Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

The Irishmen behind Britain's great escape

Two Northern Ireland generals were key to one of the most tragic episodes of the Second World War - 70 years ago this month. Richard Doherty reports

Amid the recent coverage of the 70th anniversary of Operation Dynamo - the evacuation of Allied troops from France in late-May and early-June 1940 - no mention was made of the fact that British forces remained in France and that a second British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent there.

That second BEF was commanded by an Irishman - and another Irishman issued the orders for its eventual withdrawal from France. So what was the story behind this other BEF? And who were the two Irish generals?

As the last ships sailed from Dunkirk, soldiers of 52nd (Lowland) Division and 1st Canadian Division were disembarking in France. The French had yet to capitulate and Winston Churchill was still determined to help his ally as much as possible.

That the French had all but given up had not become clear to the new prime minister.

In fact, Churchill had offered France an indissoluble union of the United Kingdom and the French Republic. To support that union he was prepared to send more British servicemen to France. The professional head of the Army was General Sir John Dill, a Lurgan man, who had become Chief of the Imperial General Staff on May 27. Dill's choice to head the second BEF was the recently knighted General Sir Alan Brooke, of the Fermanagh family.

The two fresh divisions, the Brooke Corps, were to join three British divisions still in France that had not been evacuated through Dunkirk.

However, 51st (Highland) Division had been cut off and forced to surrender. That left two ad hoc formations, Evans Division and Beauman Division.

While the newly-arrived divisions would concentrate at Rennes, those in France were to come under command of 10th French Army. Brooke returned to France on June 13, having been told by Dill that the French commander, General Weygand, was planning a Brittany Redoubt, behind which French forces would concentrate with their British allies. From there, the battle against the Germans would continue. The French government would also move to Brittany.

When Brooke met Weygand on the morning of the June 14, he learned that French-organised resistance was coming to an end, that the Germans were all but in Paris and that the French government was in Bordeaux.

According to Weygand, the Brittany Redoubt had been agreed by both governments. This was news to Brooke, who believed that it would take at least 15 divisions to hold the redoubt's 150-kilometre front. He was amazed when Weygand described the redoubt plan as "romantic".

Nor did General Georges, commanding the French North East Front, have any greater opinion of the plan. Brooke, who had been born in France and spoke French as his first language, had been disappointed earlier in the war by the low morale in the French armies. He now recognised that the French could not sustain any resistance and that the four BEF divisions would be lost if he deployed them under French command.

Brooke and Dill agreed that the only realistic action left was to evacuate all British troops from France. Churchill agreed, saying that there had been no Allied decision to create a Brittany Redoubt. Dill issued orders for troops to fall back to the coast and embark for Britain.

Most soldiers still in France were able to reach the embarkation ports which included Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest and St Nazaire. The Royal Air Force mounted operations to protect the evacuation operation and most of Brooke's men were brought home safely through Cherbourg.

Others had to make for ports on the Atlantic coast. Many were ordered to Nantes, 50 miles upstream on the Loire, or St Nazaire on the Loire estuary.

For those who reached St Nazaire, salvation seemed to await in the form of six liners and several cargo ships with a Royal Navy escort. One of the liners was the RMS Lancastria, a 16,000 ton Cunarder.

Anchored off St Nazaire, Lancastria took on board at least 6,000 service personnel and many civilians. Some estimates suggest that there as many as 9,000 may have boarded her. On June 17, as Lancastria was preparing to sail for Britain, it was targeted by German bombers. The liner was hit, set on fire and, within 15 minutes, sank beneath the waves.

Estimates of the numbers who died vary. What is certain is that no fewer than 3,000 people perished in the UK's worst ever maritime disaster. Of those who lost their lives at least 25 were Irish. They included Lance Corporal William Douglas, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Corporal Douglas, aged 23, came from the Waterside area of Londonderry.

Also from the Maiden City was Private Andrew Doherty of the Pioneer Corps, who was aged 41. Another Pioneer Corps soldier was Private William Nelson from Cookstown. He was aged 42.

Gunner James Thompson came from Belfast. A member of 9 Battery of 3rd (Ulster) Searchlight Regiment, he was 30. Colour Sergeant Patrick Manley was a native of Antrim and was serving with 2nd Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. Aged 45, he was one of the oldest military victims of the disaster.

Private George Bickerstaff, from Greencastle, Co Antrim, aged 25, was also among the Pioneer Corps dead. Sir Alan Brooke might also have been lost. He arrived at St Nazaire on June 18 where a destroyer was to pick him up. But the destroyer was filled with survivors from the Lancastria. Brooke went home in the armed trawler Cambridgeshire.

It had been Brooke's recognition of the hopelessness of the situation that led to the safe evacuation of almost 190,000 British, French, Polish, Czech and Belgian soldiers. The last evacuees sailed from Brittany on June 25, although some were taken off from French Mediterranean ports until mid-August.

News of the loss of the Lancastria was suppressed in Britain. Such a disaster could not be allowed to damage public morale, especially when so much was being made of the 'miracle of deliverance' from Dunkirk.

Good news was preferable to bad in a nation at war.

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