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Memories of a Soldier (Cont.)

by derbycsv

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
People in story: 
James Beardsley
Location of story: 
Dunkirk, England, Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 June 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Nikki Aaron of the Derby Action Desk Team on behalf of James Beardsley and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Continued from previous..

The following day, we moved up the beach towards the town area. Small boats were coming but of course, the numbers swamped them and we did not manage to get off. The air raids became more intense, we did our best with the rifles. Some Bren guns were in action, with the gunners using the crouched back of a mate as a tripod, to enable them to fir up into the air. After another night dug in, we moved up closer to the town. My mate Jock and myself were dug in, under a 15 Cwt truck that had been run out into the sands and abandoned. For a while it was all right, then the shell started to fall. We had no water, so we decided to go up into the town to forage.

What a state everything was in. Abandoned vehicles, left with engines running and oil sump plugs removed, a sure way of rendering them useless to the enemy. Dead horses were lying around and the smell was strong. Suddenly whistling started and bombs from high flying planes rained down. An officer stood at the doorway of a hotel and beckoned us in, "there's room in the cellar", he said as a bomb exploded across the road. The blast blew us through the doorway and the back-draught brought the front of the building down behind us. A soldier, who had pushed in between us, was cut on the forehead by a piece of shrapnel, which had passed through the brim of his helmet. It wasn't too bad, and a field dressing was applied.

As the raid passed, we moved further up the street and came to a large house standing in it's own grounds. We poked into the air raid shelter and found it packed with French civilians taking cover. In the house, a fine place before it has been bombed and looted, we found no water. Down in the cellar, we found a few bottles of wine, so we had a good drink of that. Back on the street, we found two large tins of marmalade and several packs of hard tack biscuits in the back of a burned-out truck. We decided to take them back to the beach and share them out amongst the lads in the unit. Retracing our steps, we came to the place where we had spent the previous night under the 15cwt truck, there was just a big crater there, which left us with an empty feeling in our stomachs. We found a gathering of our unit, in a long queue that was forming. The marmalade and the biscuits did not go far, we got one biscuit each with a shred of marmalade.

Down on the beach, at low tide, a string of lorries were being run out to form a pier. When the tide came in, a big variety of ships were coming in and as i remarked to Jock, "this one is big enough to take us all off". It hit a mine and rolled over on its side in a couple of seconds. Our hearts sank again. A hospital ship was pulling out, all white paint and a huge red crosses, but that did not stop dive bombers blowing it out of the water.

A naval officer, on a white horse, was taking command of the situation. He was riding up and down issuing orders, we could see the mole ahead to which we were being directed. To reach there, the time seemed endless, with the occassional scattering and reforming of the queue. Shells and bombs made craters and we took shelter in them. After a while we found bodies slid down into them; I wonder if they are still there?

Eventually we reached the mole. What a state it was in, the Ack Ack guns around it were just heaps of twisted metal. As we ran along the mole to the ship, there were holes all the way, with a ladder, or a plank, placed across them. We were sent to run this gauntlet in parties of twenty or thirty at a time. Eventually we reached the ship, it was called the Royal Daffodil and owing to the debris she couldn't tie close in, so it was another balancing act over a plank to get on board. She was soon loaded up and as another raid started, she pulled out and headed for Dover. She was clipped at one point and shuddered; with baited breath we waited, then breathed a sigh of relief when she kept going. One or two destroyers were steaming around, firing up at planes and we noted that their gun barrels were red from the heat.

Soon we were out in the open sea and lined up for a mug of tea and piece of bread, what a meal that was for us. The sea was full of ships, going backwards and forwards, and we, without another incident came in sight of the white cliffs of Dover. I'd never seen them before. A big sigh of relief seemed to go up from the men on the ship as we headed in. We knew that we were not going to be dropped further down the coast of France.

As we came off the ship there were stacks of rifles and we were ordered to place our rifles on the heaps. The steel helmets went too, what a "God send" they had been, i'm sure that I had squeezed my whole head and body into it at times, and had often slept with the back of may head on it for a pillow. I would loathe to part with it. A dock worker pointed to a gate just down the railway line and said that if we went through there, just up the road was a pub that would give us a pint of beer. We took him at his word and two or three of us took off. Sure enough we got a free pint and it tasted like pure nectar. This was just the start of the enthusiastic reception, which we were to receive from the people lining the rail track, on the way out of Dover.

We were soon herded onto a train and went west along the coast. The train stopped many times and people came across the fields with food and drink. I'm sure we had been stopped to be fed by the population. They asked us for phone numbers, to let our folks know we were back, but of course not many people had a phone in those days. They also took our names and addresses, so it was not going to be long before they knew we were back home. We had no idea where we were going. We were completely detached from out own unit, however, we enjoyed every minute and all the food that came our way, so we were not worried where we ended up.

Eventually we made a stop and it was evrybody out at Andover, We were taken to Blandford army camp where we were fed and spent the night in the army huts. We slept well, enjoying the first uninterrupted sleep in two or three weeks. The next morning we had a good breakfast and went on parade. All of us were to stay on the camp until our units were located. We lined up for a pay sub and were told that we could go out if we wished. We went down to the town and had a look around. On seeing a bus marked Bournemouth, we took a chance and hopped on board. It took a little while to get there and we saw that there was a dance on at the pier in the evening, so we decided to stay for that. We only had army boots but it did not deter us and we had a good night.

It was getting dark when we came out and no chance of a bus back to Blandford, so we turned along the front to find somewhere to bed down. We'd got used to sleeping out, so it did not worry us a bit, however a man appeared and asked us if we were B.E.F. and did we want a bed for the night. Four of us took him up on that and off we went, up to a fancy hotel on the top of West Cliff. He took us into the lounge and plied us with beer whilst a meal was being cooked; what a feast we had. The room was lovely, overlooking the sea, and we got a good night in a luxurious bed. Next morning, a good breakfast was given us and we set off around town.

There was another dance on at the pier that night, the final one, before it was blown up, in anticipation of a German invasion. Another good night was had at the dance and we came out with two girls who lived and worked in a small hotel. We saw them in at the back door, which they had to use, then we went round and rang the front door bell. The lady of the house came and we asked for bed and breakfast for two B.E.F. men. She responded cheerfully and led us to a dining room, where she rang a bell and the two girls whom we had taken to the back door appeared. They were very surprised and readily carried out the order to bring us some supper. After this we were shown to a room, sadly we did not see the girls again. When we woke up in the morning, the curtains were open and there was a cup of tea by our bed.

After breakfast we set off to find a bus back to Blandford. Eventually we got back to the camp and asked about our unit. They said that we should have gone the day before but there was no argument. We were given a rail warrant to Tavistock where our unit was being re-formed. We arrived there and received a welcome from all. It was the end of our stint with the B.E.F. and we all wondered what sort of life we were going to get in the future. We knew then that we would not be going back to France for some time - if ever.

After a few days, we moved up to Cranwell aerodrome, in Lincolnshire, to help build the defences maurauding German planes. It was going to be another hot spot! I trusted that my guardian angel would still be with me to see me through, as i'm sure she had been in France.

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