SS Clan Macalister at Dunkirk

On this day in 1940, the steamer SS Clan Macalister was destroyed by the Luftwaffe while taking part in ‘Operation Dynamo’, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in France. Eighteen people died in the attack and fourteen were wounded.[1]

The evacuation of the B E F, which had been fighting with France and the Low Countries against the advancing German army, became necessary when the Germans broke through the Allied line and overran Belgium and France in a matter of days. Germany now held most of the coast. As unoccupied territory shrank by the day, nearly the entire British Expeditionary Force, as well as French troops and fleeing Belgian units, began to converge in desperation on the tiny strip of coast that remained free. Sir Winston Churchill recalled, “The whole root and core and brain of the British Army . . . seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into an ignominious and starving captivity”[2] – and if the war against the Third Reich was to be won, there would have to be an army left to win it. On Sunday, 26th May, no other options remaining, an emergency evacuation got underway.

Unfortunately, the coast at that point is blocked by sandbars and shoals, so larger ships could not approach at all; even smaller craft were hindered by the wreckage of what had once been a port:

[T]he docks were useless. Bombed incessantly over a period of weeks they were a mass of battered metal and broken walls; the basins were open to the tide; the gates wrecked and jammed; the cranes stood weakly on three legs or lay like stricken birds along the quays. And over them, all through the evacuation, hung the pall that was lit on its underside by the red flame of the burning warehouses.[3]

This meant that some method had to be found for picking up hundreds of thousands of men straight off the beaches. Part of the answer was the use of the now-famous “little ships” – more than 700 mostly private-owned yachts, lifeboats, fishing boats, etc., whose owners responded immediately to the government’s request for small craft that could be used closer to the shore.[4] But these boats could take only small numbers of passengers, and those they carried were vulnerable to attack from above.

What was really needed were small motor craft to ferry men out to the bigger ships that waited off shore – ideally something armoured, to offer some protection from the shells coming at them from enemy planes. As luck would have it, about a dozen such craft had been built recently, and crews were being trained to operate them. These assault landing craft [ALCs] “could carry 50 men per trip. . . . [they] had the shallow draught needed for moving over the shallows between beach and ships. They had twin engines and steel armour which was to prove its worth” under nearly constant shelling and bombs.[5] “[T]he Admiralty . . . said they wanted the lot,” Bernard Fergusson reports, “and were sending a ship to collect them”.[6]

That ship was the SS Clan Macalister, a British cargo steamer built in 1930 for Clan Line Steamers, Ltd., of Glasgow. It was the third ship owned by the Clan Line to be so named. The first Clan Macalister had been sold in 1902; the second was a casualty of the first world war, torpedoed by a U-boat in 1915. At 6,787 tons, the third Clan Macalister was “nearly twice the size . . . of any other ship that took part” in the evacuation, according to A. D. Devine,[7] and it had been requisitioned by the military specifically for Operation Dynamo. Its size, and the fact that it carried cranes, made it better suited than most to transport and then unload the ALCs. The ship also carried 45 sailors and two officers to manage and operate the ALCs.[8] W J R Garner calls the landing craft that were brought by Clan Macalister “[t]he most important arrivals” of 29 May.[9]

The scene into which the Clan Macalister sailed with its valuable cargo was chaotic and hazardous. Thick smoke from weapon fire made it extremely difficult to see, adding to the challenge of navigating around the shoals and sandbars (which had always been there) and the wreckage of the docks and of other ships that now littered the harbour. The ship’s captain, Captain Mackie, felt uneasy about “proceeding in the dark through the Downs among those wrecks and so many ships at anchor without lights. . . .”[10] Worst of all, the ships and the harbour were under nearly incessant attack. Churchill told Parliament,

Pressing in upon the narrow exit, both from the east and from the west, the enemy began to fire with cannon upon the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes more than a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and upon the sand dunes upon which the troops had their eyes for shelter. Their U-boats . . . and their motor launches took their toll.[11]

But arriving in one piece was only half the battle. From the start, the Clan Macalister‘s mission ran into trouble. Captain Mackie remembered that “We started to discharge the [ALCs] and had just lifted our first into the air when the destroyer Vanquisher dashed past at full speed and set up so much wash as to cause the ship to roll . . . heavily”[12]; the men moving ALC no. 4 lost control of it and it crashed down on ALC no. 18, leaving both unfit for service.

At 15.45, as the other ALCs were being unloaded, the Clan Macalister was hit three times in an air raid, setting boilers on fire and igniting part of the magazine.[13] Most of the evacuees who had been transferred to Clan Macalister from smaller ships, and some of the military personnel who had arrived with the ALCs, were taken on board the destroyer HMS Malcolm. Though Capt. Mackie resisted giving up on his ship and valiant attempts were made to put out the fires, eventually he was convinced to abandon ship and was picked up with the rest of the survivors by the minesweeper HMT Pangbourne. The Clan Macalister did not sink straight away; still visible from the air, the ship was hit repeatedly by German aircraft and burned for days. When it finally went down, it took five of the badly needed ALCs with it.

Yet despite being sunk on its first run to Dunkirk, the SS Clan Macalister had made a significant contribution to the mission. Its cargo, the surviving ALCs, ferried thousands of troops from the beaches over the remaining days of the evacuation. It was partly because of these landing craft that nearly twice as many soldiers were rescued on the 29th (and again in the days that followed) than on the first days of the operation put together. Fergusson concludes, “the new landing-craft had proved their worth”.[14]

Though necessitated by military disaster, Operation Dynamo itself was an unparalleled success. Instead of the 20,000 – 50,000 men that those in the know thought might, at best, be evacuated, nearly 350,000 British and French soldiers were taken from the beaches of Dunkirk over the course of nine days. Devine, who was there, called it “the greatest rescue expedition in the history of mankind”.[15] Stephan Wilkinson suggests that were it not for the evacuation of “almost the entire British Expeditionary Force and tens of thousands of French poilus” from Dunkirk, Britain might well have fallen to the Nazis, leaving the US, when it finally entered the war, to fight alone, without allies and without a staging ground for its air war against the enemy. There would have been no D-Day invasion, and the world might look very different today.[16] 

As Churchill told the British people, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance. . . .”[17]. The SS Clan Macalister played a part in that victory.

Today the ship lies on the ocean floor, classified by the UK Hydrographic Office as a ‘dangerous wreck, depth unknown’.[18]

copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2016

[1] Wreck report 138 (pdf): ‘SS Clan MacAlister’ (www.wrecksite.eu, accessed 19 May 2016); p. 3.

[2] Winston Churchill, speech delivered to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940; published in the Guardian, 20 April 2007.

[3] A.D. Devine, Dunkirk (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. 1948), p. 27.

[4] This aspect of Dunkirk is so remarkable that it remains the image most people associate with the evacuation. A. D. Devine remarks that “the vast majority [of boat owners] made free and unconditional offers of their vessels for any purpose for which the Admiralty might see fit to use them; and with their boats a very remarkable proportion of the owners offered their own services” (Dunkirk, p. 34). Some – like the estuary cruiser the Elvin – were “refused [by the Navy] . . . and went anyway” (‘29th May 1940 – Nightmare‘, from The Dunkirk Project: An interactive installment by Liz Mathews).

[5] An account of the last days in the life of Robert Owen Wilcoxon

[6] Bernard Fergusson, The Watery Maze: The Story of Combined Operations (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1961), p. 44.

[7] Devine, p. 107. Presumably he means ‘non-military ships’, because the destroyers at least were considerably larger.

[8]Clan MacAlister‘ in “Carte: Les épaves au large de Dunkerque”

[9] W.J.R. Gardner, The Evacuation from Dunkirk: ‘Operation Dynamo’, 26 May-June 1940 (Routledge, 2014), pp. 51-2.

[10] Devine, p. 93

[11] Churchill, speech, 4 June 1940

[12] Devine, p. 93

[13] Mechanic FC Turner of the HMS Malcolm, in ‘Dunkirk: A Personal Perspective – HMS Malcolm‘ (BBC Overseas Service, first broadcast 29 May 1950)

[14] Fergusson, p. 44

[15] Devine, p. 33

[16] S. Wilkinson, ‘From Dunkirk, 1940‘ in Military History, November 2013: 23. General Reference Center, Web. 14 May 2016.

[17] Churchill, speech, 4 June 1940

[18] wreck report 138 (pdf): p. 5.

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