We discharged in London and were fitted up for transport work from Southampton.  France fell now and things were grim.  Transport work in reverse. However we went round to Southampton from London in convoy.  We laid in Cowes Road for a week and then took tanks and transport over to Cherbourg.  We left one night and were back in Southampton the next.  

Next we loaded anti aircraft guns for Brest .  This is where we first learnt things were bad.  As we entered Brest, he (the Germans) was bombing the place and then to our surprise us as we drew alongside.  No one was allowed ashore.  Later troops began to come down and embark.  Then we knew the evacuation of France had commenced.  This was before Dunkirk.  A few distressed British civilians embarked and away we went full up with troops and the cargo we had brought with us.  You can tell how distressed and downhearted we felt.  The few French civilians we saw seemed dazed and unable to comprehend exactly what was going on.  We arrived at Southampton safely and saw a bit of bombing there.  One night at anchor in Cowes Road he (the Germans) machine-gunned the area, but I imagine he was after searchlights and not ships.

Another night he set an ammunition dump off opposite us and then each flare as it came over had a go at it.  We had a grandstand view.  Well, now Dunkirk was under way and it was our turn, but we weren’t wide enough to carry some evacuation barges on our decks so the Clan Maclaster took our place.  She took the barges into Dunkirk harbour and was coming out loaded with troops when she was hit by bombs and sank in the harbour.  Ships were getting knocked out right and left. It was just the case who would be lucky.  There was a bit of chaos at Southampton now.  One day we loaded light tanks, next day discharged them again, and next day loaded them again.  Next day out they went again.  All in Southampton.  We were bound for Dover for orders.  At that time a “brigade of guards” was holding out at Bologne and refusing to surrender.  There’s no doubt that’s where we were bound.  I doubt if we would have survived, so no one could blame us for the feeling of relief when it was finally cancelled.

It was somewhere about this time that I heard (over the wireless) of the attempted evacuation of the 51st Scottish Division, cut off opposite Le Havre at St Valeria.  The ships were having a hell of a time and eventually had to forgo the attempt owing to heavy bombing.  This didn’t add to my feelings of security.  That was the trouble in our job.  You heard what was happening to the other vessels and knew what to expect.

We were now ordered to Cherbourg for the last day’s evacuation.  They were trying to get enough material away as possible – hence cargo boats.  We left that night fully prepared for trouble and at dawn as we entered the harbour of Cherbourg we got it.  As we got squarely in the harbour entrance, not feeling too grand as I couldn’t sleep I was looking out of the forward porthole – it was just dawn – I saw what I thought was splashes from shells.  My heart sank lower than my boots.  Having experienced shellfire in the last War I said, “we’re for it”.  “Jerry is here and we can’t get away and he’s just going to pound us to pieces”.  All this in a few seconds.  I saw these splashes drawing nearer and however strange it may seem, it was with a feeling of relief I realised we were being bombed.  Planes might go and come but artillery would come and stay.  We got 5 or 6 bombs right round us.  They whistled down with a tremendous bang and I had no doubt we were hit and on fire.  I tried to get out of the cabin, but was driven back by what I thought was smoke.  What had actually happened was that huge columns of water had been thrown aboard the ship on the hot steam pipes and it was dense steam I saw, not smoke. It soon cleared away and much to our surprise the ship was apparently undamaged.  I got up to the wireless room.  No 2 was still somewhat dazed, he was on watch and the first he knew was being blown off his seat by the explosions.  Some of the instruments were hanging precariously, forced off the wall by the explosions, but these were fixed up and I found the gear working OK.  We had lots of small holes, but no major damage.  Observers ashore thought we had gone.  They saw us straddled by bombs, keel over and disappear amid columns of water, but out came the Macbean again.

We spent 6 to 8 hours in Cherbourg and it seemed years.  We soon found out the position.  The troops were all down at the quay waiting to embark on anything.  The Germans had nothing to stop them.  How far away no one knew.  Not far, that was certain.  To make matters worse they fuel us right in the inner harbour with our bows towards the land.  They should have turned us round with our nose out to sea, so that in an emergency, we could have made some sort of attempt to get away.  Even then we should have required a tug to pull our stern off the quay, so we didn’t smash our propeller.  As we were, we couldn’t turn, or back out without a tug.  We rummaged around the docks to see what we could find.  The canteen staff had all been taken the day before, so there was little for us.  We loaded what we could in the way of transport.  Hundreds of lorries and guns were burning and exploding on the foreshore.  We couldn’t get them away, so that was all that could be done with them to make them useless.  The Navy were blasting and blowing the dock installations.  They seemed to be taking things very coolly.  One party was driving around in a car.  Somewhere about 10.30am the last of the cargo boats left except the Clan Macbean.  There was a couple of destroyers and a couple of cross Channel boats left.  These being twin propeller could manoeuvre without the aid of tugs and would be twice as fast as us.  Hence they could soon pull out and away.  We were being held back to load some special R.A.F. equipment.  Radar, I guess.  Very much secret in those days.  We were now full up with troops and the gangways laid ashore ready for the troops to rush ashore at the first appearance of the enemy.  First they couldn’t find the R.A.F. gear again.  Finally all power was cut off from the crane as the electricity ashore was destroyed.  In the meantime there was one French tug left in the harbour and he wanted to get away.  Soldiers on our own ship held him alongside at rifle point.  You couldn’t blame him for wanting to beat it.  What happened to the R.A.F. gear I don’t know, we didn’t get it.  Our eye’s were anxiously watching the hills overlooking the town and the dockside for the orders to leave.  Finally somewhere about 12.30pm we were told to go.  Gratefully and with much apprehension with the help of the tug we backed out of the inner harbour, turned round and out to sea.  There were two destroyers and one or two troopships just pulling out also.  These soon passed us on the way to the UK.  Before 2.00pm we could see shells falling into the harbour entrance.  The Germans had arrived, but we had got away.

The scene leaving Cherbourg was a panorama for a painter.  The sea was dead calm, the sky without clouds, and a beautiful Summers day.  As far as the eye could see was an armada of ships.  All shapes and sizes.  Tug boats, sailing boats, and fishing boats, motor boats.  In fact anything that would float, all making for safety in the UK.  You could only see it – you can’t describe it.  Terrible days especially for the French people leaving their country.  Every now and then a plane would pass overhead going towards the UK.  We watched them very warily, but they all proved to be our own, leaving their bases in France for the UK.  We arrived in Southampton that evening.  All next day we watched the boats load from all parts of Europe being collected and refugees taken ashore for interrogation – a pitiful sight.  I think we had about two days in Southampton and late one evening we were ordered around to Newport.  Must have been towards the end of June 1940.

 

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