The Helford Flotillas

Gerry Holdsworth
Gerry Holdsworth
Howard Rendle
Howard Rendle

On November 5, 1940, four months after the North and West coasts of France fell into German hands, a Royal Naval Lieutenant named Gerry Holdsworth arrived at Helston to mount clandestine operations to Brittany for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which Churchill had created ‘to set Europe ablaze’. His base was at Ridifarne, a large house between Port Navas and Helford Passage. He requisitioned two refugee vessels and formed a crew of twelve, including Howard Rendle of Port Navas. Arthur Rendle, Howard’s younger brother, assisted with the maintenance of the small fleet.

The Germans had fortified the whole coast from the Hook of Holland to Brest, but Brittany, with its broken shores and large coastal fishing fleet offered the best hope of direct access from the United Kingdom. The Inshore Patrol Flotilla made many daring and dangerous raids on the French coast making contacts with the French Resistance, carrying and returning agents and airmen from Brittany.

Early in 1941 Holdsworth acquired a 41-foot seaplane tender, capable of 20 knots and carried out the first successful contracts with France using high-speed craft. In the spring of 1942 command of the base at Helford was taken over by Lieutenant-Commander Bevil Warington Smyth, who had lost a foot flying in the Fleet Air Arm. Later Helford was reorganised on an ambitious scale under Lieutenant-Commander Nigel Warington Smyth, Bevil’s brother. Their father, Herbert Warington Smyth of Calamansac, occupied the post of Resident Naval Officer in the Helford River, so the arrangement had a distinctly dynastic character, with all three local naval commands in the hands of one family.

This Inshore Patrol Flotilla consisted eventually of eight medium-sized Breton fishing vessels of various types and two larger trawlers. Their base-ship was SUNBEAM II, a three-masted square-topsail auxiliary schooner. Clandestine sea communications with Brittany were maintained for several months, however in the autumn of 1943, owing to bad weather and a series of arrests in France, the sea line closed down for good.

Helford came briefly back to operational activity on Christmas Day 1943 and Skipper Howard Rendle played a leading part. The Warington Smyth brothers had been engaged in the development of various types of surf-boats for clandestine landing and embarkation across open beaches and a 25 foot version had been built.

Several attempts had been made to rescue a sizeable group of shot-down airmen from Aber-Benoit. On the afternoon of Christmas Day the surf boat was towed from Helford to Brittany. Her crew consisted of Howard Rendle as coxswain and six oarsmen, accompanied by Sub-Lieutenant John Garnett. In the course of two trips to Ile-Tariec they picked up 28 evacuees from a beach guarded by three enemy strong-points and 800 yards from a gunboat’s anchorage.

This was the last operation to be carried out from Helford, but Howard Rendle’s success in rescuing so large a group from a heavily fortified coast showed what could be done and was followed by a series of some forty such missions from Dartmouth to beaches further east.

Howard Rendle was later promoted sub-lieutenant and awarded the DSC. His younger brother Arthur, an engineer, maintained the engines of the boats. The whole operation was conducted throughout the war in great secrecy.

From an account by Sir Brooks Richards KC