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Jersey boats to mark anniversary of 'mini Dunkirk' in St Malo

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FIFTY local boats are due to sail to St Malo on Saturday to honour the brave Island seafarers who 75 years ago volunteered to rescue soldiers and civilians trapped by the advancing German army.

In June 1940, two weeks after hundreds of little boats helped to evacuate 309,000 soldiers trapped on beaches at Dunkirk, the British Government called on Jersey to help evacuate St Malo and to assist Royal Engineers in destroying key installations including the port's locks.

St Helier Yacht Club organised the operation and a flotilla comprising seven potato boats, 13 fishing boats and private yachts, the States launch, the Duchess of Normandy, a lifeboat and a Fleet Air Arm fast launch, crewed by sailors, fishermen, the town pilots and yachtsmen sailed for St Malo on 16 and 17 June.

St Malo evacuation veterans the late Pat Gruchy, Pop Newman and Bob Falle pictured in 2000 with the Fiona in the water below

The evacuation was a military success and Jersey's little boats and crews returned safely to the Island. Each year the Yacht Club marks the anniversary of 'mini Dunkirk' with a race to St Malo and this year there will be celebrations in both ports.

The Vice-Commodore of St Helier Yacht Club, Steve Pearl said: 'This is a major event in the club's long history and one of which we are very proud. Although all of those who took part are no longer with us, it is important that we keep the tradition alive and commemorate the event.'

One of the Dunkirk 'little boats' taking part in celebrations is the Elvin, alongside the Fiona, from Jersey Heritage's heritage boat collection.

The Elvin, which was built in 1937, recently took part in the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk - featuring on BBC's the One Show and in a documentary by Dan Snow about the 'little ships of Dunkirk'.

The Elvin has been restored by Hal Perkins and she also returned to Dunkirk in 2010 for the 70 anniversary celebrations.

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Kevin Le Seelleur tells the story of valour and seamanship which enabled the French port to be evacuated of military and civilian personnel 75 years ago:

The Diana pictured before the war (left) in 1937
The Diana when it took part in the rally to St Malo in 2010

IN the entrance to the St Helier Yacht Club clubhouse at South Pier is a little picture frame. It is ignored by most, but it contains a telegram dated 23 June 1940 which reads: 'To Commodore, St Helier Yacht Club. Great help given by pilots and spirited enterprise of volunteers from St Helier Yacht Club which made possible withdrawal from St Malo in heavy weather. Warmly appreciated. Well done.'

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Alongside the telegram is a plaque recording the names of the vessels and their crews which went to St Malo at the request of the Admiralty to help in the evacuation of military and civilian personnel from the port, and the disabling of the lock gates in June 1940.

In June 1980, watched by veterans of the evacuation, a plaque was unveiled at St Helier Yacht Club to mark the 40th anniversary of the event

For this, the club was later awarded the honour of wearing a defaced Red Ensign, and this weekend members of St Helier Yacht Club will again visit St Malo to celebrate the 75th anniversary of that occasion.

The call for help from the Admiralty had come in a telegram on Sunday 16 June 1940 addressed to the Lieutenant-Governor of Jersey, Major-General James Harrison, asking that Jersey send all available craft to St Malo to help the evacuation of British troops. The Lieutenant-Governor immediately contacted the Bailiff, Alexander Coutanche, who in turn contacted the Commodore of St Helier Yacht Club, W S Le Masurier. A meeting was held that afternoon in the club, a list of vessels which could be made ready at short notice was drawn up and volunteers came forward to man them.

The crews came not only from St Helier Yacht Club, but from a cross-section of local mariners, including fishermen, local boatmen, States employees and members of the local lifeboat crew. Such was the speed of reaction that the first vessels departed just before midnight that day. A further convoy sailed the next day.

At the same time, in Portsmouth preparations were being finalised for the departure of an explosives party led by Commander C D Howard-Johnson, tasked with blowing up the lock gates at St Malo. They boarded the destroyer HMS Wild Swan and departed from Portsmouth at 2 pm on Sunday 16 June with orders to call in at St Helier en route.

The dramatic scene as St Malo is evacuated in June 1940

The vessel arrived in Jersey at 7.30 pm, and after calling on Major-General Harrison, Commander Howard-Johnson went with the Harbourmaster and boarded seven cargo vessels which were waiting to load potatoes and requested that they proceed to St Malo to help in the evacuation, with local pilots having agreed to go with them. He returned to Wild Swan, which departed Jersey at 11:30 pm.

After discharging the demolition party and eight tons of explosives in St Malo, Wild Swan departed, leaving them to find their own way home.

During the Monday the yachts conveyed personnel as required to the vessels anchored off St Malo, and on the Tuesday morning preparations were in hand for the blowing of the fuel tanks and the lock gates. At 1.20 pm on 18 June, with German forces fast approaching the outskirts of St Malo, the petrol depot tanks were blown up, followed soon after by the charges on the lock gates.

The demolition party and a few civilians then boarded the Jersey craft to return to St Helier. It was not an easy trip, as by this time the wind had increased to Force 5, which resulted in a most unpleasant and dangerous trip, with the last of the yachts not arriving until Wednesday morning.

It was remarkable that at such short notice, an operation of this size could be carried out with most crews in unfamiliar vessels, no navigational lights and in poor weather conditions. The were a few problems with some of the boats, but most remarkably, they all returned.

On reaching Jersey, Commander Howard-Johnson requisitioned the steamer Rye to transport his party back to England, and the Admiralty sent the telegram of thanks to the Commodore of the Yacht Club.

Because of the war, there was a news black-out, so no details of this operation were published in the media at the time, and within a week many who had taken part in the operation were evacuated to England.

After the Liberation, stories were published in the Evening Post, and St Heller Yacht Club asked those who had gone to St Malo to write a log of their part in the evacuation, but a number had not returned to the Island after the war, so a complete record could not be written.

The defaced Red Ensign

In June 1949 Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Island and Prince Philip expressed a wish to meet those who had taken part in the St Malo operation, and he offered his personal thanks.

The club tried to obtain some recognition for the part it played at St Malo in 1940, but to no avail, and there the matter rested. It was a chance meeting of two people in the Normandy port of Carteret that was to bring about the club's Battle Honour. Club member Pat Gruchy was there with his boat, flying the club's burgee, when a man on the quay asked him if the club had received any recognition for the part it played in the evacuation of St Malo.

That man was none other than Commander Howard-Johnson, who had by then risen to the rank of Captain, had been awarded the DSO and was in command of HMS Vernon, the underwater warfare school at Portsmouth.

Denny Mourant's Girl Joyce took part in the evacuation

When informed that the club had not received any recognition, he said that it should have been, and suggested that they write again to the authorities, adding that he would ensure that the role the Island played in the evacuation would be made known

The club duly took the matter up, and on 12 May 1952 the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Arthur Grasett, wrote to the Commodore informing him: 'The Lords of the Admiralty have granted St Helier Yacht Club a special Battle Honour in recognition of its members' response to the Admiralty's request for help in 1940'.

The Battle Honour is the privilege of 'wearing' a defaced Red Ensign, the defacement being the crossed axes of St Helier upon an Admiralty pattern anchor.

At the same time, the club altered its burgee by adding the St Helier crossed axes on a blue shield. The new colours were hoisted at a ceremony at the new clubhouse on Saturday 27 September 1952 by Sir Edward Grasett in the presence of W S Le Masurier, who had by then retired as Commodore but who had been duly honoured by being elected the club's first honorary Commodore.

It was unfortunate that Captain Howard-Johnson was unable to attend the ceremony.

It is worth repeating Sir Edward's words at the time: 'The record of this achievement must by kept for posterity, for the younger generation must know of this, and the records of the deed must be carefully preserved.'

The club has held a number yachting rallies to St Malo to commemorate the events of 1940, and now every year two races take place, one for the Evacuation Trophy and one for the Howard-Johnson Salver, donated by the Captain.

Of the vessels which went St Malo in 1940, there is now only one in Jersey which is seaworthy, and it is hoped that Fiona will take part in the rally over the weekend.

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