The SCOTIA was one of Holyhead’s cross-channel ships, sank at Dunkirk on June 1st exactly 60 years ago. Thirty member of the ship’s crew died, several more were injured, and up to 300 of the French troops she was carrying also lost their lives. The ship’s Master, Captain William Henry Hughes 54, at the time of the tragedy, recorded all that happened in his log book, prior to, and during this very sad day:- On the 26th May, 1940, the Scotia with its full crew was at Southampton, under two hours’ notice. The order came at 7.30pm on the following day (27th) to proceed to Dover with all possible speed. We left berth 42 at 9.30pm and passed through Spithead about 10.30pm. We arrived off Dover about 7am the following morning. I there received orders to proceed to Downs, and anchor to await further orders. At 5pm having received orders and route instructions, we weighed anchor, and proceeded to Dunkirk, steering various courses as ordered and make for the Eastern Channel off Dunkirk, where we arrived at 9.45pm. The weather was calm and hazy. We sighted several destroyers at anchor off the Eastern Channel entrance who were engaged in shelling enemy positions. We signalled destroyers for guidance and were told to proceed to Dunkirk. It was now getting dark, so I signalled for a pilot, but received no reply. Dunkirk was all ablaze and dense cloud of smoke obscured the port. We could hear heavy firing form inshore and violent explosions in the port. Transport “Malines” was following Scotia, so we consulted as to procuring a pilot. “Malines” signalled “proceeding to Grave-lines”. About two miles ahead “Malines” was fired on from shore, so we returned, steering east, towards eastern end of channel. Several small craft lay about at the end of the channel, none of them showing any lights. It was now 0.55am Wednesday 29th. Whilst going astern and keeping in mid-channel, the Scotia was struck abaft engine room, on the port side. It was sounded all round but was found not to be taking any water and all compartments were dry. This proved afterwards to be a torpedo which had struck the bilge keel and failed to explode. We hailed a small sloop which as proceeding towards the end of the Eastern Channel and asked if Dunkirk was clear. On being told what ship we were, he told us to proceed cautiously towards the entrance. He added “you are very badly needed”. On this I decided to go on and do our utmost to relieve the situation. the small craft all along the pier were shifted so as to enable us to berth. We berthed about 1.30am close to the light, East pier. Immediately the vessel was alongside the Embarkation Officer requested that I should take as many troops as possible. This I did. The counter showed 2,700 but many more had been taken aboard of whom no account could be taken. The Scotia I estimated had fully 3,000 troops on board, as every available space had been taken up. The troops (British) were very exhausted, and many of them could hardly walk along the pier. The Embarkation Officers duty was a very strenuous one, and in passing I should like to express my admiration of the manner in which this difficult work was carried out by them. I gathered that some of these officers had been on duty, unceasingly, for thirty-six hours. Having embarked the troops we left berth at 3.55am (Wednesday 29th). It was now getting light and just after leaving Dunkirk and proceeding east along the channel I saw a troop ship of the tramp type, aground – it was full of troops who were being disembarked into several small craft. We also saw a destroyer which had been sunk. I could not say if they were there on our outward trip as it was then dark. The Scotia completed its returned voyage without further incident. On our way we passed a large number of vessels of every description – large and small, some proceeding towards Dunkirk and others returning carrying as many troops as their craft would hold. It was quite inspiring to see these vessels doing their best to render help. We arrived at Dover at 10am having waited outside until a berth was clear. Berthing was rather difficult as the ship had a heavy list owing to the troops crowding to the shore side. However, disembarkation went on smoothly, and 3,000 of our gallant B.E.F. found themselves safely on British soil. We spent some hours during the day coaling, part of which was done at Dover to enable us to proceed to Sheerness. We left for Sheerness on Thursday May 30th at about 3am. We arrived alongside coal hulk “Agincourt” about mid-day and shipped 90 tons of coal. We were then ordered off the hulk to No.13 buoy until 7am Friday. I was then ordered to Margate Roads to complete bunkering. Coaling was a difficult proposition as there were no facilities at Margate Roads.The Scotia having been supplied by the Naval Authorities with bags and shovels, the coal was bagged from the coaster “Jolly Days”, and carried to the bunkers. Altogether 90 tons of coal was shipped in this way. Members of the crew, from all departments, gave willing and untiring assistance in bunkering.It was now 9.30am Friday 31st May.
Bunkering now being completed I signalled Naval Authorities to that effect and they ordered me to await instructions – this came at 5.45am Saturday. That order was to proceed to Dunkirk. The Scotia left Margate Roads about 7.40am When about four miles from No.6 buoy – western entrance – Dunkirk Channel. I was signalled by one of H.M.destroyers, which was going in the opposite direction, “Windy off No.6 buoy” – this signal was repeated. About two miles from No.6 buoy we saw several enemy bombers approaching directly for us. We counted ten bombers, but they kept at a good height. Our guns opened fire and kept on continuously – our guns were a Bren on poop deck and a Lewis by navigating bridge. Bombs were dropped all round us, but none scored a hit. I manoeuvred with helm and had the engines going at full speed. A little while later we saw several British planes coming from N.E. direction. By this time the enemy planes had disappeared, but no sooner had our planes gone than two enemy bombers returned again. We were now approaching Dunkirk, steering inside the channel buoys so as to avoid wrecks. We were fully occupied trying to avoid bombs, buoys and wrecks. I had reduced speed approaching the entrance when the bombers again drooped two bombs one about 100 feet from the port quarter, the other about 50ft ahead of us. I received orders to proceed to west mole to embark French troops and arrived at 11am. We found Dunkirk quiet except for a few rounds fired from shore batteries. Immediately on arriving at Dunkirk we embarked all the French troops who were waiting on the west mole – there were about 2,000 of them.
We left at 12.25am for Sheerness, June 1 On our return trip, also, I had to keep close to the buoys so as to avoid wrecks and small craft making for Dunkirk. After passing No. 6 buoy, we saw the enemy bombers coming from eastern. They came in formation of fours, there were at least twelve of them. In each case, they swooped low – the two outside planes machine-gunning and the two inner, each dropping four bombs, none of which scored a hit. The second formation of four passed over us, flying very low. The shots from their machine-guns dropped like hail all around the bridge and funnels, and dropping in the water ahead. One bomb struck the ship abaft the engine room on the starboard side, and another on the poop deck, starboard side. Immediately the third four swooped over us again and one of their bombs dropped down the after funnel, while the others dropped on the stern. During all this time, our guns kept firing, but with no effect on the enemy. Up to then, we were gong at full speed and manoeuvring with the helm. An S.O.S. had been sent out. I ordered another to be sent, but I was informed that the wireless cabin had been shattered, and the wireless operator blown out of his room, but he had escaped injury. All these bombs had caused extensive damage and the ship was gradually sinking by the stern and keeling over to starboard. I therefore gave orders to abandon ship. The engines had been put out of action. We carried ten boats, but three of them had been smashed by the bombs. The troops, being French, could not understand orders, and they were rushing to the boats making it difficult, as the vessel was keeling over to starboard. The chief officer had been given a revolver by a French officer – threatening to use this, helped matters a little. However, they obeyed my mouth whistle and hand signs, and so stood aside while the boats were being lowered. Commander Couch of H.M.S. “Esk” H.15-had received our S.O.S. He was lying at Dunkirk at the time. He came at full speed to the rescue. By now, the boat deck, starboard side was in the water, and the vessel was still going over. He very skilfully put the bow of his ship close to the forecastle head taking off a large number of troops and picking up hundreds out of the sea. Backing his ship out again, he came amid ships on the starboard side – his stern being now against the boat deck, and continued to pick up survivors. The Scotia had by now gone over, until her forward funnel and mast were in the water. Two enemy bombers again approached us dropping four bombs, and machine-gunning those swimming and clinging to wreckage. The Esk kept firing and drove the enemy away. Commander Couch again skilfully manoeuvred his ship around to the port side, the Scotia having gone over until the port bilge keel was out of the water. Hundreds of our soldiers were huddled on the bilge, and some of them swam to the Esk, while others were pulled up by ropes and rafts. The bombers returned but were driven away by heavy firing from the Esk. I was informed by one of my crew who was on the destroyer that one of those two bombers had been brought down by the Esk. Rescue work continued. Large numbers of the troops who had climbed up on the bilge were comparatively easily rescued. Others swam to the nets attached to the destroyer, where willing hands were ready to haul them up. These nets proved to be a very great help. By this time, all who were able to help themselves had left the wreck, but there were three lying seriously wounded. One of them was a steward on the Scotia, the other two being French soldiers. A rope was thrown from the destroyer. I tied this around the steward and by means of a boat fall lying across the side of the Scotia I was able, by holding on to it, to ease the jerk into the water and against the side of the destroyer. He was very badly injured, but he was very patient, and never grumbled. I learnt that he has since had one leg amputated. The two French soldiers were rescued in the same way. Having assured myself that everyone who was still alive had been taken off, a boat spar was swung from the Esk on to the Scotia by which I climbed aboard the Esk. The destroyer landed the survivors at Dover. Many other survivors had been picked up by boats from another transport and other craft which were in the vicinity, and were landed in different ports. I deeply regret to report that our final list showed twenty eight of our crew to be missing and two others have since died in hospital, while several are lying injured in hospitals. I estimate that between two and three hundred troops must have lost their lives. May I warmly thank the commander of the “Esk” for his skillful work, which was the means of saving many hundreds of lives
TRIBUTES from the CAPTAIN
May I add:-
My crew excelled themselves in carrying out their duties, and straining themselves to give every possible assistance during this difficult ordeal. My three officers worked magnificently – the Chief Officer, Mr. E. R. Pritchard, in his handing of the troops and preventing panic. Second Officer Campbell and Third Officer Cowley worked strenuously with launching the boats. The four engineers who were not incapacitated also did good work in connection with boats and rafts The two wireless operators, Mr. J. Seed and Mr. G. Jones stuck to their posts and Mr. Seed showed presence of mind in bringing me the confidential documents to be destroyed. The four Q. Masters, Williams, Jones (who was later killed), Taylor and Rowlands are also deserving of praise. I should like to mention particularly the Boson, Mr. W. Williams, for his good work with the boats, while Riddel and Lewis were two outstanding seamen, as was also a steward Taylor. The pilot, R. W. Roberts of Dover, entered with enthusiasm into the rescue work and gave great assistance.
CREW from the HMS SCOTIA
Captain Evan R. Pritchard who was a Chief Officer on the Scotia ship at Dunkirk. He is shown in the clothes in which he arrived home – a military grey coat with a bayonet hole in the nether.