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

Guernsey’s WW-II German Occupation Museum…

As a young boy in my very early teens, I began my own journey into a lifetime of collecting with a modest gathering of World War Two militaria and, courtesy of my parents generosity, was allowed to take over two rooms of their large old house in which I opened a little museum to the public… and from that moment I longed to run a fully-professional operation on a full-time basis.

Sadly, as is often the case, life a got in the way and I went off to the film & television industry instead, however just a 40 minute flight due south of my Winchester home, one man’s similar boy-hood dream actually became a stunning reality and not so long ago I was privileged to be invited over to the Channel Islands to join in the 40th anniversary celebrations of Guernsey’s German Occupation Museum as owned & run by the amazing Richard Heaume MBE.

Trying to share the importance of Richard’s  unique undertaking to those who have not paid it a visit is not the easiest of tasks and even his  local newspaper only managed to limited itself to a front cover photograph and several paragraphs of passing copy, whereas for me to similarly limit myself would be to seriously miss the point of what is one of the Channel Island’s finest personal collections of artefacts from Nazi-Occupied Britain that is also open to the public…

It would also foolishly ignore the fact that Richard, though a modest, quiet & very self-effacing man, is a remarkable ‘keeper of knowledge’ when it comes to this often overlooked piece of World War Two history and along with many other visitors to his Occupation Museum, I suspect, I was totally taken aback by my first visit in the 1980s to the Parish of Forest that is home to Richard’s all-encompassing collection.

I can still recall today the incredible frisson of excitement I felt when, on what was a long, hot, sunny day, I eagerly pitched up to the front door of this little white-washed, typical Channel Islands cottage, lying down a small country lane, not a stone’s throw from the island’s airport… and which somebody had once succinctly and rather accurately noted: “resembles a Tardis..!”.

Certainly accurate, for whilst being tiny on the outside, oh boy, when you step in through the low front door, a world of German Occupation history literally explodes before your eyes and being an inveterate collector of all things Third Reich way back then, I thought I had ‘died and gone to heaven’ as, unfolding before me, was one man’s collection devoted to the entire military & civilian story of the Second World War German occupation of these beautiful Crown Dependent islands..

From the day the Channel Islands were de-militarised by the British government and the first Luftwaffe Ju-52 landed its troops in 1940, to the final capitulation in May 1945, when the entire German garrison surrendered its arms to British liberating forces without a shot being fired in anger, all was laid out here before my ever-widening eyes. Through little archways and corridors into darkened rooms with enormous glass cases reaching from floor to ceiling, all  packed with stunning artefacts, past small tableaux and hidden audio-visual displays playing German newsreel films, commentaries & marching songs, I was transported back to those dark, tough days of Guernsey’s Nazi occupation.

What is quite remarkable is that Richard is actually untrained in the professional and somewhat formal art of museum management & curation, but nevertheless works directly from the heart: as such he is incredibly protective of the Bailiwick and its unique war-time history and is always politely but firmly insistent that the correct story is told at all times, as many a passing journalist or film-maker will have found out!

As a result of this expertise he has, down the years, become an accomplished television & radio expert, contributing to the documentary works of those producers wishing to cover and re-tell this unique story of Britons under Nazi rule, myself included when he kindly allowed me full rein to film in his museum and then to appear on camera to explain some of his wonderful German finds in my TV documentary Channel Islands Occupied shot in 1989.

As always, Richard so generously gave of his time in helping to get my particular telling of the story right and I will be forever grateful for his patience with me and I feel that is the mark of the man and why his fabulous museum is so much more than just a passing reflection of Guernsey’s war-time history… it is in fact a living, breathing representation of the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands, a story he is proud to tell with great accuracy and personal dedication.

It all began when Richard the schoolboy began collecting spent bullets in the local fields after the plough had gone by, before becoming a much bolder scavenger of the island’s bunkers & gun batteries with his pals, including ‘midnight trips’ in the mid 1950s. It was on these regular jaunts that he would slip out of bed and, armed with just a torch, would clamber down through a small hole into the ‘Aladdin’s Caves’ of the St Saviour’s tunnels where, after the German surrender in 1945, the liberating British army in the shape of the Royal Artillery had stacked up piles of redundant German steel helmets, gas-mask tins and all manner of ‘captured’ Third Reich military items before sealing the entrances to the outside world…

Sensing the imminent arrival of mainland scrap merchants of the early 50s, (who were to spirit away so many occupation German treasures), Richard’s race against time to ‘liberate’ as much as he could before it disappeared off the island to be cut up or melted down was truly on…and in this task he was incredibly successful!

In the very early days his small collection started out with little trophies brought back under the cover of night and without his family’s knowledge… but eventually his parents became aware of his nocturnal raiding parties and in the end his remarkable mother, Doris, became a co-conspirator, turning up one day with an ultra-rare German horse’s gas mask from the stables of a family friend. He also recalls, with a laugh, her coming in to the house one one day proudly brandishing an MP40 machine-pistol that she had also ‘liberated’ from somewhere on the island.. ah, mothers, what can you do with them?

In 1961 Richard formed the German Occupation Society and the young scavenger and his formidable mother continued to ferret their way around the island of Guernsey seeking out further relics & artefacts left behind by the German occupiers; and so steadily his collection continued to grow and the attic of the family farm began to fill up with all manner of helmets, tunics, gas-masks & canisters and of course his mother’s ‘prized’ machine-pistol!

Then in June 1966, the day that many of us amateur museum curators could only dream of, Richard’s parents allowed him to move his burgeoning collection across the road into a small cottage that had been housing farm tenants and he immediately stepped up a gear from knocking on doors seeking out smaller items, to actively finding & towing back much larger items!

His favourite artefact is a German Army ‘goulash cannon’: a four-wheeled field-kitchen that had also been stored down in St Saviours tunnel which, with the help of his father’s tractor he dragged back to the farm, (after a suitable contribution to the church’s collection plate), the landowners having allowed Richard access to the tunnels underneath their building. He still recalls the pride he felt when he and his father finally pulled this complete and rare artefact from its underground tomb to sit proudly and ready for his brand new museum’s hoped-for visitors…

The young museum owner was not to be disappointed for back in that World Cup year of 1966, (when there was still a feeling of ‘Don’t Mention The War’), Guernsey was a relatively cheap holiday destination for families and in his first year of opening, with prices at 2/- (10p) for adults and 1/- (5p), for children, he recorded a staggering 100,000 visitors in that first year… and on one day alone 956 visitors passed through the small front door to take in Richard’s treasures set out before them..!

Young Richard’s boyhood dream of having his own museum had become flesh and such was the continued successes in terms of visitor numbers, that he was able to self-finance, bit-by-bit, purpose-built extensions to the small farming cottage, starting in 1976 with the transport corridor and tea room, then in 1987 the superb Occupation Street, (a collection of shop frontages depicting a street in St Peter Port between 1940 & 1945), and then in 2001 a further small extension housing a thought-provoking prison tableau and sombre scenes dedicated to the islands deportees and the lesser known story of the Jewess taken away to the Nazi’s Auschwitz concentration camp..

Finally, to the modern day and Richard’s latest extension to the end of the Occupation Street which houses ‘Maritime Guernsey’: an impressive display dedicated to the war-time naval activity around the Bailiwick, including those brave souls that tried to escape German occupation by boat to the British mainland and to the memories of the British matelots who died after the sinking of HMS Charybdis  in 1943 and whose bodies were washed ashore and now buried in Guernsey’s Foulon Cemetery.

However amidst his rightful pride at his undoubted successes with his preservation & museum work comes a lingering sadness at the theft, some years ago, of the Kriegsmarine Harbourmaster’s double-decal steel helmet by a sneak-thief who somehow managed to spirit away this rare item, a beautiful helmet that would have taken pride of place in this new maritime extension.

Friends & supporters of the museum continue to keep an ‘ear to the collecting ground’ and cling to the hope that this unique German artefact will one day re-surface and eventually be presented back to Richard to be restored to its rightful place in the museum.. and I will refer more to this theft in detail in another Blog in the hope that it might stir some thoughts or possible sightings even now, some while after its disappearance!

The sad loss of Richard’s mother Doris at the beginning of the 90s and that cruel theft of such a special exhibit are, mercifully, the only sad notes in all of Richard’s many years of successful museum opening and you really do have to keep reminding yourself that not only is this all the private collection of just one man, but that Richard is totally self-taught in the art of museum management skills.

The surprised reactions on the faces of so many of Richard’s  visitors upon first seeing his superb collection at the German Occupation Museum in the Forest Parish, is a very fitting tribute to his ingenuity & drive in keeping this unique story of Nazi Occupied Britain alive. Certainly a life’s work resulting in the well deserved award of an MBE from the hands of Her Majesty The Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2011…

             Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013