Comm. A. A. C. Ouvry, DSC RN (Retd) PRELUDE TO DUNKIRK 1940
Lt.Cdr. Aymé Arthur Carrington Ouvry RN (1904-89) was CO
of HMS Westminster from December 1939 to August 1942. Westminster
was an elderly V & W Class destroyer built in 1918 which had been
given the increased anti-aircraft armament of a WAIR Conversion which
made her ideally equipped for escorting East Coast Convoys from her base
at Rosyth on the Forth Estuary to Sheerness on the Thames estuary.
the exception of two weeks in May 1940 described below Westminster remained an East Coast escort throughout the entire period of his command. Lt Cdr Arthur A.A. Ouvry RN was awarded the DSC for an action on 12 October 1941 in
defence of Convoy FN.31 when two e-boats were sunk which earned Westminster
the title of "E-boat Killer No 1".
He wrote this account of events at
Flushing (Vlissingen) on the Scheldt during the German invasion of the
Netherlands and at Dunkirk immediately prior to the evacuation of the
BEF in 1955 after leaving the Navy and while teaching at The New Beacon preparatory school in Sevenoaks and living at "The Warren",
the family home at Crockham Hill, Kent.
is fifteen years since the "Miracle of Dunkirk". So much has been
written of it, so much left untold. This story deals with the fortnight
preceding the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from
Dunkirk and, although insignificant compared with the epic of the
evacuation, it is true in all its details.
The bitter winter of 1939-1940 was over and, up and down the east coast
of England, the work of escorting Merchant Convoys continued. Incoming
ships from overseas, Coasters from the Tyne and Humber, had to be
shepherded down the narrow swept channel to London or the South Coast
ports, and others escorted back again.
For us of the Rosyth Escort Force, it was a fairly continuous round,
more particularly as our numbers had recently been reduced by the
departure of several escorts to take part in the Norwegian campaign.
The rest of us comprised a mixed bunch of somewhat elderly destroyers –
veterans of the last war mostly, though several had recently been
modernised and fitted with a new anti-aircraft armament which was
proving just what was wanted on this job.
It was the morning of May 10th that the fun started, while Westminster
was off St. Abbs and looking forward to boiler cleaning leave that
afternoon. We got an ‘immediate’ signal, ‘Open envelope A’, and out
came this old friend which we had been keeping for some weeks past
securely locked in the steel chest.
“Valentine, Whitley, Westminster, Vimiera
and some others” it read, “proceed to Dover with utmost despatch.
Complete with fuel and ammunition and proceed to Dunkirk, placing
yourselves under the orders of the French Admiral in charge.”
Well, that was clear enough except for the “utmost despatch” part, for
as we knew and the books confirmed, “with all despatch” meant “full
speed” and “utmost” rather implied faster still. We had just time, as
we turned back, to signal to Wolfhound,
our consort, to take over the convoy for the last lap up the estuary,
and then rang down 300 revolutions. I sent for the Chief, who appeared
with a monkey jacket over his overalls and wanted to know what all the
flap was about. We asked for his idea of “utmost despatch” and he
disappeared below again saying he would see what he could do.
HMS Westminster at speed Courtesy of Jeremy Ouvry
We were soon tearing along at full speed with everything vibrating and
humming in the wind and a great white wake piled up astern but, with
the tides as they were, we estimated we should only just make Dover
before dark. It was a perfect day with hot sun and the air as clear as
a bell, real weather for a pleasure cruise. All the same we were kept
busy making signals giving our requirements of fuel and ammunition on
arrival. These we managed to send by light through shore stations along
the coast as we passed, and so avoided breaking wireless silence.
We just made Dover by dusk and secured alongside the oiling jetty where
our orders awaited us, and these showed that there was to be no leave
and little sleep for anyone that night. We actually finished oiling by
0300 but were then told to sail with Vimiera at dawn, which was about an hour later.
The sun was just rising as we passed the breakwater and headed across the channel at 20 knots, Vimiera
following astern. The Sub, who was my navigator, assured us his
charts were corrected up to date, but the buoyed channel across our own
minefields was not too easy to find and we were even more doubtful
about the swept channel into Dunkirk. According to our information,
this was not the normal deep water fairway between two rows of buoys,
but a horrid little strip, 120 metres wide, between the southern row of
buoys and the shore. Vimiera confirmed our opinion but was no more
enthusiastic about it, but as he pointed out, since he was astern, if
we went ashore, he might be able to dodge us. However, our luck was in
as we overtook a French torpedo boat later and, deciding that he ought
to know the way, we followed him for the last few miles.
We anchored on arrival off the pier at the harbour entrance, that
pier [the North Mole where the destroyers berthed to embark the troops]
which was destined to become so well known to all of us and to the
We found Valentine and Whitley had already arrived, having been further south when they opened the fateful ‘envelope A’.
The British Naval Officer came out to see us with our orders and more
recent news of the war ashore. The Boche, it appeared, had invaded
Holland, and the British and French armies were advancing through
Belgium to support the Belgians and the Dutch. We were to cover their
seaward flank during this advance and, although only air opposition was
expected from the Germans, there was always the chance that they would
send down a force of destroyers and E boats. Less reassuring was the
news that, as we were to be operating in dangerous shallow water, we
were to land all our depth charges and secret books, and we spent a
busy forenoon hoisting out the former into a decrepit French fishing
boat with an even more decrepit derrick. All went well although my
Confidential Book Officer spent an anxious time trying to get a receipt
for his bags of books. I forget now who eventually gave him one,
probably the unfortunate Naval Liaison Officer who by then must have
dozens of such bags and nowhere to house them. I know he dumped some
with the British Consul as ten days later I was to spend a hectic
afternoon driving through bomb-shattered streets in a commandeered
lorry trying to retrieve them all for return to U.K. in another
Before leaving Dunkirk, the French authorities provided us with a
French pilot, a Warrant Officer in the Coastal Pilotage service,
together with a French Liaison Officer who spoke excellent English.
This was just as well as the Pilot’s Brittany dialect was quite
incomprehensible to us and, indeed gave our Liaison Officer more than a
little difficulty. Nevertheless, the pilot was reputed to know that
part of the coast well and he brought his own charts, which were horrid
thin paper things and looked as though they would be ruined by a drop
of rain or spray. Luckily they were never put to the test as the
weather remained perfect for weeks to come.
Our first commitment was to escort a French troop convoy to Flushing where two destroyers were to remain, while Westminster and Vimiera
were ordered to patrol off Nieuport. It was ominously quiet when we
continued our patrol the next day but we knew from signals sent by Valentine and Whitley
at Flushing that this was not the case elsewhere. Reports of heavy air
attacks and rapidly decreasing amounts of ‘ammunition remaining’ came
through at intervals throughout the day and we were not surprised when,
at about 2000, we got orders to proceed to relieve them forthwith.
It was not until after dark as we were feeling our way up a narrow
swept channel into the harbour that, suddenly and without warning, the
fun started. With a mighty roar, dozens of aircraft came over, flying
low, and streams of bright tracer poured out of the sky spraying the
waterfront and harbour with bullets. Sticks of bombs burst in the water
and on shore with bright orange flashes, but the aircraft themselves
were rarely visible. We opened fire whenever one could be seen, and the
blinking flash of our own foremost mounting completely blinded us all
on the bridge and make the task of entering the harbour extremely
tricky. However, we got in safely and then continued to steam slowly up
and down as it seemed unlikely that we would find a comfortable berth
to anchor; and so it proved, for attacks continued at short intervals
throughout the night, and bombs fell at time unpleasantly close.
On one occasion, after firing in the direction of an aircraft which was
momentarily illuminated, we thought we had obtained a hit as the crew
appeared to bale out. We saw two parachutes open and, through night
glasses, could just discern a shapeless black lump below each. We
altered course towards them in the hope of picking up some evidence
but, when halfway down, a heavy explosion occurred and the lower ‘body’
of one of them blew up and portions of burning parachute fluttered
slowly down. They were parachute mines and, as the second fell with a
big splash, we marked the place as one to avoid and hastily abandoned
the idea of picking up souvenirs.
Our opportunity came soon after when another machine came in low over
the water and a lucky shot from our four inch blew its tail clean off.
It crashed and burst into flames in the shallow water close to the
town, and was hailed as our first positive success of the commission.
All next day, the 13th May, the game continued. Waves of bombers came
over, both high and low, and were engaged by all the ships present and
such shore defences as existed. It appeared that these latter comprised
little more than a few machine guns which were, of course, quite
useless against the high level attacks. Whitley
joined us that evening and we spent another uncomfortable sleepless
night steaming up and down a crowded harbour engaging enemy aircraft.
In the middle of a particularly heavy air raid next morning, we got
another signal from Admiral Dunkirk ordering us to proceed to the Hook
of Holland, but on arrival there it appeared that events had been
moving fast and that the ‘party’ was over. We spent the night steaming
up and down awaiting an evacuating convoy which did not arrive and we
later heard had been cancelled. We were wondering what our next job
would be when we intercepted a signal from Admiralty stating that all
ships were to be clear of the French coast by daylight and that Westminster was to return to Dover.
So back we went and eventually arrived at Dover via the Downs by 1230/15.
On arrival, we proceeded to replenish ammunition and fuel but had no
sooner secured alongside the oiler than a signal arrived from the
French ordering us to return to Dunkirk with all despatch. I obtained
instructions from Vice Admiral Dover to complete fuelling first, during
which time more signals arrived saying that we were ‘most urgently
required’ and, on leaving at about 2100 we proceeded at full speed
across the channel.
It was pitch dark and hazy as we entered the approach channel to
Dunkirk but in view of the apparent urgency we continued at 20 knots
which was much faster than was comfortable under the circumstances. As
most of us had not slept at all for forty-eight hours and very little
for the last week, we were not at our best and, as we were back in
French waters, I made our French pilot take over.
As previously described, the swept channel lay between the southern row
of channel buoys and the beach, and a wreck in the channel was
reputedly marked by a wreck buoy. It was not until later that we
discovered that this wreck buoy was identical with the channel buoys
and actually in line with them. As a result, the pilot miscounted, an
error which I did not discover in time.
A low dark object suddenly appeared on the surface not half a cable
ahead. I shall never forget the pilot’s frantic shouts of “a droit, a
droit” as he literally tore his hair, an action one has often heard of
but probably rarely seen. At that speed and distance it was impossible
to avoid a collision for the engine room had barely time to stop, let
alone put the engines astern.
Swinging fast to starboard we struck heavily on the port side abreast
the foremost gun. Then, still at nearly 20 knots, the port bilge keel
rode right up on to the wreck, throwing us onto our beam ends. It felt
as if we were going right over and we must momentarily have listed to
over 70 degrees, but fortunately our weight carried us on clear of the
wreck and we returned to an even keel. [This was at 2325/15]
The foremost (double) boiler room, forward magazine and lower mess
decks all flooded almost at once, though fortunately the personnel were
able to abandon them without casualty as they filled up. But as a
result of our sudden stop the safety valves lifted and for five minutes
or more the appalling noise of escaping steam made verbal orders
impossible. Then an oil fuel fire started at the top of the boilers,
and sheets of flame came up the fan intakes and set light to the
collision mat and boats stored thereon. Although No 1 soon got this
fire under control with hoses from above whilst the rising water inside
also helped, the situation remained far from pleasant.
On drawing clear of the wreck we had let go an anchor to avoid running
ashore in the shallow water some fifty yards off, but we were still
settling by the bow and the forecastle head was barely six feet above
the water instead of the usual eighteen. Since the wireless generator
was in one of the flooded compartments the main wireless set was out of
action and as the dynamo had stopped, we were also without any lights.
At least we were on an even keel and after some time we ceased to
settle further and a quick check-up showed that no one was missing or
even injured, a remarkable escape.
We tried to make a signal to Dunkirk on the emergency wireless set,
asking for the assistance of a tug, but were unable to get any answer
and consequently were reduced to making signals by lamp in the hope
that some friendly craft was in the vicinity. Our Liaison Officer was
much distressed by the result of what he insisted was his and the
Pilot’s mistake though I assured him that it was entirely my
responsibility. In his efforts to help with our signals, he at first
insisted on making in morse “Torpilleur Anglais – Venez ici”. This
rather long ‘story’ I thought unnecessary and unlikely to be read and
we finished up with a plain S.O.S. which anybody could understand.
For an hour or more we had no luck but at last, though no
answering signal had been received, we saw the lights of some craft
slowly approaching. But to our horror it opened fire on us and streams
of machine gun tracer passed close ahead, most of them ricocheting off
the wreck which was visible just awash some fifty yards away. It
suddenly dawned on us that the wreck was her target which she had
mistaken for a submarine which, bottom up, it closely resembled.
Even if we had realized what her next move would be we could have
done nothing to stop her. With no warning she put her helm hard over
and rammed the wreck at full speed. There was a sickening crunch, a
short dead silence and then a spate of voluble French intercepted by
the Sub’s calmer but more conclusive: ”Now, we’ve had it.”
Indeed we had. Not only had we lost our apparent hope of salvation but
we were also responsible for wrecking another ship. We sent the Liaison
Officer to make peace with our misguided ally, a French trawler as she
turned out to be. We persuaded them to signal for tugs which they
subsequently did but, instead of making it in code, sent it in
plain language, giving our position.
However, to our great relief, at about 0430, a tug arrived and slipping
our cable, for I dared not risk the strain forward of weighing it, we
were taken in tow stern first. We only had some ten miles to go but it
was an anxious time for we did not know how the ship would behave and
after giving away our position to the Boche we were expecting him any
We went to action stations, manning all guns in local control, and
wondering what would happen to the ship if they had to be fired as we
were very low in the water forward, and had very little stability
remaining. But our luck was in, the weather remained calm and the
Luftwaffe were apparently otherwise engaged for we reached Dunkirk
safely by 0800 and secured alongside.
Contemporary map of Dunkirk Click to enlarge and zoom in on larger image Courtesy of University of Texas
After such palaver, the French authorities undertook to dock us and put
on a temporary patch – sufficient only to enable us to return to
England. Before so doing, divers had to be sent down to cut away some
thirty feet of bilge keel which had been torn off and was hanging from
our bottom and actually trailing in the mud. Although we were docked by
the evening, it took another twenty-four hours before we were pumped
out and could see the extent of the damage. We then found a large hole
in the side abreast the fore magazine, with another in the boiler room
extending into a oil fuel tank, whilst the bottom was stove in to a
greater or lesser extent for almost the whole length of the ship.
The port propeller and ‘A’ bracket were completely wrecked, but luckily
the rudder and starboard propeller had escaped.
We were not popular with the dockyard authorities for, as the water
drained out, so did many tons of oil fuel, covering with a foul oily
mess the surface of the water and everything with which it came in
contact. On Friday night as soon as the dock was empty, French workmen
began bolting wooden boxes to the outside, which were to be filled with
cement to form a temporary patch.
We took little notice of the periodic air raids until they decided to
treat us to a ‘Saturday night special’ to which we had no reply and
only a few bottles of some excellent French champagne as an antidote.
How they missed us or the dry dock was a miracle but they did succeed
in putting the lock gates to the basin out of action so that no ship
could enter or leave and we were properly trapped.
By the Sunday morning the shipwrights had almost finished their part of
the job but the French dockyard masons who were to do the concreting,
refused to come to work. Vimiera arrived that forenoon on her way back to England with the survivors of Whitely, sunk that morning and news of the loss of Valentine
some days before. The B.B.C. news of the war was vague and far
from reassuring while such news as one could glean on the spot from
French headquarters was even less so. The Boche had just captured
Flushing and the whole south side of the Scheldt, together with five
thousand recently arrived French reinforcements. They were only sixty
miles off and advancing rapidly and if we did not get away at once our
prospects of escaping before they arrived were pretty remote, quite
apart from the fact that a bomb might well put us out for good.
I am glad that we little knew the deplorable state of the French
government and how far they had already advanced along the road which
was to end not three weeks later in the total collapse of the country.
Our own predicament was bad enough and I took advantage of Vimiera’s
arrival to evacuate fifty per cent of the ship’s company to England.
With nearly three ships’ companies, over four hundred men, on board Vimiera
was well laden and little thought that only a few days later she would
be staggering out of Boulogne, the last ship to leave, with over
fifteen hundred on board.
Meanwhile, as there was still no sign of any French masons and the
shipwrights said they would finish at noon, I decided that the only
thing to do was to try to complete the job ourselves. With some
difficulty, the French contractor was located and made to show us where
the cement was stowed and our remaining crew members turned to and
carted it to the dock. That afternoon, a motley crowd of seamen,
stokers, stewards and telegraphists worked with a will mixing concrete,
scarcely pausing for intermittent air raids, while two of the remaining
seamen manning our machine guns, blasted away at anything within range..
So successfully did the hands work that by 1800 all was finished and we
were ready to flood up the dock. It took some time to explain to the
authorities what was required, only to be told that the sluice valve
machinery had been damaged by bombing and would not work. Further
visits to the French Admiral’s headquarters produced promises that they
would ‘do their best’ but, alas this proved no better than to turn on
four small hoses which, even by the next morning, had produced less
than six inches in the bottom of the dock. Although bombs fell all
round during the night, none of them hit and by 0700, the sluice valves
were working and we flooded up. Our chances of receiving fatal damage
if we were hit were now greatly reduced.
Even then our troubles were not over for the Chief came to report the
patches were leaking badly which I found a little disconcerting having
accepted responsibility for finishing the job ourselves. I accompanied
him down into the damaged boiler room and, sure enough, by the dim
light of our torches, I saw tell tale little fountains spurting through
the side. But by keeping all pumps and ejectors at full speed, we found
the water did not gain and I decided that the risk of it becoming worse
must be accepted for any further delay was unthinkable.
The tug, Lady Brassey,
was sent over to us from Dover in reply to our signal and it now only
remained for us to get out of both the dock and the basin. The first we
achieved after some delay, but the lock gates to the basin were still
out of action, and no one seemed to know, if they would ever be right
In our damaged condition and towed by two small tugs, the situation in
the basin was more than trying. More than a dozen ships of all
descriptions, merchantmen, French destroyers, torpedo boats and our own
destroyer Wolsey were all
under weigh and jockeying for position to get into the lock as soon as
the gates could be opened. The tugs must have been as nervous as us
because when, after several hours, the gates did open and the rest of
this assorted fleet rushed in before us, the tug astern let go so that
we were towed in crooked with our damaged side scraping along the side
of the lock. It seemed certain that our temporary patches would be
scraped off but mercifully they survived and we heaved a sigh of relief
as we got safely through in tow of Lady Brassey.
Once clear of the harbour, it was comparatively plain sailing for, with
one boiler and the rudder working, we found a tow hardly necessary and
on arrival off Dover, Lady Brassey left us. Escorted by Wolsey,
we continued on our way and, at daylight next morning, off the Nab
Fort, Portsmouth, we were met by a tug for the passage up harbour. [This was on the
20 May and HMS Westminster was repaired at Portsmouth on the 7 July]
Returning from many a cruise or foreign commission with the band
playing ‘Rolling Home’ and the paying off pennant fluttering astern,
Portsmouth harbour has ever been a welcome sight, but never has it
looked more welcoming or more homelike that it did to us on that May
morning of 1940.
Cdr. Aymé Arthur Carrington Ouvry DSC, RN (Ret)
The Times report on the evacuation of the troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the beaches and North Quay of Dunkirk Double click on image to view full size and to read text