- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr Geoffrey Dent
- Location of story:
- France, Belgium, Dunkirk, Redhill, Leeds, Castleford.
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 July 2005
This story was submitted to the Peoples War site by Jas from Global Information Centre Eastbourne and has been added to the website on behalf of Mr Dent with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions
However, we went there long enough to be entertained. We were shipped into Bethune one day to the local theatre where the performers included Will Hay and his two supporters Graham Moffatt.
We were still at Manchy when things started happening. Very early in the morning of May 10th we were woken up by anti aircraft fire — it was another of my nights to remember — I had been sleeping (for want of a better word) on a wooden floor in the stable block and my final wisdom tooth was just coming through.
On morning parade the Colonel addressed his gallant men “Gentlemen” he said “you will have noticed that our quiet time has come to an end.” This was the first time we had been referred to as gentlemen.
It happened on two or three more occasions during the next few years and I soon associated being a gentleman with something nasty in the near future.
In this case the near future consisted of a very confused couple of weeks. Isolated events stick in the memory but they have little sequence of their occurrence.
Places had no names except one called Geluwe — pronounced, so I learnt recently, ‘Hell Way’. I think we must have been there for a day or two as I have memories of the local gendarme dragging a portable air-raid siren into the town square at frequent intervals and winding it up with a crank handle until the scream reached the right pitch.
When we moved into Belgium we marched in — very l9l4ish when you consider the Get panzers were pouring in from the opposite direction. May was very hot in 1940 with strong sunlight. The grateful populace handed us stalks of rhubarb with large leaves, which, when broken off and tucked under the back of our helmets, shaded the back of one’s neck.
The sort of effect the Foreign Legion achieve without looking ridiculous. The rhubarb stalk could then be sucked by way of refreshment. As we got further into Belgium, things were inclined to get a bit noisy at times and I recall that after one particularly noisy day, the BBC evening news told us that there had been “little or no activity on the western front”.
This caused a certain amount of coarse merriment.
One of my memorable moments was when the stretcher squad — four men — of which I was part were sent with a medical officer to collect a wounded man.
While crawling along a ditch I was somewhat taken aback when a voice said “where d’you think you’re going?”. “Going to collect a patient” I said. “Well, keep your head down” said the voice at the other end of the rifle, “This is the front line; the Germans are the other side of that field.” “Thank you” I said and kept my head very down.
When we finally reached our destination we found that the wounded man had had a piece of flesh hooked over of one of his buttocks and therefore had to be carried bum upwards. This added a touch of farce to the whole thing.
We were in a room of some sort waiting for the noise to die down before setting off again then there was a very loud explosion quite close — I actually felt the legs of my trousers flap about — and this was followed by the arrival of a man who was commenting loudly and quite coarsely on the fact that we had been sitting on a box of ammunition when whatever it was had landed.
By way of an encore we were given a German prisoner to escort back with us. Seemed a pleasant enough lad, a very blonde and very young. We must have taken a different route back because this time we were on roads. Someone suggested the POW might do some stretcher bearing.
As stretcher squads go, this one was certainly different. Whenever a plane came over we took whatever cover we could by the roadside. The blonde didn’t seem to understand what all the fuss was about — perhaps he hadn’t had any experience of enemy aircraft.
Further along the way we passed a farm house with a man and woman standing outside. The man kept wringing his hands and saying “les pauvres blesses, les pauvres blesses” over and over again Very moving, except for the fact that his trousers had fallen down round his ankles and he didn’t seem to have noticed! No further comment.
I don’t remember any other serious ‘carries’. We seemed to spend much of our time moving from one unidentifiable place to another. Then came the flying column. “A” Company (me, of course) will provide the medical care.
We were treated to a dynamic sort of briefing with much arm waving — Jerry has almost reached the coast — the French are coming in that way — our chaps are moving in from there—the aim is to ‘cut him off’. We didn’t. The Commanding Officer himself came out and waved us off with a “Good luck chaps”.
This had the effect of implying that he knew more than we did. Quite recently on a TV programme I realised that it was this episode that was the subject matter, “ill planned and badly executed, but it nearly worked” was the summing up. Oh well.
I suppose it must have been during this unrehearsed episode that I got involved with a chap who had had a hand grenade land on the top of his helmet. I don’t remember how we got there but as an ambulance was there so we must have travelled in it.
I presume our squad of four were sent to sort things out. The grenade had blown much of the fellow’s clothing off his back but otherwise he didn’t seem really injured. His main need was counselling, which was not on offer.
I was trying to get some sort of dressing on his back and he kept saying “Thank you sir, thank you sir” which considering it was pitch dark and I couldn’t see what I was doing and was certainly not of ‘sir’ rank, was very generous of him. At least he felt that someone was trying to help.
My colleagues were also doing a bit of patching up and eventually all concerned got into the ambulance and sought pastures new. There were over twenty of us stuffed into the thing.
This whole affair seems to have consisted of a series of dreams with neither beginning nor end and some pretty odd bits in between.
The flying column folded its wings and we were back with the others again.
Then while sitting in a barn having breakfast (a mug of tea and hard biscuits and marmalade) all hell started popping. Ted Minnion and I headed out of the door and away from the shooting, through the farmyard into another outbuilding, over a vintage car and out of the back into open fields.
Our legs didn’t stop moving until we could no longer hear bullets zipping through the hedge beside us. It’s amazing the extent to which panic can improve one’s stamina. After a while we came to an abandoned site of some sort — it seemed as though we were the only people left; it was remarkably quiet.
Ted and I poked about a bit and found a packet of water sterilizing tablets and a map. The map was small scale and not a lot of use but it made us feel that we were taking control of the situation.
A bit further on we came to a road and a small band of fellow refugees. Rumour had it that we were heading for Dunkirk. We found it on the map; very encouraging but as we didn’t know where we were, not much use.
Then, lo and behold, there was an abandoned lorry not far ahead and presumably pointing towards Dunkirk. The reason that it had been abandoned was fairly evident — a few yards further on another truck was burning furiously and apparently its load was small arms ammunition which was exploding in an alarming and spectacular manner.
“I don’t mind driving” said one of our new friends. “If I back up a bit and go past it as quick as possible — we keep our heads down — it’s worth a chance.”
The chance worked perfectly and as an added bonus the lorry’s cargo was a quantity of Belgian biscuits — I mention the nationality because they were soft and made a change from our own hard tack. We were on our way and collected a few stragglers as we went.
Somewhere a bit later, there was a spot of bother with a bomb crater and we could go no further. However, providence came up to its usual high standard and provided us with another abandoned lorry.
This time it carried a consignment of tinned damsons which provided liquid refreshment to complement our dry biscuits. Eventually night fell and we passed a sign which mentioned the town of Arras — a familiar name — quite encouraging in its way.
The unfortunate town had obviously been having problems and our vehicle crunched its way through streets covered in roof tiles. By this time we had caught up with the main horde and progress was somewhat slower. Soon it was May 29 and as we neared Dunkirk all vehicles were stopped and only small ones allowed through.
This kept the road into Dunkirk clear and the large vehicles were being destroyed to prevent them being any use to the enemy.
We now relied on our own two feet but providence obliged again in the form of a small water tanker, which had been allowed through. The driver invited us aboard and our little group scrambled on to the outside of the vehicle.
In my case this was made somewhat difficult because, before abandoning our lorry, I had grabbed half a dozen tins of damsons, which I’d carried — swag fashion — in a blanket. I managed to drape myself over the tank and hold on the camouflage netting with the one hand, while still holding the damsons with the other.
We were soon on the Dunkirk sea front where our benefactor dropped us off, before searching for a resting place for small water tankers. Ted and I barely looked about us when the bombs started.
We dived for cover into a sea front shelter. The bombing over, we realised the shelter was made of glass. Anything close and we would have been shredded so we sought pastures anew — the beach.
This was heavily shadowed by the smoke from burning oil installations. This in a way was some protection as those dropping the bombs couldn’t see where to drop them. Much the same applied after dusk and the night was relatively quiet and I think we slept a bit.
Then during the morning of the 30th came the bomb. A plane usually dropped a stick’ of four bombs at a time — one immediately after the other — one can hear the whine and explosions getting closer this time the third one was quite close enough and the fourth giving great cause for concern.
I could feel myself willing my body further into the beach. What a relief to hear it explode — I not only heard it but felt it. The ground seemed to rise vertically for an inch or two and then subside.
After a brief moment of stunned silence Ted and I raised our heads and enquired after each others health. OK it seemed. Then it started raining — sand at first, then salt water. It must have been a big bomb that went in very deep that caused the blast to go upwards.
It seemed ages before things went quiet and Ted and I looked at each other again — we were both covered in a thick layer of very wet sand. Further investigation showed that our feet were right on the edge of a very large crater — it seemed at the time that the crater could accommodate at least one if not two double Decker buses.
Another yard closer and we wouldn’t be able to walk home. After this little episode, we walked about the beach for some time before joining a long winding queue. And I mean long.
After a few hours we were in sight of the harbour mole where destroyers were taking off as many as they could carry. Needless to say, the mole was attracting a fair amount of hostile attention. Eventually, it was our turn, and scrabbling over the damaged mole, we were on board and hustled below decks.
A strange sensation — we were off the beach at last but the channel had to be crossed. A throbbing sensation and we were away. About now, I realised I was still clutching my tinned damsons.
So keeping one tin to give to my parents, I passed the rest and the blanket to a sailor who seemed grateful — especially for the blanket. I don’t suppose they had much time for food: rattling back and forth across the channel.
He explained that we would be sailing round the minefield but, in the interest of speed they would go back to Dunkirk through the minefield. I do hope that they made it.
At last we docked; I don’t know where — probably Dover — and straight onto a train and we were homeward bound.
Since writing this I’ve learned that HMS Malcolm completed half a dozen crossings and survived the operation.
We probably landed at Dover — I have no idea — but we were straight onto a train and then off into the unknown. It didn’t matter: we were back in England.
The first stop in the unknown was Redhill, where the locals plied us with very welcome tea... Ted had a packet of French Easter cards so our parents got the strange message “Joyeux Pâques. Back home. Be in touch soon.” Some kind soul posted them for us. I suppose, we must have dozed a bit on the train because the very next stop was Swindon, which came as a bit of a surprise.
I seem to remember lying on the grass in a public park and then into the care of any army bakery unit.
Then began the business, of sorting out this rabble. We were fed and told we would be off on a few days leave.
Just as soon as the documents, could be prepared. As this involved the writing out of passes and travel warrants, they did well to get us away in a couple of days. While this was going on, we were taken to the public baths, where we had to empty our pockets and our uniforms were thrown out of the upper windows into the waiting trucks below.
A truly remarkable sight from the street, which attracted a large crowd of onlookers. It was certainly odd to see this heavy fall of flying garments, which went on for quite a while. After a bath, new uniforms were handed out.
There wasn’t much choice of size
— two, I think. Mine wasn’t too bad. It was alright for height but somewhat baggy around the middle. Ted was quite the reverse and had to cut off quite a bit of the legs rather than look like a circus clown.
I’m not criticising; they did bloody well to get so much done so quickly. Then it was home for a few days and back again for the sorting out.
On the following Sunday, a party of us went to Gloucester Cathedral to give thanks for our safe return. It rained on the way and we got a bit wet. We were, of course, wearing the same great coats that had been lying in the wet sand, seaweed and assorted rubbish of Dunkirk beach and it wasn’t long before the warmth of the Cathedral brought out the smell of a wet dog — many wet dogs in fact — and by the end of the service one could almost taste the atmosphere.
Back to the bakery and after a few days we medics were posted to Beckett’s Park in Leeds. This was a large medical corps institution and gradually more and more of our field ambulance turned up, amid enthusiastic greetings and the reunion of old friends.
Soon it was apparent, that about 60 of the original 240 had got back. In due course, in small groups, we learned that most of the rest had been taken prisoner.
The next move was to Castleford. Phil Dean and I with one of the officers were sent on ahead to arrange billets for the unit. Many local people had offered to have troops billeted on them.
Our first evening and night was spent in a pleasant little house with a bit of front garden — very different from the Coronation Street style lot whose doors we would be knocking on from then on.
Phil was rather taken with the daughter of the house and expressed the hope that we would be there for some time. It was not to be.
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