- Contributed by
- People in story:
- D J Jackson
- Location of story:
- Dunkirk Evacuation
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 February 2004
DJ Jackson 115/120 Battery
32nd Field Regiment
MEMORIES OF THE DUNKIRK EVACUATION
My first view of the beach on arriving after an air raid was a bombed out ambulance, with the former occupants all dead outside. Looking out to sea was chaos, a ship slowly sinking bow first, the next hit amidships was going down in a V shape, the third was sailing on the horizon blazing from stem to stern, completely in flames. It was now dusk, and we joined a queue on the beach, but nothing was happening so we came back to the promenade. Wounded men were laid up against the wall, one man cried out ‘For God’s sake shoot me’. My partner, Randolph Cook, said to me ‘You are the senior’ (I had one stripe) a lance bombardier, but I refused. Next morning we looked - yes the poor chap had died. To us Dunkirk was just another seaside town; little did we know the part it was to play in history.
We had been in France since September 23rd 1939; we landed our guns and equipment at Cherbourg. We had spent the winter at Bondues preparing gun positions on the Belgian border, and finished in quarters at Lomme just outside Lille. At breakfast on May 10th 1940 the balloon went up, our first sign was anti-aircraft fire on a German plane. So the Regiment is alerted and eventually we make tracks for Brussels. On the way we were facing refugees streaming down the roads making their way from the advancing Germans. We dropped into action at Louvain, supporting the Guards Division; I had to climb the big wheel housing at a coal mine, to take readings with my Barr and Stroud range finder. As far as we knew the Guards were advancing, but in the meantime Belgium had more or less surrendered, so from then on we were in retreat
Once or twice Bdr.Chapman and myself were sent back to make sure the Engineers didn’t blow up the bridges before the Regiment was across. Eventually we came to our old prepared gun positions around Lille, but they were facing the wrong way. Jerry was now coming behind us, so we had to improvise. All the written card information had been sent off to HQ and as it happened I was the only one who could remember a bearing to a RO. a church 136°57’ which we had used to put the guns in the right direction. After this we were ordered to retreat again, and I don’t think we were organised at all. We drove through the night and then it seemed just a queue of vehicles. My truck Y2 had Randolph Cook as the driver and we struck together. He must have received orders somehow, because he ditched the truck, drained the oil and water, and ran the engine to put it out of action. We took our equipment and started to march, but the funny thing was, there were no orders, and it was just a question of following the crowd. I can remember being near the town of Poperinghe, and watched with horror the bombing of a hospital. The Red Cross sign was on the roof, but the Stukas still rained their bombs on it. We cut across fields to keep off the roads, which were being bombed.
We were held up by Military Police (Red Caps) who were by a formation of defence trenches in the shape of the letter W. They stopped the queue of men, ordered so many to man the trenches and then let the rest of us go. We came to some abandoned vehicles, and I picked up a French rifle and an automatic pistol as souvenirs. We also loaded ourselves with cigarettes (Wills Gold flake) from a dumped NAAFl truck, which had just been left fully stocked. A Bofors AK gun position was being attacked by Stukas, so all we could do was to get our heads down, but the planes came so low in its dive, I actually saw the pilot with a silk scarf streaming from the top of his flying helmet.
We pressed on and Randolph had this idea of riding some stray horses, to save our tired legs so there we were riding bare back, until we got to a bridge over a canal. The bridge was mined, ready for blowing, so the horses were not allowed to cross and had to be turned loose again. We arrived at the last canal on the edge of Dunkirk and to our amazement found a troop of our 25pdr. guns had somehow crossed the fields and were sited in action on the roadside parallel to the canal. Captain Stainton saw me and ordered me to watch at the canal bridge for any men of our Battery. Whenever I saw any of our chaps, I sent them along to the guns. When Captain Stainton had sufficient men for his needs, he ordered all the rest to make their way to the beach. Randolph Cook and I sorted our kit so we were only carrying enough for our bare needs.
As I got to the road towards the town, I saw a motorcycle and sidecar, and decided to appropriate it. We only got a short way when, with me driving and my pal in the sidecar, I got out of control and crashed into a telegraph pole. The next thing we knew we were chased by French soldiers - it was their motorbike! We smoothed it over by giving them cigarettes.
Then we walked down the main street towards the sea and we met with the scene, which I have described at the start of this narrative. Then we spent the night on the beach, there didn’t seem to be a lot happening and it was quiet. But at daybreak things were different, with shelling and bombing. We moved further down the promenade and a Captain from an infantry regiment called out ‘I want fifty men, all armed to report to me’. As we were both armed (I only had this French rifle) we reportedly soon had a full complement. Then he surprised us by saying ‘A bottle of whisky to anyone who finds a tea urn’. Somehow one was soon found, and then it was finding a well for water and then the makings of a brew. All this with planes flying over etc. To our astonishment he then said ‘I want everyone shaved and on parade’. Some people had to share a shaving kit. We lined up on parade and he inspected us (he had a patch over one eye like a pirate). Word went round we were going up the coast in action as infantry (one of our chaps nearly fainted) because we were all armed and had some semblance of being soldiers.
By about midday things were very hectic but we were shortly making our way to the dock area. The oil tanks had been burning sometime and black smoke was everywhere. The Captain reported to a beach hut, which was co-ordinating movement of troops. He pestered the Red Tab Generals and we moved further up the beach. We were being straffed by Jerry planes at odd times. Then we were moved to the Mole (a big wooden jetty), which had been damaged. Boards were found and placed over some of the holes. This in the middle of another air-raid, with the sky blackened by smoke from the fires.
A destroyer was loading men at the end of the Mole, Randolph and I managed to climb down a rope ladder halfway along the Mole and we made it onto a Lowestoft drifter (I’ll always remember the number on the funnel LT34). As soon as the boat was full, the mate, who was acting skipper came to cast off but because of the air raid took an axe and just cut the rope free. We left men dangling on the rope ladder. Looking round, we were about two hundred men, standing shoulder to shoulder. We gradually drifted from Dunkirk leaving the smoke behind. The sea was mirror calm, warm and it promised to be a lovely evening. We passed some floating wreckage of a plane, the Army Captain picks up a rifle and fires at it for target practice, the mate immediately comes from the wheelhouse with revolver in his hand he shouts ‘Stop that rifle shooting or I’ll shoot you, we don’t want to attract attention’. There was nothing in sight, we were entirely alone. At some time we had a bully beef sandwich, but I don’t remember any cocoa. We were heading presumably for home, because we were well away from the coast of France. The sea being so calm we made fair progress, until in the evening we felt the boat bump something, we had another bump, we had only run aground on the Goodwin Sands, the mate had gone the wrong side of the light ship. So we are now firmly on the Sands. The tide starts to ebb and the boat starts to keel over on one side. A Naval ship sent a Morse message ‘Have you a small boat?’ Suddenly two of our chaps go to an upturned rowing boat on the deck lower it over the side and start rowing; nothing was said, but we never saw them any more.
By this time the drifter is laying very low on one side so we spend the night worrying whether the boat was going to turn over (not being sailors we didn’t know it was only due to the tide being low). At daybreak, the sea is changing to a swell, and a Southern Railway launch is sent alongside to take off forty men each time to lighten the load. I was taken off on the third visit. It was a question of jumping into the launch when the sea was rising so you had to be quick. We were taken to a Minesweeper and this time it was cocoa and a bully beef sandwich. We moved to the harbour at Ramsgate and clambered ashore over other moored boats; we were tired but were lucky that we hadn’t even got our feet wet. It was the 1st of June. Our rifles were piled on the quayside and next it was tea and rock cakes with the W.V.S. Coaches took us to the railway station. On to the train and first a lady came along handing out pairs of socks to chaps who were barefoot. Another lady handed out cards for us to inform our relatives. ‘When the train was full, off we went.
The outskirts of London was the first stop, Guards soldiers handed out bananas. Our final destination was Formby in Lancashire. We found our way, in the dark, to a Depot of the Kings (Liverpool) Regiment. Obviously, with so many soldiers from France, the authorities didn’t know what to do with us. So we spent ten days kicking our heels, until orders came for us to find where our Regiments were reforming. We were put on a train and told to make enquiries every time the train stopped at any station. After a tour of Wales, we eventually found remnants of my Regiment in Yeovil in Somerset. After a few days under canvas we were in better order and made our way to Suffolk, where we were formed into an anti-tank regiment and issued with four-inch Naval guns mounted on a civilian lorry. My particular gun was stationed at Halfway Cottages, Sizewell to watch out for a German invasion. We had guns from Snape crossroads to Darsham, four in all. My job was to ride a motorcycle and take orders from Headquarters at Henham Hall, Wangford (now the ‘Aussie Earl’s’ residence) around the various guns.
My pal Jack Taylor was also with us on the Lowestoft drifter. As it happened, he stayed on board so eventually when the drifter was refloated he landed at Dover. As it turned out, he was very lucky whereas I finished up in Formby in Lancashire, he was sent home on leave to West Butterwick. So it was just the luck of the draw.
So in the summer of’1940 I was lucky enough to meet my wife. We were engaged at the Christmas and then I was sent abroad for the rest of the war, but that’s another story.
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