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Dunkirk: HMS 'Worcester'icon for Recommended story

by Christine Bonny

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Contributed by 
Christine Bonny
People in story: 
Gordon Keith Bonny
Location of story: 
Dunkirk
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A2089361
Contributed on: 
28 November 2003

The Memoirs of Gordon Keith Bonny:

'My job is chief and petty officers’ mess man. I keep the mess spotless, prepare food for the galley and live in the mess. It’s a good crowd, Ben the Coxswain and Dick the Buffer, the T1 and G1, are all nice blokes.

The Chief Petty Officer (CPO) ERA was in Haslar Hospital, two beds from me in 1937. He is still very chesty. The captain is Crash Allison, ex-Fleet Air Arm pilot. He crashed three Osprey aircraft one day, while serving in the aircraft carrier Courageous. The first lieutenant, Lieutenant Woods, was serving in the submarine Thetis, which sank in Liverpool Bay last year, on 1 June 1939, with the loss of 99 lives.

Ammunitioning ship in Portsmouth

We are alongside in Pompey, ammunitioning ship, before sailing this evening to pick up a convoy for Gib. We are off Cape Finisterre. The buffer, or petty officer, has pinned a map of France and Belgium on a board and daily fills in the position of the German army as we receive the news over the wireless.

Things look frightening for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French armies. The captain has received the signal to leave the convoy and proceed to Cherbourg to pick up something he knows not and then proceed to Dunkirk to evacuate troops.

Dunkirk, 27 May

We arrive off Dunkirk at 02:30 hours on 27 May. I am on X gun deck, my action station. Crash Allison comes up and stands looking at the deep-red glow coming from the blazing oil tanks ashore. With the dawn light, we lay off the east mole on an ebb tide.

Two Junkers 88, flying low, straddle us with bombs. We do not recognise them as enemy and do not fire a shot — orders from bridge ‘independent fire’ in the future without orders from bridge.

We are alongside, and the harbour is in chaos. We have started to take on troops. They look worn out and certainly glad to see us. There are scores of dogs running about terrified of the bombing.

Peeling spuds for tea in Dover

We cast off and arrive in Dover for tea. I manage to peel enough spuds, and we are having ham, pickle and mash for supper. At the moment the mess is full of army.

We manage about three hours’ sleep. We are closed up again — E-boat alert and ship in two watches. Three aircraft approach our stern, and X and Y guns open fire. They take evasive action and signal they are Blenheims.

Enemy bombers from Dunkirk

I count 70 enemy bombers coming in over Dunkirk from the west. Two of them peel off and attack shipping off the mole. Harbour installations are badly damaged, and we have to go alongside a Channel ferry that is against the pier. We make fast, and another ferry comes alongside us.

Troops are swarming all over. Gunner’s mate has brought me up a fried-egg sandwich. We hear the Windsor and Wolsey have been damaged, and a French ship sunk.

Oil fire blazes on

The oil fire does not diminish and continues to swirl up and up. I watch an aircraft dive into the smoke — never see it come out. There are Stukas over head. Some are making for us, and we get two rounds away. They make a horrible screaming noise, and their bombs are very close.

We are sweating well under our tin hats — it is a lovely summer’s day. Small packet to starboard is sunk almost at once after receiving two direct hits. I can not see any troops aboard. The TGM has [ordered] the motorboat inshore to pick up what troops he can, but he can not get alongside anywhere.

The army is well organised, column on column — no panic whatsoever. The old fires have been stoked up by bombing, but we can not see the two very plainly as there is a terrific amount of damage and smoke.

Sleeping on the ammunition locker

Finally we manage to get alongside just before dark, and I get down to the mess for an hour. During the early hours, while closed up on X gun, some joker starts to fire tracer towards us. Aircraft are overhead, and Gerry artillery is firing star shells over Dunkirk. We have to drop flat on the gun platform as tracers pass some two feet away from the gun casement.

I decide to sleep on the ready-use ammunition locker, as the mess is full of army. The old Wakeful, the Grafton and the Montrosehave been sunk by E-boats, according to mess-deck buzz.

Stew, cheese and biscuits and lemon tea

We leave early this morning and have a short forenoon in Dover. I prepare a stew for dinner and place out cheese and biscuits with lemon tea for stand-easy.

Come tot time, we are casting off on our way back to the hothouse. We can not make it alongside anywhere and have lowered our boats while being under constant air attack.

Carnage all around

The Calcutta anti-aircraft cruiser has arrived, and we feel good about that. The Clan MacAllister, about the largest ship I have seen at Dunkirk, was taking troops, nurses and wounded aboard when it received a stick of bombs — there is carnage all round.

We pick up a pongo. His right foot is missing, and his left is barely hanging on. I give him a smoke, and he seems comforted, even managing a smile.

Grenadeis a goner

The Clan has again received direct hits after its skipper had gone astern to clear the fairway. Stukas are having a field day now the smoke has cleared to the west. A large paddle steamer has copped it alongside the mole.

The Grenade received a direct hit on its stern, broke its moorings and drifted out of control. It sounds like a huge firecracker with its ammunition exploding. A trawler has got it in tow, and the ship is clear of the fairway but looks a goner.

Paddle steamer ablaze

Troop loading is terribly slow again, and we can not get alongside anywhere. A near miss astern and we shift billet further east to try and take troops off from the shore.

The Grenade has finally sunk. A dozen Stukas attack the mole, and two destroyers and a few trawlers alongside suffer damage. The other paddle steamer, the Crested Eagle, has received a direct hit. It is full of troops, and a terrific fire has enveloped its stern. It is heading for the beach, and troops are jumping over the side and wading back to the beach — their luck!

Tears of a French trooper

Loads of small craft loaded up with troops are beginning to come alongside. The TGM has been at this all day and, at last, filled up, so boats inboard, we edge our way out of Dunkirk.

We have French troops aboard for the first time. I saw one of them throw his rifle over the side, then cry his eyes out.

The minesweeper Oriole has been beached purposely by its captain and used as a pier for smaller ships to come up to its stern and unload troops. It loaded to the full, went astern on the flood tide and got home safely.

Gerry gave the town a pasting

The Channel is like a millpond. There is no doubt the weather is playing a great part in getting so many of the BEF off the beaches and safely home. We are all beginning to feel the effects of the constant bombing and lack of sleep.

We are off Dunkirk. The time is 07:30. The harbour looks blocked with sunken shipping. Trawlers and tugs are standing by, with tides on the flood. We have lowered boats, and they are on their way inshore. No aircraft about and loads of small craft ferrying from the beach.

Gerry certainly gave the town a pasting last night — fires everywhere. Rear Admiral Wake-Walker has come aboard. He has been taking charge of everything that floats.

Hell, tea and cakes

I should think there is every type of small craft here today, and some H-boats (destroyers) have arrived. Junkers 88 and Stukas are flocking in, and all hell is let loose. The sloop Bideford is the first to receive a hit. It has run aground after having its stern blown off.

Gunner’s mate has arrived on the gun deck with some tea and cakes. The chiefs and POs aboard Worcester are the very best. Full astern and we are homeward bound.

A formation of Stukas has appeared to port. We let go with everything and hit nothing. They have hit a transport, and it is stopped. Trawlers are closing in to take off survivors.

A hard dusting ashore and at sea

We are back off Dunkirk. It is midday Friday and our sixth trip. There is a bit of a panic on the quarterdeck. The captain, first lieutenant and buffer are looking over the side. We have damaged our starboard screw propeller on a submerged wreck.

Once again we are being fed by small craft and loading well and fast. We have been told Stukas are giving the troops ashore a hard dusting as well as us. Junkers 88 have damaged the mole and killed a lot of troops, who were densely packed, awaiting evacuation from there.

Dogfight to the north

To the north a dogfight is taking place, and a pilot has baled out — English or German? What a motley throng — there must be every small craft from England here today. Junkers 88 and Stukas are having a go at everybody, but nobody cares any more.

The German army is shelling the town to add to the confusion. Lots of soldiers are drowned trying to wade out beyond their depth to the waiting craft. At last we are on our way home on one screw at approximately nine knots, with nigh on 1,000 men aboard.

Bleak outlook, beautiful day

It is a beautiful morning, and our bows head once more for Dunkirk, the ship driven by only one propeller. There is not a lot said. We are all feeling completely knackered, to say the least. This will be the last trip, and, in our state, the future looks bleak.

The smoke and flames are terrific. God knows how much oil has been burnt up — it seems never ending. Junkers 88 have a go at the troops with bombs and machine guns. We commence to take on more troops from the small craft with hordes of Stukas above.

We have two attacks, and our old pom-pom must be worn out. I believe we have suffered only a few wounded up to present, all caused by shrapnel.

We up anchor and shift position to the mole. The destroyer Keith is sunk after three attacks by several Stukas, and the minesweeper Skipjack is sunk after a direct hit by Stukas.

Stukas hang above like vultures

The sky is full of Stukas. We can’t take much evasive action on one screw. There are loads of guardsmen aboard today. They are all armed with bren-guns, and during attacks their fire has come uncomfortably close to our gun deck. Gunner’s mate has given them a bollocking.

We are steaming up a narrow fairway, loaded to capacity and doing eight knots on one screw. Stukas hang above us like a flock of vultures. I look up and astern, a mass of them is coming into attack. We open fire, and, from that moment on, all I see is the breech in front of me, together with the loading numbers of the gun crew.

We can’t come out of this lot

Stukas scream, and so do the bombs, and we’ve got several alongside. All hell is let loose again. The pongos are having a go with rifles and bren-guns. Gunner’s mate is riddled with shrapnel and has collapsed down the ladder. His broken pipe lies at my feet. I think to myself, This is it. We can’t come out of this lot.

My trainer, an LR3 from Pompey, has rolled off his seat. His guts are ripped open, and he looks a goner. A shell is being rammed home when a chunk of shrapnel smashes the handle into two parts. Ginger, the starboard-rammer number, sinks to the deck in agony, his right knee shattered. I feel a severe kick in my left buttock, there is a colossal noise — Stukas howling, bombs screaming and explosions all round.

The sound of silence

Four of us are on the deck — silence. They’re gone. I lift myself up on the breech, my left leg stiff. No Stukas astern. We look at one another in disbelief. I glance up forward and note many bodies not moving among the army.

LR3’s body taken down to the upper deck and covered. Only one of the gun crew is not wounded. We alter course to starboard and go aground on a sandbank. Two tugs see our plight and soon draw us off.

We watch a destroyer in the fairway we have just left going through the same pasting. Unfortunately, we witness several explosions aboard, and we learn later that it sank with a great loss of life.

Man overboard

We enter Dover and prepare to go alongside. Gunner (T) has provided me with red and green propeller flags, which I will raise on his instructions.

I am still on X gun deck, well in sight of the bridge, as a packet, the Maid of Orleans, comes across our bows. I grab the breech handle preparing for the impact. As we collide, the packet pulls us over port, gunwale almost awash, and I go neatly over the side having lost my grip on the handle.

Sucked down towards the bows

I enter the water some eight feet from the port propeller, and just at that moment we are ordered full astern. I am sucked down and towards the bows and surface abreast the superstructure.

The bos’n recognises me in the water and throws a metal smoke float that misses my head by some six inches. I hand a ladder floating alongside me over to several pongos struggling in the water.

Hauled out by a French picket boat

A French picket boat hauls me out of the water and returns me to the Worcester. I make my way to the mess and flake out on the locker.

Awakened by the surgeon lieutenant, wound dressed, I am told to pack my no. 1 suit, clean shirts and shaving gear. The NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) manager washes me down and helps me pack my gear. I bid goodbye to all and settle down in a carriage on the hospital train due to leave Dover harbour.'

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