‘Meet the bloody fool who went to St Nazaire on Dunstan Curtis’s boat!’ Journalists in a time of crisis by Julia Jones

Watching the Channel 4 journalists every night, telling us about the wonderfulness of the NHS and woefulness of the government, prompts thought about earlier reporting in a time of crisis. I'm currently researching WW2 naval history and have felt surprised by the number of books (and films) describing active service which were published when that service was still active -- and the end of the 'story' not known. The naval officers whose lives I’m writing about were volunteers so it’s probably not surprising that some of them took to their pens to try to make sense of their new existence – despite censorship and the Navy’s initial attempt to ban the keeping of diaries. These volunteers were not going to be dependent on the goodwill of the Lords of the Admiralty in their future careers so could afford some mild assertions of independence. 

It wasn't long before the Navy  decided to make the best of this. Publication could be facilitated -- if the content was acceptable. Nicholas Monsarrat’s HM Corvette was published in 1942 and was followed by three more short books describing his life in the navy.  Robert Hichens We Fought Them in Gunboats was published in January 1944 (incomplete as the author had been killed the previous April) and JPW Mallalieu was given time away from his normal duties to complete Very Ordinary Seaman later that year. Perhaps because the Admiralty, too, was employing a significant number of civilians in uniform, the preferred (though far from invariable) approach was to manage rather than suppress information. Professional war correspondents were also given a generous level of access – a little like allowing TV cameras into Covid wards? 

Those war correspondents ran significant risks. When a ship goes down at sea, a passenger may be offered the first space in the life raft but, beyond that, death does not discriminate. Human bodies can be lacerated, drowned or burned whether they are taking the King's shilling or Lord Beaverbrook's. There were a few tin hats available for those on deck during a naval battle but no flak jackets or other protective equipment. If landing on a hostile shore, it was probably safer to be wearing a uniform than civilian clothes as the Geneva Convention offered better protection than a press pass in case of capture.

MGBs (Official Admiralty photo 1943)
Operation Chariot – the St Nazaire Raid 28th March 1942 – was the first major joint undertaking between the navy and the commandos. They planned to run a redundant destroyer into the heavily defended Loire, ram it into the gates of the Normandie dock and then explode it. The purpose was to render the dock unusable by the feared German battleship Tirpitz while inflicting as much additional damage as possible -- particularly to the U-boat facilities. The approach was to be made at night across the estuary shallows. The designated blockship (HMS Campbeltown) had been stripped of all her fittings to make her float as lightly as possible. All the accompanying vessels, carrying guns and commandos, were small boats from the coastal forces. They were a motor gunboat (MGB), a motor torpedo boat (MTB) and 16 motor launches – all fast and light but petrol-powered and with wooden hulls. Everyone must have known that casualties would be high.

Official journalists Gordon Holman and Edward Gilling from the Exchange Telegraph news agency were part of the team. The Commandos and the boat crews had made their Wills and written their last letters, as was customary before going into action. I wonder whether the journalists would have done so?

Only three of the Operation Chariot motor launches  made it back to Falmouth on March 29th1942. One had returned earlier with engine trouble, eight had been destroyed in action and four were so badly damaged that they had to be scuttled on the voyage home. The MGB and MTB were also lost.  Of the 611 men who undertook the raid, 228 returned to Britain, 169 were killed and 215 became prisoners of war. Both the journalists, luckily for them,  survived. 

Gordon Holman had already written a book about the newly-formed Commandos: now he was writing about the navy’s Coastal Command (The Little Ships published October 1943). He travelled to Felixstowe to meet the Lieutenant Commander Robert Hichens RNVR and look around flotillas stationed there. 

‘Hich said, “I suppose you would like to see some of the boats,” adding, “Have you ever been in any of them?” I said I had and he, as a matter of polite conversation asked, “Who did you go with?”
“Dunstan Curtis,” I said.
It was an answer that had a remarkable effect on the Lieut.-Commander. For the first time he looked very keenly at me and said, “When did you go with Dunstan Curtis?”
“When we went to St Nazaire,” I told him.
Hich looked at me silently for a moment – almost as if he did not believe me – then he turned on his heel and crossing to the half open door said, in a way that embarrassed me yet made me feel very proud, “Here, you fellows, come and meet a bloody fool who went to St Nazaire in Dunstan Curtis’s gunboat!”’   (Holman p.66 1943)

Immediately the war was over the naturalist Peter Scott, who had also served in Coastal Command, compiled his own history of the service, using testimony from his peers. Dunstan Curtis described the exit from St Nazaire on his gunboat (MGB 314).  They'd been the last to leave; the vessel a mass of bullet holes, the dead gunner lying where he’d fallen and everyone on board wounded: ‘Below decks there was a mass of groaning men. We could show no light down there until the shell holes had been blocked, otherwise we should have been spotted, so, to begin with, Holman and the Cox’n did their best, by the light of a dim torch, to help the wounded.’  (Scott p.58  1945)

There are no ‘groaning men’ in Holman’s book: if they are wounded, they are also stoic, cheerful and gallant An official journalist was expected to produce positive reporting, not to spread ‘fear and despondency’. The current carefully managed incursions by film crews into hospitals and care homes are not dissimilar. They are guests of the NHS and behave as such. 

I find it odd, sometimes to see how NHS management is so completely absolved from responsibility. As I had understood the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the Secretary of State relinquished his or her 1948 responsibility for citizens’ health at that point, passing it to Public Health England and the NHS Confederation. The Government can be stingy with funds (a crucially important power) but (I thought) that it does not have direct control over the specific ways in which the money is spent. 

This is not unlike the situation of the Admiralty in 1939. Although dependent on a financial allocation (the Naval Estimates) the way in which the money had been spent through the years of appeasement was Their Lordships responsibility, not the minister's -- one big battleship or fleets of coastal craft? their choice. But if the Admiralty Press office, the Ministry of Information; had ‘allowed’ an official journalist on board they were, of course, guests. It wouldn't be quite polite to mention such shortcomings. 

If you were a serving officer, however, it was fine to have a damn good grumble (as long as you were only temporary). Here's Robert Hichens expressing his shock at pre-war negligence by the professionals. 'The Admiralty could have brought as many E-boats as they wished, and indeed were pressed to do so, just one short year before the outbreak of war. Well, well, talk about visiting the sins of the fathers on the children.' (Hichens p119)

The Captain of the Pozarica & Godfrey Winn
Godfrey Winn spent almost 3 years as a Fleet Street war correspondent and giving morale-boosting talks for the Ministry of Information. He grew sick of being a spectator, ushered onto ships or aircraft and shown only what his hosts wanted him to see. He could also no longer bear the silent suffering of the families who were being bereaved. ‘The bright brittle platitudes no longer make any sense to me and I can’t go on writing them, because I have lost faith in the efficacy or importance of the written word.’ (Winn p43 1947) He handed in his notice to the Sunday Express in July 1942 and signed on as an ordinary seaman to train at HMS Ganges.

Before he went he decided to allow himself a week’s holiday and accepted an invitation to sail with ‘The Pozy’. This was HMS Pozarica, a former fruit-boat converted to an anti-aircraft merchant cruiser. She was an odd, unbeautiful craft but both the captain and crew had been extraordinarily welcoming when he'd visited as a journalist and…he’d fallen in love with her. 

What was meant to be a brief break between one way of life and the next, turned into a three month gap, during which Winn found himself covering one of the biggest disasters of the war – the Arctic convoy PQ17. Of course he had began to keep a diary as soon as he began his 'holiday' on The Pozy. He had no idea, then, what lay ahead but he was a writer and was enjoying the mental freedom of writing for himself once again:  ‘without the blue pencil slashings that had crippled one powers of description and negatived one’s enthusiasm for so long.’ Winn was a novelist, now that he was not longer a journalist (he thought) he could allow himself to be interested in nuances of character and the interplay of relationships, in detail and foibles.

PQ17 was a convoy intended to deliver essential supplies to Russia, via the Arctic route from Iceland to Archangel. It was the first joint British / US naval operation and it went horribly wrong. The Admiralty had operational control and again fear of the Tirpitz was the dominant factor. Acting on information that she had left her north Norwegian base near Trondheim and might be making a break for the Atlantic, all the cruisers, destroyers and aircraft that had been protecting PQ17 were ordered away to join the battleships of the home fleet to tackle the monster -- who had merely poked her nose out to sea, then turned back.

Shells on the deck of
HMS Pozarica (PQ17)
The 35 merchant ships were instructed to scatter and proceed independently. Some small residual support could be provided by ships such as the Pozarica for those few vessels who chose not to remain together but most dispersed as instructed, either carrying on for Archangel or seeking refuge in various inhospitable anchorages such as Novaya Zemla. 24 of them were destroyed by U-boats and the bombers.  Godfrey Winn (who was seriously overdue for his enrolment at HMS Ganges and who had an injured hand), spent several weeks in Russia before he was despatched back to England on a US ship with messages from his ship mates to their families and an understanding that he would tell their story. Arriving home he underwent surgery, delivered the messages and then agreed to a former editor’s request for an eye-witness account.

PQ17 Friends, drowned and saved
It went to the Admiralty to be checked,as usual, and Winn was called for an interview with the First Lord, Mr A V Alexander.  ‘I saw at a glance that the sheets were scored with marks, queries, comments in the margin […] I had never had any manuscript returned to me in this state before. Nor had I been informed, baldly and finally, that not one single word of my “story” could come out.
“Not one single word…” I repeated stupidly, my voice trailing away. I felt myself rocking slightly on my feet from weakness and disappointment’ p229 

Winn collected himself to argue passionately that the families deserved the truth, the Allies needed to understand the true cost of the northern pipeline, that rumours were rife, that the Americans and the neutrals were contemptuous, that the survivors would soon start trickling home . ‘And you’ll have to come out with something in the end, and because it will be so late and dragged out, no one will believe it.’

‘So I was led away, shaking and throat dry, with the banned, mutilated manuscript in my free hand, and as I got back clumsily into the taxi and leant my head that seemed about to burst against the back, I did not pause to think: well one day there will be no more censorship and writers will be free again: I could not see that far ahead:  instead I was only conscious of my utter impotence at that moment, though it is true that mingled with the weight of failure there was a certain counterbalancing feeling of relief too. At any rate this was the very last time I should ever have to beat my head against this particular brick wall.’  (Winn 1947 p.231) 

Winn joined HMS Ganges, as a ‘Hostilities Only’ Ordinary Seaman and refused any offer to apply for a commission. It was a little like deciding to sign up as a care assistant.  He kept in touch with the sailors who had been his friends on HMS Pozarica and with their families. Then, as soon as the war was over and he’d finally obtained his discharge, he wrote his book, PQ17 -- one of the best books to  emerge from this time of crisis: a story told by a participant, not a journalist.

The end of HMS Pozarica  January 1943
 (May 8th 2020)


Jan Needle said…
Thanks, as ever, Jul. Although your energy and dedication to the art and craft of writing so often makes me feel like an idle amateur. This post is fantastic, and somehow personal as one of my oldest and dearest friends is the son of the man who commanded the Campbeltown. I'll be sending him a copy immediately.

It's weird how one feels closer and closer to those distant times as one gets older. My Uncle Ron was torpedoed two or more times on the Arctic convoys, and got the oak leaves for swimming into the bowels of his destroyer and switching off a main steam valve (by feel, in the freezing blackness; he was a stoker), thus preventing a boiler explosion. He always insisted his brother Les was braver than he was, because Les was a hated 'conshie,' who could only go out for a night-time drink when Ron was home on leave and would challenge anyone who wanted to make something of it to have his lights punched out. As a kid these stories interested but hardly moved me. In the words of the classic Scottish joke, 'I damnwell ken the noo.'
Bill Kirton said…
Having recently finished reading Jan de Lorenz's 'The Captain' (recommended by you and/or Jan in a previous blog), and been profoundly affected by it, this highlighted once again for me (not that any reminders were needed) of the true horrors and incomprehensibility of warfare, especially its grotesque (apparent) 'objectivity' at sea, where the vessels seem to become the combatants rather than the human beings whose fingers are on the triggers. We need to stop using the terminology of battle in political games and confront the inhumanity of its processes. While acknowledging and respecting the courage and selflessness of the veterans, we should also learn the lessons and the human costs of such concepts as 'victory'.
julia jones said…
Blimey Jan! Are you saying your friend is Beattie's son? That's amazing. At least Beattie 'just' went to a POW camp. There's an amazing website where I spend a lot of my time these days called Wrecksite.eu which lists all the people who die on each ship that goes down. It's simply awful.

You are of course completely right Bill -- many of the people whose lives I'm researching make comments about this: partly seeing the ship-against-ship battle but then remembering the human horror of what is happening within (the death of the Bismarck is a good example of that) Also many of them are also interested in the way fighting at sea goes against the more usual instinct of seafarers to feel a 'brotherhood' and help one another when in distress. Finally a significant number of 'my' volunteers chose the Navy as they didn't see it as a 'killing service' in quite the same way as the army or airforce. They were correspondingly horrified when they arrived at King Alfred's for their training and had to do bayonet drill...
Jan Needle said…
Bill - I'll vote for that!
But do you mean Jan de Hartog, or have I got something wrong? (Quite likely. Julia Jones I am not!
Jan Needle said…
Yes Jul, he is. He's called Tim Beattie, and (without the benefit of a government tracking app, as seen on the Isle of Wight; thank God we all trust Boris de Pepperpot so much) at the moment he's on his way to a supermarket for a lockdown shop-up. And complains he can't get flour, unlike us in t'frozen north. We had a VE day street picnic yesterday, and apart from one small piece of cheese at lunchtime, I ate nothing at all all day save home made cake. The spirit of the Blitz! I'm sure Tim would be delighted if you'd like to get in touch - he's a lovely man. You'd appreciate his accent too. He makes me sound like the working class git I am!
Bill Kirton said…
You may be a working class git, Jan, but at least you get writers' names right. My sincere apologies to the brilliant Mr. de Hartog.
julia jones said…
(Am sure Bill did mean Jan de Hartog)
Wow again for knowing Tim Beattie -- and pinpoint whereabouts! I probably won't make contact now as am focussing on the yachtsmen volunteers and of course his father was a regular. Drowning in material -- currently doign clandestine cross channel drop-offs / pick-ups of agents on the coast of Brittany (makes me wet myself in terror even thinking about it) and need to get whole book into some sort of first draft. However, will then be able to allow myself to allow myself to do some wandering off and following up such fascinating introductions.
I find those blocking raids just bizarre (they did a couple in WW1 as well) the idea of being Tim Beattie's father and simply driving your about-to-be dead destroyer at amazing top speed to crash into solid dock gates is mind-boggling. 35 crew died immediately. And they must have known that was going to happen.FFS!!
Jan Needle said…
Did you know that German sailors were then massed on board the destroyer's focsle, presumably to stop English commandos storming back? Didn't seem to occur to them that the main charges - on time fuses - were underneath their feet. A very horrible business.

Did you also know (I'm sure you did) that Jane Birkin's father led a suicidal raid across to France with a MGB flotilla. And he was one of those unfortunate seamen who was always incurably sea-sick? At close-coast blind navigation he was apparently a genius. Ask Andy Rosthorn for the details. Amazing story.

And did you notice my own brilliance in keeping Wilfred's father guessing, geographically speaking? Tim does not live on the Isle of Wight, although he might get his garlic there. I'm right off Boris at the moment. Had an anguished call from my youngest son in Germany three days ago. He wants to change his name. It's Wilf...
Jona Ray said…
Fascinating account!
julia jones said…
(Thanks Jona)

Yes I did know about David Birkin -- have been reading brilliant book called Secret Flotillas which itemises many of these cross Channel forays. Discovered it while researching Dunstan Curtis (he and MGB 314 did several runs) but there's so much more I think I'll be happy (or agonised) reading about this stuff for years. There is an awful photo of the Germans standing on the foredeck of HMS Campbeltown that makes me want to shout across the decades at them to get off and run like hell...
Jan Needle said…
Yes a terrible terrible thing. But for me, now, Scandi noir and bed. Nos da.
Umberto Tosi said…
Your vivid details bring these heroic narratives to life, punctuated with the chilling death tolls. lest we forget. It makes one cry in wonder at the way people of that era carried on with such resourcefulness and uncomplaining bravery. It also makes one laugh at today's resentful, gun-toting right-wing whiners waving Confederate flags and bellowing over the 'injustice' of having to spend a few months wearing masks, keeping six feet apart, and binge-watching Netflix! Oh, the horrors!

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