Category Archives: Wartime Resistance

Wednesday 20th September and the Victoria Cross:

The Victoria Cross was introduced in Great Britain on Saturday 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria. Its ‘role’ was to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War. The VC takes precedence over all other Orders, Decorations and Medals and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.  The first presentation ceremony was held on Thursday 26th June 1857 when Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in Hyde Park.

The Battle of the Alma took place just south of the River Alma and is usually considered the first battle of the Crimean War. It was on this day – Wednesday 20th September 1854 – at that Battle, that Edward Bell & Luke O’Conner of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and John Knox, William Reynolds (the first private to be awarded the VC), James McKechnie & Robert Lindsay of the Scots Fusiliers Guards each earned their Victoria Cross. All survived the war.

63 years later, on Wednesday 20th September 1917 Second Lieutenant Hugh Colvin of the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiments won his VC during an attack east of Ypres in Belgium. He took command of two companies and led them forward under very heavy machine gun fire. He then went to assist a neighbouring battalion. In the process he cleared and captured a series of ‘troublesome’ dugouts and machine-gun posts, some on his own and some with his men’s assistance. He personally killed several of the enemy and forced others – about fifty in all – to surrender. His Victoria Cross citation concludes ‘Later he consolidated his position with great skill, and personally wired his front under close-ranged sniping in broad daylight, when all others had failed to do so. The complete success of the attack in this part of the line was mainly due to Second Lieut. Colvin’s leadership.

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Evacuate and fight another day

On Monday 27th May – the first full day of the evacuation – one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft were active and Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards seeking small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbour.

In this same day the Luftwaffe heavily bombed Dunkirk, both the town and the dock installations.  Water supplies were knocked out, the resulting fires could not be extinguished and an estimated thousand civilians were killed, one-third of the remaining population of the town.

In the air the Luftwaffe was met by 16 squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who claimed 38 kills on Monday 27th May while losing 14 of their own aircraft. Altogether, over 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo.

The RAF continued to take a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week. Soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them, as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.

The Challenge begins

On Saturday 25th May 1940, the Luftwaffe focused their attention on Allied pockets holding out at Calais, Lille, and Amiens.  They did not attack Dunkirk.
Calais was held by the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) and surrendered on Sunday 26th May. 

On that same Sunday 26th May 1940, at 15:30, Hitler ordered the Panzer groups to continue their advance, but most units took another 16 hours to attack. The delay gave the Allies time to prepare defenses vital for the evacuation and prevented the Germans from stopping the Allied retreat from Lille.  The Halt Order has been the subject of much discussion by historians, many of whom considered the failure to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to be one of the major German mistakes on the Western Front. Another called it “one of the great turning points of the war”, and a third described it as “one of Hitler’s most critical mistakes”. Hitler himself believed that once Britain’s troops left Europe, they would never return.  The retreat itself was undertaken amid chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles blocking the roads and a flood of refugees heading in the opposite direction.

Due to wartime censorship and the desire to keep up British morale, the full extent of the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk was not initially publicized. A special service attended by King George VI was held in Westminster Abbey on Sunday 26th May, which was declared a national day of prayer. The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers “for our soldiers in dire peril in France”. Similar prayers were offered in synagogues and churches throughout the UK that day, confirming to the public their suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops.

It was just before 7 pm on Sunday 26th May that Winston Churchill ordered Operation Dynamo – the Dunkirk evacuation code-named also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk – to begin.   Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, at which time German troops were expected to block further evacuation.  As it turned out only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,669 on the first day.

The Dunkirk attack begins

On Friday 24th May 1940 Hitler paid a visit to Army Group A headquarters and endorsed the order of the previous day.

The German forces had captured the port of Boulogne and had now surrounded Calais. The engineers of the 2nd Panzer Division had built five bridges over the Canal Line and only one British battalion barred the way to Dunkirk.

Göring urged Hitler to let the Luftwaffe (aided by Army Group B) finish off the British, to the consternation of Franz Halder, who noted in his diary that the Luftwaffe was dependent upon the weather and air crews were worn out after two weeks of battle. Rundstedt issued another order.  That was sent un-coded and was picked up by the RAF at 12:42: “By order of the Fuhrer … attack north-west of Arras is to be limited to the general line Lens-Bethune-Aire-St Omer-Gravelines. The Canal will not be crossed.”

Later that day, Hitler issued Directive 13, which called for the Luftwaffe to defeat the trapped Allied forces and stop their escape.

Franz Halder was a German general and the chief of the Army High Command from 1938 until September 1942, when he was dismissed after frequent disagreements with Adolf Hitler. Until December 1941 his military position corresponded to the old Chief of the General Staff position, which during World War 1 had been the highest military office in the German Imperial Army.

The Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk 1940

The Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk in the 2nd World War is also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.  Over the next few days I want to tell you the story. 

Our story begins on Thursday 23rd May 1940 when the German Field Marshal Karl Rundstedt ordered his Panzer units to halt, concerned about the vulnerability of his flanks and the question of supply to his forward troops.

He was also concerned that the marshy ground around Dunkirk would prove unsuitable for tanks and he wished to conserve them for later operations.  Even so, in some units, some 30 to 50 percent of his tanks were lost.  Hitler was also recorded as being apprehensive.

None-the-less – a dye was cast.

Buster Crabb and a note of his past

It is interesting how one thing can lead to another – and that the ‘other’ can be in the past rather than the present.

On Wednesday 19th April I posted the first part of the Buster Crabb story and promised that the next step would appear on Saturday 29th April.  That promise remains – however I’ve found a few bits about his past that we may find significant in the present.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Buster was an army gunner.  However, in 1941 he joined the Royal Navy and went to Gibraltar where he worked in a mine and bomb disposal unit.  This involved the removal of Italian limpet mines that enemy divers had attached to the hulls of Allied ships!

On Tuesday 8th December 1942, during one attack, two of the Italian frogmen died, probably killed by depth charges. Their bodies were recovered, and their swim-fins and Scuba sets were taken and used by Commander Lionel Crabb and a colleague. Lionel was awarded the George Medal for his efforts and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander.

In 1943 he became the Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy and was assigned to clear mines in the ports of Livorno and Venice.  He was later given an OBE for these services. By this time he had gained the nickname “Buster”, after an American actor and swimmer Buster Crabbe.

After the war Buster was stationed in Palestine leading an underwater explosives disposal team removing mines placed by Jewish divers during the years of Mandatory Palestine. (see note below)

Buster was demobbed in 1947 and moved to a civilian job where he could use his wartime skills. He explored the wreck of a Spanish Armada galleon near the Isle of Mull and then located a suitable site for a discharge pipe for the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. He later returned to work for the Royal Navy and twice dived to investigate sunken Royal Navy submarines.

In early 1955 he and frogman Sydney Knowles went to investigate the hull of the Soviet cruiser ‘Sverdlov’.  They were going to evaluate its superior manoeuvrability and, according to Knowles, they found a circular opening at the ship’s bow and inside it a large propeller that could be directed to give thrust to the bow. In March 1955 Buster was made to retire due to his age.

By this point his heavy drinking and smoking had taken its toll on his health, and he was not the diver that he had been in World War II. But a year later he was recruited by MI6!

NOTE
This was an area that was treated as a geopolitical entity under British administration having been carved out of Ottoman Southern Syria after the First World War.  The British civil administration in Palestine operated from 1920 to 1948. During its existence the territory was known simply as Palestine, but, in later years, a variety of other names and descriptors have been used, including Mandatory or Mandate Palestine, the British Mandate of Palestine and British Palestine.

World War 2 and my Aunt Stella

Aunt Stella had always been quiet about what she had done during the 1939/45 war. Born in 1922 she was just 17 when the war started. I was born in 1941 and, in 1946 when the war was over, I fell in love with her – and I told her so when she gave me my birthday present that year.

I often asked her to tell me about what she did in the war – but she always found an excuse not to. There had never been an ‘Uncle Stella’ either as far as I could recall. That was a shame because she was beautiful.

But now she had passed on and had left me a beautiful box – a wooden walnut box with golden coloured handles and its own lock. It was one she had always kept in a cupboard. I had asked her what was in it many times when I was younger but she always gave me the same answer: ‘Never you mind young lad. When I’ve gone to my maker that box will be yours.’

I had frequently tried to open it, but I could never find the key. Whenever I asked her for the key she would say: ‘No, you don’t need that lad’ or ‘I don’t know where it is. I suppose I’ve lost it. But – there’s nothing in it anyway.’

Those little question and answer session had long since ended and now she had gone – but there was still no key! The box didn’t feel too heavy so I assumed there was little or nothing inside; and it would be a shame to break it open so I put it on the shelf in my study and got on with living.

It was some three weeks later when I received a letter from Aunt Stella’s solicitor asking me to visit him to close off some details of her will. I thought that it had all been completed but solicitors are the boss at times like these, so did as was asked. What did puzzle me, though, was the request that I bring the box with me. What was that all about? Whatever it was, I would soon find out.

When I had first visited the solicitors I had seen Mr Kent, a junior member of the practice. This time I was seeing Mr Bainbridge, the practice owner.

‘Ah, you’ve brought the box I see,’ he said. ‘Good. In closing off Ms Baxter’s papers I found this in an envelope’. He held up a small golden coloured key tied to a scruffy looking piece of card. ‘I think, I hope, this will fit your box.’

He handed it to me; I tried it in the lock; it worked! I carefully lifted the lid and looked inside. There was not much to see – just three envelopes. One was brown and of indeterminate age. It was sealed with red wax and stamped across the front were the words: ‘British Resistance Organisation – open only in emergency’.

Another was much newer and was marked ‘To be opened after my death in the presence of my solicitor by my nephew Alan Williamson.’

Ignoring a third, small, white envelope, I handed the box and contents back to Mr Bainbridge. He placed it on his desk and passed the newest of the envelopes back to me. It was in Aunty Stella’s writing. I carefully opened it.

It said, simply:
You often asked what I did in the war. Open the other envelope and it will give you some idea. You often asked me why I never married. Now I will tell you that – my man’s name was Christopher. He was also a member of the BRO. One day he came back – dead. After the war you were the man for me. You always made me cheerful when I was sad. You were my light – then and in my later years as well. I remember after the war you telling me that you were in love with me. I am sure that you know how much I loved you Alan Williamson.’

 There was nothing I could say. I felt tears in my eyes as I handed the note over to Mr Bainbridge.

He read it then looked up at me ‘I think we could do with some coffee?’

I nodded as he pressed a button on his desk. We sat there deep in thought until a lady brought in the coffee. She placed the tray on the side table, looked at us and left quietly.

‘How do you like your coffee?’ Mr Bainbridge asked. ‘Black please’ I managed in reply.

It seemed to be quite some time that we sat there with our coffee. No doubt it was not too rare for Mr Bainbridge to experience the situation. He looked at me. ‘Would you like to open the British Resistance Organisation envelope here or would you rather wait until you are at home?’

I looked at him. His face was patient. ‘I think I would like to open it here, now, if I may; if you have the time’.

He nodded. ‘Please take all the time you need Mr Williamson. I was very fond of your aunt and she was very fond of you.’

I was not sure what I expected to discover in the brown envelope with the red wax seal. Since Aunt Stella’s death I had been trying to piece together what it would have been like for her.

In this second envelope there were various pieces of newspapers. A scrap told of the Nazi taking of the Channel Islands. There were also a couple of newspaper pieces on the risk of the German’s landing on the mainland but little else. Anything else would be secret anyway and Aunt Stella would not have had access to major risky situations like that anyway.

I was about to put everything back in the box and let Mr Bainbridge get on with his work when I noticed the other envelope. It was quite small with no writing on it. No wonder I had missed it. I picked it up and carefully opened it. Inside was a photograph – the only thing in the envelope. A young, male face looked out at me.

I turned the photograph over and, just visible, were the words: ‘Love you. See you soon. Chris xxx’.

 

NOTES

The ‘BRO’ Aunty Stella mentions was the ‘British Resistance Organisation’.

The above is a complete fictional story based on a factual situation. You will find the factual element of the story on my other blog: ‘talkinghistory2013’

My proofreading wife has told me that a similar story of a box has been running in one of the ‘soaps’ that she watches! I plead complete ignorance on this.