80 Years Ago: 21st June 1940

Grandad, on one of his trips to Orkney.

The following article is written by my mum, Ellen, and I thought it was far too good not to share. It is about my grandad; an incredibly intelligent and gentle man and a very brief glimpse of his life in the army during World War II.

80 years ago, in June 1940, my Dad, Albert Wallace Evans, was in France deployed with the Royal Engineers in a demolition party. His orders were to work down along the coast after the evacuation from Dunkirk blowing up roads, bridges, fuel dumps, munition stores and anything else that could possibly be of use to the advancing German army that was hot on his heels.

He was 19 years old, born in Bethnal Green and as a member of the Territorial army in London before war broke out, he had been active since the beginning of the hostilities. He only briefly mentioned his wartime experiences in later life and from these snippets I know he was sent to India to train Indian soldiers in the mountains. He thought the world of these men and the Gurkhas who he went on to fight alongside in the horrors of Burma. I also know that he was resourceful and on occasion managed to divert the Officers NAAFI supplies from their intended destination to the very grateful and delighted enlisted men in his charge when he was a Sergeant. He also was reprimanded by one of the King’s staff at Buckingham Palace where he was in charge of installing defences (digging great big holes in the Royal lawn), being told: “His Majesty has requested that you desist from playing with the Royal Corgis!!”. Her Majesty, The Queen Mother however redeemed Royalty by sending out some homemade lemonade for the soldiers decimating her lawn and my Dad never forgot her act of kindness.

But he did document what he was doing exactly 80 years ago and wanted the Canadian Navy to know how thankful he was.

"I am writing requesting information regarding H.M.C.S. Restigouche.

With 20 other Engineers I had the undoubtable privilege of serving as a withdrawal demolition unit aboard this grand ship.

On 21st June 1940, returning aboard H.M.S. MacKay from Brest in France to Plymouth Sound, we received a wireless signal to transfer to H.M.S Restigouche lying in the Sound. Coming alongside, we boarded and met such friendliness and hospitality from the Canadian crew.

The ship then proceeded immediately to the French coast.

Eventually we arrived at St. Jean de Luz near the Spanish border and joined her Sister ship H.M.C.S Frazer and H.M.S Calcutta, an anti-aircraft cruiser.

Time was spent embarking military and civilian personnel aboard the three ships, including seven Polish aircraft pilots included in a Polish detachment.

We left St. Jean de Luz late afternoon and in the early evening were attacked by French Biplane bombers which caused no damage.

Orders for the ships to proceed to Bordeaux and carry out a bombardment of the submarine pens and oil storage tanks being used by the German Navy involved us sailing down the River Gironde.

Just after Midnight an incident occurred when it was presumed that H.M.C.S. Frazer had rammed into a German submarine on the surface, followed immediately by herself being rammed into by the Cruiser H.M.S. Calcutta, cutting H.M.C.S. in half at the Bridge.

The gallantry of the crew of H.M.C.S Restigouche helped by the Royal Engineers and others, was exemplary. With no thought of themselves, the Carley rafts were thrown overboard and personnel jumped into the water to rescue survivors from the sinking bows of H.M.S. Frazer.

The Captain of the Restigouche, with uncanny seamanship, in a heavy swell, closed in on the bulk of HMCS Frazer and held his ship alongside, enabling some of us to jump aboard to assist the injured and survivors of HMCS Frazer.

Dawn came early as the gallant ship HMCS Frazer was scuttled, leaving a vastly overladen Restigouche to escort the damaged HMS Calcutta back to England at a very slow rate.

Eventually we arrived at Devonport where we were disembarked, tired, but full of pride for such a gallant, kind and happy crew.

A recent photograph of HMCS Frazer in a book brought back this incident from the past and made me wonder whether this few hours in a ships career had been suitably recognised.”

As a result of his enquiry, the Canadian Navy sent him information about the service of the ship and also that the Polish Government had suitably rewarded the Commander and members of the crew for their part in the rescue. He went on...

“I would like to comment on an incident that occurred on embarking. A Petty officer asked me to line my men in single file and proceed to a small hatch where each of them would receive a bar of chocolate and a box of cigarettes, sweet Caparal if my memory is correct, from the canteen stores. A little later he approached me and asked me the number in my party. I replied, one officer, myself and 21 others. That’s funny he said, we’ve already given out 48 rations! The confusion came of a perpetual circle and the wily ways of the British Tommy. He laughed and dashed off to close the hatch forthwith.”

As I recall, during the onerous task of bringing HMCS Restigouche alongside HMCS Frazer, some Sappers dashed to make the depth charges safe on the ship. When we left HMCS sinking about 500 yards away, she was clearly visible in the dawn light and I was quite surprised that it was only 0740.

When I rejoined HMS Calcutta, the sea to put it mildly was rough! So with accommodation being limited, 5 of us climbed onto the searchlight platform, midships. The night being chilly and all being wet, it was delightful to have the heat from the engine room coming up from the grill. Enroute to Plymouth we pitched and tossed alarmingly at times, for on many occasions we were looking at nothing but sea below us making it quite perilous to attempt to descend back to the deck. We were ‘marooned’.

To get a drink of water we tried tying our jack-knife lanyards together and then lowering it through the grill, to no avail.

We were very relieved to arrive in Plymouth Sound and join our comrades in disembarking.

The Engineer party reported to C.O. The Citadel, Plymouth and for four days prepared anti-invasion obstacles around its perimeter.

We then proceeded by train to London and The Guards Depot, Wellington Barracks, Birdcage Walk where we were billeted whilst preparing the erection of defences, pillboxes, entrenchments etc. at various aerodromes, Buckingham Palace etc. and preparing all crossings, bridges and tunnels on the Thames for demolition.

They were certainly busy and exciting days. Once again, thank you for your kindness

For bringing us home safely “

Demolition Party

297 Corps Field Park Company

London E2

Here is the Restigouche, tragically most of her crew did not survive to enjoy peaceful times after the war. This short account remembers them, my Dad and all those who exemplified the qualities of kindness and resilience in the face of adversity during those times

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