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A Bill Brown Experience: Chapter 6 D Rothery: Evacuated from Dunkirk

by DOUGLAS ROTHERY

Contributed by 
DOUGLAS ROTHERY
People in story: 
Douglas Rothery
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2447840
Contributed on: 
21 March 2004

Chapter VI - Audrey's Finest Hour
I was a little taken aback when first coming out of the church at Ascq to see some of the male congregation urinating against the church oblivious to the rest of the congregation passing by, it seemed to be an accepted practice.
Each evening, an old gentleman in his 70s known affectionately by us as Monsieur Swill, would roll up his sleeve and delve into our swill bin, which was invariably full (due to George's failed cuisine), and pick out choice pieces of meat. On retrieving his wares, he would put it into a sheet of newspaper then giving a smile and a wave would express his thanks with 'Bon ah Bon', eating his lucky dip as he trudged away. I was to understand that the cook unknown to the powers that be, eventually saw to it that he didn't have to perform this degrading operation in order to satisfy his needs.
We at last rectified our catastrophic trench disasters and were ready for a visit from the B.E.F. Commander General Lord Gort VC, which must have been a rather nostalgic moment for him, because I understood it was somewhere in this area that he won his VC as a Grenadier in the 1914 -18 war. It was a great honour for us all to have him in our midst. We were also honoured by a visit by HM King George VI, where the whole battalion paraded in Annappes, much to the surprise of the local inhabitants who due to security, were not made publicly aware of his presence.
There was one visit we could have done without as was agreed by all that witnessed it. A special parade had been called to introduce with a lot of pride and pomp the British Infantry Tank known as the 'I' tank. It was similar in design and armaments to one I saw in a film about the battle of the Somme with the grand speed of 4 miles per hour. I must say it left us most despondent because it reflected how inadequately we were prepared for the present situation.
Whilst working on our defences we would have the occasional visits by
reconnaissance planes, too high for recognition but what other country would be so interested or blatant enough to disregard Belgian neutrality, anyway the enemy were already aware of our presence because the Traitor Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) had already broadcast it, 'The Cad'.

On May 11th 1940 we were to say goodbye to our patriotic Ascq friends and our toil worn defences, to sally forth to meet the foe. We travelled in convoy to Brussels where the inhabitants seemed very enthusiastic to meet the challenge so leaving our vehicles behind we marched about 15 Kilometres to the outskirts of Louvain where we arrived just in time to witness the massacre of two British Lysander Spotter planes. These two unfortunates were diving and weaving about chimney pot height trying in vain unfortunately, to get away from about three or four Messerschmitts, that was the last we were to see of any more British aircraft, they, like the tanks were I imagine, still on the drawing board.

We took up position on the Dyle river bank and feverishly started to dig in when it wasn't long before we were to observe the enemy approaching down the railway track in front of our positions, but at that point were too far to engage for any positive results. Belgian infantry were roaming around lacking any visible sign of leadership, or inclination, much to the annoyance of our Company Commander Sir Hugh Chomley, who,although no spring chicken quickly scrambled out of his trench in exasperation and with revolver drawn gave out an explosive command through a now bristling regimental moustache ordering them back into their trench in a language which could be understood whatever nationality. The response was instantaneous as they scuppered back in double quick time to the trench from whence they came. The enemy in the meantime must have realised that they had come against opposition and it wasn't long before they were to show that they resented our presence. A factory hit by enemy shell fire was releasing a very pungent smell, this made a well intended individual sound the gas alert. On donning our respirators some women inhabitants came out of their shelters and were running around shouting in panic, fortunately order was restored when we removed our respirators!
We were now to receive our baptism of fire in earnest, shells and mortar fire were raining down on and around our positions and I must admit, it was terrifying, especially when you witness the carnage it can cause. Our first casualty was P.S.M. Hoare who received a fatal piece of shrapnel through the front of his steel helmet.

This relentless bombardment was to say the least, most unnerving, because there is nothing you can personally do to retaliate or alleviate it. Sleep of course is out of the question, the sickening crack from the exploding shells and mortars not knowing where the next salvo will land, the only alternative is to offer up a silent prayer that you will survive.

Two Coldstream Guardsmen returning from a night patrol had lost their direction and had wandered into our lines, unfortunately they were shot up by us and badly wounded, 'C'est le guerre'.
My mate Fred Bottom and another guardsman Fred Martin volunteered to swim across to the enemy side of the river and rescue two wounded Belgian officers, for which many years later they were deservedly decorated by the Belgians.
There was no let up with the bombardment and after the third or fourth day we unexpectedly received orders to withdraw, it was the usual line of communication, we were not told the reason why at that precise moment, although I didn't hear any protests.

It was whilst tabbing back for a number of Kilometres down a single railway track, led by a stray piglet which trotted ahead giving us visions of bacon sandwiches, that information started trickling through the ranks as to why we had withdrawn, and it must have been 'Pukka Dink' because it came straight from the cookhouse. The reason for withdrawing was because the enemy had broken through the French lines so many Kilometres to our right crossing a bridge with armour, the bridge should have been blown but wasn't, the French were regrouping for a counterattack but it didn't take place, in other words we were in it up to our eye balls.
We eventually halted and took up defensive positions in the usual way when I had cause to report to Company headquarters where I found them in comparative comfort in a very deep cellar. The stone steps leading down were quite narrow and the heel of my boots, with its regulatory steel heel cap, slipped on the first step and in a few seconds I had reached the bottom, striking my backside on each step. The pain was chronic, but it cheered up the occupants who thought it was hilarious insisting I give an encore, (that is what you get for digging your heels in)!

Rumours by now were rife, the 5th Column (German subvertatives) were supposed to be very active, it was reported that some were dressed as nuns, (the impostors were the ones with moustaches)? If a church bell were to ring that would be purported to be a signal. The roads were choc-o-block with fleeing refugees of all ages with horse-drawn vehicles, handcarts, perambulators and bicycles, all loaded with furniture and the necessities of life.
We again moved back with difficulty and took up positions at a once thriving farm where a Company of Belgian troops were offering us their arms and ammunition because they were about to surrender.
As they marched towards the enemy we took over and the cooks took stock! In the morning the cattle out in the fields were relieved of their produce, all in the cause of humanitarism - what else! The poultry also became martyrs to the cause, this was much to the consternation of the farmer, who to our surprise returned unexpectedly. and it was not possible to hide from him our illgotten gains because the evidence became apparent when the hens who roosted on the rungs of a purposely built ladder which was approximately 8ft wide at the base extending to 2ft wide at the top and each hen had his allotted perch on the rungs so the obvious gaps in the ranks each morning, revealed those missing parade. I don't suppose it would have been any consolation to him if we had suggested that we were just relieving the next inhabitants of their sustenance, unfortunately none of us could speak French
After marching and being transported for about 30 odd miles under heavy enemy artillery fire and aircraft attacks where we were constantly jumping out and diving for cover losing among others our big Dutch S/African, we set about putting all of our vehicles out of action by draining off the radiators and running the engines at full throttle, this was successful until one caught fire causing a bit of a flap for revealing our positions.
We reached Furnes on the outskirts of Dunkirk and the R.Es were waiting anxiously at the one remaining bridge over a canal for us to cross it so they could blow it up. No sooner had we done so, and before we had time to take proper cover, the bridge disintegrated into the air by the force of the explosion, showering us with its debris.
Taking up positions along the canal bank we were told that we were to hold out until further orders, which could be for some days so as to enable as many as possible of the B.E.F. to escape across the channel.Because of my past Stretcher Bearing training, I was detailed to take on this task thus giving me more licence to roam, and when a heavy machine gun of the Middlesex Regiment was rattling away from a house close by, being nosy, I went up to the attic, where they after removing a slate from the roof, were firing through the aperture at a large concentration of Jerries advancing in our direction and the situation didn't look too healthy for us. I had just descended into a downstairs room when there was one almighty explosion, the blast threw me across the room and literally pinned me against the wall. After recovering my senses, I quickly got back to my hole in the ground outside and was still wondering what it was when there was this terrific rumble passing overhead towards the enemy like an express train, a few seconds later a tremendous explosion like the first. I pity the recipients who were unlucky enough to have been on the receiving end. Rumour had it that it was a salvo from one of our battle ships, wherever or whatever, I must say that it was most welcome because our own artillery which I believe were the Leicester Yeomary, was we were given to understand, on ration.
A civilian was brought in found hiding in the rubble, he was of military age, spoke good English, and claimed that he had walked from Denmark and wanted to get to England. His soft footwear showed no sign of wear and tear for such a journey and his general demeanour was very suspect, we were informed that after interrogation he was executed.
It wasn't long before we were having everything thrown at us, and under these circumstances you lose all sense of time, we had the advantage of the canal and were repulsing any attempt by the enemy to cross it. The built up area around was a complete shambles, devastated by the heavy concentration of shell and mortar fire and we were to endure this for about another three days and nights, when out of the blue we were warned to prepare to evacuate our positions.
At a pre-arranged time, which was at about 2 or 3am, we were told that we were to tie blankets around our boots and creep away from our positions so as not to alert the enemy and if we were to lose our way were to follow the North star. At the arranged time, and as serious as the situation was, on reflecting back although our plight was precarious, it was in a way quite hilarious, because on creeping out of our holes there wasn't a star to be seen. As for the noise, to quote a favourite saying of R.S.M Brittain Coldstream, if ever a unfortunate Guardsman were to offer up an excuse on being reprimanded by him, would invariably receive a bellowing response,
'I've Never Heard Anything Like It Before In All My Life' which is emphasised in a war film in which he took part as himself, called 'They Were Not Divided'.
We were clambering over debris in pitch darkness, getting tangled up in telegraph wires, cursing as we tried to extricate ourselves, glass was being shattered and tin cans clattered as we fell over them and I would have thought that we could have been heard in Berlin. Any wounded were to be left behind and nobody was to stay behind to tend to them. The enemy shelling was getting worse, screaming in from all directions as we struggled on for about 5 Kilometres, past burning vehicles of all types including ambulances, trapped victims in demolished buildings were calling for help, some whimpering in the darkened rubble, whilst other wounded could be seen by the light of the burning vehicles crawling in the direction of the sea, but all had to be ignored, hopefully not inhumanly, by the enemy.
Eventually we arrived at the sand dunes of LaPanne, where we (wait for it), were formed up and marched to attention down to the waters edge, Halted, Turned to the front, Ordered arms, Stood at ease, Stand easy. We were then informed it was every man for himself, but before doing so, were to put out of action vehicles left behind on the beach by other Regiments. On setting about disabling them and destroying their contents we came across one that was loaded with stone jars of army rum. 'Thinks'. After having a ration of only 2 tots of 3 dessert spoonfuls during our coldest spell at Ascq, (no wonder we were rationed, it was all here). I emptied my water bottle, (a crime in itself) and filled it up before smashing up the remainder. ' Couldn't have the enemy toasting their victory at our expense'!

It was just getting daylight, the water was strangely fluorescent and it was then one could see the enormity of the situation, the thousands and thousands of troops as far as the eye could see, wandering and wondering with not a ship in sight.
Later on a ship did appear on the horizon and signalled according to someone's interpretation, to ' Keep moving to the left'. At first we couldn't see the logic of this, apparently it was to draw us to Dunkirk docks, but it wasn't long before we were moving in all directions when our old companions the Stuka's started to line up to show off their dive bombing and shooting skills. Then unfortunately or fortunately, one was forced to land on the beach pursued by a crowd of angry young men, I doubt whether the unfortunate pilot was captured. More ships were now appearing which was to attract the attention of more enemy aircraft, and in the distance you could see smoke billowing from a warship, which appeared to be sinking.
A young Grenadier officer was calling for 'All Grinadaars' and those of us within earshot gathered around expecting some miraculous escape plan, instead, he said with the proverbial plum in his mouth.
'You can see how hopeless the situation is, it will be impossible to get away today, so I suggest we return and hold out for a few more days'.
About thirty or forty of us commandeered volunteers were ploughing our way back through the Dunes, when lo and behold, we came across a large upturned boat, the officer asked if we would prefer to try and refloat it. At a glance because of its size and bulk it looked beyond our capabilities but reflecting on the alternative we immediately got stuck in and eventually after much sweat succeeded in a move which I would class as a tactical withdrawal. I was on the end of a long rope, whilst the others pushed and pulled and we eventually got it floated, I finishing up with the water up to my neck whereby on attempting to get back onto the boat, found it was already full of not only some of the volunteers, but those that rushed the boat. It would have been suicidal to try and get on as it was already dangerously low in the water, so with no alternative but to go searching once more, I along with the remnants of the first group of hijackers, plus replacement conscripts, went beachcombing or I should say dunecombing once again.
This was unbelievable, because we eventually came across another one of the same capacity. Not learning from my last experience, I again got on the end of the rope, ending up in the same predicament as before, but this time I was determined to get aboard regardless and squeezed myself in among the others. A little squirt about 4ft nothing with a crown on his sleeve, was standing in the stern with a revolver in his hand and was pointing it at me and ordering me to get off. In no way was I going to obey his order, even if my presence upset the boat because I realised he had nothing to do with the finding and launching, but had rushed the boat and was now thwarting his authority. With my stubbornness and pretence of having my foot caught, the boat was now well afloat and the others in the boat calmed down the self-appointed 'Captain Bligh'. It took me years when thinking of that episode, of what I would have done if we had ever met on equal terms, but I eventually mellowed when I thought who wouldn't have done the same under those circumstances.
What puzzled me and still does, was why someone hadn't discovered these boats before with the thousands upon thousands with the then same objective in mind to get back to Blighty. Being selfish I thank God they didn't search the Dunes otherwise the following miracleous turn of events would never have happened after meeting the officer (1) Discovering the boats, (2) The discovery of another boat, and (3) Finally safely overcoming all the events that happened afterwards.
Thank goodness the sea was exceptionally calm as we paddled with our tin hats out to a ship, where our army rope climbing skills came to the fore as we scrambled aboard by rope ladders. Once aboard a crew member said 'Welcome aboard Little Audrey, the last of the mine sweeper Flotilla'.

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