OPERATION AERIAL (NORTHERN SECTOR)

Operation Ariel: Polish troops standing in an assembly point in Ancenis, France, before their evacuation. Note their uniforms of the French mountain infantry, the Chasseurs Alpins.

Ports utilised during the evacuation of British and Allied forces, 15–25 June 1940, under the codename Operation Ariel.

Operation Aerial (also Ariel) was the code name given to the final evacuation of British and Allied troops from north-west of France between 15 and 25 June 1940. The participating ports were grouped to form two sectors. Admiral Sir William James, the commander-in-chief of Portsmouth Command, who had already successfully managed Operation Cycle, was given the job of lifting troops from Cherbourg and St-Malo, the most northerly of the ports. Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Nasmith VC, commander-in-chief of both Plymouth Command and Western Approaches Command, based at Plymouth, would control the evacuation from Brest, Saint-Nazaire and La Pallice. The evacuation would later also include ports on the Gironde Estuary, Bayonne and Saint Jean-de-Luz.

Despite the fact that the 7th Panzer Division was closing in on Cherbourg, its evacuation proceeded smoothly. Admiral James arranged for a flow of independently routed troop ships and other craft to use Southampton, Poole and Weymouth. Most of the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division and the remnants of the 1st Armoured Division embarked between 15 and 17 June, while the following day Lieutenant General James Marshall-Cornwall’s Norman Force was rescued. When the final vessels sailed out of the port on the afternoon of 18 June, a total of 30,630 men had been extracted; this included 9,000 troops that had been moved to Cherbourg from Le Havre during Operation Cycle. The next day Rommel’s Panzer troops finally took charge of the port.

After the debacle at Dunkirk, Hitler was determined that the Luftwaffe would prevent further Allied evacuations. I. Fliegerkorps, commanded by Generaloberst (Colonel General) Ulrich Grauert, was assigned to the Normandy and Brittany sectors, and between 9 and 10 June its aircraft subjected Cherbourg to around fifteen tonnes of bombs. Yet during the actual evacuation period itself, bombing on the harbour was relatively light.

Further south at St-Malo, it was the turn of the 1st Canadian Division to be rescued between 16 and 17 June, during which a total of 21,474 men were evacuated. Interestingly, as well as using ships from Portsmouth Command, here the Admiralty called on the authorities in Jersey to provide all available craft to help in the evacuation.

Apparently the potato season was in full swing in the Channel Islands and a number of large cargo vessels were in the harbour at St Helier. These were dispatched to St-Malo along with a flotilla of smaller vessels organised by William Le Masurier, the commodore of St Helier Yacht Club. Luckily, the German troops that had been pressing down on St-Malo were suddenly diverted to attack the airport at Rennes instead. This gave the rescuers enough time to safely lift all the Allied troops present and take them to England without needing to go via Jersey. As well as going to Plymouth, some of the craft went to Dartmouth and other anchorages.

Among those evacuated from St-Malo was Bill Ward, who we met earlier in the book. He was a militiaman serving with the 2/4th Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. On arriving in France his battalion had been used for labour duties, and in the first instance went to Caen to help build sidings for an ammunition dump; later his unit was swallowed up by the Beauman Division. His epic story of reaching St-Malo, similar to that of Richard Seddon, shows the desperate nature of what these men went through. Many would make their way to the evacuation ports in small groups using their own initiative and dodging the enemy as they went.

Bill Ward takes up the story around the time that the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was being re-embarked from St-Malo and returning to England, which would have been between 16 and 17 June. He remembers his unit becoming part of an emergency division and being sent north by train to help hold the Germans back around Rouen. They de-trained somewhere near Pont de l’Arche on the south bank of the River Seine, to the south east of Rouen, as he recalled:

We had been ordered to hold the line of the Seine to the east of Pont de l’Arche and were split into companies. Our company was asked to hold the most eastern section. Whether the Germans were near or not we had no idea and so we set off marching in sections down the road. A steep hill rose on our right and to the left were fields of ripe corn. We reached a road and hamlet at the foot of the hill; at the junction a team of French artillery men had an anti-tank gun pointing uphill. A steady stream of black French colonial troops were making their way down the hill. It seemed a dangerous place to be but our new platoon commander, Peter Lambeth, who had been posted to us, told me a reverse slope was a classic position to hold and that was what we were going to do. So, in an amateur way, we dug our positions.

Late that afternoon there was a series of enormous explosions from the direction of the river. It was the French engineers destroying the bridges over the Seine. We settled down to wait. Later, we heard the rattle of tracked vehicles on the far side of the hill, so at dawn our platoon commander decided to send a patrol to look. I was chosen with a fellow lance corporal and was sent up the hill and along the line of a hedge, to get a view over the top of the hill. We could see numerous armoured vehicles and lorries. All of them looked black with white crosses and swastikas.

Standing up in the turret of an armoured vehicle which was coming along the road, was a young man wearing a French steel helmet. It must have been a souvenir but at the time, I thought the man was French, so I stood up beside the road. On seeing me, he ordered his gunner to open fire. At the same time the French gunners at the bottom of the road opened up with ferocious explosions. My colleague put the Bren gun he was carrying on my shoulder and began to fire. We then went through the hedge and down the hill as fast as we could. I was deafened by the noise. A German motorcycle and side car was slewing off the road by the armoured vehicles, already firing at us before he stopped. The platoon commander ordered us to withdraw down the hill.

The journey downhill was incredible; young Vallans was hit with a bullet which tore a strip out of his trousers and under pants. This we patched up as best we could with our first aid equipment.

Crossing the road we came under fierce and intense fire from the motorcyclist. Our platoon commander, Peter Lambeth, was hit by a bullet in his leg. Wally Arnold, his batman and I dragged him to safety, behind a cottage, where we tried to patch him up. We could see the bullet but Peter wouldn’t let me try and get it out with my knife – and I don’t blame him. The machine gunner could see us, but we lay flat on our stomachs and he could not depress the gun sufficiently enough to hit us. The cottage wall was disintegrating behind us.

We found ourselves in some rose bushes and I picked a flower for each member of the section, who put them in the button holes of their battle dress blouses. It brought a bit of hope to our somewhat depressed feelings. The bullets seemed very close now, so with Wally on one side of Peter and me on the other, we made a hasty but clumsy dive for the bottom of the garden, through the wooden fence and into the field full with corn.

We set off through the corn after the others. Peter was wonderfully courageous, hopping on one leg, while hanging on to Wally and myself. It must have been painful but he never complained. Further motorcyclists and armoured vehicles went down a track on our right leading to the river Seine. The armoured vehicles gave no quarter to those who surrendered to them. The Germans made them put their rifles on the road, which they ran over, and then opened fire on them. It was horrendous!

We lay flat in the corn, quiet and out of sight, when we encountered a motorcycle and side car, coming down the lane on our left. Once again the gunner couldn’t depress his machine gun far enough, and although he took the tops off the corn above our heads, we remained safe. So, there we decided to stay. Peter’s leg was painful, so I had another go at bandaging it. The blood drying on my hands prickled sharply. We finished the water in our water-cans and listened to the German machine gunners, talking nearby.

All day long, from somewhere to the north, heavy artillery bombarded the south bank of the Seine. As we lay in the corn, we could watch the blur of each shell, as it went over the fields, followed by a dull thud and a cloud of smoke. I made drawings of these impacts in my sketch book. We dozed and afterwards, I made a foray to the road. It was narrow, metalled and raised, with a ditch on either side. Coloured French colonial troops were dodging along. One stopped and asked if I was ‘blesse’ (injured), I replied ‘no’, and wished him well.

Eventually night fell and a great dark yellow moon appeared in a mauve sky. We could still hear the advanced German soldiers talking nearby but we got on our feet, put our arms round Peter and shuffled to the road. I knew the 23rd Psalm by heart and quickly recited it to my friends. I went ahead: a milk van had rolled over into the field on the right, so I went to collect water from its engine in my steel helmet. The vehicle was smashed and there were bullet holes all over it. The driver was lying dead across his seat and there was no water or milk.

The banks on either side of the road were lined with wounded or dead people. One of them groaned and I could see he was a priest who had been shot. I gave him what was left of my water and he blessed me.

We carried on but Peter kept getting cramp. He bravely continued, until eventually, we reached the river bank. It was thick with vegetation into which we scrambled and lay puffing. I went down to the water, filled my steel helmet and brought it back to Peter and Wally. The water stank like sewerage, and tasted like it as well. Nonetheless, we all took a good, long drink.

We decided that I should go and look for a boat. First, I scoured the side of the river on which we were, but then decided I should swim across the river and look on the other side. It was starting to get light to the east. I stripped down to my vest and under pants. Peter gave me his .38 pistol which I hung by its lanyard around my neck. We shook hands and I waded in. There was a mist over the river as I set off. The Seine was wide at Pont de l’Arche and the pistol became heavy, so I wriggled out of the lanyard and let it go. As I swam, a German sentry watching the river heard me through the mist and opened fire. This didn’t deter my stroke and the bullets plopped into the water beside me. It’s funny how bullets seem to stop at once in the water.

I crawled over the slippery slimey bank and started my search for a boat, attracting gun fire from the side of the river I had just left. I found a decayed boat, in a derelict state, which I couldn’t move. Daylight was gaining and as I moved along the bank a machine gun opened up. The wire fence was cut and sprung apart and I made a dash up the bank. I scrambled through nettles and shoulder high reeds, straight into the fire of a French sniper. I shouted ‘Ne tiree pas, je suis anglais’, as a great lump of bark flew off a tree by my head. To my amazement a sniper appeared from behind a bush in front of me. There was an anxious few moments as I looked down the barrel of his gun, and at his finger on the trigger. I must have been a comic sight in my under pants and vest. He lowered his rifle and reached deep into the pocket of his overcoat, drawing out a bottle of wine, which he handed to me. I might have been a tee-totaller, but I was extremely thirsty, and I more or less emptied the bottle at one gulp. He hurriedly snatched it back but gave me his overcoat and beckoned me to follow him to his motor bike. I did so, and he took me into Pont de l’Arche. There I met a well-spoken French officer and was told that a small group of English tank men, called Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards) were a few miles downstream. I was also shown our Sergeant Major suffering from shell shock, who was locked – raving – in a little out house. We then went hunting for clothes. I found a pair of trousers, which had come from a tailor’s dummy, blown out of a shop by the bridge. They were fawn coloured and would pass for British army uniform: and they were comfortable. Soon a couple of French boys came back with a battle dress blouse. There were no papers on it but it did for me.

This was a sad day, I had lost all the drawings I had done so far, but it wouldn’t be too long before I was getting more done. I took the French lieutenant downstream and showed him where Peter and Wally were still hidden in the undergrowth, on the other side of the river. He promised to get me a boat that night. However, the enemy was very active and Wally decided to swim across the river, just as I had done earlier. Peter Lambeth was taken prisoner and remained so for the rest of the war.

The 30 cwt lorry from the Queen’s Bays turned up and I crawled in the back and someone handed me a bottle of beer, which I thankfully cleared. At the Queen’s Bays, Major (Lord) Scott, gave me a woollen light weight blanket which some years later my mother made into a dressing gown. At their camp I managed to sleep. Then someone asked for volunteers to go and raid the nearby NAAFI. As a gratefully rescued soldier I went in the lorry with the driver Topper Brown and a couple of lads from the KOYLI. We drove a few miles to the village square where there was a marquee full of NAAFI supplies: bacon, sausages, chocolate, beer, dry bread and blanco, which we gave to the French. They would find it inedible!!

Then it was back to join the Queen’s Bays and to our horror they had been attacked by a German armoured patrol. Their one remaining armoured car had been destroyed by close range shell fire; one or two soldiers lay scattered on the ground. We quickly swung out on to the road, Topper putting his foot down to the floor, and headed south. We decided to go to Marseille, but we didn’t have a map. I then remembered seeing a wine advert on the walls of most cafés in the area for ‘Byrhh’. The advert included a large scale map of France. We stopped at the next café we came to. It was deserted but there was a map on the wall, which I carefully took down and folded, so we could read it from our current position. We continued at top speed, with two of our boys pointing their Bren gun over the tail board of the lorry and about three others armed with rifles in the back. We then noticed a line of dust going ahead of us in the road. Dawning on us what it might be, Topper turned the lorry at right angles into the trees on the roadside. It was a Stuka and we felt safe hidden by the foliage, and there we stayed until the aeroplane had disappeared.

As night was coming on, we looked for somewhere to camp. Then we saw a pair of splendid wrought iron gates at the entrance to a château park. We tugged them half open just enough to get through, went in and closed them behind us. There was a good gravel drive slightly uphill to a fine château. We would be less obvious in the grounds than in the house. We pulled off under the trees, lit a fire and kept a good look out. I had captured a chicken at a farm, wrung the poor creature’s neck and hung it in the back of the van. On the way along it had started clucking, so someone had beheaded it and now it was broiled for our supper. A bit crude but we were hungry. A series of guards were chosen, two at a time, while the rest lay on the lorry tarpaulin. I was about the only one with a blanket.

In the very early hours of the morning while it was still pitch black, a sentry shook me with a whispered warning. There was a light under one of the trees a few yards down the path, and when I looked, right enough there was a dim light at the foot of the tree. I borrowed his rifle, fixed his bayonet and quietly (apart from my heart thumping) attacked the light. I gave a good thrust with the rifle, and buried the bayonet into solid tree. It was moss growing round the foot of the tree that was luminous.

The next morning we were up and about early and fetched water from a stream that ran through the trees nearby. We then tucked into our last slice of bread. We also had a little sip of tea left. Then, someone heard the gates we had come through being opened. We were staggered; it was a German motorcycle and side car out of which the gunner had climbed to open the gates. The likelihood of an armoured vehicle being close behind it dawned on us at once. We threw everything into the back of the lorry. I jumped into the cab with Topper, who was still crunching his slice of bread and as soon as I was assured that everyone else was in the back, we were off at top speed. Fortunately the drive carried on around the side and to the back of the château. We had no idea where we were going but happily there was another set of – less elaborate – gates. They were open and we went straight through them onto a narrow road lined with trees. Our Bren gun chattered away at the motorcycle which was now following us, and which was soon joined by an armoured car. We really got up speed. Topper had removed the governor on the engine and the lorry went like a sports car. We sped up a hill and the armoured car and motorcycle were left far behind.

Of all people, we met a guardsman, upright and marching. He was carrying a Bren gun and decided to join us on our way. Then into the road dashed two or three soldiers. They were ack-ack gunners with a Bofors gun and a truck to tow it, which had pulled in. We had a quick conference and decided they should leave the gun and join us. Before doing so, they unscrewed the barrel of the Bofors gun and tumbled it down a slope. They next unhitched the carriage and we helped to push it out the way, then we were off again.

It was rumoured that the Germans were occupying several villages on the road but we roared through each of them at top speed. The gun truck doing its best to keep up. We were now on the road to St-Malo and I think we were told in Avranches that it was still in French hands. At last we saw the town and ran into an enormous queue of British Army vehicles. There was a fuel dump beside the road. Then, immediately behind us, drew up an American ambulance with five very confident young lady nurses. They had been captured by the Germans and then released.

We could see the harbour now and I noticed a beautiful salmon pink yacht, in which we could no doubt get across the Channel, or at least to the Channel Islands. But as we marched in file, myself leading and carrying – I think it was the guard’s Bren gun – we were stopped by a staff officer, red tabs and all and directed to the racecourse. Little or nothing was going on there. I personally burgled the NAAFI and stuffed my jacket with Wills Gold Flake packets. I didn’t smoke myself but I thought the money would be useful if I could sell them. Our little army then marched to the harbour. A hospital ship was alongside the quay but we were stopped at the gangway as we were armed. Unpatriotically we threw all our weapons in the water. An officer standing nearby, said we could be court-martialed for this and I said ‘provided it was in England we didn’t care’, and on board we marched, where we were ordered to remove our boots and go up on deck into the bows. The ship was the St Andrew and to our delight we sailed within minutes. There were Stukas circling overhead and dropping bombs into the sea, more to discourage us than hit us but it was noisy and frightening. We got something to eat, a blanket each and got down to sleep under the anchor winches. It wasn’t the end of our campaign but we sailed top speed to England and arrived in Dartmouth in the early morning. I tried to get some sleep on the quayside, when a well-dressed man, seeing I was still awake asked if my parents knew I was safe. I told him ‘no’ so he took my phone number and rang up father. It must have caused great rejoicing, as the beaches at Dunkirk had already been cleared. We went to Dartmouth, marching through the streets with a lone piper from a Scottish regiment in front. The town turned out and clapped us as if we were victors not a defeated army. I felt proud though. At the marine barracks I sold my Gold Flake, had a bath with a crowd covered in oil from a torpedoed ship, got new uniform and was sorted out a train with others from my unit, who were dispatched north. I couldn’t believe it, when we were bussed from Sheffield station to the army barracks to which I had first been called up. My family all came to see me in turn and how happy a reunion it was. There were many years of war ahead.

From entries in the Admiralty’s War Diaries covering the evacuation from St-Malo we can date Bill Ward’s story exactly. The HS St Andrew, which was a hospital ship, sailed from Plymouth on 16 June and departed from St-Malo with its evacuees on 18 June, arriving in Dartmouth the following day.

HMS  VEGA – V & W-class Destroyer

A minor operation which can be considered part of ‘Aerial’ was the blocking of the port of Dieppe, for which plans were made and implemented very swiftly. Captain G. A. Garnons-Williams led the undertaking in the destroyer Vega and, on 10 June, supervised the sinking of two of his three blockships in the approach channel, though the mining of the third ship just outside prevented the intended blocking of the inner entrance to the port.

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