A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
story of HMS Venomous
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.
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 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
Courtesy of the UK Hydrographic Office
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
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.
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.
Tidal Diagram with times in GMT from 1430/23 to 0300/24
1510 20.3 feet
1515 Whitshed sails.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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)
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.
2020 Whitshed to sea followed by Vimiera. Whitshed 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
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.
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).
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
Venomous had continued to defend herself with elan.
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”.
twilight (Sun 12 degrees below horizon – Objects no longer
distinguishable. Horizon no longer visible to the naked eye).
2104 Moon rise
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.
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
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
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
0332 18.8 feet
0335 Vimiera “Overtook Wessex returning to Dover. Dawn was then breaking”.
researched and written by
Lt Cdr Frank Donald RN (Ret)
Holywell House Publishing
88 Holywell Hill, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 1DH, Britain
Telephone: +44 1727 838595