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The sinking of the Umvoti

by Ian Maxted

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Contributed by 
Ian Maxted
People in story: 
Major G.W.Bird
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Contributed on: 
06 August 2003

This story was submitted to me by Major G.W.Bird who now lives in Devon.

In July, 1940, when imminent invasion was expected, I was posted to the 163rd Officer Cadet Training Unit (The Artists Rifles) at St. Martin's Plain, Folkestone on a four month course leading to a commission. Our first month was at Folkestone Harbour, our base the Customs Shed. We did twenty four hours instruction, followed by twenty-four hours guard duty, "two on and four off", sleeping in railway wagons at the end of the harbour wall. From this grandstand we watched ships being sunk in the Channel, and numerous dog fights overhead, as the R.A.F.made sure that Air supremacy, the prelude to invasion, was denied the Luftwaffe. On moonlit nights, patrolling the wall, one could almost see flat-bottomed boats corning in on the tide. As I recall we had five rounds of ammunition apiece and, on exercises, the platoon anti-tank rifle was represented by a length of gas piping. We may have been a bit like "Dad's Army", but morale was sky high. We were a mixed bunch. There were regular soldiers lately back via Dunkirque, experienced N.C.O's seeking a commission, and very green candidates, like me, not long called to the colours, and the Private Soldiers two shillings a day (10p). All walks of life were represented,and it was a time I remember with the pride and nostalgia for which old soldiers are notorious.
One day, at about two in the morning, we were roused from our sleep in the Customs Shed, told to dress in shorts and gym shoes, and were "doubled" to the harbour entrance where a small ship,"S.S. Umvoti", was moored. The ship was to be sunk to block the harbour entrance, and so deny its use to an invader. "Get on board and take off anything that can be moved" was the order. This was looting, to which soldiers have never been averse, officially sanctioned! We set to with a will and an application worthy of a swarm of locusts. Everything that was loose was put ashore, and some of our number "won", as the saying went some nice little trophies! However, Authority recognised that we were not yet Officers and Gentlemen, and a search of kit bags and packs took place. Trophies were confiscated, names were taken, some may even have been convicted of "Conduct to the prejudice, etc", but memory is vague on this point. In November I was commissioned into my own Regiment, The Hampshires, and Folkestone was a memory.
Looking back to those momentous times, I often think of the "Sinking of the Umvoti", and, when I see a picture of myself on Folkestone Harbour wall in July, 1940, I am reminded of Wellington's oft quoted remarks when he once reviewed reinforcements - "They may not frighten the enemy, but by God they frighten me!
July, 2003
Major G.W. Bird M.B.E

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Message 1 - Greetings from Folkestone!

Posted on: 19 August 2003 by Kent Libraries- Shepway District

Dear Ian, Major Bird's account is very interesting to local historians in Folkestone.

I am Rob Illingworth the Local Studies Librarian at the Folkestone Heritage Room, Folkestone Library.

We have been running a series of World War II Reminiscence sessions in libraries throughout the Shepway area and have gathered many fascinating stories. (See our Shepway Libraries personal page.)

I will show Major Bird's account to visitors who attend the Folkestone session on September the 2nd.



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