Cdr Goodenough and demolition team on Venomous, 15 May 1940.
In May 1940, the German Army invaded the Netherlands and Belgium. The British military authorities were determined that the large oil installations at the major ports should not fall into enemy hands. The KFRE were despatched in secrecy on 11 May to Amsterdam to negotiate with the local commanders and destroy the installations and the large oil stocks and assist with dockyard demolitions; these were called “XD Operations”. They were successful in spite of the lack of planning and specialised equipment. After Amsterdam, detachments carried out more oil demolitions at Rotterdam and Antwerp, and assisted with the evacuation of 40 tons of Dutch gold from Rotterdam. At times they exchanged fire with German advance patrols.
The German advance continued into France, and KFRE were sent to destroy the oil depots along the lower Seine. Initial, but understandable, French reluctance dissipated as the Germans reached the area, and the installations at Rouen, Le Havre and Honfleur were all destroyed. In addition, a large British military fuel dump near Saint-Nazaire was destroyed. A British general ordered that no demolition was to be done at a refinery at Donges; the supplies were subsequently thought to have been used to re-fuel U-boats.
As an afterthought, detachments were sent to destroy smaller depots at Dunkirk, Boulogne and Calais. These were abortive, however; those at Dunkirk were destroyed by German bombs, Calais’ facilities were unapproachable due to the heavy fighting and Boulogne, in fact, had none.
Further oil demolition operations were attempted at Caen, Cherbourg and St Malo, but only St Malo was successful. The installations near Caen were captured before the British arrival, and the French authorities prevented demolition at Cherbourg; KFRE assisted with the general harbour demolitions there.
Although these actions remained secret at the time, there was official appreciation. At the time, the KFRE became the most highly decorated unit in the British Army. Major Brazier received an OBE, three officers (Captains R Keeble, T F TGoodwin and B Baxter) received DSOs, Second Lieutenant B J Ashwell received the MC. A DCM was awarded to Corporal J T Hearnden and three NCOs (Staff Sergeant A H Smart, Sergeant A R Blake and Corporal J Matthews) received Military Medals).
During the British evacuations from western France (Operation Ariel), the final KFRE detachment lost seven men on the Lancastria when it was sunk at St Nazaire. One more went “missing, presumed dead” during the destruction of the British dump near St Nazaire and another died of wounds sustained at Boulogne.
Major Peter Keeble, served with the Kent Fortress Royal Engineers and was awarded a DSO in 1940 for destroying oil installations in enemy occupied Europe; he subsequently received an MC for bridging operations in contested crossings of the River Maas and the Rhine.
In the early hours of May 10 1940, Holland was invaded. For several days, three parties of KFRE, a unit formed in 1932 by C C H Brazier, a former sapper and the manager of the Blue Circle Cement works at Northfleet, Kent, had been on two hours’ notice. They moved immediately to Dover under Naval Command.
The destroyer Whitshead left harbour at 11 am. On board was Keeble, then a captain, in command of 19 men of a demolition party. Their mission, code-named XD Operation, was to destroy the oil installations at Amsterdam.
Near the Dutch coast, Whitshead was attacked by a German bomber but opened fire and drove it off. Further high-level attacks followed. One of them hit the destroyer on the port side, killing and wounding several ratings and blowing others into the sea. The bomb ignited some cordite next to the ammunition boxes. One sailor grabbed an armful and threw it overboard; another grabbed the rest and jumped with it into the sea.
After three attempts were frustrated by air attacks, Whitshead succeeded in entering Immuiden harbour. The Germans were reported to be advancing swiftly and the sapper party, now under the command of the Dutch Naval C-in-C, spent a restless night in the local barracks under increasingly heavy air raids.
The next day, Keeble reconnoitred the tank farms at Amsterdam and, having requisitioned three motor launches, moved his men with a small naval covering party on to their objectives. Early on May 13, he received the command to carry out the demolition.
The cocks to the tanks were blown off with gun cotton, flooding the area between the tanks and the bunds. Very Light cartridges fired over the bunds ignited the oil vapour and the tanks blew up with a huge explosion. The flames reached several hundred feet and black smoke drifted over the city.
After destroying the outlying tank farms, the party worked upwind, demolishing other targets and finishing with the largest installation at Petroleum Haven. The canals were reported to be mined and so they abandoned the motor launches, commandeered a lorry and drove through a series of road blocks to Immuiden.
There they reinforced the naval party and helped to blow up lock gates, cranes and coastal defences before completing the destruction of the port’s infrastructure by sinking two block ships. As dusk approached, there was no sign of a destroyer, so Keeble and 11 of his men boarded a motor boat that they had been holding against such an eventuality and headed out to sea. The boat had no navigational instruments or charts but they had a compass and radio transmitter.
Keeble’s party was repeatedly attacked by enemy fighters until darkness fell. On the second night, hungry and close to exhaustion, they made radio contact with the destroyer Havoc, returning from the battle of Narvik, and were picked up.
Keeble and two of his comrades were recommended for MCs. Churchill had only recently become Prime Minister but, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he had been very concerned about the danger of oil supplies in the Low Countries falling into enemy hands. After reading a report of Operation XD, he altered the awards to DSOs.