Obituary: Harold Victor Viner, last surviving Royal Navy veteran to take part in Dunkirk evacuation

Harold Victor Viner, Royal Navy veteran. Born: 21 March 1917, Gillingham, Kent. Died: 29 September 2016, Dorking, aged 99.

Victor Viner,centre, with fellow Dunkirk veterans. Picture: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty
Victor Viner,centre, with fellow Dunkirk veterans. Picture: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty
Victor Viner,centre, with fellow Dunkirk veterans. Picture: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty

Victor “Vic” Viner was believed to be the last surviving Royal Navy veteran to take part in Operation Dynamo - the Navy’s evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops from the perilous beaches of Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940.

In a modern era where celebrity and fame is achieved for doing nothing or relatively little, his bravery and selflessness epitomised a bygone era in which the stoicism and sacrifice of our young men and women ultimately led to the Allied victory and freedom for future generations.

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Aged 23, Viner was a “beach master” and part of the 150-strong team, armed and instructed from High Command to “shoot to kill, no matter what the rank” anyone trying to jump the queue, and charged with “creating order out of chaos” on Dunkirk’s beaches in a bid to save as many of the retreating British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops as possible.

Over ten gruelling days and nights, under constant German aerial and gun installation bombardment and the advancing German Wehrmacht, Viner was part of the rescue mission, in which a flotilla of over 900 vessels of all shapes and sizes, saved over 338,000 Allied troops, although the BEF alone lost 68,000 soldiers (captured or killed) during the French campaign and had to abandon nearly all of its tanks, vehicles and other equipment; 243 ships were also sunk with over 280,000 French troops missing or captured. Despite praising the Royal Navy, PM Winston Churchill said there was no doubt in his mind that the last few weeks had been a “colossal military disaster”.

Viner worked tirelessly on the beach for six days before the blast of a bomb from a Stuka dive bomber blew him into the water, knocking him unconscious. Upon regaining consciousness, he still had on his tin hat and trousers, but no jacket. He had no recollection of getting back to Britain.

Born in Gillingham, Kent, Harold Viner was the middle son of three to Albert, a senior fleet master at arms in the Royal Navy and later a foreman builder, and his wife, Ethel. At 14, he received a proposition from his father, which he could not refuse – his grandparents were coming to live with the family and needed his room. It would, therefore, be in everyone’s interests if Vic joined the navy.

Like his older brother, Albert, who was a wireless telegraphist in the Signals, had done, Vic went to HMS Ganges at Shotley, Suffolk, for training. Serving on HMS Sussex, he was part of the Australian squadron that served in the Mediterranean when Benito Mussolini launched his 1935 invasion of Abyssinia. Soon after, he was posted to the China fleet, but returned to Portsmouth to undertake extra training in underwater demolition and mine disposal shortly before Dunkirk.

On 25 May 1940, Viner and his colleagues were issued their kit and debriefed as to their mission while leaving Chatham, Kent, and travelling by bus to their ship HMS Esk, a destroyer. Upon crossing the Channel and arriving at Dunkirk, his first job, with three others, was to row the ship’s whaler to the beach and bring back soldiers. It was tiring, back-breaking work, as they picked-up 15 soldiers, complete with kit, on each journey. After the fourth, his colleague said, “Vic, you’ve got blood all over your hands.” Both men had. Viner recalled, “You’ve heard the expression sweated blood. Well we did literally sweated blood due to the rowing.”

As part of the Navy’s beach party, Viner was deployed as a “beach master” to Bray-Dunes, 9km north-east of Dunkirk, where they were tasked with getting the troops, who had been trapped for days, terrified by the constant Stuka dive bomber attacks and short of food and water, into orderly columns of 50men and getting them aboard the little motorised vessels waiting for them. Suddenly, Stukas attacked the beaches and, with no cover and nowhere to hide, he witnessed the carnage, bodies and equipment blown to pieces.

Soon the order to abandon all equipment came through. Some men had also started to lose their minds – simply walking blindly into the sea. Viner recalled only withdrawing his revolver once to fire a warning shot over a soldier’s head; he soon got back into line.

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During the chaos, on 29 May Viner had noticed HMS Grenade coming into sight; his brother Albert was aboard. Viner was given permission to seek him out. He then witnessed 12 Stukas target, attack and sink the destroyer. He later learned that the crew was picked-up by the Thames paddle-steamer MV Crested Eagle, but then it too was bombed and its fuel tanks were set ablaze killing over 300 soldiers. Viner had watched the inferno from the beach, not realising his brother was on board. “He survived one ship only to be killed on the next one,” he said later.

Despite witnessing this, Viner had “to stop thinking about what had happened and get back to the job in hand”. He remained on the beaches doing his duties. After being returned to Britain in a Dutch sloop and recovering, he was sent almost immediately to Cherbourg as part of a demolition party. He spent the remainder of the war on the highly dangerous Atlantic convoys protecting the merchant ships from the German U-Boat attacks. He left the navy in 1947.

Viner then became a telephone engineer for the General Post Office and spent many years working as a quality inspector for an electrical firm in Dorking, Surrey. His final job consisted of working for the finance department of Surrey County Council.

Like many from his generation Viner spoke little of his wartime experiences until he responded to an advertisement in 2009 by the Royal British Legion for Dunkirk veterans. He went on to become an active and significant member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS).

Ian Gilbert, former commodore of the ADLS, said Viner was thought to be the last known survivor of the Royal Navy’s “beach masters” team and the last surviving Royal Navy veteran to have taken part in Operation Dynamo. Last year, aged 98, Viner was guest of honour at a 75th anniversary service on the sands at Zuydcoote Beach, not far from the rusted wreck of the MV Crested Eagle.

He also contributed to a number of documentaries and historical works about Dunkirk, including BBC2’s Little Ships documentary, presented by Dan Snow, and the Imperial War Museum’s eyewitness video archive. He recently shared his memories with film director Christopher Nolan, who is making a film based on the Dunkirk evacuations.

In his free-time, Viner gave talks at local schools and clubs and attended remembrance events. “He was very keen for people to remember and to understand what happened,” said Patrick Viner, his grandson. He married Winnie Simpson while on leave, 11 May 1940, two weeks before deployment. She died in 2010. He is survived by their two children, Michael and Elizabeth, two grandchildren and by a great-granddaughter.