Dunkirk: James Lownie of Gourdon
by: Craig, Celia
James Lownie of Gourdon, fish merchant, born 1921 recounts his Dunkirk experiences in the Royal Navy in the course of an interview about his memories of fishing, fish merchant work and World War II.
James served aboard various trawlers at war during the War and in several theatres of War: the Channel, Scapa Flow, Sicily, North Africa, North Atlantic. The ship he was on at Dunkirk was the Strive, a seventy foot Lowestoft drifter.
Interviewer : What were you doing at Dunkirk?
James : Taking off the troops off the beaches. We went right into the harbour – the jetty was on fire. We went two or three mile along the beach at Dunkirk and the soldiers were wading up to their necks. Well, we towed (1) three small boats across and the first one that we let go to the beach was blown right out o the water, within fifty yards o us. I was on the capstan, the old-fashioned capstan, pullin in other boats all night. We took two hundred and forty-six soldiers back to Ramsgate from Dunkirk. There was not much free board left on the trawler, wi the weight o the soldiers.
Interviewer : What did you feel like being at Dunkirk? Were you aware that this was a massive defeat for the Allies and yet a huge rescue operation?
James : We realised it. We seen the state the sodjers wis in. It wis something terrible.
Interviewer : Ye mean being wounded or just totally terrified?
James : Just terrified. There were bombs and everything flying about.
Interviewer : Were you nae faird (feared/afraid)?
James : I wis faird a guid lot o times, I’ll tell you.
James was given only three days leave after the horrors of Dunkirk
James : I’d nae claes left. I gaed a sodjer my best suit and everything and I said, “Now gimme it back before we go ashore at Ramsgate” but the next thing I seen him in a sma boat away. I got three days leave and no clothes to put on. A good job I had an overcoat. I come home in an overcoat and a jersey. If I’d been caught by the
(1) “Towed” is given its Scots pronunciation to rhyme with “loud”, not “owed”
2. On the Move – different drafts – a poisoned arm – French defeat at Oran
James recounts his movements after Dunkirk
…after Dunkirk, I was sent to Lowestoft for a course on Asdics and from there I was sent up to Campbelltown to train with submarines and everything for that job. Then back to Lowestoft and got a draft to Paisley to pick up a ship at a yard just across from John Brown’s and it was an Admiralty-built special trawler for mine-sweeping and patrolling and anti-submarine. Our first trip I went up to Scapa Flow and our first trip was escort a ship up to Faeroe Islands to – for mail for the troops and everything. As far as we understood there was twenty-six thousand troops in Faeroe. And we made land at night, just before dark and it was hazy-kind and our Captain was not right sure where they made the land – so this big ship dropped anchor and we put a wire hawser doon because our cable wasn’t long enough for the depths of water. Within half and hour, this great, black cloud came out of the sea, a hurricane o wind, a hundred and twenty-six miles an hour – in Faeroe and snow. We steamed thirty-six hours through this. A Lieutenant Commander from – belonged Peterhead took charge o our ship. He was going to take charge o all the flotilla trawlers in Faeroe and he took charge o our ship. And our Skipper wanted to turn the ship round about and he says, “If you turn the ship round about now, it’s the last thing ye’ll do. You’ll turn it round when I tell ye.” When we got to Faeroe, they thought we had been bombed. All our chartroom was away; smaller boats on both sides was away; five hundred gallon drums o oil to both sides o the ship – there was ten each side – we had to hack them away. They thought we had been bombed. There was a twelve-pounder gun forward and it was bent over. It was that bad. We got two months leave in Aberdeen – two months to re-fit. That was the time that Aberdeen was bombed. And then after that we went back to Faeroe, patrolling Faeroe and sighting a the mines that were floating up there. One night we got word to proceed to Cardiff, get a re-fit, ready for going to Oran for the Invasion of North Africa. I got a jag and it went poisonous. They sent me away to Gibraltar on that ship like that – no doctor, or nothing. However, my wife was expecting my son at that time. It was six weeks before I heard what had happened to them. Our job was patrolling the beach at Oran where the French fleet was in the harbour. (2) The Rodney and Renown and other battleships was alongside the high land and they did just blow them right out o the water. Next morning, there was this destroyer came, thinking the four trawlers that was on the beach could have landed the troops. They thought it was easy meat, easy … - but he didn’t know there was a destroyer inside of us and he just came out and the first salvo, he made up a smokescreen and the French destroyer came out the smoke screen and our destroyer behind him. They never left one survivor. (3)
(2) The Vichy-French fleet.
(3) James’ ship the Strive witnessed the destruction of the Vichy French fleet at Oran, at the hands of the darlings of the Royal Navy, including the famous Rodney and Renown. The whole French fleet was sunk except for one destroyer which was later blown up by the Lightning. James later recounted an amusing sequel for a Strive stoker who had apparently gone missing but was later found intoxicated on retrieved French wine below decks. Barrels of French wine were floating in Oran Harbour when the Strive entered after the bombardment.
3. The missing ship - on a charge – not saluting an officer
There was one draft I had from Dunoon, joining a ship in Barrow. I got to – I’d a kitbag and hammock – got to Barrow. There was one man, a naval rating on the quay and he said, “Yer ship’s not here. I think it went to Portsmouth.” So I – no Plymouth – so I got a travel warrant to go to Plymouth. Ye can imagine from Barrow wi a kitbag and hammock right down to Plymouth. I left Dunoon, got to Plymouth. “Yer ship’s not here. I think it’s at Portsmouth.” So I got a travel warrant to Portsmouth, got down to the same Victory . “Yer ship’s not here. You’ll have to go back to Dunoon.” So comin out o the Victory , it was a very naval thing, I failed to salute an officer. I was taken back, put on a charge. So I – there was a petty officer there, a Chief Petty Officer. I said, “I think I should see the Captain” “Oh, ye can’t see….” I says, “Well, I’m not going out of here unless I see a Captain, see somedy.” Well, the Captain came, he heard my, all my thing. I wisna shaved or nothing. He says, “Get this man up to the station at Portsmouth and get him on a train back to his Base.” (4)
3. Wartime food on board a trawler at war
Cookie and the ingins (5)
James describes the food aboard the War Duke.
I’ll gie ye anither laugh about the food. Our cook was a nineteen year old lad from Caister in England. He just didna hae a clue about cooking and we hid seven or eight Scotchmen aboard and he made soup one day and it was just like water and John Murray fae Buckie says, “Cookie, ye’ll hae to pit something amin the soup ti gies it a taste.” He said, “Pit an ingin or something in amon it.” So the next day the soup comes forrit and there’s little white bitties floatin in the water. And he says, “Good God, Cookie, fit’s that ye’ve puttin in amin?” “Well, Jock, “ he says. “You told me to put an egg… (Laughter breaks out at this point in the interview). That’s just one case o fit happened. At Christmas time they brought a seven pound tin o corned beef and threw it doon the gangplank. He said, “That’s yer Christmas dinner.”
Field Tomatoes and an air raid
James recounts efforts to secure supplies during a time of scarcity at the Invasion of Sicily.
(4) Ironically James never found this ship!
(5) Gourdon Scots for “oinions”. Gourdon, Gurden to the residents is a small fishing village 12 miles south of Stonehaven where James grew up.
We gaed up ti Augusta and that’s far there wis the twa torpedoes. And we wis pootin on the boom to open, to let the ships oot and in. And we wis waitin a supply ship comin in for gien us – we hid nothing ti eat. And we used ti hae ti ging ashore ti the fairmer and get a chit and ging inti a field, a fairmer’s field and gither tomatoes, tomatoes and hard biscuits for six weeks. And then eventually they got the sma boat ower – thir ship cam in. And the next morning, daylicht, here’s the ship jist the masts, sunk. We’d an affa air raid that nicht. And eventually we got the sma boat and me and this young fella fae Nairn were good sweemers and we gaed ower and dived doon and got the hatch open and we got American supplies and were quids in. Filled the boat.
4. A fatal air raid at Augusta – death of a pal – sea burial
James describes the coal dust fuel and the terrors of an air raid after trips to Bahrain and Sorrento on their return to Augusta to take on fuel.
And then we were sent for coal. And we were sent to a barge and we were digging in amongst this – jist like stour – Italian coal’s just like stour – and here’s a great lot o
sails and mines and aathing underneath the coal. The Germans had jist filled it up So the next day we wis sent to taak a ship oot ti get her compass adjusted. And we just got outside the harbour when the air raid signal went. And of coorse wi this stoury coal that we hid, oor ship was force draft, and it used to just come through the funnel black – and this plane cam oot, richt up through the coal (6), machine gun through the mast and a bomb each side and het (hit) a cordite box on the gun platform, killed one o my pals, belongin Ladybank and injured ither five that wis on tap o the gun. And I wis up – I wis thrown aff my seat at the side o the Captain o the ship (7) and he went oot the chartroom and looked over – and he started vomiting over side and he cam in and he said, “Lownie, ye better go and see what ye can do down there. Seems to be a lot o damage” So I went down and went up on the gun and here’s the Leading Seaman wi the rum jug. I helped myseldf ti the rum and I hid ti put my pal in a straight jaikit (8) and we drowned him. Sea burial.
5. Fishing off Scapa Flow
James recounts a fishing sideline at Scapa Flow
Later I was drafted to Scapa Flow and I was on the boom, the main boom for Scapa Flow. We used to patrol that night and day. It was just the usual five days (out), five days in. We used to work a bit o line cause I knew all about that, line fishing (9) Well,
(6) James indicates that the plane emerged out of the black smoke they were belching because of the stoury coal
(7) James explained that he was usually on the Bridge operating the Asdic, having had anti-submarine training.
(9) Line fishing was a fishing mainstay at Gourdon prior to seine netting. Long lines with twelve hundred hooks were baited by the fishermen’s wives with shelled mussels in a labour-intensive daily job. The men prepared and redd and shot these lines off the stern of the boat over a funnel -shaped device and then later hauled in the lines and unhooked the fish, leaving the lines ready to be redd and prepared for another shot. The fish obtained by this method were exceedingly fresh – the best fish ever
my petty officer belonged to Helmsdale and he knew about the lines and so we worked what we called seven hunks line which was five hundred and sixty heuks. Well, we went up Longhope Bay in Scapa Flow and collected mussels off the beach, cock-cockles, not mussels – we shelled the cockles and baited the lines and we had little white buoys so that they would hardly be noticed and we always shot and pulled them during the darkness. We used to get big haddocks and everything just at the boom and had to fillet them and fry them and everything. The Skipper widna hae naebody fryin his fish but me.
(tasted) The fishermen themselves sometimes baited what was known as a greitlin at sea with fewer hooks. It is to this variant that James refers here.