June 1940, ship City of Derby, WT unit

Discussion in '1940' started by Roy Martin, Jun 8, 2020.

  1. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member

    I wrote the following based on an account provided by a veteran called Jack Mount, unfortunately I now can't locate Jack's papers. My question is, does anyone have any idea who this WT section was:

    At the outbreak of war the City of Derby had been taken up as a MT ship. By June 1940 she was tasked with landing a replacement W/T (Wireless Telegraphy) Section of about twenty five men, and their equipment, for Sedan, in Northern France. The Germans overran the area so quickly that the change-over could not take place. The group in Sedan were unable to reach Dunkirk, so the City of Derby made her way to St Valery to pick up the signallers who were attempting to reach Abbeville, just inland. When this too proved to be impossible, the ship followed the group to Cherbourg and then on to Brest, where the rescue was carried out.

    At first the City of Derby was ordered to go to a neutral Spanish port, a destination that filled both the signallers and the ship's crew with foreboding. The signallers asked that they be allowed a swim to cool off and enjoy what they thought might be their last taste of freedom. The Master anchored the ship off the lighthouse of Penfret on the Iles de Glénan where three of the signallers swam ashore, to the surprise of the lighthouse keepers who were expecting the Germans. The keepers maintained that their radio was too weak to send a message to London, so one of the party swam back to the ship and returned in the jolly boat, with their own wireless set. And, to help with obtaining permission to use it from the lighthouse crew, a loaded revolver. After being reprimanded by London for breaking shipboard radio silence, which they hadn't, they received permission to return to Liverpool.

    As supplies were running very low the Master decided to first call in to Brest. When they reached Brest Roads they were forbidden to land as the Germans were ' knocking at the door.' At the time those on the City of Derby were unaware of all the other ships rescuing troops from ports in the Bay of Biscay.

    When making for St George's Channel they sighted a submarine periscope, so they diverted west of Ireland, finally reaching Belfast on 27 June. i For some reason they were told to say that they were from Liverpool, not from France.

    iThe information is from Jack Mount's most interesting unpublished book about his First Ninety Years and from replies that he has kindly sent me. He went on to spend many months behind enemy lines in Italy.

    Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  2. MarkN

    MarkN Well-Known Member

    The whole story has a very strong whiff of not being right at all.

    1. A precious resource, a boat when boats were of desperate need, is bumbling up and down the French coast hoping to meet up with a group of 25 chaps. Only those chaps. No other.

    2. When they finally make contact and they board in Brest, they're ordered to neutral Spain. How bizarre! Everybody else is going back to the UK, why not they?

    3. Brest still hasn't fallen even after their lighthouse adventures - which helps with the date - and makes the order to set off for Spain even more bizarre.

    Are you sure this story has a grounding in reality? I notice you've written up a bit on the boat's movements into Brest around the time. Do those dates fit this story?
  3. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member

    There is no need to take such a stuffy attitude. He was an elderly man writing about 60 years after the event. I, for one, can't remember dates and ports clearly after 50 years. Also there were a number of merchant shipmasters who were having to make their own decisions at the time. Ships were ordered to all sorts of places, Oran, Lisbon, Morocco etc

    Facts: There was a City of Derby, she sailed from Southampton on 15 June and arrived in Belfast on 20 June, so the bit about Abbeville doesn't seem correct. Winser has her as arriving off Brest on the 17 June and sailing on the same day he is normally very reliable, though I can't see where he gets that information. Shipping departures from Brest ended on the evening of the 17 June, when the Germans arrived. Throughout the period the Movement card shows her as being O.H.M.S.
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2020
    Hugh MacLean likes this.
  4. MarkN

    MarkN Well-Known Member

    Not being stuffy at all.

    Simply trying to encourage the separation of stories of daring-do from those of historical reality.

    My recollection of your work is one of an attempt to tell history as it was. I applaud that.

    That narrative smacks of wistful daring-do which needs a fair amount of cross-checking to verify how it fits into historical reality.

    Does the order to go to Spain make sense to you? Especially when based upon the idea that it was given before Brest had fallen and boats were still routinely returning to the UK.

    From your "facts", it seems the boat had a relatively straight forward out and back crossing.
  5. Richelieu

    Richelieu Well-Known Member

    Roy, just some random thoughts/rhetorical questions that may help decipher Jack’s recollections.
    Events seem to have become truncated - should this read May instead of June, as Sedan had fallen by mid-May? If so, what was City of Derby doing in May? Could there have been different voyages or could they have been landed and lifted by different vessels?

    The route/timing of the retreat given fits that of the Second BEF. As you are doubtless aware, DYNAMO ended on 4 June, so Dunkirk appears to be a red herring.

    Not clear why this section would be going to Sedan - Saar Force (principally 51st Highland Div) would perhaps be more logical.
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2020
  6. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member

    You could be right, unfortunately the ship's movement card is a mess, she seems to have been running a shuttle service from Southampton, but the only destination mentioned is Havre on 6/5. I can't send the card as the file is too big, but I will print it then make a new copy later this morning.


    Having endless scanner problems, but it will be on the next message, I hope!!
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2020
  7. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member


    Attached Files:

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  8. Hugh MacLean

    Hugh MacLean Senior Member

    The Movement Card would have been written up ashore by a clerk from the Board of Trade and as you can see most of them are a bit of a mess.
    The best and most accurate way to find out which ports a ship called at would be to consult pages 20 and 21 of the Ship's Official Logbook for 1940 - BT 381/800

  9. MarkN

    MarkN Well-Known Member

    The only part of the story written up above to be historically verified (so far) seems to be the bit about leaving Brest and arriving in Belfast. That appears to have occured on 17th and 20th June. Does that allow sufficient time for the 'lighthouse' adventure to pass?

    I do not know who Jack Mount is so have no idea whether the story is based on a matelot or signaller (or other) perspective. Whichever it is you would hope that half the story has a good foundation in history whereas the rest may be shakey.

    The movement details posted above do not suggest the Derby had any connection with signaller movements until they met at Brest. That suggests a story coming from the perspective of a signaller knowing he's getting on a boat and makes an assumption that the boat he actually gets was also supposed to pick him up and other points too when the historicsl reality is more likely to be he just boarded the first available.

    Such a perspective would expect to have good, solid information about the locations of the signallers. But it doesn't. The mention of Sedan and Dunkirk demonstrate a lack of knowledge there too. The level of accuracy more likely to come from the matelot perspective.

    In other words, the story does not seem to be grounded in either the matelot or the signaller. The historical movements of the boat do not tie in with the story, the land locations do not go with history either. Sedan is 'famous' for being the place where the German panzertruppe breached the French line and began their charge into the rear area. Dunkirk gets referenced by all and sundry.

    Finally, as a pointer to possible further investigation, how about considering looking into what signals units were required by the RAF commands south of the Somme for communication back to the UK. Rheims is closer to Sedan than any other major British HQ.
  10. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member


    The next card starts: '1940, Southampton 13/6, Southampton 13/6 (presumably sailed) Southampton 15/6, O.H.M.S., Belfast 20/6'. There is no mention of Brest (so this is not 'verified'), or other French ports except Havre in the above card.

    I won't be able to get the Official Log until TNA reopens, and the ports will only show if they put the departure drafts in each time. I rather doubt they would have bothered as they presumably only had walking cargo, given the short stays in port.


  11. Richelieu

    Richelieu Well-Known Member

    I did a search for City of Derby and was surprised how little comes up - the one thing that did was your own transcript for Aerial:

    [2] Brest Arrivals: Wed Jun 12, 1940, include BAHARISTAN; Fri Jun 14, 1940, CITY OF CHRISTCHURCH, Sun Jun 16, 1940, CITY OF FLORENCE, ETTRICK, ORMONDE, OTRANTO. Mon Jun 17, 1940, CITY OF DERBY & STRATHAIRD, all independent; FRANCES DAWSON OA.168GF.


    Was Winser your source? What date applied to the middle mention?
  12. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member

    It looks as if I got that information from Convoyweb the Arnold Hague ports database section. The other date there for Brest is 13 June. Hague gives an arrival at Liverpool on June 23 and the same day at Belfast (six days after leaving Brest). This conflicts with the movement card, also Jack Mount says that they were ordered to Belfast and told to say they were from Liverpool, not Brest.
    I remember Jack Mount as being a reliable informant, I also remember that he went on to be the MD of an insurance company.
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  13. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member

    So: the City of Derby was one of a number of ships operating under direct military control (O.H.M.S). She made repeated trips to France returning to Southampton each time, the stays in port seem to have been too short for much, if any, cargo to be handled. On 13 June she made a call at Brest (this was two days before Operation - later Plan -AERIAL started). She then went to sea, returning on 17 June, when she was refused entry. On, or after 20, June she arrived in Belfast. This all ties in with what Jack Mount said, except that he failed to mention the returns to Southampton. The possibility of neutral Spain is a red herring, that is what they were told, probably by the 'galley wireless'.

    Thank you to Richelieu and Hugh MacLean, for their help.

    Perhaps someone can help with my original query - does anyone have any idea who this WT section was?


    Last edited: Jun 11, 2020
  14. MarkN

    MarkN Well-Known Member

    Is mention of Spain the only red herring? Sedan? Dunkirk? St. Valery? Abbeville? Lighthouses and swimming?

    Recorded evidence shews the boat leaving and arriving in Southampton on 13 June. Then departing again on the 15th. Next entry is Belfast on 20 June.

    The online Arnold Hague database has the same information for Southampton but adds Brest on 13 and 17 June and then has arrival Liverpool on 23 June. Then has a bit of confused movements involving Belfast followed by a shuttle between Belfast and Clyde.

    What to believe and what to discount?

    Did the signallers board the boat at Brest? On 13th or 17th?

    If the 13th, then surely they got off in Southampton on 15th. Is there time for a lighthouse swimming excursion? The boat may then have carried on to Belfast and Liverpool via Brest a second time, but what has that got to do with signallers and swimming excursions?

    If the 17th ... hang on, you've just decided they were refused entry on 17th so it can't be then.

    The story that the boat was following the group up and down the French coast is refuted by the recorded evidence.

    I appreciate you are trying to make the evidence fit the story, but the only way the lighthouse excursion and the denied entry to Brest on 17 June fits the recorded evidence is to pretend the entry for Southampton on 15 June doesn't exist.
  15. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member

    I have to admit that I had overlooked the call at Southampton on 15 June. That said I became a member of WW2 Talk to ask for help where needed and to help others. I did not join to get involved in senseless arguments. I intend to discontinue my involvement.

    Thank you to all those who have helped over the years.

  16. MarkN

    MarkN Well-Known Member


    You and l have engaged on this forum several times previously. I have always been struck by your desire to tell history as it was not the fluffy history of myth.

    We have concurred that the story of the BEF south of the Somme is rarely understood or acknowledged. The word 'Dunkirk' has dominated all historical understanding. One of our first meetings was this one here: Dunkirk 7th June 1940

    You are planning to reproduce (a small part of) Mount's story. Great!

    If your plan is to produce it as is, as an interesting story of dering-do, then crack on. My apologies for the 'senseless arguments'.

    However, if your intention is to write it - and present it - as a (true) historical narrative, then my points are far from senseless.

    The story is typical of a narrative shaped by 60 years of subsequent knowledge and hindsight. With contextual and background events being interwoven into a specific story as part of the story.

    Sedan, Dunkirk, Abbeville & St. Valery are all important historical reference points to the plight of the BEF south of the Somme. But they are only background and context to the specific story of City of Derby and a Signals detatchment.

    It is nigh on impossible to speculate a credible scenario when a single one of those places, let alone all four, directly relate to Mount's picking up Signallers story. At best, mention of events at those place set the scene as to why signallers were being pick up from France and brought home.

    On 13 June, troops and supplies were still being landed in France as part of the build up for Brooke's BEF v2. The Canadian 1st Infantry Brigade being partly put ashore 12 thru 14 June.

    Returning full circle to your original question.

    Given the lack of historical definition to the story, it's practically impossible to nail down a specific signals unit. We have nothing solid to explain where they were coming from, what they were doing and all we have is a 'best guess' that they were picked up on 17 June in Brest.

    Thinking out of the box.

    The first part landed at an unknown port and time could be related to HQ 1st Armoured Division's arrival mid May in Le Havre. Elements of the same formation also departed Brest on or around 17 June.

    Alternatively, they could be part of Brooke's entourage for his new GHQ.

    Both of these are based upon trying to tie two parties of connected signallers. One landed, another picked up. They are both pretty unsatisfactory.

    However, if the earlier landed party is not an historical reality, and the Mount story is a narrower focus on just a part of signallers picked up, then it could be just about anybody.
  17. MarkN

    MarkN Well-Known Member

    Having speculated as l did above, l've just checked the 1st Armoured Division war diaries.

    1st Armoured Division Signals boarded on 16 May (not specified but almost certainly Southampton) and unloaded Le Havre the following morning the 17th.

    Some of the unit left France from Cherbourg returning to Southampton, the bulk left Brest in the evening of 17 June arriving in Plymouth the next day.

    The dates do not seem to tally with the Derby's recorded movements for mid May. Almost, but not quite. There is no indication in the war diary that anyone from the unit got separated in Brest and ended up in Belfast then Liverpool. Not impossible, but only the combination of signallers, Brest and 17 June coincide.
  18. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member


    All noted.

    I have again searched for Jack Mount’s account, but have been unsuccessful. I disposed of my files on cargo salvage early this year and fear that it went with them. What I do have is the text of an e-mail, in which he says:
    ‘The extract from Don Kindell, from whatever ‘paper’ it was, was helpful. It confirms my memory that I was picked up by the “City of Derby” at Brest mid-June 1940, and appears to agree that we were in and out for a few days because of mining and aircraft activity. He also records that some ships were refused entry, and this agrees with my memory of our attempt to re-enter for bunkering before setting sail for Liverpool but arriving in Belfast. Unfortunately Kindell doesn’t record our berthing in Belfast (nor any other ships) on 27th Jun. (convoyweb) (his underlining and bold type). That has however been confirmed by PRONI in Belfast.'

    So it seems that I misunderstood which party he was in, having been ‘picked up’ by the ship. It follows that he would only have known about the ship’s prior movements from the others, and from any messages that had been exchanged.

    After I flounced off in early June I remembered that I had prints of the Lloyd’s List ship movements fore June 1940, which I regard as a primary source. I can find no mention of the City of Derby being in Southampton during the month, nor was she reported by any of the south coast Lloyd’s Signal Stations. The prints come from a microfilm reel, and two are slightly obscured when covering Southampton, but I think that the Movement Card information is incorrect. I decided to wait until the various libraries opened up, so that those who want to cross-check this can do so.

    I have no knowledge of military matters, my interest being the merchant ships, so I have to accept that Mount’s unit might never be known. That said I found in an earlier draft for the book I had him down as being in an RAF W/T unit, so I did a search for that. Quite a bit came up including extracts from a book The Defeat of the Few, by Douglas D Dildy and Paul F Crickmore:

    ‘Four of these (what later became radar) were positioned in a widely scattered line from Boulogne to Le Cateau to provide warning for BEF(AC) units. The fifth was established at bar-le-Duc, behind the Maginot line west of Nancy, to warn AASF bases of incoming raids. Short, uneven ranges, numerous blind zones, and no means to distinguish friend from foe resulted in ‘no useful information coming from [this system]’ according to the Air Ministry’s official history.

    The five radar sites in the north reported to No. 5 Signals Wing’s underground ‘filter centre’. Purpose built at Arras, it was expected to sort through the units’ radar plots and various air observer reports to alert the nearby BEF General Headquarters (GHQ) of incoming air raids. The Army’s Wireless Intelligence Screen provided observer reports from 25 observation posts, each manned by two RAF wireless telegraphy (W/T) operators and four Army observers (and a driver), attached to various BEF field units and headquarters. Mirroring Fighter Command’s Observer Corps back in Britain, it was chronically slowed because W/T transmitted in Morse code and each message had to be encrypted and encoded, and then decoded and deciphered on the receiving end, In the fast-paced campaign that was coming, there would be little time for all of that.

    Additionally the RAF deployed a section from its Wireless Telegraphy Intercept Service, know as ‘Y-Service’, which ‘listened’ for telltale transmissions from enemy radio transmitters to gather signals intelligence. Headquartered at Fismes in the Marne region, the unit was networked with AASF HQ at Reims and the British Air Forces in France (BAAF) Rear Area HQ at Columbiers using the French civilian telephone system. ….’

    I appreciate that it may be that only the last paragraph is relevant, but I put the preceding ones in to keep it in context.

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  19. Richelieu

    Richelieu Well-Known Member

    Glad to see you back Roy.
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  20. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member

    Thank you Richelieu, and Hugh and John H

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