by Edward Anthony (Tony) Clarke, October 2006
At the end of December 1939 he reached his 20th birthday and available for call – up. Pride would not allow that – He would volunteer!
So, by the end of March he was a trained soldier of the Royal Army Service Corps!! Well, he could ‘Fall In’ & ‘Fall Out’, ‘Quick March’ & ‘ Slow March’, ‘Right Turn’ , ‘Left Turn’ & ‘About Turn’, and most importantly,-“As for Pay to the Front---Salute!” Rifle Drill? Not necessary since the British Brass apparently thought it a continuance of the 14-18 episode. How it would change!
And so to France! [Sometime in April 1940, straight after finishing recruit training]
He was a member of a “Base Petrol Filling Centre” supposed to operate close behind the line with an “Octopus” pump for filling cans or vehicles, presumably tanks, directly from tankers or drums to save transporting cans.
In theory it seems a good idea but in fact never came to pass although the unit was associated with petrol for the years he spent with it overseas.
As part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France the unit was stationed in a filthy area alongside the railway marshalling yards outside Lille called Marais de Lomme. Using the ancient facilities of a petrol dump they were filling the flimsy cans that were no match for the “Gerry/Jerry” cans the Germans had later in the desert war.
As the cans were filled they were put onto a conveyer some five feet high alongside him. A plane watcher was to alert when danger threatened and on the alarm it was case of “everybody out!” (Unions have made use of that).
On one occasion one lad brushed past and went clear over the conveyer, with cans it must have been seven feet, while our hero ducked under it. At the time the ‘Phony War’ hadn’t got going, but it doesn’t hurt getting into practice for moving fast in emergencies – there would be plenty of them later.
The unit was billeted in a large hall over an estaminet (café) which served a very tasty spread made from pigs blood, on crusty French bread!!
At dawn on 10th May 1940 the first bombs fell with naturally the marshalling yards a prime target. He was still in bed and knowing little about bombs was suitably scared. He would hear plenty more – like going to the dentist you can get used to it even if you don’t like it.
One amusing episode was while a previously injured man was being stretchered across the railway yard (it must have been _ mile wide) bombs started to fall and the patient was off the stretcher and beat his helpers to cover.
Obviously the war was going badly for the wrong side and the time came when the noise of heavy bombardment to the south moved westward during the day and move was made to get out. All the stores were thrown into the canal and the oil and petrol stocks emptied onto the ground.
In the evening, the men crowded onto the trucks – just room for two feet, and the convoy, probably the last to clear the area, got going. Had one scary moment while going through a little village when machine guns were banging away just beyond the houses, so a hurried turn around and find another road. When daylight came the unit hid in the loft in a barn and just a few miles across the fields Armentieres was being Stuka bombed. The Stuka was a single engined dive bomber which literally stood on its nose with a siren fitted to add terror. It had caused much of the damage almost wiping out Warsaw in the invasion of Poland. As the small convoy drove through Armentieres that night it was still ablaze both sides of the road.
[That appears to date the convoy to the evening of either 23 or 24 May. Tony also said that they were supposed to have been about the last to get out of Lille; but Rommel's Panzer Division only took the town on 27 May. So perhaps it was 25 or 26 May and Armentieres was still burning even then.].
Unfortunately our Hero twisted his knee in the hayloft and put the cartilage out. It was his only effort to win a ‘purple heart’, had the British Army handed out such things, but it did have an effect on his future during service and on his ability to put real effort into sport thereafter. Disability pension? Ha, Ha!!
Just where the German tanks were was probably hard to come by and it must be realized that the field radio at the time was bulky compared to what the reader might visualize. From Armentieres the convoy actually crossed over the Belgium frontier where some sort of a meal was dished out – and as it happened the next would be in England some days later. Then a further run back over the border to a parking area with masses of trucks already there. It was understood they would be destroyed before the Germans got to them but it was hardly likely that the RAF would deal with it since that much too small a force was doing its best elsewhere. Again, “Everybody Out!” and follow all the others both soldiers and refugees with one eye on the sky. The films and TV have shown what it was like with a convenient ditch to drop into at the first sign of a plane. There were a few scares with planes coming close even swooping along close overhead but no straffing, maybe already out of ammo – anyway Gerry was probably more interested in Dunkirk. (Peter Dawson sang, “March, March, March along the Highway” – he got it wrong - just drag your weary feet.)
In the last minute hurry to get away his greatcoat had been left behind and spotting one alongside the road, and with the chance of a cold night ahead, he reached for it only to hold back when a loud voice yelled, “Leave it!”. Of course it was probably quite safe but German agents were known to be leaving enticing objects around nicely boobytrapped.
A few miles from destination our boy spotted a Ford V8 by the road. There were no houses close by so he didn’t check if the owner was coming back and he had had his ‘L’ license for a whole year so in he got followed by half a dozen others and did the last miles or so in style. It was more powerful than the vehicle he’d learnt in and it saved footslogging a mile or two until it finally got bogged in the sand so, you’ve got it - “Everybody out!”.
By now the water bottle was empty and it was a while since any moisture had passed his lips. (Any good author would use such a lyrical phrase.) There were houses etc. along the back of the beach, just a few buildings still whole but most not so lucky. There were a couple of wine bars of sorts but it was a case of bottles and glasses everywhere but not a drop to drink. And nowhere was there a tap with running water!
To the west the oil tanks were well and truly burning and a cloud of black smoke hung over the beach where queues of troops were lined up waiting for the ‘Skylark’ – ( I bet there was at least one of the little boats called that!) And now further evidence to show how strife can bring on such degradation to a well brought up twentyyear old! Not enough to steal a car but just one truck had been bogged at the back of the beach and over the tailboard he went and – “Gold!” Well actually it was a large tin of corned beef – anyway you can’t eat gold - so a banquet was on. By this time the small group had been joined by one of the junior officers so he was given the lid and the rest used their fingers. Mess tins had been dumped with only the small sidepack left, the space was wanted for the few personal items saved. The meal? didn’t help quench the thirst but was welcome. Then it was go and join the queue.
(I have read books where there was disorganization with semi mad men running amok. This may have come later when the worn out and battleweary troops got there but I saw none of it. There was one instance of a wild-eyed private coming up looking for Sergeant Somebody, and I quote, “I’m gonna kill the bastard!” but that was the only one. After all everyone had walked miles, was tired, hungry and thirsty, and just hoped they’d be one of the lucky ones. As somebody called out, “No Panic! Plenty of Boats!”. I have further read of countless drunken deserters beyond the beachhead. Where did they find any drink? I would have just settled for a glass of the best French Champayne! OK, I’d never tasted it but ‘when in France etc’. In fact I did get a taste for Benedictine. Sadly it seems true that towards the end there was an element of drunken soldiers in the port area but they were a very small minority. Official statistics of gains and losses will be at the end of this story.)
Fortunately few enemy planes (and no British) came across the beach perhaps due to heavy cloud and the mass of black smoke. They were more interested in attacking the bigger ships off shore. It must have been agonising to have been ferried out to what seemed to be a chance of safety only to be sunk far from the shore. Yet we still waited patiently to risk it. (Of course it only happens to the other guy). Had a plane come straffing the queues well out into the water it would have been automatic to dive and in four feet of water hardly amusing.
Speaking of amusing the following episode shows the acumen of the Irish. Two such shameful members of that race belonged to 2 BPFC. They were the Gibson brothers, and at the back of the queue. A voice is calling out as it comes down the line, “Make way for a wounded man!”. ‘Twere the Irish carrying somebody, straight to the front and into the next little boat! Let’s face it – they got home before our Hero.
The evening dragged on and the front of the queue seemed to get further away and then as usually happens – it got dark. “Back to the shore lads and dig in for the night . There will be more boats tomorrow”. They had to believe him – it saved anybody deciding they’d swim it!
Of course it’s doubtful if any one had a hundred percent sleep but came the dawn and the still wet, hungry and thirsty men finding no cup of tea alongside got to their feet and awaited orders. From the air the beach would have looked like a lot of khaki blobs on a yellow background so how did messages get around. There was a distant breakwater with, of all things, a passenger ship alongside and that’s where all were to go.
[The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships lists 47 vessels that participated that were 'British Merchant Vessels – Personnel Ships'. Tony says it was a substantial vessel and there were a lot of people on board. So that reduces the possibilities to about a dozen – the Canterbury, the King George V, the Lady of Mann, the Maid of Orleans, the Royal Daffodil, the Royal Sovereign, the St. Helier, the Tynwald or the Whippingham; or, less likely, one of a few (commandeered?) French vessels – the Cote d'Argent, the Newhaven, the Rouen]
Dragging across the soft sand was an effort not helped by our hero’s damaged knee and looking over his shoulder he saw no footprints, just two train lines. On the end of the breakwater was the representative of the British Navy in the form of a tubby Petty Officer. All very cheery and although there is no historical record of him calling, “This Way for the Skylark!” he could well have. (Looking back , it was like a Butlin’s Holiday Camp where everybody is supposedly enjoying themselves being treated like a herd of sheep.) While everyone is groping along the badly damaged rocks a raid came and the sound of bombs had the men ducking but not the Chief PO. “Come on chaps, just keep it moving!”. It’s to be hoped he wasn’t left behind but of course ‘all in a day’s work for the Navy’.
Even in times of strife small things are important. He had a clean pair of socks in his pack and perhaps it’s not surprising that they made his feet feel so much better.
So the boat sailed and made it to Ramsgate. What a sight it was to see the white cliffs come over the horizon! [The Wikipedia entry says that the evacuation took place from 26 May to 4 June, and the mention of "the first heavy air attack" suggests that Tony's evacuation was on 29, 30 or 31 May - although Tony only remembers a couple of nights between leaving Lille and being evacuated from Dunkirk.]
Worth a mention is that while on the beach hundreds of French Franc notes were blowing around. Our Hero was too tired to bother picking up more than a few for souvenirs although they were changeable back in England. He had held on to a one shilling English coin and refused an offer of a handful of francs, since very few had a telephone the only way to send urgent news was to send a telegram to say, “I’m Back”. Hoped it would not be mistaken for the dreaded telegrams sent during the 14 -18 war which gave news of a death on active service.
The R.A.S.C. backed by dozens of volunteers doing 8 hour shifts welcomed them back with cups of tea, buns and pies at the railway stations en route.
Upon landing he’d given his particulars as to name, number, unit etc. before boarding the train. In the case of 2BPFC, it was to Chipping Norton. It was inevitable that not all made it home but after three days it was a Unit again, moved to Marlborough and then home for a week’s leave.
The reader should have noticed to avoid the constant use of the first person singular He is referred to as our Hero with a double question mark in the title. Why the question mark? The Heroes were the young and old who often gave their lives not just to save soldiers but to save Britain. The small boats that braved the journey when many had never previously left the estuary, to ferry men to the destroyers and other bigger boats and then make the trip themselves if needed - part time sailors who had never sailed beyond the sight of land! They were not ordered to do it, they volunteered.
The 400,000 men of the BEF was THE British Army at the time with most of the remaining troops at home still in training. We were only heroic in that we did not panic and showed that even when things are going badly, discipline is there to keep things on a level. I suppose it was the same throughout Briton that although after Dunkirk it was 100/1 against survival the civilian population was equal to it.
I was just twenty when I volunteered to join up, not from patriotism, just that pride wouldn’t allow me to be conscripted. Most of my unit were older than I was. There were few younger than me at Dunkirk. Possibly 18 year old regulars in some regiments. Now, in 2006, I’m 86 and any of them left are 84. Dunkirk was 66 years ago! How many of us are left to remember it as it was? Perhaps the official archives will have the whole true picture – it’s to be hoped that future authors check it before starting to type their wartime stories..
From May 27 to June 4 --- 98,671 from the beaches (incl. Me), 239,555 from the harbour, Total (all Nationalities) 338,226 ( two other ‘official’ figures – 336,427 & 338,682). That included 123,095 French Troops but most would have been landed back in France before the armistice.
Destroyers carried the most – 102,843 but lost 9 ships and 19 damaged out of 56 engaged. Private Motor Boats with possibly their proud owners lost 135 from 203. In all 848 boats including 8 Hospital ships (1 lost) – 24 different types including French, Dutch and Belgian.
There were of course other evacuations from Calais etc. to add to the returned BEF .
The BEF lost around 80,000 men but with over 200,000 now veterans there was still an army. The lost equipment would take a long time to replace and had Germany invaded the will to never surrender might well have not been enough.
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Created: 29 December 2006 (Tony's 87th Birthday); Last Amended: 31 December 2007