- Contributed by
- CSV Actiondesk at BBC Oxford
- People in story:
- Bill Harvey
- Location of story:
- Rennes, St Malo
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 June 2005
Sapper Bill Harvey worked in ‘The Plant’ in Doncaster and was part of the first unit to go to France with the BEF in September 1939. The Dunkirk beackes had been captured two weeks before. Suddenly it was time to head back to Britain.
‘The main units at Rennes moved out at midday, 15th June. The doors of our NAAFI were opened. Vehicles, haversacks, pack and pockets of the lucky ones were filled with the little luxuries the NAAFI could supply. The night was spent, packing and re-packing personal equipment. Everything that could not be packed was given to our French neighbours.
‘Blankets and other bedding, along with spare clothing, was thrown out of the windows into the arms of the waiting locals and the trickle of refugees. Even in retreat the habit, or perhaps the discipline, of leaving everything in good order survived. The irony of this final act amused me. Everything was locked up and left neat and tidy, why I'll never know. Unlike the open door policy at the NAFFI, the stores had been left tidy and securely locked.
‘Early on the morning of 16th the Company climbed into its available vehicles and set out for St Malo. I was selected for the dubious privilege of holding up the German advance. I drew my usual short straw and was one of a detachment of 6 sappers and a sergeant detailed to stay as a rear guard. A 15 cwt truck was thoughtfully provided for our escape.
‘I remember wandering through the billet and saw numerous small items, military manuals, issue watches etc. I would like to have purloined but there was the inherent streak of honesty which stopped me. Military logic had prevented these items being handed over to the locals. Another instinct prevented them from destroying these items. They were locked up and safe awaiting the German troops.
‘At 4 o’clock all hell broke loose. Fortunately for us, the Germans were bombing the French Barracks on the other side of the town. It was getting a bit hectic, so our Sergeant decided enough was enough and we pulled out. There was plenty of refugee activity on the roads but we managed to make reasonable time and eventually found the main unit at Chateauneuf a few miles outside of St. Malo.
‘The town beyond was jammed and there were no ships to take those already waiting in the dock back to Britain. In retreat, good order was maintained and the Company patiently waited their turn on the approach road to the town.
‘My luck continued to be bad. In the evening I was again roped in to go with a party of senior ranks, on a 3 ton truck, to the NAAFI, somewhere near the docks. Apparently word had got round they were opening the doors and anyone could have what they liked. Some stuff was loaded on the truck but needless to say I was not included in the division of the spoils.
I was then selected to provide the rear guard once again. The Germans were known to be not far behind. I was detached to accompany a Lance-Corporal and 3 other Sappers to a point on the main road linking Rennes to St. Malo with instructions to look out for tanks. We were armed with a single anti-tank rifle, which nobody in the unit had ever fired. It would have been just as effective to throw our caps at a tank. We had a fright when we heard the roar of an aeroplane approaching but fortunately it turned out to be one of our Coastal Command planes. They waved to us and I thought you lucky blighters you'll be having breakfast in England.”
‘The next morning our orders came to move. It took 2 hours to creep into the town. The Military Police passed along the convoy and ordered all vehicles to be abandoned and disabled. The expedient of removing the rotor arm from the distributor was all we were required to do. Some drivers chose to let the oil out of the engine and destroy the bearings by running the motor until it seized.
‘Redcaps were trying to maintain order but stragglers kept disappearing into the walled city apparently looking for a last drink. Some of them must have been left behind and they must have got a shock when they sobered up.
‘By late afternoon on the 17th we were lined up on the dock. Our boat was the aptly named ‘Alt’ which I knew meant 'Old'. The boat was medium sized, possibly a Dutch cross channel ferry. Someone had the foresight to salvage a Bren gun and tripod and mount it on the upper deck. Who knows, it may even have had some ammunition as well.
‘The next morning we slipped into Bournemouth. It was good to be back in England and everyone was so kind with offers of washing, sewing repairs and meals. But it left a sour feeling when I thought of our ignominious retreat from France.
This story was submitted to the people’s War site by a volunteer from CSV Oxford on behalf of the late Bill Harvey. It is anedited transcript of his own diary and taped interviews and he gave written permission for all the material to be published.
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