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- People in story:
- Robert Stateman
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- 29 February 2004
I Was There
When my convoy stopped next I emerged in the open, to be confronted by an amazing sight, the whole area in front of us, had been flooded, with the exception of a narrow road, on higher ground. Road blocks had been set up and guarded by armed soldiers, later on, we were given priority and allowed to enter the road.
This was really only a cart track, extremely bumpy but I didn't care, Dunkirk town was only about a mile away, we were told. This was my only hope of salvation.
We stopped briefly at the perimeter, looking for water or food, our patients were in a very distressed condition and I doubted whether my lot, could last much longer without sustenance and medical treatment.
The scene around us, was of utter devastation, lines of burning trucks, bodies, dumps of all kind being blown up and never-ending air raids, it was hell.
We reached the centre of town and were back in the danger zone. My ambulance was caught in a huge road jam, right in the centre of the main street.
We were very exposed and without warning, we heard the now familiar sound of heavy aircraft, followed by a succession of large explosions and my ambulance began to shake from side to side as the blasts hit us.
Now, new sounds shrieked at us, the whine and scream of dive bombers, our driver hastily left us and dived for cover at the road side. How I bitterly regretted my desire to have the doors locked from the outside, the roar of bombs was deafening, my patients were screaming and crying, poor souls. The vehicle shook about like a marionette; I lay on the floor, my hands behind my head and prayed.
Suddenly it was all over, the raid was over, it was truly miraculous that we survived and I made sure this time that the doors remained unlocked.
We were safe for the moment, I tried to calm the patients but it was a toss up whose hands were shaking the most.
We were at last on the move again, but oh so slowly, creeping, edging forward, through the town, towards the docks. As the morning wore on, we passed through a selection of improvised checkpoints, our troops guarding and checking were calm, polite, and helpful, and they were a credit to the British army.
Late afternoon, as we were still waiting in line at the end of the docks, I was stood at a checkpoint talking to a corporal, when a carload of so-called allies stopped a staff car in front of us and brandishing a motley display of rifles attempted to push past us and jump the queue.
However my alert friend pushed them back grabbed one of the rifles and in his bad French shouted that he would fire if they didn’t retreat.
After a hesitation, they turned and ran and when I looked at the rifle it wasn’t loaded, how is that for bravery.
As dusk approached the air raids eased off, and to my delight, our convoy was ordered to bypass the other Lorries and vehicles waiting, we were sent to the head of the queue.
Hope rose in my heart and I had visions of getting away from there in the next few hours. Well I was soon given the rudest of shocks for my friends and I were ordered to leave our desperate charges and immediately to begin stretcher bearing, all sizes of boats were now rushing into the harbour loading the wounded and dashing out again before they were targeted. We were told that as medical staff we would not be evacuated with the wounded, my heart sank even lower than my boots and I began carrying the wounded along the concrete causeway, until we reached the gangplank of a ship, there we were relieved of duty in order to go back for another stretcher. The sands on either side of the causeway were an amazing sight, with thousands of troops dug in to the sands right down to the sea, all waiting in complete order for their chance to paddle out and dive aboard one small craft.
Officers with megaphones were instructing them and every now and them they seemed to vanish into the sands as enemy aircraft zoomed overhead.
As darkness fell, after many hours of toil, I crept to the end of the sands for a moment of rest and there discovered a small half track vehicle with canvas sides, the driver beckoned me inside.
I was glad of the rest and as we talked there was suddenly a roaring ear-splitting sound overhead, I looked up in alarm, the driver yelled, “that’s a shell” as more rattling screaming roars passed overhead, then silence, and my new friend told me that I was safe enough unless the noise stopped overhead and then to duck and hope for the best.
Another batch came over followed by some large explosions starting a spectacular series of fires just opposite us, which appeared to be the mole at the other end of the entrance to the harbour.
This turned night into day, I could clearly see numbers of people rushing to collect the wounded and the dying, and as I sat there the next moment it happened, a shell shrieked over us and then silence, the world seemed to stop for a second and then I heard a voice shout “for god sake duck”, as I fell into the well all hell broke loose, there was an ear splitting explosion, and a terrifying whistle blast, the truck rocked violently, a stinging burst of cordite and sand struck me and then silence, it was over.
As I sat erect, I glanced at the canvas sides and to my horror all that remained was two gaping holes. I knew that if I hadn’t had ducked, my head would not have been left on my shoulders.
I ran from the truck, like the hounds of hell were after me, and flattened myself on the sand, whilst around me I could hear the sounds of pain, agony and despair, as people tried to administer to the wounded.
I ran back to help, dragging stretchers of wounded along the causeway, towards the dockside, where small ships were dashing in, loading and then getting out quickly.
For a start I could not even get near the ship, the wounded had to be handed over and I had to dash back for another.
My arms in particular were now feeling so heavy, tired and strained that I lost the feeling in them, my back was breaking from the crouching and in effect what should have been a few minutes job, running to the ship, became an act of survival, as more and more bursts of shells shot over me, I had to drop flat on the ground and the patients were jarred and screaming in pain. Sometime that night, I crawled away into the dunes, I was not only exhausted, I was feeling so bad that I forgot about the lack of food and water, I was in despair, I could not rest because of the shelling and now they were dropping flares, illuminating the whole area, I could even see the dunes opposite, with thousands of men dug into sand holes, still queuing for the next boat, the hope of safety.
Most of the morning that followed, is confused memory to me, I was still stretcher bearing now I could not even stand up straight, the air raids resumed, my only consolation was, that I was helping to get the wounded to safety.
As dusk cam I was very nervous and with good reason, for as the air raids eased off, the shelling resumed and now as I ran along with the wounded, great holes were appearing in the causeway, with planks thrown across the gaps, I knew that some poor soul had met his maker and it was even more worrying when I saw on my return planks in spaces where I had run only moments before.
I was determined to try and get aboard a boat, and during a lull in the onslaught, I actually reached the gangway of a ship and as I was at the front of the stretcher, I ran halfway up the gangplank, only to be met by a soldier carrying a sten gun, who shouted to me to halt, as I tried to push past him he placed a gun into my belly and shouted “no further, you can’t come aboard, drop the stretcher or I’ll shoot.” I hesitated then reluctantly lowered the stretcher and moved down the gangway onto the dockside. I lay on the sand dunes and sadly watched the ship start to draw away from the shore towards the harbour entrance. I knew that I might have lost my chance to get to safety but a moment later I knew differently. There was a loud roar, and a single shell burst directly over the departing ship, there was a loud rendering explosion, a huge fireball, I could see figures on fire jumping into boiling waters, a huge cloud of steam, and then she was gone, beneath the waves, taking with her the brave and the wounded.
I felt sick, depressed, and even a little guilty, I had been on that ship a few moments earlier and but for the armed guard, that would have been my fate too. I was lucky to be alive.
At the far end of the dunes, I found a soldier crouching in the sand, and I realised that I had met someone even more scared than I was. We sat and talked for a while during a lull in the shelling, until another barrage commenced, and without warning, one shell fell silently above us. I yelled for him to fling himself flat, and as we threw ourselves down, our shoulders and legs touching side by side there was and almighty shattering explosion, a shrieking blast of fingers of red hot metal all around me, then a stench of cordite and huge clouds of sand covering me into my eyes and mouth. Then there was silence, devastating silence. I crawled to my knees, my whole body shaking, I spoke to the soldier next to me, with no response, I turned him over, and he was stone dead. I ran again, and moved back onto the causeway, this time a new spirit of determination came over me, this time, I said I would try and try until I got away.
I ran forward carrying the wounded with new resolve in my heart, and after a while I took a breather and tried to clear my head.
A sudden call alerted me, though as a loud voice asking for volunteers, to get a seriously injured senior officer to a boat. The soldier next to me, was of the same opinion, we both ran forward, he took the front end and I got the rear of the stretcher and the heavy end, the head of the officer and we began to run forward, dropping to the ground as the shells flew overhead.
The officer, I realised was either a colonel or a brigadier according to the red braid on his shoulders, and he kept thanking me profusely for trying to save his life.
The shelling was fierce, and I kept falling over the patients head as I dropped to the ground and perhaps he thought that I was trying to shield him in some way, although in my bewildered state that must have been partly my intention.
I was asked at one stop for my name rank and number by the injured man saying that he would not forget my bravery, but all I could do was to mumble the details against the crashing noise overhead, Name: Robert Stateman, Rank: Private Number: 7362092.
At last thank god, we made it up the gangway and dashed up onto the deck, shouting we had a senior officer on board, the stretcher was taken from me, but this time I ran away and down a flight of stairs, and found myself in a toilet, with taps and running water.
I cupped my hands, trying to dash water into my mouth, and over my face, I took one look into the mirror and gasped at the way I looked, dirty, unshaven, black rims around my eyes and very gaunt, but still in one piece. I ran back up two stairways, coming out into the night sky, at the rear of the ship with rows upon rows of seats covered with mounds of lifejackets, I grabbed one, put it on and sat down on the remainder.
Suddenly I was being shaken violently, someone was shouting “wake up”, I managed to open one bleary eye and I remember mumbling, “I’m not getting off”. I was assisted to my feet, and pushed to the rail. It was dawn, the sun was shining, the world was good, for their was the most beautiful sight in the world, the white cliffs of Dover. Although I must admit that I knew nothing of the sea crossing, I had been fast asleep the whole journey.
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