How Grandad Went to War

   Philip Brewin recalls his part in the early part of WW2

How I Went To War - 16

Friday 14th June
A lovely hot day just right for some of us on cookhouse fatigue; another group are digging a huge rubbish pit – phew.
Our team mans the Predictor in the afternoon and later erect a tent for our own use.  The stores tent has opened up for the sale of ‘soft’ drinks and we find the Vivor brand of lemonade is very drinkable.
We have a better night’s sleep in the tent.
Saturday 15th June
We learn that 246 and 248 Batteries have arrived safely in Rennes and that Le Havre had been severely damaged in the Jerry bombing.  Also that the Jerries have taken Paris and capitulation is expected any time.  Storm clouds overhead do not give us much enthusiasm for the routine checking dials and it is rather dreary manning the equipment, however, quite unexpectedly later in the day we get orders to pack up ready to move on again.
Down come the tents, lorries loaded up with the stores and the guns are hitched to the vehicles.
Jerry comes over but drops no bombs and at 01:30 hrs we are on the road heading South West.
Sunday 16th June
A good sunny day for travelling and Calvert and I sit on the gun carriage and have a nap as it rumbles along.
The route takes us through some spectacular countryside and we reach Nantes as people are leaving their churches.
The convoy stops in the main square where our cooks manage to brew up some tea watched with interest by the inevitable horde of excited children.

Place Royale, Nantes, 1939.

Some kind person hands us a bottle of wine and some cherries.  After an uneventful ride we head for some fields near the docks at St. Nazaire.
The roads and fields all around are crammed with troops of all kinds including large numbers of RAF personnel.  We set up the equipment ready for action.  During the late afternoon Jerry was over bombing the dock area but we were unable to engage a target.
There is no water available and the only shelter is in the hedge or under the gun covers.  Nobody gets any sleep.

St Nazaire Station 1930
St Nazaire Railway Station circa 1930

Monday 17th June
A late start and some uncertainty about what happens next.  We manage to get some water from a bowser vehicle for a drink and a brief wash.
Major Heber-Percy comes on site and tells us that we are to cover the evacuation of the other troops in the area, but not all of the troop would be needed and he selects No.5 Section (ours) to leave first and join the column heading for the ships in dock.

St Nazaire Harbour 1941
St Nazaire Harbour circa 1941

We are given a midday meal and rations for 48 hrs but are unable to leave the field because of the other troops blocking the road.  Eventually, about 17:00 hrs, we make a start shuffling along the road to the dock area.
There are abandoned vehicles on fire and stores of all kinds being destroyed in the surrounding fields; some looting is also taking place by local people but who can blame them really.
We reach the quayside by about 20:00 hrs and chat to some of the dockers whilst waiting to board one of the ships waiting in approaches to the harbour.
A large vessel ties up at the quayside and we start boarding by 21:30 hrs in company with a motley collection of troops and some civilians.
The ship is called ‘The Glenaffric’, a sizeable vessel used as a ferry on the Irish Sea routes.

The Glenaffric

The civilians and most of the troops are ushered below decks, but Ted, Alf and I manage to grab a place on the poop deck next to an anchor donkey engine.  Jerry comes over and bombs the anchorage and there is a huge explosion out in the estuary.  There is some AA fire but it is not clear whether it is from our guns, the French, (unlikely) or some naval vessels in the approaches.
We hear that a large liner the ‘Lancastria’ has been sunk in the estuary and that we are to pick up some survivors mainly RAF personnel.

Tuesday 18th June
We manage to doze off before first light when we see some RAF Hurricanes flying overhead - the first we have seen during the whole campaign.  By 09:00 hrs we are on our way despite some reluctance from the dock hands to cast off the ropes and soon pass the sunken ‘Lancastria’, a very large liner and it is a sad moment for all of us.

RMS Lancastria

The weather is fine and the sea calm as we head out into the Atlantic passing a motley collection of other smaller vessels.  Here the coast stretches away towards Brest and is mainly low lying.
We begin to feel the swell as the ship heads into deeper water and Alf is sick whilst I feel groggy too but better lying down.
Feeling somewhat better, we heat our McConikie rations and eat the emergency biscuit pack which we all carry in our uniform trouser pockets.
Later we pass three Allied warships and everyone gives a cheer.
The sun sets with a glorious display of orange and gold, perhaps a good omen.
[APB Comment: The Glenaffric took off 4000 people at St. Nazaire on 18th June]
Wednesday 19th June
We see the English coast as dawn breaks and we all feel relief to have made a safe crossing.
A pilot boat comes out to guide us into Plymouth and somewhere on a pier a Marine band plays us in, which brings a lump into our throats.
By 09:30 hrs after the wounded have been landed we all disembark, a rather bedraggled crowd glad to be away from the stench of vomit and overflowing toilets on board the ship.
Some wonderful WVS ladies have organised some tables along the quayside and are handing out food and mugs of tea to us which is much appreciated.  We rest on the quayside all day until it our turn to board the train for Borden Camp near Aldershot.
As the ‘Glenaffric’ leaves port for another mission we give the Captain a good send-off, grateful for a successful homecoming.
By evening we are on our way and enjoying the sight of the lovely Devon coastline from the train.
During the journey Lt. Pat Ellam invites a few of us into his compartment so that we could fill in leave passes for the whole Troop so that we can have a few days at home.  The plan is for us all to form up on the platform at Borden station and be marched out on the way to the barracks and then when out of sight of the station, to split up and make our own way home as best we could.
All goes well and Ted, Alf and I stick together and make our way out onto some heath land where bushes will give us shelter while we have a short sleep.
Thursday 20th June
We can hear a great deal of motor traffic, we suspect mostly Red Caps searching for us on motor cycles, but stay down until it is all clear.  We make our way along the road and at about 05:00 hrs a car draws up and inside are two of our cooks, Bdr. Read and his mate who are being taxied home to Watford.  The taxi driver directs us to his cottage and garage nearby where his wife, bless her, gives us some food while we wait for the husband to return to take the three of us home.
On his return he agrees to take us first to Hendon where Alf will get out, then on to Watford for Ted and I to call at his Mum’s house where she hopefully will pay the taxi man.
It all works out fine and after dropping off at Watford I catch a bus to brother John’s house at Stanmore for a warm welcome, wonderful meal, a hot bath and a comfortable bed.
For the three of us it was the ending of our brief campaign with the BEF and active service overseas, at least for the time being.
[APB Comment: The evacuation of the BEF from St. Nazaire and other ports along the west coast was named Operation Aerial - June 15th to June 27th 1940]

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