- Contributed by
- BBC Radio Norfolk Action Desk
- People in story:
- Edmund William Mitchell
- Location of story:
- London, Norfolk, Bristol, Tourcoring, Belgium, France, Wales
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 November 2005
The following excerpt comes from “An Ordinary Man” written by Edward Mitchell, and is the third and final included section that tells his story in his own words.
After training as a Military Police Officer, Edmund ‘Mitch’ Mitchell was stationed in Regent Park Barracks, London at the beginning of September 1939. ‘Mitch’ finds himself stationed in Europe, miles from his beloved Peg and facing the build-up to D-Day.
The next day the men were detailed to dig big holes, and bury all the stores that were not needed, then our Section was detailed to police the route from La Pane to Dunkirk, as we were told the 4th Div would be coming through that route during the afternoon and night, and then be assembled at a given area, and then evacuated.
I had been given one man from RASC to help police the route. I put him in the square in La Pane, and put the rest of the men on point duty at different road junctions, and made our small HQ on the sand dunes just east of Dunkirk. We still had our cooking stove and water so I brewed up and settled down to await the units, but nobody came! I was planning to change the men on point duty at about midnight, but as nobody had come through by 11pm, I decided to go along the route to find out what had happened, the men were still positioned on the different crossroads, but had seen nothing of the 4th Division, so I pushed on to La Panne in the truck. On the outskirts of La Panne I was stopped by a sentry and an Officer of the Coldstream Guards. I checked their identity as I was beginning to trust no-one. They asked me what we were doing, and I told them we were policing the route for the 4th Division. The Officer told me that the 4th Division had gone off the beach that day, and that I had better get the hell out of there. I said I’d still got one man in La Panne and must get him out. “Your baby”, he said, “but La Panne is under heavy mortar fire”.
I took L/Cpl. Farnes’s motorcycle, which was on that road junction, and set off into La Panne, before I went I told Sid and Farnie to put the truck under a big wall by the cemetry and wait. I had just got into the suburb of La Panne when a bloody telephone wire nearly cut my throat, there were wires down everywhere, and it got round the wheels of the bike; after managing to get a bit further, I discovered the fuel tank was leaking badly, so I ditched the motorcycle. I walked into the square where I had left the RASC man; I searched everywhere, called out to him, went into the shops, but could not contact him. Then I saw a cinema, with lots of civilians sheltering in the entrance, I asked if they had seen an English soldier, they answered yes he was inside. He had been hit slightly in the head, and they had kindly put a bandage on. I said, “Come on, we are getting out of here”, so we walked and ran back to where I had left the truck.
It was beginning to get light, so I said, “Come on they will be at the next crossroads” so we walked there, but again no truck! I was so wild I could have shot Sid for moving, then I saw ‘Mitch — gone to Dyson’, chalked on the road. He was the next pointsman, three miles away! I was beginning to despair, but said to the RASC chap, “Come on we’ll make it”. It was extremely warm, and we were both tired and hungry, then I saw some loose Belgium Army horses in a marsh, so I got two near the gate, humped up the RASC man then tried to mount mine. Every time I got on the gate to mount, the bugger moved away, I tried several times, and then gave up. While we were sitting on the road side, along came two Privates from the East Surrey Regiment, part of the 4th Division who were lost, and wanted to know where the beach was. I answered, “Only over those sand dunes, but what’s the point of getting on the beach, if there are no boats!” Still they set off down the road. We sat for a little longer, and then began to walk towards Dunkirk and in a ditch I saw a Triumph motorcycle. I have since thought of all this, and now think someone ‘UP THERE’ must have been looking after me, because we got this motorcycle out of the ditch, it had half a tank of petrol, and after about two or three kicks, it started up. There was a great deal of wire around the wheels, but I got into third gear, and went slowly along the road towards my HQ. I soon caught up the two 4th Division chaps, so I put two on the pillion and one on the tank and away we went. At the next crossroads — still no truck, but the old Triumph kept going; then, within half a mile of where I made our HQ a shell or bomb exploded in a small garden close by the road, I swerved and into a ditch we all went. Nobody was hurt so we scrambled out, and I led the way across the dunes to the place where I had made our HQ. I didn’t know what to expect, I half thought I’d find nobody there, but there they all sat, just looking out to sea. Boy! was Sid surprised to see me; I exploded and shouted, “I’m quite at liberty to shoot you Sid, for desertion!” Poor old Sid went two shades of grey, I said, “Right! everyman for himself from now on, do what you bloody well like.” The Sgt and the other full Cpl were still with us. After a rest, I saw what looked like a Thames sailing barge three to four hundred yards out in the sea. I said I wanted two volunteers to swim out to the boat and try to man-handle it nearer the beach so we could get everybody away, but NO volunteers came forward, so we just sat there.
Well, my Guardian Angel must have again took over, because for no reason whatever, I got up and walked down to the sea edge, then started walking on the hard sand towards what looked like a high concrete wall. I looked behind and the whole Section was following behind me. I stopped and detailed four men to go back and set fire to the truck and motorcycles. That didn’t take long and when they joined up, I started for the wall. As we got nearer I could see a person waving his arms about and shouting, we began to run, and when we were below him, he asked who we were. I told him 4th Prov. “Get up here quick!” he shouted, “the last boat is sailing NOW!” Well we could not scramble up that wall; it was 14 — 20 feet high and covered in seaweed, so was very slimy and slippery. I told the tallest man to lay against the wall, then got another man to get on his shoulders, and so we reached the top, pulling each man up in turn. On top of the mole there were plenty of dead British and French soldiers laying about, and as I had lost my tin hat, I grabbed one, as the Officer doubled us to the Destroyer. The Matloos had the mooring ropes off the bollards, and no sooner we were on and bundled down a rear stairway, we were off. The only place to stand was on the stairs. Right at the bottom of the stairs were two sailors, we asked them which ship this was, and was told the Destroyer Winchelsea, and then the fun started…… All the guns up above started firing, and the reason those sailors were at the bottom of the stairs, was to hand the shells up to the rear gun, so that’s what we had to do as we were on the stairs. You could feel the ship swerving to avoid the attacking enemy aircraft. We couldn’t see a thing, and I thought I’d rather be at the top, so I could get over the side pretty smartly if we were hit.
Then a shout came down, “Cut off the rope from the shells”, round each of the shells was what seemed to me like a thick piece of tarred rope, so as I still had my Jack Knife, I cut the rope. We had been going for about half an hour when, OH BOY! there was a terrific explosion, and the ship healed over and seemed to stay there. Then all the lights went out and all we could see was daylight at the top of the stairs. Well I wanted to get out and over the side, I did not want to be drowned like a rat in a cage, so we started pushing and struggling to get out on deck, but a Navy PO shouted, “Stay where you are!” and actually kicked at the first man trying to get out.
I was very angry as I certainly thought the ship was going over, but she gradually righted herself and the guns started firing again, and we began the shell chain in the dark. Then, Lo and Behold, the lights came on — Emergency lighting, we were told. Then an Officer called down to the sailors, “Any water in there?”, “None Sir”, came the reply, and I began to feel a bit easier. After a while the guns stopped firing, and I felt the speed decrease and eventually we stopped. We were ordered up on deck, and I saw we were alongside a harbour wall and the people were speaking ENGLISH, so we were HOME.
The Section disembarked, and a sorry sight we looked, dirty, unshaven, no hats, my hands were black from the tar on the shell ropes. We were hurried along the quay to a platform where two trains were pulled on each side, and MP’s, all clean with red tops on their hats, newly blancoed equipment, were ordering anyone who had arms to put them on a pile on the platform. I dumped my .38 revolver, then we were divided into the trains — one in one side, one in the other. I tried hard to keep the Section together, but we were split up, but I made sure I had Sid in my compartment. I realised now that I only had five of the Section, but I was getting beyond caring. Before we left I asked a railway chap where we were, and he whispered Dover, I thought why the hell whisper, Jerry seems to know everything. I got into a corner seat and fell asleep.
I was brought back into this world again by Sid shaking me and saying, “Here Corp. cup of char and a rock cake.” The train was stopped in a station and we found out it was Reading. I soon put away the tea and cake, and before the train had moved, I was asleep again. Next time I was woken by shouts of “Everybody out!”. I woke the rest of the men in the compartment, and found I still had five of the Section with me. I never saw the Section Sgt or the other Cpl again.
It was pitch black on the platform and mist was swirling about, I thought hell-fire, we are in Heaven, and we must have bought one. Then an NCO shouted “Fall in over here”, we were shepherded out of the station, and detailed into trucks. I made sure I kept the CMP together, we were driven about four miles along a country toad, always going up hill, as the trucks did not get into top gear. In the half-light of a June night, we could see from out the back of the truck that we were being taken into some kind of camp.
The trucks stopped and we all got out, we were taken to a big tent and given a mug of tea and a corned beef sandwich, then we were taken to bell tents where we were given two blankets per man and a palliasse, we soon had our boots off and were under the blankets fast asleep. The sun was well up before we woke and I told the Section that I would go down to see the OC with the view of getting the first train to Mytchett — the CMP Depot, as I knew that’s where we had to go. As I walked through the camp I noticed it was full of odds and sods, from all sorts of different Regiments of the Army. I asked a Corporal how long he had been there, and he told me three days, and we were in Wales, just outside Porthcawl. I found the Orderly Room tent, and asked to see the OC, but was told by a CSM that there would be a parade of all ranks at 11.00hrs, and all details would be given out. All the men in BEF paraded at 11.00hrs, and what a sorry sight we all looked. I felt ashamed to be a British soldier, and hoped we would soon be kitted out again and have another go at Jerry.
The Commanding Officer said we were the guests of a Territorial Army Welch Regiment, and would have to remain there until he received orders as to where we would go. They would do their best to feed us and give us some clothes and money, and we were to conduct ourselves in the manner of the British Army, and not a defeated mob. Well, I thought that’s choice, he ought to have seen the roads around Dunkirk and La Panne. He should have said, our leaders have got us into an unholy mess, and now we have got to get out of it. This began years before the war — in 1939.
After we were dismissed, I found out what time Pay Parade was, and also got a few items of clothing from the QM for our Section. They couldn’t give us much — one pair of socks each, 2 or 3 ‘fore and aft’ hats, and the large sum of 10/- each man. I told the Section that I would pester the Orderly Room each day until they sent us to Mytchett. This I did, but did not get far, as we spent about 10 days in that camp, and only had one more Pay Parade of 10/-.
I cannot remember what the date was when we landed at Dover, but I know it was sometime in June, but I can remember we spent one weekend at Porthcawl, and decided to walk into town to look round and have a drink. What a shock we all got, they didn’t seem to know there was a war on, and that Jerry was only 21 miles away across the Channel. All the holiday makers were lying about in deckchairs sunbathing; the place didn’t seem to be affected at all by the war. The people stared at us as if we were something from another planet, and I suppose we did look a ‘rag-a-muffin’ lot — we were all wearing Army plimsolls, not boots, some had a hat and others not. The chaps said they would love a drink, so I asked a fellow where a decent pub was, “Why, look you man,” he said, “No pubs open in Wales on a Sunday”. So I asked where we could get a drink and he answered, “Well look you man, you could try the Club over there”. The Club looked a very posh place, but all trooped in and made our way to the bar, we got a lot of old fashioned looks, and before I could order five pints a very distinguished looking gentleman came up to me and said, “Excuse me Corporal, are you members of the Club?” What a thing to ask, I said no, so he said, “Well only Club members are allowed in here, so I must ask you to leave, all of you.” Well, when I told Sid and company it was all I could do to stop them tearing the place apart, but I got them out and we walked back to the camp — ‘ALL DUNKIRK HEROES’, and had a tea in the NAFFI tent.
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