- Contributed by
- Harry Hargreaves
- People in story:
- Harry Hargreaves
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 February 2004
WHERE ARE THEY NOW.
I have often wondered over these many years if any of the soldiers, the main focus of this story, are still around and remember this day as vividly as I do. I was serving in a Hunt Class Destroyer at the time called H.M.S. Fernie If there are any I wish they would let me know.
As Dunkirk captured the imagination and the headlines it deserved, there were still thousands of troops who were fighting inland between Dunkirk, Havre and Cherbourg. In the early part of June, after the main evacuation the Fernie was ordered to patrol the coast towards Cherbourg. They had anticipated that some of our troops would be arriving in the vicinity of the ports and beaches in that area.
We patrolled close in to try and observe and determine the situation, and encountered shelling from shore batteries on the cliffs near St. Valery. We replied with considerable vigour and could see our shells exploding around the area from which the gunfire seemed to come. I was surprised to see the fall of shot being less than three quarters of the distance between us and the shore. I don’t know what they were using for artillery but it obviously could not reach the distance our guns could and did.
We carried on down the coast, visibility was poor and we were constantly at action stations in case we encountered a sea borne enemy. I later learned that a massive attempt to bring troops off from St. Valery had almost failed due to the extremely bad visibility encountered. It was also recorded that in this area occurred the only instance where a large body of troops had fought their way back to the sea and the Navy was unable to rescue them.
In the middle of June we were ordered into Cherbourg to pick up stragglers, the main evacuation from Cherbourg and the other adjacent ports had been completed when we arrived. As we entered the port the bombers were busily bombing the fort that stood at the entrance with the idea, I suppose, of trapping anyone they could inside. I must admit I wasn’t too enthusiastic about going in.
We pulled alongside a concrete quay; certainly, no words of mine can ever convey fully the scene that faced us. As far as the eye could see was a graveyard of vehicles of every kind. Bren gun carriers, troop transports, supply vehicles, ambulances, motorbikes canteen trucks, army coloured automobiles even bicycles. Our orders were to pick up any stragglers then demolish as much as we could of the ports facilities.
A group of soldiers cheered us as we pulled alongside; they thought they had missed their chance to be evacuated. There was a Brigadier General and two or three other officers and about twenty men. We had berthed in a cargo unloading area and there were huge cranes towering over us as well as on the whole length of the quay. Our demolition team went ashore with the intention of rendering these huge cranes useless by blowing away one of the tripod legs supporting them. They started at the far end of the quay planting fused explosives, the further away the shorter the fuse.
Several members of the ship’s company were given permission to land and see what they could find in the way of machine guns and ammunition. One thing we lacked on the bridge was firepower and it was considered that a couple of Bren guns mounted there would be a great idea. They did not restrict themselves to machineguns and soon we had several motorbikes piled against the funnel together with an enormous amount of other contraband they found in the abandoned vehicles. An amusing aside in all this was the NAAFI vans loaded with cigarettes and chocolates and all the other goodies. Naturally they made a beeline for these and our canteen manager was furious. He knew it would be a long time before he sold any more cigarettes or chocolate.
The enemy had not been idle and was bombing the area surrounding the port but not the port itself at that moment. This soon changed and a whole formation of high-level bombers arrived overhead. They started on that most devastating method of bombing; pattern bombing. They lined up more or less abreast covering an awful lot of sky and at timed or signaled intervals released bombs as they moved over the port. I watched them approach through my binoculars and as they flew, the area they left behind was totally destroyed.
It became obvious that within a few minutes we would be in the centre of the next salvo. The order was given to take cover but there is no cover on an open bridge. I, like everyone else on the bridge fell flat on our faces with our steel helmets covering the backs of our heads. I feel sure my nose made a hole in the deck as I tried to make myself as small as possible. There was that unforgettable howling scream made by falling bombs followed by ear splitting and ground shaking explosions. The quay on our port side about 200 yards away vanished in a dust cloud. Debris came hurling down on us but no one was hurt and miracle of miracles it became obvious they had run out of bombs as they disappeared in the distance.
The demolition party rushed back onboard and reported all fuses set so the Captain gave the order for them to be lit. This meant that the Leading Seaman in charge had to retrace his steps and light the fuses with the furthest away being the first, of course. We had no remote control devices. He accomplished this and jumped onboard over the guard rail as the first crane exploded and toppled into the water. The Captain ordered the last hawser to be cast off and we went slowly astern to clear the quay. Suddenly a shout went up and, making their way through the trucks we saw four soldiers screaming and waving. We had cleared the quay by a few feet and the Captain turned to the senior army officer and demanded an explanation. The man shook his head and said, “You will have to leave them.”
The Captain had been, of course, taking a very careful note of the time. He wanted to be well clear before the two cranes towering over us blew up. It was an unforgettable moment, he looked at me, cocked his eyebrow, shrugged his shoulders then ordered “stop both engines” then “half ahead”. Everything seemed to go in to slow motion. The expressions of the army officers registered absolute bewilderment; the ship appeared to move sluggishly forward as its bows came level with the quay. The soldiers racing down the quay didn’t seem to be gaining any ground. He ordered “starboard ten” and then “midships” then “stop engines” and we scraped along the jetty sending up sparks like a dozen welders torches. The first soldier practically fell over the guardrail rapidly followed by the other three and, of all things, a dog.
The order was given for full astern and as we started to make stern way, the crane at our bows blew up. It fell in the water not ten yards ahead and a huge chunk of concrete fell on our forecastle but no one was hurt. We were clear of the quay when the second one blew and then we had sufficient room to turn and head out of harbour. The enemy was still bombing the fort then diverted their attention to us but the bombs fell clear and the barrage we put up discouraged them. We were the last ship to leave Cherbourg.
Once clear of the port but still at action stations the damage assessment was carried out. The concrete block on the forecastle was far too large to move so we had to wait until it would be removed by crane when alongside wherever we were going. All other damage was superficial and no one was injured. The four soldiers were sent for and appeared on the bridge for the Captain to speak to them. They stood rigidly to attention and before the Captain could speak one of them said, “Thank you sir for coming back.” He nodded and then asked them why they had not come onboard when we first arrived with the other soldiers. He suspected that they had been searching for anything of value they could find. He was astounded when the first soldier nodded towards the Army officer and said, “But we were ordered to by the Major, he told us to sabotage as many vehicles as we could and get onboard before the ship sailed. We thought we would have been warned by a siren or something.”
The army officer said nothing and the Captain sent the men below. He did not address the Major but carried on conning the ship as if nothing had occurred. After a time the Major approached him to speak but the Captain turned to him and very politely requested him to leave the bridge, which he did. Nothing more was said about the incident. The dog meanwhile had been making friends with everyone he met. He was brought up to the bridge and went into a paroxysm of tail wagging and jumping. He was thin and scrawny; they called him Cherbourg. In a very short time he was fat, sleek and totally spoiled and believed that every sailor was a source of food. We could not land him in England because of the rabies regulations. He was still there, fat dumb and happy when I left the ship.
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