Attempt to Evacuate St. Valery
Report from C. in C. Portsmouth, 13 Jun '40
This Report from C. in C. Portsmouth shows the efforts made to evacuate the 51st Highland Division.
From C. in C. Portsmouth - Addressed. Admiralty.
P /L BY T/p SECRET
Date. 13.6.40 Time 1356.
1. Evacuation from Havre of 11,000 satisfactorily completed but profoundly regret that we only succeeded in bringing off about 1500 British and French from st. Valery area.
2. 67 Merchant ships and 140 small vessels were organized and despatched from British Ports to meet all eventualities. The numbers, time and place were not all known until 1700 on Tuesday 11th June. Throughout the operation all information received was most conflicting. I was only able to obtain 16 vessels with wireless out of the 207 employed, and as the majority were vessels of low endurance and low speed and possible points of evacuation were 80 miles from our coast, it was necessary to assemble vessels off the French coast and await developments.. Essential elements for success were that the flotillas should know definitely time and place or that visibility should be high enough to enable Senior Officers to communicate with their various forces.
3. I personally examined the situation at Havre on 10th. June and decided to move the small vessel flotillas to St. Valéry as it was obvious that part of 51st Division were being forced back to the coast in that neighbourhood. I intended flotillas to shelter in St. Valery but they found the harbour under enemy fire. Before any definite orders were received, and whilst the French authorities were still hesitating to order evacuation, air attacks drove our sea forces some miles off the coast and then fog descended on them. Two necessary elements for success either early order or clear weather, were thus missing. It is now clear that if withdrawal from coast during day had been ordered, heavy losses would have been sustained from air attack. As it was fortune was on our side in the enemy dive bomb attack that were made.
4. I do not, however, consider that any great number would in any case have been evacuated from St. Valery area. On 10th June enemy batteries fired on our ships. By 9.30 on 11th Jun. the enemy were machine gunning our ships off St. Valery, and by noon enemy had guns in position on coast to dominate beaches and later on to dominate that part of the town in which our troop. were crowded. Some of these guns were sited so as to be immune from attack from the sea. At Veules every man found was taken off under difficult conditions as the Beaches were under fire of the enemy. This was a gallant effort. So too, was that of a small vessel that took off 80 near 8 t. Valery under enemy fire.
5. I kept the evacuation forces on the coast until late on 12th June in the remote hope of being able to make another attempt, but from air reports, increasing number of enemy guns on coast and reports from Senior Naval Officer, it gradually became apparent that there was nothing more to be done, and with great regret I ordered withdrawal. The splendid effort made by the Royal Air Force when called on for assistance undoubtedly prevented severe losses on our sea Forces.