Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Harold Porter: A Real Dunkirk Hero

Porter is an uncommon enough surname that I'm always interested in where we turn up in history. It's doubly interesting when we turn up in a bit of history I'm particularly interested in.

Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk renewed my curiosity about the crucial events of May and June 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force found itself outmanoeuvred the German Army and had to fight, with occasional help from the French and Belgians, a tenacious defence against Hitler's panzers.

King and Doyle take on Rommel
It's a terrifically emotive bit of history. The British Army fought as hard, and as well, as it did in any other theatre of the war.. At Arras, a British armoured counter-attack caught Rommel by surprise. Two British Matildas went on a rampage where they took out a German supply convoy, destroyed five panzers, squashed a battery of anti-tank guns, and even came out best in a duel with one of Rommel's feared 88mm guns. Had they been German Sven Hessel would probably have written an entire trilogy about them. Alas Major King and Sergeant Doyle's exploits are almost forgotten.

However what is remembered most is the armada of little boats that rescued the soldiers from the beaches, and rightly so. In Nolan's film we have the story of Mark Rylance's Mr Dawson, who takes his day cruiser Moonstone to France and back. As he is leaving, his son's friend George, played by Barry Keoghan, jumps aboard. We learn that George dreams of one day doing something important enough to feature in the local paper, something that, we suspect, at the time seems about as likely as the BEF escaping Hitler's tanks.

George doesn't return, but he does get into the paper. He's a fictional character, as is everyone in the
film, but Nolan's story is based on real events, and the person who's story most matches George's, is a Porter; Harold Graham Porter.

Harold was eighteen in 1940. The son of a fisherman from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, he had just finished school. His health had not been good, and probably because of that he had done badly at schol. He felt a failure. Shortly before he finished, he told his father he intended to do something, one day, that would make his school proud of him.

Like most people in Britain, Harold would have had no idea how dire the situation had become across the Channel. Belgium had surrenedered, and France was unlikely to last much longer. The 400,000 soldiers of the BEF, almost all of Britain's trained soldiers, need to get home, or Britain would be next. The task of rescuing them fell to Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey.

The operation was put together in a matter of days, and Ramsey rapidly saw the limiting factor was getting the troops off the beach and the mole and onto the destroyers, ferries, freighters and fishing boats that would take them home. That's where the little boats like Moonstone came in. Able to operate in shallow water, they could go inshore and bring the soldiers out to the bigger ships. Fortunately, a few days earlier, the Royal Navy had compiled a list of all the small ships available to help. Ramsey ordered the job of rounding them up to begin.

But it wasn't just middle class pleasure boats that made the trip to France, working vessels went too. Amongst them was a flotilla of cockle boats from Leigh: the Letitia, the Endeavour, the Resolute, the Reliant, the Defender and the Renown.

Renoun had been built in 1928, and belonged to the Osbourne family. The crew on the day consisted of two fishermen, Frank and Leslie Osbourne, a young seaman from the Merchant Navy, Harry Noakes, and Harold.

31 May had been a difficult day for the evacuation. A heavy swell had stopped the smaller boats getting to the beach for part of the day. The minesweeper Devonia had been beached and abandoned after being hit by bombs, but it was actually the French that taken the heaviest losses that day: the destroyer Sirocco had been damaged by a German E-boat and then sunk by aircraft, at a cost of 180 of her crew and 600 soldiers. The French merchant marine had lost the trawlers St Achilleus, Puissant, Costaud and Adjader and the steamers Ain El Turk and Cote D'Azur.

However, just as dusk fell Rear Admiral William Wake-Walker, in charge of shipping off Dunkirk looked out to sea and "saw for the first time that strange procession of craft of all kinds that has become famous. Tugs towing dinghies, lifeboats and all manner of pulling boats, small motor yachts, motor launches, drifters, Dutch schoots, Thames barges, fishing boats [and] pleasure steamers." Amongst them were the Leigh cockle boats.

The sea was still too rough for them to go onto the beach, so instead they operated a shuttle service from the end of the mole. As the little vessels made their way out for the third time, a shell burst between them. Never-the-less, they turned round and went back a fourth time.

Endeavour today
Their last run finished at about a quarter past one in the morning. Each cockle boat had probably rescued about a thousand men each.

It had been a long day for the boats, and the strain was too much for the Renoun's engine, which started to fail. The crew signalled to Letita to take them in tow. Letita was being towed herself by a tug, and soon the Renoun was bobbing along behind her, on a ten yard rope, heading back to England.

It was pitch dark in the Channel and the boats were unable to see each other. About thirty five minutes had gone by since the Renoun had been taken in tow, and everyone was starting to wind down after the excitement of the day. Suddenly there was a huge explosion. Splinters of wood rained down on the deck of the Letita and the tow rope went slack. The Renoun had gone. Most likely she had hit a drifting sea mine, and the crew probably killed instantly.

A few days later Harold's parents received a letter. It said that their son had "died doing his duty ... helping to evacuate troops from the coast of Belgium" and added that he had "done well". His parents were sad for their lost, but not only were they proud of their son, but they knew that he had died doing something that would have made him proud of himself, and that he had achieved his dream of making his school proud of him.


Operation Dynamo was expected to rescue 40,000 men, but in the end over 338,000 made it back across the Channel.

Admiral Ramsey was in charge at Dover for two years. He was then put in charge of organising the invasion of North Africa in 1942, Operation Torch, and Sicily in 1943, Operation Husky, before being given the biggest job of his life, Operation Overlord, or D-Day. Eisenhower said he was the only man who could have done it. He never lived to see the end of the war he did so much to win, dying in a plane crash in January 1945.

There is a memorial to Harold Porter, and the other cockle fishermen who died, in St Clements churchyard, Leigh-on-Sea.

The Osbourne family still fishes for cockles there today.


Dunkirk: Fight To The Last Man by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

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