- Contributed by
- People in story:
- George Wagstaff
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 February 2004
We had not walked very far when an army ambulance went past us, going to pick up those wounded we had left behind. Presently it came back, the driver must have seen Seymour struggling to walk, for he stopped and asked him if he was wounded. I told him he wasn’t but he had a gammy knee and could hardly walk, he told him to get in the back. Then he asked if I was alright, I said I was, then he said that I had better get in the front with him and he would drop us off close to La Panne. So again I had got a lift, mind you, it cost me another couple of fags.
On the way he asked me what ‘mob’ I was in, I told him, Ox and Bucks, he said he knew where they were and would drop us off there and that is what he did. We landed up in a wood, it was a lovely wood, untouched, no battles had been fought there yet, so we scraped hollows with our hands and bayonets, put fern and grass in them and settled down. Some of the lads went foraging, and it was while they were out in the open that a Jerry plane came over, he circled over the wood and there was a blast of whistles and cries of, “keep still, don’t look up.” As the plane was only about 200 feet up I thought they were being very optimistic, I fully expected more planes with bombs at any time. It got dark and nothing happened so we all settled down to sleep. With the exception of the guard from our mob and the Guards; it was the regular Guards this time.
I slept like a log until the familiar cry of “Stand To”, when we scrambled out of our scrapes, loaded our rifles and waited for something to happen. Nothing did, so we made ready to move, then I heard our Officer and the Guards Officer arguing as to which mob would move out first. Our man wanted to move out last, but the other Officer would have none of it, he said his was the senior Regiment and they would stay until we were clear. I thought they were barmy, if it mattered so much we could have moved out together, it wasn’t as if we were in action, the last rumour I heard was that we were to move out to the embarkation point. Finally they tossed up for it and our bloke lost, thank goodness. We formed up and moved out onto the road, then we heard the planes, we scattered at once, I could not reach the ditch, so I crouched behind an old cart with a missing wheel. There must have been about twenty bombers and they plastered the wood and the road, so much for protocol, even those two idiots should have known that that was a scout plane and that the bombers would be around early and it should have been obvious that the plane had seen us, at 200 feet they could see if we had shaved that morning. The road caught most of what was going, there were bomb craters all around and on the road itself, and of course dead and wounded. We could do nothing for the dead except pull them off the road, but we could make the wounded more comfortable than they were while they waited for the ambulances. We told all those we helped that now they were wounded they would be on the boats first, I hoped they believed it.
I was very much surprised when I dived for that broken down cart, that ‘Gammy Seymour’ was a close second, so I could see when we set off again that he intended to stay by me, he told me that the nights rest had eased the pain a bit, so I reckoned that if we took it easy we should get to Dunkirk eventually. Troops were going past us all the time, making their way to the port, and there was no way of missing it for it was marked by a thick cloud of smoke where the oil tanks had been set on fire. We passed a German Pilots body tied to a telegraph pole, the French soldiers had used him for bayonet practice, his plane was on the other side of the road practically untouched. I guess when he came down he thought he would be taken prisoner for a few hours and then be liberated, how wrong can you get?
We walked on, stopping to rest his knee and have a smoke and I noticed it was getting darker, we found now that we were walking in streets filled with rubble from bombed houses and there seemed to be very few troops around. They seemed to be drunk or very happy, for they were singing or slugging wine from bottles they had looted from the shops or Estaminets. We decided we must have passed the entrance to the docks and began to walk back the way we had come. It was getting a bit windy now, I wondered if all the boats had gone, and thought that was why the troops were getting drunk, having a last fling before being scooped up in the bag by the Germans.
Gammy was moaning about his knee, we would wait a bit, but not very long, we still could not find the entrance to the docks, so after the next time he rested I said we would walk towards the beach. It had to be on our left, it was on our right when we started out this morning, so that is what we did and we found it at last for by now it was quite dark. We walked to the sea and turned left again, Gammy knelt in the sea, I thought he was praying, but he was only cooling his knees. We started off again and I remember I was walking in the little waves and kicking up the water, watching the fluorescence illuminate my boots as I did so. I was quite entranced by this and I kicked the waves even harder when a voice shouted from the darkness, “what the so and so do you think you are doing, go on like that and we will have all the German Air Force here.” We stopped and the owner of the voice appeared, he was Top Brass and he spoke like it too. He asked me what unit I was in, I told him and he said we should have been on the Mole hours ago. I thought about telling him that Gammy was wounded but he was too concerned about how we would get to the Mole. He told us to walk along the beach, and keep out of the water, until we came to a wall, go along the wall to the left and we would come to some steps, up those was the Mole. He said that although there were no ships in at present, they were expecting two ships to lay along side towards morning. He was very interested in our opinion of the Germans, we told him about Warneton and how they had operated, and when I told him about the General he was quite elated, he kept saying “Good, Good”, then “Right, run along then lads, good luck”, and he went back to the darkness.
We walked along the beach and sure enough we found the wall, we walked into it. We could hear mumbling voices, then we found the stairs, eventually we muscled in on the crowd and looking for a place to sit I saw a small wall on the side. Using Gammy’s knee I told him to put his arm around my neck and I put my arm around his waist, then I hedged him towards the wall. If anyone objected I told them that he was wounded in the knee and I wanted to sit him down as I was ‘knackered’ carrying him, in no time we were sitting on the wall. I breathed a sigh of pure relief, legs stretched out, rifle in my shoulder, arms crossed on my chest, chin on my arms and I was off.
The next thing I remember was a hell of a thump on the back of my head and when I rolled over I was in water. I scrabbled around in the sand and water to make sure I had not lost any of my tins of Player’s, then I heard Gammy, he was shouting to me, “Wag, Wag, are you alright?” I shouted back to say I was and to stay where he was. I climbed the steps up to the crowd on the Mole, then I had to do the wounded comrade bit so I could get to him. There was another bloke lying down where I had been sitting, so I shook him to get him move a bit, but he still lay there and took no notice. I took hold of his shoulders and lifted him, he still took no notice, I thought he had fainted or something so I slapped his face, there was a sort of squelchy sound so I looked more closely at him. Half his face and head had gone, and when I looked round I saw blokes dragging one or two bodies away and putting them over the side, a bloke helped me with mine, then we settled down again.
Gammy told me that a Jerry bomber had dropped his bombs and straddled the Mole and that was what had blown me onto the sand, the poor bloke next to me had copped the lot. We used to have a saying when we had a close call and had got away with it, we used to look upwards and say, “Somebody up there loves me”, after that lot I was beginning to believe it.
German planes came over at intervals, we would freeze as we heard the thrum of their engines, then over us they would turn as they moved up the coast, dropping a flare on a parachute as they did so, we would all look down, then breathe a sigh of relief when it went out. Some would drop a flare and then its bombs, most of them exploded harmlessly in the water sending up a cloud of fluorescence, I wondered what our Top Brass thought about all that. All the time we were moving slowly along the Mole, then we stopped as the boat filled up, each time that happened we thought it was the last boat. Then as dawn was breaking it was our turn. They, the sailors, were sending us a dozen at a time, they had linked arms to hold us back. Then when the ones they had let through had boarded the vessel, they would let another lot through with the instructions to run like hell and to jump over the holes in the slatted boards of the Mole that the bombs had blown up. Now it was our turn, as we waited I asked Gammy if he thought he could run, before he could answer a sailor turned and asked if anyone was wounded. Gammy said he was and the sailor shouted to someone, a large hefty sailor came running up, hefted Gammy onto his shoulders and strode away as if he was carrying a bag of laundry, that was the last I saw of Gammy. For a couple of minutes after they disappeared down the gang plank we were running like hell, our boots banging on the loose boards as we jumped over the holes, then we were waiting as a sailor unloaded our rifles and thrust them back in our hands as we moved past him. I remember a sailor lying dead on the Mole, his ‘sou-wester’ spread out under him, arms outstretched, his Bren on the A.A. by his side all smashed up. As I looked I thought of the words they used to carve on memorials, ‘He Died That We Might Live’, then my rifle was unloaded and I was looking for a bit of deck to sleep on.
It was full light by now and the tide was going out for the deck was about two feet lower down the Mole than when I got on, also the German artillery that had been firing into the sea, now shortened their range and were dropping closer to the Mole. I thought it was about time we left, I guess the captain thought so too, for the gangway was pulled away, there was a flurry of ropes, a trembling of the deck, and we were away. I settled my back against the engine room skylight and went to sleep. I don’t know how long I was asleep, a hand was shaking me and a voice told me that we were nearly home. When he saw that I was awake he went on to say that we were going slow because of the plates, I said “what plates?” then he asked if I had heard the bomb, I shook my head, I wondered what he was talking about, he kept talking then until we docked. Apparently about half an hour after we started for home, two bombers came hunting and the destroyer we were on began to weave to evade them. One came in and dropped its bombs along the side away from me, they caused no damage, but the destroyer sailed into the last one as it exploded. It started the plates in the bow and water came in, but the captain could not slow down because of the other plane which was on its bombing run, so he kept weaving the other bombs. When he dropped them and missed altogether, they came in firing their guns, but the A.A. caught one and it started to smoke, so they pulled away and headed back to Dunkirk. Since then they had been going slow to stop the sea rushing in, all this he told me as we walked to the bow of the ship. I looked down and sure enough the plates looked as if they had been kicked in, a sailor standing there said they were worse under water. I asked him how long before we got in, he laughed and looked at his watch, “we should be docked by four, so you should be in time for tea.” I was amazed, all day to come forty mile at the outside, well, at least we were nearly in England, and I thought of my wife, how could I let her know I was safe. I asked the sailor if there were any telephones on the dock, but he said it was all taken care of, and with that I had to be content.
There was a train waiting for us at the docks, we moved off the boat in single file, between rows of M.P.s and there was a lot of shouting from our ranks, but the M.P.s were used to being called everything under the sun, and they just stood there and watched us go past. As we got to the first lot of coaches, they put twelve men in each coach, closed the carriage door, then held it closed until a porter came and locked it. They did that all the way along the train, then stepped back and watched us, someone looked out of the window the other side and found police walking up and down the tracks. Having got us here they didn’t mean to let us go.
Behind the M.P.s were a lot of women, now they came towards the carriages and they were carrying mugs of tea and cakes. We were famished and we soon disposed of them, they fetched more and then they passed cards around and told us to put our names and addresses on them, telling us that as soon as we had left they would post them, they had even got pencils for us. I handed the filled in cards to a woman and she gave me some more to address, just in case she said. As I sat by the open window munching, a young woman came to the window, she asked if I was married, I told her I was and I had a son. She dived into her pocket and brought out writing paper and an envelope, “here” she said, “write a letter to your wife, she will be glad to have a letter from you.” I scribbled a hasty note, sealed and addressed it, I told her I had no money for a stamp, she just laughed and said I was not to worry about it. She pushed the letter into her pocket and blew me a kiss as the train started to pull away from the station. Lil, my wife, got the letter and the cards the next day, so they must have been sorted on the station and given priority over the other mail.
Along the line and at the stations there were cheering crowds, it was something we did not expect, but were certainly cheered by it all. We went to Crickhowell, stayed for two days for them to sort out the Regiments and then a dozen went to our mob at Hereford.
At Hereford we had roll call, all that was left of the Regiment paraded on the grass in a square and the R.S.M. called out the names. Those that were present would spring to attention and shout “Here Sir!” if there was no answer an Officer standing next to him would consult a list in his hands, and then say “missing believed killed” or “killed in action” and the R.S.M. would strike his name from the records. It was very moving, out of the 750 men that went to France, just over 200 stood on parade that day.
So ends my account of those three weeks that started on the 10th May and ended, for me, on the 31st May, truly a baptism of fire.
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