Sunday, 16 December 2012


FACEBOOK - 1: BLOG - 0

Huge amount going on of late - details of which can be found on our new 'Port 20 Productions' facebook page - http://www.facebook.com/thegreatestraid

Highlight of the period, our visit to Fort William and the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge, on 11/11. First time, but definitely not the last time, in spite of the Scots very unfair decision to live so far north (no wonder the Legions gave up at Hadrian's Wall - probably too exhausted to trudge any further!).

All the photos and comments - of which there are many - can be found on the above page; along with material sourced from our Breton friends who, as well as being very interested in the continuing story of the Saint-Nazaire Raid are, of course, also proud Celts.

It's not too long before the 71st anniversary of the raid, with St. Nazaire Society lunch in London, and the annual ceremonies, on the day, within Saint-Nazaire itself.

It's possible - although by no means confirmed - that 'Turned Towards the Sun' may be shown at one of the venues. As soon as a decision is made, it will appear on both sources. Now, that really would be something to look forward to.....



Sunday, 21 October 2012

RED CARPET TREATMENT

Well, we may not have won, but what an evening! The Whitehall Banqueting House was a magnificent setting for a ceremony that could only be described as lavish. Sir Christopher Lee presenting Helena Bonham-Carter with an award, Tim Burton receiving an award, champagne, great food, beautiful people and all in a warm and inclusive atmosphere. I think Micky would certainly have approved.


Was it worth seven hours in a car to get there and back, plus eye-watering parking costs at the Holiday Inn? Absolutely, especially given that it's only the first step in bringing the story of Micky's life to a wider public. Today - London: tomorrow - who knows!

Friday, 19 October 2012

Micky Film Gets the Thumbs Up
And he would have expected no less, of course!

Well, Micky did finally make it onto the big screen, with two sold-out showings at the BFI London last Tuesday and Wednesday. Attendees included friends, family and representatives from the Colditz Society and Finchden Manor. Three members of the St Nazaire Society, of which Micky was President for many years, are known to have attended, these being  David Tait, Peter Lush and Tony Kennedy . Peter and Tony came to both screenings and, as with most of us, enjoyed the second all the more. 

Far removed from the traditional documentary format, the 90-minute film was a warm and intimate portrait of this truly inspiring man; an opportunity to yet again sample the humour and charm we have all missed so very much: a YouTube link to the trailer is given below.

Having been nominated for the Grierson documentary award, tomorrow evening will be the moment of truth as the director and we producers attend the awards dinner in the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall Palace. Dear Micky would have been so chuffed: recognition at last!

Full details when I get back. Of course a win is just too much to hope for.........but then in Micky's world nothing seemed to be impossible.





Thursday, 13 September 2012

'TURNED TOWARDS THE SUN' (updated)

If ghosts can laugh, then dear old Micky's must be having one hell of a time! Many of us having sometimes sweated blood to get it done, our film about his life is finally to see the light of day (or night) at the BFI London Film Festival in October. Not only that, but both showings were completely sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale to the public! A DVD with additional content will follow, and I'll post the details as soon as I have them.

Details of the two showings, and a link to the trailer, are given on the links below;


The film itself is a feature-length documentary filled with poignancy and laughter, and will be  particularly meaningful to those interested in either the Saint-Nazaire Raid, or in Colditz Castle. For all those who knew Micky, it will also be a welcome opportunity to revisit this remarkable and much-loved character. I guess it really is true to say they just don't make 'em like that any more!




Monday, 6 August 2012

'HELL'S GLEN' Revisited

If you follow the link below, it will take you to BBC iPlayer, and an episode of 'Great Railway Journeys' that takes you right into the heart of 'Commando Country'; more specifically to Lochailort and the first taste for young recruits to Special Service of the arduous and often dangerous training that would turn them into Commandos. New for its time, the same training regimes are used for today's Royal Marines Commandos and, worldwide, for all those seeking the ultimate in fighting skills, physical and mental endurance, and clarity of though in extremis.


For 'raw' recruits to this new form of training/torture, the sheer toughness of it all prompted some to use the term 'Hell's Glen' for this mountain fastness in the far north of the country. However, as remembered by General Corran Purdon, there was also a wonderfully elemental quality to training that took men to what they perceived were their limits, only to then demonstrate how much there was still to come.

The following quote is from his book 'List the Bugle'.

'Led by Colonel Stockwell, we splashed through hip-high freezing sea-loch estuaries, forded icy torrents holding boulders to combat the force of the rushing spate, climbed seemingly interminably high mountains and ran down steep scree-slopes. We were carefully instructed in the science of demolitions by Jim Gavin and his fellow sapper Captain Gabriel.

'Fairbairn and Sykes, looking like two benevolent square-shaped padres, took us close-combat shooting in their sandbagged basement range where moving targets suddenly materialized from the gloom. We were taught how to live off the land by Lovat Scouts and on one exercise we had to kill, skin, cook and eat some unfortunate sheep.

'We ended our course with a splendid exercise during part of which I remember following a track, white in the moonlight, round the side of Loch Morar, and wondering if we would see its monster in the glittering water. First light found us seated on the platform of a railway halt, the seats of our battledress trousers seemingly stuck to the ground by frost. And how marvellous that hot, sweet porridge tasted, which was brought out on trucks which came to take us back to camp!'

(Passage as quoted in Chapter three of 'Storming St Nazaire')

For a map of the area, see this link - 

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Donald

On Friday last, June 29th, I attended the 90th birthday celebrations for Donald Martin-Betts, an old friend of Micky Burn who had, in turn, become my own valued friend. The party was a huge success with Donald his usual energetic and engaging host. You can imagine my shock therefore at hearing this morning that Donald passed away just yesterday, leaving behind the kind of void that only a special few have the presence and character to fill.

I first met Donald while visiting Micky at his cottage just down the lane from Portmeirion, where Donald and his late wife Betty had been regular visitors for many decades. I was working on recording Micky's life and Donald, who had been Micky's friend for some time, at first regarded this interloper with great suspicion lest I take advantage of Micky's generous, though not always well-judged- good nature. I remember very well being grilled as to my intentions by a man not given to waffle or insincerity. Fortunately I passed the test and over time we became good friends, with invitations following to the Sloane Club, and to several of Donald's Company functions at St. Julians,  a country club not far from Sevenoaks. 

Donald to me will always mean champagne - only the good stuff, of course - and a very welcome predictability, in that you always knew where you were with him and knew that  his word was his bond. His friendship and support will be greatly missed. 


Wednesday, 13 June 2012

SUGAR AND SPICE AND..........NUCLEAR FUSION!
Absolutely nothing to do with the raid - other than that a thermonuclear explosion would have done for the 'Normandie' Dock, Saint-Nazaire AND a sizeable chunk of southern Brittany - but I have to record a recent and entirely unexpected visit to the charming and disconcertingly knowledgeable nonagenarian historian Lorna Arnold. 

Some years ago I had occasion to research the early years of nuclear fission, and came to be familiar with the names of some of the world's most accomplished physicists - never for a moment imagining that I would one day get to chat with someone who actually knew, and worked, with them. Lorna, as - in her own words - 'an accidental nuclear historian' - had the inside track when it came to recording Britain's efforts to remain a world power post-WW11, by constructing her own Hydrogen bombs at a time when her wartime partner, the United States, had turned its back on cooperation in this field. Typically these beautifully written histories are a record of muddle and parsimony which, in the usual British fashion, somehow led to success via numerous tests, of fission weapons in Australia, and of thermonuclear weapons in the area of Christmas Island. Given the hazards of this not-fully-understood new field, there were, of course, mistakes and one of Lorna's most telling books describes the serious 1957 nuclear accident at Windscale  - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7030281.stm

As part of an amazingly full life, Lorna served in ruined Berlin immediately after the war, and in Washington, where she was given a tour of the newly constructed Pentagon building. All of this and more is now on record in her autobiography 'My Short Century'. 

An amazing experience for me to be able to chat, over coffee, about fission, fusion, moderators, capture cross-sections and myriad other issues, with a 96-year-old whose knowledge, passion and recall proved truly inspirational.

Further details on Lorna's site - www.lornaarnold.org. Sadly none of the images can convey the warmth and power of those piercing blue eyes.......

U-Boat Pen Graffiti

Thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Corden, whose camera was working - unlike my own - when we toured the 'closed' areas of the U-Boat Pen complex, we have an image of wall-text left behind some 67 years ago, by a French soldier belonging to the 4th RĂ©giment de Fusiliers Marins. Saint-Nazaire had, of course, been a heavily fortified 'pocket', which finally surrendered to the American General Kraemer and French General Chomel, on May 8th, 1945 (the link below, also kindly provided by Paul, provides more detail).

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Riders on the Storm

Could this be what Jim Morrison had in mind when he and the Doors recorded their hit song 'Riders on the Storm'? The link has just come to me from my Breton friend Hubert Chemereau and speaks to the humbling majesty of an angry sea. Play it full screen, turn up the sound, and gaze in awe at a power whose moods we will never control.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

FAUGH A BALLAGH!

A few images below from the march-past today of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, as it received the freedom of the town of Market Drayton, close by its base in Tern Hill, Shropshire. Wonderful display with the Battalion, green hackles flying high, led by its mascot, the young Irish wolfhound 'Finn' 

The unit incorporates the old Royal Ulster Rifles, two of whose stalwarts, Lieutenants Jerry Brett and Corran Purdon, made names for themselves in the raid on Saint-Nazaire.

The unit's motto is 'CLEAR THE WAY' - in Irish, 'FAUGH A BALLAGH' - and watching this crack Battalion parade today, you wouldn't want to argue with that sentiment!






Thursday, 19 April 2012

'TITANIC' - in every respect
As a 'Belfastian' originally, I am naturally proud of the three great ships for which the Belfast yards are perhaps most famous - Olympic, Britannic and, of course, the ill-fated Titanic. That said, I can't help but feel that the recent coverage of Titanic's sinking was more than just a little OTT. At the height of the commemorations I turned on four TV channels in sequence - only to discover that each one was concentrating on yet another aspect of that great ship's untimely demise.

For those who visit Saint-Nazaire, or, more specifically the Monument du Commando on the seafront, there is knowledge of a far greater tragedy, sadly almost forgotten in today's media-led society: for beside the Monument stands the memorial to the Cunard liner Lancastria, sunk in June 1940 at the height of the evacuations from a collapsing France. Converted to a troopship, and with 6,000+ troops and civilans on board, she was bombed with a loss of all but 2,500 of the souls on board. So great would the impact of the losses have been on already fragile morale at home, Churchill forbade all publicity. Titanic sank within sight of another vessel, the Californian: Lancastria sank within sight of shore. In each case salvation might have been expected to be at hand - but was not.

For full details, access this link - http://www.lancastria-association.org.uk - and be returned to one of the darkest, yet least-known, episodes in maritime history. A photo of the Lancastria Memorial is below.


Sunday, 1 April 2012

A 70th Anniversary to Remember!

So - where to begin to describe such a special occasion? Saint-Nazaire in late March, normally a place of horizontal rain and lowering clouds, was on this occasion treated to a week of glorious sunshine, the warmth of the weather combining with the warmth of friendships new and renewed to create a truly unforgettable experience. Although we were all together for only a few days, so much was packed into the time that the only way to set it all down is via a chronology.

A few people - myself included - arrived in town on Monday the 26th. By the time I arrived at the Holiday Inn Express, I was filled with a whole new respect for the eyesight of French drivers, who seemed to have no difficulty at all in bombing along at 85mph in what was sometimes very dense fog in the area of Caen. Can their carrots really be that much more potent than ours?

Having checked in, it was over to the Brasserie le Ponton in the U-Boat pens to meet Gordon Corera, security correspondent of the Beeb and his excellent team, who were particularly anxious to find somewhere 'atmospheric' to interview General Corran Purdon. In the event the team set up on the roof of the Espadon bunker, opened specially to take best advantage of the view and the lack of prying eyes (thanks Andrea - as ever, I am in your debt!) The interview was a triumph, with Corran on best form giving forth to a very respectful audience. An extended version of the interview is available on the BBC website, via this link - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17535329  We were joined on the roof by Colonel Paul Corden, who had visited the port before as part of a tour I did with 3Div, organised by Lieutenant Stuart Chant's younger son Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. Ian Chant-Sempill. Paul, who for the last while has had to endure a liaison job in the Champagne district (complete with Chateau....) speaks excellent French, and was an invaluable companion and asset throughout the visit.

Corran and Stephen
(is there a good collective noun for Corran's multitude of medals?)

With the Beeb off to a flying start, it was time to catch up with Ian's family party, also staying in the Holiday Inn. As ever, and bearing in mind that Saint-Nazaire effectively closes about six in the evening, there was not a great choice of where to go to eat; however the 'Skipper', on the edge of the Old Town, was a real find in terms of menu, ambience and service.

Tuesday seems something of a blur. We began by congregating outside the gates of the Forme Joubert prior to beginning a comprehensive tour of the normally restricted facilities which were at the heart of the raid. I say 'we', with more than a little regret, as 'we' should have been far in excess of the fifty or so who did actually enter, this because no adequate means of notifying all interested parties yet exists (a  situation my business partner Andrew Scott and I are in the process of correcting).

The authorities in Nantes, who control dock access, really came up trumps this time, for the dock was empty and we all, complete with fetching yellow hard-hats, descended into what remains an incredibly impressive space. Sadly the rusty old outer gate has been replaced, the new structure having been constructed in Germany and floated down. Along with entry to the dock itself, we were also able to access to depths of the Pumping Station, and the interior of both Winding Houses, the latter giving Corran Purdon the chance to revisit the scene of his team's wartime success for the first time in 70 years.

In the bowels of the Pumping Station: Lt-Col Paul Corden describing the destruction of the pumps.

At three o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, everyone assembled at Escoublac for a short service presided over by Nick Beattie and Canon Lisle Ryder. As usual crosses were placed on the graves of the fallen whose resting places continue to be beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemetery, again bathed in bright sunlight, rang to the skirl of pipes as remembrance of all those young Sailors and Commandos continued well into the new century.

Following the ceremony, Andrew Scott and I drove Corran and Jean up the the battery positions high on the Fort de l'Eve - another first for Corran who was seeing the battery's massive structures for the first time since being on the receiving end of their fire. 

While walking along the cliff path there was a truly magical moment as my old friends Jacques and Michele Mahe - accomplished local historians to whom I was introduced by Micky Burn, and whose villa lies next to the Fort - stopped by to say hello: not only that, but on learning that Corran was present, to thank him, in French, for all that was done back in March 1942, and to say how the arrival of British forces had sparked their first real hope of eventual liberation.

On Tuesday evening. Andrew Scott had arranged for free drinks at the Brasserie le Ponton, as a way of introducing our new venture 'Port 20' Productions, established with the aim of producing a factual movie about the raid - one that needs the addition of neither fictional nor American characters, to bring to the world the real story of Operation Chariot. 'Port 20', by the way recalls the last ever steering order given on the bridge of HMS Campbeltown as Lieutenant-Commander Beattie sought to kick the destroyer's stern clear of the Old Entrance immediately prior to ramming the dock gate. Given the heat of the day, it didn't take long for a queue to form as we all sought to quench massive thirsts. So busy was the bar that I later found one of the female staff hiding behind a nearby wall and mopping her brow with the exhaustion of it all (I'm sure she found new strength when she saw the till receipts). 

Wednesday morning brought, of course, the ceremony all had been waiting for - which was the formal remembrance on the seafront at the Monument du Commando. As everyone knew of this, there was a full representation of all the various bodies and organisations who had made the long trip south: St Nazaire Society, Commando Veterans' Association, British Legion Bikers (whose steeds included a fabulous Ducati Multistrada), Engineer Commandos sporting the dagger flash on their arms, the members of Ian Alexander's Battlefield Tour, expertly led as ever by Peter Lush, and my Breton historian friends, Hubert, Jean and Maryvonne, who have done so much to keep the memory of the raid alive on their side of the channel. The camera on my phone had already packed up, and now it was time for my spare to quit also. Where are Box Brownies when you really need them!

Photo: Jakez Gaucher

Following descriptions of the raid in English and French, and the laying of numerous wreaths, everyone assembled again in the Mairie for a very crowded Vin d'Honneur, and yet another opportunity to meet old friends - and in my case to finally meet the charming and knowledgeable author Sarah Francis, who now lives and researches in the area, and with whom I had been corresponding by email for some years.

Also present in the Mairie was Ronanni Spreafico, niece of he late and much-missed Micky Burn who, with Jean Cevaer and friends Nick and Michael, accompanied me on a tour of the docks later in the afternoon. 

As ever, we always seemed to meet up at the Brasserie where, on this occasion, a local historian was showing his amazing collection of photographs of the town as it had been prior to its destruction by Allied bombing. Also present, with a box of her father's 'treasures', was Denise Orzel, daughter of Private William Holland, MiD - treasures destined for the Commando Veterans' Association and, I believe, an eventual home in a museum near Spean Bridge. At the Brasserie I was joined again by Sarah, who through friends, had arranged for Paul Corden and myself to explore the oldest and most inaccessible corner of the U-Boat pen complex - dressed in white 'romper-suits', and with goggles and hard-hats. This is the kind of occasion where you might wish cameras had NOT been present: however, no such luck, as the sight of the three of us thus 'dressed' has been immortalised somewhere in digital form.

For me, having wanted to get into that area for years, this was the cream on the cake: I even managed to squeeze my 15-stones through some very tiny holes! Sarah, it was a pleasure to meet you, and to know that at least one of us looked good in a 'romper suit'!

For those who had remained until the Thursday morning, it was a time for goodbyes until next time. Thanks as ever to the staff at the Holiday Inn, who never fail to please, and whose bar makes a very nice late-evening haven for tired souls. I seem to remember the odd encounter with delectable Talisker Scotch: note to Santa - I'm pretty sure a bottle will fit into my stocking at Christmas.

Lots more to come, including a new website and social media connections by means of which information can be passed on, and questions answered without delay. As individuals we can only do so much to keep the raid alive; however, as an interacting group we would surely be unstoppable. Watch this space!




Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Richard Collinson: 1921-2012

(image courtesy of Scott VanOsdol)

I received the very sad news, just this morning, that my friend Richard had passed away. A source of   inspiration over many years, his contribution to the expanding story of Operation CHARIOT has provided us all with a legacy of invaluable information, particularly relating to the structure and operation of PoW Camp Marlag und Milag Nord.

As a Sub-Lieutenant, RNVR, Richard acted as Third Officer on board Motor Launch 192, whose captain was Lieutenant-Commander 'Billie' Stephens. This vessel, lead ML in the starboard column of the formation attacking through the Loire Estuary, and carrying the Commando party of Captain Michael Burn, was hit early on and struck the Old Mole before being consumed by fire. Richard was one of a handful of men to swim to the Mole and take shelter within its lighthouse. His party were taken prisoner and held for a time within the massive U-Boat shelter, which Richard described as being like something out of 'The Guns of Navarone'. 

Later incarcerated in the Naval PoW camp at Marlag, Richard retained an encyclopaedic memory of that period which, later written down in impressive detail, was made available to both myself, for my first book, and to the broader St Nazaire Society.

Richard - thanks for everything: you will be missed.