This Morning : Vic Viner dies at 99

Vic Viner dies at 99

Sunday 2 October 2016 11.20 EDT

Vic Viner, who has died aged 99, was one of the last remaining survivors of the Royal Navy Dunkirk rescue operation that saw the evacuation of thousands of trapped Allied soldiers during the second world war. As a leading seaman, aged 23, he spent six days and six nights under heavy bombardment on the beach, marshalling troops off the sands and onto the flotilla of little ships during Operation Dynamo between 26 May and 4 June 1940.

Viner was dispatched from Chatham in Kent aboard HMS Esk, one of four destroyers sent to rescue British, Belgian and French troops cut off and surrounded by the German army. His first orders were, with three others, to row the ship’s whaler to the beach and bring back soldiers. It was back-breaking work, as they picked up 15 soldiers, complete with kit, on each journey. After the fourth, his colleague noticed: “Vic, you’ve got blood all over your hands”. Both men had. “You’ve heard the expression sweated blood. Well we did. Literally sweated blood due to the rowing,” Viner recalled.

He was then tasked as a “beach master”, stationed at the Bray-Dunes just north-east of Dunkirk, with instructions to “create order out of chaos”, and was responsible for boarding on to the little ships men who were trapped, terrified, short of food and water and under constant attack from dive bombers. Some had been driven out of their minds entirely, walking into the sea to what looked like certain death.

Viner, in charge of a column of soldiers as the enemy flew over, was provided with a revolver. It was for anyone who tried to jump the queue, he was instructed. He drew it three times but never fired. Amid the chaos he tried to seek out his 25-year-old brother, Albert, who had been dispatched aboard HMS Grenade to help with the same effort. Just as he got to the harbour, “down came 12 Stukas” straight on to his brother’s ship, sinking it. The crew was picked up by the Thames paddle-steamer MV Crested Eagle, then it too was bombed, its fuel igniting a blaze that claimed more than 300 lives. On 29 May, Viner 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.

Viner remained 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. When he regained consciousness he still had on his tin hat and trousers, but no jacket. He had no memory of getting back to Britain.

Viner was born in Gillingham, Kent, the son of Albert, a fleet master at arms in the Royal Navy and later a foreman builder, and his wife, Ethel (nee Scutt). He joined the Royal Navy in 1933, and was part of the Australian squadron that served in the Mediterranean when Mussolini launched his assault on Abyssinia in 1935. He was later posted to the China fleet, but came back to the UK to undertake extra training in underwater weapons and mine disposal shortly before Dunkirk. He married Winnie Simpson on 11 May 1940, two weeks before Operation Dynamo.

After recovering from Dunkirk, Viner was sent almost immediately to Cherbourg as part of a demolition party. He spent the remainder of the war on Atlantic convoy duties, and left the navy in 1947. He then joined the General Post Office installing telephones, and spent many years working as a quality inspector for an electrical firm in Dorking, Surrey. His final job was working for Surrey county council in the finance department.

Only in his later years did Viner open up about his wartime experiences, after answering 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, past 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 contributed to several 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 met the film director Christopher Nolan, who is making a film based on the Dunkirk evacuations, to share his memories.

His passion was informing children of his experiences and he was well known in Dorking, talking at schools, in local clubs and attending remembrance events. “He was very keen for people to remember and to understand what happened,” said his grandson, Patrick Viner.

Winnie died in 2010. He is survived by their two children, Michael and Elizabeth, and by his two grandchildren, Katharine, who is editor-in-chief of the Guardian, and Patrick.

• Harold Victor Viner, Dunkirk veteran, born 21 March 1917; died 29 September 2016