John Wingate, 1971. Last Ditch: The English Channel, 1939-1943. Northumberland Press Ltd.
The first thing to record here is that Last Ditch is not a memoir. John Wingate, who served in the Royal Navy — principally in submarines — during the war, has instead gathered together a collection of genuine incidents from Coastal Forces and wound them around a short fictional narrative — a romance between Lt Wally Bruce, the main character, and Third Officer Suzanne Noyce. They are, according to Wingate, the only two fictional characters in the book: indeed, the acknowledgements section reads like a who’s who of Coastal Forces.
The book follows Lt Bruce from Dunkirk to Dieppe (which, despite the book’s subtitle, only takes us from 1940 to 1942). In those two years, Bruce manages to serve on a wide variety of vessels, providing us with examples of activity such as MLs on convoy duty, Fairmile C MGBs on covert operations and Combined Ops, MTBs on offensive patrols and even a passage in a Mobile Barrage Balloon Flotilla. All of these incidents, according to the publisher, are “historically accurate, based on the records and on the personal stories of survivors whom the author knows.” Wingate himself is a little less definite, saying only that the “episodes [are] based on accumulated and factual evidence”.
The book begins with Bruce’s experience of Dunkirk, starting with the quite factual loss of the destroyers HMS Wakeful and HMS Grafton. Bruce observes these events from the bridge of the drifter Comfort, survives its tragic loss after it is rammed by the friendly mine layer Lydd, then goes on to serve with destroyers Sheldrake and Malcolm. Following this he is assigned to ML 115 and spends the rest of 1940 and most of 1941 escorting convoys along the south coast of England. After an assignment to MGB 312 and an account of Operation Deepcut, the commando raid on St Vaast, Normandy, he takes command of MGB 336 and takes part in Operation Biting. In a brief transfer to the 21st MTB Flotilla, he serves on board Peter Dickens’ boat and readers will well recognise several stories also found in Dickens’ own memoir Night Action. Finally, the book finishes with an account of Operation Jubilee, with a particular focus on naval part in this failed commando assault.
Some of the book’s historical accuracy is impressive, even down to correctly identifying the yards that different boats came from. On the other hand, some of it has clearly been adapted. Although MGB 312 was built at Woodnut’s yard on the Isle of Wight, it was launched in the summer of 1941, not November as the book suggests. Operation Deepcut took place in September 1941, whilst the book places it in January 1942. The service on board a barrage balloon vessel in October 1941 appears to have been included to recount the events of Convoy Peewit, which actually took place in August 1940. These events have been moved, as have all of Dickens’ experiences, in order to make them fit into the timeline prescribed by the fictional narrative. This can make for some odd contradictions. In one footnote, HMS Acheron is noted to be mined shortly after the events just described, but a few weeks later in the narrative, Bruce mentions that she was sunk a year ago. In fact, Acheron was mined in December 1940 shortly after the factual events described (Convoy Peewit), but several months before Peewit’s depiction in the fictional timeline. Bruce’s later observation is correct in the real events timeline, but contradicts his own fictional timeline. Confused yet?
Additionally, some events are clearly fictional. Bruce’s role in Operations Biting and Jubilee — landing Noyce and her French lover in the former, picking them up in the latter — are not real events, and many details of some of the factual events do not stand up to scrutiny (for example, Flt Lt Priest did not go ashore in Operation Biting, but remained on his landing craft). At least one more character (Noyce’s lover) is fictional and one sailor’s perspective of a battle is presented, but his name does not appear in the acknowledgements, suggesting his perspective (general though it is) is not a genuine account.
Despite this criticism, the book plays a useful part in recounting several experiences of Coastal Forces that have not appeared in other publications. Even Peter Dickens’ memoirs would not appear for another three years after this book came out. The descriptions of Channel escort duty in the early years of the war are particularly enlightening and as most of the various experiences recounted focus on men who are credited in the acknowledgements, it would be fair to consider them reasonably factual. In the main, Bruce is an observer to the greater events happening around him and only in his two fictional missions does he affect the outcome. The story is well written and is certainly worth a read for anyone interested in Coastal Forces’ role in the early years of the war.
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