Captain's Log

Archive for November, 2008

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Raid on Saint Nazaire in 1942

The humble old trawler/mine sweeper but none the less H.M.S. [or H.M.T.] Picton Castle was apparently one of 17 (or 19) vessels that constituted the first Allied surface raid on mainland Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. We expect that, being a mine sweeper, our ship was sweeping for mines. Possibly she was carrying out other tasks and duties as well. It is difficult or impossible for most of us to grasp the sense of duty, sacrifice and horror for those involved. Our Barque Picton Castle was laying in Saint Nazaire, France, a short walk from the dry-dock that was the very target of this raid. It has been fixed up since the raid and all is forgiven.

Along with many other steam trawlers, the Picton Castle was conscripted into the Navy in 1939 to fill an emergency need for mine sweepers and convoy escorts in and around the British Isles. While crewed largely with grizzled old salts of fishermen who, while perhaps lacking Naval discipline and polish, needed little training in handling mine sweeping gear, so similar to fishing gear it was. And seamanship? There wasn’t much any six week naval boot camp was going to teach these fishermen about the sea. These prosaic small vessels were often captained by young reserve officers with limited experience. Headquarters for the service were at Lowestoft at a place called “the Sparrows Nest”. A pretty rough and ready, rag-tag crowd they were. Dangerous, demanding work was their daily lot. Our little ship may well be the last HMS Royal Navy vessel from WWII in full active condition. She is the only one under sail, that’s for sure.

The Raid

In March of 1942, in the dark days of heavy trans-Atlantic convoy losses, the British executed a raid at Saint Nazaire which was the first surface attack on German-occupied France in the war, in order to deny to the German Navy an Atlantic dry-dock for their two big Battleships the Tirpitz and the Bizmark. If they could put this dock out of action then these very scary ships would have to steam the long narrow waters past Denmark and Sweden to get to a dry dock in Germany and back again, making them much more vulnerable to Allied destruction. These two ships were of particular interest due to their ability to run ragged over desperately needed Atlantic convoys with impunity. The raid took place and is considered one of the outstanding acts of British heroism in the war. More Victoria Crosses were awarded in this raid than any other comparable action in the Second World War.

However, for the Allies this raid was not easily done or even conceived. The big dry dock at Saint Nazaire is not on the coast, it is way up a river. A force would have to approach Nazi-held France deep in the Bay of Biscay undetected and then steam miles up the River Loire. The river has strong tides, currents and sand bars and it is all very exposed. Alternately, bombing the docks successfully would have required pinpoint accuracy against a facility heavily defended with anti-aircraft weaponry. Area bombing might not have worked and would have been sure to inflict an unknown but certainly large number of civilian casualties. A conventional naval assault looked doubtful as well – submarine nets made a sub attack not on. Thus the raid on Saint Nazaire, “Operation Chariot,” was cooked up with Lord Louis Mountbatten at the head. It was to be a commando raid. And on paper, very, very bold. Their best advantage was that the Germans probably knew this and had thus dismissed the possibility of a raid of this nature in their planned defences.

The plan was to ram a fast ship full of explosives into the dry dock doors and blow the dock to pieces. Sounds simple, but simple and easy are not the same thing, they rarely are. They took one of Roosevelt’s fifty old “Lend Lease” WWI destroyers, the HMS Cambletown (formerly USS Buchannen, I think), and stripped her down, altered her enough to pass for a German destroyer as best they could and packed her with tons of explosives in the bow and set out from Falmouth, England with a bunch of support craft including, we are told, our Picton Castle. She must have gone ahead to sweep for mines as she was never that fast.

At 0130 in the morning the destroyer rammed the dry dock at 20 knots almost jumping over the gates and crushed and sliced about 40 feet of her bow. The commandos jumped ashore and ran off to do their work blowing up bits and pieces of the dockyard, quickly figuring out that getting back to England by their attending launches wasn’t going to happen as most of these launches didn’t make it. They were either captured or found clever ways to get back to England (by way of Spain), the ones that lived. It was probably a diversionary air raid that tipped the Germans off that something was happening. Anyway, by 1000 in the morning most of the survivors had been captured by the large German force. While they were being rounded up, the ship exploded. The Germans must have thought the wrecked ship was safe as there were about 250 aboard looking around, taking pictures or nearby, that died in the explosion. The blast also put this dry dock out of business until 1947.

The raid worked – the Tirpitz was effectively trapped and was destroyed before she could sink a ship. It was brave, audacious, horrible and successful. Many Allied supply ships got through to England that might not have. There was another consequence as well – sometime after this raid, Hitler issued an edict that any and all commandos, in uniform or out, surrendering or not, wounded or not shall simply be shot. This resulted in many dead commandos, and later, hung German officers at the end of the war. But the Germans who fought and picked up the commandos of Saint Nazaire were unanimous in their admiration of those warriors who had taken part in this infamous raid.

locking into St Nazaire, hopefully the last lock for a while
PC alongside the huge and virtually indestructible submarine pens
The Bracken brothers
the very large drydock that Picton Castle helped take out of commission in WWII

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Milford Haven, Wales

From a still anchorage under the high cliffs off nearby Dale, the Picton Castle steamed up the estuary towards her old and original homeport of Milford Haven in Wales. Interesting and anomalous sights framed us on either side of the fjord that Nelson once called one of the best natural harbours anywhere. On one hand the hills, cliffs and meadows were beautiful, pristine and the very picture of cultivated natural countryside, even a bit on the wild side; green and windswept, rocky promontories, cows grazing. On the other hand this river is one of the largest oil, petroleum and, soon, natural gas terminals in the British Isles with all the steel industrial pier-heads, big silver pipes snaking across the hills, high stacked refineries in the distance burning off gas and super-tankers that go along with such.

Once past a huge tanker turning around to get to sea with the help of two large tug boats (and with plenty of communication on the radio with Vessel Traffic Control and the tanker’s pilot to ensure a comfortable passing) we pulled into the Milford Haven wet-dock basin by slipping through the narrow open lock open at high water for what is called free-flow. Through the lock, pirouetted around and alongside, we were soon moored in the small basin for the duration of our visit. Under feline protest, Chibley was incarcerated as they do not allow foreign beasts such as her to wander freely about here. She hates this.

Our visit to Milford Haven and arrival had been well-heralded as the pilgrimage it was. Newspapers and signs in shop windows proclaimed “Picton Castle returns to Milford Haven”. Here we have the Picton Castle‘s original home port (she also fished out of nearby Swansea back in the day). Here we have the early Norman castle for which the ship was named. And here we have veterans, ghosts and spirits of the hard fishing life that this vessel once lived. At one time she was noted as a modern state of the art steam trawler, “fitted with electric lights” no less.

We wanted and hoped to share this proud survivor of a bygone day in her new and noble role of teaching the ways of a ship to a new generation with those that knew something of her heritage. We could not have come to a better place. Over the next few days we had visits with former fishing crew and gents who sailed in similar fishing vessels. The Mayor of Milford Haven and retired ships engineer Commander RNR J.W.J.Roberts RD and his wife and senior aids honoured us with a reception at City Hall where we presented him with a flag from Lunenburg. Our crew put on jackets and ties and nice dresses to meet the Mayor. Dressing nicely is more painful for some than others. We had school groups aboard the ship and were open to the public for three afternoons, the crew doing a tremendous job of telling about their ship and getting a good chance to meet local folks. The managers and staff of the excellent museum of the port came by as well. We had the staff of Picton Castle aboard after which we were all invited to visit the castle and the end object of our pilgrimage.

Milford Haven is not an ancient Welsh city. Milford Haven was largely founded in 1790 as a planned “proprietal” town with Nantucket whalers and their families (and their ships) recruited to set up a community based on whaling and the income so derived. Proprietal town means that one guy, a lord or something, owned the whole place. As a planned town of the 18th century, it is laid out in grid pattern just like Lunenburg, another planned colonial town -except this was sort of an American colony in the British Isles at the instigation of the English – all very confusing. At any rate, the town is laid out in squares regardless of hills or contours, also just like Lunenburg. As petroleum is not really much other than a substitute for whale oil, one can say with all the oil based industry and employment here that since two hundred plus years ago little has changed. Fishing is pretty well done here, though, as it is a lot of places, also like Lunenburg. No oil and natural gas coming into Lunenburg anyway.

Our visit to Picton Castle began when the director of Picton Castle and his staff came to the ship and presented us a big beautiful bouquet of cut wild flowers from the castle grounds. The next day we got hold of a small bus and took half the crew at a time up to Picton Castle where we got an excellent guided tour. Nothing at the castle is behind glass or ropes or nailed down, all is accessible and immediate. We were told that the English Royal family stays here when in the neighbourhood, Prince Charles once arriving by helicopter, sending gravel from the driveway everywhere. There was a wing chair for us to try in a lovely sitting room next to a fire place in which good Queen Elizabeth II has napped.

Their website will say more and more accurately, but this castle was built in 1300 as a medieval keep by the Phillips family. The name Picton comes from the fact it was on Picton land if I got the story straight. It was basically a classic square stone castle with tall round towers in each corner and later additions attached here and there. It very much feels like real castle. The main hall is a high room probably about 70′ x 40′ and was completely done up and over in the 1750’s (every 3 to 4 centuries a little remodelling is not out of the question) as a fine finished room which entertained Admiral Nelson and his mistress (and her husband who had a lot to do with the development of Milford Haven) withbeautiful marble floors, fine ornate plaster, paintings and detailing. Back in 1300 or so it would have actually looked a whole lot different and this hall would have been the main living, sleeping, cooking, back-scratching, lice chasing everything-room with heavy wide plank oak floors and dogs and cats and everybody from boss guy to servant lass associated with the place hanging out, full of smoke and fleas. The current ornate fire-place would have been a massive vaulted thing for cooking haunches of venison and radiating as much heat as possible, the high ceiling perhaps to dissipate the smoke that didn’t make it up the flue. No comments on what form the plagues took hereabouts. Elsewhere it took a third or more of Britain. We were told that this castle, although very castle-like, was not situated or constructed for defence even though it is a pretty early Norman castle. The descendents of the family that built the place have only recently moved into a smaller house on the grounds instead of living in a castle – can’t blame them.

The castle is surrounded by woods and soft hills. There is a maze garden and a botanical garden with medicinal herbs from all over the world. There is even a banana palm tree growing with vigour in the garden which shows how temperate it is in south west Wales. The crew were all treated to tea and we gave the castle the last print we had onboard of the painting of the ship by renowned marine artist Bill Gilkerson. There is no actual connection between the ship and the castle apart from the name but that is enough for us. The Phillips family had interests in two trawlers with Picton in the name but not this one. The next wave of Picton Castle crew visiting Picton Castle dressed up in tweeds, ties and long dresses and made a genteel picnic on the grounds after their tours.

We found the last fisherman’s pub here in Milford Haven – the fishermen are getting older and there are fewer of them but none the less, a fisherman’s den it was. The Heart of Oak. Not much to it, a small bar at one end, stools, chairs, table. At the other end a pool table and some benches around the walls. Suitably dark and appropriately close to the quays, rough exposed hand hewn beams overhead on the low ceiling – the whole affair maybe 60 by 20 feet in size – the place was a mariners home from the sea where our crew were well looked after. Evidence of the nature of the regular clientele was everywhere. Framed pictures of steam trawlers just like Picton Castle, dragged up bits of ships such as sea-worn dead-eyes, very ancient and made to take broad hemp rigging, worm-eaten blocks, stone canon-balls and the like cluttered the window sills and any nook and cranny available to accept such human tokens of the deep. None of these were shiny nautical antiques from the marine pub decorator catalogue or bought with money at an antique shop. These artefacts were dredged up off the ocean floor wherever trawlers like the Picton Castle cast their gear and paid for with the dangerous and cruelly hard work of the fishermen who went to sea to feed us and make a living. There aren’t too many ways for a dead-eye to get to the bottom of the sea. Usually a ship has to sink to place her dead-eyes and blocks down there. They also had a number of dredged up fossilised mammoth teeth which we were told are not that uncommon. The denizens of the Heart took our crew in and made them feel at home, sharing the pool table and filling the juke box with pence and pounds to keep the music churning until it was time to head home or closing time which in both cases was about 11:00pm. The Heart of Oak was presented a colour image of this ship under sail to go up next to her sisters steaming along in black and white. The venerable seaport Milford Haven seemed to have gotten a kick out of having their old ship back again and we had a good time too.

alongside in Milford Haven
Emma Lewis welcomes us to Milford Haven
flag presentation to Mayor s office, Milford Haven
small vessels rafted up in Milford Haven
the crew at Picton Castle
the great hall, Picton Castle
the PC crew at the Picton Castle

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Off Portugal

Just now the Picton Castle is sailing about 30 miles off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula at the northern Spain-Portugal border. We are southbound. We have taken the corner at Finisterre out of the Bay of Biscay without any drama, in fact a fair wind filled and backed and followed us around as we went from steering west out of Biscay to south along this coast. Often times, stiff south west winds prevail and make getting out of the Bay of Biscay difficult for a square-rigged sailing ship. Not so this time. Once in awhile getting cut a little slack by the gods of this sea world is sweet.

Wind is from the north, yards are squared – all sail set to the royals. Sailing almost dead downwind in a pleasant force 4 breeze with 3-4 foot seas- smatterings of white caps. Steering is easy. To help with steering the spanker is not set and the weather clew-garnet of the mainsail is hauled up to let winds to the foremast pulling the ship instead of pushing her. It is still cool at 60F (15C) this morning but skies are fair and a pretty blue with fair-weather clouds scudding along. Plenty of porpoise and whales to be seen from time to time.

We had a couple owls hanging out on the mizzen crosstrees for a few days in Biscay. We locked up Chibley the cat while they perched and lurked and hitched their ride. They took off and flew away when within sight of the Spanish coast. Every day of southing gets us warmer and into more light. Getting pretty murky there at 50 degrees north latitude and above it was. We are now finally below the latitude of Lunenburg for the first time since that Atlantic crossing in May-June and dropping latitude every day. The cat is working on her tan on the cargo hatch, this time without owls lurking hungrily overhead.

David, our Shetland Island sailmaker, is finishing up a new main topmast staysail. He laid it out, cut it, seamed it by hand, sewed on the tabling and corner patches, stuck all the grommets and now he has just roped it finished and stuck a couple cringles for the head and tack. He is one of those annoying guys who, once shown something, can do it better than I can the second time he tries – I just showed him to make wire cringles. He will be making them better than I do soon enough. He has a spanker and a new jib on the go as well. Donald, the cook, has just let me know that he wouldn’t mind sailing as cook in the next world voyage, should there be one – that would be OK by him. Our trainee crew are advancing smoothly in log-keeping, weather observations and chart house work.

We are bound for a small port down river from Lisbon called Cascais (cash-cay-ees), 350 miles from our point of departure at Ares, Spain. Here, now that we are in good reliable sunny weather, we intend to spend most of a week at anchor getting the ship tarred and painted, maybe send down the mizzen topmast for an overhaul as well as rigging exercise. This is also a good chance to work on small boat handling and advance as coxswains. And of course, a run ashore as well, sailors have to do that– finally out of the fog and cold or that is the promise anyway. The sea water temp has gone up four degrees since leaving Ares, near La Coruna in NW Spain. Soon we will be complaining about the heat…

In the works (meaning, I have to write them) are Captain’s Logs for our time in Milford Haven, Wales, the Picton Castle‘s original homeport and our passage and visit to St Nazaire, France where we had a most remarkable time. The Picton Castle had last been there in March 1942 as part of a British raid in the Second World War to put out of commission a giant dry-dock that could handle the largest German battleships. France was wonderful and we had great sailing conditions as we left. Soon we will be out of this ship’s former trading routes, which at one time were from Murmansk in the Soviet Union as far south as Portugal.

Dave working on the maintopmast staysl
DSC 0485
Kolin takes soundings on the way to anchor in Ares
Picton Castle at anchor in Ares

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