In June 1940, with the collapse of French resistance imminent and the sudden entry of Italy into World War II, Britain found herself standing alone against Germany. Faced by the prospect of confrontation with a combined German-Italian fleet, Churchill ordered substantial naval reinforcements – including the Ark Royal – to the Mediterranean. Following the French armistice with Nazi Germany, a new British naval formation, ‘Force H’, was created. Its purpose was to fill the gap caused by the effective loss to the Allies of French naval power in the western Mediterranean. A powerful French naval force was anchored at Mers-el-Kébir, just to the west of the French Algerian port of Oran, and there was concern that it could easily be brought under German control. The British War Cabinet worked throughout June in an attempt to arrive at a diplomatic settlement, but their efforts proved fruitless.
On 18 June 1940 Ark Royal – with Guy and Squadron 803 on board – sailed from Scapa Flow to join Force H at Gibraltar, arriving there on 23 June. On 25 June the French naval commander in Oran refused to hand over his ships to the British, and on 3 July, Force H
opened fire on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir harbour.1 The Ark’s Swordfish acted as spotters for the Force and five others, with an escort of Skuas, dropped mines at the entrance to Mers-el-Kébir harbour. In a later chapter I quote from John Moffat’s book I Sank the Bismarck, which confirms that Guy was involved in this action.
Guy was on the Ark Royal from June to October 1940. The following excerpts are from a letter to our parents, marked ‘HMS Ark Royal ’, and dated 17 September 1940.
Isn’t it peculiar how important current events seem at the time, and in about a month or two later they become completely trivial and you can’t even remember your feelings and reactions. Anyway that’s what I feel about our last one or two jaunts so you can gather that nothing much has happened for a few weeks – yet we have been nosing around just looking for trouble.
Guy then writes about a Reuters representative and a cameraman hoping to see action:
… they have been unlucky but brought us luck … when they first arrived we were all a little superstitiously worried as we have so far been incredibly lucky in our escapes and didn’t want to tempt the gods. We took them on two particularly hazardous jobs and nothing happened! Everything went according to plan (which in itself was a magnificent conception) and we returned to base very relieved and unable to believe we hadn’t been bombed, torpedoed or God knows what. We also gave the Ice cream laddies2 something to think about.
Later on in the letter Guy mentions some animals on board: ‘a turtle dove that was with us the whole way’, and a pregnant cat:
Just before one of the most important operations, the word went round – ‘Kitty’s produced three, all doing fine: P.M.O.3 didn’t have to be called’. Good show! Everything must go off all right then. And it did – again – and I shot down my first Wop! He was easy meat. Bill Bruen and I gave him a short burst each and he crashed into the sea in flames – teach him to come snooping around trying to see what we’re at. And so back to base – which is not where you sent the first cable, but at the other end. However we’re not even there now. How we do get around.
It seems likely that this paragraph about encountering Italian pilots refers to the July action in the Mediterranean described above. The Ark Royal sailed from Gibraltar on 30 August to tackle the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean. They did this quite successfully, but Guy had to force-land his plane in the sea. The letter below – written from ‘The Ark’ on 28 September, and received on
21 October – recounts the incident in dramatic detail:
My dearest Mummy and Dad,
Once again quite a lot has happened since I last wrote and once again it’s lousy not being allowed to tell you all about it.
Please to excuse if the writing is not all it could be but it’s so hot that the only way I can get any breeze is to sit on the top of the deck, level with the scuttle, and have the pad on my knees, even so there are great wavelets running down my chest and you know how the paper sticks to your arms when they’re wet.
However we were out on the job which has been rather in the news about this time and what with one thing and another I found myself in the pond again.
Well anyway we got to this bloodstained spot and found ourselves lumbering round the sky in our usual fashion reconnaissance (I had to look up the notice board for that spelling) photography, fighting, bombing and what have you. I missed the last two items on account of how I was obliged to force into the drink as I said.
Actually it was pretty grim at the time, but could make quite an amusing line now. We cracked off on a recco in the late afternoon and got all our stuff O.K. without the artillery pieces being fired in anger against us.
Problem: find the flat iron – i.e. Ark Royal. It’s the first time I have been lost and God! I hope it is the last. I’ve never known such a hopeless, helpless feeling, full of a dull apprehensive fear. Miles and miles of the bleeding ocean, grey cold and friendless.
The visibility was down to less than half a mile, it was getting dark, we had the ship’s position to within
10 miles only, and our normal wireless-homing device packed up anyway. When we got to where we expected to find the ship and she wasn’t there, we started going round in ever increasing circles (more or less) hoping to sight her.
‘Please God let me find the Ark. Just this once – I’ll be good. Please I didn’t mean that I said they were a lot of old dead beats. Stop the sun going down so quickly, it gets dark so soon after it’s gone. Please let me see the ship before it gets dark. Please … We asked for a D/f.4 Crime – ’cause it means that if the Ark answers and gives it to us she herself can be D/f’d and her position known to the enemy. She answered and we set off on the bearing given. Visibility right down. Hood wide open. Eyes sore – staring into the dusk. ‘Please let me see her!’
Then a cry from my observer – ‘Hullo! It’s no good Brock my transmitter has packed up on me. Useless bobbing around anymore – make for some place. Where, please, where?’
And then the Ark did a wonderful thing. Owing to our T/s being unserviceable we couldn’t acknowledge the signal giving our bearing so, thinking we hadn’t received it she went up to full strength and was heard as far away as the Admiralty, London. We heard her perfectly but couldn’t answer or ask for another bearing.
‘Make for the coast?’ Wearily from back: ‘O.K. make for the coast – Gee I’m sorry about this, Brock’. ‘Nonsense – I steered a bum course anyway.’ ‘No, honestly –’ ‘Oh, let’s stop being polite and look for this festering coastline before it’s pitch dark.’ ‘O.K., steer 110°.’ ‘110° I’m on.’
Please let me find the beach before it’s black. Will the beach take an undercart landing or will it be soft and I’ll find myself on my nose? Or shall I park down in the sea near the shore? Or what? Does the landing light work? Yes, thank God. Gee, it must be darker than I thought – I can see it shining on the sea and we’re at 300'. Gosh I hope I don’t ball up this landing. Poor old Ramsay in the back, only his second trip with me – his third in these lousy cabs. Shouldn’t like to be him just sitting there and waiting till I can bump the old bus down somewhere.
First time he’s been lost too – must be feeling bad. Can’t blame anybody in this appalling murk – been flying on my instruments practically the whole time since we took off. Thank God we’ve got tons of gas. Hell! Where is this crimson beach and what we do when we get there – Aw! Fan her in for a touchdown before worrying anyway. You’re tough – quit worrying anyway! Wish it wasn’t so dark. Where is this coast? HEY: what’s that? a destroyer! Oh Boy! Oh Boy! Oh Boy! Can I park ’em in the ‘eau’ or can I? Oh! Thank you God.
Then I did a quick circuit while Ramsay worked his light enough and told them we were about to force land.
‘Glad I took a compass reading of the wind while it was still light enough – can’t see the wave tops now. ’bout West Nor. West it was. Steady up. Hold tight in the back old boy – I’ll motor past her bows and then drop her. Straps all O.K.? Right, here we go.’
Destroyer pretty cagey – seems to have twigged I’m now into wind and has altered course to W.N.W. too. Good show. Keep your whizzer turning; get past her bows so she can pick you up. O.K. switches off now. All off? Hold her up. Keep up in the air – get that tail down. Here she goes – can’t keep her up any more – hear that tail wheel swish – tails going to hit any minute. Oh! I think this will be all right. Brace yourself – here it comes – CRASH. Water pouring into the cockpit as the nose goes down. After all we had seventy knots so it wasn’t such a bump.
Get your straps off – get out of this beastly wet cockpit – no you won’t be trapped. Oh! thank God I’m free.
How’s Ramsay? Even while struggling yourself you realise that since you opened your eyes after the lurch you have been shouting to Ramsay and he to you, but neither of you could hear. Both frantically struggling to get out and leap to the other’s assistance if necessary – it’s a grand life. We may not get much money but we do see life! Now where’s that boat?
After that the reactions and feelings become more or less normal – we are helped aboard – pity there was no time to salvage anything from the old kite – and go to see the captain still wet through (us I mean). We apologise for the trouble we have caused him, thank you very much, yes, thank you we would like some dry clothes, and yes it was lucky we saw them.
Watch them shoot at and hit my poor, faithful old plane – we’ve been places together and we’ve been through shot and shell and now they’re going to ram you, to sink you – shame! But no, she’s a lady to the last and when the bows are about 10 yards away she quietly dives nose first to the bottom of about 1,000 fathoms – she has that for a resting place, she who has been used to three times that distance up, not down.
However, what the hell? We’re O.K.… I’m in the boat, shove off.
And now after a few days we are back in the Ark. They were grand to us in the destroyer and they’re all coming over to our flicks tonight, when we’ll try and repay some of their hospitality. But it’s a slightly different Ark as it always is after a party5 – there are some faces we miss and shall never see again – there are others lying swathed in bandages in the sick bay – and there are others who can no longer truthfully say ‘What the hell’, and they’re most to be pitied – they’ve cracked up. What will we do after this crazy war? Oh! What the hell!
Quite a number of other crews have been picked up by destroyers through falling into the sea for different reasons – mostly due to musketry being fired at them in anger.
We all came back together and it was marvellous how pleased everyone was to see us and how worried they’d been when we failed to return and before they got a signal from the various destroyers saying who they’d rescued. It’s a great life – it needs some taking.
I’ve just read all that through and it does read as a bit of a line but Gee! If I can’t shoot a line to you two sometimes, to whom on earth can I? …
I long for news of home and what’s going on and also rather anxious for news of Paul and Dave. Where are they now and what are they doing and how are they? … How I hope you can see us all together again … Please don’t worry about me because I know I’m due to be relieved soon and maybe I’ll soon be back in England holding down some cushy job – maybe?
Please too, forgive the Americanisms of most of my letter (I know how you hate it, Dad) but it does lend itself to flying. We don’t talk like that – not all the time anyway.
I am still as fit as fit and almost back to my own colour of three years ago yesterday.6 Remember? Any regrets? A few on my side, but all for your sakes.
All my love to you both.
Your loving son,
At some date in late September 1940 the Ark Royal was detached from the Mediterranean fleet and sent to West Africa to join a fleet of more than twenty ships off the highly strategic port of Dakar. Dakar was the capital of French West Africa (now Senegal), and was in the hands of pro-German Vichy7 French forces. Orders to the fleet were to negotiate for a peaceful occupation, but if this was unsuccessful, to take the city by force.
On 23 September, the Fleet Air Arm dropped propaganda leaflets on Dakar but this met with a hostile response, and combat commenced. Guy was on the Ark Royal during what became known as the Battle of Dakar (also called ‘Operation Menace’) and wrote the letter about the force-landing in the Mediterranean soon after. The battle went badly for the Allies and the fleet suffered some damage, though the Ark Royal was unscathed. After a few days the Allies withdrew, leaving Dakar and French West Africa in Vichy hands.
Nearly two years later, on 7 August, Guy began what was to be his last letter home. It was received on 18 August 1942, after the news of his disappearance had already reached our parents.
My dearest Mum and Dad,
I am sorry I could not write more fully last time and there has not been an opportunity since then … Surely by now you have had more definite information about Paul and David, perhaps even a letter from them or is it too soon to hope for that? How kind of so many people to write to you and send flowers, the boys must have been very charming and popular and everybody knows how much you love us.
As I said before, I will write as soon as we get the boys’ addresses, and until then can barely wait and join with you in hoping and praying always that they are safe and well.
We are all still on top line and even more so now because at last we have broken our luck. Unfortunately, I was not batting but our two youngsters made no mistake and hit it for a flaming boundary – apparently it wasn’t raining so no umbrellas appeared during the old-fashioned Torch Song. Cracking show! And although they modestly belittled the whole affair – ‘it was a piece of cake, old boy, like taking candy from a kid,’ we are all very proud and jealous of them. I am so glad the sprogs went in first – it increases the morale so much, whereas when the captain or vice of the team goes in to bat they more or less expect us to hit a six anyway.
Our turn will come and personally after all this training and working up I am keen to get my eye in the game – my scores have been static for too long. Roll on double figures – one, two, three – Oh, Larry!! Another thing causing great spec satisfaction to one and all is our skipper’s promotion to Rear Admiral – perhaps you heard it over the wireless as we did one lunchtime – the stripes were duly ‘wetted’.
Still no news from Margaret, so you can readily imagine how I enjoyed reading her letter to you dated May 23, then again perhaps there will be some this time. I want to send her a birthday present for November 12, but as I can’t contemplate risking the wonderful undies et al (and expensive), I wonder if you could possibly get two books for me and send them to me. I’d like ‘Bedside Esquire’ published by Heinemann and Stuart Cloete’s new one ‘Hill of Doves’. Could you possibly send them to me?
Books are at a premium, wherever we have been so far we have been unable to get anything decent.
We haven’t scattered our celebrations over the whole 12 months very successfully, my wife and I, everything falls on top of everything else: engaged October 25, Megan’s birthday8 November 12, married December 20, then this Christmas and New Year and finally Deirdre on January 7 – Oh, it will be perfect when we are all together again.
I can’t get that silly little Scots ditty out of my head: the one that Megan used to sing and is no doubt now crooning to young Deb.9
There was a wee Cooper who lived in Fife – Rickety rackety roo, roo, roo. And he took himself a handsome wee wife – Hi Willie, Wallikii Hoo!
Silly but so sweet when sung by Mrs B Jr, at least I think so.
Guy completed the letter on Monday 10 August with a short addition:
My Dearest M and D,
Even this letter has to be finished off in a hurry, but I shall answer your letters and even be able to expect a rapid reply i.e. as soon as we get your letters on board – figure
it out for yourselves. I can’t say any more! Au revoir for now, longing for letters from both you and Megan – lots of entries in the log book recently but still no batting averages! Figure that out too!
Ever your loving son
P.S. Please send me the books if they are obtainable, also any later gen you may have from Mrs B Jr.
Guy was last seen on the following day, 11 August 1942.
- This was the first Anglo-French naval exchange since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
- The mentions of ‘Ice cream laddies’ and ‘Wop’ (next page) refer to Italian pilots.
- Principal Medical Officer
- D/f: probably a ‘Direction Finding’ signal.
- Meaning an air battle.
- Three years before, Guy was a bronzed life-saver on the Durban beach
- The Vichy government was the collaborationist French Government formed after Germany defeated and occupied France near the beginning of the war.
- ‘Megan’ was Guy’s pet name for Margaret.
- ‘Deb’ was their pet name for Deirdre.