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15 October 2014
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Two Days Before Dunkirk

by cambsaction

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr. P. Dawkins
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 July 2005

Ordinary Seaman Dawkins with Brothers Norman and Cecil, Sister Valerie, Christmas 1940

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Mike Langran of the BBC Radio Cambridgshire Story Gatherer team on behalf of Mr. P. Dawkins and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.


This story happened shortly before Dunkirk and because of that became almost forgotten.

I joined the Royal Navy as a seventeen and half year old as a boy Seaman. I completed all the training and was transferred to Chatham Barracks. Early on the morning of 24th May 1940 at about 3.00am we were hurriedly woken from our camp beds. We had to be breakfasted, armed with rifles and Lewis machine guns and also given iron rations. This was a real panic, particularly as we didn’t know where we were going. There was no time to bring the liberty men with us.

Eventually we found ourselves on board a WW1 destroyer and it was rumoured that we were heading for France. The ships own gun crews, in their white anti flack gear were closed up at action stations. A Petty Officer then told us that we were bound for the French port of Boulogne. It all seemed so unreal. Apparently, we were part of a demolition party ordered to destroy as much as possible in the harbour and docks. To do that we were to hinder the enemy, help wounded and evacuate as many allied forces as possible.

Afterwards we learnt that as part of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, the 2nd Panzer Division had broken through the allied lines in the Belgian Ardennes, near Sedan. On 14th May, heading swiftly eastwards they had reached the coast of Noyelles, by the 20th May, where they were joined by the 10th Panzer Division. As a southern pincer movement they were now striking North to deny the allies the use of Boulogne harbour and prevent the evacuation of allied forces from there.

We arrived at a jetty alongside the railway station at Boulogne in the early forenoon and were receiving fire immediately from the enemy’s field guns. Our destroyer’s 4.7” main armament engaged and took on panzer tanks up on the hillside. Their aim was spot on and one tank took a direct hit and the others withdrew. The noise was terrific. A 4.7” gun has terrible “crack” about it. Walking and Wounded soldiers were embarked and when no more could be taken on board, the destroyer left to make way for another to carry more men to fight another day.

Everything was chaos on the station, which was being used as a field dressing station. The smell of French cigarettes hung in the air. French, Belgian and British soldiers, tired out and bewildered were everywhere. Some manning the windows and doors with whatever weapons seemed at hand. Dive bombers, the dreaded Stukas were busy most of the time and we were warned about sniper activity.

A young sub-lieutenant in charge of my section was detailed to make a road block up a road opposite the station. So we set off, running for about a quarter of a mile passing the bodies of two horses and a dog on the way. Most unpleasant. There were many frightened refugees around. We managed to build a barricade from furniture we dragged from nearby café’s and houses, throwing old bed-mattresses etc. down from bedrooms and making some sort of cover for us. Despite the protests from local people, we even had a couple of cars. I doubt if it could have had any stopping power for a tank but it did make a reasonable firing position for us.

We shortly came under fire from a machine gun in a garret window. Our young sub-lieutenant was hit in the shoulder and was taken to the station. This, in itself was a bit tricky because we felt we might come under friendly fire from the station small arms.

The machine gun stopped firing after a while and looking around I found only three of us at the road block. From time to time, allied soldiers came through, then by a stroke of good fortune we were joined by a sergeant from, I believe a Scottish regiment who decided to stay with us. At least we had someone who knew the ropes! We eventually moved into nearby building. I remember setting up a firing position with the mattress in the top rooms. It seemed very dramatic. We did not think we would get away. The sergeant had a Bren gun, we kept his ammunition pans filled as he emptied them.

When we decided to get back to the station, we could not get into the street because it was covered the enemy, so we made it up onto the roofs and eventually down by a fire escape ladder. About this time we lost touch with the sergeant and did not see him again but thanks to him we were now almost back at the station. Then I remember being in a café, French cigarettes everywhere and a bottle of brandy, half empty which we gulped down! We managed to signal across to the station and dash across.

At the station, the situation was desperate, many wounded, many exhausted soldiers who had been fighting their way hoping to get away from Boulogne some how or other, hopefully on the next destroyer to come alongside. I never heard any grumbles, men just waiting their turn, like waiting for a number 7 bus!

It was now evening and another destroyer embarking troops and engaging the enemy at the same time with their pom poms and 4.7s. no one seemed to be in charge of us, so some of us ran across the jetty to see if we could get on board. We were ordered off by the captain on board by a loud hailer saying he would not take Naval personnel, he was immediately killed by enemy fire. The loud hailer said now that the ship was leaving and anyone who could make it across could do so, I thought “blow this, I don’t want spend the rest of the war as prisoner, I will chance it!” the destroyer was already moving astern, I grabbed my rifle, ran across the jetty and jumped, fortunately the tide was low and I managed it over the guard rails and landed on top of some soldiers. No one was hurt. What a relief I felt, I was on my way back to Dover—then Chatham and a week ends leave when I read about Boulogne in the National press.

Then there followed Dunkirk where we were able to use our Seamanship training to more advantage but that is another story. Shortly afterwards, the Naval Brigade at Chatham was disbanded and we all waited drafting to various ships of the fleet.

After this I also served in 8 Convoys to Malta, 4 outward and return Russian Convoys, operation Pedestal (Relief of Malta) and a convoy carrying war Materials to Mermansk.

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