Saturday, 21 December 2013

R.I.P Hugh ARNOLD (ML446)

Photo courtesy of Scott VanOsdol - www.vanosdol.com

I recently received sad news of the passing of Hugh Arnold - in raid terms Sub Lieutenant Hugh Wilson Arnold, RNVR, DSC, of Motor Launch 446. Hugh's launch, captained by Lieutenant Dick Falconar, RNVR, M.i.D, was at the tail of the port column of attacking MLs, carrying Captain 'Bertie' Hodgson's Commando party, a small medical team under Captain Mike Barling, RAMC, and a Belgian member of the Special Operations Executive, Captain D.R. de Jonghe. Hugh was badly wounded in the conflict in the estuary, and the short extract below, from 'Storming St Nazaire' may help convey the ferocity of the response awaiting his, and the other, small boats. The 446 was to have put her men ashore on the Old Mole, however this structure's gun defences remained in action throughout, making it impossible for Falconar to put her alongside. She succeeded in making it out of the estuary, where she was scuttled.


Hugh's actions during the raid resulted in the award of the Distinguished Service Cross (The London Gazette of Tuesday 19th May, 1942)

Here is the 'Telegraph' notice giving details of the funeral arrangements.

ARNOLD - Hugh Wilson, DSC. Aged 92, peacefully on 17th December at Arbrook House Nursing Home. Beloved husband of Pam, loving father of Rob and Alice. Memorial Service at St Andrew's United Reformed Church, Walton-on-Thames, KT12 1LG on 31st December at 12.30 p.m. No flowers please. Donations, if desired, to St Nazaire Society c/o Lodge Brothers 01372 463903 or www.lodgebrothers.co.uk

UPDATE: to read Hugh's obituary in the 'Telegraph' go to this link - 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10559235/Hugh-Arnold-obituary.html





Friday, 29 November 2013

'Turned Towards the Sun' DVD

If you are amongst the many waiting for Micky Burn's film to finally appear on DVD, check out this link - https://www.facebook.com/pages/TurnedTowardsTheSun/294619273982008. The page also contains news that U.S. distribution might not be far off - which means that finally somebody must have wakened up to the fact this is a story that needs telling. If and when I get any more detail on this, I will post it here. I can almost hear old Micky's spirit muttering....'....fame at last!'


Thursday, 14 November 2013

SPEAN BRIDGE, NOVEMBER 2013

The Commando Memorial


Standing high on the hills above Spean Bridge, in the middle of wartime 'Commando Country', the Commando monument looks out over a landscape of stunning natural beauty. To its left, in the image above, is Ben Nevis. A mere ten-minute drive from Fort William, the location becomes 'Commando Central' each November as commandos, past and present, along with families and friends, gather to remember those who have fallen in the various conflicts that still trouble our world.

Close by is a circular area where personal tributes can be laid to individuals and to units, and it is especially sad to see the most recent and realise the human race has still signally failed to learn the many lessons of the past (see below).


Details of the annual ceremonies are to be found on the website of the Commando Veterans' Association, and if you have never been, then a visit really is something you should consider. This year's events began on the Friday, and ended on Sunday: they included a visit to Achnacarry - 'Castle Commando', a Saturday evening dinner to which all were invited, a ceremony in front of the Alexandra Hotel, and of course the gathering beside the monument itself, with the skirl of the pipes ringing through the clear air. Amongst the many groups and individuals laying wreaths it was heartwarming to note the Army, Navy and Air Force cadets. Also to note the overdue presence of an Operation Chariot wreath laid, on this occasion, by Commando Bill Holland's daughter Denise Orzel.


Plans are afoot to resurrect the 'Commando Trail' idea with information boards at selected points throughout the area, each containing a QR code linking directly to the appropriate portion of the CVA website. This will allow visitors to have immediate access to the stories relevant to each particular location. Achnacarry was central to the training of both Commandos (Army and Royal Marines) and American Rangers. It was, however, not the first location to be so used, that honour going to Inverailort House and the Lochailort area some thirty miles away - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverailort_House.
Here, and in the area surrounding it, the first Irregular forces were trained - as were agents of the Special Operations Executive. The CVA website, at www.commandoveterans.org/‎ is a rich source of information, and well worth a visit.


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

FACEBOOK - 1940s style...

If we've gone so far as to hypothesise the existence of blogging in the 1940s, why not extend our speculative exercise to include Facebook as well? The very notion of 'Social Media' in an era when communication relied on telephone, telegram and hand-written letters, might have seemed fanciful indeed; however, the immediacy of our digital world might well have provided for historians an altogether richer commentary, much of it made public without the more careful consideration that attends the laborious process of hand-writing. 

In pursuit of this idea we at PORT 20 have set up Facebook pages for three of the raiders, whose content, based on interviews and written material, will reflect their attitudes and feelings in the months leading up to the raid. In two of the cases published works exist which the reader can access to more thoroughly examine the lives of the men involved: for Micky Burn, we have his autobiography 'Turned Towards the Sun', plus his last volume of poems, 'Poems as Accompaniment to a Life'; and for General Corran Purdon we have his autobiography 'List the Bugle'. All three are currently out of print; however copies should be available through your local library. In every case the books are well worth reading, and their Amazon links are given below.




For the individual Facebook pages here are the links by means of which we can enter a world whose developing drama would change the lives of Micky, Corran, 'Tiger' and so many others for ever.



Sunday, 27 October 2013

BLOGGING - 1940s STYLE

So, it's been a while since anything new appeared on these pages, largely due to the effort put in to setting up 'PORT 20 Productions', our new production company tasked with bringing the Saint-Nazaire story either to the big screen as a movie, or to the small screen as a miniseries. If you're wondering where the name originated, 'Port 20!' was the last steering order ever given on the bridge of HMS Campbeltown just before she struck the dock gate that was her target.

Aside from that, there are to be two new websites devoted to the raid, one on behalf of the St Nazaire Society, and the other belonging to 'PORT 20' - in addition to which I will be creating a smaller site as a personal memorial to my old friend, Micky Burn (more of which later).

Interest in the raid itself has been far from muted during this hiatus: historian Robert Lyman, who has now joined the 'PORT 20' team, recently published a new book entitled 'Into the Jaws of Death'; while news just in is that a new documentary on the raid is being made by 'Impossible Films' - more details as I get them.

And now for dear old Micky who, in spite of having passed on corporeally, remains a constant inspirational presence in my mind. Rumours are that the documentary version of his autobiography 'Turned Towards the Sun' will soon be available as a dvd on Amazon - and again I'll add the information as I have it (see the trailer here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAZk5GoW33A)

As mentioned above, I'll be making up a small website about his life and experiences. Meanwhile, the idea struck me that had blogging been available all those years ago, Micky would certainly have made use of the opportunity. So it seems only fair to sweep away the intervening years and give him a chance to do just that by using his own experiences to illuminate the five month period between now and the 72nd anniversary of the Saint-Nazaire Raid just as though it were the period October '41 to March '42. Sometimes the words will be his own: sometimes they will be mine. But always they will be representative of Micky's mind.   

Late '41 found Micky in Moffat, Scotland, where he and his number 6 Troop, 2 Commando were billeted - in his case in the Star Hotel, under the watchful and ever-solicitous eye of Mrs Butler. The war, and the prospect of action, seemed equally far away as training ground on and on while in London the whole future of the Commando experiment remained under threat from a determined traditionalist lobby. 



The threat was nothing particularly new; but the fact of having to fight enemies at home before they could engage with the real foe, was beginning to take its toll on commitment, as reflected in a letter written to his mother some months earlier, but still very much germane to this period. 

'We became troubled about our unemployed elitism..... I wrote to my mother, "We are all grossly overfed and spoilt. One has to knock at the door and ask if the soldiers are in if one wants them and instead of issuing orders for a parade, I am thinking of sending out cards: Capt. Burn At Home 0900-1300 hrs. Uniform. R.S.V.P Please bring your rifle."' (TTTS p118)

Having once courted National Socialism, Micky was now determined to fight against it - which is why he had joined the Commandos in the first place. The lack of opportunity rankled all the more as fallow month followed fallow month. Really, he knew he must act soon - but the thought of abandoning his boys might be one cross too heavy to bear..... 



Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Jason Beart
Sad news just received that Jason Beart, son of Lieutenant Eric Henry Beart RNVR, lost at Saint-Nazaire, passed away on Good Friday last. A talented musician and composer, Jason was a long-standing member of the committee of the St Nazaire Society, serving as treasurer until diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Jason's family plan a private family burial and in about two months time a musical event to celebrate his life (information courtesy of Ann Mitchell). 

Monday, 1 April 2013

ROAD TRIP to SAINT-NAZAIRE, MARCH 2013


At the 'Monument du Commando', March 28th, in beautiful sunshine. Left to right, David Tait (whose uncle, Lieutenant Morgan Jenkins, of 6/2 Commando, was killed during the raid), Mrs Joan House (who has only recently discovered that her father, Stoker Petty Officer Reginald Hodder RN, of HMS Campbeltown, long believed to have been lost without trace, has actually been interred for all these long years without her knowing, along with his comrades in the war-cemetery at La Baule/Escoublac), and Peter Lush, dedicated and knowledgeable Saint-Nazaire tour guide shortly (we hope) to join the committee of the St. Nazaire Society.

Morgan Jenkins, 6 Troop

And so, for the full story of a trip that only covered three full days, but seemed, from its content, to last a week.

Much as we like living 'up north', it does have the significant disadvantage of being very far away from Europe - especially if one is travelling by car, as we were. In the end we just made it in time for the gathering at La Baule/Escoublac war cemetery on Wednesday afternoon, after a full nine hours in the car plus an overnight ferry trip from Portsmouth to Le Havre (it had seemed like a good idea when we planned it....). The only really stressful bit was complying with French motoring laws which have now been expanded to include breathalysers. AND you can't use a sat-nav capable of picking up speed-traps (800 euro fine, so I'm told). What on earth will they go for next? On-board defibrillators ....!

To elaborate on 'just making it in time', we were to have picked up David and Janet Tait in town by 2.30 before going on to the cemetery- sedately - but didn't make it until near the 3.00pm deadline, necessitating a mad drive through Saint-Nazaire whose psychological effect on the Taits might possibly be judged by their decision to return to town with somebody else!

As ever the cemetery was beautifully cared for and bathed in sunshine, and the highlight of that particular visit was Mrs House's first ever sight of her father's grave. If you ever wonder about the value of history and research, well, here it is, proving that even after all this time lives can still be changed by fresh information.

Having always stayed in Saint-Nazaire, we thought it worth trying La Baule this year, especially given its magnificent beach and quiet lanes lined with old-style villas. We chose the Hotel Lutetia (http://www.lutetia-labaule.com/) a short stroll from the beach, and can recommend it highly - and not just for the fact the friendly staff will deliver a full breakfast to one's room. Well worth a look, but a full 25-minute drive from the centre of Saint-Nazaire, although much of this is along a beautiful 7km-long boulevard.


La Baule, looking towards Pornichet

At six o'clock there was a gathering at the Brasserie le Ponton, within the U-Boat Pens, for drinks, prior to the party splitting up for a main meal. Most attended the St Nazaire Society dinner, while we 'Celts' strolled off to a nearby creperie, decked with Breton flags and Celtic symbols, where a great time was had by all. The gathering at Le Ponton was the first real opportunity for all-comers to meet, including our Breton chums, Hubert Chemereau's beautiful (Irish dancing) daughter Gwenn, German historian Lutz Pietschker and French author Jean-Charles Stasi. 

Thursday morning began at 10.00 with a Breton tribute at the Old Mole, where so many of the MLs fell victim to German fire during the raid. Much flag-waving, and several speeches, including one of my own, all with the theme of 'encouraging' the local powers-that-be to do something about adding explanatory signs to the various portions of the battle-area, not least the Mole. The structure proved all but impregnable back in 1942 yet, today, there is no indication whatever of the sacrifices made there. Not nearly good enough...


Self at the Old Mole, with just enough light to show off one's best features. The vessel shown is following the path taken by HMS Campbeltown on her last charge towards the Normandie dock. The coloured flag in view represents all the Celtic nations.


As ever, 11.00 meant gathering at the Monument du Commando for the main parade. Sadly, this year, only two of the veterans were able to make it, General Corran Purdon having had to cry off at the last minute due to ill-health. This year Dr Bill 'Tiger' Watson and Stephen Barney (HMS Atherstone) were joined in the wreath-laying party by Mrs House.

On past occasions the Vin d'Honneur at the Town Hall, which always follows the parade, marked the end of the official ceremonies; however, this year it was followed by a special showing of the Micky Burn feature-documentary 'Turned Towards the Sun', at the Salle Jacques Tati. Preceded by a press-conference, and followed by a Q & A session during both of which I stood in for the director, who wasn't able to make the trip, this transpired to be a marvellously warm occasion - very much a case of being amongst friends. The film was very well received indeed, which may go some way at least towards assuaging Micky's ghost's insistence that we all do more to get his story out there (but, I suspect, not for long!)

For those wishing to explore the content of Micky's life more fully, see this page - 

To consider that we were all there a full 71 years after the event, it should come as no surprise, given its success and meaning, that these visits will go on for some time yet.

See you all at the 72nd?


The skirl of the pipes; the flap of the flags: all so very atmospheric

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Remembering RICHARD BRIERS (aka-'Tom')

For those of us who remember just how good British comedy programmes used to be, way back in the 1970s and '80s, the names of 'Tom' and 'Barbara' really need no introduction. Richard Briers, who brought 'Tom's' character so wonderfully to life, was very much a 'one-off' - an actor whose roles were inextricably bound up with a time when nothing seemed impossible. I never had the good fortune to meet Richard in person; however I reckon I can understandably feel very proud that words I wrote as the prologue to the film 'The Only One Who Knows You're Afraid', were voiced by him in the role of an anonymous Commando about to be thrust onto the shores of a very hostile France, as part of Operation Chariot, the greatest ever raid on the shores of Occupied Europe. 
The text is given below. So just imagine Richard's soft, melifluous delivery, and remember a truly extraordinary man. 



'The Only One Who Knows You're Afraid'
PROLOGUE
(© James Dorrian)

Tonight we’re going to take you on a journey back in time.

It’s just after one o’clock on the morning of March 28th, 1942. It’s cold. It’s pitch black. And you’re a soldier, crouched on the deck of a small boat, almost within sight of the coast of Occupied France.

The proximity of land brings with it the first stabs of real fear, and you wonder if the other Commandos in your small party are feeling it too. They’re all around you, their faces dark beneath the dull steel of their helmets. Everyone’s weapons are at the ready, packs full of explosive charges, pouches stuffed with ammo and grenades. Aside from muffled orders to the sailors at the after Oerlikon cannon, the only noise to be heard is of the boat’s own powerful engines, a roar so loud they must surely be able to hear it in Paris.

Just before leaving Falmouth, they’d finally mentioned all the guns that were going to be waiting for you on your approach to Saint-Nazaire. A lot of U-Boats lived in the port, just like the one your escorting destroyers had put under yesterday. Silly bugger to show himself anyway: must’ve imagined no British ships would dare be seen where we were.

Hard to tear your thoughts away from all those unseen guns. How many are even now pointed straight at you? You twist around, and search the darkness for the rest of the fleet. Up ahead, that darker patch, that must be Campbeltown, with tons of high explosive packed in her bow. Somebody’s going to get a nasty surprise. Trailing on either side of the old destroyer, feathers of phosphorescence breaking from their bows, are the remaining 17 ships – built of wood, just like your own. … . Bloody tinderboxes still, after all this way, with 2,000 gallons of petrol in each of their tanks. Some “Royal Navy” if that’s all they can afford to give a person. At least Campbeltown, rusting relic though she might be, was built from good old steel! To aid in identification each boat bears a number painted in white – just like they were on a Blackpool pond. Maybe there won’t be any firing after all. Maybe the enemy’ll just grab megaphones and call out from the shore, “Come in number so and so: your time is up…”.

Hard to take your mind off all the fuses, detonators and plastic explosives filling the pack you’re going to be lugging ashore – a pack which, now it’s become a target, seems to have grown to twice it’s former size. Another stab of fear, this time almost crippling as the brilliant, ice-cold pencil of a searchlight sweeps across the waves, only just missing the last boats’ wakes. As it goes out, there’s a loud metallic clicking next to you as one of your Protection Party cocks his Tommy gun. Nerves stretched so tight you could probably play a tune on them. A drink would be good, just about now…..

Your officer appears out of the gloom. It’s the Navy’s job to defend the boat, but with nothing but these tiny Oerlikons against the whole might of the enemy, they’ll need all the help you ‘brown jobs’ can give them. Orders are to be ready at a second’s notice – but absolutely no firing until the klaxon sounds.

Up ahead the Navy are exchanging stolen signals with the Germans, hoping they’ll accept the fleet of strange ships as their own. Can 'Jerry' really be that stupid? You’ve been told they believe the port to be impregnable. Complacency on their part was to be the fleet’s trump card. The British would never dare come here – ergo the British can’t be here – ergo the ships must be German: simple.

Flashes up ahead now; coming from the shore. Then the thud of heavy guns heard only microseconds before first Campbeltown’s klaxon, then all the klaxons on the following boats, shriek out the signal to return fire. The sudden hammering of an Oerlikon only feet away from your ears stuns your senses; then the Commandos’ Tommy guns and Brens join in. You think you hear the sound of somebody beneath your feet, banging on the hull with a mallet: then you realise it’s enemy fire tearing through the thin mahogany skin.

You feel so bloody helpless. As part of a demolition team, all you can afford to carry in addition to your weighty pack, is a Colt pistol. May as well chuck it at the shore for all the good it’ll do. So you make yourself small, very small, and you pray. And maybe you think how long it seems now since you and your mates were swanning round Scotland, taking full advantage of the effect your Commando flashes had on all the girls. And not just the girls –sometimes their mothers too….

A muffled choke, and the Oerlikon gunner is hit, slumping dead in his sling. A flurry of activity as he is quickly replaced - and the dreadful racket of the gun begins all over again.

A wall looms on the port beam: an enemy gun on top of some building is firing over your head at the starboard column. You’re in the outer harbour already. Only few hundred yards to go and you’ll be ashore on the soil of France. No passport control on this trip…..

Your officer gets the various parties sorted out – Protection in front, Demolition behind, while the crew begin to pull down the side stanchions. Stand up: pack on: my God it’s like slinging a bag of cement. Ahead are the silhouettes of the twin pill-boxes that defend the Old Mole, the landing point for all the boats in your column. You wonder if anybody’s made it: then find your answer in the gush of flame that suddenly engulfs the boat just in front of yours. Poor bastards. What a way to go.

Your own boats heels sharply to port as it breasts the lighthouse at the tip of the Mole. For a brief moment you catch a glimpse of Campbeltown, the old girl lit up like a Christmas tree, shell after shell crashing into her sides. She must be almost there. Going fast as hell, from the size of her bow wave. It’s a sight you’ll remember as long as you live – as long as you live!

Amidst the dreadful racket you can still make out the tinkling of broken glass falling from the shattered lantern room above your head. The streams of tracer from the Mole guns can no longer depress enough to hold you as a target, so your boat slides easily beneath them and comes to a stop alongside a slipway. More thuds; this time from grenades tossed down from its upper surface and landing on the deck where you’d just been. A bark of orders and you’re off, stumbling over the bodies of the forward gun crew. There’s seaweed on the slipway. You stumble: can’t fall over or you’ll be helpless as an upturned turtle. A rattle of Tommy gun fire up ahead and then you’re off the Mole, heading for the shelter of the dockside buildings and the deepest, darkest shadow you can find.

Ahead of you, empty as a Scotsman’s wallet after a night out in Glasgow, lies the broad square that separates the Old Town tenements opposite, from the sprawl of silent dockyard buildings to your rear. You can still see the estuary – but you might have wished you couldn’t: for a rippling horizon of flame and smoke seems to be all that now remains of all your comfy, floating billets.

A staccato metallic clatter and a long spray of bullets shreds a nearby metal waste can. The Germans must’ve put machine-guns in the tenements’ upper windows. Beneath the shattered can, your Protection party officer lies sprawled, like he was still on a firing range, his Tommy gun kicking as he seeks them out. He only looks about eighteen. Wants to be a doctor, so they say: maybe should’ve stuck to that – instead of this.

It’s all going pear-shaped. The square you have to cross to get to your target looks about as welcoming as a shark’s smile. Your own officer tries to pick his way across – but soon collapses to the ground, dead, like as not. Nobody’s getting across there tonight. No way ahead. No way back - not now all the boats have gone. Outnumbered twenty to one. But are we downhearted? No, we’re bloody not. We’re Commandos chum – and we’ll do the job and get back home one way or another. Just like we always do……

Ah well; better get a move on then.....


 



Friday, 18 January 2013

Rest in peace, Bob

If you've been accessing our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thegreatestraid, or the Commando Veterans' Association link below, you will have heard the sad news of Bob Wright's passing.   http://www.commandoveterans.org/cdoForum/posts/list/3795.page#13720 For those without a Facebook account, here is the posted text. 

Sad news today that Bob Wright, who I was privileged to interview on two occasions, has passed away. He is shown centre image below on the occasion of our last shoot with him. Those who knew Bob will remember him as a real gentleman, kind, helpful and self-effacing. For those new to Bob's story, here is an all-too-brief bio: his story in the raid is covered in full in 'Storming St Nazaire'.

Sapper Corporal Robert Earnest Wright was a member of A Troop, 12 Commando, having been originally with No. 267 Field Company R.E. He was born in Binton, Staffordshire, on December 24th 1918 and was therefore a mere 23 when he sailed up the Loire on board HMS Campbeltown. A chargehand joiner prior to the war, Bob was a keen sportsman, having ridden in motorcycle trials and played cricket and soccer for the village teams. Perhaps less predictably, he had also played piano accordion with a Latin-American dance band!

Bob was serving in Northern Ireland when he volunteered for Special Service, mustering in the City Hotel Londonderry (Stroke-City to those familiar with Ulsterese). 12 Commando then moved to the UK where, during a Snow and Mountain Warfare Course in Glencoe, Bob first met Gerard Brett, who would be his Party officer at Saint-Nazaire. He took part in Operation 'ANKLET', the Christmas 1941 raid on the Lofoten Islands, before being hand-picked to train in dock demolitions prior to embarking for Saint-Nazaire.

On the run-in to ramming, Bob was in the Wardroom with the others of his demolition party, making his way up to the main deck immediately after the ship hit the dock caisson. Bob was hit almost immediately, a chunk of enemy steel embedding itself in his knee. Where lesser men might have thought enough was enough, Bob - in spite of a serious wound - nevertheless got himself down onto the caisson and, carrying a dead weight of explosives in his pack, remained with Brett's party all the way through the attempted demolition of the inner dock caisson, all the time under enemy fire.

During the withdrawal Bob found refuge in a cellar with TSM Haines, Lance-Sergeant Challington, Lance-Corporals Howarth and Douglas, and Private Harding, all of who were determined to escape the tightening German cordon. Realising that he would only hold the others up, Bob allowed himself to be taken prisoner. He was eventually incarcerated in the notorious Lamsdorf PoW Camp, whose occupants were marched west late in the war to escape the Russian advance. He was eventually liberated by General George Patton's troops.

You were a brave man Bob, and you will be missed.

(Photo courtesy of Scott Van Osdol - www.vanosdol.com)
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