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Dunkirk, 1940

by Bert_Bleach

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Bert Bleach
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26 February 2004

The 4th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment was in 133 infantry Brigade, the Sussex had three battalions in this brigade, the 2nd was a regular army battalion, 4th and 5th Territorial Army battalions.
Each division in the army had 3 brigades. We were part of the 44 Home Counties Division.
We arrived in France in early April 1940 and were soon to see action in France and Belgium.
After being driven back from several defensive positions by a Germany army who were equipped with more superior equipment than ours, we were finally given the task of defending the railway and road crossing at Caistre.
We occupied some of the shops and houses where people had left furniture and abandoned cows, pigs and chicken. They had moved back to what they thought would be a safer area.
We had no tanks or aircraft to support us, as there were only a few in France. Often the Germans would have one small plane above us guiding and giving range to their artillery. On one occasion our Colonel, Colonel Whistler (later General) sent back a message request “Give me a Hurricane for half an hour” but there were none to give.
Another young soldier, named Ted Hiliman (Trigger) and I were sent up 200 yards in front of our forward position to set up a reconnaissance post. We were given binoculars, a bike, paper and pencil, shovel and pick. We dug a hole or trench in the grass verge where we had good vision for about a mile across flat country refugees were pouring past all the time carrying a few belongings such as blankets and chairs.
We had to take turns at reporting back to battalion HQ on what we had seen. At first it was fairly quiet, but later in the afternoon we saw German tanks and heavy guns parked up and firing in our direction.
When it was Trigger’s turn to report back with this information on the bike, across cobbled streets not nice to ride on! After an hour he had not returned and so I went back with a report. When I went into the HQ Orderly room Trigger was sitting in there drinking tea. I said “What’s on?” and he replied “We don’t have to man it any more”. We back to our platoon and dug another trench in a garden.
In the early hours of the next morning our patrols reported that the Germans Were ready to put in a large attack with tanks. We had no tanks to stop them so the battalion was ordered to retreat to Mont de Cat where we were heavily attacked with shells and from the air. All our transport was put out of action and we were continuously bombed and machine gunned.
Bob Clements, Ted Hillman and myself were in the garden of a house when
We heard Captain Howe calling for anyone who was left behind to go into the house.
He explained that the battalion had left for Ostend and we had to go there. (It was
Later that we were to go to Dunkirk).
In the house was another of my platoon members, Bill Stones from East Grinstead. He was badly wounded in the leg and when we asked the Captain “What about our mate?” he said “I’m afraid we can’t take him, we will have a job to get there ourselves”. Bill sat there and heard all this, but there was nothing we could do for him. As we left him sitting there we said “Cheerio” and hoped he would soon be captured and taken care of (which he was). He said to us “Cheerio I hope you make it to Ostend and safely home”.
Leaving him there was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. But our orders were to go to Ostend.
By this time we had gathered together two artillery men and a man from another regiment, and they tagged on to us to Dunkirk.
The roads were full of abandoned equipment which bad mostly been destroyed before being left. We were lucky when we found a lorry with keys and plenty of petrol and Captain Howe could drive. Most of the houses we passed were flying white sheets or towels to indicate they had surrendered.
We arrived at DePanne at about 9.3Opm on the 30th May 1940, hungry and tired and I slept all night on the dunes.
In the morning Captain Howe had scrounged some tea and hard biscuits for the seven of us. He was a good officer and like a father to us boys. I guess he was about 30 years of age, a Sussex farmer in peace time. He led us down to the beach where we mingled with thousands of other troops. At about midday we were lucky to grab a large rowing boat that should have had four oars, but only three, so we paddled with our rifles to a small trawler which was supposed to be picked up men and taking them out to a much larger boat which was too big to get close to the shore.
When we got to the larger boat we were told they were unable to take any more and so the trawler brought us back to Dover, from where we caught a train to Tidworth.
At Dover the WVS were giving us tea and some very welcome sandwiches, and as I sat on the train one of the women came along and unlaced my boots. When I awoke we had arrived in Tidworth.
In 1944 the Red Cross arranged with both sides to repatriate seriously wounded prisoners, Bill Stones was one of them, and he lived for many years after the war in a wheelchair.

Entered by Petersfield Library

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Message 1 - Dunkirk, 1940

Posted on: 19 March 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Birt

Yours is a well written and moving story. A fine contribution.



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