Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationBOULOGNE
The evacuation of the Welsh and Irish Guards from Boulogne on 23 - 24 May 1940

The German blitzkrieg of the Low Countries and France began on the 10 May and by the 20th German forces had reached the coast near Abbeville cutting off the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the main body of the French Army. As they advanced east along the coast towards the Channel ports the decision was taken to send the Guards to reinforce the harbour city of Boulogne which barred the way to Calais and Dunkirk. In the early hours of Wednesday 22 May the V & Ws of the 19 Destroyer Flotiila based at Dover and HMS Venomous of the 16 DF escorted the cross channel ferries carrying the 20th Guards Brigade to Boulogne. The evacuation of the Guards the following day was overshadowed by the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk which began on the 27 May but was arguably the most successful joint action of the V & W destroyers in World War II.

Some of the pages linked to from this overview are on the website of the publisher of
A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous (2017) which contains the most detailed account of the evacuation of the 20th Guards Brigade from Boulogne by the eight V & Ws and the Flotilla Leader HMS Keith.


Welsh Guards at Boulogne Statue of Britannia, Boulogne HMS Venewtia ablaze in Boulogne harbour entrance
The Welsh Guards cross the Pont Marguet swing bridge to board the destroyers as they berth alongside the Quai Chanzy with HMS Venetia ablaze in the harebour entrance
The Britannia Monument (centre) opened by by King George VI in July 1938 was dynamited by the Germans on 1 July 1940

From left to right: courtesy of the Welsh Guards, La Voix du Nord and Richard Kershaw

Lt Cdr A Black RN, CO of HMS Verity HMS Verity (Lt Cdr A. Black RN) arrived at Boulogne as guardship at 0019/23 and took on board General Brownrigg, the Adjutant General for the BEF, who stated the situation was critical. He had lost all radio communication with London and returned to Dover on Verity at 0450 to give his report.

HMS Vimy embarked Force Buttercup to secure the immediate port area of Boulogne and cover a demolition party
provided by the Kent Fortress Royal Engineers (KFRE). Vimy berthed at Boulogne at 1136 and after disembarking Force Buttercup and taking aboard wounded slipped at 1212 for Dover. At this point no decision had been taken to evacuate the Guards landed the previous day.

At 1445 HMS Whitshed (Cdr E.R. Conder RN) berthed alongside the Quai Chanzy
, the Gare Maretime, on the west side of the narrow harbour and was joined by the Flotilla Leader, HMS Keith (Capt D J R Simson RN). At 1500 the two COs held a conference with Brigadier Fox-Pitt aboard Keith. They were in radio communication with Vice Admiral Dover (VAD).

The order to withdraw the troops was sent by Bertram Ramsay, Vice Admiral Dover (VAD), from his subterranean HQ beneath Dover Castle, at 1723. His signal headed "Most Immediate" was sent to  DF19 (Keith) Whitshed, Vimy, Venetia, Venomous. It began "Inform BUTTERCUP" before giving the order to "Evacuate all troops as soon as practicable. Use Destroyers".  And ended: "Vimiera joining you. Wild Swan later".

Front Cover of A Hard Fought Ship (2017)
HMS Venomous entering the inner harbour at dusk on the 23 May
the statue of Britannia built in 1938 and dynamited by the Germans 1 July 1940
Painted by naval architect and artist Peter K Hsu
Map of harbour at Boulogne (1944)
The V& Ws berthed on the Quai Chanzy alongside the Gare Maritime to evacuate the Guards on 23 May 1940
Published by the United States Office of Strategic Services, Research and Analysis Branch, 1944
Courtesy  of the Lewis Map Library, University of Princeton

Lt Cdr Frank Donald RN (Ret) has provided a detailed timetable of events extracted from Reports of Proceedings written by the COs of the destroyers taking part in the evacuation and all other known sources which takes into account the effects of tidal levels and the time of sunrise and sunset on the 23 May 1940. Events are also recorded as they happened in the naval signals sent and received by Eric Poultney, the Telegraphist in HMS Venomous.

The part played by the seven V & Ws and the Flotilla Leader HMS Keith in the evacuation of the Guards from Boulogne are summarised below.
You can find out more about the ships and their COs and read their first hand account of events at Boulogne on the 23rd May by clicking on the links.

HMS Keith
(Capt David J R Simson RN, Captain D 19th Destroyer Flotilla)

HMS Keith was not a V & W. She was a B Class Flotilla Leader launched ten years after the last of the V & Ws and
completed in 1931. In May 1940 she was Flotilla Leader of the eight V & Ws in the 19DF at Dover.

Sailed from Dover for Boulogne arriving at 1500, and secured alongside HMS Whitshed at Quai Chanzy. After a conference with Brigadier 20th Guards Brigade Whitshed left harbour leaving Keith alongside. The order to evacuate the Guards was received at 1749, and at 1830 Keith was subjected to the same air, sniper and mortar attack as Vimy. Captain Simson was killed and the Keith followed Vimy out of harbour with 180 troops onboard.

Capt. Edward Lyon Berthon, DSC, RN was CO of HMS Keith when she was sunk off Dunkirk by bombing on 1 June with Rear Admiral Wake-Walker, the Senior Naval Oficer (Afloat) at Dunkirk, and 925 troops aboard.

Lt Cdr Colin Donald RN (1940)HMS Vimy
Lt. Cdr Colin G.W. Donald RN)

AM Transported Naval and Royal Marine Port Defence Company (Force Buttercup) and Naval and Army (KFRE) Demolition Parties to Boulogne. Returned to Dover with wounded troops and remainder of Rear General Headquarters (Wimereux).

PM Returned to Boulogne and operated off the port in company with HMS Whitshed. When the order to evacuate the Guards was received she was called alongside HMS Keith at the Quai Chanzy. Vimywas attacked by aircraft and snipers at 1830, and her Commanding Officer was mortally wounded. She sailed with 150 troops onboard and returned to Dover. For further details of the manner in which Lt Cdr Colin Donald met his death from sniper's bullet on the bridge of his first command see "The Hell that was Boulogne".

First Lt Adrian P.W. Northey RN  took command when the Lt Cdr Colin Donald was killed and wrote the Report of Proceedings of events at Boulogne. He took over again when Lt.Cdr. Richard George Kirby Knowling RN was lost overboard at Dunkirk on the night of 27 - 8 May. In August Northey was appointed as CO of HMS Vanquisher.

HMS Whitshed
(Cdr Edward R. Conder RN)

ConderWhitshed arrived alongside at Boulogne at 1445 and embarked 70 stretcher cases. She was ordered out of the harbour with 70 wounded aboard by Captain D in HMS Keith at 1515. While leaving harbour she provided gunfire support to the Irish Guards defending the southern perimeter of the harbour. Whitshed remained off the port in contact with Keith, and was joined by Vimy, Venetia, Venomous and Vimiera. All ships were subjected to heavy air attack at 1830. The French destroyer L'Orage blew up and vanished and the torpedo boat Torpilleur was also lost.

After the death of Captain Simson, Cdr Conder took over as Senior Officer, advising Vice Admiral Dover (VAD) that he would not order destroyers into the harbour until air protection had arrived. At 1920 fighters arrived and Whitshed entered harbour at dead low water, followed by Vimiera,
and berthed with their bridges level with the Quai which made embarking troops difficult. Whitshed sailed for Dover at 2020 with 580 troops onboard. Cdr Condor's Report of Proceedings of events  between 20 - 25 May can be read as a PDF.

HMS Vimiera
(Lt. Cdr Roger B.N. Hicks RN)

Lt Cdr Roger Hicks RN (1940?)Vimiera had arrived off Boulogne during the bombing and was ordered by Cdr Condor in Whitshed to follow him into the inner harbour where despite difficulties of taking on troops at extreme low water she took aboard 550 troops and left with Whitshed after 50 minutes alongside.

At 015/24 Vimiera slipped from Admiralty Pier, Dover, and returned to Boulogne at 0140. She berthed on the unprotected north east side of the railway jetty [Gare Maritime] starboard side in. "This left the ship fully exposed to the shore batteries on the northern ridge, but with a straight run down the channel in case it became necessary to leave abruptly. The silence in the town was eerie, the only noise being from a burning lorry a few yards away across the channel". At 0245 when no more men could be accomodated due to lack of space Vimiera left the harbour with 1,400 men making a total of close to 2,000 troops brought home from Boulogne. She overtook HMS Wessex and returned to Dover at 0335 as dawn was breaking. The typescript Report of Proceedings at Boulogne written by Lt Cdr R.B.N. Hicks RN on 28 May is in the National Archives but can be read here as a PDF.

On the 9 January 1942 HMS Vimiera was sunk by a mine in the Thames estuary on the southern edge of the swept channel while escorting east coast convoy FS.93 from Rosyth to Sheerness. There were only 37 survivors out of the ships complement of 127.
Her CO was Lt.Cdr. Angus Alexander Mackenzie, RNR, the First Lt in HMS Venomous during the evacuation from Boulogne.

HMS Wild Swan
(Lt. Cdr. John L. Younghusband, RN)

When Lt Cdr Younghusband saw Whitshed and Vimiera "backing out without apparent opposition" he told Venomous to follow him in at 2030. Wild Swan  berthed on the inside (south west side) of the railway jetty. The berth was too short and too shallow so that her bows were aground. While the berth was sheltered from enemy action it was only possible to use the after guns. The Irish Guards commanded by Lt Col Joseph C. Haydon embarked on Wild Swan. She slipped at 2127 and followed Venomous out of the harbour with 403 Irish Guardsmen aboard. Wild Swan caught up with Venetia and led her back to Dover where they arrived at 2255. You can read Lt Cdr J.L. Younghusband's Report of Proceedings at Boulogne as a PDF.

HMS Venomous
(Lt Cdr John E.H. McBeath RN)

McBeathHMS Venomous was the only member of the 16DF taking part in the evacuation. She had taken the KFRE demolition party to Calais that morning and within half an hour of her return had been been ordered to Boulogne. She arrived at 1735 in time to experience the worst of the bombing.

McBeath decided to ignore the advice of army officials to berth alongside Wild Swan and instead berthed on the more exposed eastern side in order to be able to keep all guns bearing on the opposite bank, the town side where German forces were advancing on the harbour below. A sniper in the harbour side crane who may have killed the CO of HMS Keith was shot from his perch by the rating on the twin Lewis Guns on the wing of the bridge. Armoured cars advancing down the slope to the harbour were knocked out by the port pom-pom and the 4.7 inch guns scored a hit on a tank and blew out a wall of the Fort de la Creche which had nearly succeeded in sinking HMS Venetia as she entered the harbour.

The tide was well out and "most enemy fire could not depress far enough to do any real damage". Col B.G. Stannier, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion Welsh guards directed his men aboard Venomous. At 2115 she cast off after 35 minutes alongside and backed out of the harbour with 500 troops onboard, mainly Welsh Guards.

The most detailed account of the  evacuation of the Guards from Boulogne on 23 May 1940 is given in Chapter Five of A Hard Fought Ship (2017) but you can read Lt Cdr John McBeath's Report of Proceediongs at Boulogne by clicking on the link.

HMS Venetia
(Lt. Cdr. B.H. de Clegg Mellor, RN)

When HMS Venetia passed the inner breakwater at 2040 she came under intense fire from the coastal batteries at Fort de la Creche which had been captured by the Germans. With all the officers on the bridge killed or wounded they nearly succeded in sinking Venetia in the narrow harbour entrance 'bottling' Wild Swan and Venomous inside. A young Sub Lt RNR took over the con from the wheelhouse and was able to refloat the ship and clear the harbour strernfirst by 2100.  Venetia did not evacuate any troops. The CO was severely wounded and the Report of Proceedings of events at Boulogne was written by First Lt J.M. Wratislaw RN who took command.

After being under repair all Summer HMS Venetia (Lt.Cdr. D. L.C. Craig, RN) was mined and sunk in the Thames estuary 12 miles NE of Margate on 19 October.

HMS Windsor
(Lt. Cdr. Peter D.H.R. Pelly, RN)

From 2300/22 to 1800/23 HMS Windsor was at Calais or on patrol off Calais until Lt Cdr Pelly was ordered to enter Boulogne at 2230 and assist in the evacuation. He went too far into the harbour but "went astern and round a bend in the jetty and alongside the correct place where I found the soldiers". The ship was under fire the entire time, "I cleared the outer harbour at 2320 exactly 50 minutes after entering it".

"After consulting the Brigadier [20th Guards Brigade] and Commander Wellman [Force Buttercup] who were among the party I informed Vice Admiral Dover that two more destroyers were required to complete the evacuation but it must be done before daylight. I considered it an easy operation in the circumstances prevailing at the time." HMS Vimiera completed the job by making a second trip to Boulogne and returning with 1,400 men.

HMS Windsor arrived alongside Admiralty Pier at Dover at 0050/24 with 600 Guardsmen and Cdr Wellman's party taken to Boulogne by HMS Vimy at 1136. At 0600/24 Windsor accompanied by HMS Wolsey took a demolition party to Le Havre. Lt Cdr P.D.H.R. Pelly's Report of Proceedings of events at Boulogne on 23 May 1940 can be read as a PDF.


The destroyers evacuated approximately 4370 troops, plus the 150 from Rear GHQ embarked in Verity. Of the eight destroyers which took part in the evacuation four were subsequently lost. HMS Keith was sunk by bombing off Dunkirk with 925 troops aboard on 1 June 1940. HMS Venetia and Vimiera were both sunk by mines in the Thames estuary, Venetia on 19 October 1940 and Vimiera on 9 January 1942. On 16 June 1942 HMS Wild Swan was sunk by a Squadron of
Ju 87 bombers in the Western Approaches after shooting down six of the attacking aircraft.

The sources for this brief summary of events are given in the online version of the notes at the end of Chapter 5 of
A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous
by R.J. Moore and J.A. Rodgaard
Holywell House Publishing, 9 May 2017.

The Reports of Proceedings written by the Commanding Officers of the V & Ws can be read as PDFs

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