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The Road to Dunkerque — May 1940

by Guy Sidford

Kenneth Arthur Sidford c1941

Contributed by 
Guy Sidford
People in story: 
Kenneth Arthur Sidford
Location of story: 
Belgium, Dunkerque
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 May 2005

On May 10th, 1940 we advanced from our billets near Lille into Belgium and took up positions on the Dyle north of Brussels. There was very little action near us and we were surprised to get order a few days later to go back to our original billets near Lille. We were still more surprised, after another few days, to get more orders to destroy our guns and proceed in our transport towards the coast.

The Journey to the coast took two or three days. On the whole, food was short, no rations were available and we had to live off what we could find, mainly in abandoned farms. Bread was an unobtainable luxury, but we seemed to manage. I remember in one farm we found a fine wine cellar, and drank Napoleon Brandy out of mess tins. We had an ex-butcher in the unit; we caught a pig which he killed and dressed, so that we had a good meal.

We made our way onwards, through the first world war battlefields around Ypres, hardly impeded, though we saw some Stuka raids, but always at a convenient distance. Finally we arrived as a whole unit at the canal inland from Dunkerque, about half-way along, more or less opposite La Panne. There we were told that we would have to act as infantry and hold the line of the canal inland up to Nieuwpoort. To reach our positions we had to destroy all our heavy transport and take only light transport. Armed only with rifles and Boyes anti-tank rifles, we took up a position guarding a bridge over the canal, opposite Nieuwpoort. We hadn't a clue what was going on, and nothing seemes to be happening anyway where we were.

We settled in and waited, without knowing what we were waiting for.

A few shells came over and we took shelter, but that was all for the first day. No real action, no news, no food, but plenty of rumour. No food was the worst, and we went foraging. The only thing that we found was a French army lorry, abandoned and full of cases of tins... stacked full with tins of tomatoes and tins of 'Coxcombs'... and nothing else. Faute de mieux, we ate them. We slept on the ground. It was quiet where we were but could see bombs and shells and lights behind us, towards Dunkerque and on the beaches.

In the morning a French Light tank turned up to look over the situation, and attracted some fire from anti-tank guns. The shells screamed past the turret, but the Commander impressed us by seeming quite unimpressed himself, and he retired only after a good look round.

There evidently were Germans in Nieuwpoort and we had noted a house where fire was coming from. We had a few shots at it ourselves with no apparent result. The Germans made no attempt to get nearer. We spent the day in some sort of hiding along the canal bank, and watching the bridge, which had been blocked by a few lorries.

In the evening we were told that some infantry were taking over our position and we were to go down to the dunes at La Panne for evacuation. Our light transport was used for the last time to take us to the main road behind the dunes, and we made our way towards the beach, still in great doubt about what was happening and what we were to do next.

There were diver bombers about and I had lost my tin hat in the retreat across Belgium, so I looked round for another, as being just that bit safer. The only one I could find evidently had belonged to a casualty because it had a large hole in one side…. but better than nothing, I wore it.

We sat in the dunes all night and waited for orders. We waited.. and waited, and knew nothing of what was going on, except for the occasional dive bombing, which was more frightening than really dangerous because the result of a bomb going off was usually a big fountain of sand. Then, at last, we were told to move down to the beach.

There were little boats at the water’s edge, filling up and rowing out to larger vessels offshore. We got into one of the boats and were taken about a quarter-mile out to a destroyer, the ESK, where we were sent below and given a meal. The most glorious thing about this was that it included white bread — an unheard of luxury !

We were kept below, so saw nothing of the voyage, and the next thing we knew was that we were entering Dover Harbour. That must have been abouyt 28thy May. Tied up alongside, we went down the gangway to be welcomes by W.V.S. with tea and sandwiches, and small boys saying, “Coo, look at ‘im” on seeing my helmet with it’s hole.

Then we were loaded onto trains which left without a sign of where they were going. We recognized Olympia Station in London where we stopped briefly, and finished our journey at Maidenhead, The unit had been very lucky, not having more than a very few casualties.

After this experience, Service life seemed a bit pointless, with no prospects of action in the near future, and we had returned without guns. So I volunteered for transfer to the R.A.F. and re-trained as air-crew. Eventually I did a your of ops as Flt/Lieut. Pilot in Bomber Command… but that’s another story.

Kenneth A. Sidford.
14th March 1989.

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