L/Bdr. Douglas Haig Hodge, 1939
- Contributed by
- Dundee Central Library
- People in story:
- Douglas Haig Hodge
- Location of story:
- Dunkirk, France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 March 2005
Before we went to France, the king to came to inspect us at Cookham crossroads, near Aldershot, where the guns, 4-inch howitzers, were stored in garages. I was a member of the gun sub (sub-section operating one gun). At the time of the inspection I had laryngitis and, when I came out of hospital, the old colonel (Royal Army Medical Corps) said, 'Seven days' leave is no use to you. We'll put another three days on it - how's that?' Naturally enough, I thanked him and he called me a 'good lad'.
The main drawback was that the Battery wouldn't provide a travel warrant, as for the purposes of sick leave, you were left to your own devices. The fare cost 12 shillings (£0.60) and I went round the entire Battery until I'd almost got the right fare. The last lad I asked was Jack Coutts, who gave me the final shilling. I went from Kings Cross right up to Dundee but there was no money for food or drink or anything else. All I got were questions as to why I had come back, although my mother was probably quite impressed with me.
When I returned, I got my marching orders to meet the battery over in France. They had what they call 'traffic control'. When you arrived at the station, you just gave them the name of your regiment and division and they told you what train to take. We left Dover and landed in France. I was issued with a 100-franc note and I thought I'd never be poor again in my life. When I came to spend it, well, that was another story. I finally joined the regiment and we went on to the border in the Lille area. Then, when the phoney war ended in late spring, we saw a dogfight overhead. We eventually took up positions behind the Maginot line, then proceeded to Louvain (Leuven).
We had four infantry battalions in our division - the King's Own Scottish Borderers (K.O.S.B.), the Grenadier Guards, the South Lancashire Regiment and the East Yorkshire Regiment. We were told, and I quite believe this story, that when the Germans began their advance, the K.O.S.B. drove them back three miles. We then got the order to cease fire and limber up. I was patrolling the road beside the guns when retreating down the road came the Belgian artillery. They were horse artillery and you should have seen the guns with beautiful engravings on the barrel. When someone down the road shouted a gas warning, there was bedlam as horses and soldiers were thrown into a state of panic. It must have been bad where they had just come from.
We moved back from Louvain and were awaiting orders when we saw the planes flying along the road and machine-gunning civilians. I saw them coming down and saw the explosions but it was terrible and there was nothing you could do. Outside Brussels, we saw an extraordinary sight, as Belgian civilians evacuated the area in their caravans. We hardly had any sleep, we rarely knew where we were and we were frequently in contact with the Germans. Some couldn't take the strain. One regular sergeant, who had been recalled to the colours, took fright. He had a bad case of the jitters and made a point of keeping his head down when we most needed him.
We came to Dunkirk in 15-cwt. trucks. We left the guns1 at a chateau in Tournai. After we had fired a few rounds, we were told to drain the hydraulic recoil fluid so as to render the guns useless when taken by the Germans. As we came out of Tournai, the road was packed with refugees. When the bombers came down the road, I was lying in a ditch and it was then that I saw a woman with a little child. What exactly became of them I do not know but that was the time I began to detest the Germans, I hated the very sound of their name.
Without our guns, we were now classed as infantry and I remember reading in the paper at a later date that it was in fact the 9th, our Dundee Battery, which held the line. We were badly mortared outside Dunkirk and took quite a few casualties. Captain Laird, the Battery Commander and peacetime florist in City Square, marched about like the proper infantry officer in front of his troops. He was a 'real warrior' and on one occasion when I told him I only had one round left, I asked him what I should do. 'Fix bayonets and charge' was his unhesitating reply. As we came down the road, there were lots of horrible sights, such as injured cattle lying in the fields in great pain. Whenever we encountered crowds of refugees, the order was to drive through them as best we could.
We took quite a bit of mortar fire but you got to the stage where you didn't really care what happened next. The boy beside me, Jimmy Low from Dundee, was wounded in the leg and I just told him to lie there and he'd be all right. Sergeant Barnes, an office clerk before the war, was another one to be wounded in close proximity to me. In actual fact, everyone near me was getting wounded except for Captain Laird, who bore a charmed life. I was so blasé about the whole situation that I didn't realise we were all fighting for our lives. There was no cover except for a small ditch and the water went over the top of your boots. When I got back, I found out that I didn't actually have a pair of boots but I can't recall when I lost the other half of the pair!
We went through some 'flurries', by which I mean flights of aircraft attacking us, to get down to the beach at Dunkirk. We had rifles and we fired volleys at the planes, which actually stopped them in their tracks. We marched to the beach and I somehow got separated from the rest. We were taking heavy shelling from the Germans and when those shells landed — oh my goodness me, what an explosion! I ended up in a trench, and here's an English boy sitting in the trench smoking his pipe. So the first thing I asked him was whether he had any fags, quite an ironical question in view of the fact that they were burning millions of them not too far from our position. 'Aye, Jock,' he said (he was an English lad) and we went on to have a good chat about the mess we were in and what a tragedy it was for all concerned.
We got into groups - 30 of us as I recall - and went down to Dunkirk Harbour. This big hospital ship with red stripes on either side came slowly in and the nurses were waving to us. I don't remember the name of the ship but that ship saved our lives, because the shelling was coming down our lines just like what Montgomery inflicted on the Germans at El Alamein. Give the German pilots their due, the planes sheered off when they saw the hospital ship in the harbour.
Anyway, a trawler came in for us and its name was the Lord Inchcape. We went along the right hand side of the wooden pier, whilst the French were on the other side of the pier embarking on yet more trawlers. There was a matelot with a revolver who ensured that the French and the British went onboard the respective ships allocated to them. There was no mixing of nationalities at this stage of the war! So we got onboard the Lord Inchcape and there was a 12-pounder gun on the focsle. The cry went up, 'Are there any artillerymen here?' So we volunteered to man the gun and were told 'Come on up, Jock.' We put up a good rate of fire - bang, bang, bang — against these aircraft, but none of this took place before the hospital ship departed.
We steamed out of Dunkirk that night. It is said that Napoleon was the only man able to sleep standing up but we were so tired that we doubted it very much ourselves. The weather was fair as we crossed the Channel and landed at Dover, where we marched ashore behind the Grenadier Guards, who were part of our division. You should have seen them sloping arms and their sergeant major shouting at our raggle-taggle all the way down to the train. It has been said that we felt like a defeated army but nothing could have been further from the truth. Some of us got needles and thread and stitched 'B.E.F.' (British Expeditionary Force) on as shoulder titles on our uniforms. People would see us in the pub and say, 'Come and have a pint on me'.
Not everyone was so understanding. We were walking through the park one day, when this old man said, 'What the hell do you think you are?' We looked at him and realised he was a colonel. 'Where's your hat or your cap or anything that should be on your head?' he said. 'At Dunkirk,' we replied, to which his rejoinder was 'Get out, you scurrilous Scots'. I think he understood the nature of our plight, since he had a chestful of medals from the First World War.
We got on the train and eventually arrived at Pembroke Docks. There was an old lady at one of the stations on the way - Yeovil I think it was - who said, 'If I had another stove, I could keep a good supply of tea going'. I had a primus stove, which operated on pressurised petrol, so I said to her 'I've got a rare wee stove,' and she said to me, 'Oh, you're a real Scot, aren't you'. Well, I got a cup of tea and I thought it was great, so there you are. There was a toilet on the train, so I thought I'd get my face washed and I ended up as the cleanest face in the carriage. I honestly can't remember the last time I had had a wash or a bath before that.
That's how it happens in wartime when you're on the losing side.
Douglas Haig Hodge via Dundee Central Library
1 In the Royal Artillery, the guns are perceived as the battle honours of the regiment and it is only under the most extreme of circumstances that they are abandoned intact to the enemy. If all else fails, the guns are 'spiked' by causing an explosion in the breech or barrel, or by using more ingenious methods, such as those outlined by L/Bdr Hodge.
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