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  • Impossible Escape from Calais July 14, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    In May 1940 the British army achieved many feats of arms and endurance despite the Wehrmacht‘s overwhelming superiority in northern France. And perhaps none of these feats was equal in pathos, drama and sheer futility to the battle for Calais. Here, while the British Expedition Force was being hurriedly evacuated across the Channel to England, British soldiers were sent the other way to fortify Calais, the most important of the Channel Ports so as to delay the German advance from the south. This mini BEF was to defend the French town ‘at all costs’, even to the death, a rare order from a democratic army, an almost unique order in the history of the British military.

    As it happened the defence was a disaster. The vast majority of British soldiers at Calais surrendered to the First Panzer Division among them Airey Neave,  afterwards a notable Conservative and Unionist politician and Sam Kydd who would later become a celebrated comic actor.

    And, it was just as well that they did not re-enact the Alamo: their sacrifice would have been in vain as they couldn’t have held the German army, which, for the most part, went around the town, and even on the level of morale boosting, the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk was soon demanding all the world’s attention.

    However, a number of British soldiers in Calais fought from the twenty fourth May to the twenty seventh of that month, in increasingly desperate circumstances, moving back from perimeter to perimeter as German tanks crushed in through the wreck of the town. By the end all were independents who had been told ‘you are on you own’, as groups broke up under the weight of the German attack. But in the long list of tragedies from those days there is a happier weird war story that deserves to be better known.

    By the night of the 26/27 forty seven British soldiers had retreated to the very last piece of Calais soil, through the harbour onto the end of the eastern breakwater: ‘Some had no clothes or weapons, none had any ammunition and many were in the last stages of exhaustion’. They moved down with the water lapping around them and stayed tight. It was a hopeless position and there was nothing to be done save to surrender.

    At about 2.00 AM these desperate men saw a German boat sail into the harbour and prepared to flee into the waves or put up their hands. Instead, to their bemusement – in their numb state, joy probably did not figure – they got a better look and realised that this was not a German boat but a small Royal Navy vessel, the HMS Gulzar.

    Gulzar chugged merrily into Calais harbour, which was lit up by the fires burning throughout the wrecked town, moored at the central pier and was, naturally enough, met by German gunfire.

    The British had already that night dropped supplies by air not realizing that the Germans controlled Calais and the Gulzar had been sent to evacuate any injured men, the Navy evidently under the impression that the British still held the waterfront.

    The Gulzar beat a hasty and sensible retreat and while moving out of the harbour the British troops on the breakwater, with Germans at this point walking along the rocks, managed to get the boat’s attention.

    Above Beachcombing put the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk in inverted commas. ‘Miracle’, after all, is an over used word. However, the evacuation of the last fragment of the Calais garrison comes blessedly close.

    The Gulzar pulled along the breakwater and, while German guns from around the harbour opened up on her, every one of the ‘exhausted’ forty seven managed to leap on board without injury. Gulzar, who had slowed, not halted to take the men, then revved up and headed for home. She was in Britain by dawn.

    Beachcombing is interested in any other curious or miraculous escapes in war: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Iliaci cineres et flamma extrema meorum,
    testor, in occasu uestro nec tela nec ullas
    uitauisse uices, Danaum et, si fata fuissent
    ut caderem, meruisse manu

    ‘Ashes of Ilium, death flames of my people, bear witness that, at your destruction, I did not evade Greek arms, nor any risks, and, if it had been my fate to die, I earned it with my sword.’ A. II


    18 July 2011: Rayg writes in with some specific information on the boat involved ‘reading up the background to this story introduced me to a term I’d never encountered: the Gulzar was a ‘danlaying’ yacht.  Danlayers were small vessels – often converted civilian vessels such as trawlers – that accompanied minesweepers to lay ‘dans’ (marker buoys).‘ SWRA meanwhile invokes, as a remarkable escape, it was certainly an important one, the breakout of Nathan Forrest from Fort Donelson in 1862 in the American Civil War.

    26 July 2011: More from Rayg at Segalbooks, ‘A bit of cross-referencing between Google and Google Books (the name caught my curiosity as an unusual ship name). A look at Google Books snippet view (search on Gulzar yacht) finds the Gulzar was a ‘twin- screw 202-ton motor yacht … which was constructed by Messrs. John I. Thornycroft and Co., Ltd., Southampton, in 1934’. And: ‘Gulzar … Twin screw schooner built JI Thornycroft, Southampton, 1934 – 115’9″ X 21’1″ – powered by MAN diesels:Owned by Z Couyoumdjian of Paris. Fitted out for minesweeping duties. Went to the assistance of launch Marlborough, which was towed to Dover. Sank at Dover during air attack on 29th July 1940’. The ships that saved an army: a comprehensive record of the 1,300 “little ships” of Dunkirk. Russell Plummer. Pub. P Stephens , 1990. In its civilian days, was a seriously upmarket ship: the Times archive for July 13th 1938 mentions that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor embarking at Antibes for a Mediterran cruise on the Gulzar. The Times for May 16th 1934 earlier reported on its launch as a third yacht built by Thorneycroft for foreign owners that season, and says it was designed for Mediteranean cruising (draft about 9ft, speed 11.5 knots). I haven’t been able to find an image (or of the Gulzar’s Thorneycroft sister vessels the Tadorna and Amazone).  But the general appearance would have been like the motor yachts here‘. Thanks again Rayg!

    27 July 2011: Tim Clayton, a leading expert on British naval matters and co-author of Finest Hour has very kindly written in. First a source from the Imperial War Museum: ‘IWM MSS 4029 Henry Paddison Granlund: Ts/ms account (17pp and 1p illustration, photocopies) written in 1940, of his service as a Sub Lieutenant in the motor yacht GULZAR while the ship was acting as a wireless-telegraphy link off Calais between the BEF and Vice Admiral, Dover (20 – 24 May 1940) during sailings to Ambleteuse (25 – 26 May 1940) in an abortive attempt to evacuate troops, and to Calais (27 – 28 May 1940) as a hospital ship carrying out the final troop evacuations. The account gives details of conditions on shore and describes the difficulties of operating under heavy shore based shell and machine gun fire, with a later appendix summarising the military operations in France at that time; and a ts letter (2pp photocopies 1967) to a former owner of the GULZAR describing the ship’s wartime history.’ Then there is also ‘IWM Sound interview Henry Paddison Granlund British officer served with HMS Gulzar during evacuation of Calais 1940; served aboard HMS Obedient during Russian convoys 1943-1945REEL 1 Family and educational background. Reactions to outbreak of war, 3/9/1939. Recruitment to Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, 112/1939. Period as officer aboard HMS Gulzar during evacuation of Calais, France, 5/1940-6/1940: description of yacht; role of ship in English Channel; life abroad ship; missions to Dunkirk; role of ship as wireless link with Vice Admiral, Dover; damage to port; arrival of refugees in Calais; case of suspected fifth columnist; arrival of naval demolition party. REEL 2 Continues: shelter ashore; German shelling of port; return fire from forts; return to Dover; trip to pick up British troops from Cape Griz Nez; contradictory orders to Royal Marine officer; story of experiences of motor yacht HMS Conidaw; orders to act as hospital ship off Calais; German firing at ship; rescue of British troops from pier. Recollections of taking part in Russian convoys aboard HMS Obedient, 1943: nature of ship; role as lieutenant; organisation of convoys. REEL 3 Continues: hazards encountered; contact with Soviet forces; contact with Russians at Polyarnoe; effect of weather conditions on concrete buildings; view of icebergs; ‘Arcticizing’ of ships; challenge posed by convoys; heavy sea conditions; provision on deck life lines; German U Boat attacks; cargoes; assembly of convoys.’ What historical is behind ‘the fifth columnist’? Tim then writes: ‘Photograph 4008-02 is apparently a photo of the auxiliary patrol yacht HMS Gulzar, though the picture seems not to have been put online. The boat was sunk by German air attack in Dover harbour in July 1940.’ Poor old Gulzar… May she rest in peace. Thanks Tim, Beachcombing owes you!

    17 Aug 2014: Neil H writes in with this link to Gulzar and its wreck. the bastards got it in the end.

    31 Oct 2017: Big news here, a member of the Captain’s family got in touch. I hope that more can follow and some personal memories….