First Lieutenant of ML 177, Frank Arkle RNVR
Early in February 1942 we were told that we had to re-camouflage our boats with a design that had been conceived by Peter Scott and it entailed large amounts of pastel colours in great zigzag designs all over the boat which we carefully measured according to his sketch. It was supposed to make you very difficult to see in early morning mists. At the end of that month four boats from our flotilla, including ourselves, were told to report to Devonport to have extra fuel tanks fitted on board in order that we could at least double our range.
We were then to report to Falmouth. We found that a fleet was assembling there, and this comprised of a destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, an ex US ship that had been converted to look very much like a certain type of German destroyer. There was a motor gunboat in which Commander Ryder was duly to take control of the operation. There was an MTB and there were 16 MLs. There was also a large ship at anchor, which was reputed to contain a number of Commandos aboard.
We were not told precisely what we were going to do in due course, but it was decided that we were going to have a dummy run and the fleet decided to have a raid on Devonport as an exercise one night. As we approached Devonport, searchlights were switched on from the shore. The Dartmouth boats which had been so carefully camouflaged to the new design shone like diamonds in this light and when we got back to Falmouth we spent the next two days re-painting them all over in the famous Battenburg grey.
The MLs then made a big show of going alongside the dockside in Falmouth and collecting any stores we needed and in particular we had to take on board some tropical clothing. This brilliant deception was in order to deceive any spy that there might be in the area! At last one evening, all the Commanding Officers from the MLs were assembled on board the commando ship and Commander Ryder gave them what instructions he could, then handed each Commanding Officer a large brown sealed envelope that contained their sealed orders for the operation to come.
The following morning each of the MLs went alongside the commando boat and took off the team of commandos they had been allocated. The whole fleet then sailed from Falmouth for our unknown destination and we were not allowed to open our sealed orders until we were five miles offshore. Duly Mark (Rodier) said, “Come on, Frank, I think it is time we had a look,” and started reading the orders. When the name St Nazaire cropped up he said, “Where the hell is that?” After some searching of the Charts we found it tucked up a river in the northeast corner of the Bay of Biscay.
The plan was that we should steer westwards and get well clear of the Brest peninsula, which we did, and then steer southwards from there as if the whole fleet were steaming in the direction of the Mediterranean and Gibraltar. When we arrived in approximately the middle of the Bay of Biscay we turned …. and steamed slowly in an easterly direction throughout the day.
As dusk was falling, we turned northeastward and cruised again to the estuary of the Loire. Dusk fell, and at about midnight we saw a very small light coming towards us from starboard on the surface of the sea. This was the submarine Sturgeon which had gone on there before us in daylight to take a final fix position to give us a final course to steer accurately up the estuary of the Loire because we had to pass on the starboard side of a lighthouse which was to guide normal ships to port, and we were to pass over some very low lying mud flats and only at high water springs could we possibly take the destroyer over the top of these.
It was soon after this when Mark Rodier and I were on the bridge together that he started talking to me about making provision for letting his mother and father have his belongings back when we got back from St Nazaire. I said, “What is all this about?” and he had absolute conviction that he was not going to get out alive.
We steamed on. At this stage the destroyer was flying the German Ensign and we were firmly ordered that we must not open fire at all until the ensign was removed and we could all fly our white ensigns again. When Campbeltown did lower its ensign and hoisted the white ensign, we did the same and all hell broke loose.
There were tracer bullets going in every direction, a very colourful sight because the British tracers were all orange in colour and the German’s were all a blue green. Very pretty! The shells weren’t quite so pretty when they started to fly around the place! Anyway, this went on for some time and the destroyer went to full speed ahead aiming for the dock gates but the port line of MLs started turning in towards their landing spot which was mainly Old Mole on the dockside and they started to get into some serious fire, and fire broke out on board on several of them unfortunately.
We were in the starboard line and when the destroyer hit the dock gates, which it did very accurately, we passed them to starboard, did a big circle round, and passed them under their stern. It was our duty to go into the old entrance to the dock where we went alongside and deposited our Commandos.
It was a very funny feeling as they went ashore very silently in their rubber boots and disappeared into the shadows on the dockside to do their duty. In the meantime we were alongside the dock and we were firing at a gun position at the inboard end of the Old Mole and we also fired a lot of shots across the old dock entrance into what was the submarine pens where the submarines were protected from overhead because they were built in very thick concrete. We fired a lot of shots into these pens but we couldn’t see what the results were because it was completely dark inside.
At this stage Commander Ryder came alongside us in his MGB and gave us the instruction to let go our lines and to go alongside the Campbeltown and pick up as many crew as we could and take them home to England.
In order to ram the dock gates as it had, the Campbeltown had had to go through some anti-submarine nets in order to get there and a lot of these nets were still hanging off its sides as we were trying to come alongside and we had to be very careful of this in order not to get them tangled around our own propellers. However we managed to get our bow alongside and took off a lot of the crew including the Captain and several of his officers, including the medical officer, a lot of the wounded and some commandos.
We then set off for home, and before departing we fired our torpedoes at two of the ships that were at anchor in the harbour. We then sped as fast as we could, which was a full 18 knots, down towards the open sea. We found ourselves coming more and more under fire from shore based batteries. So we thought it was time to try to get our smoke screen working. We were just working on this to get the first smoke screen working when unfortunately the first shell hit us which was into the engine room and it apparently shifted one of our engines right up on top of the other and they were both out of action.
I was on the stern with the smoke float and Mark Rodier was on the bridge with Commander Beattie and he came down towards the funnel where we were standing, the two of us, as Mark met us there another shell hit us and I can see to this day the funnel folding apart, what appeared to be quite slowly and the shell bursting in the middle of it and to my benefit poor old Mark was standing exactly between me and the shell and he took the brunt of the explosion which would have hit me if he hadn’t been there and I was hit all down my left hand side, but not anywhere else particularly except my face.
I felt my right eye on my cheek and I was convinced that my right eye had been blown out of my head and was hanging down my cheek, and I felt there was only one thing to do about this so I plucked it out and threw it overboard. I then went down to the wardroom although we were on fire amidships and I could get down and back quickly, and got something to put round my head as a sort of bandage over my wounded eye, and I was limping because my left foot was also mucked about quite a bit.
The boat was now on fire amidships. I had a word with Commander Beattie about what had happened to Mark Rodier and we agreed that there was nothing we could do but abandon ship at this stage. There were no more shells coming fortunately and everything that could float was being taken overboard and I managed to get a drawer from the Wardroom which seemed to float alright and scrambled overboard with two commandos and the three of us shared this floating object and it just about kept us afloat.
We decided to swim for the nearest shorelines but I soon realized that we were completely wasting our energy because we were just going round in circles. It is impossible to direct a floating drawer which is going round in circles anyway. So I decided to try and get a flask of whisky out of my pocket in which I knew I had there, a small pewter flask. I discovered perhaps fortunately, in the end, that my hands were so cold that I couldn’t undo the button on my hip pocket to get the flask out so I had to give up and I think after an hour or two in the water, although we kept moving to try and keep our circulation going we were beginning to get seriously affected by the cold and at that stage just as dawn was about to break, a large vessel came alongside which turned out to be a German armed trawler. It put scrambling nets over the side and somehow or other I managed to scramble up one of these and get on board, although by this time I think I had lost rather a lot of blood from a large hole I had in my left hip. We were told to lie on the deck and there were German sentries with rifles keeping an eye on us and eventually one of them came with cups of ersatz coffee.
Sometime later, the trawler came alongside near the entrance of the dock and brought us alongside a very long metal ladder, which went straight up the dockside seemingly forever. Somehow or other I managed to struggle up it without falling off because one hand and a foot was more or less out of action, but I got there, and then rather collapsed when I got above the dockside.
They were beginning to congregate various captives, both Naval and Commando and we were herded together by a few German soldiers with rifles. About this time a great explosion took place to some cheers from the British, as this was the noise of the Campbeltown destroying the dock gates and most of the dock at the same time.
Some time later the wounded were herded together and put into lorries. We were laid out on the floor of a large hotel. In the middle of the following night I was taken off to a room which had been turned into a sort of operating theatre and tied to a table. I thought I was going to be threatened with an operation without anaesthetic. Fortunately I received gas and the wounds in my hand, my hip and my foot were operated and I woke up back where I came from. It was a day or so after that that one of the medics was looking at me and I was talking about my missing eye and it was discovered that my eye wasn’t missing after all, although it had completely closed up by something or other that had hit it. This was a great relief.
Frank Arkle was one of the survivors who was awarded the Legion d’honneur by the French Embassy.
Frank Arkle Died in 2008