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- People in story:
- Wally & Fred from Leicester; my uncle James Cornall Kirby from Rochdale
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- Contributed on:
- 25 February 2004
Dunkirk comes to Rochdale
In the summer of 1940 I was 7 years old and living in a small council house in Rochdale Lancashire with my mother and 2 year old brother. My father was not at home as he had volunteered for the RAF and was somewhere in a training camp. At some point in the day my mother went to answer a knock at the door. The man at the door said he was a billetting officer and they needed people to take into their homes men who had just been brought back from Dunkirk. The Army would supply camp beds and blankets. My mother said she could not possibly take anybody as she was alone in the house with two young children and besides the house was too small. At this point we became aware of the sound of marching feet. We rushed out into the street and there they were - a column of marching men. They were in uniform but dirty and exhausted. They looked to be falling asleep as they marched. They were watched in silence by all the neighbours who had gone outside to see what was happening. As they marched some of them were taken out of the column to the houses where people had offered accommodation. When she saw the state they were in my mother out of pity ran after the billetting officer and said she had changed her mind and would take two men. So we were introduced to Wally and Fred, both from Leicester. At first they just wanted to eat,wash and sleep. They had their guns with them and my brother and I were warned not to touch them. The next day they felt better and talked to my mother, my aunt and neighbours about their recent experiences. I remember so clearly Wally telling how he was taken off the beach in a small boat to be ferried out to a ship and they passed a man who was struggling in the water drowning. He had managed to grab the man and haul him into the boat. I was so impressed by this story I remember saying “You saved his life. You’ll get a medal for that “. He just smiled and said “I don’t think so. We all did what we could.”
I don’t know how long Wally & Fred stayed with us but they became our friends. I know that my mother and aunt Edith wrote to them after they left. In time the contact was lost but they were not forgotten. We sometimes wondered what had happened to them and whether they had survived the war.
My other memory of Dunkirk concerns my mother’s brother, my uncle Jim. In 1940 he was 25 years old and unmarried, living with his widowed mother, my grandmother, in Rochdale, until he joined the army. My cousin Joan and her mother, aunt Annie, another sister of my mother, were sleeping at my grandmother’s house nearby, presumably to keep her company. About six in the morning Joan was woken up - it was uncle Jim who had returned from Dunkirk. She still remembers how gaunt and haggard he looked. He was so exhausted he just dropped on to the bed Joan had been sleeping on and slept for hours, including most of the next day. We went to see him the following day and he told us all something of his experiences. He said that when they got to France he had a gun thrust into his hands and was told he was on guard, although he had no idea how to use the gun. Some things he told us sounded horrific. When he and others in his unit were retreating and making their way back to the coast they had to walk over dead bodies at times and army lorries also had to drive over the dead. There was no way to avoid it. He was a kind person and normally cheerful but obviously shaken by what had happened. I also remember him putting his hand into his uniform jacket and pulling out sand from the beaches of France and a few small French coins he had found there. I sometimes wonder if this was the beginning of my lifelong interest in France
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