The story of HMS Venomous

OfficersRatingsV & W Class destroyersWhat's NewBuy the BookLinksHome

Battle of Boulogne
Tidal and Astronomical Time Line 23-24 May 1940

On 23rd and 24th May 1940 seven V and W Class destroyers evacuated nearly 4,400 soldiers of the 20th Guards Brigade and supporting troops from Boulogne. The Guards had been landed there the previous day to hold the port, but the rapid advance of German forces led to a decision to withdraw them during the late afternoon. The success of the operation depended on the duration of daylight and night hours, and most significantly on how the rise and fall of tide affected the ships alongside.

While we had very good information for ship movements on 23/24 May, we had not considered the actual times of sunset, moon rise, sunrise and twilight. These have been derived from online predictions for May 2016, when the astronomical data is very similar to that of May 1940, according to the 76 year Callipic Lunar Solar cycle. The full moon occured on 21st May in both years, so that 23 May is two days after springs.

Tidal Information

Lynnette Smart of the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office and Mr Chris Jones, Head of Tides, have kindly provided us with a copy of the actual page from the May 1940 tide table for the standard port (Dunkirk) so we can use the same tidal predictions as the 19th Destroyer Flotilla. I have derived the equivalent figures for Boulogne. For comparison I have shown the estimates based on the 2016 tidal predictions in brackets.

A significant change is that the 1940 tide tables are in GMT, and predict low water Boulogne to be at 1930 on 23 May, precisely as reported by Whitshed and Venomous.  This shows that the ships were using GMT for their reports and signals, and not BST as I had previously supposed. The actual effect is that events take place an hour later relative to times of high and low water.  For example Whitshed and Keith arrived at Boulogne approximately three hours after high water rather than two, so that the deck levels relative to the quay would have been approximately four feet lower.

Intermediate heights of tide for two days after springs have been worked out using a tidal curve provided by the Hydrographer which is appropriate to the extra large tidal range on the 23rd and 24th. Compared with the curve in Reed’s Nautical Almanac there is a slower initial fall in level after high water and slower initial rise after low water.  While the mean flood tide duration at Boulogne is given in Reeds Nautical Almanac as 5 hours 15 minutes the actual period varies widely, being shortest at springs and longest at neaps.  On the 23rd/24th May 1940 the predicted flood durations were 5 hours 03 and 5 hours 02, with the ebb durations 7 hours 20 and 7 hours 17.


Depths and other cartographic information have been derived from the 1938 editions of the Channel Pilot, and of Admiralty Chart 438, kindly provided by Mr Adrian Webb, the Archives Manager  of the UK Hydrographic Office (www.ukho.gov.uk ).  According to the Channel Pilot, in 1938 the Entrance channel was dredged to 5.2 metres or 17 feet below chart datum. The Avant-Port, between the  Entrance channel and the north-western end of Quai Chanzy had depths of 15 feet (4.6 metres).  The Port du Maree lies between Quai Chanzy on the south west and Quai Gambetta on the north east or town side. According to the Pilot the depths were 13 feet (4.0 metres) in the middle, and alongside Quai Chanzy were 16 feet (4.9 metres ) at the north western end (Gare Maritime aka Railway Jetty), and between 7 to 16 feet (2.1 to 4.9 metres) at the south east end.

Boulogne Harbour
Boulogne Harbour in 1938
as shown on Admiralty Chart 438
The smaller divisions of the scale on the right hand edge of Chart 438 above are tenths of a nautical mile - approximately 200 yards.
Courtesy of the UK Hydrographic Office 

Copies of the original diagrams of the Quai Chanzy and Gare Maritime (aka Railway Jetty) showing their heights above chart datum and depths alongside have been kindly provided by Monsieur Thierry Guerin, Commandant of the Port of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Heights were Quai Chanzy 10.4 metres (34 feet) and Gare Maritime 10.6 metres (34.75 feet). Designed depths alongside were 4 to 4.5 metres (13 to 14.8 feet).


A deep loaded V&W drew 11 feet 3 inches. The Standard draught was 9 feet.  Under the Washington Treaty the standard draught was defined as the displacement of the ship complete, fully manned and ready for sea, including all armament, ammunition, provisions and fresh water, but without fuel or reserve boiler feed water onboard.  Using the figures for fuel given in the Wikipedia entry for Vimiera and Versatile I have estimated the Tons Per Inch Immersion – the extra load to increase draught by one inch, as between 17.4 and 15.6 tons. Using the estimate used by the Captain of Vimiera, that the 1400 soldiers he had embarked weighed 100 tons, the ship’s draught would have increased by between 5.7 and 6.5 inches. However this extra load affected the ship’s stability markedly, and using only 5 degrees of wheel made the ship list and hang in a most unpleasant manner.

I have inserted some operational details from recently retrieved Reports of Proceedings.

0001/23 Verity alongside in Boulogne.

0230    Verity embarks Major General Brownrigg (Adjutant General BEF), Major General Lloyd and 150 troops from Rear GHQ (at Wimereux, just to the North of Boulogne)

0310    In view of approaching daylight Verity sails, leaving 200 fighting troops on the jetty. Arrives Dover at 0450.

0312    Dawn

0354    Sunrise

0623    Vimy alongside in Dover, embarking demolition stores, Demolition Party and Naval and Royal Marines detachments (Force Buttercup).

0707    Low water 3.25 feet above chart datum (2016 LW 0653 4.3 feet).

0810    5.7 feet

0910    10.1 feet

0958    Vimy sails for Boulogne with all despatch.

1010    17 feet

1110     24.9 feet

1136    Vimy goes alongside Quay Chanzy starboard side to.  Disembarks Force Buttercup and Demolition Party. Embarks remainder of Rear GHQ and as many wounded as were immediately  available. During the latter part of the embarkation of wounded ship was engaged with small HE shell from tank or field gun all of which burst over or astern.

1210    High water 27.8 feet    (2016 HW 1153 27.9 feet)

1212    Vimy slips from jetty and turns in the channel to leave bows first. Several salvoes burst close to ship.

1228     Vimy clear of harbour and carries out short bombardment of Fort de la Creche. Several hits observed.

1235    Vimy proceeds Dover with all dispatch.

1310     27.1 feet

1334    Keith sails from Dover for Boulogne at high speed. Whitshed also en route.

1348    Vimy alongside in Dover.  Disembarked troops and wounded.

1410    24.9 feet

1435    Vimy slips and proceeds for Boulogne

1445    Whitshed alongside Quai Chanzy

1500    Keith alongside Whitshed. Conference on board with Brigadier Fox-Pitt and Cdr Conder of Whitshed.

Diagram of tidal height, Boulogne, 23-4 May 1940
Tidal Diagram with times in GMT from 1430/23 to 0300/24

1510    20.3 feet

1515    Whitshed sails.

“I was ordered to proceed out of the harbour as soon as possible after I had embarked wounded. With some 70 stretcher cases and several walking wounded and certain oddments I proceeded half an hour after berthing. While slipping I observed the Guards firing at enemy machine gun posts in a warehouse on my starboard beam.  Two 4.7” HE direct impact obliterated this menace. Other likely posts on the South side of the harbour were also shelled and enemy firing ceased.  I remained in the vicinity of Boulogne in visual signal touch with Keith”.

I observed enemy movement in a small fort on the heights commanding the harbour on the North side of the town and shelled this, apparently blowing up the magazine. A military transport was also shelled and caught fire. Running troops advancing towards Wimereux were also shelled, I think unsuccessfully. About 50 of them were later seen to be clustered on the shore and eventually signalled that they were English. This may or may not have been true but I did not shell them. I picked up a French seaman off a buoy marking the end of the Northern breakwater and was shelled by field guns in doing what I felt at the time was an unwise action. I received no damage and was able to spot the field guns and destroy them. I dodged their second salvo by going astern.

“All this time the German Army co-operation aircraft was flying round and round over the town and co-ordinating most skilfully the movements of the German troops which consisted of a regiment of infantry, a tank battalion and towed field guns.”

1545    Vimy joins Whitshed

1610    15.2 feet

1615    Vimy carries out shore bombardment on enemy motor vehicles southward of Le Portel

1710    9.9 feet

1723    Most Immediate message from Vice Admiral Dover to D19 (Senior Officer 19th Destroyer Flotilla) and Whitshed, Vimy Venetia, Venomous.  “Inform BUTTERCUP Evacuate all troops as soon as practical. Use destroyers. Vimiera joining  you . Wild Swan later.

1730    Vimy recovers a swimmer – a Sergeant from 5th A/A Battery who reports survivors are still on shore below Fort de la Creche.

1749    Signal ordering the evacuation of all troops deciphered onboard Keith. Vimy called into harbour.
1800    Vimy secures alongside Keith starboard side to bows in, and commences embarking wounded.

1810    6.7 feet
1817    Several salvoes of small HE from the north side of the harbour burst in the water 200 yards astern of Vimy.

1820    Keith sighted a large number of twin engine bombers approaching from the North but these were at once engaged by British fighters who broke up this attack. At the same time 24 Junkers 87 dive bombers were seen forming for an attack from the sun which they delivered on Keith, Vimy and the quay unopposed in any way. A further attack was delivered on French and British Destroyers at sea by another large formation.  Some machines later attacked Keith.  One bomb fell on the jetty within three yards of the ship and wounded soldiers who were embarking. One German aircraft was shot down by Keith, probably by X -gun.

Whitshed reported:

“One of the French destroyers sustained a direct hit which put her on fire and another was apparently damaged as well. We were close to some wrecks which fortunately showed above water and ships proceeded to take individual avoiding action at full speed. The first salvo of bombs cut my rigging which fell on the siren lanyard, causing the siren to wail until the first lieutenant climbed up and cleared it. This was unfortunate as I have to use the siren as the cease-fire signal owing to Whitshed not having Captain’s cease-fire gongs. The steam also completely obscured the view of the two pom-poms. The banging of the bombs was continuous and I had to shout the helm orders at the top of my voice down the voice pipe where the Coxswain very coolly carried them all out. I estimate some 15 salvos fell round Whitshed.  One officer was killed and one officer and 12 men wounded, 4 of these being on the bridge. We were also machine gunned. Three bullets or splinters pierced parts of the bridge in my vicinity and I was relatively unhurt. The ship’s company rapidly appreciated that the siren was not giving a cease-fire signal and all weapons fired.”

As the first attack was being delivered a mortar opened fire on Keith from over the shoulder of a hill at a range of about 1200 yards, scoring a direct hit on the port side of the forecastle deck. Splinters killed one rating and seriously wounded another. At the same time machine gun and rifle fire from the hill side and North Quay was opened on Keith’s and Vimy’s bridges at short range.

1830    Captain D killed, and the CO of Vimy mortally wounded.  Whitshed enters harbour to investigate.

1840    Vimy slips wires and proceeds to sea stern first, engaging aircraft with Pom-pom and Lewis guns. 150 troops onboard including 70 stretcher cases.

1843    Keith to sea, escorted by Whitshed. 180 troops onboard including 70 stretcher cases.

1920    Wild Swan and fighters arrive.

“I informed destroyers that we would go in pairs to evacuate the Army and that I was “going in”. As soon as I started Vimiera immediately made speed to follow me. I again bombarded the Northern heights and berthed at dead low water at the Northern corner of Quai Chanzy, (ie at the Gare Maritime) (A), Vimiera taking the Southern berth of the same Quai.” (B).

Vimiera berthed port side to, and must therefore have turned in the Port de Maree before going alongside.  In 1940 the depth alongside was 16 feet (4.9 metres).

Boulogne Harbour

The Britannia Monument stood at the end of the Digue de Large from July 1938 until its demolition by the Germans in August 1940

1930    Low water 3.6 feet    (2016 LW 1913 4.3 feet)

1930    Vimiera experienced “ Considerable delay in starting to embark soldiers, as ship’s upper bridge was on level  with jetty, tide being at low water springs. At first only access to ship was by brow (gangway) to signal bridge, and by vertical iron ladder on jetty to forecastle deck. In order to speed up the embarkation I ordered soldiers using the iron ladder to discard their rifles. Eventually an access to the lower stages of the jetty was found about 100 yards distant from the ship, which resulted in a rush of soldiers from a nearby train”.  The Depth below Vimiera’s keel  was approximately 7.5 feet. The Fxle would have been 16 feet below the jetty

1945    Vimy ordered to return to Dover by Wild Swan and proceeds with all despatch, arriving 2104. Keith berths on Vimy at 2110.

1947    Sunset

2020    Whitshed to sea followed by VimieraWhitshed with 580 troops onboard including 70 wounded. Vimiera with 555 troops on board including 5 wounded.

2030    Wild Swan alongside South West face of Railway Jetty, bows aground at (C). The Captains remarks indicate that the berth was too short for the ship, and too shallow at the inner end, indicating an actual depth of not more than 5 feet below chart datum, compared with the 15 feet shown in the Channel Pilot. This berth had been chosen by the Army, presumably because it was more sheltered from enemy action. However this meant that only Wild Swan’s after guns could be used against German troops on the other side of the harbour

2031    Dusk (Sun six degrees below horizon)

2032    5.8 feet

2035    Venomous alongside the Northeast side of Railway Jetty (B). “As soon as the ship secured alongside, fire was opened by the enemy from the park adjoining the left side of the harbour with machine guns and rifles; and with light field pieces from the French battery on the hill above the town.”

2040    Venetia started to go alongside.

“At 2042 when the stem was abreast the Harbour-master’s office, shore batteries opened a heavy fire scoring direct hits immediately with high explosive direct-impact shell. The fire was apparently concentrated on Venetia, presumably with the intention of sinking the ship and thereby blocking the channel”.  

Chart 438 shows that in 1940 the Harbour Masters Office was on the north side of the entrance channel at the inner end of the Jetee Nord-est, which is consistent the position (D) of Venetia on fire shown on the drawing on page 118 of A Hard Fought Ship (2017).

Venomous retaliated:

“At this juncture an enemy troop detachment on motor-cycles and in cars appeared between the houses of the main street on the left bank at a range of 300 yards. As these troops deployed, Midshipman Esson RNR at the pom-poms opened fire and his first shots blew the side out of the leading car and set it on fire; the remaining cars were also disabled and abandoned. The enemy attempting to escape were picked off by the Lewis gunners, and by Torpedo-men, stokers, Sub-Lieutenant Kershaw who were using rifles. Infantry were now taking up position among the trees and bushes in the park and an intense fire from automatic rifles firing tracer was directed upon the bridge and guns crews.”


“Sub Lieutenant Jones RNR, who was in the charthouse (of HMS Venetia), realised that the engines were not moving and that no orders were being passed. ... Having ascertained from the Engineer Officer that the engines were manoeuvrable, he proceeded to con the ship from the wheelhouse and at 2048 went astern to get the bow, which was aground on the north-west corner of the Quai Chanzy, clear. In doing this the starboard propeller touched ground on the corner southeast of the Britannia Monument (E) but he was able to clear this and proceeded out of the harbour stern first”.

It is difficult to reconcile the grounding on the northwest corner of Quai Chanzy with Wild Swan’s ROP which states that Venetia grounded with “bows ashore against the jetties on my starboard quarter.” On page 119 of A Hard Fought Ship (2017) it is stated that Venetia veered to Starboard, and therefore may have grounded west of Quai Chanzy. The starboard propeller touching ground at (E) when going astern would be consistent with this.

The Britannia Monument was a huge “Statue of Liberty” style edifice on the corner near the Bassin Loubet, and probably on the end of Digue du Large.  It commemorated Boulogne’s role as principal support port for the British Army in WWI. It was only unveiled in July 1938 (in the presence of King George VI and Marshal Petain) and so does not appear on Chart 438. It can just be made out on the left side of the picture of Venetia leaving harbour on page 118. It was demolished by the Germans in July 1940.

Destroyer deck level was still well below quay level, as this extract from 20th Brigade’s war diary makes clear:

“The Irish Guards after having got their wounded aboard scrambled onto the deck of the destroyer (Wild Swan). The men dropped from the quay to the deck , but no-one on ... the Irish Guards side actually fell in the water. On the other side (of the Gare Maritime) however ... as the destroyer (Venomous) moved off some men who had jumped did fall in the water. They were rescued by rifle slings ... tied together, and they were thus hauled aboard. One Welsh Guard who had found himself left behind  ... stripped .... dived in and was hauled aboard the destroyer as she was moving.”

Venomous had continued to defend herself with elan.

“Gun flashes were sighted in the direction of the French Battery above the town. Presumably the enemy forces occupying the town had brought the French guns to bear. All 4.7 inch guns were trained on this spot by the director and the ship opened fire with Direct Action impact Shell. The first salvo was over but the second blew away the whole side of the fort and part of the hill. Pieces of guns and mountings were observed falling down the hillside, and in addition a number of field guns were shelled and destroyed by HMS Venomous as they were being placed in position by the enemy.  HMS Wild Swan now joined in the firing with her two after guns, directing them upon the road. An enemy tank followed by infantry attempted to enter the town from the westward, but received a direct hit from HMS Wild Swan and caught fire”

 2100    Venetia clear of harbour.

“Troops were embarking steadily onboard HMS Wild Swan but owing to the open expanse of jetty which had to be crossed in the face of strong machine gun fire the troops were not moving very quickly on (the Venomous) side of the jetty, and an enemy column was observed filing down a narrow wall-flanked pathway on the hillside, and again Midshipman Esson caught them with pom-pom fire, blowing a wall and several houses down on top of them. An incendiary shell from a light field gun pitched short of the ship abreast ‘B’ gun. The flash came from the garden of a house and target was shifted to that point. The first salvo blew down all the trees in the garden and set fire to the house beyond. Enemy were observed running from the spot. From this time on all larger calibre gunfire ceased and only rifle and machine gun fire were kept up from the shore. The ship maintained a continuous barrage until HMS Wild Swan left the harbour”.

2103    Nautical twilight (Sun 12 degrees below horizon – Objects no longer distinguishable. Horizon no longer visible to the naked eye).

2104    Moon rise

2110    Venomous to sea with 500 troops onboard. “To get out astern as quickly as possible 18 knots was ordered. Soon after slipping the wheel jammed hard-a-starboard, and for the remainder of the passage out through the narrow channel the ship had to be steered by main engines.

2127    Wild Swan to sea with 403 troops onboard.

2132    9.9 feet

2230    Windsor enters harbour.

“I put my armament into local control and gave orders to open fire on the North side of the town at any targets that could be found. My chief concern was navigation as I had not been to Boulogne before and it was quite dark. I expected to find Wild Swan still in harbour and in looking for her I went too far into the harbour and alongside the South Side (ie Quay Chanzy) . Seeing that Wild Swan was not there and that there was no sign of activity I went astern and round the bend in the jetty and alongside the correct place where I found the soldiers” (Apparently at ( A) where Vimiera berthed later) .

2232    18.1 feet

c2310    Windsor slips with 600 troops onboard. “It was not easy to go out astern as there was not much water and the heavily loaded ship was very sluggish”.

2320    Windsor clear of outer harbour.

2332    25.9 feet

0015    Vimiera slips from Admiralty pier, Dover and proceeds for Boulogne.

0032/24  High water 27.8 (2016 HW 0010 27.9 feet)

0132    27.1 feet

0130    Vimiera arrives off Boulogne. “Heavy bombing of the town had been heard for some time, but ceased just before arrival”.

0140    Vimiera enters harbour. Secures to outer jetty, starboard side to. “This left the ship fully exposed to shore batteries on the northern ridge, but with a straight run down the channel in case it became necessary to leave abruptly.” This indicates that the ship was berthed on the north east corner of the railway jetty, at (A). There were two fixed green lights on the end of the jetty which were presumably on the lighthouse “50 yards astern of the ship” which was being attacked by German aircraft with machine guns while the embarkation was in progress. 

“The silence in the town was eerie, the only noise being from a burning lorry a few yards away across the channel, from which came periodically the sound of exploding ammunition. The flames from this and the full moon gave plenty of light, but failed to disclose any sign of life. Twice I hailed the dock-side and was just about to leave when a voice answered. I was appalled to learn that no ship had been in for about five hours and that more than 1000 soldiers were still waiting to be evacuated. I said I could not take so many, but would do my best, nor could I wait long.”

As soon as I was firmly alongside there was a rush from the station buildings and a voice shouted that the Germans had ambushed us. It was probably during this rush that a considerable number of French and Belgian soldiers and some refugees found their way onboard.  If this had not been the case I think I should probably have been able to evacuate all the British units that remained.

Periodically army officers hailed me and stated that further contingents of troops were in hiding at various distances from the station and could I wait a further 20 minutes. In this way the time drew out until it was after 0230. My First Lieutenant then informed me that no more men could be accommodated due to lack of space. In order to provide room and to keep the weight down in the ship I had opened up all lower mess decks and the tiller flat, all of which and my day cabin and the wardroom were crowded. Only around the guns and supply parties and on the forecastle was space left. On the rest of the upper deck men were lying jammed so closely that it was impossible to proceed along it."

0232     23.9 feet

0237    Nautical twilight

0245    Vimiera slips and proceeds astern out of harbour with 1400 troops onboard.

0250    Shore batteries suddenly opened fire, apparently at position where the ship had been lying for the last hour and which had been so recently vacated.

0255    Enemy bombers pass overhead and heavy bombs exploded about 20 yards away under water.

“The attack was not repeated for which I was thankful, as avoiding action was impossible. Using only five degrees of wheel made the ship list and hang in the most unpleasant manner due to the additional 100 tons of top-weight.”

0332    18.8 feet

0335    Vimiera “Overtook Wessex returning to Dover. Dawn was then breaking”.

0353    Sunrise

researched and written by
Lt Cdr Frank Donald RN (Ret)

The research for this article was carried out in support of the new edition of A Hard Fought Ship, the story of HMS Venomous (2017).


Holywell House
Holywell House Publishing
88 Holywell Hill, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 1DH, Britain
Telephone: +44 1727 838595
contact online