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Beginner's Luck

by Vic Chanter

Contributed by 
Vic Chanter
People in story: 
Vic Chanter
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Background to story: 
Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
11 February 2004

Mr E.E. Oakland, a Dunkirk Veteran, in the full knowledge of the BBC WW2 website conditions, submitted the following story to me for publication.

Beginner’s Luck
By 1914426 Sapper E. E. Oakland R.E.

When the war started in September 1939 I had just passed my 23rd birthday, and had been married for fourteen months. Our son, who has turned out to be our only child, was born a few weeks later, near the end of October.
I was a joiner in the building trade, but after a bit of a rush, erecting air raid shelters, all the building came to a halt by Christmas and, as I did not fancy the prospect of unemployment whilst waiting to be called up into the armed forces, I suggested to my wife that I may as well join up in the new year.
I was so naïve in those days that I went to the Army recruiting office and told them that I wanted to join the Navy. Without hesitation the sergeant in charge told me that the Navy was full up but that tradesmen were required in the Royal Engineers, and that it was the highest paid branch of the British Army.
He assured me that I would be kept in England, building camps; that I would be very unlikely to ever go abroad. He then sent me off to get a reference from my boss to prove that I was a carpenter and joiner.
I think I saw about 14 doctors before being passed A1 and receiving the ‘King’s Shilling’. The amount was actually six shillings, so I think they were trying to make me feel welcome.
Three days later, I had to report to the Chatham Barracks, as Sapper Oakland, tradesman grade three. My pay of three shillings a day was 50 per cent higher than I would have received in the infantry.

For the next three weeks, we were kitted out (partially), marched around, vaccinated and inoculated, and by about the 10th February 1940 I was with the BEF in France.
We were set the task of building concrete landing strips for the RAF and the only tool that I ever used was a shovel.
By early May, we had just about made everything ready, when General Gort VC came along to inspect us - and to look at the job. I think that the Germans waited until the tenth of May, to make their breakthrough, just so they could make use of our landing areas!
When news of the advance came through, we were ordered to dig deep trenches all around our camp in World War 1 style.
After a day or two, we set off and crossed into Belgium, and were issued with 50 rounds of ammunition. One of my friends showed me how to load my rifle by removing the magazine and packing the cartridges into it. It was sometime later that I discovered there was an easier way.
At times, we were very close to the Germans, without actually coming face to face. Once we were resting in a farmyard when two German fighter aircraft came hedge-hopping and raked us with machine-gun fire. I believe that I still hold the unofficial world record for the sideways leap.
We did not get much sleep at all during this period. At one time, when we rested up at a farm, I watched the other fellows climb up into a loft, but I was too tired for that, and crawled into a stable along with a horse; there I slept on a pile of straw. Once, on a canal patrol, I leaned against a gate and must have nodded off, only waking up when my legs buckled beneath me.

Eventually, all our men with previous experience were detailed off to fall back to help blowing up bridges. There were about 50 of them, and we never saw them again.
We were then given orders to make for the coast. We had long since left our transport behind as soon as the fuel ran out. It seemed that we had walked all over Belgium and Northern France.

The Beaches
Eventually, we arrived at Dunkerque - which was already very badly damaged — and we finished up on the beach just north of the town.
It was 36 hours later that I left that part of the beach, during which time Stuka dive-bombers seemed to attack at regular 20-minute intervals. All one could do was to shrink back into the sands or burrow into the dunes as the aircraft came over. It was a peculiar sensation to see bombs leaving a plane - waiting - but a strange kind of relief to feel and hear the blast of the explosions, knowing you had survived.

In the late afternoon of May 29th I finally climbed into a boat. Several of us had been put on guard to ensure that everyone went in turn, but I saw no one attempt to gatecrash. It meant, however, that by this time there were very few of my unit left; this included our second in command, Captain Coburn, who had been in the sea all day, helping to steady the boats while men scrambled in.
Sailors of the destroyer, HMS Grafton, rowed the boat I was in. They took us to their ship and we scaled the scrambling nets. Once aboard, we were met by the Duty Naval Officer who ordered us to climb down and leave the ship, which was already overloaded. It crossed my mind to mention that I was only 5 feet 4 inches tall, and weighed only 9½ stone — but you can’t argue with an officer.
Our next attempt was to board the destroyer HMS Wakeful, where we went through the same procedure, before being sent on our way again
It was third time lucky as we were greeted aboard HMS Vivacious, where I went below to be given the most memorable meal of my life: bread, margarine and herrings with a mug of cocoa. Above us the guns were in action against the aircraft — but I was ‘home and dry’.

The Aftermath
We later learned that Grafton and Wakeful were both torpedoed during that night. Wakeful was cut in half and sank within a few seconds with the loss of 700 men — 600 of which were soldiers who had gone below decks. There were only a few survivors.
HMS Grafton, in the same area, slowed to assist, but was hit by two torpedoes. One torpedo hit the officers’ wardroom, killing 35 army officers, one of which was our officer, Captain Coburn. On hearing the news, I shed tears.
He had been not only a brave man, but thoughtful to his men. For my part, he had been kind and given me sound advice. When, a few weeks earlier, I had expressed a desire to become a dispatch rider, he talked me out of it by showing me the pitfalls and how much worse off I would be. He wasn’t to know how right he was, as the chap who took the job was shot in the foot and acquired a permanent limp.

My Gratitude
Most stories of Dunkerque tell of the little ships, but my involvement was entirely with the Royal Navy.
I believe, to this day, that the men who rowed me out from the beach, lost their lives when HMS Grafton went down, and any naval man can have a drink at my expense any time.
The Royal Navy gave me 60 more years of life (so far), and my wife and I managed a Diamond Wedding celebration, before she died, 59 years after I was rescued from the beaches.
Although we were a working unit 671 General Construction Company, Royal Engineers, we lost about 50 men killed, and a similar number taken prisoner. Of our six officers, three were killed and one was taken prisoner.
My most sincere thanks to the Royal Navy.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Beginner's Luck

Posted on: 08 December 2005 by Jack Colbourne

It was most interesting to read Mr Oakland's account of his experiences at Dunkirk. As a footnote to this, I believe that the officer "Captain Coburn" to whom Mr Oakland refers was almost certainly my grandfather (and namesake), Captain Jack Herbert Colbourne, 671 General Construction Company, Royal Engineers. As Mr Oakland describes in his memoir, my grandfather (who as a civilian had been a civil engineer) was killed when HMS Grafton was torpedoed on the night of 29 May 1940. My grandfather was 31 years old when he died.

Jack Colbourne

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