On the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk, Chris Leather looks back at the role HMS Bideford played in evacuating soldiers during Operation Dynamo, and a very close call.
On the 27th May, the day the main evacuation from Dunkirk began, few people in Britain had any idea of the magnitude of the disaster that had overwhelmed allied forces in Flanders.
Built in Devonport, and launched in April 1931, HMS Bideford was the fifth Royal Navy vessel to carry the name, and was to take part in the evacuation of Dunkirk under the command of Lt. Cdr. John Hugh Lewis RN.
By the morning of May 30, the minesweeper HMS Locust had been given the task of towing Bideford, which had had her stern ripped apart by a bomb which caused her own depth charges to detonate.
Both Locust and Bideford returned safely, with the tow home lasting 30 hours.
HMS Bideford had just completed the loading of troops when the bombers struck.
One of the solders on board, F G Hutchinson of the 42nd East Lancashire Division, described the events on board in Robert Jackson’s book Dunkirk: The British Evacuation.
He said: “Suddenly, above all the noise there was an almighty crash and Bideford seemed to lift right out of the water and then sink back, shuddering.
“After recovering from the shock those of us below made a scramble for the companionway leading to the deck, the general impression being that we were sinking.
“However she remained afloat, for by good fortune her bulkheads held even though forty feet had been blown off her stern.”
Locust was drawn alongside, with soldiers queuing to file onto the rescuing ship.
However, not everyone could fit, and the remaining troops had to stay aboard Bideford.
Locust was attempting to tow Bideford, which was firmly lodged in a sand bank, with personnel running from one side of the ship to the other to try and rock her free.
Hutchinson continued: “We eventually floated clear when the tide came in, and in the small hours, towed by the faithful Locust, we limped away from Dunkirk.
“During all this time a surgeon had been working non-stop below, operating where possible on the wounded. I found a hammock and enjoyed the most perfect sleep I can ever remember.”
In April 1941 Bideford returned to escorting convoys to and from Gibraltar after completing repairs.
She had another narrow escape in August 1943 in the Bay of Biscay, when she was hit and damaged by a guided missile.
After more repairs, Bideford joined 41st Escort Group, escorting convoys to Freetown.
Bideford survived the war and was scrapped in 1949.