- Contributed by
- CSV Actiondesk at BBC Oxford
- People in story:
- Les Collett
- Location of story:
- Belgium border and Dunkirk
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 July 2005
Les Collett joined the Territorial Army in the 4th Battalion of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry on 7th May 1936, three years before the Second World War broke out. He’d lied about his age, he should have been 18 but he was only 16. Each year he went to army training camp. On the 3rd September 1939 he returned from camp and was immediately transferred to the regular army. War had been declared. On 3rd January 1940 he left Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, for the coast and embarked for France.
The weather at that time was bitterly cold with thick snow on the ground. They all had to sleep in barns with straw as a mattress and just a coat as a blanket. They then moved up to the Belgium border where the fighting was very severe and life was very difficult with little or no food. This was because of transport difficulties; it was not always possible for supplies of food to reach every area where soldiers were fighting. They had to try and find food for themselves. If they were lucky they would find cheese, bread and wine!
However, they soon found themselves being pushed back across France towards the coast. This took about 26 days and they had to fight many battles on the way. Many of his comrades were killed at this time, a fact he will never forget. At one point his battalion became surrounded by the enemy so they did the sensible thing, they surrendered! Les was among those taken prisoner and kept for 5 days in a churchyard. The Germans told him to take his boots off to deter him from escaping. They didn’t realise what a relief that was! They also took his rifle to disarm him and his pay book to try and get information. Despite having a bayonet wound in his leg; received during hand-to-hand fighting in a wood, he managed to escape. There were guards in the churchyard but as there was fighting going on a lot of the time they were often preoccupied. So he took a risk with a few others and escaped.
He joined the remains of his battalion and was eventually driven into the sea at Dunkirk. By this time he’d been wounded in the back as well and was drifting in and out of consciousness. While waiting on the beach the thought did occur to him that he might not get home and this would be the end for him. But a boat did come for him and his surviving mates. It was like a large rowing boat, probably one of the Navy’s, and he remembers being helped onto it. The next thing he remembers is being lifted onto a larger boat that took him back to England.
Les was admitted to hospital in Maidstone, Kent and transferred to Lewisham. He had received a bullet in his back and a bayonet wound in his leg. He returned to Cowley Barracks, Oxford then moved to Headington Hall, also in Oxford. When he was fit enough he was sent to Northern Ireland and later for Commando School Training at Fort William in Scotland but Les never went overseas again.
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