BOULOGNE 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.
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
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".
HMS Venomous entering the inner harbour at dusk on the 23 May Passing the statue of Britannia built in 1938 and dynamited by the Germans 1 July 1940 Painted by naval architect and artist Peter K Hsu
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 Keithtaking part in the evacuation of the Guards from Boulogne are summarised below:
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 Keithwhen 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.
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
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. Vimy
was 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 he met
his death see "The Hell that was Boulogne". First Lt Adrian P.W. Northey RN
took command when the Lt Cdr Colin Donald was killed and took over
again when Lt.Cdr. Richard George Kirby Knowling RN who took command on the 25 - 26 May was lost overboard
at Dunkirk the following night. In August Northey was
appointed as CO of HMS Vanquisher.
Whitshed 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. HMS Vimiera(Lt. Cdr Roger B.N. Hicks RN)
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
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.
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.
HMS 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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