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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 36

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The First Yale Unit

Ralph D. Paine

printed at
The Riverside Press
Cambridge (Mass.)

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 38
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XXXVII

Gates Goes to Dunkirk

Many other cities of France were ravaged by the war, some of them obliterated, but the heroic martyrdom of Dunkirk was unique. Through almost four years it endured ferocious bombardment from the air, from the land, and from the sea, and yet it lived and proudly carried on its manifold activities. Because of this, Dunkirk was cited in the orders of the Army of France and decorated with the Croix de Guerre bearing the bronze palm. This insignia was added to the coat of arms of Dunkirk which since 1793 had carried the legend, 'Dunkirk has deserved well of La Patrie.'

It was therefore no new thing for this ancient seaport on the northern coast of France to exemplify the spirit of a nation which Germany found to be unconquerable. For a thousand years Dunkirk has survived wars and blockades, held now by France or Spain; again by England, which once compelled the destruction of its forts and the ruin of its harbor because the bold French sailors harried English commerce and swept the Channel with their fast armed luggers.

If you do not mind my repeating a passage from another book, 'The Fighting Fleets,' it will convey glimpses of the life of Dunkirk at the time when the American seaplane station was operated there. For the First Yale Unit this shattered seaport possesses a peculiar interest and memories both melancholy and sublime. It was where the bright life of Curtis Read suffered its cruel eclipse; where Kenneth MacLeish winged it into the beyond, trailing  p141 clouds of glory; where boyish Dave Ingalls displayed the genius for aerial combat that won him the sobriquet of 'Naval Ace'; where 'Di' Gates carried on so well that an officer of authority in his own service has been heard to call him 'our outstanding naval figure of the war.'

To walk about Dunkirk in the evening was to behold a city of gloom and desolation. Not a light shone from window of dwelling or shop. Every ray was carefully screened lest it guide the flight of the Boche overhead. Here and there in the streets a feeble lamp flickered, but it was so shaded as to be invisible from the sky. One blundered into passers‑by on the pavements or stretched out his hand to feel for the walls in the narrow thoroughfares where the obscuration was profound. I had found the nights as black in certain coast towns of England, but their homes were intact and their people had not been slain by hundreds. The solid walls of brick and stone had resisted the explosions with extraordinary strength and tenacity. Even at night it was possible to perceive that no part of the city had been completely demolished. House after house was no more than an empty shell, roofless, the windows like eyeless sockets, the ragged walls looming against the sky, but the buildings had not been levelled. They were like the regiments of France which stood firm with ranks shattered.

In the café we were talking together, a portly merchant of Dunkirk, a French naval lieutenant, a surgeon from the military hospital, the landlord who hopped about on crutches, having lost a leg at Verdun. The merchant was obviously one whose words carried weight. Clasping his hands across his broad waistcoat, he assumed an oratorical manner. His voice was sonorous. There was no affection. A man genuine and honest whose eyes were sad.

'You will see Dunkirk for yourself, Monsieur,' said he. 'We live the active life, in the fourth year of the war. The factories are in operation, the shops are open, the harbor is by no means idle. The schools, the public institutions — all the functions of a city have been maintained. Dunkirk, which has lost its blood through innumerable wounds, is vigorous. Even in its mourning clothes, it retains all its little coquetries; it does not desire to display its hurts, glorious though they may be; it does not wish to be moved to pity over its own sufferings. It is remarkable  p142 that under such a hurricane of iron and fire, people can live and work. We should expect the men to be capable of it, n'est‑ce pas? They deserve no more credit for being here than for mounting guard in the trenches. But is it not admirable that women, young girls, and children, can support it?

'It will intrigue you, my dear sir, to see the children at the time of a bombardment. Without haste they enter the shelter of the cellars. Some months ago, when the German 380‑millimetre gun, 'Big Bertha,' sent during the morning forty-seven gigantic shells into Dunkirk, there was a very curious sight in the streets. After each shot the little boys and girls came up from the cellars, and on the steps in front of their doors they jumped rope, played diablo, and games of war. And when again the siren screeched its warning they disappeared as by enchantment under the earth.'

The narrator paused and his gaze was abstracted. His fleshy chin sank into his low collar and he sat immobile, brooding. The large, smooth-shaven face was heavy with care. Of his own losses and sacrifices he had nothing to say. The French naval lieutenant, a much younger man, was home on leave from the Mediterranean and spoke with a professional air.

'Here is something more. The nights of bombardment by aeroplane are distressing. They rack the nerves. There are also other annoyances. Taking advantage of moonless nights, the Boche destroyers used to approach to a point four miles off the Dunkirk coast. It is better regulated at present. Their light draft enabled them to pass over the Gravelines banks and the mine-fields. Then, dashing at full speed, they would fire salvos from their batteries. Before our land batteries could reply to them, they would escape as fast as possible. Thanks to the darkness, they might also elude the French and English patrol vessels before these could come up. In four minutes as many as three or four hundred shells would be hurled into the city.

' "Big Bertha?" Ah, my friend, one easily becomes accustomed to the big Boche gun which fires on us from a distance of fourteen miles. On one day of last June, when the weather was clear and beautiful, this cannon opened fire at five o'clock in the morning and ceased at eleven o'clock. It had discharged a shell into Dunkirk every seven minutes. One is warned of their arrival. One knows that between the moment the gun is fired and the instant the shell bursts, there is time to get out of the way.  p143 Watch towers equipped with sirens have been installed in several parts of the city. Night and day men are on the qui vive. Instantaneously the alarm is given in Dunkirk. There is no panic. One draws his watch from his picket, knowing that he has one minute and thirty-five seconds to disappear under the protecting earth. This is the time elapsing before the arrival of the shell in Dunkirk.'

Just then the wail of a steam siren interrupted. It was imploding, insistent. Almost instantly it was echoed by the whistles of the war vessels in the harbor. A gun spoke, then another — the sharp voices of anti-aircraft ordnance firing shrapnel. The naval lieutenant moved to the street door and opened it for a moment. There was no stir in the darkened city. Two or three searchlights were sweeping the sky with pencilled beams of white radiance. The guns in the suburbs nearest the German lines were furiously busy.

The landlord stumped over to the row of candlesticks on the mantel and gave one to each of the company, striking the matches with a steady hand. This duty despatched, he went to find his wife and babies. The procession filed down a narrow stairway into a low‑roofed cellar which was swept and clean, with chairs and tables of plank. There were also cots for the drowsy little ones. These came toddling down, three of them, in their night-dresses, rubbing their eyes, but with no signs of surprise. It had happened so often, explained the pretty mother, that the dear lambs thought all children divided their slumber hours between bedroom and cellar.

Even in this refuge it was possible to hear the wicked, buzzing noise of the Boche aeroplane engines as they swooped and hovered high overhead. Then came a prolonged, peculiar whizzing sound — the fall of a bomb through ten thousand feet of space. It struck and exploded, seemingly in the direction of the docks — a crashing roar and a concussion which was felt in the cellar. Another bomb was dropped, falling somewhat closer to the Square of Jean Bart. Then there came to our ears a different sound — musical, full-throated, uplifting — the song of great bells. It was no jangled alarm. The bells were attuned and chiming. They rang out a melody, a chant brave and martial which was flung from the high Belfry tower far and wide over the tormented city. They were vibrant with the spirit of Dunkirk. They were magnificently defiant.

 p144  Down in the cellar, one voice after another began to sing the refrain, in unison with the bells. The portly merchant raised his head and rumbled a basso while the lieutenant carried the tenor. The landlord was beating time with his crutch. The children, sitting up in their cots, piped in tones sweet and shrill. The great bells were quiet for a moment before swinging into the chorus again, and during the lull the landlord's wife explained, with shining eyes:

'They are singing it in many cellars. Always it is done. And always in the Belfry, when the Boches come to bombard, the chimes play the "Hymn of Jean Bart." '​a

'An old song — a song that Dunkirk loves,' cried the naval officer. 'This is why the Boches try so hard to bomb the Belfry — to silence the "Hymn of Jean Bart." '

Now it was ringing out again, mellow, throbbing waves of sound — the battle hymn of a free people, evoking from the dust of centuries the traditions and memories of a seaport unafraid. Out there in the Square, old Jean Bart himself was listening, the bronze statue in the great hat, the wrinkled sea‑boots, the cutlass in his fist.

The strategic importance of Dunkirk as an offensive air base had been recognized by the British and French as early in the World war as 1915. The first R. N. A. S. station was established in that year with a view to destroying the German Zeppelin sheds. Then, as soon as the enemy occupied Bruges and Ostend and began to fortify the Belgian ports as submarine bases, Dunkirk was handily adjacent for seaplane patrols and bombing raids. The British equipment increased rapidly, under the direction of Captain C. L. Lambe, R. N., until four squadrons were operated at the Saint‑Pol field, with an elaborate dépôt in Dunkirk itself, and a seaplane station on the harbor which coöperated with the French seaplane organization close by. In September, 1917, shortly before the arrival of the first American detachment, the British dépôt, or repair and machine shops, was almost bombed off the map and had to be moved to a new and less exposed position. The attacks  p145 from the air were continued through six nights and the German planes dropped almost six hundred bombs of heavy caliber.

This was cheerful news for Lieutenant G. de C. Chevalier, U. S. N. when he arrived at Dunkirk in the fall of 1917 with orders from Captain Hutch I. Cone to install a seaplane station down among the docks. The purpose was to assist the British and French aviation forces in the Channel and North Sea patrols which were directed against the German submarines cruising out of and returning to Zeebrugge and Ostend. The idea of demolishing these bases themselves by means of huge fleets of bombing planes was a later development. At this time the Allied seaplane activities were one phase of the elaborate system which included all manner of surface craft and net barrages. It was vital to the conduct of the war to safeguard the Channel passage for troops and supplies between England and France.

Dunkirk was an opportunity for the United States to lend a helping hand. And if her ambitious naval officers complained that they had seen nothing of the war, here was plenty of it. To Lieutenant Chevalier it looked something like a forlorn hope and a sporting chance. The only site available was between the quay walls of the small harbor, in a basin close to the masts of the shipping. The French had found the neighborhood untenable for their own seaplanes.

The German planes found it easier to follow the line of the shore at night than to fly cross-country. They could usually locate the Dunkirk docks, warehouses, and ships and let their bombs go with a fair probability of messing something up.

Captain Lambe of the British air force was cordial and anxious to assist, but he wore a dubious air, advising the Yanks to get their bomb-proof dugouts finished before  p146 they tried to build anything above ground. This was also the suggestion of the chipper little Commodore Hubert Lynes, R. N., whose office was three or four blocks away. He had been violently bombed so often, however, that he dismissed the risk quite airily. Admiral Ronarc'h of the French Navy solved it by living and working in a dugout roofed with boiler-plate, concrete, and several feet of earth. His discretion sensibly matched a valor famed throughout France. When you called on him to pay your respects, it was like sending in a card to a woodchuck.

Lieutenant Artemus L. Gates had been moving about, from Moutchic to Paris, then on a useless trip to Havre to find some motor trucks for the Navy which were not there. He was expecting to go to Gosport next, for training on scout machines (but Kenneth MacLeish was sent in his place), and he was delighted to hear that Dunkirk was his destination. He reached there on Thanksgiving Day, taking fifty enlisted men from Paris. Lieutenant Chevalier had a small staff, an Executive, a Doctor, a Paymaster, and a handful of men who had begun to make the dirt fly.

They had no machines of their own. Those used were taken over from the French. Barracks, hangars, and a repair shop had to be provided. The subterranean shelters were the most essential, as the force soon discovered for itself. They did not have to be told. One or two nights of clear weather, and the bombs were crashing about their ears. Never did bluejackets ply pick and shovel with more single-minded energy. Lieutenant Gates mentions it in this very conservative fashion:

Probably the main points that distinguished this station from other United States naval air stations in France and England were the three large dugouts which we made as a protection against enemy bombing and shelling, and also the anti-aircraft guns located about the station. Another feature was the many holes that were riddled in the hangars and barracks caused by  p147 enemy bombs that had exploded in the same, by shells exploding in the station, and by anti-aircraft fragments that had come down on the hangars from time to time. Because of the close coöperation and pleasant relations with the French and British, our work at Dunkirk was delightful and will never be forgotten. The life of the men and officers was hazardous because of constant bombing raids and shelling, and one was always in doubt just when the bomb would fall with his name on it, but, nevertheless, this seems to have made it all the more enjoyable.

The rugged Gates who could be happy in Dunkirk suggests another drawback:

The location of the station was especially poor owing to the great difficulties in getting in and out of the small harbor with a seaplane. Because of the cramped space and the frequent necessity of flying over there to make a landing or a get‑away, we suffered numerous losses from crashes.

His first assignment was as Chief Pilot with the duties of seeing that the machines were assembled, tested, kept in repair, and proper armament put on them. He had charge of the men in the flight division. It was not until February, however, that flying was begun on a regular schedule, while the submarine patrols were organized even later than that. It was impossible to obtain adequate equipment and experienced men any sooner. Gates had been there two months and a half before three pilots arrived.

There was plenty of work in the meantime. When the present writer visited the station shortly after Christmas, they were still digging away at those bomb-proof quarters and were proud of their handiwork. Mud and rain — wreckage all about them — a lanky French aviator strolling in to indicate with a shrug and a hopeless gesture that it was all of no use. Mon Dieu, the Boche had already marked this station on the chart to blow it all to little bits! Pouf! Lieutenant Chevalier and Gates trudged into a board shack now and then to hug the stove and  p148 warm their bones. Feel sorry for them? Not much. They wouldn't have been anywhere for worlds.

That the station suffered no casualties from bombs and shell-fire seems almost incredible. You had to be in Dunkirk to realize how rapidly and precisely, by night or day, human beings could imitate the humble mole when those sirens shrieked the alarm. Drill may have been over­looked in naval aviation, but this detachment learned how to double-time as one man and to make it snappy. Have you seen a union carpenter drop his hammer when the noon whistle blows? It was even faster than that.

In February Lieutenant Haviland was sent to the station. He was senior to Gates and had been a member of the Lafayette Escadrille. He therefore took over the position of Chief Pilot, and Gates was appointed Intelligence Officer. His duties were not burdensome enough to please him, plotting the courses of submarines, collecting data of various sorts, planning the work of the patrols, and gathering any information that might assist toward that end. He did not continue long in this billet because a qualified officer was sent to the station who had been trained in intelligence service.

Gates was then detailed as Assistant Chief Pilot to Lieutenant Haviland who went to Italy late in April. This left the place of Chief Pilot vacant for Gates who occupied it until he was given command of the station on July 1st. By this time bombing machines as well as seaplane patrols were in active operation and Lieutenant Gates had the satisfaction of flying in contact with the enemy. He remained in command at Dunkirk until he was shot down and captured on October 4th.

Thayer's Note:

a Jean Bart, 17c French privateer and naval commander, one of France's great naval heroes. The Cantate à Jean Bart is the unofficial hymn of the city of Dunkerque; now heard on civic occasions and most often to close the annual carnival. A nice montage of the music, the words, and images of Jean Bart, his statue, and his city is found at YouTube.

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Page updated: 11 Sep 13