The story of HMS Venomous

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The Green Howards and the cordon at Dunkirk

Their escape aboard HMS Venomous on 2 - 3 June 1940

Capt Renfrew Gotto RN 1945James CloustonCdr Renfrew Gotto RN was part of Captain William Tennant's team of twelve officers and 160 ratings landed by HMS Wolfhound at Dunkirk on the 27 May to direct operations.

Gotto (on left) had served as a Midshipman in HMS Venomous when she was first commissioned in 1919 and featured prominently in A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous (2017). Gotto and Brigadier R.H.R. Parminter, the Deputy Quarter Master General of the BEF, were at the land end of the East Mole and were responsible for controlling the troops waiting to embark on the destroyers berthing alongside the Mole amongst which was his old ship, the Venomous.

Cdr J. Campbell Clouston RN, a Canadian officer of Orkney descent was the Piermaster at the far end of the East Mole, was killed on the evening of Sunday 2 June while returning to Dunkirk from Dover and Commander Maund, Tennant's assistant SNO, and Commander Gotto, filled in as piermasters.

It took the the Green Howards nine hours to march the six miles from Bray Dunes to Dunkirk on the night of the 1st June. Sgt L. F. Warn (4390283) of the 5th Bn the Green Howards wrote an account of how the Green Howards manned the cordon which controlled the troops waiting to embark on the destroyers alongside the Mole on the night of 2 - 3 June and it was published as "Venomous Encounter" in Hard Lying the magazine of the V & W Destroyer Association.

In 2009 I was able to contact Corporal Douglas King of the 5th Battalion's D Company via the Regimental Museum of the Green Howards in Richmond, Yorkshire, and he told me what he remembered of that night and a short version of their stories featured in the previous edition of A Hard Fought Ship in 2010. I have now been contacted by Mark Wilson the son of 96 year old Private George Frederick Wilson of the Green Howards who was also on the cordon at Dunkirk and I thought it would be appropriate to combine their memories of that night and publish it in full on the website. Sgt Lou Warn and Private George Wilson were in HQ Coy (Batallion HQ) and Corp Doug King was in D Coy.

Venomous was safe in harbour in the forenoon of 1 June when the Navy suffered its greatest losses and as she started her final approach to Dunkirk that afternoon the destroyers were ordered back to Dover. Ramsay had decided it was too dangerous to evacuate by day. Conditions on the beachhead and the Mole were chaotic when Venomous brought back 1,100 troops that night and Sergeant Lou Warn, Corporal Doug King and Private George Wilson describe the organising of a cordon to control the embarkation on the 2nd June. The main narrative is by Sergeant Warn but the memories of Corporal King and Private Wilson are inserted and credited to them.

The cordon was very effective and when Venomous left the Mole in the early hours of the 3rd June she had nearly 1,400 troops board including Capt Basil Dykes of the 7th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, the Green Howards  and Generals Alexander and Percival.
The full story of the part played by HMS Venomous in the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk is told in Chapter Six of the new hardback edition of A Hard Fought Ship published in May 2017.


Bray Dunes
The beach at the coastal resort of Bray Dunes six miles east of the Mole at Dunkirk where HMS Venomous embarked the troops
This water damaged photograph was taken during the evacuation

Sergeant Lou Warn begins the story:

My encounter with HMS Venomous was brief, dramatic and left a memory which will stay with me for the rest of my life. To relate how she came into it I must go back to June 1940 when, as a Sergeant in the 3rd mortar platoon of the Fifth Battalion the Green Howards, I arrived at Bray Dunes. This was about half way between Dunkirk and La Panne. On the night of the 1st June at about 10pm we started to move towards Dunkirk. The distance was about six miles, and it took all night. We moved in pitch dark, in single file, carrying our rifles and holding on to the man in front. Sometimes in deep soft sand, sometimes up to our knees in the sea. Captain Whittaker (later Sir J.M. Whittaker), who was wounded at Bray Dunes, wrote in the 'Scarborough Evening News' some ten years later. "Those who were there that night will never forget it, though many of them were sleeping as they marched. Incidents that will long stay in their memories."

Mark Wilson, the son of George Wilson who served throughout the war as a Private in the Green Howards tells his father's story:

His group dug in at Bray Dunes & then marched to Dunkirk. It took them 9 hours to traverse the dunes, overnight on 1st June. They arrived in Dunkirk on the morning of 2nd June & went off the beach into seafront houses to escape the Stukas. The weather was bad on 2nd June so there were no dive bombers, but there was no respite as they were being shelled, so they went out of the houses & on to the beach.

Sergeant Warn continues his account:

And so we came to the Mole, where chaos and confusion reigned. Shells were falling, dive bombers screaming, and then the words came down, "No more boats tonight, everybody back on the beach." More chaos. All I remember is getting back onto the beach, finding a hole in the sand and falling asleep. With daylight on the 2nd the bombing and shelling started again. I left my hole and tried to find other Green Howards. The Mole had been hit several times and there seemed to be bodies everywhere. I found some Howards, and we eventually came to the place where the C.O., Col. Bush, had set up his head quarters.

The landward end of the East Mole DunkirkRight:
A photograph of the beach where the Green Howards formed their Cordon taken from HMS Wolsey on 30 May 1940 before the order was given that the destroyers should only operate at night.
Courtesy of Thomas Moore.

Corporal Doug King described how:

The 4th and 5th Battalions of the Green Howards plus a few stragglers from other units assembled around their Standard on the beach and spent the 2 June awaitig nightfall and the arrival of the destroyers at the Mole. A Hurricane flew low over the beach and dropped a hand-written message, 'Good luck, we can do no more'.

Sergeant Warn:

It was there that the officers and staff officer organised a bayonet cordon to police the embarkation that evening, and to prevent the chaos of the previous night. And so it was that I found myself one of a hundred other ranks and four officers controlling the embarkation.  It is impossible to describe exactly what happened. There was a Major from the R.E's who seemed to appear from nowhere and who organised a rota. Somehow he found out the various groups and units and gave them all a time to embark. It seemed impossible, but it worked like a dream, and even the French troops co-operated.

Mark Wilson continues the story told to him by his father, Private George Wilson:

The four officers on the cordon were drawn by lot, and as it happened the result was one officer from each Company. They were: Capt. Bert Dennis of H.Q. (Scarborough) Company, & Lieutenants Lishmund, Moor & Ramshaw of A, B & C respectively. My father was at the far end of the cordon and so was almost the last man to be evacuated. The cordon were all volunteers and made up of single men; his brother in law also volunteered to stay with him and be on it as well. My father told him to "Get on a bloody boat - if I make it back & you don't, Wyn will kill me!" That was his sister, my late Aunt Winifred, who was a very formidable woman right up to her death aged 92. The expectation was that none of the men on the cordon would be evacuated but they were, around midnight on 2nd June /1 a.m on 3rd June.

Sergeant Warn:

So well did our cordon work that, just after midnight, we were told that all British troops had passed through the cordon onto the Mole, and had been picked up by the Naval boats waiting in the dark. We were told that there was also a chance that we could also get away, and we should proceed to the Mole at once as there was a destroyer ready to pick us up. The Mole itself had been badly damaged which made getting a hundred men along it quickly and in the dark a very daunting task. I remember seeing the shadowy shape of the destroyer at the side of the Mole, and thinking 'Thank God I've made it.'  

However there was not time to think as two crew members took charge of me and one said "Now Jump!" I jumped. It was dark and seemed so very unreal as the deck seemed to come up to meet me. Then another crew member told me to put my rifle on a pile of others, and led me down to a mess deck. I did not know it at the time, but I was on board HMS Venomous. Members of the crew came round with pails of water, which was very welcome as we had not shaved, washed or even eaten for several days. I could hear the engines, and gunfire, and feel the motion of the ship, but I had no idea if we were at sea or still at Dunkirk.  

Eventually we left the mess deck and were amazed to see the White Cliffs of Dover. We were back home.  

I do not know if Venomous went back, but many naval ships did, and 26,000 were evacuated that night. When on the 4th June records show that the 18th German army at last captured Dunkirk, some 40,000 French were taken prisoner. These were the men who had held out much longer than expected and helped to make the Operation Dynamo such a success. In all some 338,226 Allied troops, including 143,000 French, were evacuated from Dunkirk, on more than 800 ships of every size and kind. Losses were heavy, including nine destroyers. I am told that HMS Venomous survived to be sold and broken up in July 1947.

Sergeant Lou Warn
Corporal Doug King
Private George Wilson

The full story of the part played by HMS Venomous in the evacuation of the troops from Dunkirk is told in the new edition of A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous (Holywell House Publishing, May 2017). Not all the Green Howards left Dunkirk on HMS Venomous. Some of them escaped on HMS Sabre as described by Commander Brian Dean in his Report of Proceedings:

2110/2 June
Secured inside the wrecked trawler at East Pier and embarked troops. These were all part of the rear guard of the BEF and included men of the Green Howards. Only 15 came onboard on stretchers, but a further 50 odd were carried by their comrades and seamen. Most of these collapsed on arrival, and over 50 had to be hoisted out on stretchers on arrival at Dover. Their courage was magnificent, and I never heard a complaint, and hardly ever a groan.

Private George Wilson

Mark Wilson continues his father's story:

All he had  to eat for three days was a single cup of tea. I asked him if he remembered much about the crossing back to England. He said everyone was so exhausted that they slept, and only woke up once they'd reached Dover. They were greeted by the WVS with sandwiches & cakes when they disembarked. The WVS also organised a telegram home for every man who had come back - to let their families know they were alive. One man tried to give him a 10 bob note for a drink.

After getting back to Blighty they were taken to Aldershot, where he slept for 4 days solid. Anthony Eden came to address them all and said how wonderfully they'd fought, & that he knew they would willingly go straight back into battle.  Someone shouted from the ranks, "Not without some bloody leave first!" I like to think it's that spirit that helped us win the war.

My father was born in Scarborough in 1920 and has lived there all his life, apart from his service in World War II. After Dunkirk and his rest at Aldershot he got a 48 hour leave pass to go home. Scarborough railway station was thronged with anxious people wanting news of their loved ones. He and the mate he'd travelled with ran down the High Street to get away because they knew that most of the men being asked about were already dead. They thought they'd got away but were stopped outside Woolworth's by a chap they knew by the name of Claude Claxton - by which time several anxious women had caught up with them and they had to make a second dash for home.

He also told a great story about going to the local dance hall (the Olympia - long since demolished) in his uniform. The Durham Light Infantry were billeted in Scarborough; when he & his mate walked in quite a few of the young women who were dancing with a DLI chap rushed out because they thought their husbands & boyfriends must be back. He boasted for many years afterwards that he was the man who cleared the Olympia!

When they were going back to rejoin their unit, the Mayor and Lady Mayoress were at the railway station, giving each departing serviceman a beer & a packet of 10 Players!

During that fateful summer he was billeted near Weymouth; he said the soldiers all realised how critical the Battle of Britain was. For a time that autumn he was billeted at Cheddar Gorge, which was flooded each night with Bristolians fleeing the Blitz.

In January 1941 he sailed out of Glasgow on the Empress of Asia, heading for Port Tufic (Suez). During the journey the trimmers mutinied, so the squaddies had to act as trimmers. The ship called into Cape Town with a broken turbine & he went ashore each day for a week. South Africans would come to the dockside each day and "adopt" a soldier, taking them out for day trips to the national parks. The family that adopted him even sent him supplies of tobacco when he was in the Western Desert. He spent time in Crete & Israel (then Palestine). When I took the family on holiday to Israel in 2013 he was really pleased that we were staying in the King David Hotel: it was reserved for officers only when he was there in 1941. He & his mates had painted their names on tortoises in the desert, so perhaps to this day there's one crawling around the West Bank with "George" on its shell. He also talked about nearly being lynched when he went into a bar full of Australians - apparently relations were very poor between us & them. Perhaps it might be because the Australians had lost fathers at Gallipoli in World War One.

Mark Wilson as POW POWs at Stalag
Private George Wilson escaped from Dunkirk aboard HMS Venomous but was captured at the Battle of Gazala west of Tobruk in June 1942
This photograph was taken at Stalag 4C Wistritz

His luck ran out in June 1942 when he was captured in the Western Desert. In the Battle of Gazala the 5th Bn was overrun by German tanks. He was shipped via Sicily & Italy to Stalag 4C in Wistritz, Sudetenland. It lay between Prague and Dresden in what is now the Czech Republic. Understandably, he has said very little about those three terrible years of slave labour & incarceration, and we long ago stopped asking him about it. What we do know is that, when he escaped in early May 1945 he weighed 6 stone & had lost all his teeth through malnutrition. He ended up with the Americans at Nuremberg, before returning home in July 1945. He met my late mother that summer when she was on the bread wagon in his demob camp.

On 9 December 2018 Mark Wilson contacted me with news of his father:

"My father, George Wilson, passed away on Sunday 2nd December, ten days shy of what would have been his 98th birthday. He had been almost completely housebound for several months, but found, from somewhere, the strength & determination to get to his church on Remembrance Sunday to lay a wreath at its war memorial - a memorial which he worked tirelessly for many years to have rebuilt, as the old one had fallen into disrepair.

At his funeral this coming week I am giving the eulogy, & will be including the story of him being rescued off the Mole at Dunkirk by VENOMOUS, & how that only happened because Cdr. McBeath ignored his orders and took on every last man. As my niece said, 'I don't think Grandad was ready to go until he knew all his Dunkirk veterans had been safely gathered in"' Last man off the Cordon at the Mole, and last Scarborough Dunkirk veteran to be gathered in. We will salute him."

Sergeant Lou Warn and Corporal Doug King

Corporal King fought with the Green Howards in North Africa but escaped capture when Tobruk fell. He was commissioned and left the army after six and a half years as Capt D. King. He had a successful career in banking and Sergeant Lou Warn was one of his customers. They lived in Scarborough and were good friends of George Wilson and are remembered fondly by his son Mark. Lou was a hoover salesman until he and his wife Nan ran a B&B. George Wilson was the Chairman of the of the Scarborough branch of the Dunkirk Veterans Association and Doug King was Treasurer. "George Wilson ended his service as he began it - a proud Private in the ranks. But then again, it's the ranks that win the wars."

The story of HMS Venomous is told by Bob Moore and Captain John Rodgaard USN (Ret) in
A Hard Fought Ship
  Buy the new hardback edition online for 29 post free in the UK
Take a look at the Contents Page and List of Illustrations


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