- Hampshire, A. Cecil
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2001 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As the day wore on Stannard took his trawler to the aid of other ships of the Group whenever they were hard-pressed, although the Arab herself had been damaged. But it was obvious to him that in their present situation the battle could have only one eventual outcome for the ships. There were no anti-aircraft guns on the heights around the fjord to drive off the bombers. Those same snow-capped hills effectively masked the ships’ radar sets so that they could gain no prior warning of the approaching enemy.
Tried to the limit of endurance by incessant air raids and the necessity for constant vigilance against the threat of a night attack by enemy surface craft or submarines, the trawlermen were verging on collapse from fatigue. In four days Arab alone had undergone 31 enemy air attacks during which more than 130 bombs had been aimed at her.
Stannard made up his mind. He took his ship beneath the exiguous shelter of an overhanging cliff and secured her head and stern. He found a cave nearby and stocked it with blankets and provisions. Lewis guns from the ship were taken ashore and set up around the cave for defence. At the top of the cliff the lieutenant established an air raid lookout post and equipped it with machine guns. Then, remaining onboard himself, he sent his crew ashore to the cave to snatch some much-needed rest. Next day the Gaul and Aston Villa joined the Arab at her anchorage and their crews joined up with that of Stannard in the cave shelter and took turns at manning the lookout post.
Whenever enemy aircraft approached the trawlers Stannard opened fire on them and spoilt their aim. At dusk he left the guns and, with the earphones on in the asdic cabinet, kept anti-submarine watch throughout the hours of darkness.
In daylight the dive bombers came over in flights of 12 at a time, concentrating their efforts against the little group of trawlers huddled in the lee of the cliff. Others screamed down to beat up the sailors’ lookout post. The Gaul took a direct hit amidships which damaged her so badly that she later had to be sunk. Next a bomb slammed into the Aston Villa and started a fierce fire onboard. Only a handful of her crew had remained in the ship and the uninjured got ashore. Promptly Stannard boarded the Arab with two of his men, for the blazing Aston Villa only a few yards away constituted a menace as the flames licked nearer to her magazine and depth charges. Coolly he cut the trawler’s moorings and manoeuvred her away to a safe distance. Miraculously the Aston Villa did not blow up. Her crew managed to extinguish the fire, and her engine room staff laboured so mightily and to such good effect that she could actually steam at six knots by the time that Namsos had to be evacuated. Despite the pleadings of her captain the trawler had to be sunk by our own forces, for as a lame duck she could never have cleared the coast before the dive bombers found her again.
Evacuation now became the order of the day, and at Namsos and Andalsnes the weary, defeated men of the Expeditionary Force and their Norwegian comrades clambered aboard warships and transports hastily sent to bring them away. Overhead the triumphant Luftwaffe planes circled and swooped ceaselessly.
Torn and scarred by bomb fragments and cannon fire, her plates leaking, her available living spaces crowded with survivors from other ships and from the shore, the gallant little Arab at last turned her battered bows towards the mouth of Namsen Fjord and the open sea. For five days Stannard, almost single-handed, had maintained his weary men in their cave shelter ashore and fought off all attempts to sink his ship. So well planned had been the defences of his lookout post that despite the incessant bombing and machine-gunning only one man had even been wounded. Now at last they were leaving this hell on earth.
But, like clouds of enraged hornets, the Junkers attacked the departing ships again and again with reckless fury. As the trawler steamed towards the open sea columns of spray soared skywards from near-misses, almost blotting her from sight. Dive bombers swooped with chattering cannon, to be met and deflected by the steady barrage flung up by Arab’s gunners.