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


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 - - 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 -  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!