Lieutenant Alasdair Forbes Ferguson
Alasdair Ferguson was married to Miranda Domvile (1920-1981).
Alasdair Ferguson, who has died aged 85, commanded one of the landing craft which carried Canadian soldiers into a hail of fire at Puits during the Dieppe raid on August 19 1942.
As second-in-command of the 10th Landing Craft Assault Flotilla, he had the task of landing on Blue Beach, on the eastern outer flank of the main landings. But, after launching from the converted Belgian ferry Princess Astrid, Ferguson's boats went in the wrong direction, with the result that they arrived 16 minutes late. Dawn was breaking, and the element of surprise had been lost.
Ferguson felt his boat scrape the bottom as enemy machine-gun fire poured down from a cliff, penetrating the thin hull. Then, crying "Down ramp!", he urged the men of the Royal Regiment of Canada and the Royal Canadian Artillery into the water. Some were cut down on the ramp, where their bodies piled up. Others fell as they struggled to cross the pebbled beach to the sea wall 40 ft away.
Seven craft made the first landing; but when Ferguson was sent back to Puits a few hours later to rescue survivors, only four were now available. Two of these were hit and sunk, and, when he saw that there was no sign of life on the beach, Ferguson reluctantly obeyed an order to withdraw.
At about 10.30, all available craft were sent to the main beach at Dieppe, which was still under intense fire from mortars and machine-guns. As Ferguson grounded his boat, he could see no movement on the beach, so he stood up to shout. A soldier ran towards the craft, and Ferguson handed him the only weapon he had, a Lewis gun, with which the soldier fumbled as he fired over the prone bodies. Ferugson did not notice that the man was wearing German uniform, and was clearly attempting to desert.
By now so many troops were rushing his craft that it was swamped and, as Ferguson headed out to sea, his boat was hit by a shell and capsized. He helped his passengers board another craft, and the shocked sailors and soldiers returned to Newhaven.
The allies learned valuable lessons, but the Canadians had suffered appalling casualties: on Blue Beach alone, 485 out of 545 Canadians were killed, wounded or missing. For the rest of his life Ferguson measured everything by Dieppe, saying that nothing else could possibly worry him. He was mentioned in dispatches.
Alasdair Forbes Ferguson was born on April 11 1919 at Bearsden, Glasgow, where his father was a property developer. He was educated at Loretto, where he was head boy and captain of athletics, swimming, rugby and boxing. His Engineering studies at Clare College, Cambridge, were interrupted by the war.
During the Munich crisis, Ferguson borrowed his mother's car and drove to the recruiting office in Glasgow to ask how he could become a naval officer. The recruiting officer told him: "You won't have to pass any test, because I know you and your father." A few months later, having had no training, Ferguson found himself a midshipman in the battleship Royal Oak at Scapa Flow. However, his captain, William Benn, was horrified, and ordered Ferguson back to Cambridge; a short while later, Royal Oak was torpedoed in her anchorage at night with the loss of 833 lives.
Ferguson fretted at university until Dunkirk in June 1940, when he insisted on being allowed to rejoin. Passing out top of his class, he was promised the choice of appointments and volunteered for destroyers or motor torpedo boats. Instead, he was sent to a flotilla of eight 25-ft long Yorkshire cobbles, in which he started to train for the invasion of France. Ferguson reckoned he was quite safe: if the Germans saw him coming in these open fishing boats, they would be unable to open fire for laughing.
Later, his flotilla was re-equipped with American, 36-ft-long "Eureka" boats and, in early 1942, with the 41-ft-long, British-built landing craft in which Ferguson specialised for the rest of the war.
After Dieppe, Ferguson took command of the renamed 60th LCA and was sent to the Mediterranean, where he landed American troops at Arzeu in North Africa from the Canadian Pacific liner Duchess of Bedford. In March 1943 he began his very successful association with British 50th Division, taking part in the invasion of Sicily, the crossing of the Messina Strait, and the landings at Salerno and Anzio. He was awarded the DSC.
At Normandy in 1944, Ferguson, now a lieutenant and in command of 524th LCA, launched his flotilla from its parent ship, Empire Arquebus, some seven miles off the coast and led the first wave of assault craft, with the 1st Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment embarked, to land on Gold Beach at le Hamel. He was awarded a Bar to his DSC for his gallantry, skill and determination.
Ferguson left the Navy in 1945 and, six years later, began a lifelong association with the then ailing Hamworthy Engineering company at Poole. After the firm had grown at the rate of 50 per cent per annum, he and his brother Nick bought a small company, Bourne Steel, which he sold to its employees in the 1980s; it is now one of the south coast's biggest construction and engineering companies.
He also ran an English and a Scottish property company, took an interest in the Parkstone Boys' and Girls' Club and turned the Bourne Valley Club into a successful residential activities' centre for the young.
Ferguson was a keen sailor throughout his life, though his sister recalled that, as a boy, "he always fell in and we had to take dry clothes with us". His yacht, Swan of Arden, was as well known on the French coast as in the Western Isles, but he could not cook, and the crew's rations consisted entirely of fruit cake.
In 1972 Ferguson helped found the Poole Maritime Trust. When an early 16th-century Spanish wreck was discovered on the notorious Hook Sands in Studland Bay, he took the lead raising money for its conservation.
Alasdair Ferguson, who died on December 26, was appointed MBE in 1984 and became a Deputy Lieutenant for Dorset in 1995.
His first wife was Miranda Domvile, daughter of Admiral Sir Barry Domvile; she died in 1981. He married, secondly, Heather Baggley, who died in 1995; and thirdly, in 1997, Patricia Richards (née Johnson), who survives him with three daughters of the first marriage, a stepson and two stepdaughters.
Alasdair Ferguson rarely talked about his wartime experiences, even to his family. What he described as "the worst day of his life" was August 19, 1942, when he took part in the Dieppe raid. Driven by political necessity, too large for a raid, too small for an invasion, it was imprecise in its objectives, and its operational plan was unworkably complicated.
Due to inadequate naval gunfire support, strong German artillery defences, a loss of surprise and a decision not to bomb the town behind the assault beach, the raid was an expensive disaster, with the force of Canadian troops and Army and Royal Marine commandos leaving behind nearly 1,000 dead and over 2,000 prisoners. More than 100 aircraft were also lost.
Sub-Lieutenant Ferguson, RNVR, was second in command of the 10th Landing Craft Assault (LCA) Flotilla. Unfortunately, a small German coastal convoy had become entangled with the assault force; the battle disorganised the landing craft and the noise of gunfire alerted the garrison. Lowered from the davits of the converted Belgian ship, Prinses Astrid, some seven miles offshore, he arrived later than planned in dawn light off the village of Puys 3km to the left of Dieppe.
The Royal Regiment of Canada and one artillery detachment, experienced appalling luck on the Puys beach. As they reached the shore, the men were pinned against a concrete sea wall and unable to advance otherwise than in full view of the enemy. Since no ship could get close without being sunk, the survivors had to surrender. Of the 556 men and officers of the Royal Regiment of Canada who sailed for Dieppe, more than 200 died and 264 were captured.
Ferguson was lucky to survive as 33 landing craft were destroyed. The plan was to withdraw after several hours, and Ferguson was sent back to the main beach with four LCAs to recover survivors. Two were sunk and Fergusons LCA, well overloaded, left under heavy fire and was itself hit. Ferguson transferred his passengers to another LCA, for which he was awarded a mention in dispatches.
His naval career continued in the crucial but relatively unsung landing craft flotilla community, his appointments alternating between long-forgotten Combined Operations training establishments such as HMS Tormentor, Roseneath and Cricket, and assault landing operations.
In November 1942 he commanded the 60th LCA Flotilla for Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, being launched from the converted liner Duchess of Bedford carrying US troops ashore to Arzew east of Oran. His command continued in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and the more difficult and bloody assault at Salerno in September. A contemporary records Ferguson as "a natural born leader, with great aplomb and quiet courage in everything he did he required the highest standard of organisation while caring for all his sailors". He was awarded the DSC in 1944.
After intensive training, Ferguson's flotilla embarked in the converted cargo ship Empire Arquebus for the Normandy invasion, carrying the 1st Battalion The Hampshire Regiment to Gold Beach and the tenacious strongpoint at Le Hamel. Of the landing craft, Admiral Vian wrote: "Their spirit and seamanship rose to meet the greatness of the hour" Thorough training and steady nerves had prevailed over beach obstacles and marginal weather, rough enough for the soldiers to be issued with the frankly named "Bags, Vomit". Ferguson won a Bar to his DSC for his courage and leadership.
He saw out the war as second in command of the destroyer Vivien on East Coast convoy work and was demobilised in April 1946.
Alasdair Forbes Ferguson was educated at Loretto, Edinburgh, where he was head of the school and captain of hockey, athletics, swimming, boxing and rugby. His engineering studies at Clare College, Cambridge, were interrupted by the war.
Ferguson's association with Poole covered a remarkable range of activities. Recruited as a consultant, he became managing director of the ailing Hamworthy Engineering, which then grew rapidly. In 1958, with his brother Nick, he bought Bourne Steel, then employing only 15 people. Ferguson developed a strong market in the Middle East and sold major shareholdings to the 160 employees, the company, by then one of the top five in its field in the country.
He was chairman of the Sub-Commissioners of Trinity House, Poole, overseeing pilotage for 27 years. He founded the Poole Maritime Trust, which supported the exploration of a 16th-century wreck in Studland Bay, and he was a key player in the preservation of the Waterfront Museum. He was appointed MBE for his services to the community.
Other interests included the Parkstone Boys and Girls Club, the Association of Dorset Boys' Clubs, and support for the Poole Arts Centre. To embellish the waterfront, threatened by an ugly pumping station, he bought a sculpture by Sir Anthony Caro. He was a keen sailor, often sailing his yacht Swan of Arden to France.
He was three times married; his first two wives Miranda Domvile and Heather Sheriff predeceased him. He is survived by his third wife, Patricia, and two of the three daughters of the first marriage.
Alasdair Ferguson, MBE, DSC and Bar, landing craft specialist and businessman, was born on April 11, 1919. He died on December 26, 2004, aged 85.
Swan of Arden
I have been very pleased to read the notice about Mr Alasdair Ferguson, because I have owned the yacht "Swan of Arden" for three years, in 1973-1976. She was a very well designed and built yacht, 35 feet long, built in Poole with teak and mahogany on oak. With my wife, we sailed through the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies and back. Though very narrow and low over the water, she was a very safe boat. We sold her after our journey, in Belgium. But maybe you have heard of her? We would be keen to have information about Swan of Arden.
[We will forward any information about Swan of Arden to Bernard Prouvost.]
Swan of Arden, Dunkerque, 1975
after the Atlantic Ocean trip
Sir Compton Edward Domvile (1842-1924), G.C.B., G.C.V.O., grandfather of Miranda Domvile, the first wife of Lieutenant Alasdair Ferguson.