- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Charlie Young
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- 27 April 2004
Charlie Young is a local Thanet councillor and has been the Mayor of Margate three times in his political career. He told me that he went in to politics because of the treatment he received when he was in hospital in Brighton after being injured during the Dunkirk evacuation. For two years he was nursed back to health from total exhaustion and blindness. It was the dedication shown by the nurses and staff that made up his mind that he should put something back into society — and he has!
Charlie joined the Territorial Army in 1938 training a couple of days each week at army bases in and around Birmingham. When war broke out his unit was mobilised right away.
“When we were mobilised we started stocking up with everything we needed, stores and things like that until we were ordered to France. We were a specialist unit, Signals, most of us were craftsmen or tradesmen. We were responsible for wireless, telephone and telegraph communications.”
Our transport and equipment went over on the ‘Belaron” and our personnel went over on the ‘Ben MacCree’ an old ferry steamer. As soon as we landed at LeHavre we started to move up.”
His unit eventually ended up just outside Brussels in Belgium having moved through France across the World War One battle fields of the Somme and Arras. All during this time there had been few shots fired in anger, the time was known as the ‘phoney’ war.
“There was nothing going on, occasionally an aircraft would come over for reconnaissance purposes but nobody took much notice of them and they went away. We moved up on the 8th of May 1940 and at last opened fire on the 10th. As we were going into action the Belgian army were coming out! There wasn’t much of a fight actually to be frank, our lines were broken and to prevent becoming encircled we had to pull back. We had to keep in constant contact but there was a radio silence so we had to lay land lines and maintain them. This was our biggest problem. They had to be patrolled every day otherwise we found that they were cut. It was very dangerous. I lost a line corporal and a couple of linesmen shot by snipers of the fifth column. We didn’t really know who our friends were. You could go out and get shot by somebody in the street.”
It is difficult to suggest to an old soldier that he was involved in a retreat so I asked Charlie to tell me what it was like during the ‘controlled fallback’ but he was ready for this.
“It was a strategic withdrawal,” he says as he laughs heartily, “but we were organised by that stage. It happened because we were badly equipped and our strategy was based on tactics used in the First World War. I was wounded at Tounai when our position came under fire from mortars or cannon. I got a slight wound in the tummy but I could still walk after I got patched up.”
It was about 13 kilometres outside of Dunkirk when the order came to abandon and destroy the signals equipment. The Royal Engineers did that job but Charlie giggles when he tells of his part in the demolition.
“It gave me great pleasure to put a hand grenade inside the radio sets and to dump the anti tank rifle into the Albert Canal. The rear guard action was fought by the PBI … Poor Bloody Infantry! When we got to the beach we did the same as everybody else, wait for somebody to take us off. It was chaos. We were dive bombed, shelled and mortared from five o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night. There were bodies everywhere. I cannot describe the noise. It was unbearable. I have seen grown men dig holes in the sand and put their heads in it just out of pure fear. Of the thirty two men in my unit only five came off the beach.”
I asked Charlie how it was decided who should go towards the boats and ships. Was anyone in control? He does not mince his words.
“They hadn’t got a clue! My officer disappeared way back and he took my motorcycle! All I could do was try to live. I just sat there and hoped that the next shell wasn’t for me. We sat there for six days, no cover, no fires, no food, dressed in the clothes we wore and when they got wet they stayed wet.”
Now Charlie begins to tell of his evacuation but it is a strange tale.
“We had just had a bombing raid and I was walking along the beach when there was this almighty bang then nothing. All I remember is something going off, it must have been a mortar or a shell because I didn’t hear a dive bomber. I never found out who brought me back, how I got back, what the boat was! I regained consciousness five days later in St. Dunstans hospital in Brighton. I was absolutely physically and mentally exhausted and I was blind”
Charlie spent the next two years in hospitals, undergoing operations and gradually regaining his sight. Upon discharge he reported to Scotland where his career in the development of flight simulators and wireless guidance systems began. Throughout the remainder of the war he worked behind the scenes assisting in the war effort.
These memoirs were transcribed by Steve Murphy and uploaded with Charlie Young's permission. Thank You Charlie!
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