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

Music in the German Occupied Channel Islands 1940-45…

As the generous readers of my Blog for Tomahawk Films will have realised, the German Occupation of the British Channel Islands between 1940 and 1945, is, alongside my passion for the German Soldier Song and the Military Music of the Third Reich, (an important & integral part of both my own and indeed Tomahawk’s personal & professional life, in addition to producing my television documentary Channel Islands Occupied), still something I love writing about, at the drop of a hat..!

So I thought I would also pen another Blog combining the two and write something on the history of the German military musical presence in those beautiful islands between 1940 and the occupying forces’ surrender 1945 and have actually subbed the ‘Channel Islands Occupation’ chapter from my book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45 as it offers some corking original archival photographs!

Sadly, Tomahawk Films and I have decided not to republish this ‘mighty tome’, for though it has been incredibly well received.. thanks to all that bought a copy..the  enormous cost of re-printing is such that we have decided not to funnel such another huge amount of money into books as that it is not our core business..

However as many fellow military enthusiasts (and indeed fellow lovers of these Crown Dependent pieces of heaven), already know, the Channel Islands were the only British soil to be occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany during the Second World and make for one of the of the most amazing stories of the Second World War.

By dint of this, during that Nazi occupation there were actually 2 German military bands stationed on the two main islands (out of the total eight Channel  Islands): one drawn from the army:  Pionierbattalion 15, garrisoned on Guernsey, and the other being provided by the Luftwaffe’s 40th Regiment, Flak Artillery, which primarily performed on Jersey.

The story of that Second World War occupation offers the incredible imagery of WW-II German Musikkorps performing on British soil alongside other rare and almost unimaginable images of German Forces on British soil and this sadly over-looked story is a historical study all of its own when it comes to the Second World War…

When the entire German garrison across the five main Channel Islands ultimately surrendered in 1945, their musical instruments, song books and many musical accoutrements were left behind intact and can be seen today on display in some of the superb island occupation museums. In addition, with the recent location of a number of rare photographs of these German military bands actually performing on British soil, it is possible to take a ‘then and now’ look at them and witness those instruments being played during the occupation:

The Channel Islands are some of the most beautiful, peaceful and evocative to be found anywhere in the world, but it wasn’t always that way, and a half century ago the picture told a very different story..:

In the first months of the Second World War, following Hitler’s lightning war against Poland, an uneasy peace settled over Europe, and to the Channel Islanders the problems on the continent seemed another life away. Besides, what would Hitler want with the Channel Islands anyway?  However, in the spring of 1940 aircraft of the Luftwaffe began to appear in the skies above the islands, and the authorities introduced the first air-raid precautions; then on May 10th 1940, as Hitler launched his forces against the Low Countries and the BEF began its retreat to Dunkirk, it was just a matter of time before France fell and Adolf Hitler’s eyes would then turn to his next target… Britain!

On June 19th 1940 the British government announced that the defence of the Channel Islands was no longer justified and withdrew the garrison; just 3 days later, France surrendered and fearing German invasion to be imminent, some 34,000 Channel Islanders left for mainland Britain, leaving a total population of 50,000 to face the unknown. But far from showing disinterest, Adolf Hitler knew that capturing a piece of Britain would not only provide excellent propaganda but give him an additional base from which to launch his air and sea attack on the British mainland.

Wrongly advised by German Intelligence that the islands were still heavily defended, 6 fully-laden Heinkel IIIs set a course from their bases in Northern France on June 28th and, mistaking a line of tomato lorries for a troop convoy, bombed Guernsey’s St Peter Port harbour, killing 30 civilians, before flying on to strafe St Helier in Jersey, killing a further nine islanders.

Then on June 30th the German bombers returned, dropping written ultimatums demanding the unconditional surrender of all islands. Later the same day a lone reconnaissance Dornier 17 landed at Jersey’s airport, the pilot, 25 year-old Luftwaffe-Leutnant Richard Kern, having the dubious honour of becoming the first German occupier setting foot on British soil.

Then came the first Ju-52 transports ferrying the advanced troops who, believing Britain was only days from invasion, settled in quickly under strict orders from Hitler (who still hoped for a settlement with Britain) to treat all islanders with respect. Nevertheless, communications between the islands and mainland Britain were immediately severed, batteries of flak-guns were sited, slit trenches dug and all Union flags were hauled down and replaced by the swastika’d Reichkriegsflagge.

Whilst German Military Forces under the command of Feldkommandantur (Field Command – FK) 515 co-operated with the local government and police forces, all Channel Island affairs now fell directly under the command of Berlin, thus beginning six years of what Guernseyman Frank Stroobant was to call a ‘benign occupation’.

With the invasion of Britain abandoned, Hitler feared the Allies would launch an all-out attack to recapture the islands, and they soon began to reverberate to the sounds of shovels & concrete mixers as plans for their defence from air and sea attack were put into operation. Using forced labourers from Eastern Europe under the direction of the Organisation Todt (comprising German civilian technicians & labourers), massive flak and coastal gun batteries were built across the three main islands, turning them into the most heavily fortified part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall…

Guernsey & Jersey were initially garrisoned from July 1940 by units attached to the German 216th Infantry Division, plus Machine Gun Battalion No.16 on Guernsey and Panzerjäger Battalion No. 652 on Jersey. However, with Hitler’s attack on Russia, the 216th was earmarked for the Eastern Front, and in the Summer of 1941 the 319th Infantry Division (who had already seen action in Poland and France) was ordered to the islands to take over the defence of Guernsey & Jersey, whilst the 83rd Infantry Division was sent to Alderney. The 83rd Division then found itself despatched to Russia at the end of 1941, and the 319th took over the garrisoning of all three main islands.

Alderney, with its civilian population having been totally evacuated by the German military, was an unpopular posting, so FK-515 ordered a 3-month garrison rotation with army units from Guernsey and Luftwaffe flak units from France, though Kriegsmarine units, (for some reason), were exempted from this rotation.

Mobile armour was provided by 17 captured French Char-B tanks on Jersey and 19 to Guernsey under the command of Panzerabteilung 213, whilst anti-aircraft firepower arrived in the shape of Luftwaffe Flak Regiment No.39 on Guernsey and No.40 on Jersey. The Kriegsmarine initially oversaw command of all army and naval coastal artillery batteries from March 1941, until they merged in 1943 to form Heeresküstenartillerieregt (Army Coastal Artillery Regiment) 1265.

As the war slowly turned against Hitler, his Naval High Seas Fleet found itself confined to their harbours in Germany by increasing Allied activity. As a result, the Kriegsmarine presence in the Channel Islands mushroomed, as surplus German naval manpower from Kiel, Hamburg and Wilhelmshaven was transferred in to boost the size of the garrison. Indeed Jersey’s last Kommandant was a senior Kriegsmarine officer, Vice-Admiral Huffmeier.

At the height of the Occupation in May 1943, some 26,800 German troops garrisoned the islands: 13,000 on Guernsey, 10,000 on Jersey & 3,800 on Alderney, including the Army Mobile Anti-tank Battalion 450; Luftwaffe Long Range Reconnaissance Group 123 & Fighter Group 53; Army Ost-Bataillon 823 & 643 (captured Georgians who changed sides and the Russian Army of Liberation); SS-Baubrigagde 1 and the  Kriegsmarine’s 2nd Patrol Boat Flotilla & 24th & 46th Minesweeping Flotillas.

Additional units included fortress construction battalions, bridge, railway & airfield construction companies, combat engineers, medical, veterinary, field-police, signals, customs, field- post and the Reichsarbeitsdienst and NS Kraftfahrkorps…

In fact an incredible assortment of manpower was crammed into the relatively small space of the three main Channel Islands, plus Sark, and all needing some form of entertainment in their off-duty hours; to this end the island’s civilian cinemas provided one form of distraction, as did the soldier’s own ‘clubs’, the Soldatenheime (Soldiers’ homes) in St Helier and St Peter Port.

However, it befell the lot of the two military bands of the Luftwaffe and the Heer to provide light relief for both the German garrisons and the civilian population alike, and their concerts, many in the open-air, proved to be very popular, so much so that one wartime occupation edition of the Guernsey Evening Press in July 1943 ran a terrific story on Gerhard Anders, Obermusikmeister of Army Musikkorps Pionierbataillon 15:

“Thousands of Sarnians visited Candie Gardens on summer evenings last year to listen to the German Regimental Orchestra under the direction of Gerhard Anders.

Obermusikmeister Anders is himself a personality and  our music critic ‘Jubal’ contributes a pen-picture of this gifted composer & musician, who intends to honour Guernsey with a composition on the island..”

Meet Bandmaster Gerhard Anders

“He is young, genial; has bright eyes that flash with the genius of music and in the two years he has been with us in Guernsey, training his accomplished military band of 30 musicians, he has acquired English, to make himself understood, thus adding another language to his German.

Bandmaster Anders was the conductor of Berlin’s Operetta Theatre Orchestra of 80 musicians before the war, and his name is known throughout Germany as that of a young composer rising to fame. The upheaval of our time finds him writing band scores and composing music at his residence, ‘Cote des Vauxlaurens’, Cambridge Park, or conducting his devoted band at Les Cotils for two hours each morning in all genres of music”.

‘Jubal’, goes on to write (in very quaint English as if the Guernsey patois was his first language and English second) that Anders was always noting down ideas for future scores in a series of little blue books that were always to be seen ‘peeping out of his tunic pockets’ and that his army band, Pionierbataillon 15, had ‘over a  thousand pieces in their repertoire to choose from’.

However, whilst Anders was said to ‘find joy in helping Guernsey musicians in providing strings for their orchestras’, ‘Jubal’ (aka William ‘Billy’ Vaudin, the Guernsey Press’ chief reporter), noted that he ‘found great difficulty in obtaining suitable quality manuscripts for scoring’ as the on-going occupation resulted in a lessening of German and French supplies to the military garrison.

The long awaited relief of the Channel Islands, expected after the Allied invasion of Normandy, failed to materialise; instead the battle of France raged on and with the fall of St Malo the first of 600 wounded German soldiers arrived for treatment in the German underground hospitals on Guernsey & Jersey.

Meanwhile the Allied advance continued across North-West Europe and the islands were effectively by-passed; islanders and Germans alike were now cut-off and facing a very tough winter of 1944/45, existing on near-starvation rations and managing to hold on just long enough until the arrival of the Red Cross ship SS Vega in December 1944 with desperately needed food and supplies.

The final Allied drive into Germany continued and the death knell of the Third Reich was eventually sounded when on May 8th 1945 the Royal Navy’s HMS Bulldog and HMS Beagle left Plymouth to rendezvous with the Germans off Guernsey’s St Peter Port.

The islands’ Kommandant, Vice-Admiral Huffmeier, initially held out for an armistice, but on the following day, May 9th 1945, capitulated and surrendered the German military garrisons of Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney without a shot being fired!  (Incidentally the ‘bristling’ young Nazi officer pictured sitting, right, here in the surrender signing aboard HMS Bulldog, was later believed to have rejoined the new post-war German Bundesmarine, eventually becoming a very senior German Naval attache working within NATO!)

Meanwhile the musical instruments and sheet music of Guernsey’s army and Jersey’s Luftwaffe bands simply remained in their billets as the musicians themselves marched into captivity; after liberation, the islanders soon found them, and they were subsequently distributed to various island orchestras such as the Boys’ Brigade and Salvation Army bands in the following first months of peace.

On Alderney, however, a number of bandsmen found themselves prisoners-of-war and held back to help with the massive mine and defence clearance operation that took place in the years immediately following the island’s liberation. This was a most hazardous undertaking and sadly several former German garrison members were killed whilst attempting the recovery of many hidden mines & booby-trap bombs; but this task was finally accomplished and in 1947 the remaining German POWs performed a concert for the island’s returning civilian population.

Nothing is known of the fate of Heeres-Obermusikmeister Gerhard Anders, (though the Guernsey Press’ music critic & organ music aficionado, Billy ‘Jubal’ Vaudin, retired from the newspaper in 1948… and died in 1955 at the age of 73).

However, a footnote to the German occupation of Alderney was heard by myself in the early Summer of 1998, when Hans Schiffer, a former Kriegsmarine signals teletype operator at the former German Naval Signals Headquarters at St Jacques in St Peter Port, Guernsey, returned as the guest of honour at the opening of the newly refurbished bunker (and HQ of Guernsey’s German Occupation Society), under the island’s former ‘Fortress Guernsey’ initiative that I helped publicise:

During the celebrations, Herr Schiffer was heard to mention, when being interviewed on the possible whereabouts of former German service personnel based in the islands during the Occupation, that he had recognised one of the former Luftwaffe musicians he had previously seen performing for the troops on Alderney actually playing in a jazz-band in Düsseldorf in 1958… who’d have thought eh?

Copyright  @ Brian Matthews 2013