robert owen wilcoxon. an account of the last days at dunkirk and the story of the heroic men and...

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An account of the last days in the life of Robert Owen Wilcoxon.The tale of the `little ships` and their part in the rescue of men from Dunkirk.

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Robert Owen WilcoxonSub Lieutenant, R.N.V.R.1st April 1903 29th May 1940

DunkirkWednesday 29th May 1940

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Prelude On 10th May 1940, following the invasion of the Netherlands, the allied French and British forces responded by advancing from France into Belgium. However, though they had advanced quickly, in a few days it was found that there was not the expected support from the Belgian Army, the Dutch army had surrendered, and to the south the French army front had been broken by the main advance of the Germans, whose objective was to cut off the British and capture the Channel ports. By 20th May it was foreseen that there might have to be a compulsory withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force. Soon the port of Boulogne was surrounded and evacuated, and Calais threatened. On 23rd-24th May Calais was evacuated by all except the army, and the enemy was within 20 miles of Dunkirk. On 25th May all troops were evacuated from Calais, and a day later there was an Allied decision to withdraw, though not to evacuate. What was then left could be described most simply as a semi-circular line of British, French and Belgian troops, a front line some 120 miles long. General Gort found the news from the Belgian front disquieting. On the morning of 25th May, the Admiralty signalled Operation Dynamo is to Commence. The first ship with evacuees, the armed boarding vessel Monas Isle, returned to Dover on 27th May. On the 29th May, the Allied forces were all within a defended pocket edged by Fort Merdyck west of Dunkirk and the Bergues-Furnes-Nieuport canal, and troops were waiting on the dunes and beaches.

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The Assault Landing Craft The little ships were needed to ferry soldiers from the beach through the shallow water to the transporting vessels and hospital ships, though many returned to England laden in small convoys. Something more efficient and safe was needed. On 29th May the first trickle of the anxiously awaited motor craft began to arrive off the beaches. The most important were the assault landing craft (A.L.C.s), which had been brought over on the Scottish Clan Line passenger ship SS Clan Macalister commanded by Captain R. W. Mackie. In charge of the A.L.C.s was Commander R. A. Cassidi R.N, and with him were S/ Lt. R. O. Wilcoxon, R.N.V.R., S/Lt. E. R. Ponsonby, R.N.V.R., S/Lt. G. B. Eyre, R.N.V.R. and 44 ratings. They could carry 50 men per trip. The A.L.C.s had the shallow draught needed for moving over the shallows between beach and ships. They had twin engines and steel armour which was to prove its worth. The Clan Macalister left Dover the evening before and in the morning steamed eastward, following (map route Z) the line of buoys from a mile off Calais along the French coast to Dunkirk. There were 8 assault landing craft aboard. Two never left the ship owing to an accident off No. 6 W buoy, a mile west of Dunkirk, at about 1030: the first craft A.L.C.4 was already raised up on its derrick, and the destroyer Vanquisher passed at speed, causing the Clan Macalister to roll heavily. When the A.L.C.4 swung to and fro one of the hands panicked, causing it to drop onto A.L.C.18 below, rendering both craft unfit for service. The remaining six A.L.C.s however, did valuable work ferrying some thousands of troops from the beaches. Captain Mackie was not keen to take the large Clan Macalister further east than Dunkirk harbour before unloading the A.L.C.s because of the shallow water: he did not have the right chart and wanted a pilot. But Cassidi obtained a chart from another ship and insisted that he went on. The weather was fine and there was a light north-westerly breeze blowing towards the shore. The beach was divided into three sections (shown on the map), with a mile clear of troops between each section. The first plan was that Cassidi would cover La Panne beach, 10 miles west of the harbour; Wilcoxon to work off the middle section at Bray Dunes; and Eyre to cover Malo beach, between Bray and Old Dunkirk. Cassidi then acting on necessity told the coxswains to go where they thought they were most needed. Wilcoxon took the first boat to hoisted out, A.L.C.16, and proceeded straight inshore to the nearest beach, near Old Dunkirk, where he started evacuating British troops. Cassidi took A.L.C.5, Ponsonby A.L.C.10 and Eyre A.L.C.15.

Assault Landing Craft (A.L.C.)

Troops dug into the dunes at Malo beach

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HMS Bideford The Shoreham class sloop HMS Bideford had already been bombed and machine-gunned on her way to Bray Beach. She arrived off Bray beach at 1730. There were only two motor landing craft in the vicinity: the A.L.C.17 with only one engine, and A.L.C.16 commanded by S/Lt. Wilcoxon. Until their arrival at Bray beach, there were only rowing boats available. The troops coming alongside were mostly French. The boats, said her Captain, Lt. Cdr. J. H. Lewes, R.N., were dangerously overcrowded and several swamped on the way off from the shore. On arrival alongside, the men would all jump on board and let their boats drift off on the tide. Paddles were lost overboard, rendering the boats useless. The Bidefords motorboat was lowered and ordered to collect and tow inshore any empty boats. The whaler was lowered and two officers and a signalman sent in to endeavour to take charge on the beach - which was next to impossible. The men rushed the boats and capsized them in shallow water, and then left the boats without making any attempt to right them and use them again.

HMS Bideford S/Lt. Wilcoxon made making seven trips successfully before A.L.C.16 was boarded by a mass of French soldiers who overwhelmed the boat to such an extent that she became partially swamped. The starboard battery was flooded and both engines failed. The confusion was probably worsened by the French and English men not being able to understand each other. Eventually sufficient French were evicted to enable A.L.C.16 to be floated off and they got the port engine started. Unfortunately in going astern off the beach she rode over the anchor and did such damage to the port propeller shaft that it was loosened in the framework of the hull and water poured in again. With continual pumping and baling A.L.C.16 continued moving troops for a further hour and a half. However damage to the boat was such that S/Lt. Wilcoxon thought it advisable that, when they next went alongside to transfer a load of troops, he would go aboard himself to arrange for the boat to be towed back to England for repairs. The attacks A.L.C.16 was alongside the Bideford and S/Lt. Wilcoxon on board arranging the tow when the dive-bombing attacks commenced at about 1915. At 2000 she was machine-gunned by low flying aircraft. At 2007 (the clocks were stopped) four bombs were dropped or rather propelled at an angle of about 20 to the keel: one landed thirty yards away; one hit the quarter deck; and one hit or near missed the stern, detonating a depth charge.

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There was a terrific explosion within a few feet of A.L.C.16: the wooden portions of the boat forward and aft were blown to fragments, the bottom split lengthwise and one of the crew fell through the bottom. Fortunately the armoured protection of the craft had remained intact after it closed overhead: the boats crew were crouching down inside and were completely unscathed. Several other boats in the immediate vicinity were blown to pieces and sank at once. A.L.C.16 sank in a few minutes. About 40 feet of the Bidefords stern had been blown away completely with a further 40 feet reduced to a tangled mass of metal; the mainmast falling in three pieces on the searchlight and machine gun platforms, wrecking them both; the bridge superstructure severely shaken, a bulkhead was dished, and several frames cracked. Then a fire broke out, and orders were given to flood the magazine and burn the signal books. A further dive bomb attack took place, but the bombs fell wide. Unfortunately Sub Lieutenant Wilcoxon, aboard HMS Bideford, was mortally wounded. PO Gill and Stoker Hardstaff of A.L.C.16 found him sitting on a bollard just forward of the quarter deck in Bideford, with one of his legs blown off above the knee. They endeavoured to stop the bleeding by using a rifle pull-through tourniquet. He sent them in search for a Medical Officer, but they were unable to find one. A.L.C.16 had ferried about 600 troops - which must have taken about 12 trips. Of the Bidefords company, three officers and 13 men were killed, one officer and 18 men wounded; of the passengers, two officers and 10 men were killed and two officers wounded. Afterwards The Bideford anchored. The minesweeper HMS Kellett came alongside, and took off the 300 troops, the crew of A.L.C.16 together with the survivors and wounded. The tug St. Clears endeavoured to take the Bideford in tow, but she was fast aground, and the tow parted. The destroyer Havant then tried to taker her in tow, but again the tow parted.

HMS Kellett During the night of 29th-30th May, another 350 French and 50 British troops embarked in the Bideford. Before dawn, the gunboat Locust, carrying 620 British and French troops from La Panne beach, passed a tow to the Bideford, and at daylight she floated in tow. At less than 2

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knots course was set for Dover; en route, during the first three miles, the tow parted three times. Throughout the 30th May the Locust struggled on with her burden. During the night a French soldier fell overboard, fully equipped. The tow was stopped, a buoy was dropped and a boat lowered; but in spite of good visibility and a calm sea, the unknown soldier was not recovered although a search was made for half an hour. In spite of the tow again parting, the Bideford reached Dover at 1130 on the 31st May and disembarked 436 troops, before going on to Portsmouth for repairs. Surgeon Lt. Jordan, it was said, had done a tireless job, and was recommended for decoration.