OPERATION AERIAL (SOUTHERN SECTOR) II

THE SINKING OF THE CUNARD LINER SS LANCASTRIA OFF ST NAZAIRE

On 17 June the Lancastria, pleasure cruiser of peacetime, had taken her full complement of British troops and civilians aboard from the evacuation port of St Nazaire when three Luftwaffe aircraft attacked and sank her.

The next day the Germans had still not arrived, but Dunbar-Nasmith was led to believe that some 8,000 Polish soldiers had reached the port. Seven transport ships and six destroyers were accordingly sent to pick these men up but they could only find 2,000. These men represented the final evacuation from Saint-Nazaire. In total, 57,235 troops had been rescued, 54,411 of which were British, with most of the others being Polish.

Further south, the final place due for evacuation in accordance with Operation Aerial was La Pallice, the commercial deepwater port of the city of La Rochelle. Unfortunately, when the senior naval officer reached here on 16 June, he discovered quantities of soldiers waiting to be lifted but no transports, as all of the ships he had been promised had been sent to Brest and Saint-Nazaire instead. He decided to requisition some cargo ships that he found in the harbour and embarked the troops on these, although again all their vehicles and equipment were left behind. This convoy eventually got away safely on 18 June.

On two occasions after La Pallice had been cleared, Dunbar-Nasmith was informed that further troops had reached the port. Twice he ordered ships to fetch them away. On 19 June around 4,000 Polish troops were embarked, but the following day very few men were found. As well as the Poles, 2,303 British soldiers were also rescued from La Pallice. This marked the end of Operation Aerial as it had originally been planned; but by now things had moved on again and there were stories of more troops gathering even further south.

The ships that were left empty at La Pallice and therefore not required were sent further south again to Bordeaux, which nestled along the River Gironde. There were now practically no British troops left in France but there were embassy and consular staffs to be brought away, as well as considerable numbers of Polish and Czech troops and British and foreign civilians desperate to leave France before the German conquest was complete.

The first British ships arrived in the Gironde estuary on 16 June. These were the cruiser HMS Arethusa and the destroyer HMS Berkeley. They carried the senior naval officers given the task of directing these final rounds of evacuations. After delivering her passengers, the Arethusa was stationed off Bordeaux to act as a radio and communications centre. The next day all British and some Allied shipping in the port was ordered to make their way to England, while the embarkation of Czech and Polish troops and civilians began. Similar traffic continued through the next two days, with several thousand souls evacuated.

On 19 June the destroyer HMS Berkeley took aboard the various embassy and consular staffs that had made their way to Bordeaux and transferred them to the Arethusa. The Berkeley was then relieved by the cruiser HMS Galatea and sailed back to Plymouth with the president of Poland, Władysław Raczkiewicz, and many of his ministers and a number of other important dignitaries on board. Embarkation of Allied troops and civilians continued meanwhile from Le Verdon-sur-Mer, at the mouth of the River Gironde, where a large contingent of 6,000 Polish troops had arrived.

The operation continued to stretch further south where the Polish ships MS Batory and MS Sobieski and the liners MV Ettrick and SS Arandora Star went to Bayonne, where between 19 and 20 June they rescued roughly 9,000 men. These ships then continued on to Saint Jean-de-Luz, very close to the border with Spain, where poor weather delayed the start of the evacuation until 24 June. The British ambassador to France, Sir Ronald Campbell, stayed with the French government, which had moved from Paris to Bordeaux, until 23 June, then made his way to Arcachon before finally being evacuated from Saint Jean-de-Luz.

On the political front, Paul Reynaud had resigned as prime minister of France on 16 June, in the belief that he had lost the support of his Cabinet. He was succeeded by Marshal of France Philippe Pétain, who delivered a radio address to the French people announcing his intention to seek an armistice with Nazi Germany. At 18:36 on 22 June the French effectively surrendered, when they signed the armistice near Compiègne, which would take effect after midnight on 25 June. Signatories for Germany included Wilhelm Keitel, the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, while those on the French side were more junior, such as General Charles Huntziger. This agreement established a German occupation zone in northern and western France that encompassed all English Channel and Atlantic ports. Italy also received a small zone in the south-east, and an unoccupied zone would be governed by the newly formed Vichy government led by Philippe Pétain which, though officially neutral, was generally aligned with the Nazis.

When Hitler received word from the French government that they wished to negotiate an armistice, he symbolically selected the Compiègne Forest as the site for the negotiations, as this was the site of the 1918 armistice ending the First World War. Hitler considered this location to be the ultimate revenge for Germany over France. With that said, in the final sentence of the preamble the drafters inserted the following: ‘Germany does not have the intention to use the armistice conditions and armistice negotiations as a form of humiliation against such a valiant opponent.’ Furthermore, in Article 3, Clause 2, the drafters stated that their intention was not to heavily occupy France after the cessation of hostilities.

So, on 21 June 1940, in the very same railway carriage in which the 1918 armistice had been signed, which had been retrieved from a museum and placed on the precise spot where it was located in 1918, Hitler sat in the same chair in which Marshal Ferdinand Foch had sat when he faced the representatives of the defeated German Empire. After listening to the reading of the preamble, Hitler left the carriage, just as Foch had done in 1918, leaving the negotiations to the high command of the armed forces, namely Keitel. The negotiations lasted one day, until the evening of 22 June 1940. General Huntziger had to discuss the terms by telephone with the French government representatives in Bordeaux, mainly with the newly nominated defence minister, General Maxime Weygand.

Soon news of the armistice had reached the French authorities in the various ports, who informed the British that all evacuations must end at noon on 25 June. Despite this, the last troopship did not leave until 14:30 on that day after a total of 19,000 military personnel, mostly Polish troops, were rescued from Bayonne and Saint Jean-de-Luz.

In defiance of French instructions, a final set of evacuations took place from ports along the Mediterranean coast of France, including Sète, from 24 and 26 June. From here, another 10,000 troops, mostly Polish and Czechoslovakian, as well as a few civilian refugees embarked for Gibraltar before moving on to England. One of the Czech soldiers was Franta Belsky, who prior to the war had been an art student in London, as he recalled:

I had just started at the Central School of Art in London and hearing that a Czechoslovak army was being formed in France, I trotted off to the embassy and joined up – I was eighteen. We were impatient for the first transport to go and I waited and sculpted and had time to take my entrance to the Royal College of Art before we left.

We crossed the Channel with British troops but as civilians – oh, those eggs and bacon served to them. We entrained at Le Havre for a journey across chaotic France, taking five days and four nights. We kept stopping all the way and I kept asking the railwaymen for coloured chalks and started decorating the front of the engine, gradually down the sides of the train: with a panorama of the Prague castle, slogans, songs, fighting soldiers.

On arrival at the depot camp in Agde (a concentration camp built for the Spanish Civil War Republican refugees) I was called to the education officer: would I like to stay as the resident artist? ‘Sir, I came to fight; kindly send me to a unit’, was my reply. I still designed a few field post stamps and badges before getting to a battery of First World War horse drawn 75’s.

We were idealistic students, all lumped together under ex-Foreign Legion NCOs. We decided to ask for a transfer to a new crack anti-tank battery. We lived to see the Fall of France – the sister battery had eleven survivors. Cut off from everywhere except the Southern ports my lot made for Sète. Rumours abounded that we were going to Africa, to the Foreign Legion – we would have gone anywhere.

Back in London, unknown to us, the exiled president Edvard Beneš asked Churchill for help. Instantly he diverted cargo ships to pick us up, take us to Gibraltar and from there to England, where we landed five weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation. We entered the British Army, swore allegiance to The King and regrouped in Cholmondeley Park.

After the war Franta Belsky became a notable sculptor, Among his most important works is the Royal Air Force Memorial in Prague, which celebrates Czechs who served with the RAF during the war.

Collectively, operations Cycle and Aerial accounted for the rescue of 191,870 military personnel. This figure comprised 144,171 British, 18,246 French, 24,352 Polish, 4,938 Czechs and 163 Belgians; also rescued were 310 artillery guns, 2,292 vehicles, and 1,800 tons of stores. However, most equipment, especially tanks and other heavy vehicles, had to be left behind. When combined with Operation Dynamo, a total of 558,032 men were rescued from the French ports.

Although the BEF had now been completely evacuated and all British forces had been returned home, there was still one pressing issue which Churchill felt he had to deal with. Although the French army had surrendered, its navy, one of the greatest in the world, remained intact. Churchill was still fearful that its ships would be delivered up to the Nazis, even though their commander, Admiral François Darlan, insisted that they would not. However, Churchill was not prepared to take the gamble and tried to convince his War Cabinet that attacking the French fleet was their best course of action. The Cabinet was not convinced as they still considered France to be a friendly power. Churchill demanded that the French fleet either surrendered to Britain, or sailed to British ports. Darlan refused, and Churchill finally got the backing of his War Cabinet and ordered an attack on the French ships.

On 3 July the British surrounded the French fleet at the port of Mers-el-Kebir outside Oran in Algeria. Churchill sent Darlan a message to sail his ships to Britain or the USA, or to scuttle them within six hours. The French showed the British an order they had received from Darlan instructing them to sail the ships to the USA if the Germans broke the armistice and demanded them.

Meanwhile, the British intercepted a message from the Vichy government ordering French reinforcements to move urgently to Oran. Churchill was through playing games and ordered the attack to his commanders. An hour and a half later the British attacked. In less than ten minutes, 1,297 French personnel were dead and three battleships were sunk. One battleship and five destroyers managed to escape.

While the French were furious over these events, the reaction in England was the exact opposite. The day after the attack Churchill went to the House of Commons to explain why he had ordered it. For the first time since taking office as prime minister, Churchill received a unanimous standing ovation.

Britain now stood completely alone, with only her Commonwealth partners to lend support. The Germans were positioned all along the French Atlantic and Channel coasts, and Hitler ordered his military chiefs to draw up plans for the invasion of the country belonging to his one undefeated enemy. For the people of Great Britain the darkest days were still ahead, as Churchill announced to the nation:

What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.

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