The West Family's
Escape from Calais to England
21 May 1940
Sidney West, a distant
relative of Pierre Ratcliffe, also left Calais that day aboard a Royal
Navy destroyer, possibly HMS Venomous.
He and his elder brother, Robert, were born in Calais the sons of
Frederick West, a staff Sergeant in the Royal Engineers, from
Gillingham in Kent. In 1918 Frederick married Marguerite Louise Prudhomme, a bank
clerk in Calais, and left the army to work as a maintenance engineer at Brampton
Brothers. Sidney describes the family's escape to England and their
mixed fortunes on arrival in England. They never returned to France.
decision to leave the country of our birth and go to England was
taken very quickly without much consideration of the consequences on
the 21 May 1940, a beautiful sunny day.
Father had just returned from the British Consulate in Calais after
being told that an important notice would be posted on the door of its
office. The notice announced that a Royal Navy destroyer would be
arriving at 1.00.pm to evacuate British Nationals and their families.
We had been warned the previous evening that the employees of the
Brampton Chain Factory, where father and Robert worked, were to be
evacuated to the south to escape the rapidly advancing German forces
but the latest news was that a Panzer Tank Division had sealed off the
Pas-de-Calais at Abbeville making it impossible for British subjects to
escape detention and internment by heading south!
A quick family conference took place to discuss what father had found
out and our French grandparents reluctantly decided not to
leave the home we shared. The breakup of the family was very upsetting to all of us.
We did not even have enough time to pack a suitcase, only to take a
rolled blanket each across our shoulders and a few personal documents.
The walk to the Gare Maritime seemed endless, despite being only about
3.5 kms. We had to pass through a barricade manned by English
and French soldiers. They looked at our documents and let us through.
On reaching the station we saw the abandoned cars of people we knew, we
may have been the last family to arrive. We were guided
to one of the corridors of the Gare Maritime. A young immaculate Naval
Officer welcomed us, managing a smile while asking to see our
documents yet again! Almost immediately the call to embark was sounded.
the officer we negotiated a route around some parked cattle wagons, and
saw for the first time the Royal Naval destroyer moored in front of
There was a warning call came from its deck that enemy aircraft's
approaching and we should take cover (we sheltered under one of the
wagons nearby). Almost as soon as the announcement was made two Heinkel
111 bombers flew over, low enough for us to see the pilots, the sun
glistening on their cockpits as they swerved over the Place D'armes,
the northern square of the city. We could see them opening fire quite
they could have been targeting people on the ground!
Refugees from Belgium and Holland sleeping on the pavements began to panic. The bombers returned having spotted the destroyer.
A shout of 'Here they come again!'. We couldn't see them and assumed
they were approaching from behind the Maritime Station. The whistle of
bombs dropping were heard and explosions behind us, one in front of
us just missing the stern of the ship, the soldiers manning the
barricade were firing their rifles, the warship's pom-poms also opened
We rushed on board, the steeply slopping gangway was not a problem, we were
just so relieved to be aboard. We were ordered to lie down on the deck; we lay
on top of each other, our arms around mother, who by then was
hysterical. Time was of the essence; it was urgent that we cast off from the
quay. Once free and reversing at high speed, the entire armourment of
the ship was brought into action! A frightening deafening sound made
the deck vibrate under our frightened bodies. We were surrounded by
sailors, shouting orders to each other and rushing about.
Once out of the harbour we felt the rapid manoeuvres of the
vessel as it changed direction and accelerated away towards the British
coast. We found out later that zigzagging to avoid air attacks
was standard practice, although the noise of the guns and the powerful ship
engines drowned any aircraft noise.
By now we were some distance from the French coast and it was safe to
set a direct course for England. We found out that two Hurricane
aircraft stationed at Marck Aerodrome near Calais had apparently come
to our rescue by chasing away the bombers so things became
quieter. Robert managed to calm down mother. Sidney went in search of
who had momentarily disappeared. Guided by a member of the ships crew
he found father negotiating a cup of tea for us all! There were plenty
of helping hands around as this destroyer had another crew on board
picked up after being torpedoed off the coast near Narvik (Norway) and
redirected to pick us up, replying to an S.O.S message. We were quite
humbled by this news. Then we became conscious of other people we knew
who were still in shock from the experience which we had all witnessed.
Arrival in England
We docked in Folkestone, subdued and not knowing what was to become of
us all. Disembarking we noticed a few onlookers who had gathered. When
aware of who these civilians were getting off a warship, they managed a
hand clap to reassure us, a very kind gesture. We were directed to the
port offices, perhaps for some formalities. Robert and father went
ahead, mother and Sidney lingered a while peering in the direction of
the French coast, barely visible through the heat haze. We could hear
rumbling sounds, most probably bombs still being dropped! Remembering what we had experienced just over an hour ago, plus the
family separation which mother had not yet come to terms with, and still
tearful, we went on our way.
When we had all been checked, we were shepherded
to a waiting train. The word went round that we were heading for
London. Still in shock we had very little to say to each other.
It was dark when we reached our destination, the train having moved
into a siding. A policeman opened our carriage door. A short
conversation took place with father. Not understanding English at that
stage, we relied on father to interpret; even Robert who had some
English lessons at school, looked puzzled. This made us realize that
making ourselves understood would be our first problem! Father
explained that the policeman had told him that we should stay put
and try to get some sleep. We were thankful for our treasured blanket,
which we had brought with us and now put into use in a
strange environment. I cannot say that we slept very well that night.
The clanging of the carriage doors signaled that morning had
arrived and, perhaps, some news. We were all taken to
a large cinema where some food and drink was provided. We were once
again interviewed by officials, who checked our identity and wanted to
know if we had any contacts and plans for the future. Father was
Manchester would be our first destination in the hope of contacting the
head office and main factory of the Reno!d
Chain Company which was linked to Brampton's in
Calais. The proceedings at the cinema took quite some time and then
'unannounced' music came from the direction of the stage and rising out
of the orchestra pit came this cheerful organ music, this huge
instrument all lit up as if it was something at the fairground,
the musician playing the tunes, turning round as if to indicate 'I am
doing this to cheer you up' and indeed, despite everything, our spirits
were touched by this gesture.
The next day we traveled north to Dalton where father had an uncle, a
branch of the family unknown to us, that our father had not
seen for a number of years. They made us welcome but we only stayed for
a short time as the uncle was quite elderly and living with his
children. We were able to thank them for their hospitality by tidying
up their garden.
We arrived eventually in Withenshawe, south of Manchester, and visited
the main factory of Renold's Chain. Father was anxious to make contact
with the firm and hoped perhaps that they could help us. We had no need
to worry! The top man came to meet us, Sir
Charles Renold himself no less, and then events moved very quickly. We
were found some accommodation not far away, lodging with a lady and her
two young daughters.
Next door was a very friendly schoolteacher and his family. He spoke a
little French so we were able to talk with him. His two sons were
eager to involve Robert and Sidney in a game of cricket thinking that
from France their knowledge of the game would be non existent. Little
did they know that Robert, now nineteen, had taken part in matches
with the Calais cricket team, Sidney
was less enthusiastic but went along anyway. This short encounter on a
waste piece of ground at the back of their home was a success and as
game progressed everyone saw the funny side of it all!
Robert and father were constant visitors at the factory hoping that a
job for them would eventually be found. Father had been a maintenance
engineer at Brampton's in Calais for twenty years and Robert had not
long finished his apprenticeship as a tool room operative. Naturally our
wish for independence was always in our mind and
by August everything seemed to come together. Father had found a house
to rent, some second hand furniture had been chosen, and he and
Robert were due to start work at Renold's main works. But alas this was
not to be. A vacancy had occurred at another
branch of Renold's in Coventry where the maintenance foreman was away
ill and the job of charge hand was offered to father, therefore
crushing all our present plans. Robert was naturally shocked at the
news, as his position was again uncertain.
Problems of adjustment ...
We arrived in Coventry at the end of August 1940 and found lodgings at
95 Holyhead Road with a Mr and Mrs Gent within walking distance of the
Renold's & Coventry Chain factory.
Father started work almost straight away and Robert was also found
employment after a short time in the tool room. At
this point we all found our new
situation rather difficult; father was in charge of a group of men who
probably resentful of somebody descending from who knows where and
charge! Mother, not knowing the language and having to learn how to
make herself understood, dealing with the shopping, the rationing and
worry of how her mum and dad were managing back in Calais (we had
moved together to share a home only months before our separation).
Sidney was having the same communication difficulties, starting school
coping with lessons.
Robert had already suffered from verbal bullying
school in France because he had an English name! Now he had similar
problems beginning a new job in England. He had to put up with stupid
nationalistic jibes often
fueled by the historical conflicts
between the two countries, dating way back. This form of banter was the
norm on either side of the Channel and there was a lot 'mickey' taking
at the expense of this 'froggy'. Not all of the one
hundred operatives in the tool room were as bad, but there was some
who did not know when to stop. This affected Robert very badly but It
in his favour, however, that his skills were recognized and the
management sometimes gave jobs to Robert that the others could not do
and some operatives did not appreciate this. There was also the
question of qualifications, in France your apprenticeship finished at 18, in this country
at the age of 21. Robert accepted that he would be
classified as an 'improver' and would be paid accordingly. He could not
help the type of work given to him but some might have thought he was
being favoured (the politics of a workshop are sometimes difficult to
understand especially when, for some, combined with racist
Robert tried to escape from his immediate problems. Socially
he was quite popular. He had several friends and was
interested in popular music. He became a very good
ballroom dancer and a bit of a Disc Jockey. Despite this his nervous condition got the better of him, possibly
partly due to parental pressures in France to do well at school. As a
result he suffered from dyspepsia or aerophagie, a nervous
stomach or gastric disorder. Father and mother may not have know
about the problems he had at school in France and their effect on his
health. The added
trauma of being uprooted from France, the Coventry Blitz, the lack of
sleep and the problems at work all combined to make a sensitive non
violent person like Robert, who was inclined to bottle things up and not say
very much, have a complete mental breakdown. The doctors advised
sending him to 'Lee
House', an annexe of Hatton Hospital, where
patients with nervous debility could recuperate. There he met other
people who were traumatized under very different circumstances. Robert
quite friendly with a young Royal Air Force pilot who was undergoing
treatment to help him recover from his experiences as a fighter pilot.
Luckily he survived but was left with his nerves in tatters. They
discovered a shared interest in drawing.
pilot had spent some time at a University before being
called up and was also able to help Robert with his English.
We visited Robert as often as we could, traveling on the Midland Red
Bus Services, hoping for his quick recovery and not enjoying this
separation. Anyone unfamiliar with the nervous complaint from which he was
suffering, might question the severity of his problems, but to him they were very real and needed
understanding and help. This came later when he met Margaret, his partner
in life, who gave him the support he needed. Robert severed
his link with engineering for a while but eventually returned with
renewed enthusiasm and his commitment helped him gain the
respect of many.
The grandparents we left behind ...
Our Mother continued to worry about her parents who we had left behind in Calais. We had only decided to live with them at 147 Rue Leavers late
in 1938. They were now in their late seventies. Our French grandmother,
Azéma Crochez, had been a well known dressmaker in Calais but was
now suffering from arthritis. Our
grandfather, Alfred Louis Prud'Homme, was also not in the best
of health, but was still occasionally asked for advice, despite being
in his eighties, by his former employer, the Venpoule and Duquenois
in the Rue Des Quatre Coins, Calais. Mother found out that she could
send short messages and small parcels to them through the Red Cross.
learned much later that the German
occupying forces obliged Calais citizens who had room to spare to
provide accommodation; a
billeting order was imposed upon them, whether they liked it or not!
grandparents had three German soldiers staying with them for a while.
They were very lucky that these young men had some respect for older
folks or things would have been very different. They were more
concerned about their future now that the
invasion of Britain had been postponed; the possibility of being sent to
front was their main worry. Only one supported the political aims of
the Third Reich, the other two had families
back in Germany, one was a family butcher and the other a farmer. As
rationing began to bite extra rations from their canteen
would be secretly brought back to their billet and was, I am sure,
grudgingly accepted by grandfather who did not want them there at
all! His attitude was shown on the occasion of a street search for
who was supposedly harbouring a member of the Resistance. A lorry load
of soldiers from the Wehrmacht carried out the raid. All the men in the
Rue Leavers were arrested. At first our grandfather refused to be
moved, only after the officer in charge placed his Luger revolver at
his temple and ordered him to move, did he reluctantly respond and they
were taken away. Much later they were set free. The search had proved
negative, had it been different their fate would have been execution!
The posters around the town were plain enough "Harbouring enemies of
the Occupation Forces will mean death by Firing Squad". One can only
imagine the anguish that this incident caused.
A more serious event took place much later, on 27 February 1945; an
error of judgment by a Bomber Squadron of the Royal Air Force
operating in a cloudy condition dropped bombs on Calais, instead of
Dunkirk where a pocket of German Forces were still holding out. Calais
had been liberated by the Canadians. Grandmother came out of 147 Rue Leavers, hurrying across the
road to catch a builder, there was a repair job to be done on the roof. The time was 5.30 pm normal time for the exit of
factories and schools, bombs fell out of the sky, grandmother had the
misfortune to be in its path, her left foot was shattered by an
exploding bomb, resulting in an amputation just below the knee. This
was carried out by a Canadian Army doctor. She was one of 150 people who suffered a similar plight.
The saddest thing was that 97 people lost their lives, 33 men, 48 women and
16 children under the age of 18. The town was in mourning. It was not
the first bombing but this was the worst.
The news prompted mother to do everything in her power to return to
France and give her mother and father moral support. The conflict was
still going on whilst mother was organising her mercy trip to France.
To get to Calais she had to take the train from Victoria station,
London, to Newhaven and across
to Dieppe, then to Paris and back north to Calais. She stayed with
her parents for several months. She returned looking tired
and much thinner but thankful she was able to do this. The next stage
would be to make arrangements for our grandparents to come to England
but we were still
without permanent accommodation. We were eternally thankful
for good neighbours in France, especially Monsieur et Madame Vasseur
who had kept an eye on our grandparents for a very long time now,
especially during the dark days of the Occupation."
The family lived in nine different houses between their arrival in
England in May 1940 and 1949 when they were finally offered a permanent
home by Coventry City Council at 37 Templars
Fields, Canley, Coventry. They were still living in Coventry in 2003
when Sidney West wrote this description of their escape from Calais to
England aboard a Royal Navy warship.It is taken from Pierre Ratcliffe's web site about his family which can be explored further by following this link.
The story of HMS Venomous is told by Bob Moore and Captain John Rodgaard USN (Ret) in A Hard Fought Ship
livre captivant dont on ne peut que saluer la quantité et la qualité
des recherches entreprises par les auteurs. Un must pour tout lecteur intéressé pas l’histoire navale de cette période.’ 39/45 Magazine (Editions Heimdal)
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