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Memoirs of Lieutenant IGN Lindsay 1939-1940

by Gill Lindsay

Contributed by 
Gill Lindsay
People in story: 
Iain George Ninian Lindsay RN
Location of story: 
England, North Sea and Dunkirk
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 February 2004

Lieutenant Iain George Ninian Lindsay RN 1918 — 2001 (Service No: Chatham TD/X2111)

When I was a child, my father scarcely mentioned his service during World War II. Occasionally odd references would be made but he never spoke about his experiences. However, during the last couple of years of his life, he began to speak about his experiences and I actively encouraged him to record them. He felt there was little point because ‘no-one would be interested’ but I reminded him that, once his generation were gone, there would be no-one to tell their story and that people were interested in what those who went through the war had to tell. When he died in 2001, I discovered that he had begun writing about his experiences and below is what he wrote.


Prior to the war, my father had grown up in Hebburn-on-Tyne and had spent 2 years as an apprentice ships’ draftsman at R and W Hawthorne Leslie on the banks of the River Tyne. He occasionally used to say that having spent 2 years designing ships, he then spent his Navy years trying to sink them! He decided that he did not wish to pursue this career and had left Hawthorne Leslie to work for a local farmer, J.R.Spraggon and Son, with a view to going to university to read agriculture, something he did after the war.

He takes up the story:

"At this time it was becoming obvious that there was going to be trouble with Germany and that people of my age were likely to be called to join the forces. In order to ensure that I would go into the service of my choice and not be just put where it was needed to make up the numbers I joined the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve I was attached to the Tyne Division on H.M.S.Caliope and given the number TD2111. It is funny that no matter how poor an examination-service man’s memory is he never forgets his service number.

I was at work when Mark Spraggon told me that my father had been on the telephone to say that my calling up papers had arrived and I was to report to the Caliope that afternoon with full kit for draft later that afternoon. When I got home I heard on the radio that H.M.S. Royal Oak had been sunk in Scappa Flow by a U boat that had managed to penetrate the defences [ Ober Lieut Priem ]. Not the most cheerful of start. We hung around until about six o’clock when we boarded a train for Chatham. We changed trains in London where we were given breakfast in one of Lockharts cafes and thence to Chatham. Once here we marched to join H.M.S. Pembroke, the barracks next to the dockyard.

With all the rest of the draft I went through the joining routine which consisted of getting my uniform up to date by the addition of gasmask etc. allocated to a mess and given our first pay. I can’t remember how much it was but it was made up of one week’s pay and the calling up bounty. The pay was 2 shillings a day less any allowances made to next of kin and I think the bounty was something in the region of £5.

I was allocated to mess 5GG but was not to stay there for long. After a fortnight I given a draft to Dover where I joined H.M.S.Blanche, one of the reserve fleet destroyers, which, like the rest of the reserve fleet, had been taken out of mothballs and returned to active service. I did two patrols of the Dover Straits in her when she went to Harwich for a boiler clean and I enjoyed forty-eight hours leave. This being complete we carried out another patrol.

On our return we were directed to pick up the minelayer H.M.S. Adventure and escort her to Portsmouth. At about 5 o’clock in the morning we were turned out of our hammocks and told that Adventure had been torpedoed and we were to stand by her. It turned out that it was not a torpedo but one of the first magnetic mines. Working on the original idea of a torpedo we began to carry out an Asdic sweep looking for the submarine. On passing over the area roughly where Adventure had set off her mine we set off a second.and, at approximately 0830, H.M.S. Blanche turned over and sank. The Ramsgate lifeboat picked up most of the crew helped by fishing boats that appeared from nowhere. We were taken back to Ramsgate where we were looked after by members of the W.R.V.S. and eventually housed in the local amusement park over night where hammocks had been slung and we were given a new uniform.

The following day busses took us back to Chatham where we were kitted out fully with kit, which fitted to replace the single uniform we had been supplied with at Ramsgate, which only fitted in odd places. We spent one night there, paid £20, given railway warrants and sent on the standard fortnight’s survivors’ leave.

One of the remarkable things about the whole affair is that my father was on the first trip to sea of the Blanche as the doctor supplied by the builders during her trials and I was on her last as part of the crew. Quite a family affair you might say.

Whether it was thought that now I must know all about mines or not I do not know but my next draft was to Ardrossan to stand by the fitting out of one of the old Clyde paddleboats as a mine sweeper. When I say old I really mean it. Over what had been the purser’s office was a brass plaque giving her record during the 1914/18 war.

Once the refitting had been carried out and trials completed we set off taking passage for Lowestoft stopping at Portsmouth on the way in order to coal ship. This was carried out in the old way with tons of coal being dumped on deck and it being shovelled down into the bunkers where it was trimmed by the stokers. Every one including the officers had a job to do during coaling ship.

Being in Portsmouth we carried out more trials under the eagle eye of minesweeping officers from H.M.S.Vernon. From here we went round to Lowestoft were minesweeping began in earnest."


On one visit to see him he causally mentioned that he had been on the television news a day or so before. Living in the southeast, the local news stations always cover something about the Dunkirk ‘Little Ships’ ceremonies around the time of the anniversary of the evacuation. Further questioning led me to discover that he was shown on the piece of archive film footage, which had headlined the report. It seems he was either 1 of the 2 silhouettes shown on the well-known bit of footage of a boat approaching the beach at Dunkirk or was just off shot, I wasn’t clear which he meant. As a child I remembered he had a New Testament, which he said he had retrieved from the beach; further conversation led to the production of his map of the beach at La Panne and the ensign off his boat! He commented on several occasions that Dunkirk should ‘never have been allowed to happen’ and that he felt the Navy did not always get the recognition for its part in the evacuation and I understand from him that no medal was ever awarded to those who participated in the evacuation. (Ironic in a way that he should refer to this as he produced his medals which had lain hidden away just prior to his death. ‘Your mother wouldn’t let me throw them away’ was his comment — thank goodness she didn’t!)

Again he takes up the story:

"After a few runs over the swept channel north and south of Lowestoft we were ordered to enter Great Yarmouth to coal and victual ship and sail for a given point where we would receive further instructions. Here we were met by an M.T.B. and handed sealed instructions which when opened ordered us to the beach off La Panne to start the evacuation of the B.E.F.

We were one of the first to arrive but not for long. We were soon joined by the most motley crowed of ships ever seen. There were destroyers, minesweepers, Thames barges, motorboats of all shapes and sizes. When we arrived there was no sign of the army but before long they began to swarm over the dunes and the beach was black with men all trying to get away. Ships boats were lowered since the heavy swell prevented the larger ships getting close enough to the shore to pick up the soldiers. This was becoming a very slow job as the same swell was turning the ships’ boats over so Lieut. Davies, C.O. of HMS Oriole decided that, since we were shallow draughted and flat bottomed, he would taker her in until she just touched the bottom and use her as floating jetty, gradually creeping out so that soldiers could climb over the bow and pass aft to join ships with deeper drafts. This plan lasted for some time but eventually the edging astern was just a little too late and we found ourselves stuck. Before long the tide had left us high and dry and we were at least half a mile inland with a Dutch coaster, ORANJE, between us and the sea.

By now the Germans had found out just what was going on and was bombing the daylights out of all and sundry The Stukas were having a fine time to themselves as there was no sign on the RAF. The fact that we were high and dry I think was our saving. Because we were aground we were not able to fire our gun as the recoil could have damaged the hull. I think the stukas must have thought we were derelict and just left us alone. We just sat here like a sitting duck but I was able to take note of some of what was going on. I saw a crowd of soldiers, somewhere in the region of a hundred, march onto the beach from the dunes as if they were on the parade ground. Once there they took off their great coats folded them and laid them at their feet then fled into the dunes. Very soon as was to be expected the stukas arrived and bombed and machine-gunned the heaps of greatcoats which must have looked from up there like a crowd of soldiers.

Eventually the tide changed and we were afloat again but not before we had loaded up with soldiers, something in the region of seven to eight hundred. Not bad going as we were limited in peacetime to two hundred passengers simply to ply up and down the Clyde."

From the details I have of HMS Oriole's service at the time, it appears that the action described above took place on 29th May, the ship arriving at 06:00. Between 2,500 and 3,000 troops passed over the Oriole and were embarked in other vessels. The Oriole made 5 cross channel trips between 29th May - 4th June 1940 as well as facilitating the embarkation of many more. (Details provided by the Naval Historical Branch, MOD)

Sadly, this is all the memoirs he had time to write as he died suddenly soon after this was written. However, I am trying to piece together more of his experiences using his war record and the photo albums and other items he left behind.

Gill Lindsay

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