Wednesday, 28 March 2012

St Nazaire raid: Remembering the anti-Tirpitz operation

A ceremony has taken in the French port of St Nazaire as the last remaining veterans gather to remember one of the most daring raids of World War II.

From the start of 1941, the new German battleship the Tirpitz was the subject of enormous concern for Winston Churchill and the top brass in Britain.

The fear was that the newly built ship could target the Atlantic convoys that were the vital lifeline for Britain.

But there was only one place on the Atlantic seaboard where it could be repaired - the enormous Normandie dock at St Nazaire in France.

If that could be put out of action then London was sure that Hitler would not risk sending his prize vessel to menace the Atlantic.

But the question was how to destroy the dock? RAF bombs were not accurate enough to hit the gate.

So, a plan of brain-bending ambition was drawn up. An old ship - HMS Campbeltown - would be remodelled to look like a German vessel.

A four-and-a-half-ton bomb would be hidden on board, and the ship would be packed with British commandos.

Then it would sail up six miles up the Loire estuary, past 80 German emplacements towards the dock.

When it arrived at the 1,500-ton gate, the commandos would jump off, destroy as much as they could and distract attention until the bomb did its work.

Next to the dock were 14 U-Boat pens, and 5,000 German troops guarded the town.

Tracer fire

The attackers were supposed to escape on wooden boats which had accompanied the destroyer.

It was called Operation Chariot. Corran Purdon - then aged 20 - was one of those commandos selected to take part.

"I thought it was going to be a pretty dicey do, to be honest - but I never thought we wouldn't do it," he told me on the 70th anniversary.

The commandos had barely been deployed so far in the war and were itching to take part in the action.

On the night of 28 March 1942, the Campbeltown made it part way up the estuary before the Germans discovered the ruse - and searchlights and tracer fire lit up the night sky.

In a remarkable piece of seamanship, the ship, despite one wrong turn, hit the dock gates dead on just after 01:30.

The commandos inside were braced to absorb the impact but recall a long shuddering reverberation rather than a short sharp shock as the ship drove into the gates.


Mr Purdon - who was a lieutenant at the time - and four corporals were tasked with blowing up one of the two winding houses.

He jumped off the ship carrying a rucksack full of explosives. Bullets whipped past.

As he made it to the building, he was surprised to discover it locked.

Improvising, he pulled out his Colt 45 revolver and pointed it at the lock.

The bullet ricocheted off, just missing one of his corporals.

"You know, sir, when I came on this raid, I was quite prepared to get murdered by Adolf Hitler, but not by you, sir," the man told Mr Purdon, before pulling out a mallet to smash the lock.

It took 15 minutes to lay the charges, during which time Mr Purdon kept his men going with a limerick.

When the charge finally blew, the winding house rose up into the air before collapsing like a house of cards.

"Ready to return to England," Mr Purdon told his colonel.

But the colonel pointed out to the water, filled with burning wooden boats.

"There's been a problem with the transport," he said, before issuing orders to his men to fight through town and head for the Spanish border - hundreds of miles away - and then on to Gibraltar.

Game over

Mr Purdon and a group of men ended up hiding in a cellar, waiting for night to return.

But it did not take long before a door was flung open and they were greeted by German soldiers with machine-guns and stick grenades.

His colonel knew it was over.

"Right, we've done what we came for," Mr Purdon remembers the colonel telling his men, and then putting his pipe in his mouth as they were escorted out.

"If I'd been them (the Germans), I'd have chucked those grenades," reckons Mr Purdon.

One of his fellow veterans recalls the Germans even patting some British soldiers on the back in admiration of their bravery.

But still the mission looked like it might not have succeeded.

Hours after it was supposed to have destroyed the gates, the bomb on Campbeltown had not blown. The Germans, not realising explosives were on board, had begun to tour the ship.

Finally, just before midday, the massive bomb finally detonated.

"There was an almighty noise," recalled Mr Purdon, by then a prisoner-of-war.

"We cheered like anything," he said.

The dock would be out of action until after the war. The Tirpitz never ventured into the Atlantic and was later sunk off the coast of Norway.

Mr Purdon was taken first to one PoW camp. When he escaped, he was then sent to Colditz, where he spent the rest of the war.

Five VCs

The raid was a success but it came at a price.

That was clear from a ceremony on Wednesday at what is known as the "English cemetery", a few miles along the coast from the scene of the raid in what is now a quiet suburban street.

Small wooden crosses were placed on the many graves of those who never returned.

Nearly 170 British servicemen were killed. In all five Victoria Crosses were awarded for the operation and more honours were awarded in a shorter time than for any other battle during the war.

"Because it was a crazy idea, it was likely to succeed," says Bob Montgomery, who was in charge of the commando demolition teams.

On a bright sunny afternoon he explained to me: "It's something we British do. It may not seem part of our character. But it is up our sleeve."

Friday, 23 March 2012

New Memorial Park in West Flanders

Flemish heritage minister Geert Bourgeois last week unveiled plans for the new Memorial Park in the province of West Flanders to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The plans were drawn up by a consortium of Flemish and Dutch designers and were chosen from among a number of projects entered in competition for the contract.

The Memorial Park will join 40 battlefield sites - currently isolated from each other - together in a network telling the story of the war through the landscape of the area of West Flanders, where most of the fighting took place. Five sites are already the subject of detailed design plans: the area around the mouth of the river IJzer in Nieuwpoort (Nieuport); the network of sites between the IJzerdijk and the Frontzate (lit. Front saddle) footpath in Diksmuide (DIxmude); the site of the Third Battle of Ypres (31st July - 11th November 1917); the road to Passchendaele in Zonnebeke; and the Ypres Salient around Ypres and the Wijtschate (Wytschate) Salient in the Heuvelland region.

'Few European landscapes are so intimately connected to their history as the area of the front in 1914 to 1918," Bourgeois said. "There are relics of the war, like bunkers and craters, and places created especially to commemorate the war and the war dead such as cemeteries, monuments, museums and tourist routes. The former front is a landscape of remembrance - a web of elements that bind us to the past. The Memorial park's aim is to reinforce that web."

However, Bourgeois stressed that the intention is not to turn the area into a sort of First World War theme park. Flanders expects an upsurge in "war tourism" in the run-up to 1914, as well as during the following four years, but Bourgeois made it clear the Memorial Park is intended to serve even after those celebrations have passed.

Alan Hope in Flanders Today, February 15, 2012

The Museum of the Battle of Ligny

16 JUIN 1815

ASBL Syndicat d'Initiative et de Tourisme de Ligny
Rue du Pont Piraux, 23 Tél.: 071.81 83 13
5140 Ligny

The Centre Général Gérard.

The origins of the building that accomodates since 1991 the Centre General Gérard at Ligny date back the end of the XVIIIth century. This ancient farm known under the name of “cense Frenet”, by the name of its last farmer, has undergone many transformations as time went by, until its buy-out by the tourist office of Ligny in 1976. Completely in ruins at that time, a further fifteen years will be needed, in order for that ancient farm, whose bases have witnessed fierce fights on June 16, 1815, to become the “Centre General Gérard”

Today the Centre General Gérard shelters the « Museum of June 16, 1815 » totally devoted to the last victory of Napoleon against the Prussians of Blücher, but also to the battle of the “Quatre-Bras” that took place on the same day, in the same space of time, just about fifteen kilometers more to the West. These two battles being indissociable, it is quite natural that they are being evoked together in a museum, entirely reorganized by the joined action of the Tourist Office of Ligny, owner of the premises, and the Belgian Napoleonic Association, society of historical research founded in 1979.

Besides the museum, the Centre General Gérard also shelters a restaurant, famous for the quality of its cuisine, the « Coupe-Chou », as well as a multipurpose room, which can accommodate banquets, as well as conferences or temporary exhibitions.

A battle – A museum.

As its restructuration progressed, the napoleonic Museum of Ligny has become « The » museum of the last victory of Napoleon, totally devoted to the events that took place on Friday, June 16, 1815 in and in the vicinity of this village of the Namur area.

Seven rooms welcome the visitor with a new museology which will satisfy the specialist, as well as the beginner, or the onlooker, or also the schools.

The five rooms on the ground-floor prepare those who walk through the entrance for the shock of June 16, 1815.

The first room is, from the start of the 2012 touristic season, devoted to the day of June 15, 1815 and to the setting up of the troops of the various belligerents in the morning of June 16th. A plan of 2 m by 1,80 m enables the visitor, on one end, to discover the totality of the theatres of operations of June 16th, but also at the same time to see what were the positions of the four armies around 03.00 PM, as well at Ligny as at the Quatre-Bras. The troops as a whole are presented at the level of the battalion.

The second room allows to get accustomed with the equipment of the French soldier and to discover, thanks to new graphics, the complete organization chart of the Army of the North.

The third room is devoted to the Army of the Lower Rhine commanded by Blücher. It is this observation army, quartered in the South-Eastern part of Belgium, that Napoleon will decide to attack in first place.

The fourth room is assigned to the other observation army, the one commanded by Wellington, the Anglo-Dutch army, quartered in the North-Western part of the country.

The fifth room of the ground-floor, the smallest one, will enable the visitor to discover Ligny and its area in 1815 and to get accustomed with the battle-field, which will see Napoleon victorious for the last time.

When leaving this room, you go back to the hall where you can admire a showcase devoted to the light infantry of the Guard of Ligny before using stairs which let you penetrate straight into the events of June 16, 1815. From the arrival of Napoleon at Fleurus and of Blücher at Brye, until the outcome of the battle, the tragic episodes of Friday, June 16, 1815 at Lingy, Saint-Amand and Tongrinne are available in ten showcases where objects, documents, maps, engravings, witnesses of the past, figurines and models help to take back the visitor into the hell of the villages assaulted and defended tooth and nail during more than six hours by more than 160.000 men.

Still stunned by the fury of the fights in the sector of Ligny, you head for the second room of the floor where the “other” battle of June 16, 1815 is waiting for you : the battle of the “Quatre-Bras”. Four showcases are assigned to the fights waged by Marshall Ney against the troops of Wellington. One showcase displays excavation pieces, witnesses of the fights of that bloody Friday.

The memory of the epic transmitted by the Ancient Brothers in Arms of the Great Army, arrived to us and are, since 1965, evoked each first Sunday of June during the Napoleonic Days of Ligny. One showcase of the museum is devoted to those elders of the Great Army.

For the 2012 season, a thematic exhibition on the Societies of Brothers in Arms is presented as a complement to the museum. It is to be noted that most of the showcases have been revised at the level of the presentation and favourably completed by various contributions in documents and in pieces.

All the rooms of this exceptional museum are living, and subjected to evolution in time, so as not to present invariably the same thing. The visitor who has seen the museum in 2010 or in 2011, will discover a totally different universe this year. It will be the same each year, according to the evolution of the collections and of the museologic techniques.

The Museum of the Last Victory of Napoleon on June 16, 1815 is today a place of memory, an absolute must for all fans of history because in these premises, it is totally out of the question to glorify a person but it is important to pay tribute to those who have fallen at Ligny, at Saint-Amand, at Tongrinne and at the Quatre-Bras, on Friday June 16, 1815.

To study the past in order to better prepare the future, this is the motto respected at the Centre General Gérard. We are only a link. Our duty is to do all what we can so that the memory of these men can be transmitted to the coming generations.

Musée de la Bataille de Ligny 16 juin 1815
Practical information :
The museum welcomes you from April 1st till October 30th,
Monday,thursdays and tridays from 01.00PM till 05.00PM
Saturdays and sundays from 02.00PM till 05.00PM
Prices :
Adultes : 4 €
Groupes de plus de 20 personnes : 3 €/personne
Visites guidées sur rendez-vous (1h30) : 5 €/personne

On reservations :
Musée + champ de bataille + coffee/lunch (10€/pers)
Musée + champ de bataille + country meal (15€/pers) (20€, si repas complet)
Combinés à 20 € de 15 à 50 personnes
Musée de Ligny + repas + one of three activities proposed by the IS
Napoleonic Days : week-end of the 1st Sunday of June.
Bivouac – Uniformologic reconstitution – Parade of the last victory.

Contacts :
Museum of Ligny :
Belgian Napoleonic Association :

Accès : Motorway E 42 (Mons-Namur-Liège) - Road N 29 (direction Fleurus-Gembloux) -
At the roundabout, road N 98 (direction Ligny).

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The last voyage of the SS Mendi

A cold, foggy morning, around 05:00 on 21 February 1917, in the English Channel, near zero visibility, with the strong possibility of enemy submarines in the area, and two British ships on dissecting courses, was the recipe for a shipping disaster which caused barely a blip amid the chaos and carnage of the First World War, but has had consequences which have reverberated down the years in South Africa.

The two ships involved were the SS Mendi, 4230 gross tons, out of Cape Town and Plymouth, and the SS Darro, of more 11000 gross tons, out of Le Havre and bound for an English Channel port. The Darro carried a complement of 143 hands, and was travelling at around 14 knots. The Mendi, on the other hand, was carrying 823 members of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) and a crew of 89 under the command of Captain Henry Arthur Yardley. There was, in addition, a small number military passengers aboard the Mendi.

The SS Mendi
The SS Mendi

Plaque on the Delville Wood Memorial commemorating the sinking of the SS Mendi
Plaque on the Delville Wood Memorial commemorating the sinking of the SS Mendi

The collision

The Mendi, steaming rather slowly through the murky seas, was displaying the normal lights, and was, in addition, blowing her whistle at regular intervals, as required by the rules of the Board of Trade for ships at sea in foggy weather. The Darro, in contrast, was at full speed, displaying the normal lights but not making any audible warning signal. She was under the command of Captain Henry Winchester Stump, who had ordered a zig-zag course in order to make the ship is less easy target for the u-boats presumed to be in the area.

In the poor visibility the lookouts on the Mendi only spotted the Darro when the latter was some 200 feet away, bearing straight down on the starboard side of the Mendi. Collision was inevitable. An attempt to avoid it was made by the men on the bridge of the Mendi. Fourth Officer Hubert Frank Trapnell heard the sound of the Darro ploughing through the water and shouted to Second Officer H. Raine: “Raine, I think there is a vessel near us.” Trapnell immediately sounded the Mendi's whistle and Raine rang “full astern” the engine room telegraph and ordered the helmsman to trun the ship's wheel “hard a-starboard.” It was too little and too late.

The bows of the much bigger Darro tore through the hull of the Mendi to a depth of about 20 feet, and from deck to keel, close to the watertight bulkhead separating numbers 1 and 2 holds, in which many of the SANLC recruits were sleeping.. Water rushed in. The exists from the holds had been damaged by the collision and so an estimated 140 men were trapped in the dark and rapidly-filling spaces, where they died, either from the effects of the original collision, or from drowning and hypothermia. The water was freezing, this being late winter.

The Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha
The Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha

The final terror

To understand the terror that must have gripped these men in their final moments, remember that most of them had never been on a ship before boarding this one, most of them had never even seen the sea. All of the aspects of travelling by sea would have been totally foreign to them, they were thousands of miles from kin and home, from anything they would have been familiar with.

In spite of this the men seemed, by all accounts, to have behaved with remarkable fortitude and sanguinity. There was no evidence of panic.

According to oral history handed down about the event one person's act of leadership helped to keep the men calm and prevented what could have become a fatal stampede. This was a cleric among the men, one Reverence Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, a Xhosa, who, at the last, held up his hands in supplication and loudly addressed the doomed men on the ship in these words:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.”

The reference to weapons was to the fact that the South Afican Government had agreed to send black men to assist the Allied forces as labourers, but insisted they could not be given weapons or any training in fighting. This was to allay fears, expressed in many quarters of South Africa, that if they had been so armed and trained, they would have returned to South Africa and used the arms and training against the white government.

After this stirring speech the men left on the Mendi, according to the legend which has grown up around these events, took off their boots, and did a “death dance” on the tilting deck of the sinking ship.

There were many more individual acts of bravery and selflessness in those terrifying early morning hours in the freezing water. Unfortunately the behaviour of the captain of the Darro left a peculiarly bitter taste in the mouths of many. After the collision Captain Stump appears to have done little to look for and rescue possible survivors. The reason for his inaction is most kindly regarded as a loss of nerve, and most unkindly ascribed to racism on his part. Which interpretation is correct is difficult to determine with any certainty, but the fact was he did little to assist the stricken vessel or the people who had been travelling aboard her. As a result, after the enquiry into the incident held later in 1917, his certificate was suspended for a period of a year.

The legacy in South Africa

The men of the SANLC sailing in the Mendi had been recruited some months before by the South African government under Prime Minister General Louis Botha who felt that South Africa owed allegiance to the British Empire and therefore had a duty to support Britain in the war against Germany. This was against fairly stiff opposition from many whites in the newly-formed Union of South Africa.

On receiving the news of the sinking of the Mendi the Prime Minister addressed the South African House of Assembly in Cape Town on 9 March 1917, with these words:

“Ever since the war broke out the natives (whites at that time commonly used this term for the Blacks in South Africa) have done everything possible to help where such was possible in the struggle without ever doing anything which was in conflict with their loyalty to the Flag and the King. It has never happened in the history of South Africa … that in one moment, by one fell swoop, such a lot of people have perished, and, … I think that where people have died in the way they have done, it is our duty to remember that where people have come forward of their own accord, of their own free will, … and what they have done will redound to their everlasting credit.”

At the announcement of the loss of the Mendi all the members of the House stood as a mark of respect – quite unusual since the members were all white and those who died almost all Black, in the circumstances of the day.

Unfortunately the dead of the Mendi became something of an embarrassment to the South Africa which developed in later years – and the sacrifice made by the men of the Mendi was shoved aside, out of the consciousness of most of white South Africa.

Map of the English Channel
Map of the English Channel

The modern-day SAS Mendi. A painting by South African artist Tim Johnson
The modern-day SAS Mendi. A painting by South African artist Tim Johnson

After the coming of democracy - new recognition

After the coming of democracy to South Africa the story of the Mendi has come to the fore quite strongly and one of the new National Orders which can be bestowed by the President is called The Mendi Decoration for Bravery and is “awarded to South African citizens who have performed an extraordinary act of bravery that placed their lives in great danger, or who lost their own lives including in trying to save the life of another person, or by saving property, in or outside the Republic of South Africa.”

There are also several memorials to the men of the Mendi in various parts of South Africa, as well as to the men of the SANLC in general, recognition that is coming very late, but not any less welcome for that.

The wreck of the Mendi has been located some 11.3 nautical miles from the Saint Catherine's Light on the Isle of Wight, and is regarded as a war grave. In 2008 ships of the South African and Royal Navies met at the site and a wreath was laid in memory of the men who died. The casualties of the disaster were 616 South Africans (607 of them black troops) and 30 British crew members.

The SANLC numbered just under 21000 by the end of the war and contributed to many operations in support roles. One of the sad anomalies was that, although their contribution was recognised in many quarters, the South African government refused to allow them to receive the campaign medal awarded to all other servicemen in the war.

The families of the victims of the Mendi also did not receive any compensation beyond the pay due to their loved ones who lost their lives.

Two ships of the South African Navy are named in memory of the Mendi. One is a strike craft named after the Rev. Dyobha and the other the SAS Mendi, a frigate. The SAS Isaac Dyobha might be the only warship named after a clergyman.

The text and all images (unless otherwise indicated) are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material.