Memories of wartime

June will see numerous events in support of our armed forces past and present. Today (6 June 2024) is the 80th anniversary of D-Day, and there are events at the Royal Armouries museum this weekend (8 & 9 June). Saturday 30 June is Armed Forces Day with events in the city centre.

One of our readers, Jennifer Haigh, has kindly shared her father’s wartimes reminiscences. He was an ambulance driver in France in 1940 and was caught up in the evacuation from Dunkirk.

He writes vividly about being caught up in the retreat and time on the beaches before his eventual rescue and return to England. His unit had arrived at a deserted French village just outside Dunkirk …

After breakfast we began to realise that we were not alone in this new deserted village, thousands of soldiers, sailor and airmen were moving in, coming in riding on every conceivable type of vehicle one could imagine, as well as on foot and even on horseback, some came as organised companies, or small parties, but the majority seemed to be aimlessly following the others, like hunted animals being driven to the waters edge, which is infact , just what they were, and so we all where and with them came conflicting stories of where, and how the enemy were approaching.

At about six thirty, our company assembled in a rough line, and backed by the Colonel, made for the beach, which was but a hundred yards, or so, away. When we reached it, we turned left towards Dunkirk and its, still present, pall of black smoke. The beach, like everywhere, by this time, had become like Blackpool on August Bank Holiday Monday and as we moved slowly along the beach, keeping in as close as we could to our fellow members, for fear we got cut off from them in the gathering dusk, word came back to us, that, a destroyer was laying off a short distance ahead, and was taking us aboard, but, as we would have to wade out to row boats, all heavy equipment had to be discarded. That meant throwing away over coats and web equipment, which I did gladly, but kept my rifle, and ammo.

Soon we were wading out in a column towards what was by then, nothing but a black form on a gently rolling sea, this object proved to be a large rowing boat, but before the head of the column could reach it, it made off seemingly full of persons unknown to us, wading further into the water to keep ahead of the new straggling mass of ‘outsiders’ now also converging on this same spot, we finally come to a halt when the head of the column was nearly waist deep in the swell that was on. It was a queer sensation, standing there fully clothed, in cold surging sea water with night fast approaching, and hopes fast fading not a word seemed to pass between any of us, we seemed so full of our own private thoughts, and hopes. We just stood, stared, and many of us silently prayed.

Imagine how all our hearts sank, when, at last, without sign or signal, a long dark shape, with whisps of smoke rolling from it, was seem disapearing on the horizon, and with, it, went our hopes. The next order, the first for a long time, came, ‘Back to the Billet’. Retracing our steps, back out of the water, now cold, wet, and a little down hearted, we made our way back to the old deserted hotel, which we had left only a short while ago.

Morning saw us reforming and once again heading for the beach. But we did not get far along the beach this time, it was too crowded, and there wasn’t any objective, so after a short while we all sat down, and waited, for what?  All was quiet except for the distant sound of guns, or perhaps an occasional drone of an aircraft engine above somewhere.  About two o’clock that afternoon all eyes were turned to the distant horizon, it was smoke that we could see, a ship at last, who was it coming for? Who would get on it? But then perhaps it wasn’t for us at all, we waited anxiously for what seemed hours, yes it must be for us, it was a paddle steamer a large one, it was heading our way.

All was peaceful but the air was tense with excitement, when suddenly, as if from no where came the sound of screaming aircraft engines, and within seconds we knew the true significance of that sound, the vibrations of heavy explosives at sea vibratged the very sand we stood on, as great spouts of water gushed up all around the steamer, the souind of multiple machine gun fire joined in with the sound of diving planes and heavy explosions.

It didn’t last long, five minutes and all was quiet again. The raiders had left behind a burning, listing ship we watched with heavy hearts as the vessel made slowly for the beach near to where the enemy air craft had blown up the day before.  Finally it was beached a burning mess, it was the ‘Golden Eagle’, a well known and much-loved pleasure steamer from the River Thames. The Gofer Guns on the shore could do little or nothing to help the lightly armed steamer in her fight against winged steel, the German airmen had chosen a spot for attack, well out or range of the coastal guns.

Night came again without any further ships or incidences.  And as night fell, the masses began moving towards Dunkirk, seven miles away, along the beach, we moved with them.  By this time it was more than twenty four hours since we had eaten and strange to say, we were not hungry any more, we were past it.

That night dragged on endlessly, and for me it became a case of walk, stop, lay down, sleep a nudge, up walk stop lay down, sleep, and so it went on throughout the night. Dawn found us about two miles nearer the great burning port. We all stopped walking, and carried on with just sleeping and waking in short spells. About midday, we could only tell the time by our watches now, our stomachs had long since ceased to tell us. We witnessed, at long range, an air raid over Dunkirk, without it seemed, any opposition but worse still for us it was when the raiders, not content with bombing, finished their run in by flying low over the beaches and causing many queer feelings to run up and down our spines, as we threw our selves flat, and silently prayed again, we all had orders to hold our fire, for fear of retaliation, even the Gofers were silent, for fear of hitting our own troops on the beaches.

It was now about four pm the weather had remained dry all the time, and often sunny, but now there were thick low clouds about with little, or, no breaks in them. The next sound we were to hear, was the now familiar drone of bombers high above the clouds not daring to venture through, they seemed to drone around endlessly. When suddenly on the far distant horizon we noticed, once again, to our delight, a wisp of smoke, we all began to stare at it intently, wondering, hoping, and speculating.

Slowly the super structure and then the hull came in view, a small broad shape against a background of sky. What was it?  It looked like a steam barge, but who cared what is was, as long as it floated, kept floating and was able to move, and keep moving towards us. At long last we saw what it really was, it was a small paddle steamer, the Queen of Kent, as it turned out, from Margate, making a brave attempt at rescue work. She came on and on, heading straight towards the shore, our part of the shore, as it seemed, we all kept our fingers crossed, and kept an anxious eye on the sky, for fear the blanket of cloud should break and reveal the ship to the bombers, the clouds stayed intact the ship came within three hundred yards of the shore, turned broadside on, and dropped anchor.

Within a matter of minutes a large and small rowing boat was lowered with some difficulty over the side, and with on sailor in each began pulling towards the beach. The Guards Officer who had single handed, organised the beach positions that morning, come hurrying along with instructions to our Colonel that he was to get his men into the water immediately the first two boat parties to hurry ahead and meet the rowing boats about one hundred yards out. But before the first of these parties could reach the first boat in the group, in a group of other less organised, but just as anxious soldiers from further up the beach had broken away and made off to the row boat. They were allowed to continue rather than cause trouble, but the organising beach officer ran into the water and stopped any further violation.

And so the embarkation continued quietly and orderly, according to plan, with an occasional thought of the bombers over head, but still out of sight behind the clouds. Finally it came my turn to take my men into the water, we were the fifth and last party of our company, which, included the medical Corps, to which we were attached, still in total about eighty personnel. Word came back as we went forward into the sea ‘No fire arms to be taken aboard’, there was only one thing to do with them, but no officer would give that order, although it meant the difference between escaping or being a prisoner eventually, because that must have been the Germans only intention for stopping us like that and sinking incoming ships as he had. So, it was for me, away with my rifle, the magazine one way, the bolt another, and the rifle another, I even discarded a small pack which I had on my back, nothing was going to stop me from getting on that boat, if I could help it.

All I had then was, what I stood up in, plus twenty Woodbine Cigarettes a box of matches, my pay book under my tin hat on my head, my boots, tied together were slung round my waist and so forward we went. As the water became deeper, I realised that my companions were a good deal shorter than I, so, getting all to hold hands, I led them out towards the rowing boat now waiting for us. By the time we reached our objective, the swell was rising at times as high as my chest, and the much shorter chaps were having to jump to keep their mouths out of the water.

Standing by the boat I helped each to climb aboard as it came down  whilst another tall chap already on helped them over the sides by the seat of their pants. I finally climbed over myself closely followed by our Section Officer but he had great difficulty getting aboard owing to the fact that, being the conciencious chap he was, even state of emergency was not good enough reason to discard his equipment, he was still dressed in top boots, knee breaches, top coat, and gas cape, bisides his helmet and Brown revolver.

Whilst we were struggling to get him over the side, the sailor in charge, had told all able bodied men to grab an oar each, and start pulling like hell towards the steamer, they needed no second telling. At one time during our attempts to get our officer aboard, he told us to let him go as he couldn’t make it. To do so would have meant certain death for him now in that waterlogged condition in deep water, weighted down with all that equipment, so we all hung on, and with one final effort we had him over the side and safe in the boat.

I then turned my attention to the receding shore line, a mass of seething humanity still covered its golden sands, a mass I know, each with a heavy heart as they saw us go. But there, at the water’s edge, from the spot we had come from, still stood our Colonel, and Tuby our Section Cook, both having said that they were ‘too old to go paddling’, I felt very sorry for them, and all the thousands of others that were still there with them.  Both these men were in their late fifties or early sixties.

At last we reached the paddle steamer, and clambered aboard up the side of the paddle wheel housing. And it was then that I noticed two naked men among us, they, not our own unit, had stripped off and swum out to the steamer uninvited, a sailor aboard gave them a blanket a piece to wrap round themselves, and all was well.

From the deck we were all ushered below straight away, only to come face to face with hunks of bread and jam, and what appeared to be drinking chocolate, I took a piece of bread and jam but couldn’t face up to that hot thick brown liquid, not after more than four days without a bite to ear, and keyed up as we were.

My next thought was, what if those bombers above, suddenly found a break in the clouds, and came through? This was no place, in the bowels of a wooden ship, if it be caught napping, so up on deck I went and found some strong place, if such existed, I did find one, a seat of a coil of rope, beneath a four point five ach ach gun mounting on the forward deck.  Finding a spot our of the cool evening breeze, for it was nor beginning to make me shiver in my wet clothes, I settled down to eat my bread and jam, and to have a smoke before night fall.

About 6am next morning I was awakened by a crowd pushing past, I joined in and soon found myself on deck, looking at a harbour wall from the out side, it was Dover harbour, and a very welcome sight, the morning air was clear and fresh, and that is just how I felt, even after more than twelve hours on that crowded boat.

The sailors, as they had been all the way through, were cheerful and comforting in there ways and their actions, never once did I see a look of doubt, or fear, on any one of their faces, to them, it appeared, as if it were just another job of work, mixed with pleasure. Even the chaps who first picked us up with the row boat, greeted us with a song and a whistled tune or two, and that was how it was all the way over.

The harbour boom opened, and we were soon inside its protection, and tied up to the quay side. Not having anything to declare, but ourselves and no one seemed to be bothered who we were yet, we disembarked almost straight away, and were directed to a waiting train on the quay side.

To get to the train we had to pass through a barrier, on either side of which were tables laden with fruit, and bars of chocolate each of us were handed a bar of chocolate and a fruit or two as we passed between them. The other side of the barrier were ladies handing out telegram forms, telling us to make them out and hand them at our first stop along the line, to where we didn’t know. I took a form and then made it out to my mother and put it in my pocket for the first stop.

By this time I began to realise that, the nervous tension, which I had subconciously had for many days past, was being slowly replaced by a feeling of gratitude to everyone in England. We had thought for so long, that we were the forgotten army. The army which was sent to France with flying colours, as the great British Expeditionary Force, four hundred and eighty thousand strong, defeated by the cunning of our enemy, let down by our out of date French allies, and our own complacent brass hats.


Photo: Lines of troops await rescue on the beach at Dunkirk, June 1940. Credit: Shutterstock


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One Reply to “Memories of wartime”

  1. A very moving and vivid account of this battle on D Day 6th June, thank you for allowing people to read this and share your father’s recollections Jennifer Haigh

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