Commander James Campbell Clouston

Commander James Clouston
  • Born:

    31 August 1900

  • Died:

    2 June 1940, Dover Straits

  • Father:

    William Stewart Clouston

  • Mother:

    Evelyn Campbell

  • Married:

    Gwyneth Lilian Vanderpump

  • Children:

    Dane, Moray

The following article was published in The Orcadian in June 2010

The Orkney historian J Storer Clouston believed that his family could trace their ancestry back to a Viking chief called Hakon Clo and wrote about the stirring deeds of his ancestors in his privately published book, 'The Family of Clouston'. However, the book was written during WWII and he wrote just as proudly of his cousins who were serving in the forces. The prime example was a member of the Canadian branch of the family and on the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, his is a story that should be remembered.

Commander James Campbell Clouston was a grandson of James Clouston of Smoogroo, an Orcadian who became a factor in the Hudson Bay Company.

Campbell Clouston attended the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and served on HMS Montrose in the Mediterranean from 1923-25. After attending the gunnery school, HMS Excellent, known as Whaley, on Whale Island, Portsmouth, he was a gunnery officer on HMS Capetown and HMS Delhi. He returned to HMS Excellent as Gunnery Commander from 1931-37 until, in May 1937, he became Commanding Officer of HMS Isis, based in Malta. His brother William was Commanding Officer of HMS Scorpion. The following poem was written for his farewell dinner at HMS Excellent.


The Sea Lords in their office, at the Admir-al-ty pile,

Were sitting round a table and not one was seen to smile,

For the Press had told the Nation and the Press it cannot lie,

That the might of England's Navy was surely passing by.

That aeroplanes and Zeppelins from heights unknown before,

Could send our greatest warships to the ocean's rock-strewn floor,

So the Sea Lords sent for "Father" and they told him all they knew,

And despatched him down to Whaley to see what HE could do.

Then up spoke "Father" boldly when at Whaley he'd arrived,

He introduced new ratings and an A. A, school contrived.

Of his work now justly famous, let no more be said than this,

That at English mother's kneesides, before the good-night kiss,

Our youth is inculcated with the gems that freely ran,

From the dome, now slightly hairless, of that most ingenious man,

And our "birdmen", erstwhile boasting of the triumph of the Air,

Now disconsolately mutter this lamentful little prayer,

"O Father, Father Clouston, to you we airmen pray,

From the death of your designing - deliver us this day"


In 1935 he had married Gwyneth Lilian Vanderpump and she travelled around the Mediterranean on merchant ships, following the Isis as she visited Alexandria, Istanbul and Galatz. Gwyneth gave birth to her first son, Dane, in London in September 1938 but went back to Malta when he was six weeks old. The Abyssinian crisis forced her return to the UK.

Just after the outbreak of war, the Isis captured the German merchant ship Leander off Cape Finisterre. Then, in 1940, Isis was in dry dock for repairs after hitting an uncharted rock off the coast of Norway and Commander Campbell asked for something to do in the meantime. He was one of the dozen officers Captain William Tennant took to Dunkirk with him on 27 May, to take charge of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force.

Operation Dynamo, headed by Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, based in Dover, began on 27th May and was expected to last about forty-eight hours and rescue perhaps forty-five thousand men. In fact, it lasted for nine days and a member of Ramsay's staff said, 'It was like being told to run a hundred yards at top speed and then when you'd done that find you'd got to carry on and do a mile at the same pace.'

Tennant's party arrived on the evening of the 27th and found the docks unusable, due to German bombing. Troops were being embarked from the beaches but this was very slow. On that day only 7,669 men arrived in England. Tennant decided they could use two long breakwaters which had been built to protect the dredged channel leading to the docks. One of these, which came to be called the East Mole, was a concrete-based wooden boardwalk, almost a mile long, only wide enough for four men to walk abreast. The tide rise was up to 16ft and the berthing of ships and the loading of men was complicated by the tide rip through the structure. The officers cut cards for which part of the evacuation they would deal with and Clouston 'won' the East Mole.

That evening the ferry Queen of the Channel loaded almost a thousand men from the mole. Although she was sunk on her way across, all the men were rescued and it was clear the Mole was the best place to evacuate men. A signal was sent early on the morning of the 28th to send as many ships as possible to the Mole. Commander Clouston set up a strict control system, posting men at the foot of the pier and access points to it. The troops were organised into groups of fifty so that they could move swiftly along the pier and into a waiting ship. Using a megaphone, he matched the flow of troops onto the pier with the ships as they arrived. That day 18,527 men were disembarked in Britain, largely from the destroyers using the East Mole. The destroyer Montrose alone carried twelve hundred men and twenty-eight stretcher cases and the destroyer Sabre made three round trips. Up to two thousand men an hour were shifted off the pier.

On the afternoon of the 29th the destroyers Jaguar and Grenade, six trawlers, the troopships Fenella and Canterbury and a Thames pleasure boat paddle-wheeler were all alongside the Mole. A minor air-raid at 3.30 did little damage, and a second was seen off by RAF fighters but the third, at 6 pm, caused chaos. The Grenade was hit and had to be towed clear, where it burned for several hours before exploding. One of the trawlers and the Fenella both went down at their moorings and the Mole itself was damaged. A gap in the pier had to be bridged with a couple of planks. Men on the Mole started to panic and run back towards the shore. Clouston instructed Lt Robin Bill, in charge of the six trawlers, to draw his revolver and get the men loaded onto the ships and away.

Many other ships were lost on their way across the Channel - fifteen British and four French ships were lost in total that day and the Admiralty ordered the withdrawal of all modern destroyers, leaving fifteen older ships. Ramsay was also misinformed that the harbour was blocked and instructed all ships to go to the beaches. Only four trawlers and a yacht took men off the East Mole that night.

Numbers soon rose again when a destroyer brought word back to Dover that the harbour wasn't blocked. Although the German planes continued to attack and German forces were continually expected to appear through the town, over 60,000 men a day were brought home, about two-thirds of them from the Moles. Up to seven ships were loading at once, sometimes moored two or three deep. Holes knocked in the mole by enemy shells were bridged with planks, if they were too big to be jumped across.

Clouston never saw the end of the operation in which he played such an integral part. In J Storer Clouston's book, The Family of Clouston, he quotes from John Masefield's story of Dunkirk.

"…in the account of this day (Sunday, June 2nd) something must be written of the loss of Commander Clouston, R.N., who had for six anxious days been 'doing noble service on the jetty at Dunquerque' (where for the whole period he was pier-master).

On Saturday night he returned to Dover to report upon the situation and to receive final orders for the great lifting of troops planned for Sunday night. He left Dover on this day in a motor-launch with a naval officer and some seamen. A second motor-launch came with them. On their way they were attacked by enemy aircraft who put his motor-launch out of action and left her in a sinking condition. Commander Clouston waved to the men in the second launch to get away before they were sunk. With the naval officer, the only survivor of his Company, he then left his wrecked launch to try to swim to a boat seen a couple of miles away. Becoming weary long before he could reach this boat he turned to swim back to the water-logged launch and was never seen again… Commander Clouston had been of the utmost service in helping the escape of nearly two hundred thousand men under frightful conditions of strain and danger. It was a grief to many that he did not live to see the lifting brought to an end."

His wife Gwyneth wrote to her aunt, "I heard from a Lt Wake who was in charge of a second launch & who went to try to pick Campbell & his men up - But the machine gunning and bombing was so intense that Campbell ordered the second launch to go on as best he could & to leave them in the water. Lt. Wake said that had they stopped they would have been an easy target also his boat was riddled with machine gun holes & so the extra weight of the men would have sunk the lot. I can't tell you all the wonderful tributes I have had from all kinds of men. Lt Wake had spoken to one of the two survivors from Campbell's launch & he assures me that the end was quite quick and says that Campbell was encouraging & assisting his men to the very end.

He was sorely missed on the following day, as the last troops were embarked. Liaison between the remaining British officers and the makeshift French embarkation officers, trying to embark the French troops who had been holding the perimeter was almost non-existent. Thousand of men waited in the wrong place, vessels got in each other's way and men tried to board the first ship they came to, rather than moving on to the end of the pier.

It is of course impossible to say how many men owed their escape to his efficient management of the East Mole under unimaginable conditions but in nine days, 224,686 British troops and 139,942 French troops were brought back to Britain.

The New York Times wrote, 'So long as the English tongue survives, the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence. For in that harbour, in such a hell as never blazed on earth before, at the end of a lost battle, the rages and blemishes that have hidden the soul of democracy fell away. There, beaten but unconquered, in shining splendor, she faced the enemy.'

Gwyneth Campbell, a widow with a young child and another on the way, wrote, "Everything is just a huge blank at the moment but the only bit of comfort I can find is that he had always longed to do something really worthwhile for the Navy, the country & to tell me about - & he must have known that he had done so - also his last days wd be completely happy & he is all right and safe now. I also thank God he wasn't badly disabled as he just couldn't have borne that - We have had the most wonderful 4 years & no one can take that from us."

His family had some measure of consolation in the tributes he received. A friend wrote to Gwyneth, "Perhaps you would like to know that I had already heard an amazing account of an unknown Naval Commander at Dunkirk, whom I now realise must have been Campbell. It was the Sub of the Wolsey who told me all about it, and what wonderful things this (to him) unknown officer had done. He said at the end "He was the greatest and the bravest man I've ever seen."

Principal Sources:

Material supplied by Dane Clouston

Dunkirk: The Incredible Escape Norman Gelb, 1990

Pillar of Fire Dunkirk 1940 Ronald Atkin, 1990