HMS Vimy at Dunkirk
Based on information from “The Royal Navy at Dunkirk”
by Martin Mace (2017)
made seven trips to Dunkirk under three COs and evacuated 3000 troops. The first
was on 27th May, under the command of Lt Cdr R G K Knowling, who
had taken over after Lt Cdr Colin Donald had been mortally wounded at
Boulogne on 23 May. She escorted transports and hospital ships to
Dunkirk and back to Dover; she did not go alongside, and no troops were
She sailed again at 2300 on 27th
May, setting a speed of 20 knots. At 2355 the Captain left the bridge
to go below, and shortly afterwards the ship altered course. As the
Captain had still not returned to the bridge by 0015 on 28th May the
ship was searched without success. Lt Cdr Knowling, who had a sprained
ankle, was probably lost overboard when the ship turned at high speed.
Lt Northey, the First Lieutenant , assumed command, and continued to
Dunkirk, where initially boats were launched off the beach to assist SS
Brighton Belle. The ship then
moved to the Mole (East Pier) where embarkation was assisted by a heavy
pall of smoke from burning buildings ashore.
After three sorties under Lt
Northey’s command, Lt Cdr M W Ewart Wentworth took over on 29th May for
a further three trips, the last being on 31st May. Vimy sailed again early on 1st June, but collided with HM Yacht Amulree, which sank. Vimy rescued Amulree’s entire crew and returned to Dover. HMS Vimy had sustained damage to her bow, and sailed for Portsmouth for repairs on 2nd June, taking no further part in Operation Dynamo.
Apart from early in the morning of
28th May all troop embarkation took place alongside the Mole (East
Pier). It appears that the Vimy’s boats were never recovered from SS Brighton Belle and the rescue of the Amulree’s crew was carried out using the one remaining boat – the skiff.
and neighbouring ships were under air attack on several occasions. On
the afternoon of the 27th the two hospital ships were attacked by two
twin engine aircraft. While off Dunkirk the town was continually bombed
by twin engine high level bombers. Vimy herself was not attacked but several bombers passed nearby, and the ship’s AA armaments were frequently in action.
On the afternoon of the 28th Vimy
and four other destroyers were attacked by about 20 Heinkel
bombers at high level in groups of three. The aircraft attempted to
attack from astern, dropping five heavy bombs from each aircraft. Vimy
had two near misses at 20 yards, one on the bow and one on the quarter.
There was no damage. Later while the ship was off Bray AA fire was
opened on several more bombers which flew over the ship to attack ships
further inshore. Once the ship was alongside the East pier flying
conditions deteriorated with low cloud and rain, and while aircraft
were seen and engaged there were no attacks.
Shore artillery shelling the pier
could make it difficult to get alongside, as in the late afternoon of
30th May when berthing was delayed.
There was one anti-submarine
action, on the morning of 31st May, when Vimy was en route Dunkirk at
20 knots and clearly sighted the periscope and conning tower of a
submarine. She dropped one depth charge and was joined by HMS
Sheldrake. Vimy later left Sheldrake to continue the hunt and continued
Two Grandfathers at Dunkirk
Both grandfathers of Shane Harley, who lives in Guernsey, were at
Dunkirk. Shane's maternal grandfather, Robert Holland, was serving in Vimy,
in the gunnery department, and may have stayed onboard throughout the
war. From his collection of pictures taken by the ship’s photographer
he was certainly at the Crossing the Line Ceremony in December 1941 or
January 1942 (which was disturbed when the asdic had a possible
submarine contact which turned out later to be a whale) and in
February 1943 when Vimy and HMS Beverley sank U187 off Iceland. He met
Shane’s grandmother when Vimy was based at Liverpool as a convoy escort.
The Gunnery Department in HMS Vimy - Robert Holland is third from left middle row Courtesy of Shane Harley
The 4 inch Gun in action Courtesy of Shane Harley
Shane’s paternal grandfather, Henry Harley, was born in Staffordshire in 1911. He joined the
2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters in 1930. After service in India
and Sudan the Battalion was in Guernsey in 1937, and when Private
Harley was transferred to the reserve in December 1937 he stayed on. He
married a local girl, who went to live in Newcastle under Lyme during
the German occupation of the Channel Islands, and Shane’s father was
born there in 1941.
The 2nd Battalion completed
mobilisation on 3rd September 1939 and sailed for France three weeks
later. For most of the time until the German invasion of Belgium on 10
May the battalion was employed in holding various defensive lines on
the French/Belgian border, though they did spend a short period in the
French Maginot Line to give them experience of opposing the Germans. On
11th May they moved forward to Brussels and held various defensive
positions to the east of the city. On 16th May the BEF started to
withdraw from Belgium, and continued moving west in stages until 26th
From The History of the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiments, 1919 - 1957; by C.N. Barclay
London: William Clowes, 1959
By then the Germans had reached the
Channel at Calais and Boulogne, and the BEF were trapped in a narrow
pocket extending about 60 miles south of Dunkirk. The 2nd Battalion was
facing west, as part of 1 Corps, 1st Division, 3rd Infantry Brigade.
They were withdrawn from the line with two other battalions, 3rd
Grenadier Guards and 2nd North Staffordshires, to march to Dunkirk for
evacuation. However General Alan Brooke, commanding 2 Corps, facing
east, was worried about a gap in his front line between 5th and 50th
Divisions, and on 27th May borrowed the three battalions to plug it.
The COs of 3rd Grenadiers and 2nd
North Staffs reported to 5th Division HQ and were briefed to carry out
an attack to push the Germans east, in which the Grenadiers were very
badly mauled. The CO and Adjutant of the Sherwood Foresters
were briefed to fill a dangerous gap in the 5th Division front line,
but were shortly afterwards hit by a bomb, which killed the Adjutant
and badly wounded the CO. Although the Battalion was unable to
find the gap they were required to fill they were able to take up a
position beside one of the battalions involved.
After holding the line on the 28th
May the 2nd Battalion moved north towards the Dunkirk beaches, losing
troops on the way due to misdirection. The remainder arrived at Bray
Dunes, 8 miles east of Dunkirk, early on 31st May, with Shane’s
grandfather carrying an injured comrade on a rifle. An attempt was made
to launch boats from the beach, but due to a contrary tide and the
inexperience of the men in boat handling this mostly failed, though 10
Officers and 20 men managed to embark. These must have included Henry
Harley, a strong swimmer, who with his mate Charlie Raisame swam two
miles out to a waiting destroyer.
The remaining 5 Officers and
120 Other Ranks marched along the beach to Dunkirk, arriving at the
Mole at about 1100, and returned to England in SS Malines. Vimy secured
alongside the Mole at 1300, and had to shift berth twice due to a
After two years service on home
defence the 2nd Battalion was sent to North Africa in early 1943 where
it took part in the final stages of the Tunisian campaign. In January
1944 they took part in the landings at Anzio under command of the US
Fifth Army, where they suffered extremely heavy casualties in some of
the fiercest fighting of the Italian Campaign so far. They later took
part in Operation Diadem and the assault on the Gothic Line. Henry
Harley transferred to the 2nd Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment in
July 1944 as a battle casualty replacement. This battalion also took
part in the assault on the Gothic Line and transferred to Palestine in
Harley returned to Guernsey after the war.
This story was told by Robert Pattinson to Radio Newcastle on 15 August 2005 and posted by them on the Peoples War website
"We were all on
the sand dunes about one and a half miles north of the port of Dunkirk,
we were constantly under attack from the German air force, we could see
a few ships out at sea but they were too far out to swim to. We were on
the beach for 2 days and then we were told to make our way to Dunkirk,
we had to take great care as we were still under attack from the air
and artillery. Some of our boys became casualties and we helped them
get to the port and on board HMS Vimy.
We were still being attacked from the air. The sailors gave us each a
loaf of bread — no butter. I enjoyed the bread very much as it was my
first food for 5 days. I was very hungry. We landed at Dover and the
first person I saw was a Salvation Army girl giving out an apple,
orange, and a bar of chocolate. It was like receiving 3 bars of gold.
There were hundreds of men on the railway station and about 7 trains.
We were told to get on any train, mixing all the regiments. There were
a number of our boys on the same train, so we were with friends. We
stopped at a number of stations; the platforms were full of people
giving us food and tea. What a wonderful welcome! I fell asleep and
after about 4 hours woke to see the train travelling amongst hills, I
thought we must be in Scotland. What a surprise when the train stopped
at Pembroke Docks, South Wales."