Monday 9 June 2014

Unfatal shore

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
. . . or not, if you're dog-tired and it's dark and you've let a state of constant eye-straining vigilance droop for a few minutes.

My father was born in 1917 in London at the height of WWI (the first British assault on Passchendaele started two days later).  His Y chromosome came of horse-riding protestant stock from King's County in the Irish midlands.  These people were "shy breeders" and my father was one of only two boys in his generation of cousins. In 1931, The Family had a conference over the little chap's head to decide what he would be when he grew up. For someone of his class and generation, the options were few. Tinker and tailor were clearly out but soldier or sailor were definitively options; there was no tradition in the family of putting people into the clergy so "devil-dodger" was out; he could have gone into law but had no interest.  Because he then lived in the harbour-master's cottage in Dunmore East and was a keen sailer of dinghies and with such a limit range of options, the young chap allowed himself to be enrolled in the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth at the age of 14. At the same age The Beloved's old man shipped before the mast at few years later. When WWII broke out in 1939, The Da was a 21 year old Lieutenant working in Coastal Defence Forces in SE England.  He was really a natural as an academic: literate and curious, reading voraciously.  He had a fantasy that, if he'd known it was possible, he would have read history at university, become a don and, as a useless mouth, would have been called up to serve in the army and died in the deserts of North Africa. This was years before The English Patient was published. ANNyway, he had an adventurous time dashing up and down and across the English Channel in his Motor Torpedo Boat MTB34.
These monsters were 20m long and could do 70km/h with a following wind, loaded with torpedoes or depth-charges and carried a couple of machine-guns.  The kind of thing young men of today pretend to drive while sitting on the sofa in front of a laptop.  In his early 20s, the Lieutenant was nominally i/c of a crew of 12, some of whom were grizzled old salts twice his age with ten times his sea-going experience.  So he'd tell the Petty Officer where they were ordered to go and the PO would make it happen.  There was a war on, and things were busy in the Channel. Night after night, there were assignments to protect British coast-hugging convoys interspersed with orders to go shoot up convoys on the other side of the Channel or look for downed airmen of both sides.

Early early one winter morning in 1942, coming back from yet another adrenalin rush off the Belgian coast, he was sacked out on a bunk in full kit, probably sopping wet, as they approached the coast. In fog, the watch-keeper mis-identified a buoy, The Da trusted that judgment at least partly because he was too tired to go up and confirm the identification. When he came up to the bridge a few minutes later, he took a compass bearing and asked for full revs and drove his MTB up Dover beach with a grating roar on the pebbles instead of into harbour. The MTB following also touched ground but had time to put their craft full astern.  Nevertheless both boats were out of commission and needing repair. The mortified and contrite Lieutenant reported to Admiral Bertram Ramsey who was i/c Dover Area and had 18 month previously been responsible for the evacuation of 340,000 allied soldiers from Dunkirk. Ramsey was kindly sympathetic (nobody died) but told his junior Lieutenant that his card was marked and another such error would have serious consequences.

A few days later, Ramsey was entirely wrong-footed by Unternehmen Cerberus, the Channel Dash, in which three German capital ships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen then in NW France were repatriated to Kiel in Germany right under the noses of the British through the English Channel.  They left Brest 2300hrs on 11 February 1942 and didn't appear on the British radar (literal and metaphorical) until 12 hours later. Ramsey scrabbled around for offensive resources and found them, for various reasons in the wrong place, unready or ineffective. Poor Ramsey must have been tearing his hair with rage and frustration. The most damage inflicted on the German ships was entirely passive - Scharnhorst hit two mines and Gneisenau was damaged by another after they had passed the narrows of the Channel opposite Dover. 
An example of quixotic bravery was furnished by the attack by 6 Fairey Swordfish biplanes which flew towards the German flotilla with the intention of torpedoing the battleships.  They were outnumbered 50:1 by planes which flew faster and were better armed and were blown out of the sky in detail. Remarkably 5/18 of the crewmen survived. They all got medals, as did their squadron leader from Co Tipperary Eugene Esmonde, who was awarded  a posthumous VC.
Whatever about my father's fantasies about being called up from Oxford to die in the Western Desert, he was sure (then again, maybe not?) he would have been called upon to head out with four torpedoes to distribute among an enemy squadron 2,000x bigger in tonnage. In other words, to near-certain death. His careless collision with Dover Beach earlier in the year meant that he wasn't required to make that sacrifice.  That meant that the King's CountY chromosome, having faced extinction, was propagated into two succeeding generations. 

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