A Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons story
This is the story of Colonel White’s great-grandfather, I have written this on my own conclusions and in an effort to fill in some of his past. It’s not quite an epic but close enough.
I have named the main character of this story as Donald Gray in tribute of the actor who voiced Colonel White. It is coincidence that he shares White’s surname.
This is based upon various war novels I have read and is set against a historical background, that of the fall of France and Dunkirk. Most of this is from memory but for references I suggest the novels of Douglas Reeman –Battlecruiser a prime example. The war films Sink The Bismarck, The Enemy Below, Dunkirk, Battle of the River Plate to name a few that involve naval action.
D-Day60 was upon us recently and here in England and in France there was great commemoration of that day and to those veterans to whom we owe a lot.
June 6, 1944 to June 6, 2004
We can never forget.”
Many men came here as soldiers
Many men will pass this way
Many men will count the hours
As they live the longest day
Many men are tired and weary
Many men are here to stay
Many men won't see the sunset
When it ends the longest day
The longest day the longest day
This will be the longest day
Filled with hopes and filled with fears
Filled with blood and sweat and tears
Many men the mighty thousands
Many men to victory
Marching on right into battle
In the longest day in history
Lyrics from “The Longest Day” (MGM, 1962)
“Normandy, June 2069”
The rain was typical of this time of year, light and not particularly cold. It doused the area lightly and in a blanket of fine mist, making the distant horizons hazy.
Colonel White walked swiftly down the cemetery’s gravel track, his white boots turning brown at the edges with the wet track. Water dripped off his service cap and onto his coat. He turned off the track onto the grass verge and down into the cemetery itself. He passed row upon row of headstones. One hundred and twenty five years had passed since the Normandy landings.
White reached one headstone and paused. The stone before him was plain marble white. A cross at its head and below it, etched into the stone the Royal Navy flag.
Below that in neat capital letters:
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER DONALD GRAY DSO RN
FELL NEAR THESE BEACHES
White –Charles Gray- knelt and watched those words carefully and then laid the flowers he held.
They shall not grow weary as we are left grow weary.
White stood and saluted.
“Portsmouth, May 8, 1940”
The two seamen on the Round Fort at Portsmouth Harbour’s entrance studiously cleaned the deck near the waterside. The sun was hot, but not quite hot enough.
One paused and pointed out into the Solent: “Ere, what’s that?”
His friend followed the arm and smiled. “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the destroyer.”
A single grey destroyer of the elderly V&W class slid into Portsmouth Harbour leaning to starboard. It was the destroyer posted as missing, following the disastrous events at Narvik and off the coast of Norway. At the front the Royal Navy duster, the flag that consisted of the English St. George cross with Union Jack in top left corner, flew triumphantly. On her foc’lse lay sixteen bodies covered by the flag.
Lieutenant-Commander Donald Gray watched as the fallen of the Winchester’s crew were taken down the gangplank onto Portsmouth Docks and placed in the back of a Bedford lorry.
Gray was thirty-one, young for a destroyer captain in peacetime, but just about average for WWII captains. He had joined the Royal Navy in 1914 at the tender age of fifteen, and fought for the four years on various ships learning the way of the sea and command. In the interwar years he drifted onto destroyers and felt his twilight years had come prematurely. Yet on September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and two days later France and Britain declared war.
His war, as so many in the RN had, started in April 1940 when Hitler launched his Blitzkrieg at Norway after surprisingly invading Denmark. The so-called Phoney War, Bore War, Sitzkrieg –Sitting War- was over.
Gray took Winchester into battle and they fought bravely, sinking three German destroyers and grounding six German bombers. They heard the noise as Glowworm rammed the Admiral Hipper, only for the destroyer to come off worse than the German pocket battleship.
Winchester proceeded to get lost in the North Sea, hunted by the Germans and eventually reaching home.
Lieutenant Richard Hammersmith, Royal Navy Reserve –Gray’s number one- leant against the railing that ran around the edge of the exposed bridge.
“Glad we’re home sir.”
“As I am, Dick.” Gray saw a car approach. “Looks like brass.”
The car stopped beside the lorry and out stepped a naval officer, the wavy braids on his wrists indicated a reserve officer, one of those belonging to the RNR or the RNVR. Donald Gray allowed himself a small smile. “It’s Tricky.”
Lieutenant-Commander Ted ‘Tricky’ Anders might bear the shoulder tabs of CANADA, but he was in fact American. In 1939 the only way to join the RNR was to pretend to be Canadian. He got his nickname following scrapes at Dartmouth, and the name had stuck fast when he briefly joined Gray as his number one, in February 1940. Tricky now commanded Winchester’s sister ship, HMS Warlord.
“Donald, good to see you made it. We thought you bought it.”
Gray rubbed his forehead wearily. “You pegged it back quick enough. Both you and Vixen.”
“I was under air attack; we were also warned of U-Boats.”
Gray gazed down at the green waters of the harbour, in the distance he could make out an aircraft carrier –possibly Ark Royal. “Sure. Look, old man, I’m rather tired, can we take this up some other time?”
“Sure, how about The Destroyer tomorrow night?”
Gray smiled thinly. “I’ll try.”
Once the American had gone, Hammersmith walked across the bridge. “Sir, all casualties have been removed. We’re clear to enter dry-dock.”
“Do the honours, Lieutenant.”
Lieutenant (J.G) Hannah Bates was a dashing Wren –the women’s arm of
the RN- with coppery-red hair that hung halfway down her back and some
rebellious locks that lay over her shoulders. Although this time, it was worn up. Her eyes were a piercing green and
she had perfect lips and a wonderful smile.
Her shoulder tabs bore CANADA –Hannah being just one of many Canadians in the Royal Navy. Her designation was primarily the Royal Canadian Navy but absorbed into the RN.
Hannah was twenty-five and a native of British Colombia. She had moved, when only five years old, with her parents to London.
She had returned to Canada briefly in 1935 to join the RCN, and moved back to England in 1938 to take up service as a Wren. Hannah worked in the secret operations building beneath the docks at Portsmouth, dubbed the ‘Little Admiralty’ by its occupants, where she was a senior Wren working with six others under the commanding officer – a captain in this instance.
Hannah was currently typing up a wireless –W/T- transcript and, on completion, she walked to the wooden door near the room’s entrance. She knocked beneath the sign that simply read: CARELESS TALK COST LIVES!
“Enter,” came a stiff English voice.
“Morning, sir. Latest W/T.” She closed the door and moved to the CO’s desk.
“Thank you, Hannah.”
Captain Jack Strawbridge, RN, was forty and a good officer. He had missed out on a ship and instead commanded this operation.
Hannah fixed her eyes on a portrait of Churchill that sat on the wall behind Strawbridge.
Strawbridge cleared his throat. “So the Winchester made it home, hey? Good old Donald, I thought he’d make it.”
“Quite, sir. The Warlord, Vixen and Vincent are also in base, sir. They’re ready for immediate action.”
“Expecting invasion are we, Hannah?” said Strawbridge handing the sheet back with a smile.
“No, sir. At least not in England.”
“Well, if the buggers try, they can think again. We’ll sort them out. That’ll be all.”
Hannah left and, as she did, she bumped into a naval officer. He took off his white cap and smiled awkwardly. He was tall with dark hair and blue eyes.
“Terribly sorry, old girl. I’m looking for Captain Strawbridge.”
Hannah blinked and brought herself from a daze.
“It’s alright sir.”
He tipped his officers cap. “Lieutenant-Commander Gray, HMS Winchester.”
She saluted. “Sir, I heard about you. Well, the CO’s door is just there.”
He passed her and paused to look back. “Your name is?”
“Lieutenant Bates, sir, Hannah Bates.”
He nodded and entered the office. Hannah returned to her desk and sighed.
“HMS Winchester, May 10, 1940”
Donald Gray slept on Winchester during the initial nights at home; even as she rested high on blocks in dry-dock. The gaping hole that had induced her list was being repaired by Portsmouth shipyard workers watched carefully by the chief engineer.
Gray woke with a growl. The deck reverberated to the sound of running feet and shouting. Elsewhere there was the sound of water flooding. He was in the process of sitting up and swinging out of bed as the door was flung open to reveal Hammersmith.
“What in blue blazes?”
“Sir.” Hammersmith was breathless, his cap askew. He took a deep breath and blurted, “Germany’s invaded France!”
Gray punched his fist into the bed. “So this is it!” He stood, “Is the dock flooding?”
“Slowly, sir, we’re on standby.”
“Convene a conference. I’ll get ops on the blower.”
Germany launched her Blitzkrieg through the Ardennes at Belgium, where everyone least expected it. They went around the famed Maginot Line and not through it, as expected. They also proceeded to invade Holland. The Netherlands fell after five days and Belgium seven.
Within the course of a few days and weeks, Germany began to push the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force towards the English Channel, and a little French town known as Dunkirk.
As all this played out, far away in France, Donald Gray proceeded from the docks where Winchester’s repairs continued at speed and entered the pub known as The Destroyer. The pub was an ordinary British pub, tucked away in a back street just off the Harbour – known affectionately as The Hard.
Gray took off his cap as he entered and took in the pub. Pictures of old destroyers, dating back from this war to the turn of the century, adorned the walls. If Gray looked hard enough he would be able to find his father’s destroyer – HMS Foxhound.
His father, Captain Charles Gray, DSO (and Bar), RN (Retired) commanded Foxhound in the last two years of The Great War and was credited with sinking two German vessels and rescuing the crew of a troop ship. His father had died in 1919, following a car accident in Versailles.
Gray walked to the bar and tapped it. “Guv’nor.”
The bartender appeared from a rear room and smiled. “Commander Gray.”
“Evening, James, just got in from Norway.”
“Bloody cold too, I imagine.” James May was the owner of the pub and one of Foxhound’s company.
Gray slid onto a stool. “Just some Ginger Beer for now.”
“Right you are, sir.”
Gray turned on his stool as Tricky entered. The American spoke first. “Thought I’d find you here.”
“What’s the problem?”
“No problem.” Tricky sat down next to Gray. “Beer please, Jimmy.”
Donald rubbed his lip and contemplated lighting a cigarette. “Anything more about France?”
Tricky produced some Turkish cigarettes. “Only the RAF are being kicked clean across France.”
“As well as the BEF, I should imagine,” Gray added.
“Why don’t you chaps come in?”
Tricky grinned taking the beer, as it came. “It is not America’s fight.”
Donald Gray sipped his Ginger Beer and coughed. “Blasted war.”
Ten minutes later a soft voice said at Gray’s elbow, “Evening lieutenant-commander.”
Donald looked to his left. “Afternoon lieutenant.”
Hannah smiled showing her white teeth, it was an attractive smile thought Donald absently. He looked quickly at the rear room which James had slipped into. “I’ll get you a drink.”
“I’ll have whatever you have.”
“Fine. James, two more Ginger Beers, please.”
Hannah sat down. “Didn’t know you came here.”
“When I’m in Pompey.”
Hannah rested her chin on her hand and looked at Gray. “Were you in Norway?”
“Yes. We were slogging it out. A stupid situation. Not one best talked about here.”
Hannah shifted her head. “But this is a place frequented by navy men.”
“Careless talk old girl, sorry.”
James caught Gray’s attention. “Phone for you, Donald. A Captain Strawbridge.”
Donald got up and walked around the counter to the phone. “Gray.”
Hannah watched as his expression changed and heard him end the conversation with: “One of your Wren’s is here, want me to bring her in?”
Gray returned to her. “I’m needed, Strawbridge wants you too.”
“I’ll walk you there.”
As they headed for the door Gray tapped Tricky’s shoulder as he played pool. “We’re needed, Tricky.”
“Tricky,” Gray pressed as the American leant against the pool table.
“Oh…”Tricky refrained from swearing and stood to place the cue against the wall rack.
Hannah and Donald walked towards The Hard in silence. They passed people heading home and sometimes looked to the stars. A newspaper displayed on a stand, on the corner by the bus terminal, stated boldly: BEF IN DESPERATE SITUATION IN FRANCE.
“Will we win?” she asked as they turned onto the approach.
“Yes,” He said quietly. “Of course, not this year nor next year, but soon.”
“Do you think much of Churchill? Will his experience as First Sea Lord stand him in good stead for PM? Lets not forget when he was First Sea Lord in the Great War, there was the Dardanelles.”
“As an officer, I follow orders. What happened in the Great War will not be repeated in this war.”
Once inside the docks he tried looking for Winchester, but due to the black out, he could not make her out. They entered the Little Admiralty and she went to her desk with a single sentence: “See you around, sir.”
He walked into the office and was greeted by Captain Strawbridge. Gray recognised the captains of Vixen and Vincent already seated beside the desk.
“Where’s Anders?” asked Strawbridge.
“Have a seat Donald, cigarette?”
“Have my own, thanks anyway, sir.”
Tricky entered with a brief apology and sat down. Strawbridge remained standing and produced a map of northern France, which included southeast England, from Portsmouth to Dover.
“I’ve been given an assignment for you chaps.” He tapped a small inlet of water north of
Calais close to the French-Belgian border. “A place called Durneux. There’s a
battalion stuck here, surrounded by the Jerry’s. They need rescuing.”
“How many men sir?” asked Lieutenant-Commander George Randall, RNR, captain of HMS Vixen.
“Bloody hell, sir. Our ships are not up to the same quality as a battleship or even a cruiser. It would take three of us for the capacity of one, sir.”
“Make do, two more days and these chaps are annihilated. There’s a Waffen-SS battalion of seven hundred men closing in.”
Silence. Then Gray spoke. “The area, sir?”
“Durneux is on the end of a one mile stretch of water, the Durneux Channel, wide enough for one V&W.”
“We travel single-file?” stated Lieutenant-Commander Stuart Bondek, RCNR, captain of HMS Vincent.
“Afraid so, Stuart.”
Strawbridge assessed the men’s faces. Asking them to go into essentially enemy held territory was risky. With the Belgians beaten and collapsing like an empty bag, there was no telling where the enemy might pop up. To ask them to go single file meant being targeted by artillery.
“There’s a bay at the end?”
“Small. Not big enough for one V&W, let alone three.”
Gray stood and looked at the others before looking at Strawbridge. “Okay, sir. I’m game; this is for King and Country.”
The four men left. Donald was stopped by Hannah who took his wrist. “Good luck, sir.”
“Thanks.” He smiled and left.
One hour later the four destroyers Winchester, Warlord, Vixen and Vincent left Portsmouth Harbour heading east for Durneux.
Operation PLUCK was on.
“Durneux, Northern France, May 20, 1940”
“Keep the spirits up men; we’re being rescued by the navy.”
“Cor blimey, the navy.”
Major Michael Smith, of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers dabbed with a handkerchief at his forehead and smiled at the men’s pluckiness. He walked along the channel bank into the small village of Durneux. The population were being kind to the men of the KOSB’s battalion, despite the fact the Germans were closing in.
Smith stopped by his number one, who was sat at the edge of the quay; here the water was more or less a pond, with five fishing boats.
“The navy’s coming.”
His number one took a swig from his flask. “They’d better, make it quick, the Germans’ll be here soon.”
“I know. I know.”
The four destroyers pounded the waves as they travelled at break-neck speed – 36 knots- through the English Channel somewhere near Brighton.
Gray could not sleep and sat on his chair enjoying the spray whipping up from the bow and the coolness of the night’s air. Lambeth appeared by his side. “Some char, sir?”
“Thanks, Lambeth, any communications?”
“No sir, some radio chatter, but nothing much.”
Richard Hammersmith nearby commented, “Who’d think we would be rescuing our boys?”
“Indeed, number one.”
Gray stood placing the tea down by his chair and walking aft, he lifted his binoculars and studied Warlord directly astern.
“Lambeth, make a signal to Warlord CO. Will buy round for ship’s company, if we make it to Durneux by tomorrow evening.”
Lambeth jotted it down with a grin. “Yes, sir.” The Morse lamp chattered out the message and a few minutes later: “Warlord replying, sir.” Lambeth read it aloud: “You’re on, make mine a pint.”
Gray laughed aloud.
“Operations Room, May 21”
Strawbridge tapped his pencil on the desk that ringed the ops room and glanced at his staff. “Get some sleep. This’ll pick up in the morning.”
“It is morning, sir, 0300,” replied Hannah Bates.
“Sleep,” he repeated.
“You first, sir,” One of the other Wrens said.
The Morse buzzer began sounding and Bates took a pencil to jot the message as she listened, once it stopped its beeping, she read aloud: “From Winchester, sir. Will be passing Dover within the next three hours, will commence communication silence thereafter. Signed CO-Winchester.”
Strawbridge stood. “Right. I will call the Second Sea Lord.”
As he went into his office, Strawbridge wondered if he had seen Hannah flush at the mention of Winchester. He shrugged, that was immaterial.
Gray had slept right on the bridge and he cursed himself, but right now he requested strong black coffee. “Report, number one.”
“We stopped near Dover for refuelling and are now on route for Durneux. Just to make sure for final approach. Due to enter channel in…”
“STUKAS!” the cry came from a forward lookout.
Donald Gray whipped his binoculars upwards and, sure enough, there they were. The Junkers Ju87 Stuka was the dive-bomber that was heavily feared in the Polish invasion. As it dived, its siren shrieked piercingly, and was enough to demoralise the strongest of warriors.
Gray ignored the growing French coastline and shouted, “Standby Oerlikons. Commence firing on command.”
The Oerlikons were rapid fire anti-aircraft guns, and for a ship like the Winchester, they were a vital piece of armoury.
The Stukas raced high and fell onto their backs, their sirens shrieking.
The Oerlikons began their steady pounding, spraying tracer into the sky. Behind Winchester the other three destroyers also began firing. Seagulls added their shrieking as they flew by, one of the Stukas shook as it came down.
It released its bomb.
The bomb missed and exploded harmlessly.
“Damn, that was close!”
“Warlord passing to port!”
As the next two Stukas dived past, there was a flash of the black crosses on their wings, before they were engulfed in the surf. Both Stukas had crashed into the English Channel, having little time to brake following the dive.
Black smoke marred the blue sky where a Stuka had met its death.
Soon there were none left and quickly HMS Winchester nosed into the Durneux Channel.
The battle had been raging since daylight, as the Waffen-SS began their final assault on the KOSB battalion. Smith was met at the quay by one of his men.
“We can see them, sir, the navy have arrived!”
“Pass the word, sergeant, organise a rearguard action.”
“Hell,” Gray whispered eyeing the ground north of the channel banks, bodies were marking the resting places for some of the KOSB. The battle was now further down, closer to Durneux.
“Increase speed to thirty Knots.”
“Sir, in the channel…?”
Winchester surged ahead.
Smith began boarding his men ten minutes later as the four destroyers came to a stop. Rope ladders had been flung down the grey sides of the ships and Smith’s XO yelled: “Come on boys!”
Imperiously, the lead destroyer’s aft guns swung to face the nearby woodland and fired. The noise was incredibly loud, but the shells struck a moving half-track –a motorised vehicle that has wheels forward and caterpillar tracks rearward- and turned it into flames. Smith could hear German voices and saw the familiar ‘coalscuttle’ helmets moving in the woodland. They bore the crooked SS runes and he swore to himself. As they moved ever closer, Smith was hurled aboard and led to the ship’s captain.
“Major Smith, KOSB.”
“Lieutenant-Commander Gray, Winchester.”
Gray turned to his
signalman. “Make a
signal to Vixen. Commence reversing PDQ.”
Slowly, as the ships began inching backwards, with Vincent leading the way, their battle ensigns fluttered in the gusting breeze. Bullets ricocheted off their sides and some of the KOSB returned fire.
“Los, Los!” On the Winchester, just below the bridge, two Germans suddenly vaulted over the side, both wielding Schmeisser machine gun pistols.
“God’s teeth!” swore Hammersmith leaning over the side.
Two KOSB corporals shot them dead with Browning pistols. The Germans slumped, and their bodies were grabbed and thrown over the side. Yet more were coming.
“Signal from Winchester, sir. In plain language.”
Unscrambled could only mean they were in serious trouble. “Please read it, Lieutenant Bates.”
“Am reversing down Durneux Channel, Germans boarding ship. Besieged. Germans are SS.”
“The Americans would term this a SNAFU.” Strawbridge glanced at a Wren. “Get me RAF Thorney Island.”
“Fur der Fuhrer!”
“Don’t let them get onboard!”
Major Smith grabbed a steel helmet and punched the German in the face, he yelled and fell back. All around Smith on the foredeck of the destroyer, Germans fought Britons. Smith drew his knife and went to stab the German, but the man fired at him with his Luger handgun.
Smith’s vision went red and he fell, a look of mystery on his face.
Gray turned away from the battle. “How far now?”
“About twenty feet, sir. Vincent and Vixen are out, Warlord is beginning to turn.”
“Blast!” Gray heard more shots and looked down, blood washed about on his deck - on his ship. It wasn’t meant to be like this, not now, not ever.
“Increase to flank speed. Maximum resolutions, speed ultimate. We’re getting out now, or never.”
Gray looked back expecting to see Stukas or the Messerschmitt Me109 but no…
“Spitfires!” he said in happy disbelief that they were Spits not Germans.
Three Supermarine Spitfires from RAF Hawkinge, near Dover, winged their way over the channel and slammed tracer fire into the Germans, still massing on the bank. The Spitfires raced back into the sky and banked for another approach.
“Sir, we’re out.”
Indeed they were, behind the destroyer was open sea. “Very well, make course and speed for Dover.”
“Lambeth, make a signal to the fighters, Thanks awfully, see you at the lodge.”
“Portsmouth, May 22”
The four destroyers received a hero’s welcome, despite the blood on Winchester’s decks, a sombre reminder of the action. But she had rescued the majority of the KOSB battalion and, in turn, added a German SS half-track to her kills.
Yet in France the situation was worsening by the hour, BEF units were retreating without stopping, the RAF was in complete disarray and now Calais was about to fall.
In the last war the Germans hadn’t even got as far as Paris, and now they were almost at the English Channel -what they called Der Kanal.
Lieutenant-Commander Donald Gray left Jack Strawbridge’s office looking tired, he had slept little since PLUCK had begun and he felt like the bottom of his ship.
Then he spied Hannah and felt relief flooding his being. He walked up to her desk and glanced at his watch. “Can I interest you in dinner?” he asked her with feigned casualness. His expression told her far more than his words could.
She checked her own watch. “I’ll ask the CO,” she replied primly, but her smile said ‘yes’…
A minute later she was back. “Where to?”
“I know this smashing place in the city, near the Guildhall.”
As they walked she asked him, “How did the operation really go?”
“As well as could be hoped, we didn’t expect Jerry to try and board us, though.”
“I hear the battalion leader got killed.”
“Blasted bad luck; he was a good chap too, from what I hear.”
Gray’s voice faltered and she looked at him in the darkness. “Is there something wrong?”
She took his wrist. “Look, let’s skip dinner. My place is nearby, I’ll brew some tea.”
She led the way and they arrived at a quaint looking house, near the Portsmouth suburb of Fratton. It was two floors and four rooms. Hannah explained that she shared it with the other girls from the Little Admiralty. Gray merely nodded.
Inside she deposited him in the living room and went to make some tea. When she returned he was loosening his uniform jacket. “Sorry, old girl. It’s a little warm in here.”
“I’ll open a window.”
Gray watched her. “Why are you being this nice to me?”
Hannah shrugged and clasped her hands together; she addressed Donald, more with her eyes than in her tone.
“Cliché, sir, but I like you. There’s something inside you that I want to know. Beneath the armour, I think there’s someone who needs love.”
She sat down and they looked at each other. “My name’s Donald. I’m only a lieutenant-commander. And that was awfully kind of you, Hannah.”
“It needed to be said. You’re also, I must point out, a destroyer captain.”
“Hmm,” he said and sighed. “She is more than a ship. There is something about ships and their masters. A bond that is like no other. She is my ship, Winchester is my charge, and I aim to care for her to the best of my ability.”
“The bond between a master and his vessel is like no other bond. It is a fine bond, particularly from what I have seen whilst based in Portsmouth.”
He looked at the Canadian. “That’s again, awfully kind, Hannah. Few women I have known understand, or care little for this bond. It’s only a chunk of steel. Why care for it?”
“No they weren’t.” Gray clasped his cap and chuckled, “Even now I’m thinking of her. You know, they say that when a ship sinks that you can hear her soul leaving. Funny, but it’s probably true.”
Hannah leant forward. “It would make sense. Based upon the bond and indeed, the fact a ship is dubbed as female.”
When he did not reply, Hannah stood to fetch the tea.
Half an hour later as a clock somewhere chimed nine in the evening he stood. “I have to go.”
She stood with him. “If you must.”
He took her gently by the arms and kissed her. He broke the kiss, but on impulse did so again.
It is suffice to say that Lt. Commander Gray did not return to his ship that night, so it was just as well they did not need him.
“Operations Room, May 28, 1940”
“What you’re about to hear is absolutely confidential and not for the general public.”
Strawbridge paced to a stop before Gray, Anders, Randall and Bondek. “Operation Dynamo was issued two days ago.”
“What’s that?” Tricky Anders asked.
“The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force – some 350,000 men- from the beaches at Dunkirk.”
Silence fell, if they evacuating it must be serious. Three hundred and fifty thousand men.
“Dunkirk?” asked Gray.
“Near Calais, as Calais has fallen the situation is dire. The PM wants this done quickly; the Germans might roll up the beaches soon and besides the Luftwaffe are bombing them.” Strawbridge sighed. “You leave immediately. Sorry chaps.”
“We’ll leave within the next two hours,” Gray replied. “This has to be done.”
Outside Tricky halted Gray. “Is it just me or is the navy turning into a collection service?”
Gray shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me. We have a job to do, so lets do it.”
Donald caught Hannah’s gaze briefly, as he and the other CO’s went to their destroyers.
“Last post,” Came the call from the MTB –Motorboat- pilot as he walked along Winchester’s deck.
Gray emerged from his quarters with an envelope and handed it to the pilot. “Thanks, Lieutenant.”
“No problem, sir,” said the lieutenant saluting and making for the side of the destroyer.
Gray made his way to the open-air bridge and stood by his chair: “Status, number one?”
Richard Hammersmith held the straps of his binoculars and faced the captain: “Warlord, Vixen and Vincent ready sir.”
“Very well, make a signal to destroyers. Proceed to Dunkirk.”
Hammersmith leant towards the voice pipe. “Helmsman, make your speed ten knots.”
“Aye, sir, ten knots, aye.”
The Winchester began inching forwards, slowly gathering momentum. The Royal Navy ensigns fluttered in the breeze and the crew looked cheerful, despite the seriousness of the situation.
As they approached the harbour entrance and the Round Fort there came a flashing from the roof of HMS Dolphin the submarine establishment to the right of the entrance, a red bricked building.
“What’s that signalman?”
Lambeth, wearing a red scarf around his neck, read it aloud, “Good luck and do us proud at Dunkirk.”
“Reply. Will do, God Save the King.”
The destroyer flotilla passed into the Solent finally entering
Spithead, the stretch of water between
Portsmouth and the northeast coast of the Isle of Wight. Gray said aloud: “Increase speed to
thirty-six. Asdic, be on the alert.”
With that, the four destroyers raced once more into the English Channel, this time bound for a small French town known as Dunkirk.
“Dunkirk, Northern France, May 28”
Chaos – that was the best way to describe the situation at Dunkirk.
The remainder of the 350,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force were strewn across the better part of twenty-nine miles of rich French beach. The Luftwaffe was constantly bombing and both the French and British navies were taking the brunt of airborne attacks.
Now part of Operation Dynamo were non-naval ships of all descriptions; pleasure yachts, normally seen on the Thames, small boats for fishing, paddle steamers. Anything that could float. Amongst these was the yacht, Sandowner, operated by the former second officer of the ill-fated RMS Titanic –Charles Herbert Lightoller, RNR.
The RAF was there in token numbers, with only three airfields within range of Dunkirk, there was little they could do. Although no one really knew it, the air clashes between the RAF and Luftwaffe over Dunkirk were, in fact, the opening shots of the Battle of Britain.
Hitler was holding off his Panzers from storming the beaches –expecting Churchill’s new government to strike a peace- whilst his stormtroopers gradually, and bloodily, fought their way into the outskirts of the town that burnt from repeated air strikes.
It was evening by the time the four V&W class destroyers arrived at Dunkirk and the sight that befell them was something that none would ever forget.
It was Chief Medical Officer Timothy Erowe, his arms draped over the starboard large binoculars, who made the opening comment: “In the name of Aldershot, will you take a look at that…”
It seemed that there was not a single patch of sand that was not occupied by a man wearing Army greens. They were on the dunes and on the flats - like a biblical plague of locusts.
There was a long line of men, perhaps two dozen strong, stretching into the choppy waves. A man made pier. Their rifles held above their helmets.
“How much space beneath the keel?” Gray asked vaguely.
Below, the crewman checked the echo. “Ten feet, sir.”
“Close enough,” murmured Gray and then said, “Lower ladders. We have a job to do.”
Richard Hammersmith went down to the side and grasped the hand of a soldier, he was tall and well built. He came to his feet after stumbling and said, with a broad Yorkshire accent: “Ta, very much.”
“No problem, how long you’ve been here?”
Gradually, the destroyers filled up with the exhausted men, defeat written across their faces. One man was RAF and patiently explained how he had lost his fighter over Abbeville and had walked to Dunkirk.
Night settled and it was at 0045 hours that Dover relayed a message onto Portsmouth. “Task Force Gray proceeding Dover stop heavily laden stop.”
In fact the officer commanding the evacuation –Rear-Admiral Bertram Ramsay - was informed by one of his staff as he watched from Dover Castle: “HMS Winchester is returning with one hundred, sir.”
Just as the four destroyers opened the gap from Dunkirk to a mile, a flare exploded across the horizon.
“Starshell!” someone announced.
Gray winced as he heard the steady pounding of artillery, shells splashed behind the force. The Germans had not got the range.
“Sir, we have to avoid Calais.”
“Thanks, Dick, I am aware of it.”
Someone from the Army was singing a song to the tune of What a Friend I have in Jesus.
When this bloody war is over.
Oh how happy I shall be.
No more queuing in the NAAFI
No more waiting for my bloody tea.
Gray smiled to himself and whistled lightly The Road to Tipperary. He walked to the front of the bridge and rested against it. One journey down, several to go.
“Portsmouth, Morning May 29”
“Excuse me, miss, are you Lieutenant Hannah Bates?”
Hannah had been outside enjoying the night air at Portsmouth when the naval pilot approached her. She recognised him from early stints in the harbour.
“Yes, I am.”
“Excellent. Letter for you, miss.” He saluted after handing it to her and walked off into the night.
Hannah walked out of the harbour gates and into a small café that was open throughout the night. Never a smoker before the war, she lit up a cigarette and the studied the envelope in her hands.
Lieutenant Hannah Bates, WRNS
The WRNS, of course, stood for Women’s Royal Navy Service shortened to Wrens
She carefully opened it, somewhere a record played –Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade.
The letter was one page long and in the same distinctive handwriting,
she read it
in to herself.
I’m not sure how much the censor will lop off, but if the lieutenant of the MTB gives it to you then it will be all right.
That night we spent together was one of the greatest of my life, until then I had not felt such love and I do not mean the physical part. We have known each other such a short time, yet I feel as if I have known you far longer. No one will ever understand the bond a master has with his ship or why my feelings for you are as they are. I hope they soon do.
Soon I set sail for Dunkirk, who would have thought that after eight or so months, the war would have come to this?
Afterwards, we will take the war to the enemy; maybe onto their beaches and Germany itself.
Winchester used to be my girl, but now you are too. I hope we can carry on after I return.
Hannah stubbed out the cigarette. “No more.” She said and wiped a tear away. She loved him too and as A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square began playing, she imagined Winchester slicing through the waters of the English Channel.
“Lieutenant Commander Gray, sir.”
Bertram Ramsay turned away from the small window offering a view of the Channel and beyond it, the smudgy horizon that was France.
“Ah, good show. Come in, Gray.”
Donald stepped into the office and the door was shut. The inside of the castle was much the same as the outside . Norman in origin; it had been built in the years following the last successful invasion of Britain. Gray on the other hand, without seeming dismissive, was not here to sightsee. Although, on the matter of castles, he preferred Southsea castle, from where King Henry VIII had watched his greatest battleship, the Mary Rose sink.
Gray held his cap tucked under his left arm and was ramrod straight. “You requested to see me sir?”
“Only briefly, do sit down, man. No time for ceremony.”
Gray did so and the admiral remained standing. “Your ship is Winchester.”
“How many of you?”
“Four. Warlord, Vixen, Vincent and my own sir.”
Ramsay stuck his hands into his pockets and said briskly, “I want you to return to Dunkirk. We still have hundreds of thousands of men on the beaches, and they’re getting the stuffing kicked out of them.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Accompanying you will be Woodbridge, Wycombe and Whitfield. Proceed immediately. Good luck, Gray.”
Task Force Gray bolstered by the new additions, entered the battered harbour and docked, centre. The seven ships that made up the Task Force were a sight for sore eyes. Indeed they were the vehicle equivalent of gold pieces to the embattled men awaiting rescue, for any large ship was fair game for the Germans. They had been sinking large ships in great numbers, amongst them the transport Lancastria.
Army soldiers began embarking from the bombed pier and were filling the decks quickly. The chief engineer on Winchester grumbled something about the Ritz, prompting Gray to comment to Hammersmith, “Didn’t know he could afford it.”
Heavily laden the ships were lower in the water, after all these were small destroyers with a total crew complement of ninety, they were not designed to carry a hundred extra men.
Dawn was about to break and with it would come the greatest test.
“About to clear harbour entrance, sir.”
“Two hundred yards, speed eleven.”
Dozens of binoculars swept aft to see the Stukas.
“My God, swarms of the sods,” Hammersmith said aloud.
“Confirmed - fifty plus.”
They were black against the light blue sky, merging almost with the growing plumes of burning oil on Dunkirk’s outskirts. The droning of their engines sent fear into many a man’s heart and worsening those of the BEF soldiers.
“Commence AA firing!”
“Anti-Aircraft, fire at will!”
The seven destroyers launched their Ack-Ack and the harbour and town echoed with the thunderous noise of the crashing of the guns. That began to add their blackness to the sky. The exploding anti-aircraft shells were like puffs of cotton wool.
Gray reached for the voice pipe. “Ahead full!”
“But sir, we’re still inside the harbour.”
Gray gritted his teeth. “Blast it! If we get hit we’ll block the harbour!”
“Aye, sir, full ahead.”
The chief had been wiping his hands in the engine room when the telegraph rang, he glanced at it expecting to see SLOW but instead to his amazement saw FULL AHEAD.
He shouted at his men, “Don’t just stand there! MOVE!”
The Winchester dug her stern in, just as the Stukas began their dive earthwards. The guns were still pounding away and a ringing echoed in Gray’s ears as he barked orders.
“Once out, hard port!”
The Winchester lurched to port, behind her the Warlord,
Vixen and Vincent surged onwards. The Woodbridge, Wycombe and
Gray rushed to the starboard rail, with the others following, to see HMS Vixen stagger as if punched, black smoke and flames billowing from her stack. “George,” murmured Gray voicing his concern for the ship’s master.
Men poured over the sides, some in Army green and some in RN blue. The ship began to roll over and was quickly gone from sight.
“Survivors, sir. In the water.”
“Dover. We can’t stop, we’ll be sitting ducks. However, send a message to the other destroyers about the survivors. Maybe a ship on its way into the harbour can pick them up.”
The last of the W’s left the harbour and, as a loose fleet, they began to move sluggishly under their additional weight, into the channel bound for Dover. There were still Stukas remaining and those that had dropped bombs now screeched in low to strafe Vixen’s survivors with bullets.
“No,” whispered Hammersmith turning white as the sea turned red. “It’s a massacre.”
“Nazi bastards!” shouted Erowe from his position on the forecastle below the bridge.
A bomb crashed by, drenching the CMO, but the Stuka rearing into the sky was destroyed by fierce crossfire between Warlord and Winchester. Cheers went up.
“They’re going away, sir.”
The noise was decreasing to be replaced by the noise of wailing men.
Gray closed his eyes: “Signalman, make to message to Dover, pass to Portsmouth. Am on route for Dover stop Vixen sunk stop survivors machine gunned by Germans.”
Lambeth finished jotting. “Send immediate?”
“Now, Michael. Now.”
It wasn’t over yet.
The surviving Stuka pilots landed at their field, based near Calais and reported to their Staffel commander the loss of their comrades and also the destroyers in the English Channel. Within what seemed like mere minutes, an order was issued from the Luftflotte covering the area.
Sink the British destroyers!
Sluggishly, the destroyers moved on, the new batch of Stukas were seen as a smudge against the sky beyond Dunkirk. The cry went up: “Aircraft!”
“Stukas again, sir. Hammersmith grimly informed Gray who leant against the bridge screen.
Winchester broke the destroyer screen, cutting across the bows of the Warlord with her guns swinging to bear.
“Commence AA action.”
The destroyers began pounding the sky black but the Stukas effortlessly flew through, Gray watched through binoculars. “Swines.”
The Stukas now swung downwards, their sirens screaming piteously, making Gray’s skin crawl. Keep it up and signal the other destroyers to continue on course.”
On HMS Warlord Ted ‘Tricky’ Anders gritted his teeth as the signal was relayed. “Damn Limey!”
“Sir, should we hang back?” asked his XO, a young Briton from Cornwall.
“No,” growled Tricky glancing at his XO, “keep moving.”
Winchester was not the only destroyer firing, but it was the target now, bombs fell around the destroyer, showering those on deck with water.
Two Stukas were hit and exploded as if they had never been there. Winchester dodged more bombs and yet Gray had a feeling that all would not be well for his ship.
“We’ve been hit!” Hammersmith yelled.
Gray hadn’t noticed. He saw smoke rising from the stern and shouted, “Jettison the charges or we will all go up!”
The Army men helped the RN men to get the depth charges over the stern, if they indeed went then the entire V&W would go to join Vixen at the bottom. Ships had already been lost in this war by depth charges catching fire, exploding and seriously crippling them if not sinking them outright.
By now, during the Stuka onslaught, the destroyers had edged into the channel but not Winchester, hemmed in by the falling bombs. The destroyer moved west to avoid the bombs and was then struck twice more in amidships.
“Engines are not responding, sir.” Richard Hammersmith said away from the voice pipe. The Winchester was also sinking, slowly and gradually, stern first.
The Stukas were going, but they would return. Gray was dejected, his first command and now more likely his last.
“Orders, sir?” asked Hammersmith clasping his binocular straps.
“Standby to abandon ship.”
Below decks the chief of the boat tried to halt the flooding,
now it was a trickle but it would soon become a torrent.
Winchester was stricken.
“Off the French coast”
The sun was high in the sky and Winchester’s stern was low in the water. Lieutenant-Commander Donald Gray had resigned himself to the fact that his ship was lost.
The Army soldiers on the ship looked glum, they had waited days on the beaches, only to be plucked from them and dumped into the English Channel. The frustrating thing was, the English coast could be seen.
“No more attacks, sir.”
“Not yet, Dick, not yet. How’s the chief doing?”
“He can’t halt the flooding, sir, we’ll sink within the hour.”
“Okay. We’ll keep anti aircraft action.”
The surviving destroyers of the Winchester force slid into Dover at midday and immediately the soldiers were offloaded. Winchester, using the W/T, had contacted Warlord to inform Tricky of their situation.
The tall American paced his bridge and watched the soldier’s stream off, “Can’t they move any quicker?”
His second lieutenant grinned. “Only so fast, sir.”
“As soon as they’re off, we’re moving out.”
“Sir?” asked his XO looking puzzled.
“We’re rescuing Donald Gray and his crew.”
With that Tricky disappeared into the wardroom.
Once more the Oerlikons began pounding the sky as a flight of Stukas flocked in. A destroyer sitting on the surface was too much of a target to pass over.
The Royal Navy ensign continued to flutter as A turret began blasting away at the Stukas. Men were on the deck watching, wearing their life preservers.
A bomb fell and struck the Winchester on X and Y turrets killing thirty men, fifteen of them soldiers. As Winchester lurched drunkenly to port, Donald Gray swung his leg over the bridge screen and cupped his hands together. “Abandon ship!”
Others took up the cry and men began piling over the sides as Winchester continued to roll to port. A turret kept as firing, the destroyer began to rise out of the water, her bow lifting clear.
Gray ran into A turret’s control room where the four men sat firing and said, “Okay, chaps. Get out.”
“We’re coming, sir.”
Gray left and flung himself over the side. He watched as Winchester stood straight in the water her flag hanging limply, A turret firing still. Then with interior explosions, she settled under the waters. Gray had assumed that his men would have got out, but they hadn’t. Gray felt utterly frustrated at the fact that he had lost men thanks to his own orders. If only he had forced them out, then they might have survived. However, they died as heroes. Although, this wouldn’t change the fact that he would have to write letters home. He cursed himself and began to swim. HMS Winchester was sunk.
The Stukas attacked the survivors, and many were killed before Warlord coming to assist, was able to beat off the Stukas. As Lieutenant Richard Hammersmith, RN, was helped over the side, dripping wet, and angry at the Stukas, Lieutenant Commander Ted Anders, RCN, asked, “Donald?”
“He’s brought it.” Hammersmith began to weep. “Stuka.”
Anders walked to the rail and forced himself not to weep. “Poor Donald.”
Donald’s body was found, two days later by a French villager, having been swept down the coast. His uniform appeared immaculate - untouched by the saltwater.
He had drowned, not been killed by enemy fire, but by the water on which he served.
The villager took the man’s details and vowed silently he would tell the man’s family of his fate. Then he –and his family- to escape retribution by the Germans, buried the body in their garden marked with a cross.
Lieutenant-Commander Donald Gray, RN was dead.
“Aftermath, 1940-1945 and beyond”
Following Dunkirk, France surrendered on June 22, 1940 and the Germans were triumphant. They now occupied Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
The British had hard times; in May 1941 they lost the battlecruiser Hood with 1800 men, to the German battleship - Bismarck.
But the tide turned, on December 7 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and the Americans entered the war. Raids commenced on Nazi Germany in 1942.
At El Alamein, in November 1942, the land war changed when General Bernard Law Montgomery’s British Eighth Army drove Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps back across North Africa, and within the next year the Germans were driven from North Africa and Sicily.
In Russia, at Stalingrad, the Germans were routed. Of the 450,000 that went into Stalingrad, 10,000 were taken prisoner, and only 1000 lived to see Germany again.
In June 1944, following years of preparation, the allies invaded France and Germany’s death knell surrounded. It took long, hard months, including the disastrous operation at Arnhem, to end the war.
The war ended on May 7, 1945 in a battered Germany, with Hitler, dead by his own hand, and fifty million war dead. Of those, nearly twenty million were military dead, and nearly twenty six million civilian dead. Of those murdered by the Germans, one and a half million were children.
Hannah Bates had fallen pregnant to Donald Gray during that night, merely one of many unplanned pregnancies during the war. Hannah changed her name to Gray and, despite the hardships she had to face, she never married. Her baby was born early in 1941 and would survive the war to have children of his own and start a line that, eventually, lead to Colonel White.
Ted ‘Tricky’ Anders received a DSO –Distinguished Service Order- for going back to help the stricken Winchester. In 1942, in a convoy, Warlord was hit and sunk by an enemy U-Boat. Tricky survived and took command of a cruiser –Windsor - staying there until the end of the war and receiving a bar to his DSO.
The crew of A turret, who died on Winchester all received posthumous MC’s for their courage.
Donald Gray was awarded the DSO posthumously for his actions. In 1950, five years after the end of the war, his body was relocated to the Normandy cemetery. The French villager got in touch with Hannah after a long search and told her where Donald now lay.
Colonel White stepped back from the stone and saluted. Then he proceeded up the path to the road that led into the cemetery. There sat a red Spectrum SSC. Inside Captain Scarlet waited patiently.
White got in. Scarlet looked at the colonel. “Back to the hotel, sir?”
As the SSC drove off, White produced an old black and white photo. It showed a smiling man in old navy uniform, standing next to two guns on a destroyer. On the back the handwritten inscription read: Donald Gray HMS Winchester April 2, 1940.
White put the photo away and watched the English Channel as the SSC followed the coastal path.
At the going down of the sun, we shall remember them.
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