- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Albert Henry Powell
- Location of story:
- Dunkirk France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 12 November 2003
I was a lorry driver in the Royal Signals and had been in France since January 1940. Our unit was attached to the 3rd Corps, Medium Artillery HQ. At the start of the German invasion of Belgium we were moved there, to a village near Contrai [sic], to set up a signal station. On the surrender of the Belgian army we started to retreat, eventually getting to Poperinge, where it all started on 24 May.
Every man for himself
While in Poperinge we were heavily dive bombed and lost our OC, the officer commanding. We then started to drive towards Berques, but before we got there we were stopped at a crossroads by military police and told to get to Dunkirk. They told us it was every man for himself.
Further along the road we were stopped again and told to dump the lorry and go to the beaches at La Panne and proceed on foot. By this time our unit was gradually getting split up, so by the time we got to La Panne there were only four of us together in a chaotic situation.
Huddled together on the beaches
On the beaches we huddled together in the sand dunes for protection from the constant bombing and machine gunning from the air. The bombing was ineffectual, just blowing up loads of sand, but the machine gunning was another matter.
Lying across the scene was a huge cloud of smoke coming from the oil tanks on fire in Dunkirk.
Shot for jumping the queue
After a time, actually at dawn the next day, we were marshalled in groups of 50, under an officer or senior non-commissioned officer (NCO), and marched down to the water’s edge. A beach master, who called each group in turn, maintained discipline there. I saw one group run out of line, and the person in charge was promptly shot by the beachmaster.
Owing to the shallow draft of the beach the embarking drill was to get into a rowing boat or whaler first, which took us to a launch lying a distance off shore. This, in turn, took us to the larger vessels lying further off.
In the drink
On the way to the bigger ships the launch I was in was bombed. We didn't suffer a direct hit, though it was close enough to swamp the boat, and I found myself in the drink. It was a good job I could swim.
Having divested myself of my pack and so forth, I surfaced and looked around. I saw the ship was closer than the shore, so I struck out for it, a paddle steamer converted to minesweeper named the Medway Queen. After swimming approximately 50 yards, I arrived at the ship completely knackered and found myself hauled aboard.
Army-club fags and cocoa
Having only soaked fags, a squaddy came to my rescue and gave me a packet of army club. Later, one of the crew handed out cocoa, which was much appreciated.
When we had our full complement, we started to cross towards England. After a few scares from air attack, we arrived at Ramsgate. It was a good job it was a fine day because that way my clothes had been able to dry on me.
Cheers, and egg and chips
We disembarked and proceeded towards London with people cheering us on our way. We didn't deserve the cheers, but if anyone did it was the navy for getting us out.
The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) came to the rescue again, when we finally arrived at Devizes in the middle of the night on 2 June 1940. We were given two eggs and chips, and then kipped down in the gym on a mattress on the floor.
In the night we had a short arm inspection. I’d never seen anything so funny in all my life as that roomful of naked men standing at the foot of their beds. As the MD came round with his pencil, they collapsed back into their bunks.
A change of clothes and a pint
After two or three days in barracks we were gradually returned to our units.
The Signals were being reformed at Rhyl. There, at last, I was able to exchange my salt-encrusted battle dress and get a hat, so I could go out on the streets again and have a pint.
A new life for both of us
As a sequel to this, while on holiday with my family in 1958 on the Isle of Wight, imagine my surprise when I came across the Medway Queen. The former paddle steamer turned minesweeper was anchored on the Medina river, being used as a floating restaurant. Unfortunately, it was closed so we could not get aboard.
Sadly, she was to become nothing more eventually than a rotting hunk lying at berth in the Medway.
My father, who died last year, wrote this account of Dunkirk in 1998. I believe that the Medway Queen is finally being restored.
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