The Falcon & the Viper

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Chapter 17

The Royal National Lifeboat Institute station in Dover had been closed since the end of the Great War. However, towards the end of the 1920′s the increasing number of aeroplanes operated by fledgling airlines flying over the Channel to France prompted the RNLI to look into the possibility of stationing a special high-speed lifeboat at Dover, to cope with the consequences if one should crash in the sea. The decision was taken and a specially built lifeboat was completed and sailed to the harbour, almost twice as fast as existing boats in service around the country, At its launching ceremony at Dover on the 10th July 1930, the Prince of Wales named her The Sir William Hillary, in honour of the founder of the Institute. The new lifeboat, displaying the registered number ON 725 on either side of the bow became affectionately known as Hillary by her crew. Sixty-four feet long and powered by two large 375 HP petrol engines, she gave a good turn of speed of over seventeen knots.

Still in commission some ten years later, The Sir William Hillary had sailed from Dover Harbour earlier in the day, the powerful engines powering the props leaving a large wake behind as it overhauled the slower boats in the small convoy of ships heading across the Channel. At the helm Tom Verrier, the cox, remarked to Rob Gainsford, the lifeboat’s engineer standing beside him.

‘I hope you’ve got those engines of yours on top line today, Rob?’

‘Aye, Skipper, they’re spot on.’ he replied with a smile.

‘That’s good. We will need every knot if it’s as bad as they say over there!’

‘Well, we’ll soon find out.’ spoke a third voice.

‘Aye, that we will Captain.’ replied the coxswain, gripping the boat’s wheel as they encountered the heavy wake of a larger ship.

There was a confidence in Captain Hugh Faulkner’s thin, sun-darkened face gained from spending many years in command at sea. The soft blue eyes spoke of an easy competence, an appearance that was a comfort to those serving under him during times of stress on the high seas. Hugh Faulkner glanced back at the white cliffs of Dover receding in the distance.

‘Thanks for this, Tom. It means a lot to me to be doing my bit to help with the evacuation, instead of just trying to squeeze more boats into berths in the harbour we haven’t got.’

‘That’s an important job you’ve got, sir. I wouldn’t want to be the Dover harbourmaster, and we all want to help to get our lads back from France. The RNLI has allowed some lifeboats to go over with navy crews, but they ordered us to stay put. I reckon there’s nothing wrong with turning a blind eye, it’s what Nelson did at Trafalgar. Although I expect I’ll get a rollicking from the Institute when we get back and you’re probably get one from the admiral as well!’

‘Yes, he’ll be annoyed, but I sent his office all the information he requested before we left. David Jones, my young deputy is in charge until I get back and he’s more than capable of doing the job.’ replied Hugh.

Earlier that morning Vive-Admiral Ramsay, the naval officer in charge of the evacuation, had ordered Hugh Faulkner to find as much space as possible for the huge increase in berthing needed for the armada of ships gathering in the port before sailing to Dunkirk. Hugh got on well with the feisty admiral and had offered to sail one of the Southern Railway’s ferries that he used to command over to Dunkirk to help in the rescue attempt. Ramsay had told him in no uncertain terms that his role as harbourmaster was far more important to the evacuation and to stay put in Dover.

However, Hugh was not a man to stand idly by while others risked their lives. After the meeting with Admiral Ramsay, Hugh Faulkner had walked down the steps from the castle back to the port, an idea beginning to form in his head. Chuckling to himself, he had made a beeline for the lifeboat station instead of going back to the harbourmaster’s office.

Hugh had been born and bred in the small port of Faversham in the county of Kent, often referred to as the Market Garden of England because of its abundance of orchards and hop gardens. From an early age Hugh’s father, a captain in the Royal Navy stationed at Chatham dockyard, had taught him to sail the family’s small sloop out of Faversham Creek on forays into the English Channel. Hugh had looked forward to the weekends when his father was home and had quickly learnt the ropes of sailing. At the age of fifteen, he had joined the Merchant Marine as an apprentice junior deck officer, where he soon excelled with his love of ships and the sea.

The clouds of war loomed heavily on the horizon and during a hotter summer than usual in 1914, the war had begun. The Royal Navy called up Hugh and commissioned him as a sub-lieutenant, not without a little help from his influential father. He had no misgivings about fighting for King and country, although he was a calm and non-aggressive man, and always carried out his orders to the letter. In 1916, while serving on the heavy cruiser HMS Dardanelles during a skirmish in the North Sea, a shell fired from a German battleship scored a direct hit on the cruiser’s bridge. With no hesitation or regard for his own safety, Hugh had picked himself off the deck from where he had been thrown and run into the shattered remains of the bridge. Searching desperately amid the flames and acrid smoke, he had managed to drag out no less than three injured sailors. For his bravery, and more likely the fact that one of those rescued had been the captain, Hugh had been promoted to lieutenant. Shortly afterwards, while back in Faversham on leave, Hugh had asked his childhood sweetheart, Janet, for her hand in marriage.

Later that year King George V awarded Hugh the George Cross for his heroic deed at Buckingham Palace, with his proud father, mother and fiancée Janet by his side. The couple, both conscious of the dangers of the ongoing war, married shortly afterwards in the pretty church of St Marys in Faversham.

The Hillary was passing all sorts of ships and boats now, large paddle steamers rolling in the swell, their paddle wheels churning up and down in the water and business-like tugs creating wide wakes with their blunt bows. Elegant sea going yachts, their sails filled with a stiff breeze, pleasure boats and many small cabin cruisers bobbing up and down and rolling from side to side.

As they drew nearer to the French coast, they could hear the boom of explosions and the rattle of machine gun fire. Large fires still blazed in the oil storage tanks, the black smoke being blown inland. The lifeboat crew saw columns protruding from the beaches like the fingers on a hand. They sailed closer and realised in surprise that it was not piers but hundreds of men waiting to be rescued, standing up to their shoulders in the sea.

Suddenly the roar of aero engines boomed overhead and a lone Messerschmitt fighter bomber flew low over the lines of men, its machine guns firing streams of bullets sending up splashes of water and scything down many of the soldiers waiting in the columns. The lifeboat crew heard the sound of Bren guns and Lee Enfield rifles from the beach, as soldiers returned fire at the fast moving fighter. Whether by luck or a misjudgement by the pilot, the Messerschmitt dipped and collided with the top of the mast of an old Thames sailing barge, ripping its tail plane off and sending it diving into the sea. The barge rolled over from the impact but righted itself, with the remains of its mast sticking up like a broken pencil as a huge cheer went up from the waiting soldiers.

The cheering was rent by three Stuka dive-bombers, the sirens fitted to their undercarriage legs shrieking like a banshee screaming her omen of death. As they dived from the sky to drop their deadly load of bombs, the scream had a devastating effect on the moral of those below. Their target was the elderly destroyer, HMS Firefly, which had just sailed from the mole in the harbour on its way back to Dover with its decks crammed full of men. Close by on the Hillary’s beam the lifeboat crew watched in horror as the bombs bracketed the destroyer, the last one disappearing down one of its funnels. A huge explosion rent the air and the destroyer shuddered to a halt and began settling deeper in the water, its hull cut in two. The bow and stern rose high in the air, sending soldiers and crew alike tumbling down the inclined decks into the sea. Fuel oil escaping from the destroyer’s ruptured tanks fed the fiery rings of burning oil already spread over the surface of the sea.

Below decks in the tangled remains of the wardroom, Johnny Faulkner lay trapped under the heavy weight of part of the bar that had collapsed on top of him. He struggled in vain to free himself among the confusion. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Czech pilot, Sadoskwi making for the door and cried out. Sadoskwi turned and shrugged, but only seemed intent on saving himself. Their eyes met and Johnny saw a glint of compassion register as the other pilot took in his predicament. He came back and heaved the wreckage up enough for Johnny to crawl out. Johnny stood up and quickly checked himself over and they ran out of the doorway hard on the heels of the soldiers. Water poured in over the edge of the companionway as they got outside and joined other men clinging on to stanchions and rails, searching desperately for gaps in the sea free from the burning oil before jumping.

In the wheelhouse, Hugh Faulkner, the coxswain and the engineer stood rooted to the spot in horror. Gathering his wits, Tom Verrier spun the wheel and powered the Hillary towards some bobbing heads in the water as the flames spread out towards them. Just as the lifeboat was getting close the stern section of the destroyer slipped beneath the waves, followed a couple of seconds later by four huge explosions ripping both the sea and men apart and sending gigantic columns of water up into the air. Debris and body parts rained back down on to the surface of the sea. The lifeboat nearly rolled over from the shock waves of the explosions and the crew hung on to what they could.

‘Christ! That’s the depth charges going off. They couldn’t have set the detonators to safe.’ swore Hugh, drawing from his own experience of his time in the navy. The waves subsided and the lifeboat nosed among eddies of troubled water, searching among the debris littering the surface of wreckage, split life jackets, splintered deck planks and worse.

‘Look, over there!’ shouted Rob Gainsford the engineer as he saw an arm wave in the distance.

‘There’s someone by that upturned ship’s lifeboat.’

Tom Verrier saw a small group of survivors clinging to the side of the hull and steered the Hillary towards them, the large pools of furiously burning fuel oil on the surface threatening to engulf them. He steered straight at the men in the water, whose eyes widened in horror at the pointed bow of the lifeboat about to run them down. At the last second, just as the flames reached the men, the coxswain spun the wheel and the lifeboat curved to a stop, sending a huge wave of water from its wake over the burning oil and drowning the flames.

‘Well done Tom, that was quick thinking.’ shouted Captain Faulkner.

‘Ay, Captain, let’s get the poor buggers aboard quick.’

The crew lowered a climbing net quickly over the side and the survivors pulled themselves up, helped by the crew, until they lay gasping on the deck. A hurried search revealed no other survivors and as the flaming oil on the surface approached once more, the lifeboat retreated from the flames.

The five survivors, covered in black fuel oil, coughed up seawater and rubbed their eyes trying to get rid of the stinging effects of the oil. The crewmembers attempted to clean them with rags soaked in buckets of soapy water and rubbed them down with towels, helping in any way that they could.

‘C’mon, there’s nothing we can do here anymore.’ said Tom Verrier.

‘We’ll get some more on board from the nearest column and return to Blighty before we get hit.’

Hugh Faulkner noticed that one survivor lying on the deck was wearing an RAF uniform, the gleaming white wings of the brevet on his breast pocket in stark contrast with the rest of his oil-soaked uniform. It made him think of his son, Johnny. He looked more closely at the oil-covered face of the young man and gave a gasp.

‘Johnny! Is that you?’

The young man looked up at the tall, familiar figure of his father.

‘Dad?’

‘Are you all right, lad?’

‘Nothing a good soak in a bath couldn’t put right.’ replied Johnny Faulkner, wiping the oil from his eyes.

‘What happened to you?’

‘I got shot down yesterday and made my way to the port. I thought I was safely on my way home with this other pilot I met in Dunkirk, but those Stukas had other ideas.’

‘Well, we’ll get you home now, lad, if I’ve got anything to do with it!’

As The Sir William Hillary nosed gently alongside the head of the nearest column of soldiers waiting in the sea, across the Channel in Dover Castle, Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay was on the telephone arguing with the Admiralty in London. In charge of Operation Dynamo, the code name for the evacuation, it had become clear that Ramsay could not complete the evacuation without using the Royal Navy’s fleet destroyers. Although the Admiralty was loath to risk them, preferring to hold them in reserve against any invasion threat, they reluctantly agreed.

Dover was fast becoming the busiest of the berthing ports during the frantic evacuation. Ships were being quickly unloaded and refuelled before returning to the French coast, while trains shuttled the arriving soldiers away from the coast. The people of Dover gave the survivors a warm welcome. The Salvation Army provided thousands of steaming cups of tea, thick ham sandwiches, hot bowls of soup and cigarettes to the exhausted soldiers as they boarded the trains. Ambulances took the wounded to the Buckland Hospital, which had been converted into a casualty hospital from the old workhouse. Equipped with over a hundred beds and a massive underground concrete bunker containing an operating theatre with two operating tables, teams of surgeons worked day and night. Less urgent cases being taken further inland by hospital trains. Hearses took the men who had died on the ships to the town’s Tower Street Mortuary in the Pier District.

Later that afternoon The Sir William Hillary tied up at the jetty in Dover harbour and the crew helped the two pilots and the soldiers they had rescued ashore. While Tom Verrier secured the lifeboat, Hugh Faulkner led the survivors over to join the queues for the reception centre set up by the entrance to the railway station. The queue comprised soldiers, airmen, sailors, refugees and foreigners. Army officers operated the centre and would decide who went where and issue the necessary travel warrants. Hugh went over to one of the mobile canteens and brought back some bully beef sandwiches and steaming mugs of tea on a tray. The small group devoured them hungrily, and swallowed large gulps of tea. Hugh tried to strike up a conversation with the Czech pilot who his son Johnny had befriended in Dunkirk.

‘I wouldn’t worry about him, Dad. He’s hardly said a word since I’ve met him.’ stated Johnny Faulkner.

‘I’ll be off back to my squadron at Biggin Hill once I get to the end of this queue and past the brown jobs. I don’t know about him, though, I expect they’ll have to check to make sure he’s kosher.’ Johnny said, nodding towards the Czech pilot.

’He’s said little since I met him in France although he can talk some English. I managed to find out he was a liaison officer with the French Armee de l’Air before Czechoslovakia was overrun by the Nazis. He’s probably shell shocked with everything that’s happened to him as he just keeps muttering about shooting the bastards down, although God alone knows, we need every qualified pilot we can get now that the flaps gone up.

‘Yes, they’ll want to interrogate him to find out if he’s above-board.’ stated Hugh.

Just at that moment, Hugh saw Vice-Admiral Ramsay approaching the reception area. Before Hugh could make himself scarce, the admiral spotted him and beckoned him over.

‘Where the blazes have you been, Faulkner? I thought I gave you strict orders this morning to stay here.’

‘I couldn’t just do nothing, sir.’ said Hugh, gesturing to the many officers and soldiers in the queue.

’They’ve all done their bit. I felt I had to do something useful myself.

‘You are already doing very useful and important work, Faulkner. Without you at the helm, this harbour would be gridlocked. Fortunately, your deputy did a good job in your absence, or I would have had your guts for garters.’ rasped Ramsay.

‘Yes, sir.’ replied Hugh. ‘It won’t happen again.’

‘In future, leave the heroics to the younger men, Hugh.’ grunted the admiral.

‘What have we got here?’ asked Ramsay, looking at the two air force officers.

‘This is my son, Johnny, a fighter pilot in the RAF who got shot down over there. We fished him out of the sea after the destroyer bringing him back got sunk by German bombers.’

‘That was a lucky coincidence being rescued by your father, young man.’ said the admiral, who shook hands with Johnny.

’Have you shot any of the bastards down?

‘Yes, sir. My squadron went to France when the balloon went up. We came back a couple of weeks ago. They’ve credited me with seven kills and one probable.’

‘Well done, young man. That’s the spirit.’ encouraged Ramsay and turned to the Czech pilot,

‘And who is this?’

‘It’s Captain Sadoskwi, a Czech pilot I met over there who was serving with the French Air Force. He could come with me back to Biggin Hill, where I’m based now, but I expect the officers at the reception desk will want someone in authority to vouch for him.’

‘What’s your name?’ asked Ramsay, addressing the Czech pilot.

‘Kapitän Paul Sadoskwi.’ replied the pilot hesitantly.

‘Can you vouch for him, Faulkner?’

‘Yes I can, sir, the fact of the matter is he saved my life when the destroyer sunk.’

‘All right young man. Tell the officers at reception that I endorse that decision. God alone knows, we need every pilot if there’s an invasion.’

During the evacuation, the British Expeditionary Force lost some sixty eight thousand soldiers, either killed, wounded, missing, or captured. Over two thousand field guns, twenty thousand motorcycles and almost sixty five thousand other vehicles, together with half a million tons of stores, ammunition and fuel and all the armoured tanks remained behind on the roads to the beaches.

When it ended on the 4 June, Operation Dynamo was soon to become known throughout the country as the Miracle of Dunkirk. In London the same day, Winston Churchill announced to a packed House of Commons that the hastily assembled fleet of some 800 boats had saved over three hundred thousand British and allied soldiers, despite the operation coming under heavy attack from the Luftwaffe. The best previous estimate had been that only some forty five thousand troops could have been saved. From Dover Marine railway station, over three hundred trains had transported thousands of troops away from the coast to locations throughout the country. The Lord Nelson locomotive played no small part in the operation, making made many journeys taking hundreds of soldiers to Victoria station in London.

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