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- Bill Towill
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- 25 February 2004
Dunkirk - The Luck of the Draw
The light from the small pocket flashlamp reflected from the open pages of the book and lit up the lower part of the face of the officer who was reading from it, but it scarcely reached the handful of us who stood around him, listening intently. It had no chance whatsoever of reaching out to the distant walls of the large room, where in the inky darkness the bodies of scores of British soldiers lay in orderly rows.
We had no hope of affording to them the benefit of a full Christian burial and Major XXXXX, our splendid officer, was doing the best thing he could by reading over them the burial service from his prayer book. He came to some quite amazing words, not often read at funeral services, but taken from Revelations 21, St John’s wondrous vision of the new Jerusalem.
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
It would be difficult to convey the great impact those words, in those special circumstances, made upon a very impressionable and religious 19 year old lad, but the scene has remained indelibly impressed on my memory in the 63 years and more since it happened and, no doubt, will continue to do so until my dying day. It was about 2am in the morning of Saturday, 1st June 1940 and we were in the Casino at a place called La Panne, on the seafront just inside the Belgian border and about 11 or 12 miles east of Dunkirk, from which practically all of the BEF had already been evacuated. The sorrow. pain and death which had filled all our waking moments during the last few weeks seemed to have eaten into our souls and it looked as if all hope had gone and these great words of hope brought a special uplift to our fainting spirits.
On conscientious grounds I was serving with a medical unit, the 11th Casualty Clearing Station. Early in the morning of the previous day, I came off night duty in the operating theatre to find the unit called on parade. We were told that the unit, of about 120 men, was about to move off to Dunkirk, but that they wanted some volunteers to stay behind with the wounded in our care. In quick succession the commands were given - “Volunteers, one step forward quick march - volunteers stand fast - remainder dismiss!”. Although we had had a rough time, morale in the unit was still high and more men than required volunteered. So the orders were given a second time. Again there were too many volunteers. So the orders were given for a third time and at the end of this five of us stood fast and joined 20 volunteers from other medical units at La Panne. to stay behind and do what we could to help our wounded and dying.
When the Blitzkreig started on 10th May, we were stationed at a sleepy little village called Pernois on the Somme, not far from Amiens, with a large war cemetery to mark the fearsome conflict which had taken place in that vicinity in July 1916 and later in that year.
With the start of the Blitzkreig, we moved forward into Belgium, but were steadily beaten backwards towards the coast. One of our most memorable staging posts was a wonderful old chateau at a place called Woumen, near Dixmude in Belgium. I was on night duty, there was a brilliant moon, almost full, and the night was full of the magical sound of the song of nightingales, who were singing their hearts out. It was the very first time in my life that I had heard them. I was entranced!.
Now we were at our very last staging post - La Panne - and the prospects were decidedly bleak. The Casino had previously been used by us as a rudimentary hospital, but under heavy shelling we had to leave it and move to a large underground shelter next door. The roof of the shelter was comprised of a large single span heavy steel latticework structure with the interstices filled with heavy glass lenses to let in the daylight. On the seaward side there was a wide flight of stone steps to give access to the shelter. The steps were sullied by human remains spattered over the walls, ceiling and steps - some unfortunate soldier seeking to avoid the shelling had sought refuge on the steps, only to be caught by a random shell
There was no time to mope. We were out on the beach, with our stretchers, looking around the recumbent forms, leaving the dead, but locating the wounded and taking them back to the shelter for what limited aid we could give them. We were still under heavy shellfire and the last remnants of the British forces were marching past us on their way to Dunkirk. As night fell it became very dark indeed - no moon or starlight - and we had to continue our efforts to rescue the wounded by the light of the bursting shells. Why we were not hit I don’t know, I just put it down to part and parcel of the miracle of Dunkirk, for make no mistake about it, the whole operation was nothing less than a miracle!.
Soon after Major XXXXXX had read the burial service the very last of our soldiers passed us on their way to Dunkirk, leaving us feeling very isolated and exposed. Then, just before first light, the major called us all together. He told us that the Germans were just down the road and would be arriving shortly. There was no need for all of us to stay and be taken prisoner, so we would draw lots. He put 25 pieces of paper in his hat, 8 of them were numbered; if we drew a number we would have to stay and be taken prisoner, but the remainder could leave and try to get to Dunkirk and, hopefully, a boat to freedom. Shakily, I put my hand into the hat and found I had drawn a blank and with the others we set off along the beach, littered with bodies and discarded equipment and vehicles.
Just In front of the Casino the Bofors AA gun, which we had cheered into action, lay silent and abandoned and the beach itself was eerily deserted. Loitering was not going to be an option if we were to escape capture. After a while we stopped for a breather at a long line of trucks that had been driven head to toe out into the sea, to form a rudimentary jetty, from which soldiers could embark on to small boats and be loaded on to larger vessels further off the beach. In the half light we saw a fighter plane out at sea turn and head towards us. We couldn’t tell whether it was one of ours or an enemy. Then we saw lights twinkling along the leading edges of its wings and in a trice we were in a storm of machine gun bullets and cannon shells, but mercifully none of us was hit. He was, of course, trying to set the line of lorries on fire, we were much too small fry to attract his attention.
Not long afterwards we came to a flimsy barbed wire fence marking the boundary between Belgium and France and had little difficulty in getting through on to French soil. Our progress was slow, since from time to time we tried, without success, to re-launch boats which were stranded on the beach Added to this we were under a lot of shellfire and attacks from strafing aircraft.
As we neared Dunkirk it looked and sounded like an outpost of Hell. A thick cloud of black smoke from burning oil tanks hung like a heavy shroud over the whole of the western sky, blotting out the sun, fires were burning everywhere out of control, shell bursts dotted the beach, which was littered with bodies, cast off equipment and the wrecks of vehicles and boats. Out to sea and just off the eastern Mole, which was a jetty, about 500 yards long, built of timber, ships were under attack from Stuka dive bombers emitting their unnerving, wailing screams. Some ships had suffered direct hits and were sinking. Enemy fighter aircraft were making low level strafing runs against the soldiers dug into the sand and there was the constant crash and thunder of the artillery bombardment. Dante’s Inferno would have seemed a Sunday afternoon picnic in comparison and our hearts sank as we tried to rate our chances of getting away.
Very late in the evening, the attack slackened and soldiers were trying to make their way along the eastern Mole,, leading out at right angles from a wide concrete wall, on the other side of which was a canal, so we joined the queue. Looking over the wall and down to the canal, I saw lying below me alongside the canal, a number of British dead, oddly enough all with the same type of injury. The tops of their skulls had been taken off as if with a can opener. I suppose they must have been caught by air burst shells and it was obviously not a very healthy place to be. However, we queued all night, making little progress, six abreast, three Tommies on the right and three Frenchmen on the left. As dawn approached we had to leave the Mole, since this then became a special target for the German artillery. We linked up with the Green Howards, who were digging in an area of sand dunes just above the beach line, to loud exhortations from their sergeant major to “Dig or die!!”.
We decided not to intrude on their space and moved further down the beach towards the sea. And so another uncomfortable sleepless night had passed bringing us to the beginning of a new day, Sunday 2nd June. Although we did not know this, the Navy had determined that this was to be the last day of the evacuation, so if we did manage to escape, it would be, as the Duke of Wellington famously remarked at Waterloo - “A damn close run thing!!” Early that morning Admiral Wake-Walker had returned to Dover from Dunkirk and reported to Admiral Ramsay that about 5,000 British and 30,000 to 40,000 French still remained. About 340,000 British had already been evacuated, so we were indeed the last dregs in the bottle. Ramsay signaled his whole command:-
“The final evacuation is staged for tonight and the Nation looks to the Navy to see this through. I want every ship to report as soon as possible whether she is fit and ready to meet the call which has been made on our courage and endurance.”
That call was indeed immense for the naval losses were almost unbelievable. Of the 848 ships, 235 were lost though enemy action or other causes and destroyers took the greatest beating - 9 sunk, 5 of them French, and 19 damaged. (For these and other such details, obviously not within my personal knowledge see, for example - “The Miracle of Dunkirk” by WalterLord and “The Sands of Dunkirk” by Richard Collier).The fearsome Stuka dive bombers were responsible for a large proportion of those losses. And the sight and sound of those attacks going home and succeeding was one of the chief horrors for those on the beaches. It wasn’t so much the vessels themselves, as the fate of the crew and men on board, who thought they had been rescued, but weren’t.
For us on the beaches, the constant shelling and strafing continued relentlessly and on three occasions we were nearly buried by near misses and had to dig ourselves out. We had no food or water, nor any hope of getting any, but that was the least of our problems. There was time for me to resolve my problem of conscience. During our retreat I’d been greatly disturbed by seeing the merciless strafing of the pitiful columns of refugees, and now, under relentless attack, all I wanted to do was to hit back and to do so as hard as I could. Scarcely without appreciating it, I had become convinced that the use of arms was more than fully justified.
Near the landward end of the mole, Commander Clouston of the Royal Navy was in charge of the embarkation. In the very finest traditions of the Senior Service, he was the epitome of calm, amidst all the tumult , a great inspiration to us all. It is a matter of profound regret that this supremely courageous man, who had been personally responsible for aiding so many thousands of our men to safety, was not himself to escape the cauldron of Dunkirk. His boat was sunk by Stukas and he was not rescued.
Then, late in the evening, as if a magic wand had been waved, all the strafing, shelling and bombing stopped and we were able to clamber out of our holes in the sand and walk in an orderly fashion on to the Mole, clambering around the gaps blown in the decking by shellfire to board a waiting ship. It was Sunday evening and, throughout our beloved homeland, churches in cities, towns, villages and hamlets had been crowded with those thanking God for the return of so many of their boys and praying for the safe return of the few who were still out there. I don’t know what sort of ship I came back on. Once aboard, I fell down and passed out - not surprising, since I had had no sleep for three days and three nights. At 10. 50 pm, Captain Tennant signalled Admiral Ramsay triumphantly- “BEF evacuated” - so we had just made it!.
In broad daylight, the next morning 3rd June, at Dover we were welcomed by a drill sergeant from the Guards in khaki, adorned with a red sash, pace stick under arm, boots bulled so that you could see your face in them, who bawled at us to pull ourselves together and did we think we’d been on a Sunday school outing!!. A great feeling of rage swept over me - I wanted to go and punch his smug face in. But then, within seconds, I realised that his was the right touch, even if couched too provocatively, and I felt a strange pride that I was part of an army which could take such a thrashing and yet react in this way. As the train ferried us northwards, there were folk all along the way cheering us to the echo, as if we were heroes, and my first feeling was one of acute embarrassment - what had we done to justify such a welcome. We’d been beaten to a pulp and run away like a dog with its tail between its legs and it took some time to enter into the spirit of our reception. When we stopped at stations there were crowds of wonderful women pressing us with tea and sandwiches.
Not long afterwards, I was recommended for a commission and eventually sailed out to India, was trained at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun (the Indian equivalent of Sandhurst) and commissioned into the XXX Gurkha Rifles and served in their 3rd battalion in India, Burma, Malaya and Java. - and most important of all, met Pamela, to whom I have been wonderfully happily married for 55 years. I often look back to that simple act of plucking a scrap of paper out of a hat as one of the most important things I have ever done in my whole life. What if I had plucked a number instead of a blank?. How different life would have been and how greatly impoverished.
About 15 years after the War I went back to France. In Pernois, I clambered up into the loft above the mill and saw the shutter with the nominal roll of the occupants, including my own name, still chalked on it. At La Panne, the underground shelter was still there, but with a notice board outside, proclaiming it to be - “Cave de Bop”!.
My wife and I went back to Dunkirk again in June 1990 for the 50th anniversary celebrations. In our party was a wonderful old lady, who had suffered grievously from the War. Her first husband had died of wounds in the dressing station under the Mole. The Mole, of timber construction, had long since disappeared, but, from the residual timbers embedded in the concrete of the canal wall, I was able to show her where the dressing station had been.. She had remarried, but her second husband too had been killed in the War. She was very much of a grande dame, all her male relatives were old Etonians and after returning from Dunkirk, she was going to the college for celebrations to mark the 450th anniversary of its founding by Henry VI in 1540. But our special 50th anniversary was not attended by our top brass. The best we could manage was a brigadier, who was our military attache in Paris and also XXXXXX, the Defence Secretary, who, as the grande dame remarked -“We could well have done without”. By contrast - later that same year we went out to Neuve Chapelle, in which my regiment, the XXX Gurkha Rifles, had taken part, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the battle and this was attended by the Duke of Kent and a plethora of generals and field marshals. The establishment would like to bury Dunkirk, but we who were there can’t.
I have very few mementoes of the War, but I treasure a small pewter hip flask in a battered white cardboard box, with a slip of paper in the major’s hand, saying - “Pte xxxxx. To commemorate some thirsty hours spent together on Dunkirk Beach June 1st & 2nd 1940. J L Lovibond Major RAMC”
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