated away towards the British coast. We found out later that zigzagging
to avoid air attacks was standard practice, although the noise of the guns and the powerful ship engines drowned any aircraft noise.

By now we were some distance from the French coast and it was safe to set a direct course for England. We found out that two Hurricane Fighter aircraft stationed at Marck Aerodrome near Calais had apparently come to our rescue by chasing away  the bombers so things became quieter. Robert managed to calm down mother. Sidney went in search of father who had momentarily disappeared. Guided by a member of the ships crew he found father negotiating a cup of tea for us all! There were plenty of helping hands around as this destroyer had another crew on board picked up after being torpedoed off the coast near Narvik (Norway) and redirected to pick us up, replying to an S.O.S message. We were quite humbled by this news. Then we became conscious of other people we knew who were still in shock from the experience which we had all witnessed.

Arrival in England

We docked in Folkestone, subdued and not knowing what was to become of us all. Disembarking we noticed a few onlookers who had gathered. When aware of who these civilians were getting off a warship, they managed a hand clap to reassure us, a very kind gesture. We were directed to the port offices, perhaps for some formalities. Robert and father went ahead, mother and Sidney lingered a while peering in the direction of the French coast, barely visible through the heat haze. We could hear rumbling sounds, most probably bombs still being dropped! Remembering what we had experienced just over an hour ago, plus the family separation which mother had not yet come to terms with, and still tearful, we went on our way.

When we had all been checked, we were shepherded to a waiting train. The word went round that we were heading for London. Still in shock we had very little to say to each other.

It was dark when we reached our destination, the train having moved into a siding. A policeman opened our carriage door. A short conversation took place with father. Not understanding English at that stage, we relied on father to interpret; even Robert who had some English lessons at school, looked puzzled. This made us realize that making ourselves understood  would be our first problem! Father explained that the policeman had told him that we should stay put and try to get some sleep. We were thankful for our treasured blanket, which we had brought with us and now put into use in a strange environment. I cannot say that we slept very well that night.

The clanging of the carriage doors signaled that morning had arrived and, perhaps, some news. We were all taken to a large cinema where some food and drink was provided. We were once again interviewed by officials, who checked our identity and wanted to know if we had any contacts and plans for the future. Father was determined that Manchester would be our first destination in the hope of contacting the head office  and main factory of the Reno!d Chain Company which was linked to Brampton's in Calais. The proceedings at the cinema took quite some time and then 'unannounced' music came from the direction of the stage and rising out of the orchestra pit came this cheerful organ music, this huge instrument all lit up as if it was something at the fairground, the musician playing the tunes, turning round as if to indicate 'I am doing this to cheer you up' and indeed, despite everything, our spirits were touched by this gesture.

The next day we traveled north to Dalton where father had an uncle, a branch of the family unknown to us, that our father had not seen for a number of years. They made us welcome but we only stayed for a short time as the uncle was quite elderly and living with his children. We were able to thank them for their hospitality by tidying up their garden.

We arrived eventually in Withenshawe, south of Manchester, and visited the main factory of Renold's Chain. Father was anxious to make contact with the firm and hoped perhaps that they could help us. We had no need to worry! The top man came to meet us, Sir Charles Renold himself no less, and then events moved very quickly. We were found some accommodation not far away, lodging with a lady and her two young daughters.

Next door was a very friendly schoolteacher and his family. He spoke a little French so we were able to talk with him. His two sons were eager to involve Robert and Sidney in a game of cricket thinking that coming from France their knowledge of the game would be non existent. Little did they know that Robert, now nineteen, had taken part in matches with the Calais cricket team, Sidney was less enthusiastic but went along anyway. This short encounter on a waste piece of ground at the back of their home was a success and as the game progressed everyone saw the funny side of it all!

Robert and father were constant visitors at the factory hoping that a job for them would eventually be found. Father had been a maintenance engineer at Brampton's in Calais for twenty years and Robert had not long finished his apprenticeship as a tool room operative. Naturally our wish for independence was always in our mind and by August everything seemed to come together. Father had found a house to rent, some second hand furniture had been chosen, and he and Robert were due to start work at Renold's main works. But alas this was not to be. A vacancy had occurred at another branch of Renold's in Coventry where the maintenance foreman was away ill and the job of charge hand was offered to father, therefore crushing all our present plans. Robert was naturally shocked at the news, as his position was again uncertain.

Problems of adjustment ...

We arrived in Coventry at the end of August 1940 and found lodgings at 95 Holyhead Road with a Mr and Mrs Gent within walking distance of the Renold's & Coventry Chain factory. Father started work almost straight away and Robert was also found employment after a short time in the tool room. At this point we all found our new situation rather difficult; father was in charge of a group of men who were probably resentful of somebody descending from who knows where and taking charge! Mother, not knowing the language and having to learn how to make herself understood, dealing with the shopping, the rationing and the worry of how her mum and dad were managing back in Calais (we had moved together to share a home only months before our separation). Sidney was having the same communication difficulties, starting school and coping with lessons.

Robert had already suffered from verbal bullying at school in France because he had an English name! Now he had similar problems beginning a new job in England. He had to put up with stupid nationalistic jibes  often fueled by the historical conflicts between the two countries, dating way back. This form of banter was the norm on either side of the Channel and there was a lot 'mickey' taking at the expense of this 'froggy'. Not all of the one hundred operatives in the tool room were as bad, but there was some who did not know when to stop. This affected Robert very badly but It was in his favour, however, that his skills were recognized and the management sometimes gave jobs to Robert that the others could not do and some operatives did not appreciate this. There was also the question of qualifications, in France your apprenticeship finished at 18, in this country at the age of 21. Robert accepted that he would be classified as an 'improver' and would be paid accordingly. He could not help the type of work given to him but some might have thought he was being favoured (the politics of a workshop are sometimes difficult to understand especially when, for some, combined with racist attitudes).

Robert tried to escape from his immediate problems. Socially he was quite popular. He had several friends and was interested in popular music. He became a very good ballroom dancer and a bit of a Disc Jockey. Despite this his nervous condition got the better of him, possibly partly due to parental pressures in France to do well at school. As a result he suffered from dyspepsia or aerophagie, a nervous stomach or gastric disorder. Father and mother may not have know about the problems he had at school in France and their effect on his health. The added trauma of being uprooted from France, the Coventry Blitz, the lack of sleep and the problems at work all combined to make a sensitive non violent person like Robert, who was inclined to bottle things up and not say very much, have a complete mental breakdown. The doctors advised sending him to 'Lee House', an annexe of Hatton Hospital, where patients with nervous debility could recuperate. There he met other people who were traumatized under  very different circumstances. Robert became quite friendly with a young Royal Air Force pilot who was undergoing treatment to help him recover from his experiences as a fighter pilot. Luckily he survived but was left with his nerves in tatters. They discovered a shared interest in drawing. The pilot had spent some time at a University before being called up and was also able to help Robert with his English.

We visited Robert as often as we could, traveling on the Midland Red Bus Services, hoping for his quick recovery and not enjoying this separation. Anyone unfamiliar with the nervous complaint from which he was suffering, might question the severity of his problems, but to him they were very real and needed understanding and  help. This came later when he met Margaret, his partner in life, who gave him the support he needed. Robert severed his link with engineering for a while but eventually returned with renewed enthusiasm and his commitment helped him gain the respect of many.

The grandparents we left behind ...

Our Mother continued to worry about her parents who we had left behind in Calais. We had only decided to live with them at 147 Rue Leavers late in 1938. They were now in their late seventies. Our French grandmother, Azéma Crochez, had been a well known dressmaker in Calais but was now suffering from arthritis. Our grandfather, Alfred Louis Prud'Homme, was also not in the best of health, but was still occasionally asked for advice, despite being in his eighties, by his former employer, the Venpoule and Duquenois Lacemaking Factory, in the Rue Des Quatre Coins, Calais. Mother found out that she could send short messages and small parcels to them through the Red Cross.

We learned much later that the German occupying forces obliged Calais citizens who had room to spare to provide accommodation; a billeting order was imposed upon them, whether they liked it or not! Our grandparents had three German soldiers staying with them for a while. They were very lucky that these young men had some respect for older folks or things would have been very different. They were more concerned about their future now that the invasion of Britain had been postponed; the possibility of being sent to the Russian front was their main worry. Only one supported the political aims of the Third Reich, the other two had families back in Germany, one was a family butcher and the other a farmer. As rationing began to bite extra rations from their canteen would be secretly brought back to their billet and was, I am sure, grudgingly accepted by grandfather who did not want them there at all! His attitude was shown on the occasion of a street search for someone who was supposedly harbouring a member of the Resistance. A lorry load of soldiers from the Wehrmacht carried out the raid. All the men in the Rue Leavers were arrested. At first our grandfather refused to be moved, only after the officer in charge placed his Luger revolver at his temple and ordered him to move, did he reluctantly respond and they were taken away. Much later they were set free. The search had proved negative, had it been different their fate would have been execution! The posters around the town were plain enough "Harbouring enemies of the Occupation Forces will mean death by Firing Squad". One can only imagine the anguish that this incident caused.

A more serious event took place much later, on 27 February 1945; an error of judgment by a Bomber Squadron of the Royal Air Force operating in a cloudy condition dropped bombs on Calais, instead of Dunkirk where a pocket of German Forces were still holding out. Calais had been liberated by the Canadians. Grandmother came out of 147 Rue Leavers, hurrying across the road to catch a builder, there was a repair job to be done on the roof. The time was 5.30 pm normal time for the exit of factories and schools, bombs fell out of the sky, grandmother had the misfortune to be in its path, her left foot was shattered by an exploding bomb, resulting in an amputation just below the knee. This was carried out by a Canadian Army doctor. She was one of 150 people who suffered a similar plight. The saddest thing was that 97 people lost their lives, 33 men, 48 women and 16 children under the age of 18. The town was in mourning. It was not the first bombing but this was the worst.

The news prompted mother to do everything in her power to return to France and give her mother and father moral support. The conflict was still going on whilst mother was organising her mercy trip to France. To get to Calais she had to take the train from Victoria station, London, to Newhaven and across to Dieppe, then to Paris and back north to Calais. She stayed with her parents for several months. She returned looking tired and much thinner but thankful she was able to do this. The next stage would be to make arrangements for our grandparents to come to England but we were still without permanent accommodation. We were eternally thankful for good neighbours in France, especially Monsieur et Madame Vasseur who had kept an eye on our grandparents for a very long time now, especially during the dark days of the Occupation."

The family lived in nine different houses between their arrival in England in May 1940 and 1949 when they were finally offered a permanent home by Coventry City Council at 37
Templars Fields, Canley, Coventry. They were still living in Coventry in 2003 when Sidney West wrote this description of their escape from Calais to England aboard a Royal Navy warship. It is taken from Pierre Ratcliffe's web site about his family which can be explored further by following this link.

Return to the Evacuation of British citizens from Calais in May 1940

The story of HMS Venomous is told by Bob Moore and Captain John Rodgaard USN (Ret) in
A Hard Fought Ship

‘Un livre captivant dont on ne peut que saluer la quantité et la qualité des recherches entreprises par les auteurs.
Un must pour tout lecteur intéressé pas l’histoire navale de cette période.’  
39/45 Magazine (Editions Heimdal)

Holywell House
Holywell House Publishing
88 Holywell Hill, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 1DH, Britain
Telephone: +44 1727 838595
contact online