Monday, 21 August 2017

Dunkirk













I spent part of the summer this year near Aldeburgh, a picturesque old fishing port on the East Anglian coast, now perhaps more famous for its annual arts and music festival founded in 1948 by composer Benjamin Britten. The venue on my last evening was Aldeburgh Cinema located on the town’s High Street, a period-piece picture palace founded in 1919 which, according to its website, “is one of the oldest, continuously running cinema houses in the United Kingdom. The auditorium retains several original features, including a number of beautiful art deco lights.” So what could be a more appropriate setting for attending the screening of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed portrayal of the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk in the early part of the Second World War? The film ‘Dunkirk‘ presents a harrowing account of the real-life drama that unfolded on the beaches of Northern France over the course of a week between 26 May and 4 June 1940. This fast-moving wartime spectacle has been acclaimed widely for its generally realistic representation of the historical evacuation. And by way of a quirky coincidence, on my travels home the next day I found myself sailing into the Dunkirk ferry terminal.
Fortunately, to my knowledge, no one in my family was lost during the Dunkirk evacuation. A cousin of my mother’s was captured by the German army near the French coast and saw out his war years in a POW camp. My father’s brother John, now 97 years old, was likewise part of the British Expeditionary Forces which had to beat a hasty retreat towards the English Channel from the rapidly advancing German troops – he was one of the lucky ones to survive and return to England. My uncle experienced an eventful war, eventually attaining the rank of Captain. He was recently awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his deeds after the D-Day landings. And towards the end of the war he was part of a Red Cross Unit as an observer at Belsen concentration camp which had just been liberated. A grim task indeed.
Thankfully my uncle wrote an account of his wartime experiences and below is his own first-hand account of ‘Dunkirk’. Prior to the evacuation, he had been stationed in Armentières, near the Belgian border, as part of France’s plans to bolster the country’s defences in anticipation of a German attack. For several weeks nothing happened and then the Hitler’s Wehrmacht, with 2,500 tanks at its disposal, backed up by a formidable air force, began its Blitzkrieg offensive. On the 10 May 1940, the Battle of France commenced. 

At this time the German armour was superior to the Allies and it was not long before we were being shelled and bombed. Our commanders decided that retreat seemed the better part of valour and as the Belgian army had already given up the fight, we had little option but to retreat. The French and Belgians were still using some horse-drawn transport and together with their refugees with carts and prams, the roads were extremely difficult to use and almost totally grid-locked.
However, running the gauntlet of shelling and bombing, occasionally jumping into ditches was little protection, but we managed to retreat in the direction of the Channel ports. The worst scenes were of dead animals in the roads and fields - cows and horses - along with dead soldiers and civilians.
Many of the units were split up, but the majority of the British army was funnelled in the direction of Dunkirk. Naturally many of the vehicles and men were lost in the shelling and bombing, which was increasing in intensity as we neared the coast. On many occasions we had to abandon the vehicles to avoid the dive-bombers, taking shelter on the banks of the canals, which in many cases were parallel to the roads. By the time my vehicle reached Dunkirk many thousands were already there and the place was heaving with troops from France, Belgium and of course Britain. They were milling about all over the town, trying to seek shelter in disused buildings and those which were still standing.
Along with two comrades I dodged from place to place and witnessed our last shelter bombed before our eyes - we were very lucky! Many vehicles were destroyed and those still usable were later driven into the sea or set on fire, weapons being smashed to prevent them falling into enemy hands. Chaos reigned but by degrees senior officers tried to muster troops into some sort of order and we eventually arrived on the main beaches. They were literally packed with troops although a great many were killed by the relentless attacks by the dive-bombers - again we were lucky to be alive.
I was still with my friend, Alan Chantler, and not having eaten for many days, we devoured a tin of sandy Skipper sardines which had been sent to me in a food parcel from home a few weeks previously - I remember that they were delicious but gritty! We were very thirsty, having consumed all our water the day before.
We had to keep moving about in an effort to avoid the bombing but it was more by great good fortune than strategy that we remained alive! By night time the beaches were lit up by burning oil tanks near the docks which blazed for days and nights.
Two days later, as daylight approached ,we saw all kinds of ships appearing on the horizon and as they drew nearer we realised that this was an armada of evacuation craft coming to the rescue.
A great many soldiers died on the beaches during those terrible days and nights and I count myself fortunate that l survived, along with others.
Senior officers gathered together batches of twenty soldiers at a time to join little boats and other craft for evacuation from the water's edge. It was an ongoing process and many were lost in the water together with civilian boats and their crew.
There was still a jetty (or mole, as it was called) jutting out from the harbour, and although there were great holes in the planks, it was still being used by larger ships. Included in these was a Naval destroyer called the HMS Malcolm and I was fortunate enough to be one of the soldiers to be marshalled towards this ship. With great difficulty we proceeded along the jetty, and when ordered, jumped down several feet onto the deck of the destroyer. The decks were so packed with troops that we were ordered not to move at all because had we done so the ship could have capsized, it was so over-loaded.
Within a few hours, and with some food inside us along with plenty of hot mugs of tea, we arrived at Dover - glad to be home again.
At the railway station, train after train left with returning troops, travelling to destinations unknown. Together with many others I arrived at Bristol and was bussed out of town to a camp at Alverston, north of Bristol. During my stay there I was asked by the local vicar to read a lesson at one of the thanksgiving services and within about ten days we were allowed to go on leave.

1 comment:

  1. Goosebumps galore. Wow, what must those men (boys?) have gone through?

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