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|Dunkirk - 144th Infantry Brigade and Worcestershire Regiment (1940)|
The following story was written by 2nd
Lieutenant E. J. Haywood in 1946. He said at the time “I have written the story of Dunkirk, as I saw it, because I promised a number of Officers and Men of the 144th Infantry Brigade that I would one day do so. We were proud of our Brigade. It did a fine job of work, and I think the tale is worth
Even if I live to be a hundred, it is of May 1940 that I shall always think, when this “merry month” comes round each year.
I was a member of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.), the force that suffered one of the major disasters in the long history of the British Army. Yet, this disaster, instead of meaning death, brought birth. It was the beginning of “the finest hour” in Britain’s story . . . the beginning of a new life that stirred in a people so tragically at bay . . . . a life that was to prove strong enough to withstand years of danger, destruction, bitter disappointments and dreary hardships until, in the full power of its manhood, it was to achieve victory. And the place of this remarkable birth was Dunkirk.
I do not believe that any historian in his right senses will ever blame the British fighting man for the tragedy of Dunkirk. Of the armies that fought against the Germans in May 1940—French, Belgian, Dutch and British—the B.E.F. was the smallest. By its very numbers the B.E.F. was not designed to play the leading part in the land fighting during the early part of the war. The huge French Army had that task to fulfill. Britain’s role was first to build up a powerful Navy and Air Force, and then, gradually, but surely, to increase her Army. Moreover, as is now so evident, it was well for the world that France agreed to this plan, because, after Dunkirk, the Royal Navy kept open the sea routes, while the R.A.F. thwarted the efforts of the enemy to soften-up England for invasion.
Please, as you read, keep these all-important facts in mind. Remember, too, that the German Army was vastly superior in numbers and equipment, and—let us admit the unpleasant fact! — far better trained.
The Battle of France was NOT lost by the failure of the smallest Army involved to show the courage, determination and endurance expected of fighting men.
* * * * * * * *
I will pass over, in as few words as I can, the early months of 1940. The 48th Division, Territorial Army, of which the 144th Infantry Brigade was a part, crossed to France in January. Most of the time until April we spent in drab little villages near the Belgian frontier. The winter was severe, but our troops, with their customary cheerfulness, made light of their discomfort.
Belgium and Holland were stubbornly and pathetically neutral, clinging faintly to the hope that the Germans would respect their borders. Despite all the security measures, I am sure that our humblest private knew that when “the balloon went up” the B.E.F. would almost certainly be called on to advance through Belgium to engage the enemy as far inland as possible.
We saw little of the French Army until April, when we served for a month in the outposts between the Maginot Line and the Siegfried Line. I do not decry the Maginot Line. As far as I could judge, it was formidable, and the Germans drenched us with propaganda that the Siegfried Line was even superior.
We were not impressed by the French troops. They were untidy, underpaid and unenthusiastic. Excellent fighting men, no doubt, as they have always been, but sadly lacking in modern equipment, and, above all, in morale.
During April we took part in night raids and patrols; we learned to repulse enemy attacks by night; we suffered some shelling and bombing, and we saw men wounded and killed. It was valuable training, which was to stand us in good stead later on.
On May 3rd the Brigadier, whose Intelligence Officer I was, sent me on ten days’ leave to England. I had been working hard—I can safely claim that! Moreover, on my return I was to be granted my wish to be posted to the 8th Battalion, The Worcestershire Regiment.
I did not enjoy my leave. I found people at home complacent, full of minor grouses, and resolved to let the war influence their lives as little as possible. The fall of Denmark and Norway seemed to matter little to them. I sat one day watching some tennis, and one bright young thing remarked quite casually, “Well, you’ve had a pretty easy time, haven’t you?” I mumbled something to the effect that I supposed so, but I thought of the nights we had spent crawling about in the dark between the outposts on the Saar; of the scream of a huge German officer as we shot him; of the open belly from I had fished out an identify disc; of the men I had known who were already dead. Well, after all, perhaps it had been a comparatively easy time. Nevertheless, even as an obscure Second Lieutenant, I could realise that, unless the civilians set to with a will and turned out tanks and anti-tank guns in large numbers, the wretched B.E.F. would have a really bad time, and, at that, only too soon.
The next day, May 10th, the storm broke. The Germans had invaded the Low Countries. I hastened to the railway station, reported to the
R.T.O. and asked to be sent back at once to France. He said, “You’re crazy. Enjoy your leave. You’ve still got three days to go. You’ll get all the damn trouble you’ll want without being in a hurry.” For three more days I kicked my heels and listened to the vague arid disquieting news bulletins, but at last came May 13th and a train from London to Southampton.
As I went on board the troopship, dodging the embarkation officers on the look-out for mild-mannered subalterns to do jobs on the voyage, I heard my name called. It was “Crumpets,” the Brigade R.A.S.C. Officer. “Quick!” he said, “I’ve got a cabin. Move in before some senior officer bags it.” At a safe distance we watched an Embarkation Officer salute a Colonel. “Excuse me, sir?” he said, “you’re O.C. Ship.” “No, I’m bloody well not!” retorted the Colonel. “Sorry, sir,” persisted the E.O., “but you’re the senior officer on board.” “Blast!” said the Colonel, resigned to his fate.
We crossed without incident, and without a drop of beer, to Cherbourg, where we had a meal, and waited around in a hutted camp for news. At last we found that we were to travel by rail as far as Cantin, near Douai, where we would receive further instructions.
What a tedious journey that was! This time the French people were glad to see us, and we were cheered by crowds at every halt. The troops, who still had money to spend, threw their army rations to the children. Two weeks later, every mother’s son of them was to be desperately hungry, but how were they to foresee that? The train crawled slowly along, and we passed through towns that had already been bombed. At long last we reached Cantin, only to find that the Division had already moved into Belgium, and that we would probably be formed into reinforcement units. Our hearts sank. “What about it? Crumpets?” I said, “are you staying here?” “Not bloody likely!” he replied, and, after dark, we made good our “escape” with the two Norris brothers from the Gloucesters. We strolled casually out into the village street, crossed some fields, and were soon on the main road North to Belgium, walking hard. We did not expect pursuit, but doubtless we would have been for the “high jump” if we had been caught. To our great relief, a large R.A.S.C. lorry came along, and stopped when Crumpets hailed it. The latter told a glib story, and the driver laughed when he heard it. “Plenty more like you inside, sir. Jump in.” We clambered aboard, and found a dozen grinning privates all making their way to Belgium. “No first class seats, sir,” said one to me. “That’ll be all right, you’ll find,’ I answered, “just keep your boots out of my mouth when we go to sleep!“
A few hours later, in daylight, our lorry crossed the Belgian frontier. The Military Police were far too busy to be able to question each vehicle, and, in any case, we were inconspicuous enough in the steady stream of military traffic moving in the general direction of Brussels. That morning I saw my first refugees. The fighting was still a long way off, but already hundreds of people were making their way into France in cars. The more pathetic refugees we were to see later.
It was no good driving on blindly. The lorry was bound for a village near Hal, and we had to discover the whereabouts of the Division. Luckily for us, the R.A.S.C. officer in the village was able to tell us that the Division had reached the outskirts of Brussels the day before. More¬over, he was sending a lorry to Brussels that night, and would allow us to keep it until daylight. “Fair enough,” said Crumpets, and off we went again. Most of the night we searched in vain, and finally decided, for the driver’s sake, to park and sleep a few hours in the lorry. We slept soundly enough, but were awakened at the crack of dawn by some scruffy-looking civilian yelling to us that the Germans were coming. “Bugle off, mes amis,” said Crumpets, and we chased these birds of ill omen away. For an hour we continued our search, but all in vain, and, feeling tired, dirty and gloomy, we had to send our lorry away. Then, to our joy and relief, we spotted Kinnersley, the liaison officer from Brigade to Division, driving by in a small, open car. I yelled his name at the top of my voice and, luckily, he heard me and stopped. An hour later we drove past the old battlefield of Waterloo and made our way to Brigade Headquarters. The Brigadier saw us arrive and came out to greet us. He held us both by the shoulders. “Glad to see you,” he said, “our first party with the Boche is due to start any time now.”
* * * * * * * * *
Brigadier J. M. Hamilton, D.S.O., commanding 144 Infantry Brigade, was an unforgettable personality. Of medium height, spare build, and over fifty, he was as physically fit as any youngster. Quiet,
good-humoured, self-effacing and hard-working, he had the happy gift of knowing the right time to praise and the right time to rebuke. He was full of simple truths, and we were glad he dinned them into us, because it is so easy for the amateur soldier to miss the obvious. He would say, “Your men don’t expect you to be a genius, but they do expect you to be interested in them.” Or, “If you can do it, the men can.” Or, again, “When you get there, the ground will tell you what to do.” He was famous for his grin—it was too out-sized to be called a smile! In danger, the Brig was fearless and imperturbable, with a wonderful sense of timing, and an uncanny antici¬pation of the enemy’s movements.
When the Brig told us that we were due for a party with the Boche, Crumpets asked “What’s the news, sir?” “Not too good,” said the Brig, “the French are catching it and falling back quickly. l’ve sent the Gloucesters to find the French on our right. Off you go to see Dennis Gibbs. He’ll put you in the picture.”
Crumpets and I went into Brigade Headquarters, which had been established in a pleasant little house, wearing the air of prosperity that was a feature of so many Belgian homes. Everything was still clean and tidy, for the civilians had only just been ordered to evacuate, and were busy cluttering up the roads somewhere in the rear. We found Dennis Gibbs hard at work on a dozen jobs at once—the usual fate of a Brigade Major. Dennis was tall, almost painfully thin, good-¬tempered and a first-class soldier. He had a habit of throwing back his head when he laughed, and his busy brown moustache would waggle up and down. Dennis got up, shook hands and laughed. He said, “Good show! Crumpets, there’s plenty for you to do. Bill, you’re not going to the Worcesters yet. You’re to help me. Ted Price is doing I.O.” In a few minutes I was “in the picture.”
Later, I was able to make a tour of Headquarters, and found our different groups at work in various outhouses and nearby cottages. When I got back, I found Dennis in conference with Jim Lattey, the Staff Captain. Jim was tall, heavy and full of idiosyncrasies. At tea-time he would drink whisky and eat bread and jam. He admitted that he drank tea once a year—on his wife’s birthday. Jim had a slight stutter, and I owe my nickname to him. When I reported for duty in September, 1939, Jim said “We’re all right now. B-big B-Bill has answered the call.” In the winter evenings, Jim and I would entertain the Mess with our version of an Apache dance. Since we were both somewhat clumsy, we seldom got far before becoming hopelessly entangled. I remember our debut when Jim appeared at the door, wearing a little feminine finery over his uniform, and announced to some startled senior officers, “I am a w-w-woman.” Like the rest of us, Jim was now dressed up” like a Christmas tree.” That is to say, battledress, battle” bowler,” anklets, boots, web-equipment, small pack, respirator anti-gas, eyeshields, cape anti-gas, and sleeve detectors.
Dennis and Jim looked a picture of gloom, and the former explained. “News just in. French North African troops in front, and they are retreating. We’ve got to withdraw to the Bois de Soignes outside Brussels. If we stay, we’ll be on our own and finished. Anyhow, we’ve been given no choice.” We didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a long and painful retreat.
* * * * * * *
I went out and helped Brigade Headquarters to get “packed up” into its vehicles and on the move. Along the road French North African troops were retreating in pathetic, disorderly groups. They were tired, dirty and despondent. To my surprise, many seemed to be without weapons. Every few minutes, a vehicle would hurtle by with its horn going full blast. Each one was overloaded with men yelling at our troops to get out pf the way. Some of our fellows stared in silence, while others indulged themselves in coarse and witty sallies. At this point, I would make it quite clear that I am not presuming to criticise the whole French Army, for one reads that many of its regiments fought bravely and stubbornly. Like us, however, they had not been trained for a blitzkrieg, and, again like us, they had not the equipment to fight the Panzer Divisions and the Luftwaffe.
We explained to our men that we, too, had to fall back. They looked incredulous, and became silent and apathetic. It was necessary to stir them into activity with a few sharp words, and soon all our vehicles were ready to move, except the clumsy office truck. The driver was missing. We shouted for him and searched for him, but all in vain. He had probably hidden himself away to enjoy a quiet sleep. in the end, I decided to drive the truck and, being unused to a vehicle that size, I tormented the gears sadly. Our little convoy made its way slowly past our marching troops, plodding along, silently but in perfect discipline, on both sides of the road.
About two hours later we had set up Brigade Headquarters near a racecourse on the outskirts of the Bois de Soignes. While the going was good, I slipped into a nearby estaminet and devoured a large omelette—my first meal in twenty-four hours. The woman in charge was inconsolable. Over and over again she said: “My husband is in the army. What is happening to him? Where is he? This terrible war! Please, the English must keep the Germans from here.” What does one do at such a time? I burbled something about doing our best, and got away- as quickly as I could.
The Brig then sent me out to locate the Battalions, and to make sure I could find my way to them in darkness. I found the 2nd Battalion The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, then the Worcesters marching into a bivouac area among the trees. The troops were mainly glum and silent. They had spent two days marching towards the enemy, and now on the third day they were marching back without having seen a German! As I chatted to Dennis Phillpotts, who was as cheerful as ever, I heard some of the men swearing in the monotonous way that is their characteristic. One said, “All you do in the shocking Army is shocking well march. I wish I’d joined the shocking Navy.” The man next to him answered, “What the shocking hell’s wrong with you? Don’t you know the shocking war’s over, and we’re shocking well walking home?” A third added, mournfully, “When I get back and the missus wants me to go for a walk with the shocking kids, I’ll wring her shocking neck.” They all seemed to feel much better for their edifying conversation. Later I found the Gloucesters, coming in slowly, utterly weary after their long march and abortive effort to find the French.
Back at Brigade, I smoked a pipe, and listened to Jim Lattey and Crumpets Rowland indulging in their favourite pastime of boasting of the acts of cowardice they would perform in the face of the enemy. Leon Boussard, the French Officer attached to us, sat with them, smiling as though to say, “I understand the queer English humour.” I took a blanket from the office truck, wrapped myself up, and lay on the ground to sleep.
In less than an hour, I was awakened and summoned to hear orders from the Brigadier. Evidently Brussels was to be an “open city.” We were to continue the withdrawal, and without delay.
In the darkness, our tired and cursing troops got on the march again. Dawn broke and they were still marching. Noon came, and they were still plodding doggedly along. It was a hot, sticky day, and we were drenched with sweat, with our faces caked with dirt. We passed through village after village, and it was well-nigh heart-breaking to see them practically deserted. Dogs were whining and running about, vainly looking for their owners. Other dogs had been left tied up, and barked furiously at us, or howled dismally. In the fields cows were mooing, begging to be milked. Here and there were small groups of villagers, who had avoided evacuation. They stood still and silent as we went by, and we had not the heart to shout a greeting to them.
Already many houses had been bombed, but the only time we saw German aircraft that day was a relief to us. Three planes suddenly swooped down on us. Obviously they had disposed of their bombs, because they attacked us only with machine gun bullets. The troops let fly with wild and erratic fire from rifles and
Brens. It was like some sudden and fierce outburst of anger, and it was all over in a few seconds. As far as I could see, only one man was hit. A bullet had grazed his neck, and he looked more startled than hurt. A corporal applied a field dressing and gave consolation, “Them shocking beginners can’t shoot straight. You’re being saved to be shocking well hung.” There was a laugh and we moved on again in much better
The march ended at last, about three in the afternoon. We had covered some thirty-five miles, which brought the total for four days to more than one hundred miles—and still without sight of enemy infantry.
I stood with the Brig (our invariable name for the Brigadier) by a bridge leading over a wide canal. At our side, some Royal Engineers were waiting patiently to blow up the bridge, but there was still a rearguard to come in first. I said to the Brig, “Aren’t we stopping soon, sir?” but he explained that he expected the withdrawal would continue the next day.
For the first time I began to realise the gravity of our situation. It would be wrong, of course, to pretend that I understood exactly what was happening. The earth-bound infantryman sees but little of a campaign. Fighting was raging over hundreds of square miles in Holland, Belgium and France, and hundreds of thousands of men were taking part in it. Each man could see only a tiny portion of the vast and terrible scene. As we all learned afterwards, the Germans were carrying out a huge pincer movement. The northern claw was being pushed through Holland and Belgium, and the southern claw through Northern France, across to the Channel ports. As both claws of the pincer reached nearer the sea, the troops inside the pincers were inevitably forced back day after day, and, finally, squeezed out altogether. There was no hope from the North. Holland fell quickly, and the Belgians were threatened from this new direction, at a time when they found themselves unable to cope with the savage attack from the West. Since the Belgians had to fall back to shorten the fighting front, and avoid having their Army Groups cut off from each other, the B.E.F. on the right flank of the Belgians had to fall back too. South of the B.E.F. the French found the German wedge between themselves and other French armies being driven wider and deeper each day. Consequently, the French in Belgium had to retreat too. As a result, the B.E.F. was, so to speak, being dragged back on both sides.
Many of us, myself included, were thinking in terms of 1914. Surely this was another “retreat from Mons,” to be followed by another “Battle of the Marne.” That was the hope that kept many of us going when we felt that we could scarcely march another mile, or wait another hour for sleep. I think I am right in saying that the average British infantryman is unimaginative in times of danger. He does not see how black the outlook is, nor how grave is his peril. He expects to be “messed about,” but believes that, if he has the “guts” to stick to his job, everything will come right in the end. That is why he is such a difficult man to beat.
The second day of the retreat ended as I have said. The Brigade moved into an area of farms and fields, with a river between them and the enemy. There were still some hours of daylight remaining, but the Brig could not afford to waste a minute. He used his car to get from point to point, and then trudged over field after field with each of his senior officers in turn. I tailed along behind him, making notes of his orders, and studying the whole area.
As we went around, I noticed that the troops were already more cheerful. Some were resting and eating. Others were hard at work preparing slit trenches, or getting ready to fight from the scattered and deserted houses. Vehicles were being parked under cover and drivers were busy at maintenance tasks. My main impression, as I look back, is of dozens and dozens of men cleaning weapons, smoking cigarettes, and looking very much in need of a bath.
A little later I tasted my first food that day. As we climbed a railway embankment, boasting some neat vegetable plots, the Brig paused, stooped and plucked something. He looked round and said “Spinach.” I followed his example, and as we stood in the empty railway station, studying its defensive value, I munched my raw spinach and thought of Popeye the Sailor Man. That worthy mariner much exaggerates the value of his favourite diet,
At last we got back to Brigade Headquarters, and I gave Dennis Gibbs the information I had gathered. C.S.M. Carey, the senior clerk, gave me a hard-boiled egg and a couple of biscuits, and I allowed myself a pipe. Jim Lattey and Crumpets came in weary. They were concerned with supplies of all kinds, and their jobs were difficult. “Puffer” Holmes, the Signals Officer, was far too busy organizing communications to brood over his latest love affair. Crumpets did ask him, “Any news from her to-day, Puffer?” but he got only a one-word answer, and a rude one at that.
After a while, the Brig sent me out with Gunn, a Sapper, to go to the river and make plans to blow up a small fleet of barges moored on the German side. We found the nearest Company Commander, and made our way to the bank. It was nearly dark and suddenly, like three monstrous bats, German troop-carrying aircraft swooped down and made perfect landings in the field over the river. “Afraid they’ll have to keep the barges,” said Gunn. The Company Commander said, “I’d better get my reception committee ready.”
Back at Brigade Headquarters, the Brig thought the arrival of German troops by air was a good sign. It probably meant that the marching troops were still some distance away, and that there would be no serious attack in the night, or at dawn. In this, the Brig was right. There were a few skirmishes, but no serious attempt by the enemy to cross the river. The Worcesters reported that German signallers were calling up ours on radio sets, and asking in fluent English for the names of Units. This trick failed.
Most of us managed to get an hour’s sleep. It was not enough, but, as we all found out in days to come, even a little sleep goes a long way. I would never had believed, without the experience, that men could manage for days on short snatches of sleep taken whenever the opportunity presented itself. Even a “nap” of ten or twenty minutes seemed to make all the difference.
I forget exactly when we received our orders to move from this area, but I recollect that Jim and I were sent ahead in a car to arrange billets in a place with the ugly name of Goyck. It was a nightmare drive, for the road was cluttered with refugees. It was nerve-wracking for our driver, and a great strain on Jim’s temper. Jim was an impatient motorist, revelling in speed, and the snail’s pace we had to make put him in a glowering frame of mind.
It was pathetic to look at the refugees. There were cars of all ages and descriptions, but more numerous were farm vehicles drawn by sturdy horses, and piled high with old people, young children and goods of all kinds. Mattresses, pillows, clothes, cooking pots, parcels of food, tools, chairs, tables, pictures—articles of every sort. Imagine it for yourself. Picture yourself suddenly deciding to flee from an enemy army, and having, say, a cart at your disposal. What would you take? You would find yourself constrained to burden the cart not only with useful objects, but with many things of sentimental value.
Then, of course, there were hundreds of people on foot. Some were pushing perambulators or barrows filled with household goods. Others were shuffling along carrying parcels. All were moving slowly—oh! so slowly!—and in a state of utter chaos. It was most difficult for us to force our way through, and, in doing so, we felt a sense of shame, although we had no cause to reproach ourselves. It seemed so wrong that we could not stay and fight, and so help all these wretched people to get to safety. I shall never be able to forget the sight of old men and women, and little children, vainly seeking a place of refuge, trudging along mile after weary mile, with little or no idea of their destination or the length of their journey, and with no assurance of their ultimate safety.
For many of the old people, it was the second time they had fled from their homes before the German invader. The enemy, of course, was glad to have the roads filled with refugees. It meant that the Allied troops were seriously impeded in their movements. Vital supplies and 1einforcements took longer to come through, and our retreating troops were inevitably thrown into disorder.
The Germans deliberately made matters worse by bombing villages and forcing the inhabitants out on to the roads in terror. Fifth Columnists were used to spread panic, and to stampede people into flight. Moreover, enemy aircraft made a point of bombing and machine-gunning defenceless refugees on the roads. It all added to the confusion, and confusion helped the Germans. When the Boche wanted to clear the roads for his troops, he was logical and ruthless in the German manner. The leading tanks made short work of scattering the terrified refugees off the roads and into the fields.
Once that morning I saw German aircraft attacking refugees. A few planes flew up and down the road dropping bombs at will. They then returned, one after the other, flying low over the heads of their screaming victims, spraying them with machine-gun bullets. Our car was in the thick of it, but Jim yelled at the driver to keep going, and we were lucky. We saw people hit or blown to pieces; carts and cars burning or shattered; small children crouching in the ditches in a nightmare of terror; farm horses threshing in agony and making the road slippery with blood. I bounced about in the car, scared and angry, and, in futile rage, leaned out of the window and fired my revolver at the aircraft. It was the only time I ever fired it, and I wasted six bullets. Jim did not turn round, but shouted,” Use a r-rifle, you b-b-bloody fool!“ However, by the time I had got the driver’s rifle poking through the window, the raid was over. We could do nothing for the civilians. Our job was to get to Goyck without loss of time. Again there was that sickening feeling of “letting down” civilians we had come so far to protect.
We reached Goyck before noon, and Jim bustled around arranging billeting areas. I had a long conversation with the Mayor and advised him to tell the people there not to leave their homes. Some took this advice. Others decided to leave. As I passed one house, a man called me. He explained he was a doctor, and that he was leaving for a coastal town to take his wife and children to relatives. We were welcome to his house and everything in it. He was quite resigned about it all. A little later, he drove off in a huge car, and his two small daughters waved to me. They regarded it as a picnic, but their mother was in tears.
I took over the doctor’s house as a billet for Brigade Staff, and, since there was a little time to spare, I had a quick bath. It was the first time for five days I had taken off my clothes. After a change of linen and a raid on the larder, I felt a new man.
By the time the Brigade reached Goyck we had everything “laid on” for the troops, who got a few hours’ much-needed rest. What is more, mail reached us. There were two large envelopes for me. One contained petrol coupons for my car in England, and the other a copy of the poem, “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” which some of us had been misquoting for months. Others were luckier.
I had a busy time in the evening, and as night came on I dared to hope for a sleep in a real bed. Another vain hope! Orders came for the Brigade to continue the withdrawal, and the troops had the sixth successive day of marching to face.
Doubtless, many troops have since been through much worse experiences than our retreat to Dunkirk. I am not concerned, however, to attempt comparisons, nor will I exaggerate our trials and misfortunes.
Furthermore, I will readily concede that we were not as well trained, nor as physically fit, as the men who returned to France in 1944. But that was by no means our fault. None of our training exercises had lasted, as far as I remember, for more than 72 hours at a stretch. We had sometimes marched 25 or even 30 miles in a day, but never, I think, two days running.
The day I am about to describe was the sixth successive day of marching, and the fourth of our withdrawal. That blessed word “withdrawal”! We were not allowed to say “retreat”
Had we been the pursuers instead of the fugitives, it would have been another matter. But, whereas to chase the enemy is exciting and exhilarating, to retreat from him is depressing and demoralising. The troops could not understand this endless marching without a sight of the enemy, and their morale was inevitably getting lower. They were not only weary, but puzzled and resentful. I am certain that they would have felt the lack of food and sleep much less if only they could have been told they would soon halt, turn about and fight the enemy. When that time did come, two days later, it was amazing to see how quickly our men recovered.
It is difficult to realise how expensive a retreat is both in men and equipment. Marching troops go astray in the confusion, especially at night, and are often cut off and captured. Then there are always stragglers, unable to keep up with the marching columns. Some of these stragglers come to the unhappy decision that they are unable to go another step without rest. They lag behind, watch their chance, creep into a building or a field, fall asleep—and are lost. Others limp gamely along, but drop farther and farther behind their comrades, and unless a vehicle rescues them, they, too, are lost. If a gun or a truck breaks down, and there is insufficient time to effect a repair, it has to be abandoned and destroyed. Not only is the gun or vehicle lost, but often valuable stores with it.
The thousands of refugees on the roads both hampered us and disheartened us. As we slowly forced our way through these patient unfortunates, we could not escape a haunting sense of guilt and failure. We had been sent to defend these people, and yet we were engaged with them in an unwilling race to outdistance the enemy.
This day the Brigade marched for nearly fifteen hours. There was no time to eat, no time to rest, All through the long hours of the morning, and far into the afternoon, the troops plodded along, dogged but despondent. In all that long, weary day, I heard only one humorous remark. A flight of birds passed overhead, and one grimy, footsore warrior, looking up, exclaimed “Oh, for the wings of a dove!” adding, as an afterthought, “or even a shocking sparrow.”
For myself, I had no marching to do in the first part of the day. The Brigadier kept his car so that he could visit all the Units in turn, and keep informed of their progress. Jim Lattey and Crumpets went off in another. They had to keep in touch with Division, arrange petrol points where the vehicles could refill their tanks, and reconnoitre possible bivouac areas. Marston Riley, the Brigade Transport Officer, set out with the heavy trucks for a distant rendezvous, while I was to act as guide to a small group of vehicles, including the office truck, Intelligence truck, and Signals truck. My r.v. was some cross-roads about fifteen miles away. Puffer Holmes came with me, and we made a start at first light.
All went smoothly enough for the first ten minutes until we got almost to the main road. As we drew near the end of the lane, we could see other Army vehicles ahead, waiting to enter the major road. We drew up at some distance from them, and Puffer and I went forward to have a look-see. We found the officer in charge of the other convoy was a man I had met on the Saar Front, so we said “Hallo!” The main road was hopelessly jammed by refugees in carts and on foot, some moving in one direction and some in the other. Every square inch seemed to be taken up, and the confusion was indescribable. There seemed to be scarcely any movement one way or the other.
“What an unholy mess!” exclaimed Puffer, “we’ll never get through.” There was a tall house near the corner. I ran over to it and asked the seared old couple, standing by the door, for permission to enter. It was an easy matter to climb on the roof, hug the chimney, and get a good view in both directions. It was obvious the road would be blocked for hours.
I came down quickly, called the other officers, and explained that I was going to try a cross-country route, The lane was narrow, but we managed to turn the vehicles and return part of the way we had come. We then took a much narrower lane to the left, drove through a farm, scattering startled poultry and pigs in all directions, bounced over some fields, bumped along cart tracks, passed through a second farm, and, finally, got out on to another lane.
We reached our rendezvous without further difficulty, and since cross-roads are a favourite target for aircraft, I parked the vehicles in a small orchard some distance away. The adjoining farm was deserted, so we collected eggs and also killed a few hens. There were queer noises coming from an outhouse, so, pistol in hand, I opened the door to investigate. Out came tumbling, squawking hens and grunting pigs, followed by some angry, but dignified ducks waddling into the sunshine and quacking furiously. I found three sheep tied up and bleating. I set them free and they quickly scampered outside. They all had a much better chance of survival in the open.
The leading marching troops arrived shortly afterwards, and, for some hours, the Brig and I marched with each Battalion in turn, while his car ferried stragglers in relays for a few miles. The more experienced “Regulars” of the Warwicks were in better shape than the “Territorials” of the Worcesters and
Gloucesters, but the latter, for all that, were sticking it nobly.
For the rest of the day, we seemed to miss the streams of refugees, and we made better progress, although it was useless to attempt to force the pace. We passed many farms, and sometimes people would come running out crying, “What must we do?” I called to them “Ne bougez pas ! ” (stay put). It was the best advice to give them.
At last we reached the area where the whole Division was to bivouac and await further orders. The Brig took me on to Divisional Headquarters, where the Commander was standing on the steps outside. General A. F. A. N. Thorne, commanding 48th Division, rejoiced in the nickname of “Bulgy,” although I never discovered the origin of it. He was a small man, slight of build and with great charm of manner. He was neat, quick-thinking, fearless, kindly, and understood men. Some “regular” officers we met were apt to regard Territorials and other amateur soldiers as people interfering in something in which they had no concern. We, in our turn, had the utmost contempt for these fools. I can truthfully say, however, that the overwhelming majority of professional soldiers with whom we served in the B.E.F. were extraordinarily kind and patient, and had the sense to see we were eager to learn. In this latter category “Bulgy” Thorne was an outstanding example. He was the ideal man to command a Territorial Army Division, and he knew his job inside out.
Bulgy and the Brig, rightly enough, had a high regard for each other. Bulgy said, “Hallo, Hammy. Can’t promise you anything. Still waiting for news, but I hope I can rest you all a bit. The Brig gave him our news, while I chatted to Gerald Carse, the Intelligence Officer, and saw from his map where 143 and 145 Brigades were located, and also got a better idea of the rapidity and success of the German advance.
As we drove back to Brigade Headquarters, Boche aircraft were bombing the area, but the attack was on a small scale. From all directions troops were firing back with Bren guns, and, on the whole, the raid did more good than harm. Our men needed this small chance to let off a “few shots in anger.”
Our headquarters was a pleasant little cottage, standing near a canal and well screened by trees. A number of men were shaving or taking a bath in the canal. Dennis Gibbs said, “We can all do with a bit of that.” I missed the opportunity because I went out with the Brig again to visit the Battalions and the Gunners. All were pretty well intact except the Worcesters, where we found Colonel Johnstone wearing a long and serious face. Many of his ‘B’ Echelon vehicles and some of his Bren Carriers were missing. The Brig gave consolation and said that he was certain Geoffrey Day would turn up with ‘B’ Echelon. This happened right enough, but some of the carriers became attached to another Unit and fought in a number of thrilling actions. A/Serjeant Burbridge, who was in charge of them, gained a Military Medal. All the same, the Worcesters could ill afford their loss. It was a matter of pride and comfort that the Brigade had lost few men and little equipment in those four hectic days of retreat. We needed rest, but we were in condition to turn round and fight. The only question was “When?”
Everywhere the Brig went, men were sitting down or sprawled in heavy sleep. Those who saw him coming began to stumble to their feet, but the Brig waved his hand to make it clear they were to take no notice of him. Yet, as he talked to the Officers, I noticed the men, with bared, untidy heads, dirty sweat-streaked faces, and sunken bloodshot eyes, looking up at him and trying to read from his face what their own immediate future was likely to be. The soldier does not care to see far ahead. He becomes a genius at making the best of the present, and, if he needs real comfort, he finds it in his memories of the past. His main concern is for the next day. Will it be better, or will it be a bit worse? The old hymn expresses it so welt, “ I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.”
The men took it in turns to shave; wash their hands, faces and feet; eat whatever hasty meal the cooks could contrive; clean their weapons; mend their clothes, and, above all, to sleep. I can still see clearly, as I look back, these utterly weary men—puzzled, disappointed, unexcited. They were still able to utter a cheerful grouse, and one felt that they were able, too, to find fresh strength for any tasks that lay ahead of them.
When the Brig and I got back, we found Jim Lattey and Crumpets had returned with the good news that, despite all the confusion of the retreat, stores of rations, petrol and ammunition were all organized in the rear. Crumpets told us, “We got caught in an air-raid, but I only had to change Jim’s nappies once.” Jim retorted, “I I-let him p-put his head on my ch-chest, and have a damn good c-cry.”
I have forgotten to mention that I was acting as P.M.C. to Brigade Headquarters, which meant that I had nearly twenty officers to feed—certainly never less than fourteen. My small but willing staff were already expert scroungers, and our chief complaint had so far been that we had not had time to put on a proper meal. This evening we managed a nondescript stew eked out by ration biscuits—nauseating but nourishing. I had found a few bottles of vin ordinaire in the cellar, and everybody was able to have a couple of glasses. Dennis said, “Looting, eh?” It was true we were beginning to help ourselves a little, but only from empty houses, whose owners were doubtless many miles away.
The room was blacked-out with thick army blankets over the windows, screening the dim light from our lamps from the watchful eyes of enemy airmen. There was a distinct aroma of unwashed humanity and unclean linen, but, since we all contributed to it, none of us had the right to complain. Crumpets said, “For once, Bill, your pipe smells better than anything else in here.”
It was cosy while it lasted, but there was work to be done, and the room soon emptied again. The Brig told me to “hold the fort” while he did a tour with Dennis Gibbs. They forgot to tell me where they were going, and I forgot to ask. Not much later I was cursing this forgetfulness, because Kinnersley arrived from Division with the message that the Brig was wanted there urgently. I asked, “Bad news?” and Kinnersley said, “Afraid so.”
I sent messengers out to find the Brig, and set off at once for Divisional Headquarters, driving myself. I was the first to reach the farm kitchen, which served as the Commander’s office, and reported to Gerald Carse. Very soon the Commanders of 143 and 145 Brigades, and the other senior officers who had been summoned, arrived within a few minutes of each other, and we all sat around the huge table in the kitchen. Our boots made a great clatter on the stone floor when we stood up on Bulgy Thorne’s entrance.
The General looked round quickly and said, “Where’s Hammy?” I explained, and Bulgy said, “Well, you’d better take his orders for him.” Wearing my one “pip” among all these seniors officers, I felt “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
Bulgy had very bad news to give us, but as I listened most carefully to every word he said, I felt tremendously proud of the calm and typical way he warned us, in racy language, of what we had to face. He informed us that the situation was desperate; that we had another day s retreat to come; that the distance would be considerable; that he knew the troops were unfit to march the whole way in the time necessary; that we were in grave danger of being swamped by a fresh motorized Division or two; that we might all get away if the R.A.S.C. managed to pick us up in troop-carrying lorries; that soon we would really stop and have a battle; and, finally that we might abandon any stores we did not consider to be absolutely essential, in order to lift, as many men as possible on our own vehicles.
That is what Bulgy conveyed to us, but he said it something like this: “The news isn’t very good. We’ve got to get on the move again. The Boche is on our tail. He’s had the bad manners to bring up a fresh, motorized division. Perhaps two. Our friends on both sides are moving back already. We can’t afford a party on our own. It will be a long walk, but, if we aren’t quick, the Boche will be dancing all round us, I know the men are too tired to go all the way, but I must ask them to do it. I’m trying hard to get the
R.A.S.C. to lift us part of the way. I can soon promise you all a real party, and I want everyone to get there for it. Tell the men that. If you care to leave behind anything you don’t really need, you may do so. There will be no argument afterwards. That will help you find room on your vehicles for any of your men who are in really bad shape. The Corps Commander wants to get all the men there.”
Bulgy went on to explain the times we were to start, and the routes we were to follow, Then followed some administrative orders. It was all very simple. It had to be, These instructions, affecting closely the lives of more than 12,000 men, took only a few minutes to give out, and I marvelled at the calm way they were given, and the equally calm way they were received. We all saluted and began to file out. Being the junior, I waited until the last, but, as I reached the door, I felt the General’s hand on my shoulder. “Sure you’ve got it all?” he said. The orders were so simple I recited them at once, and I pointed out from my map that I understood the routes, Bulgy said, “Good. Give Hammy my love, and tell him I’ll see him somewhere to-morrow.”
I drove back to Brigade in a state of excitement, and it took me a moment or two to realise that an enemy aircraft was bombing the area. It was a brief attack, but at least one building was on fire, and I had to swerve suddenly to avoid a crater in the road, At the cottage I found the Brig had already summoned his Order Group. As I entered the room I stopped a moment and stared at them. I do not know why I should have been surprised. The Brig grinned and said, “Come on Bill. We’ve guessed a lot. Tell us the rest.” This did not take long, and when the Brig gave out his orders he was just as unexcited as Bulgy had been.
* * * * * * *
Our transport got on the move first, to leave the roads clear for the marching troops. The Brig climbed into the front of his car, snuggled so far under a blanket that he disappeared from view, and was instantly asleep. Dennis Gibbs, Leon Boussard and I sat in the back. We were all dead tired, Dennis threw back his head—the tilt was alarming! — his mouth dropped open, and he began to snore so fiercely I had to smile. Leon’s head dropped forward on his chest, and he, too, was asleep at once. Just as I had decided to follow their example, the driver dozed off as well! His left hand fell to his side and the car lurched to the right. I punched the poor fellow hard between the shoulder-blades, and he recovered himself and saved the car from the ditch. He said, “Sorry, sir,” but a minute or so later the same thing happened again. I told the driver to stop. He was obviously all in. I said, “Hop into the back. I’ll drive for a bit. The others did not wake up, and very shortly the driver was snoring the loudest of them all.
The night was dark and none of the vehicles were allowed to use their lights. Since we moved head to tail, I could not relax even for a second. The pace was slow and I am certain we did not cover twenty miles in the next four hours. It was a difficult job to keep awake. I had to bite my lips to do so. Every few minutes there was a halt, and I grew utterly sick of changing gear.
I am trying to find a word to describe the progress of the car. Jerk . . . lurch . . . stagger, it was a combination of all three. What helped me keep awake was the fact that each time I jerked the car to a halt, or jerked it forward again, muffled curse came from underneath the Brig’s blanket! I was so weary, and so sorry for myself, that I deeply resented this cursing.
Somehow the time passed, and, almost imperceptibly, the morning came. It was chilly, and the Brig, Dennis and Leon all awoke within a few minutes of each other. The Brig blinked at me and said, “What are you doing? How long have you been driving?” I said, mournfully, “All night. And all you’ve done is curse me.” He was good enough to understand how tired I was, and answered quietly, “I don’t remember, Never mind. You sleep now and tell me later on what an awful man I am.” The driver was still blissfully unconscious, but Leon gave him a prod or two until he awoke with a start, and changed places with me.
It did not take us long now to reach the village where the R.A.S.C. lorries were to meet us. There was a road junction and an open market square, where the vehicles could turn round easily. But there were no lorries. We pulled off the road and watched the Division’s transport moving by—more swiftly now. It seemed endless. As the time passed, the Brig grew more and more uneasy, particularly about the Gloucesters, who were nearest to the enemy. Finally he decided to stop a Royal Artillery convoy that was approaching. The Gunner Officer quickly grasped the situation and helped us all he could. Leading vehicles were soon emptied of their stores and loaned to us, while the Gunners set to work to load as much as possible back on their remaining trucks. The Brig did the same with other convoys, until he had enough lorries to pick up the Gloucesters. Meanwhile, I had been sent off in the first vehicle, up the road that joined the main road at right angles. About three miles away, on the edge of a wood, I found Colonel Buxton at the head of his battalion. I explained the situation, and Colonel Buxton allowed me to take charge, while he went off to report to the Brigadier. I had to pack each vehicle as it came along, with as many men as it could hold, but everything went smoothly and quickly.
The Intelligence Section still had their bicycles, but these were in poor condition and we dumped them by the roadside, calling out to some passing refugees, “Servez-vous!“ There was one beautiful woman, very smart in navy blue, carrying only a handbag and wearing ridiculous high-heeled shoes. She told me she had been walking for hours. I said, “Madame, allow me to advise you. There will be no battle here. Stay at the next house until we have gone. Then return home.” She hesitated, but thanked me, and I watched her walking slowly to a neighbouring cottage.
The embussing went on until the last man had been squeezed into a vehicle. Then, suddenly, I realised that I had left myself behind! It was not as amusing as it sounds. By no means did I feel capable of fighting a single-handed rearguard action. There was a bicycle with two soft
tyres, lying on the grass, and I was soon wobbling down the hill over the bumpy
cobblestones. As I turned the first corner, some Bren Carriers came hurtling along to hold up the leading German troops. It was comforting to see them, but I was unable to slow down, since my bicycle had no brakes, and, in my excitement, I missed the leading carrier by inches. I found myself going straight for the second one, so, pushing the bicycle away from under me, I threw myself to the right on the cobblestones. The carrier swerved past me, and I waved to the anxious-looking Corporal standing up in it, to show him that I was unhurt. I then set off at a jog-trot, and had covered quite a mile before I saw the Brig’s car coming to fetch me. The others laughed when I rejoined them, but we all felt relieved that the Battalions were now well on the way to the River
Escaut, where the Brig hoped the retreat would end.
On the way to the River Escaut we stayed a few minutes in Louze. This little town, a centre of road and rail communications, had been severely bombed and was burning fiercely. Incidentally, this accounted for the late arrival of the R.A.S.C. lorries. The townspeople had fled, and the only noise to be heard was the crackling of flames, as one burning house set fire to its neighbour.
We stopped at one corner and the Brig, getting out of the car, grinned and said, “I’m going to do a little looting.” We followed him into a baker’s shop, where the windows were all shattered and the flames beginning to get a hold. The driver came in, too, and we all quickly selected a number of cakes, since we were hungry and had no idea when we would eat next. I chose a honey cake, already sliced, and enclosed in a cellophane wrapping. I then made a dash over the road and gathered a store of pipe tobacco and cigars. It seemed as though somebody had already found the cigarettes. In a minute or two we were all on our way again—munching steadily and silently.
I have to admit that I remember the next part indistinctly. I had had less sleep than the others, and this was my chance to get some, I have a hazy recollection of bumping through narrow tracks in a forest, and that is all.
THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER ESCAUT
Eventually we arrived at the Escaut, and it seemed a formidable obstacle, though I dare not, at this stage, attempt to describe it. We quickly toured the sector that had been allotted to 144 Brigade, and the Brig decided to put the Warwicks and Gloucesters forward, into two villages right by the river. The name of one village was
Bruyelle, but I forget the other. Brigade Headquarters, was to be established, with the
Worcesters, a little in the rear, in a place called Wez Velvain.
Wez Velvain boasted an imposing chateau with large grounds, but the Brig selected a house at the back of the village, where the road led out into the fields beyond. This modest house was screened in front by an empty garage, had a cellar, and an orchard nearby. There were a number of covered approaches, and it was, in every way, an excellent choice. Dennis set up his office in a large downstairs room, where windows looked out in three directions.
Over the road we chose a long, low house for the Signallers and Intelligence Section, and set up the Officers’ Mess in a third house, a few hundred yards into the village. No one bomb or shell could destroy all three.
Most of the inhabitants had left already, and, in most cases, they had bolted their windows and locked their doors. There was no help for it. We quickly became expert at forcing open doors and windows, because nearly every house had a cellar, and even the walls were some protection against shell-fire.
The Gunners soon arrived and took possession of a farm near Brigade H.Q.—a wise arrangement. I went over to the farm with Leon Boussard and a Gunner Major. The farmer’s wife was just about to leave in an overloaded and shabby touring car. She was very concerned about her pigs. “Monsieur Le Lieutenant,” she said to Leon, “I have more than a hundred fine pigs. What will become of them? Who will pay for them? When will they pay for them?” Leon replied, “Be tranquil, madame. One will get paid for everything after the War. Now you must depart quickly. Soon there will be a battle here.” The wretched woman left in tears, cursing the War and the Germans. Leon seemed unmoved, and the Gunner Major said, “All the same, I could do with a dozen pork chops right now.”
It would be wrong of me to pretend that I can write an hour-by-hour description of the fighting on the Escaut. So much happened, and I was kept so busy—like everyone else—with so little sleep, that, whereas I remember certain incidents most vividly, I am unable to piece the whole story together in correct chronological sequence.
To the best of my recollection, we stayed in Wez Velvain three nights and four days. On the fourth night we were still fighting successfully, but the Belgians on our left were ordered to surrender, and once again we had to retreat.
I spent the rest of the first day, almost as long as daylight lasted, going round with the Brig as he gave orders and advice to the various Unit Commanders. He told them all the same thing: “Don’t waste any time, but I doubt if the Boche will put in a serious attack before to-morrow. The Gunners are here in full strength—Field Regiments, Mediums and Heavies. The Boche is going to catch it. All we’ve got to do is to throw him back every time he tries to cross the river.”
That evening and night, the troops enjoyed some much needed rest and ample rations, Despite all the fatigue of the week of tiring, abortive advance, and endless, exhausting retreat, they managed, in that one night, to make an amazing recovery.
A number of civilian refugees managed to cross the river before we blew up the bridges. All these people told the same story. The Boche was coming on in great numbers, supremely confident, and filling every road and lane with his transport. Good news for our Gunners!
By the time darkness fell, I had a good idea of the whole area, and where each Unit was in position. My Intelligence Section had been busy making map enlargements. We covered these with talc, and marked in all the positions. Any military commander is always eager for news, and the Intelligence Section has the task of keeping up-to-date all the information it can gather, about friend and foe alike.
That first night in Wez Velvain was a pleasant time. There was no point in worrying about the next day’s inevitable battle. That would start in due course. Meanwhile, we could take off our clothes; have a slow and thorough bath; shave closely; put on clean things; get the dirt out of our nails; drink a leisurely glass of wine, and eat a hearty meal. The snag was that we had to take our turn. Always half of us had to be on duty. But, it is safe to say, we each enjoyed half a night’s rest for the first time in more than a week.
I was looking after myself. My batman, Joe Cook, had gone on leave to England with me on May 3rd, and had not yet found his way back to the Brigade. I pictured him as being safe, somewhere in the rear. My small Mess Staff worked well, however, even without Joe’s cheery presence. There were three Army Post Office clerks attached to us, and, since there was no mail to handle, these men offered to help with meals. I had now more than twenty officers to feed, and meals had to be ready at all hours of the day and night, since these officers had to eat whenever they got the chance to do so.
Most of us were cheerful that night. We were relieved to think that the retreat was over. There was hope again. If only we could hold up the German advance, a successful Allied counter-offensive might follow—and victory come after that. We knew next to nothing of the “Battle of the Bulge” being fought in France. We did know, only too well, that the German advance had been spectacular, but surely, we thought, it will be stopped somewhere.
I was on duty at Brigade until about midnight, Then Dennis Gibbs took over and, since the shelling had not started, I went into an upstairs room at the mess, took off my boots and equipment, pulled a blanket over my shoulders, and fell asleep on a real bed.
* * * * * * * *
I awoke from a heavy sleep just after dawn. A terrific bombardment had begun. As I hastily grabbed my boots and equipment, to run downstairs to the comparative safety of the street level, I suddenly realised that it was our Gunners at work. It was the first time I had heard them in action. Nearby, and towards the river, I could distinguish, after a while, the 25-pounders of the 24th Field Regiment. From the rising ground beyond Wez Velvain came more shells, screaming over our heads. The Mediums and Heavies were joining in too.
I snatched a hasty breakfast and hastened up the road to Brigade H.Q. There I found an exultant Gunner Intelligence Officer talking to Dennis. He explained, “We’ve got every square inch taped, and we’re going to plaster it all. The Boche has been massing all night, and he hasn’t sorted himself out yet. He’s going to catch a first-class packet. But he’s bound to answer back pretty soon.”
Our information map was now more detailed. On our immediate left were more of the B.E.F. I forget how many, or who they were. Beyond them, towards Oudenarde and Ghent, was the Belgian Army. On our right, up river towards Roubaix, were the French. I had not realised before how near we were to the French frontier.
Our artillery was beautifully organised. After the first, intense bombardment, the Gunners seemed to take it in turns. It seemed that some of them were always stirring up the Boche. The scream of each shell was as music in our ears. Jim Lattey came in beaming and said, “ A g-g-generous bit of g-gunnery!” Everywhere I went that morning I noticed that the sound of our guns had a tonic effect on the morale of our men.
I had better explain that I had a kind of “roving commission.” The Brig and Dennis Gibbs used me for a variety of jobs, while Ted Price did the normal work of the Intelligence Officer. During the morning I went forward to visit the Warwicks and Gloucesters, who were already busy repelling efforts by the enemy to cross the river in rubber boats. The Boche had suffered badly in the attempt, but, being persistent, and succeeded in getting some troops across. These were, doubtless, brave, determined men, who would “dig in” and wait for help.
I joined one small patrol hunting for Germans, who were reported to be in a semi-detached house. Sure enough there were obviously two or three Boche, sniping from windows upstairs. The subaltern—he was from the Warwicks—allowed me to stay with the patrol. A Bren gun sprayed the windows, and, under cover of its fire, two burly men rushed across the street and hurled themsleves at the door. This gave way with a loud, cracking noise, and the two men dashed in and straight up the stairs. I could see one stumble against a chair near the door, but he did not stop. The Bren fired another long burst, while the rest of us scampered over the road and through the open door. Four men searched the rooms downstairs, without further orders, while the subaltern and the remainder ran upstairs. I ran behind, eager to help, but anxious not to get in the way. (I remember I had to fight back a sudden wish that I had stayed outside!) The subaltern was very cool. He knew which room to attack, since only one looked out over the street. It was a corner room, with a passage adjoining. One of the two men, already at the top of the stairs, went forward and kicked upon the door, while the other tossed a grenade inside. We all threw ourselves down for a moment, jumped up, and dashed inside, leaving the two original men still on guard by the door. A German, lying almost on his back, fired a sub-machine gun, but the bullets sprayed the walls above our heads. One man threw himself on this German, who screamed with agony. The wretched fellow had been badly wounded by the grenade, and the impact of our man’s knees made the blood gush from his stomach. The other two Germans were dead already. One had been hit in the face by at least two bullets from the Bren. His mouth was wide open, showing a perfect set of teeth. The third had evidently been hit by the grenade below his left temple. He had thick, black hair, a snub nose, and his eyes were fixed in a horrid stare.
The subaltern looked sick and smiled uncomfortably as one man said, “Good shot with the grenade, sir.” We all stared for a moment or two, then two men attempted to apply a field-dressing to the wounded German. The subaltern said, “Thank Christ the R.A.P.’s round the corner.”
I began my grisly job of searching the bodies for identifications. I noted the particulars on the identity discs round their necks, and took away several letters I found in their pockets. It was surprising to find these letters, since soldiers are not supposed to take them into action. Despite censorship, letters can give away useful information to the enemy.
I sent back the information to Brigade, where Ted Price would make a note of it and send it on, in his turn, to Division. I then continued my tour, and went up into a tall factory building, where a Gunner officer had an Observation Post. There was a good view of the river, but the Gunner said, “You won’t see much movement. We caught Jerry with his trousers down, and he’s gone to earth.” He explained that we were dropping shells closer and closer to the river to get at their forward troops. This had to be done carefully, for fear of dropping some short, and hitting our own bank and the men there. That accounted for the buildings nearest the river being the least damaged. The Gunner added, “That works both ways. That’s why I feel pretty safe here—for a while!”
I had to search more bodies of Germans killed by the Warwicks before I returned to Brigade. On one I found a marked map showing that we were opposed to the 35th Infantry Division. The map was clearly marked, and it was astounding to find it. The only explanation is that the enemy was too supremely confident to worry about security measures. At the same time, it gave us the disturbing news that our Brigade was up against a whole Division.
Incidentally, I was glad I had already gained experience on the Saar Front of searching bodies. It had taught me to assume a callous air of indifference. Always there would be men watching, and most of them were my juniors in years. Even now we had to harden ourselves to the fact that it was our duty to kill the enemy, and men who had died roughly are not a pleasant sight. Say what you like, men take their cue from their officers, and young troops, especially, have to learn to look on the corpses of their enemies with some effort at indifference.
The first main thrust of the Germans came on our right, where they succeeded in driving French troops from the river. A swift counter-attack by the French, supported by 145 Brigade, restored the situation. It must be admitted, however, that all along the river small parties of Germans succeeded in “digging in” on our side.
Late in the morning of the first day, the Germans began to bombard us, very accurately, with mortars. There was nothing we could do but grin and bear it. A mortar throws its bomb high, and quick-sighted men claim that they can see these bombs in flight. I was never able to do that, but, like everyone else, I heartily disliked the sound of the bombs as they whistled down.
I had better explain at this juncture the importance of communications. In a battle, no news is generally bad news. It means, too often, that a Unit is out of touch with its Headquarters, and it may well be in a desperate position, needing help. A Battalion Commander must, at all times, know everything that is happening to each of his companies. The Brigadier must know how each Battalion under his command is faring. The Divisional Commander wants every bit of news he can get from each of his three Brigades. In short, every soldier in charge of other soldiers requires every scrap of up-to-date information, not only about what is happening to the front of him, but on both sides, and in the rear as well. Accordingly, at all hours of the day and night, messages and orders are being sent in all directions. At each Headquarters this mass of information is sorted out and studied. Even if things are quiet, a “situation normal” report is sent in at stated intervals.
From the information at his disposal, the Commander finds the material to make his plans, and the news must be fresh. A brilliant plan, made too late, is worse than a second-rate one made at the right time. No Commander can make a good plan at the proper time if he is in the dark. Only an unceasing flow of intelligent, up-to-the-minute information can light up that darkness.
“Puffer” Holmes, with the help of his opposite numbers in the Brigade, did a fine job of work, but had to rely mainly on line communications. This meant that we were able to speak on field telephones to each other over long distances. Unfortunately, the lines would get cut by shell fire, and then signallers would have to hunt for the breaks and repair them quickly, even at night. As a result, we had also to rely on our few wireless sets, despatch riders, and liaison officers.
Attached to Brigade we had two subalterns as Liaison Officers to the Battalions. They were entrusted with important messages, and, generally, had to deliver these to particularly dangerous places at particularly dangerous times. These two men ran appalling risks, but, somehow, came through unscathed. Both were young. One was a bright, cheerful lad from the Warwicks, the other a Scot, named Arthur Steel, from the Worcesters. The latter often said that it would be good to get home and enjoy “a bottle of beer on a Saturday.” (Try saying this, omitting the “t’s” and putting about six “e’s” in “beer” !)
* * * * * * *
I well remember the first prisoners we captured. I had been taught to expect that they would be truculent and trained to keep their mouths shut. Instead, I found this first batch eager to please and talkative. My duty was to question prisoners as quickly as possible, and then send them on to Division for a more detailed interrogation. I had to discover, if I could, to which Units the men belonged, what casualties they had had, and anything they would tell me about times and places. Moreover, I was expected to “earmark” prisoners who struck me as having some special knowledge, or who were most likely to talk freely.
The first prisoner was a sturdy, bare-headed youth, with long fair hair. He was incredibly dirty and on the point of exhaustion. I found to my relief that we could understand each other’s German, since a number of men were looking on! He was a very scared young man, and I had to tell him he had no need to be afraid. All in one breath he asked, “Can I have something to eat and drink? Can I sleep? Can I write letters from captivity?” I told him, “Yes. But first you must answer some questions.” He spoke freely and told me he was an Engineer. He believed he was the only survivor of about 200 men who had attempted to cross the Escaut in the night. He added that everyone was very tired. A car was just leaving for Division, and I packed this lad off at once.
The first batch of prisoners came in during a bombardment by German mortars. The nearest bombs were falling a few hundred yards away. I questioned the prisoners in the garden behind Brigade H.Q. The young Serjeant-Major—he told me he was 24—said, “This is terrible. We shall all be killed by the mortars. Can we go into the house?” I replied, “We stay here. You will go when you have answered my questions.” At this there was an outcry from all of them. Jim Lattey poked his head out of the window, shouting, “B-Bill, what’s wrong with the b-b……s?” I called back, “They don’t like their own mortars.” Jim snorted, “T-tell them it serves them b-bloody well right”—and in went his head again.
All these Germans were young, sturdy, dirty and desperately tired. All needed a hair-cut badly. They spoke of having suffered heavy casualties, which was good to hear. Unhesitatingly, they answered all my questions. Incidentally, they belonged to the 35th Division. After arranging for two of them to get their slight wounds dressed at the Gunners’ R.A.P., I put all seven 0f them on a R.A.S.C. truck going back to Division. The Driver’s mate undertook the duties of escort, and, in an endeavour to make the Germans understand him, shouted in English, “Come on. ‘Op in. It ain’t ‘ealthy round here. And no shocking about, or Gawd ‘elp you!” He spoilt the effect by giving a tremendous wink, which entirely baffled the already bewildered Germans.
During the battle—I forget exactly when—we got the alarming news that the R.A.S.C. could no longer get adequate rations through to us. From this time until we left Dunkirk, we were forced, in the main, to live “off the land.” Cattle and poultry from deserted farms, and provisions from abandoned shops became our sources of supply. In any case, what we did not take was almost certain to be destroyed or seized by the enemy.
I remember taking a truck to one shop in Wez Velvain. There was a gaping hole in the roof, and the floor was littered with rubble and broken glass. The driver and I loaded tins of biscuits, canned milk, slabs of chocolate, and other good things on to our vehicle, while two men went down to search the cellar. As I joined these two downstairs, I found them gazing with disappointment at some dozens of bottles of brandy, burgundy, and wines of all description. One disgusted private remarked to the other, “Not a shocking bottle of beer down here!” I said, “You mustn’t be proud. You’ll have to drink wine instead.” The vin ordinaire was a pleasant and harmless drink—and safer than much of the water we had.
* * * * * * * *
Already Wez Velvain had lost its neat, prosperous appearance. Throughout the day, bombs and shells hit one house after the other. We had to sweep the roads clear of rubble and broken glass, and tow away vehicles that had been hit. In the Mess, one huge shell splinter tore through the wall, whizzed across the room, and went clean through a chair at the other end of the table. I came near choking, and Crumpets said “Those confounded spies are on my track again.”
I am not going to attempt a description of the course of the battle. To trust to my memory alone after six years would be a sure way to make mistakes. Nor will I relate some of the more unpleasant sights I saw. I had an interesting time, and, with a platoon of the Gloucesters, I used a rifle and shot at and killed Germans for the first and last time in the War.
I have yet to read an official account of this battle, and I am certain that 48 Division has never received the praise it deserved. The odds against us were great, and, stubbornly as our men fought, the Germans succeeded in getting troops across the river. Nevertheless, we held on grimly. At one stage we were reinforced on our left flank by the 7th Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment, and it was good to see these old friends again. They did a grand job, and suffered badly.
We were all encouraged on the last day of the battle by a message, which reached us, saying, “News from the South reassuring. We stand and fight. Tell your men.” Within twenty-four hours we were ordered to resume the retreat!
Before we left Wez Velvain, my batman, Joe Cook, turned up. He and several other men had slowly made their way to us from some Base Camp in France. Since, like most English soldiers, their knowledge of French was limited to “a few words of love and abuse,” it was a stout effort on their part.
Now, I do not care one little hoot what other English-speaking armies have to say on the subject of our system of batmen, or soldier-servants. In our regiments there is never any shortage of volunteers for the job. To call the typical rough-and-tough British Army batman a menial is a quick and certain way of asking for a thick ear. Officers and their soldier-servants have a high regard for each other. If an Officer finds difficulty in finding a good batman, then there is something wrong, not with the system, but with the Officer. While the Officer is looking after the welfare of the men he commands, the batman is taking care of the Officer. When it comes to fighting the two are always near each other. In short, they share everything—good and bad alike.
I was overjoyed to see Joe Cook, but I wished him in a safer place, all the same. I said, “Holy smoke, Cook, I thought you were miles away. How did you get here?” Joe grinned all over his face and replied, “Me and some chaps kept getting put in these here different camps, and we kept telling them we had to get back to the Brigade or we’d get into a row. We done a bit of hitch-hiking, and got to Division Headquarters. Then we got on a ration truck with no rations in it, and got a lift here. Not a lucid explanation, but I thought it perhaps better to ask no more questions. I went on, “Well, it’s good to see you, but where’s your steel helmet?” Joe’s face dropped and he said, “Well, we had to leave one place in a bit of a hurry, and I left my helmet and pack behind.” Again I thought it best to ask no questions! I said, “We’ve had men killed. If you look around, you’ll soon find another pack and a battle bowler.” Joe still looked awkward and replied, “ I don’t like to do that, sir.’ Then, to become master of the situation, he looked me over with a professional eye and said, “You could do with a bit of a clean up.” It was true enough. I explained, “I’ve been looking after myself while you’ve been away.” Joe snorted, “You never was much good at that, sir” —and I was completely silenced.
* * * * * * *
In the late afternoon of the last day, I visited the forward Units. They had had a hard day. There were scattered parties of Germans on our side of the river, but the enemy, had been thwarted in his attempts to reinforce them. When evening came, there was a lull and everything seemed incredibly quiet. At the Mess I found Cook had laid out all my things—clean clothes, soap, razor, toothbrush and towel. I took the hint and had a quick bath and complete change. Then to Brigade to relieve Dennis Gibbs. Quite a pile of captured documents had been brought in, and I went through these carefully. Many were private letters, and all had the same theme— complete confidence in an early and overwhelming victory. It was galling to read them.
Not many hours later, we received the staggering orders to withdraw over the French frontier. The rumour went round—it was true!—that the Belgians on our left had surrendered. If we stayed where we were, the Boche would quickly surround us. It was heartbreaking, because we knew we had done well. It was a most difficult matter to extricate the Brigade in the darkness, but the Brig handled it superbly and without fuss. I remember standing with him by a road junction, while weary, dirty, disappointed troops marched slowly past. Many were utterly tired, and their comrades were helping them along. They were like so many shadowy figures moving in some ghastly nightmare. Finally, leaving one Company of the Worcesters to act as rearguard, we got into our car, and drove to the French frontier to organize the next area. Holland gone Belgium gone! Chased back into France! It all began to seem hopeless.
* * * * * *
The day we crossed the French frontier, after our withdrawal from the River Escaut, we got the welcome news that the Division would go into reserve for three days, and so get some rest. It was already the last week in May, and in a few days the evacuation from Dunkirk would begin but we did not know that. It was true that we had been through a hectic and harrowing experience in the past twelve days. We had retreated in a zig-zag route, more than two hundred miles, and we had just fought a fierce battle. We needed time to reorganize, check up on our supplies, and rest our men. Then we would be ready to give battle again. It was true that Holland and Belgium had surrendered, but, as we thought about it, we began to say to ourselves that we had always been ready to fight without their help. It was also true that the Germans had cut deep into France, but we remembered the message we had just received, telling us that the news from the South was reassuring. Now that we had a shorter front, surely the tide would turn.
What worried us most was the painfully obvious fact that the French were so poorly equipped, and that so many of them seemed half-hearted about the War. From now on, we encountered considerable numbers of French stragglers everywhere we went. These men were generally without weapons. One found them camping out in deserted houses, living on whatever food they could find, and calmly waiting to be rounded up by the military authorities, or the enemy. The only thing we could do was to ignore them.
Brigade Headquarters spent a few hours in an abandoned farm almost on the frontier, while a French Regiment lethargically took up a defensive position between us and the enemy. The farm was in a disgusting mess. Every room and every cupboard had been ransacked. Bed linen, clothes, broken crockery, curtains, and household goods of every description littered the floors in all the rooms. My orderlies set to work cheerfully. Some quickly tidied up the filthy rooms. Others I took on a search for eggs. In one of the outbuildings I came across a group of five French soldiers. I asked them what they were doing there. One replied, “We are lost. We shall make ourselves comfortable and wait.” I said, “What are you waiting for?” but the only answer I got was a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. These men had a plentiful supply of coffee, and gave me some in return for biscuits. I had nearly thirty mouths to feed, but we found nearly three dozen eggs and boiled the lot. These, with hot coffee, cold pork from Wez Velvain, and biscuits made our meal. Jim Lattey got a bad egg and walked with it to the window, muttering grimly, while we yelled at him to hurry.
This was typical of our existence from now onwards. N0 more bread, no more tea. Meat was plentiful if we had time to find it, butcher it and cook it. On the whole, we did not fare badly, providing we could only find time to cook a meal.
In the early afternoon I went ahead with Charles Vairet (I think we called him our Agent de Liaison) to arrange billets for Brigade. We stopped for a few minutes in the village one of the Battalions was to occupy. The Billeting Officer, whose name I forget, said “Did you ever see such a bloody awful mess as this?” and took me into an estaminet. Imagine a fair-sized bar with every bottle emptied, broken and scattered all over the floor among dozens of shattered glasses. Chairs and tables, almost without exception, were upset and many of them broken. Every window in the place had been smashed. It was a revolting sight. The whole village was deserted. The houses on both sides of the road had their shutters up, and there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. A few hungry dogs prowled about and yapped at us from a distance.
Vairet and I pushed on about a mile and found a large, rambling farm—empty, of course— which made an almost ideal headquarters. It had already been occupied by British troops, and I regret saying that they had left it filthy. I was surprised to find envelopes bearing the names of soldiers and the regiments to which they belonged. I had some chalk and wrote up on the doors who was to occupy each room. There was room for us all in the farm, but it was unwise, on account of enemy aircraft, to put everyone in the same building. I took over, therefore, three empty cottages nearby. That night we all had a good sleep. Ted Price and I lay side by side, fully dressed, on a double bed, and slept like logs, in the morning we had a quick “tub” under a pump. Already we felt greatly refreshed.
I must admit that I remember little about the next day. It must have been a quiet morning. Later came orders that we were to move to a new concentration area. This time I set off with Jim Lattey in his car, while the Mess truck came too, so that I could have a meal ready when the others arrived. As we drew near to one small town, German aircraft were bombing it unmercifully. There were no troops there to answer back. Jim said, “Better w-wait a minute.” We parked under cover and waited. Jim was quite right. We had work to do and no right to get involved in a raid. The attack lasted about twenty minutes, and, afterwards, it was a difficult matter to drive through the town. The streets were littered with debris and broken glass, whilst people were running about in confusion, weeping and shouting. Jim and I were still new to the idea of unmerciful attacks on civilians. That and our inability to help made us angry and sick.
Again we went through the tedious business of arranging billets. Some Corps troops were already in the area, and Jim had a long and difficult tussle with an obstinate, selfish Colonel, who evidently wanted a house for each of his men.
When everything was ready, Jim and I waited impatiently for the others to arrive. An hour or two passed and nothing happened, except that the main road near us seemed to be full of military traffic going to the West. At last, when it was quite dark, the Brig and Dennis drove up. They told us that the whole Division was being moved in transport to the Dunkirk area, to be used against the Germans pushing along the coast from the South. There was no talk of evacuation. Dunkirk was still just the name of a French port.
In France, of course, things had gone from bad to worse. The enemy had reached the coast at a number of points, and there were rumours that he had captured Calais and Boulogne. I looked at the map and whistled. For the first time I realised into what a narrow area we had been compressed. The situation was more critical than I had believed possible. Gone were our hopes of holding up the enemy on the French frontier. Again, through no fault of our own, we were being forced to yield ground. From what I could see, Dunkirk was the last port in our hands in the North.
The convoy moved off that night. We did not know our exact destination, but were given a rendezvous in Dunkirk itself, where the commanders would receive more precise orders. I travelled in the Intelligence Officer’s truck, sitting next to the driver, and checking the route from the map. Our way lay through part of Belgium, including Ypres.
A military convoy is supposed to move at a steady speed, with wide intervals between each vehicle, so that no one bomb can damage more than one truck. I have to admit there was utter chaos and confusion on the road. Other British Units were moving in the same direction, and French convoys were traveling everywhere. Often the way was blocked by refugees, who had to be forced off the road. Then, too, there were long trains of French Army vehicles, being pulled by tired, sweating horses. At nearly every road-junction, and particularly at all the cross-roads, there was argument and quarrelling as to the right of way. I kept thinking of Stephen Leacock’s line, “He jumped on his horse, and galloped off in all directions.”
The enemy aircraft that found us were surprisingly few, but they had a merry time. We passed many vehicles that had been hit, and forced ourselves to regard with indifference the mangled bodies of their unlucky occupants. It made one sick to see horses lying in strange postures of death.
My truck was sprayed twice with machine gun bullets, but on each occasion only one man was hit. The first got a bullet above his right knee, and the second was hit along the back of the neck. Other bullets ripped holes in the canvas, and, strange but true, one hit the bonnet without damaging the engine. The driver was very cool, but very tired, and I had to relieve him at odd times.
As we got nearer Dunkirk, the convoys sorted themselves out, and the road became much clearer. I was separated from the other Brigade vehicles, but pushed on to the rendezvous. We came across a Casualty Clearing Station, and I dropped the man with the wounded leg there. The other chap asserted he was “comfortable,” and, since he wanted to stay, I allowed him to do so.
Enemy aircraft had already given Dunkirk a bad time. Many houses were destroyed or damaged, and fires were raging in all quarters. We ran into another air-raid, but again our luck was in. The rendezvous was in a square which boasted a statue of, I think, the famous Jean Bart. We were the first to arrive, which gave me time to do a little shopping. I managed to get some tinned foods, and some dubious cooked sausages, which my men ate with relish. The shopkeeper, wearing a huge cloth cap, and smoking an evil-smelling cigar, told me he intended to stay where he was, but his wife, a pale, tiny woman, cried and said, “Nearly everyone has gone from here. What can we do against the aircraft? Ah! this terrible war!” I could offer no advice, but merely wished them good luck.
Within the next half-hour, the Brig, and his various commanders arrived. Orders were still somewhat vague, but the Brigade was to concentrate a few miles out of town in a village by the name of Rousbrugge. We made our way there without much trouble, established H.Q. in the inevitable farm, and checked up on the arrival of the various Units. They had all done well, and reached there with few losses. Unfortunately, Marston Riley, with a number of Brigade H.Q. vehicles, was missing, but he had been seen somewhere in the vicinity. I offered to go to look for him, and took a staff car, which I drove myself. The afternoon was hot and, in every field, along the hedges, troops were getting what sleep they could. Others were doing fatigues, and the least fortunate were on duty as air-sentries. After a long search, I found Marston and guided all his vehicles to Headquarters. By this time I was ready for some rest, especially since I found everyone else asleep under the trees. As it happened, my return coincided with the arrival of fresh orders. We were to move at once into an area of scattered hamlets, near the main road from Cassel to Bergues. The Brig, said: “It seems there will be nobody between us and the Boche, so we shall soon be busy.”
Off I went again, this time by myself, to arrange billets. Since none of us had had a proper meal that day, I took the Mess truck with me, in the hope that my orderlies would have time to cook some supper.
It took us a little while to get through the village of Rousbrugge. Crowds of excited civilians and unarmed Belgian soldiers thronged the streets, shouting questions at each other and at us. All had one main question to ask, “Where are the Germans?” Some were hostile and shouted, “Belgium has finished with the war. Go away from here. We want no war here.” Others were friendly and wished us good luck. One old woman called out, “May the good God protect you.”
We passed slowly through the road blocks—the first we had seen. Evidently stories of German tanks had reached this area. The blocks were formed of old cars, farm carts, ploughs and machines of all kinds. There was just enough space left for one car to squeeze through at a time.
We stopped for a few minutes in the square of the village of Herzeele, since a few shops were still open. I called in one and bought some biscuits and tinned foods. A capable, good-looking girl greeted me with a smile, and served me readily. Her tearful, flabby-faced mother hovered in the background like a frightened moth, and said to me, “Monsieur, my husband is a soldier too. I do not know where he is. Perhaps he is already dead. What shall I do if the Germans come?” I replied, “Madame, without doubt your husband will soon return home. In any case, stay here.” The daughter broke in, “Monsieur, you are right. We live here, and we remain here. As for me, I do not wish to sleep under the stars.”
Outside the shop, the villagers crowded round my trucks, all asking, “Where are the Germans? What shall we do?” I gave them all the same advice, “Stay here. We shall try to keep the Germans far from here.” It was all very distressing, and I got away as quickly as I could.
As we made our way to the new concentration area, relays of German bombers flew overhead. There was no need to stop and take cover. They ignored us. Squadrons swept by, majestic and undisturbed, to and from Dunkirk. That wretched town and its immediate surroundings seemed to be the sole objective.
Our new area was a pleasant place of tiny hamlets, some with French names and others with Flemish. I found an empty cottage in Le Briel for Brigade H.Q. and arranged with two pleasant people at an estaminet for the Officers’ Mess to be there. My men set to at once preparing veal cutlets, while I had a bottle of beer and some biscuits. It was not an easy matter to find billets for the men. Definitely, “the natives were hostile.” Even the prospect of billeting money failed to remove their reluctance to have us there. Most of them spoke Flemish, but they made it clear enough they wanted to stay out of the War.
In the late evening I was still awaiting the arrival of the others, I had sent back my news, including the news that an excellent supper would be ready. At last a Despatch Rider came with the unwelcome news that the plans had been changed, and that Brigade H.Q. would open up in the chateau grounds at Wormhoudt. I cursed bitterly, packed up the supper, and found that the Mess Truck had developed engine trouble. We had to tow it behind my truck. Darkness set in and rain began to fall. Back through Herzeele and on to Wormhoudt. The rain was now falling heavily and, as I tried to keep awake, I noticed how much traffic there was on the road, and how patiently the drivers crept forward, without lights, in the rain-sodden darkness. We had little difficulty in finding the chateau at Wormhoudt, where Dennis Gibbs had had all the vehicles parked along paths, under trees, which gave excellent cover from view. I growled to him about the ruined supper. “Never mind,” he said, “There’s nothing to do now. Get some sleep while you can.” I got out my camp bed for the first time, and, although the rain was dripping through the trees, it did not take me long to fall asleep.
Dawn was grey and, as we stood-to, we shivered. Luckily the sun rose quickly, and both dried and warmed us. I explored the chateau quickly. It was plain enough from the outside— rectangular and built of red bricks. There was an asphalt courtyard and several outbuildings, all of which were useful to us. I soon had my cooks preparing breakfast. The rooms in the chateau were richly furnished—chairs, tables, carpets, all were of the most expensive.
The grounds were pleasant. A glade of luscious green grass ran in a rectangle for quite half-a-mile. On both sides were trees, which afforded us excellent cover. We were careful not to walk on the grass and so make tracks, which would be visible from the air. There was a canal, which flowed into a shallow, ornamental lake, on which floated two hungry, angry and suspicious swans. There was also in the garden a peacock with a raucous voice, and, apparently, a victim of insomnia. At first we found his shrieking amusing—and then intolerable. Later, however, when there were air-raids, the strident protests of the peacock against the screaming bombs endeared him to all of us, and the saying went round that, so long as he survived, we would be “all right.”
We breakfasted under the trees, and then the Brig, quickly gave us the news. The Warwicks were in position in Wormhoudt itself, and to the south-west of the village. On the left, the Gloucesters were holding the main road from Cassel, with part of the Battalion forward at Ledringhem. On the right, two companies of the Worcesters were in touch with the defenders of Bergues. The remainder of the Worcesters, except for H.Q. Company at Herzeele, were with Brigade in the chateau grounds. The Gunners and Anti-tank Gunners were dispersed where they were most likely to do damage.
The Brig, explained that we had good hopes of a quiet day, but that we were in for a bad time. There was only a faint hope that the French and British could hold the perimeter around Dunkirk. Already, wounded and non-combatant troops were being evacuated. We could not hope for a victory, but our job was to delay the enemy for as long a time as possible. Defences were being prepared in depth in our rear. Hours would be of supreme importance. When the pressure against us became too great, we were to withdraw a few miles, and start all over again. We would be allowed to bend, but not to break. As Crumpets said, it was “a pretty cheerful prospect.”
Nobody made a song and a dance about the news, nor showed any excitement. Each got on with his work, of which there was plenty to be done. For myself, I first visited the village of Wormhoudt. It was certain to be attacked, and I wanted to know it well. It was an attractive little place, with a square from which roads ran in three directions. Refugees were passing through towards Dunkirk. They would have done better to go in the other direction. A group of black-garbed clerics went silently past. They were carrying no baggage with them. There were the inevitable farm-carts piled high with children and household goods. One such cart had stopped, and a woman was relating her experiences to a cluster of sympathetic villagers, while her meek-looking husband pulled at his long, dark moustache, and sucked an empty pipe.
A few shops were open, and I bought some sardines and a large cake, which I sent back by an orderly. In an orchard I found the Warwicks’ Headquarters. Major Hicks, who was in command, was shaving and full of good cheer. Dick Tomes, the Adjutant, was also in high fettle. The next day he was seriously wounded in the head, but survived five years of captivity. David Padmore, the Signals Officer, was riding round and round on a bicycle. He had just been promoted Captain, and I congratulated him. The next day he was killed. I do not want to go on with the list, except to say that I was glad I also visited Lynn Allen and his Company. Lynn had taken me on several patrols on the Saar Front, and I liked him well. The next day, he and his Company were surrounded and many of them captured. I learned, some years later, that the Germans shot Lynn in cold blood, because he swore at one of them who had ordered him to stop smoking a cigarette.
After finishing my tour round, I hastened back to Brigade and checked my information with Dennis. I then made sure that we all had a hearty meal, and we moved into the chateau to enjoy it better. The Brig, was still certain the day would pass quietly, and we were glad of the respite.
After lunch I slept for an hour on a bed in the chateau, and then visited the Gloucesters. The unavoidable gaps between Units was alarming, and the Gloucesters seemed more exposed than the rest.
Back again to the chateau, where I found French Security Police searching the rooms. They were certain that the owner, a Belgian, was a Fifth Columnist. The police found a radio transmitter, which delighted them, and a well-stocked cellar, which delighted me. The cellar contained so much that we had to put a guard over it ! I sorted out a few bottles and took them over to Colonel Johnstone, who passed them on to the officers of “C” Company.
Colonel Johnstone, who had not spared himself, was tired and upset. He had been obliged to re-arrange his officer strength, and he was not satisfied he had solved the problem. We walked up and down smoking our pipes, and he suddenly turned to me and said, “Look here, Bill, I’m going over to ask the Brigadier if he’ll let you come to me as my Adjutant.” I did not want to leave Brigade at this exciting time, but the chance to become Adjutant to a good Battalion was not one I could refuse. I mumbled my thanks and went off to have another look at the main road, while the Colonel went across to discuss the matter with the Brigadier.
As I went by Brigade H.Q. the sentry called me and told me he was detaining a woman. I asked the reason, and he said, “Well, sir, she speaks English, same as you and me.” I told him, “That’s no crime, and then added, “Sorry. Of course you’re right. She may be a Fifth Columnist.” The woman was a plucky, good-looking little thing, and, after questioning her, I believed her story. She told me she was English and married to a Belgian. She claimed that they had trekked all the way from Brussels—she, her husband, and three children. She had come to ask for food and advice. I gave her some beef and a couple of bottles of wine, and walked part of the way to the farm where she had left her family.
On the road, Army vehicles were passing through a cordon formed by some of our men. Here I heard that the Germans were attacking 145 Brigade at Cassel. This was true, and out of the whole Brigade only about 300 got away. Many were captured, but the number killed was appalling. 145 Brigade fought so well that the German radio described them as” super-men.”
It was upsetting enough to watch the pathetic civilians, young and old, crowding into the Dunkirk perimeter. It was a case of leaping out of the frying-pan into the fire, but we had no authority to turn them back. It was far more distressing to deal with panic-stricken soldiers, especially when they were British.
I have admitted, earlier in this story, that we were inadequately equipped to meet the German blitzkrieg. Moreover, our military training, generally, was on a lower level than the enemy’s. I shall always be able to claim, from what I saw myself, that an overwhelming majority of our men faced their hopeless task with stubborn courage. It is useless to pretend that we were skilful— we had not been given the opportunity to learn. That we did as well as we did we owe to the sound, albeit limited, training of our Regular troops, and the guts of the Territorials, who were there, after all, because they were volunteers.
As I saw it, the men who failed us were the young conscripts whose military background was insufficient. Those who had been posted to the Infantry, Gunners or Sappers generally did well, since they were able to learn from experienced men. The other lads had almost entirely to rely on themselves, and when young drivers, clerks and storemen found themselves suddenly on their own in a blitzkrieg, they had no idea how to defend themselves aggressively. In the fog of war it is difficult enough for the oldest soldier to understand what is happening. Young, “green” troops, separated from their Headquarters, finding themselves in danger, and knowing that the Army is retreating, are apt to get in a panic. How different it was later when I saw men belonging to a Mobile Bath Unit being put through arduous training at a Battle School I May, 1940, taught us that, in modern war, there are no safe areas, and no safe jobs. Every man is likely to be called on to fight and kill—or be killed—at a moment’s notice.
Even in the Infantry we had some few men who, to use the soldier’s slang, “could not take it.” No nation has the monopoly of brave men. And, with very few exceptions, men “can take it” only with an effort. I have no use for the few who do not understand that the many have to fight against fear. I humbly agree with Euripides, who said, “Courage may be taught, as a child is taught to speak.” There are few of us who do not have to learn the hard way.
I remember the two occasions when I was most afraid, and how each time a private soldier made me laugh at myself and carry on. At Wez Velvain, the German mortar bombardment was so intense at one time that we had to operate from the comparative safety of a cellar. At last it came my turn to go to the Mess for an hour or so off duty. I climbed the stairs of the house and reached the door. Mortar bombs were falling in the village. I was alone, responsible only for myself, and tired. I stood at the door, and, although I cursed myself, I could not force myself to walk out into the street. Then, up the stairs came a signaller with a message to be delivered. He was whistling “South of the Border.” He said “Excuse me, sir,” and walked out of the house without a moment’s hesitation. I laughed, and my fear had gone.
The other incident occurred at Wormhoudt. Two German aircraft flew over and dropped “whistling” bombs. Now, a whistling bomb is no more dangerous than any other bomb of the same calibre, or whatever it is called, but it gives the inexperienced soldier the unpleasant impression that it is designed for him alone. As the first bomb came screaming down, I threw myself flat on the ground next to two private soldiers, and felt most unhappy. There was a deafening explosion, and then we heard the next bomb. That, too, fell some distance away. As the third one began to whistle on its downward flight, one of the men looked up and said in slow, ponderous tones, “Well, they can’t hit everything.” I laughed, and nearly always remembered that remark in later air-raids.
To return to Wormhoudt and the night I was describing. A small convoy of British Army vehicles had been stopped by the Warwicks’ cordon. All the drivers were in a sorry state of nerves. They had dumped their supplies and were concerned only with their own personal safety. The leading driver had attempted to break through the cordon. He had been called on to halt, but he did not obey. A shot had been fired as a warning, but he had been hit in the arm. A tall, loose-limbed Corporal was screaming abuse at Major Harborne, while the latter’s men looked on, silent but angry. Major Harborne turned to me wearily and said, “Can you deal with this idiot? There are more trucks coming.” I let the Corporal tell his story once, but when he broke into another torrent of filthy abuse, I shouted, “Shut up ! Stand to attention!” The Corporal screamed, “They shot my mate. Those ——‘s shot my mate.” I hit him hard across the mouth so that it bled, and he was quiet. I told them they had one minute to get back into their trucks and drive on to Bergues in an orderly way. I took good care not to take a note of their Unit. The next day Major Harborne was killed in battle. He did not panic.
* * * * * * *
Back at Brigade, the Brig, grinned as I entered the chateau. “Off you go!” he said. “Congratulations!” and I knew I was to be Adjutant to the 8th Battalion. After a hasty meal of beef and wine, Joe Cook and I packed up, and went over to report to Colonel in the gardener’s cottage, where he had his Headquarters.
J.B.,as we called the Colonel, smoked a pipe or two, and I did the same, while we discussed the approaching battle. It was all too clear that there were holes in our defences we could not fill. As the Colonel said, our only hope was to plug such holes by quick counter-attacks, and we had few troops to spare for the job.
We each had an inflated rubber mattress and, as we lay down on these to sleep, the Colonel said, “We shall know all about it to-morrow.”
The morning of May 29th, 1940, was one of the most beautiful I remember. The sun rose quickly and coaxed the sleep and stiffness out of our bodies. The birds were singing, and the grass was gloriously green. The whole scene was so peaceful that the very thought of desecrating it by battle seemed quite incredible.
Early, about seven, Colonel Johnstone met his officers in the square at Wormhoudt. It was the last time we were all to meet each other. I knew them all, of course, and they swarmed round me offering congratulations. It was a great welcome. The “Ram” (Major F. S. Ramsay) said, “I can still be bloody rude to you,” as I shook hands with him and “Jonah” (Major S. W. Jones), the second-in-command. These two were senior officers of the Regiment, and we all owed much to them.
The Colonel’s orders were simple, although we could tell from his face that he thought it likely the Battalion was about to do its last job. There was a moment’s silence, then J.B. said, Well, gentlemen, we shall do our best. Good luck!“ The tension eased, and we spent a minute laughing and chatting together before dispersing. There was no hand-shaking, no solemnity, no fuss of any kind.
About ten in the morning, dive-bombers made a nuisance of themselves throughout the area. It appeared that the enemy had no idea that we were so “thin on the ground,” for many of his bombs dropped in places we had not occupied. Consequently, although we did not enjoy the experience, we suffered few casualties.
Not long afterwards, the Gloucesters and Warwicks were fighting bitterly. In a series of rapid, encircling movements, the enemy tanks surrounded the Gloucesters. The Boche had, apparently, an inexhaustible supply of tanks. We had none. None whatever! The anti-tank guns, under Major Wiggin, had a glorious shoot, and I heard later that the Battery had accounted for twenty-six tanks altogether in the Brigade sector. The Gloucesters destroyed an armoured car or two with their anti-tank rifles, but these weapons were ineffective against the tanks themselves. All the same, this fierce resistance made the Boche pause, and attack more slowly with dismounted troops. The Gloucesters had no hope of help or escape, but they refused to surrender. They fought doggedly on, but their casualties in killed, wounded and captured mounted higher and higher as the hours went by, until of the 700 that had advanced into Belgium sixteen days earlier, less than 200 remained.
The enemy made a determined effort to destroy the Gloucesters before the evening came, but Colonel Buxton conceived the unorthodox plan of forming a strong fighting patrol of Officers and N.C.O.’s, and, with them, carried out a series of short, sharp attacks on the Boche. This desperate venture gained some invaluable time for the Gloucesters, but their utter annihilation still seemed a complete certainty.
In and around Wormhoudt, the Warwicks had suffered badly. A strong column of tanks burst through the Rifle Company guarding the road to the South, and broke into the orchard occupied by Battalion Headquarters. Major Hicks rallied the survivors, and the fighting went on. Each of the Rifle Companies had to fight grimly, but after some hours the Warwicks, like the Gloucesters, ceased to exist as a Battalion.
This day, the Worcesters were fortunate. The battle escaped them. The Brig., “reading” the fighting with great skill, decided not to use the Worcesters in futile attempts to rescue the other two Battalions. Each of the three available Rifle Companies of the Worcesters would have been obliged to carry out several attacks, and they were not equipped to attack tanks. In any case, the Brig, had to think about the next day’s fighting, and he decided to “preserve” the Worcesters.
Major Hicks was ordered to withdraw from Wormhoudt with as many of the Warwicks as he could save, while “C” Company of the 8th Worcesters, under Captain MacDonald, with the help of hastily formed Platoons made up of all ranks from Battalion and Brigade Headquarters, prepared to hold up the German advance.
In this composite force around the chateau, everybody was surprisingly cheerful. “Jonah” was seen to smoke his first cigarette for years, and various minor prophets at once foresaw calamity! Crumpets, with his inevitable cigarette in a long holder, passed me with a dozen signallers he had organized into a section. Kenneth Hougham, the Worcesters’ I.O., had organized a platoon. The Colonel and Jonah were everywhere. I stayed above the bank of the ornamental lake, eyed by the puzzled swans, trying to keep in touch on the field telephones with our Rifle Companies. John Moore, the Signals Officer, worked like a Trojan to keep the lines repaired, but, after a while, I was in touch only with “D” Company on our right.
The situation was so critical that Dennis Gibbs authorised the destruction of Brigade Headquarters’ confidential documents. Carey came forward with the tin box holding these papers, and threw it into the lake, much as the swans protested. To our horror, the box sank and then floated to the surface. A signaller raised his rifle and fired a shot or two, hoping to make a few holes in the box and cause it to sink. Instead, the lid flew open and the papers floated out on the water, while the angry, hungry swans pounced on them, hoping they would be edible! We grabbed all we could and tore them into shreds.
Then the weather, which had been so extraordinarily fine, broke most suddenly, and a heavy rainstorm drenched us all to the skin. The Brig., rightly guessing that the enemy would be just as tired and uncomfortable as us, decided this would give us an excellent chance to extricate ourselves. Leaving “A” and “D” Companies, who were still intact, in position on the right, the Brig, swung the remains of the Brigade back a few miles on this pivot. The surviving Warwicks went first, then Brigade, then part of our Battalion Headquarters. “C” Company was to act as rearguard, and the Colonel and I stayed with them.
In order to stir up the Boche in Wormhoudt, Ted Berry with two Bren Carriers was ordered to drive into the village and do the worst he could. Our lugubrious Ted accepted this dangerous task with his characteristic lack of eagerness, and his equally characteristic lack of hesitation. Off went the carriers in the pouring rain, and in a moment or two we heard their Bren guns firing. Ted found the Boche in Wormhoudt still unorganised, and he drove round the square, gunning them as they ran into houses and shops. Not long afterwards Ted was back, cadging a cigarette from me. “Joe Soap again,” he mourned. I asked “Why, what’s happened?” “The b……‘s shot up my valise,” said Ted, forgetting he was lucky still to be alive.
Now “C” Company began to withdraw by platoons across the fields, To cover this final withdrawal, three British tanks were sent to help us. Note the number! Three! That, alone, shows the difference between the enemy and ourselves. The Germans could easily have spared thirty tanks to deal with these three. The crews were standing by their machines, smoking cigarettes, and they gave us a quiet wave as we went past and across the fields. Then they slowly got into their tanks.
Slowly and deliberately we made our way towards a farm, from which a track led to the road to Herzeele. We were not pursued. Evidently the Boche, too, had had enough for one day. Outside the farm, an elderly man with his two middle-aged sons, all dressed in dark badly-fitting suits, stood silently in the pouring rain, watching us file past. We had no heart to exchange a greeting with them, nor did we talk among ourselves. The silence was broken when we came across a despatch-rider whose machine had broken down. The Colonel told him, “If you can’t start it, burn it. We can’t wait for you, and you mustn’t leave it behind.” A minute or so later as I looked back, I saw the motor-cycle enveloped in flames, while the drab trio of farmers still stood silently looking on in the rain.
On the road we met the “Ram” and “B” Company swinging along proudly, and it was good to see them. Along the road to Herzeele we saw stragglers in two’s and three’s, and the Colonel saw to it that they fell in with us.
At Herzeele we found that Geoffrey Day and Geoffrey Dorrell had salvaged a whole fleet of abandoned trucks and cars, and were able to “lift” every man we had. How grateful we were to them.
I found time to run across the road, and have a few words with my attractive and sensible little girl-friend in the shop. I advised her not to leave the village, because there would be no battle there, whereas to become a refugee would mean running into danger. She thanked me, and we shook hands. “Hurry back, monsieur,” she said, “so that we do not have the Germans with us long.”
Our next area was to be in and around the village of Bambecque, just across the River Yser. “The Ram” and “B” Company were posted forward and East of the village, to guard the bridge. MacDonald and “C” Company were around the church on the West.
Colonel Johnstone decided to set up his Headquarters for the night in the village itself. We forced open the door of one empty shop and established ourselves on the ground floor, in a room totally devoid of furniture. Most of the houses had their shutters up, but I managed to find one shop and bought a few bottles of inferior wine.
Geoffrey Day, with H.Q. Company, went on a few miles up the road to Rexpoede, to give some protection to our rear. A glance at the map was enough to show me how woefully “thin” we were on the ground.
To the great delight of our men we found an abandoned clothing dump near the church. The Colonel and I went to have a look at it, and found shelves stacked high with battle-dresses, shirts, boots, and web-equipment. Most of our men needed a change. Their uniforms were torn and dirty, and their boots sadly worn. This dump was a godsend, and the Colonel instructed his officers to make full use of it for their men.
The Brig, came to see us during the evening. He was deeply worried about the Gloucesters, since he had been unable to get help to them, and knew nothing of their ultimate fate. He told the Colonel that the 8th Battalion would have to “hold the fort” by themselves the next day.
The night was full of stars, and I stood for a while at the door smoking a pipe. Two Privates smoking cigarettes—they were lucky still to have some—stood by me, watching French troops plod wearily by towards Dunkirk, about twenty miles away. One Private, puffing at his cigarette, said to the other, “Wish we was going with them, eh?” The other grunted and said, “Rotten shocking things these ration fags. Shocked if they’re not.” I grinned and went indoors. I expect much the same sort of conversation was going on everywhere in the Battalion. The British soldier does not care to brood about the future. Even if this shows lack of imagination it is, at least, an asset when the outlook is next to hopeless.
As I was knocking out the ashes of my pipe, an excited, middle-aged Frenchwoman appeared at the door, and I got to my feet. At once she cried, “ Monsieur, have you a doctor? My daughter is having a baby. It is her first, monsieur. She is in great pain. Please, monsieur, tell your doctor to come with me.” After poor Jones had been killed at Wez Velvain, we had acquired a cheery, little Irish doctor named O’Keefe. We loved to rag him, but he would peer over his spectacles, and more than hold his own in badinage and repartee. I found O’Keefe curled up on the floor, as though it were a feather-bed. I shook him by the shoulder and said, “Wake up, Doe. They want you to increase the population of France.” O’Keefe got up mumbling, “Bloody silly time to go having infants. Fire and earthquake, storm and bloody tempest, war—you can never stop women doing this.” I asked, “Do you speak French?” O’Keefe peered at me and said, “Having a baby is the same in any language.”………….It was a boy.
Daybreak on May 30th came all too quickly, and we tumbled out reluctantly to “stand-to.” Suddenly we saw a strange and unforgettable sight. Round the corner, into the village Street, came a slow, straggling column of British troops, shuffling along in a state of almost complete exhaustion. For a second, I just stared. Then I recognised burly Colonel Buxton stumbling along at the head of his men. Behind him was Hauting, the Adjutant, with two prisoners. I spotted Major Mason and young Shepherd with his head bandaged. These were the survivors of the 5th Gloucesters. I ran forward, and Colonel Buxton almost tottered into my arms. I said, “You’re hurt, sir.” He mumbled, “I’m peppered all over, Bill. None of it serious.” Major Priestley, the Second-in-Command, came forward, and I suggested he should rest the troops a few minutes. I took Colonel Buxton indoors, and we spread a blanket on the floor for him. He said, “Don’t let me sit down, or I won’t get up,” but I told him he had nothing to worry about, and eased him to the floor, while someone went to fetch O’Keefe. I gave Colonel Buxton a glass of red wine, but he had barely sipped it before he fell fast asleep.
Outside, Colonel Johnstone had returned from visiting “B” Company, and had sent for the transport Geoffrey Day had collected the previous day. I said a word to the two prisoners, and one replied that he wanted to go to the lavatory. I showed Mason where the latrine was, and, more important, the clothing dump.
I learned that Colonel Buxton, finding the remains of the Battalion hopelessly surrounded, simply decided to march the survivors through the Germans. The plan succeeded by its very audacity. They found a gap and went through it. They could not bring the wounded, but one of the Norris brothers offered to stay behind with the wounded—his own brother among them— and some of the medical orderlies remained with him.
Orders came from Brigade that the Gloucesters were to go beyond Rexpoede, rest and re-form as best they could. Soon the Worcesters were on their own.
A little later the Colonel sent me with about thirty men to establish Battalion Headquarters on the road to Rexpoede. On the way a few shells came over, and two of my men were hit, but not badly. I chose a farm, just over the brow of the hill, and organized all-round defence with the help of R.S.M. Yeates.
Soon after the Colonel and Jonas arrived, and then the Brig, who had already made a quick tour of the area. The Brig told us that we had no hope of relief, but were to hold on until about 2100 hours, while defences along the Canal from Bergues to Fumes were being organize4. More precise orders would reach us later in the day.
Colonel Johnstone and I went down to Bambecque shortly afterwards. “C” Company was split into platoon localities, but Captain Macdonald was as calm and confident as ever. It was the last time we saw him. Major Ramsay was in position with “B” Company at the other end of the village, and we told him that the nearest friendly troops were shortly to move to an area along the road from Sheenvoorche to Oost-Cappel. As we moved off, the Ram gave the Colonel a cracking, smart salute. It was the last time we saw the Ram, too—for five long years.
We did not visit “A” and “D” Companies, but Captain John Farrar, who was acting as detachment commander, reported all was well. “D “ Company was in the area of the cross-roads at West Cappel and Croenspriet, on the road to Bambecque, while “A” Company remained at Wylder.
It was more than worrying to see the Battalion so widely scattered, with great gaps between Companies, but there was nothing else we could do. Back at the farm we organized Battalion H.Q. into a sixth Company. Ted Berry built a most formidable road block, using farm carts, tractors, and anything else he could find. As his men put the finishing touches to it, Ted said in his mournful monotone,” If they think they can get through that, they’re bloody well mistaken.”
The people at the farm accepted us philosophically. The farmer was lying on a couch in the sitting-room, smoking. He had been wounded in the leg during an air-raid a few days previously. His buxom wife readily took our advice not to leave the farm. There was a small, underground shelter her husband had prepared in a field, and I explained that they would be far better off there, if things came to the worst. We had plenty of French money left, and bought omelettes and weak coffee in abundance.
Jonah carefully set on one side all our receipts for payments to the N.A.A.F.I. and tucked the P.R.I.'s funds carefully away into his pockets. He got them all to England.
At about 1130 hours, the enemy attacked “A” Company from the direction of Wormhoudt, and also from towards Bergues, where an outpost section under Corporal Langfield reported that tanks were massing. John Farrar skilfully withdrew “A” Company, and strengthened his force at Croenspriet.
All remained quiet until about 1600 hours, when the enemy attacked Croenspriet. First, tanks would come forward to attract fire and test the defences. One tank was put out of action by an anti-tank rifle, and its crew shot up by Pte. Turton. John Farrar’s defence was so spirited that the enemy decided to deploy and attack with infantry, while the tanks encircled the area. The fighting went on. The enemy tried one trick. Many wearing British uniforms came forward shouting “English,” but their colleagues in the rear spoilt it for them by opening fire. “A” Company had a good shoot. At 1715 hours Capt. Farrar sent a message to say that three large and five small tanks were in his area. Shortly afterwards, a strong tank force overwhelmed the two Companies, but men continued to fight back in twos and threes. John Farrar ordered a piece-meal withdrawal towards Battalion Headquarters, and three officers and about sixty other ranks succeeded in getting there. John, himself, refused to leave until the last, and was finally seen firing an anti-tank rifle. We heard later that he did get away with a Gunner officer, but was killed on the way to Bambecque.
At Bambecque we spent an anxious afternoon, but nothing happened. From 1530 hours onwards, large parties of men from the East Lancashire Regiment came in—exhausted by forced marches and lack of food. We were able to give them something to eat, and the Colonel told them to rest and stay with us.
At 1700 hours the Ram reported that enemy infantry were working round his left flank, evidently to cut the road to Oost Cappel. At 1727 hours, Macdonald sent a message to say he was being bombarded by mortars, and, four minutes later, another message telling us that enemy infantry were 200 yards away on his right flank. The runner who brought the message told us that enemy tanks had broken into the village from the East. He had been chased by one of them, and had hidden among the tombstones in the churchyard.
At Battalion H.Q. we decided to strengthen the area with the survivors from “A” and “D” Companies and the men from the East Lancashire Regiment. There was a farm across the road, which made an excellent extension to our area. It was a nasty road to cross, for the enemy was sweeping it with tracer bullets, which we could actually see in flight. The men, who were very tired, hesitated, but the Colonel and Jonah stood in the road as calmly as two traffic policemen, and their example encouraged the men to cross. As it happened nobody was hit. Evidently the enemy could not see us, and the bullets went a little high.
Colonel Johnstone was in an agony of mental torment. He kept saying “This is the last battle, and I am unable to command my Battalion.” Jonah pointed out that the circumstances were beyond us, and that each Company Commander knew he had to fend for himself. For my part, I kept wondering why the Boche bothered to attack us at all. We could not guard all the roads, and it would have been simple to bypass us, and put us “in the bag” later, at his own convenience. It seemed a case, too, of Red Indians circling round Covered Wagons.
About 1730 hours Arthur Steel arrived in his little car. He pulled up quietly, ignored the enemy’s fire, opened the gate, ordered the car to pull inside, shut the gate, and walked slowly up to the farm. He brought us the message that we were to hold on until 2100 hours, and at that time, whatever was happening, to withdraw with as many men as possible, through Rexpoede and on to Bray Dunes by the sea, near Dunkirk. I asked Arthur to make sure that Geoffrey Day got the message, and then sat down to mark maps and write messages to” B “and” C “Companies. Arthur told us that enemy tanks were already in our rear—indeed, we had seen the white Verey lights they sent up as signals to each other. All the same, British troops would hold Rexpoede until midnight.
I had a good supply of quarter-inch maps, and it seemed justifiable to take the risk of marking these. The difficulty was to get them through the enemy to the forward Companies. Various runners volunteered. One pair set out, but did not return. The other two failed to get through, and one was badly wounded in the attempt. Finally, Cpl. Locke and Pte. Rhodes, of the Intelligence Section, made an attempt. We saw nothing more of them, but heard later that both were captured.
Other orders came telling us that no transport beyond the water truck and ambulance would be allowed to pass through Rexpoede. Off went O’Keefe with his wounded, and the rest of us were reduced to our “flat feet.” One interesting repercussion of this order was that the officers had to destroy much of the kit they had accumulated through the long period of inactivity in the winter. My own case was, I imagine, typical of others. I spread my belongings on the floor, picked out my best uniform, and made a complete change. Into my large pack I crammed as many clean clothes as possible, some tobacco John Moore had given me, and my copy of “Alice through the Looking Glass.”
It was necessary to burn our secret and confidential documents, and Jonah and I sat together doing this by the kitchen fire. One document was a letter from the Military Police enquiring why one of our officers had been found—a month or so earlier, of course—in Lille, on a day when he had no right to be there, at an hour when all ranks were supposed to be clear of the town, and in an establishment that was out-of-bounds in any case
During the afternoon, a swarm of villagers from Bambecque toiled up the hill and clamoured excitedly to be allowed through our road block. We refused to allow them to pass. We had no intention of allowing civilians, who might fall into enemy hands, to see our defences and count our numbers. in any case, despite their loud chorus of indignant protests, we knew that they would be running into worse danger by crowding into the Dunkirk perimeter.
The enemy did little to worry us at the farm. The Companies in Bambecque kept him busy, and he formed an unbreakable cordon round them. After long and earnest discussions, the Colonel and Jonah sadly decided we could do nothing to help. In any case, our job was to hold the road to Rexpoede, and we had few enough men for the task.
There were six or seven officers at Battalion Headquarters and to each of these I gave a marked map and detailed instructions about the route to follow. Each officer was to be responsible for a group of men, and I was to lead the first party with Kenneth Hougham.
At nine o’clock we were ready to start, leaving Ted Berry’s group to act as rearguard. The Colonel said,” We’ll wait just five minutes “—he was obviously hoping for news from Bambecque— and Jonas snorted “Quite right!” We could still hear firing in Bambecque.
I do not know the details about “B” Company. They fought on, but the end had to come, and many of them were captured. “C” Company was almost wiped out after a desperate resistance by platoons, but none of the few survivors could give us the complete story.
I can only describe the withdrawal of Battalion Headquarters. I was at the head of the first goup to leave, and responsible for finding the way and keeping a sharp look-out for the enemy. I wore my best service-dress, web anklets, boots, a heavy pack, and my respirator at the alert. In my left hand I carried the Battalion War Diary, so that I could get rid of it quickly if we ran into trouble. in my right hand I carried my pistol.
Behind me came Kenneth Hougham, then the Colonel and Jonah. I told Kenneth that I would keep twenty or thirty yards ahead, so that, if I bumped into the enemy, I would have time to give warning.
To my great annoyance, a contingent of dogs of all shapes and sizes— “mongrel puppy whelp and hound, and curs of low degree” —decided, in great glee, to join the procession. These wretched dogs were obviously strays from Bambecque, and were evidently prepared to forget their newly-acquired problems of food and shelter in the transient joy of a walk that had more canine flavour than usual to enliven it. I cursed them all bitterly and fruitlessly, for, as they yapped and frisked about, they advertised our approach almost as well as a brass band would have done.
To make matters worse, we soon came across a number of cows that had strayed on to the road. These clumsy creatures resented our vanguard of dogs and retreated slowly, “in reverse,” their horns towards the mongrels, and their rumps towards Rexpoede, mooing away with unnecessary gusto. I can laugh at it all now, but, at the time, it filled me with futile rage.
For a while, we enjoyed the cover of hedges on both sides of the road, but these ended abruptly, and we found ourselves clearly silhouetted, in the fading light, for a considerable distance in all directions. This was unpleasant but unavoidable, and it was no surprise when a machine gun opened fire. I ran forward into a deep, dry ditch, which began to run along the side of the road, and the Colonel came up and knelt beside me. We were soon able to decide that the enemy was not firing at us, so we continued our march, walking along the ditch.
Some distance on, we ran once again into machine gun fire, and this time it was obvious the enemy was “sweeping” the road ahead of us. I suggested to the Colonel that we should take a cross-country route, and added that I was certain I could find the way. We passed slowly through some fields, and, in some way I do not remember, we managed to lose our bovine and canine escort. We skirted, suspiciously, an empty-looking farmhouse, and emerged once again on the road, a mile or two from Rexpoede.
Left and right we could see farms and cottages burning, while, ahead, an obscene, fiery glow, squatting low in the sky, showed us where the village of Rexpoede lay in flames.
We were moving slowly for the sake of those men who were more tired than the others. Most of us were too weary to be at our best, and, since we did not know what lay ahead of us, we thought it best to conserve our strength. Accordingly, I set a slow, steady pace, and kept my eyes skinned for signs of the enemy.
I regret to say we passed one British officer—from a Unit we did not know—crouching in the ditch in a sorry state of fear. He was waving a pistol at me, and I thought it best to take it away from him. I told him to join us, but he screamed “The Germans are along there.” I told him the Germans were behind us too, and that we were the rearguard. All the same, he would not move. The Colonel came up and told me to carry on. I often wonder what happened to that man.
As we drew near Rexpoede, I saw three men throwing cartons of ammunition into a burning house. I called over to them and said, “That’s a dangerous thing to do.” One replied, “We’ve got to get rid of it.” I told them, “It doesn’t matter much now. Hand some out to us as we pass, and then join in behind.”
We had been told that Rexpoede would be held by British troops until midnight, but, as we entered the village, we saw no signs of any troops whatever. We moved slowly, hugging the houses and shops on the left-hand side of the street, so that, if we bumped into the enemy, we could dart into cover, and then fight our way through. Nearly every house and shop had been damaged, and many were burning furiously. On the pavements and in the road lay heaps of broken glass, furniture, and rubble, with, here and there, an overturned cart, or a burnt-out car.
We passed only one civilian—a woman staggering along under the weight of two heavy, brown-paper parcels. Like a fool, I called out “Bon jour, madame,” and she snapped back something I did not understand, but which was, I am sure, meant to be rude.
The second turning on the right was the road to Brigade Headquarters, and, as we drew nearer, I could discern the word “Dunkerque” on the signpost. it was a nasty corner, for the Boche was shelling all around it, and there was a machine gun firing. We hesitated, but the Colonel said, “ It’s no use waiting. We’ll go round four or five at a time.” I ran ahead with a few men for about three hundred yards, and waited. To my great relief, the Colonel, Jonah, Kenneth and their men caught us up. Others behind were, unfortunately, not so lucky.
A few yards on I stopped suddenly and waved to the Colonel to come up. Two tanks were passing over the cross-roads ahead of us from right to left. I think it was Napoleon who said that the easiest way to tell friend from foe at a distance is by the headdress. On this occasion it was a simple matter, for the German steel helmet differed greatly from ours.
We stopped still and the Colonel said, “They’re German.” A runner went to fetch the only man with an anti-tank rifle. Up came a gap-toothed Private, grinning, and the Colonel allowed me to go forward with this man. Our plan was simple. If we considered it necessary, the Private and I were to create a diversion by firing at the tanks, while the others attempted to get through by another route. We spent a few exciting minutes stalking the enemy, but when we made certain the tanks had not seen us and were moving on, we deemed it wiser to do nothing to attract their attention.
The night was dark, but there was a glowing light from burning buildings, and the way was not difficult to follow. Soon we were challenged by an unmistakably English voice. We had reached Brigade Headquarters, around which the Warwicks were in position.
The Colonel and I went in to Brigade to report, and found the Brig and Dennis Gibbs poring over a map. The Brig got up as we entered and said, simply, “Well, I’m very glad to see you.” The Colonel said, “ I’m afraid there are very few of us left, sir.” The Brig replied quietly,” The 8th Battalion has always done all that was expected of it, and more.”
The Brig went on to tell us we would not be required to do another rearguard action. We were to continue our march without delay, and make our way to the beach at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk. It would be difficult to miss the way, since there were few roads, and many troops were moving in that direction.
We were soon on the march again. By this time, reaction was setting in after the day’s excitement, and we all felt desperately tired. On and on we went, and at the slow pace we used the distance seemed longer than it really was. We had a short halt at one cross-roads, where an Officer checked up on us, and made certain we took the right road. I remember, too, that we crossed a bridge, which had been prepared for demolition, and I saw troops there, standing-to in slit trenches.
Not long afterwards, we saw a most distressing sight, which drove home to us the huge losses the B.E.F. would suffer in equipment. In at least three or four fields, army vehicles of all descriptions had been formed up close together and set on fire. There was no hope of getting these trucks and their stores away from Dunkirk, and it would have been wrong to leave them for the enemy. The flames were leaping to great heights, and there were frequent, crackling explosions, which indicated that ammunition, was being destroyed. The Colonel said, “ It seems very wicked, doesn’t it?” I was silent, for I was beginning to realise the measure of the German victory.
Just then George Mason, of the Gloucesters, came towards us on a motor-cycle. He explained he had been doing a “recce” for the Brig. He said, “Some bloody fools have parked their trucks on the road, instead of the field, and set light to them. You’ll have to strike across the fields on one side.” It was a wide detour, but, after a look at the map, I told the Colonel I could find the way, and on we went. It was not really long before we got on to the road again, and were within ten miles of Bray Dunes and the sea.
Ten miles does not sound much, but we were all weary, and craving for food and sleep. Soon we had to take a road to the left, and, near the junction, a group of Welsh Guards were just getting up after a short rest. One man was nearly all in, but his mates helped him to his feet, saying “Come on, Charlie! ” and he quickly pulled himself together. I remember noticing how neatly their anti-gas capes were rolled, and felt suddenly annoyed to think I had left mine behind in the farm.
We plodded on through two villages. In the second we threaded our way through a large number of French troops sitting in the middle of the road. We were now in a thick stream of troops, all flocking slowly towards the sea. The throng was so thick that our little column was soon swallowed up, and we became separated from each other.
From time to time I saw the Colonel’s head bobbing up and down some yards ahead of me in the crowd. Kenneth Hougham was still with me, and between us we helped—or were prepared to help—the Colonel’s batman, Rudall. However Rudall managed to get to France I do not know. He was then 54, and had been in the Territorial Army for years. Of course, as a former postman, he was well used to walking! He was a short man, sparely built, but he trotted along gamely, muttering imprecations against the whole German nation.
All the way, the night was unnaturally bright from the many fires burning, and it was easy to see the way ahead. From time to time, a few German bombers flew overhead, dropping their bombs at random, but we had to ignore them.
For some miles inland the fields had been flooded. Dykes had been cut and the sea allowed to come in. This measure proved a great handicap to the Germans, but it caused many troops to suffer acutely from thirst in the next day or two.
Over to our left, Dunkirk itself lay burning, and a city burning at night is a terrible sight.
Although by midnight we were within a few miles of the sea, our rate of progress became so slow that the last part of the journey took us until daybreak.
The road was absolutely crowded and, in the dense throng shuffling slowly forwards, we all became mixed up together. It was like a great crowd coming out of Wembley Stadium after a Cup Final. There was no selfish pushing, no futile quarrelling, no rough jostling, no undignified scramble to get ahead of one’s fellows.
I do not pretend I have a vivid recollection of every minute of our final march. Odd incidents come back to me like the memories of a dream.
The road wound on, like some endless snake, through the flooded fields. At one point the Germans had bombed the road, and some ambulances had been hit. The vehicles were blazing furiously, while, a little distance away, the dead and wounded were laid out in rows. Stretcher-bearers were already busy.
In another place a French soldier tried to force his way through on a bicycle. Two burly Privates pulled him off and, as one threw the machine into the water, the other said reprovingly, “You’re in too much shocking hurry, mate.”
We came to a spot where the road was blocked, and we were obliged to wade through the fields. We slid down the bank, and cursed when we found the water to be much colder than we had expected. In some places Rudall was submerged almost to his chest, and Kenneth fared little better. Being taller, I managed, for a time, to keep dry from the waist upwards. One good thing this immersion did for us was to make us fully awake again.
We were splashing our way slowly forward, when a sudden, loud gurgling noise to my left caused me to look round. Kenneth had stepped into a hole and disappeared. A moment later he re-appeared and, as I watched his facial contortions and listened to the flow of strong language from his usually mild lips, I had my best laugh for a long while. There seems, however, to be a retribution in these matters, for, not long afterwards, I tripped, stumbled and fell headlong into the brackish water. As I stood up, Kenneth said “Did you ever read ‘Three Men in a Boat?’ ” I understood the allusion!
At the place where we were able to get on the road again, the bank was awkwardly steep, but willing hands reached down to us and enabled us to scramble up. As I put both hands under Rudall’s seat and propelled him upwards, I noticed General Thorne lending a helping hand. In our turn we helped the men behind us—and so on.
Another incident I recall is coming across Jim Lattey and Crumpets, who, by some sterling effort, had got the Brigade water truck to within a mile or two of the beach, to one of the few pure water supplies. As I joined the queue, I took a long deep pull at my water-bottle—I had been waiting hours for that drink! I exchanged news with Crumpets, and he said, “See you later on the pier. Keep me a place in the Skylark.”
Farther on, we overtook Colonel Johnstone at a point where the road ran through a belt of trees. To these trees had been tied some thirty or forty horses left behind by the French. These patient animals stood quietly there as we threaded our way past them. The Colonel was livid with anger, for, as he pointed out, those horses would be doomed to die from shot or shell, or, worse still, from thirst. He added, “We shall have to come back and do something for them.’
The road leading into Bray Dunes was an extraordinary sight. For at least a quarter of a mile, army vehicles of all kinds had been driven into each other, and piled up to form a most effective anti-tank obstacle. It took us a considerable time to climb over these trucks, and, at last, Private Rudall was forced to accept my help. Our morose veteran was muttering bitterly to the effect that he wasn’t “a bloody monkey.”
During this scrambling, we became separated again from the Colonel, and, as we passed through the main street of Bray Dunes, Rudall reluctantly confessed that he would like to sit down for a bit. I was only too willing. We disappeared into a shop entrance, sat down and slept for twenty minutes.
As we later got near to the beach, we searched for a few minutes among the many vehicles parked there. in one I found numerous tins of sardines and biscuits, and crammed as much as I could into all my pockets.
Next came an amusing incident. I saw a French soldier walking stealthily away from a British truck, carrying a suitcase. I stopped him and said, “What have you got there?” but he shook off my arm. I smacked his hand hard and the case fell to the ground. Out came a cascade of packets of cigarettes. I gave two packets to the man, and called to passing troops to come and help themselves.
Once again I stumbled on, and never, before or since, have I been so tired. That probably accounts for a foolish question I asked when at last we reached the beach, and I could see thousands of men there. A massive, immaculate Military Policeman stood on the road, and I asked him,
“Which way, please?” The burly Corporal showed no surprise, but asked politely “Which Division, sir?” I told him, and he answered, “I think you’ll find them along there, sir,” pointing out the direction I should follow. I felt like a small child lost at Brighton.
I shall never forget my acute disappointment at the first sight of the beach and sea on that morning of May 31st. I had expected to see a whole fleet of ships at anchor, and to find the evacuation making speedy progress. Instead, one solitary destroyer and two small merchant vessels, all tossing gently about a mile from the shore, was all that I could see. One large motorboat was plying between these ships and the shore, but an hour later it developed engine trouble and remained out of action. There were a number of rowing boats available, and these were all in use, but it seemed the majority of the rowers were soldiers—and unskillful oarsmen they were.
I found it impossible to estimate the number of troops on the beach. As far as the eye could see in both directions, there were thousands upon thousands of them—British and French. I also found it impossible to believe that they could all be evacuated in time, and it seemed that the beach would become a death-trap instead of a gateway to safety.
The village of Bray Dunes ended abruptly, and I was glad to get away from its bomb-scarred streets and shattered houses. Rudall and I made our way slowly forwards, eagerly seeking faces that we knew. More than a mile ahead of us lay the stricken city of Dunkirk, a mile or two to our rear La Panne and the Belgian frontier, to our left the flooded fields, and, to our right, the rolling, sandy dunes, the flat, hard beach, and the calm blue sea. The sun was rising swiftly and, above us, the skies were strangely quiet.
The beach itself was swarming with troops. Some lay huddled up, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. Others were sitting down talking to each other, or staring silently out to sea. Many were standing about in groups, while Officers and N.C.O. ‘s called over their names, checking who was present and who was missing. Hundreds more were slowly wandering to and fro looking for their comrades. I saw little fuss or excitement. There was certainly confusion, but it was slowly resolving itself into order through the phlegmatic commonsense and unshaken discipline of all ranks there.
There were, of course, casualties from the bombing on the previous day, and during the night. Here and there, improvised First Aid Posts were at work. In one place, in a hollow among the dunes, a long line of corpses had been laid out in a row. Two Chaplains were examining the bodies and noting 4own particulars, and collecting personal effects to be sent to the next-of-kin—if there was a chance to send them. I was unlucky enough to see a sprawling, grisly heap of legs, arms and other human remains. Bombs play strange and terrible tricks.
Scattered all over the beach were articles of military equipment—packs, belts, steel helmets, ground-sheets, blankets, greatcoats, and even weapons. At first, one was inclined to think that discipline had broken down at the last minute, and that troops, on the point of escape, had wantonly thrown away things they should have retained at all costs. Doubtless, in some instances, this is what did happen, but it must be remembered that the ships were sent to Dunkirk to save, not equipment, but men. Generally, there was not space for both, and equipment had to be sacrificed in order that more men might be taken. There were cases when the men were ordered to leave even their small packs behind. All the same, it was the utmost folly not to save every rifle and Bren gun, since, for a long time afterwards in England, there were soldiers more than weapons!
At last I caught sight of the tall figure of Colonel Johnstone, standing in a group, which included Jonah and Geoffrey Day. In some way I do not understand, my weariness seemed to vanish all at once. After we had exchanged the casual greetings, which the English find just as sincere as the more effusive variety, we began to “count heads.” The first muster showed that less than one hundred of the Battalion had so far reached the beaches. But we could still hope that more would come in.
I gave away all my tins of sardines except one, and went over to join the Brigade H.Q Officers for a few minutes for breakfast. Sardines and sweet biscuits make a strange meal, but it was food. The Brig had been ordered by Division to get away at the very first opportunity with his officers, in order to prepare for the reorganization of the Brigade in England. Before long, I watched the Brig, Dennis, Jim and Crumpets being rowed out in a small boat to one of the three ships at anchor.
Colonel Johnstone decided that the 8th Battalion would not hurry to get away, but would voluntarily give priority to the numerous small groups of men who had become separated from their Units. Accordingly, we moved our men back among the dunes, and advised them to get all the sleep they could.
Generally speaking, the senior officers on different parts of the beach organized the administration of their own areas. Each group had to fend for its own food and water, and, above all, its own transport out to the ships. The destroyer spared no ratings for the rowing boats. I was told that every man in her was at action-stations to give us protection against enemy aircraft. Nevertheless, it was pathetic to watch the clumsy efforts of troops trying to row the boats.
On the whole, the day was a quiet one. I gathered later that we “enjoyed” the quietest day of the evacuation. There were air-raids, of course, but the R.A.F. was often there to chase away the bombers. I even saw one flight of French fighters scatter a squadron of heavy bombers. A few anti-aircraft guns near Bray Dunes joined the destroyer in giving the enemy a warm reception, while, on the beach, the troops stood or knelt firing Brens and rifles. Some of us dug slit trenches in the sand, but the majority preferred to stay “on top” and take their chance.
Naturally enough, throughout the day, one wild rumour followed another in quick succession. No more ships would come and the B.E.F. would have to surrender. We were going to be evacuated to Southern France. The Germans had invaded England. The French had broken through the Siegfried Line. And so on, and so on. After a while, the troops got sick of these tales, and the eager-mouthed rumour-monger would get only a contemptuous one-word answer as his reward.
The troops were calm and did not lose their sense of humour. I heard one grumble, “If I get off this shocking beach and get shocking home again—and my old woman says take her and the shocking kids to the shocking seaside, she’ll hear something that will shocking well surprise her.”
Of course, as the hours went by, and few ships came, the men began to get a little anxious. From time to time they would ask, “Think we’ll be all right, sir?” I told them I expected the ships would arrive as soon as darkness fell, and the German planes could not see them—and I hoped I was right.
The day was very warm and there was a great scarcity of water. Those of us who had filled our bottles shared with those who had not had the opportunity or commonsense to do so. At different times, the Colonel sent out fatigue parties to fetch water, while Geoffrey Dorrell and Leo Craven went hunting for food supplies.
Throughout the day, small parties of our men found their way to us. Derek Schuler brought in seven men from “C” Company, and told us that the Company had been overwhelmed by enemy tanks. Nobody reached us from B” Company. It was an anxious, unhappy time, and we began to lose hope for the others. The tales of our losses is told simply enough when I say that we had 553 replacements sent to us in England.
In the late afternoon the foraging party returned, and was able to give each of us a third of a tin of “bully” beef, three biscuits, and nearly a pint of water. That provided our second meal of the day, and lasted us for another twenty-four hours.
Towards the evening a serious situation arose. Nobody seemed to be controlling the use of the rowing boats, which plied between the beach and the rescue ships, nearly a mile away at anchor. As a result, it happened that troops rowed out in these boats, clambered on to a ship, and left the rowing boats tossing about empty, well away from the shore. Eventually, Colonel Johnstone and Major “Chris” Gardiner, Royal Engineers, took the situation in hand. First they called for volunteers to swim out to the rowing boats and bring them in. Then they gathered together all the men who claimed they could row a boat. Finally they formed the men of the 8th Battalion into a semi-circular cordon, with their backs to the sea. Through this cordon troops were to be passed to the rowing boats.
As I have explained, there were numerous small groups of men, some without officers, who had been on the beach a longer time than us, and who had nobody to guide them. Colonel Johnstone decided that these men should go first. Our chaps had the honour—even if they would not admit it!—of helping troops from numerous different Regiments.
Being a strong, even if slow, swimmer, I was among those who went for a swim. It was not a difficult task, The sea was calm, and, although I was not at my best, I had often swum a mile off the Cumberland coast. Joe Cook stood by me as I undressed, and undertook to look after my things until I got back. For some reason—probably because I was so tired and not thinking clearly—I did not take off my heavy woollen underwear! There was no need to wear such a strange bathing dress, for Mrs. Grundy was nowhere to be seen! It must have been a revolting sight! Anyway, I had not swum far before I realised my mistake, and kicked off my clumsy garments—after a struggle. The Boche chose this time for another air-raid, but one place was as safe as another, and I swam on. It took me longer than I had expected, and I was quite exhausted when at last I pulled myself awkwardly over the side of the boat I had reached. It was a long, slow pull with the oars back to the beach, but another boat with several men in it came alongside and gave me a welcome tow.
Joe Cook—perfect batman! — had everything ready for me—towel, dry underwear, pipe, tobacco and matches ! He had even tied up the flapping sole on one of my boots with string. I said, “Thank you, Cook. I’m looking forward to buying you a pint.” Joe said, “I couldn’t half do with it now.”
With the dusk, ships and boats of all shapes, sizes and descriptions began to arrive, and the embarkation went forward in real earnest.
As I sat, resting and smoking after my swim, I watched our patient men of the 8th Battalion, standing at ease in their cordon, while Officers and N.C.O.’s passed men through to the boats. The Colonel and Major Gardiner did a fine job. The rowers would take a boatload, and bring back the boat empty. Then these men became passengers, and the next group of rowers would take out a party. It all went smoothly.
A little later the enemy began to shell the dunes, and, after it was over, some of us went hunting for casualties. None of the shells had fallen near us. I found one dazed man, who had been slightly wounded in the leg. I tied on a field dressing and brought him to the boats.
The evacuation went on all night, and we had to allow the men in the cordon to take turns at sitting down. I had the extraordinary experience of falling asleep standing up. I awoke on my knees ! The Colonel was standing over me, asking me if I was “all right.” At last our turn came and our men went. We got 149 of them into one ship—a good effort. The last few officers climbed wearily into a boat manned by merchant seamen in blue jerseys. Their faces seemed green in the strange light of dawn. The Colonel took one last look round, then followed us into the boat, and we pulled away.
We were rowed out to a large paddle-steamer. It was the “Glengower,” and I understand she was normally a ferry steamer in the Bristol Channel. The decks were so packed with troops that one could not take a step in any direction without treading on somebody. All rifles had been stacked, so that space could be saved, and our two remaining Bren guns were set up for anti-aircraft defence. As the Colonel and I slowly pushed our way through to the stairs leading down to the lounge, I could hear the Captain urging the men to distribute themselves more evenly through the ship. He used expressions such as “Move right down the car, please !” or “About a hundred of you move over where I’m pointing!” In this way, he got both his paddles even in the water.
Down below was a crowd of officers. We found chaps we knew from the Gunners and Sappers, and exchanged a few words of greeting. A steward was serving mugs of hot tea. We all got one, and some of us a sandwich, too. A young ship’s officer came down and told us the “Glengower” would be going into Dunkirk harbour itself. Somebody asked plaintively, “Must you?” and there was a general laugh. I managed to find a cabin for Colonel Johnstone, who claims to be a bad sailor, and prefers to suffer in silence.
Luckily, we did not stay long at Dunkirk, for German aircraft were making a nuisance of themselves. One plane straddled the “Glengower” with a stick of bombs, but only one hit the ship—and a queer, glancing blow at that. Out of about 1400 men on board, only four or five were hit. Colonel Johnstone moved out of his cabin, so that O’Keefe could attend to the wounded.
In Dunkirk we took on board about two hundred wounded men, and then set off as quickly as we could. The crossing was smooth and uneventful, but it was a shock to see Colonel Johnstone—poor sailor, my foot!—smoking away at his pipe. The young ship’s officer kept coming down to have a look at us, and I said “I suppose we all look pretty awful?” He said, “It’s your eyes They seem as if they’ve sunk into your heads.” Others, even later, said the same.
But there was something more than weariness in our eyes. Once again, England had begun a war badly, and we were sick to think that with greater numbers, better training and more adequate equipment, we might still have been fighting in Flanders. And there was the awful, inescapable knowledge that so many of our friends had been lost to us.
I came out of a gloomy reverie to hear Jonah saying to me, “I suppose you know this is The Glorious First of June?” It was ironical that The Worcestershire Regiment should be at sea again in war on that famous date in its history, and under such tragic circumstances. I could think of nothing appropriate to say, and Jonah snorted, “Well, there’ll be other Firsts of June before this damned show is over.
From Dunkirk we crossed over to Harwich. I did not go up on deck more than once. Every inch of space was occupied, and it would have been an unkindness to walk among and disturb the sleeping men. It was better to get some sleep ourselves, and to take the chance of a good wash and a shave.
As we drew near Harwich, Colonel Johnstone and I went on deck. The troops were standing along the rails, silently looking at the shore. There was no singing, little conversation, and less laughter. While the “Glengower” slowly steamed into the harbour the silence grew more profound still, and I believe I knew what was passing through the minds of all of us. We knew we were not returning as “conquering heroes.” We knew that we had been defeated and had suffered a heavy loss in men and equipment. But would the people of England give us credit for having fought a stubborn fight? Would they realise the danger that had now reached almost to their very coasts? Would they understand that the whole nation would have to toil with untiring persistence and skill to turn out the weapons of war, and so give future Expeditionary Forces the chance of success that England’s unpreparedness had denied to the B.E.F.?
We, the returning soldiers, did not find it in our hearts to shout or wave greetings to the first civilians we saw. We waited, instead, to discover how the people at home would greet us.
At last the “Glengower” tied up, and all ranks were ordered to stand by ready to disembark. Colonel Johnstone sent me ashore first to find out what was to happen.
As I stepped on to the dock, a spruce and dapper Major was awaiting me. He was in service dress, with every button shining brilliantly, and with a Sam-Browne belt so highly polished that many a Regimental-Serjeant-Major would have turned green with envy at the sight of it. That, plus his supercilious air and nondescript moustache, is all that I remember of his appearance—and I am glad my memory fails me. I must have looked an awkward, untidy figure alongside his elegance
At the same time, of course, I was quite unprepared for unpleasantness. I produced a salute—probably not a very good one—and said, “There are about 1400 of us, sir. All kinds of different units.” The Major looked at my right shoulder and said, “Stand here and identify every man as he comes on shore.” This flabbergasted me, and I spluttered, “I beg your pardon, sir?” The answer was snapped back at me. “You heard what I said. Stand here and identify every man as he comes off the ship!” At that, I flared up and said, “That’s absolute bloody nonsense. I don’t know a hundred men on board. Nobody does!” Then, before I could collect a “rocket,” I hurried back on board to Colonel Johnstone. The latter said, “A Major. Well, I’m a Lieutenant-Colonel!” and he went forward.
The result was that nearly all the Officers stood at the head of the gangway and made some effort to ensure that no German spies were hidden among our survivors.
I was glad to go ahead again, and soon encountered a group of young officers from the Welsh Guards hurrying towards the ship. We exchanged salutes, and I told them how many we were. One said, “We’re very glad to see you. You’ll find everything is laid on. Officers go straight into the hotel. We’ll look after the men.” This was the Army at its best! I started to move towards the men’s rooms, but one of the officers caught me by the sleeve and laughed. “This is one time you don’t have to bother,” he said, “we’ll do all that. Look after yourself!” I laughed back, and Colonel Johnstone came up and thanked the Guards Officers warmly. Their spokesman said, “It’s a pleasure, sir. One of us will go with you and show you the drill.”
The “drill” was an excellent piece of organization. As we entered the hotel our guide said, “I expect you’d like a beer or something like it.” He was perfectly right! Next came a quick “wash and brush up,” and then a superb “high tea.” Our escort said, “A cold collation, you know. We didn’t quite know what time you’d get here.” There was no need to apologise! After the extraordinary and scanty rations of the past three weeks, unlimited beef, ham, salad, bread and butter, cheese, cake and tea made a veritable banquet. During the meal we were given telegraph forms, and so were able to send telegrams without payment to our relatives, telling them of our safe return. None of us will ever forget this efficient, courteous reception.
After the meal, there was time for a drink or two before our train left to take us to Derby, where we were to stay at Normanton Barracks and await orders. At last came the time to entrain, and it was good to watch our men march smartly on to the platform and file quietly, eight into each compartment. As they did so, a crowd, which had gathered along the railings by the station, raised a cheer. It was the tonic our men needed. Their heads came popping out of the windows, and cheery shouts, cheers and whistling showed that spirits were already high again.
We shook hands with the Welsh Guards Officers, thanked them warmly, climbed into the train, took off our equipment again, and quickly made ourselves comfortable.
At this stage I should, I think, end my story. As Colonel Johnstone said, “For a time we shall all be seeing ghosts everywhere. I suppose we shall have to start all over again, but I don’t know how we shall manage without them.”
This story belongs to the gallant “ghosts.” It belongs, too, to the men who were left behind to endure five long years in captivity. Finally, it belongs to those who got back to rebuild the Brigade, and prepare to fight again.
Our first campaign had been a tragedy, but it had ended with a miracle. Much of our small Army had been saved from what had seemed to be inevitable destruction. More important still, the people of England shook off their apathy, braced themselves to meet the dangers ahead, and brought forth the greatest, most enduring effort for freedom and victory that the nation has ever shown. England’s “finest hour” began with Dunkirk.