The Loss of HMS Charybdis in 1943…

The last week of September of this year saw me back on the beautiful island of Guernsey accompanied again by my father who, happily for me, has also fallen in love with the 7 Crown Dependent British islands that make up this stunning Bailiwick… (in fact I hadn’t even got to the end of my question in the Summer of ‘would you like to go back to Guernsey again’ than his suitcase was packed and standing primed & ready by his door!)

So, following the 30 minute flight from Southampton airport, we were back on God’s Own Island meeting up with my old friends, Ian McRae & Evan Ozanne, both former senior figures with Guernsey Heritage & Guernsey Tourism, the latter to whom I am most grateful for offering me the reminder that the annual HMS Charybdis memorial service and thence graveside ceremony at le Foulon Church would be taking place that very weekend… and not just the annual service, but the 70th commemoration of the ship’s war-time loss.

I must admit that, because my own personal & professional interest is usually focussed primarily on the German side of the occupation, I find that my attention is sometimes fully taken up with those ‘German stories’ almost to the exclusion of all else; however the HMS Charybdis story is one of those awful stories that oft times emerge from the British 1939-45 war effort.

In fact it was, (I believe I am right in saying), the largest loss of Royal Naval personnel that Britain suffered in one single action during the Second World War; it is even more tragic in that because of its horrendous nature and the huge loss of life involved, it was ‘hushed up’ at the time and its true horror only really became known after the war was finally over!

Talking to survivor’s families, tragically for all involved, it goes down in naval annals as one of the biggest foul-ups of World War Two and the actions that cost both HMS Charybdis & HMS Limbourne are now ‘required reading’ within the today’s Royal Naval ie: how not conduct offensive naval operations during times of conflict!

But the story goes back to the night of October 22 & 23rd 1943 and affects Guernsey directly because the loss of both Royal Naval vessels to Kriegsmarine torpedo & heavy gun fire off the Brittany coast of France, some 12 miles to the south of the island of Guernsey, resulted in many bodies of those lost being interred in the Bailiwick.

Intelligence received by the Royal Navy’s C-in-C Plymouth around the middle of October 1943 had indicated that a convoy of German merchant ships carrying cargo vital to the Third Reich’s war effort would be making its way through French Coastal waters around the Brest peninsula, (so avoiding the open waters of the Channel), heading towards the German occupied port of St Malo on the night of October 22/23.

Accordingly under ‘Operation Tunnel‘ a flotilla of Royal Naval destroyers, headed by HMS Black Prince, was ordered to locate & sink the German convoy and its cargo.However the Black Prince went unserviceable but luckily the formidable anti-aircraft cruiser, HMS Charybdis, had just returned from a very successful tour of duty in the Med escorting convoys to the beleaguered George Cross island of Malta, thence covering the Allied landings at Salerno and escorting Winston Churchill’s ship to a vital conference of Allied leaders in the Middle East.

Ideal for this latest task, HMS Charybdis was deputed for the Black Prince and took command of the destroyer squadron ordered to locate the German merchantman… however no sooner had the British vessels set sail, than communications between all ships were lost and a state of high confusion resulted, so much so that many ships involved in this mission actually had no idea what was unfolding and were forced to act independently of each other. A disasterous state of affairs especially when taking on the might of Hitler’s highly ordered & disciplined Kriegsmarine that were heavily defending this vital convoy with both prowling destroyers and hard-hitting E-boots..!

Nevertheless our destroyers led by HMS Charybdis pressed on and approached the French coastline but were picked up by German coastal radars and their E-boots & destroyers were vectored to intercept. Charybdis picked up the German fleet 7 miles out whilst HMS Limbourne, operating new electronic warfare equipment, also acquired German naval forces and fired star shells into the night sky to try to identify the radar contacts.But almost immediately the German E-boots launched heavy torpedo attacks and both HMS Charybdis & HMS Limbourne were hit and sunk with a loss of over 500 crewmen from both vessels.

Both ships went down so fast that there was no time to launch life-boats and so the survivors were thrown into the oily water with only flotsam to cling on to in the hope of being rescued. Two other British destroyers, HMS Wensleydale & HMS Talybont, now aware of the disaster that had just befallen the attacking forces, set about searching for any survivors from both Royal Naval vessels they could locate in the dark and in a desperate 3-hour operation, 107 souls from Charybdis were pulled alive from the water, whilst some 85 out of a crew of 125 from Limbourne were similarly located & plucked from the sea…

But with a total of 464 crewmen from Charybdis and 40 from Limbourne killed, this was a loss of life on a terrible scale and over the coming days & weeks, bodies of matelots from both ships would slowly and continuously be washed up on the shores of Guernsey, Jersey and across the water in France…

29 dead sailors were found on Jersey’s shores whilst 21 bodies from Charybdis were eventually recovered on Guernsey’s beaches by St John’s Ambulance members between October & December and were subsequently given a German military funeral and laid to rest in Guernsey’s Le Foulon cemetery. This was an utterly tragic night in both Royal Naval history and in the history of Guernsey’s German occupation and was a military disaster that was obviously suppressed here on the mainland during the war because of the dire affect it would have on the country’s winning determination.

A previous Bailiff of Guernsey, Sir Geoffrey Rowland, described it thus: “The 21 bodies were given a military funeral by the German authorities and some 5,000 islanders journeyed on foot and on bicycle bringing with them thousands of floral tributes. It was recognised that young men had given their lives for the cause of freedom and during more than 3 years (by then) of German occupation, there had been few opportunities for Guernsey men & women to demonstrate their commitment to their King, Country and the Armed Services fighting to secure our eventual liberation and the restoration of our freedoms.The Star newspaper reported that there had not been, in living memory, such a manifestation of grief, pride and sympathy and the resulting strengthening in the morale of the islanders was most marked…”

So reading from the Bailiff’s summary, though the Royal Naval operation was a complete military disaster in terms of so many young sailors losing their lives in this aborted action, their tragic deaths gave an added impetus to all Channel Islanders to hold fast and continue to passively resist German Occupation, which would continue for another 18 months or so… and which was about to get even tougher!

In all the years I have been travelling to the Bailiwick this was the first time I have been on Guernsey around the time of the remembrance services for HMS Charybdis & HMS Limbourne and in our hotel we bumped into a young couple who had come to pay their respects to a grandfather who went down on Charybdis. His body was subsequently washed ashore on the French coastline, where it similarly now lies buried along with scores of other crew members in a French cemetery:

Karen Andrew & Anthony Pearce had travelled from Oldham in the north of England to attend the ceremony and remember Fred Andrews, (who spelt his surname with an ‘s’… something which baffles and mystifies his relatives who all lack an ‘s’ on their surname today!).

Though indeed one of the many matelots & marines buried across the water in France, Fred would also be remembered here in the Bailiwick along with the other 500 or so sailors lost from both ships on that terrible night in 1943 in the deep waters between Guernsey & France. Despite the obvious sadness (but also pride) behind the purpose of their trip, it was a great pleasure to meet with them both and to hear what they have been able to piece together of their grandfather’s sad story…

With neither Karen or Anthony having attended such a memorial service here on Guernsey before, I ventured to them both that the 6 surviving members of HMS Charybdis who would be attending the remembrance ceremonies in St Peter Port, (and thence at the graveside at Le Foulon cemetery), would be delighted to meet up with other family members of another lost comrade who were coming forward to, hopefully, add a little more to what is already known about this naval tragedy…and that proved to be the case!

I now hope that, as a result of their pilgrimage to the Bailiwick, Karen & Anthony have been fully welcomed into the HMS Charybdis Veteran’s family and, as a result, will learn yet  more about their brave WW-II sailor grandfather Fred…

Copyright@ Brian Matthews 2013

‘Channel Islands Occupied’ TV Documentary…

When I originally travelled to the Channel Islands in the early 1980s on what would be just the  very first visit in what was to eventually become a wonderful life-time connection with this stunningly beautiful part of the world, it soon became apparent to me that a TV documentary about the German Occupation of those British islands between 1940 and 1945 just had to be made..!

Back then, according to the many islanders I talked to, plenty of people had arrived with ‘big plans’ for such a film, but nobody subsequently put their money where their mouth was to came up with goods and so, determined not to be just ‘another film-maker wannabe’ full of idle promises made to these lovely, warm, island folk that I had met and been welcomed by, on my return to the mainland I immediately set about contacting as many UK TV network stations as I could with my outline plans.

Quite amazingly, (or should that be ‘outrageously’?),  I was utterly surprised to get a swift rebuff from every one of the commissioning editors I spoke to, all of whom seemingly could not actually get their head around this simple concept, with one actually saying ‘this story is of no possible interest to us!!’.  Though of course given the way television executives today simply look around them to see what everybody else is doing and then commission identical shows for their own network, these days you can’t move for tripping over such documentaries about the islands’ German occupation, particularly on the satellite channels where repeats of same are seemingly aired wall-to-wall these days!

However I do feel vindicated all these years on that I was the first of the modern generation of producers to actually get off my backside and do something for the Channel Islanders’ hitherto ignored story on film. I also feel very happy that my subsequent decision not to let down those wonderful people to whom I had promised faithfully that I would try to tell their story on screen was ultimately the right one..and one that would also lead to some unforeseen but wonderful ’fringe benefits’ later on in the wake of my television documentary.

I have to admit that though it actually took the re-mortgaging of the roof over my head (literally), in order that I could keep my word and raise almost all of the necessary funds to return to the islands to shoot my documentary as planned, (despite having no network TV commission to act as a safety net for my financial outlay, it also being pre-satellite TV channel days as well), I knew it was the right decision to make, both morally & financially… and I will always remember the look of relief on our bank manager’s face when the film was later judged a success, both historically & financially..!

(I think mine must have been something of a picture too, knowing that my house was still my own rather than Barclays’!!)

At this point I would wish to pay fulsome tribute to a most honourable gentleman, Major Evan Ozanne, who back then was the much respected deputy-director of Guernsey Tourism whom I met with during one of my research trips to Guernsey. I had asked the Tourist Board if I could, out of natural courtesy, outline my plans to them for filming on their beautiful island and Major Ozanne, an ever gracious former army officer, invited me to lunch, during which I explained how I intended to tackle the telling of this incredible war-time story…

However, this was not a pitch as Tomahawk’s plans were already underway, (albeit it we were several thousand pounds short of our required budget), and even though, to a certain degree, I was ‘winging things’ and constantly doing mental gymnastics in my head as to how I would complete the documentary when inches short of the required funding, I’d given my word to my Guernsey supporters who, when I asked how could I repay them, simply answered: “don’t worry about us son, just get the story right and we’ll be happy”… so after that incredible generosity of spirit, my documnetary had to be produced.. somehow!!

After a most enjoyable lunch during which I was able to happily forget all about the thorny issue of finances for a wee while and enjoy talking about the beautiful island of Guernsey and all it had to offer, there came a short silence… at the end of which Major Ozanne quietly mentioned that he liked my plans,  though he could not get involved with financing our project as such, (something I genuinely hadn’t even considered after my terse rebuffs from the UK’s TV commissioning editors).Then came the ‘big however’:  it was the end of the his financial season and he had £2,000 left in his budget…  would having that help us in any way..?

Help us..? Holy Moly, that was almost the sum short down to the last penny!  I could not believe my ears and, truly, the Gods were shining down on me; but when I recovered my composure I gratefully accepted this incredible life-line, (or rather almost bit his hand off in truth!!), and agreed with Major Ozanne that in return we would sub-title our film ‘The Official Guernsey Liberation Documentary’ which he kindly accepted most happily… and within months I was back over with my crew filming as planned!

So were it not for this incredible show of support from Major Ozanne and the Guernsey Tourist Board, (though he modestly says he didn’t contribute much, £2,000 then was a huge amount..!), I doubt very much if my film would have got off the ground… or if it had, based on the fact I was still short of my original budget despite remortgaging my house, I would not have enjoyed the process as much as I did for worrying about how to pay for everything!

So as I now look back, I’m so pleased that I ‘bit the bullet’ and went ahead and shot the film as it also led to a lifetime of treasured friendships within the islands, not least of all with Mrs Molly Bihet, author of the popular book ‘A Childs War’ and who is both one of the stars of my documentary and our agent on Guernsey, (and lovingly referred to as ‘my Guernsey mum’), and of course with Major Ozanne who I’m also privileged to call: my good friend Evan’...

It was this burgeoning friendship that led to a wonderful period of my life as I was invited back to Guernsey some years later by Evan to work as a media consultant to the Guernsey Tourist Board and its exciting German and Victorian Fortifications initiative: ‘Fortress Guernsey’ which I blissfully undertook for a number of years…and as a result I now consider the Bailiwick to be ‘my second home’..!

During my tenure I was commissioned & authorised to write, (and broadcast on radio), about Guernsey’s German occupation history, to regularly seek, out, invite and personally guide parties of selected journalists & magazine feature writers around the Bailiwick. This thoroughly enjoyable work also afforded me a superb opportunity to actually ride shot-gun’, (on behalf of the Guernsey people), on new films & documentaries that were slowly and subsequently beginning to also be shot in the islands, to ensure that the correct historical story would also be continued to be told on camera to the outside world and that no liberties would be taken with the islanders or their incredible war-time stories.  Some very professionally fulfilling years indeed, it has to be said!

Sadly changes within Guernsey Tourism meant this initiative was eventually discarded, but thankfully the work that Evan & I began was enthusiastically adopted by a fantastic group of the Bailiwick’s occupation enthusiasts who, from their own pocket, continue the detection, preservation and on-going promotion of some of Guernsey’s most amazing German military fortifications under their organisational name of Festung Guernsey’.

However most importantly for my original ‘gamble’ is the fact that, eventually written & produced back in 1989, my particular telling of this utterly fascinating occupation story in Tomahawks’ 50’ television documentary, ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ is still selling in good numbers today, (formerly on video and now on DVD), as well as it ever has and is particularly popular in a number of leading tourist outlets in the Channel Islands of Guernsey, Alderney and Jersey.

With sales now in excess of some 33,000 copies sold, (plus a couple of transmissions on regional television ‘after the event’ and also via Canadian Broadcasting), many people think they know the voice-over artiste..but just can’t place his name..! Well I’m happy to tell you it was/is a certain Alan Dedicote esq… perhaps better known as ‘Deadly’ from Sir Terry Wogan’s much-missed former BBC Radio Two Show..!

Recorded in the years before I become a trained television voice-over artiste in my own right, (otherwise I would ‘rudely’ have pushed my way to the front to do it), Alan is still a superb newsreader, (and in fact I think the senior continuity-announcer) at Radio Two in London whilst also being the National Lottery’s televised ‘Voice of the Balls’. Alan kindly agreed to narrate our commentary back then, courtesy of a request via a very talented producer friend of ours, Dirk Maggs, who formerly worked alongside Alan at Radio Two.

This was a bit of a coup as, unknown to me, Alan was the continuity ‘voice’ for BBC Radio Guernsey and also for the Plymouth-based local BBC TV news programme that broadcast to the Channel Islands… I’d love to say I knew that at the time and this was a master-stroke of production planning, but it was a pure fluke that it all tied in so nicely..as did so much around the time of my researching my story and Tomahawk’s ultimate shooting of this fascinating war-time documentary on Guernsey & Alderney…

Richard Heaume MBE, owner of the German Occupation Museum, still shows a 20′ looped highlight version of our documentary in the little cinema he has built. Often it’s fun to quietly slip into one of the back seats when I am in the Bailiwick and eavesdrop on positive comments made by visitors to this world-class museum as they sit watching our work on the screen..!

I know you shouldn’t, (as there is always the possibility of hearing something you wish you hadn’t), but happily all we’ve heard are smashing compliments… and who knows, one day one of those commissioning editors that dismissed me out-of-hand might have a gap amidst their on-going merry-go-round of repeats which they could fill with the first TV documentary to take a detailed look at this compelling episode in Britain’s war-time history..!

In so doing they would be giving a welcome airing to some very rare interviews that Tomahawk Films captured with Channel Islanders, (such as the larger-than-life Frank Stroobant who survived the rigours of the World War Two German Occupation), but which sadly are no longer around for today’s new generation of producers to similarly document on camera…. here’s hoping..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013