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Dunkirk Remembered

by John Gilbert

Contributed by 
John Gilbert
People in story: 
George Douglas Gilbert
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 March 2004

Background note:
Douglas Gilbert was born on 5th March 1912 and joined the army on 16th October 1939. He joined the 3rd Searchlight Regiment Royal Artillery 9th Battery (CO was David Anderson of the Royal Belfast Golf Club and Anderson McAuleys store in Belfast).
He left Bangor, his home town in Northern Ireland, on 16th November 1939 for Borden and left Southampton on 16th Dec 1939 to join the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F) in France. He left the army on 27th October 1945 with the rank of Lieutenant in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers No. 232902. Douglas Gilbert died on 24th July 1998.

When giving me this book (Dunkirk: The Incredible Mistake by Norman Gelb), my son requested that I write my own experience of my escape from Dunkirk.
I think it best that I go back to the 9th May 1940 when I got my first leave since joining up on 16 October 1939. I arrived in Boulogne by train in the early morning and expected to get a boat to England; but as the train pulled in towards the station we looked out of the windows and saw planes, quite low overhead with German markings on the wings and thought we were going to be bombed.

However after some delay we got out at the station, were formed up and marched some miles to a French barracks where I remember seeing where French troops had evidently had a meal or breakfast as there were crusts of bread lying about on the ground. I was starving, we had not been fed for hours and I and I expect others, picked up some of the crusts and ate them. Sometime after this I remember seeing tins of Machonies rations being heated in an army boiler and we had some of these to ease our hunger.
Eventually an announcement was made that Germany had started an offensive and that the proper war had started, and we would all be returned to our units. I don’t remember how long it took me to get back to my Detachment under Sgt Adamason at a place called “Billy Montinly” some distance from Lens, however I was glad to be back with the Detachment of 10 or 12 men. I think we must have moved about 13th or 14th May and we passed through Arras then a General Headquarters of the British Army. On the 14th Night we set up camp in what I remember as a field, erected a bell tent and I think expected our equipment: mark 1X sound locator; searchlight; generator etc.

I awoke in the morning and remembered it was my father’s birthday, 15th May and very soon my friend Cecil Lee, with whom I had shared a blanket when we slept back to back in the coldest winter in France for 40 years, arrived on a motor bike, doing DR, with a message to pack up quickly and be at some meeting place as soon as possible as Jerry was up the road!! We eventually joined a convoy and moved rather slowly towards Dunkirk though I didn’t know it was Dunkirk we were making for. When our convoy stopped at night it was always in a quiet area or under trees and we put up a tent for the boys though the weather was wonderful and some slept outside.

We continued moving from one deserted spot to another and eventually we were 6 or 7 miles from the centre of Dunkirk, then on Monday morning (May 26th or 28th?) word came through to leave at once for Dunkirk in our lorries and then from 9am we moved on foot having made our lorries and equipment unusable. The sound locator that I was responsible for and operated as a one stripe Bomadier had a very powerful pair of binoculars attached to a part of the equipment and I decided I would take them with me as loot! I started off walking with my full pack, gas cape, Rifle, Tin hat, binoculars etc but air attacks with 25 or more planes every 20 minutes throughout the day made life very uncomfortable and I started leaving items behind as I moved from one spot to another.

I remember crossing one street behind Gunner McShane (McShane was a first war veteran with 2 or 3 medals on his breast, a tough old guy, a docker I think; and called by the guys the Brig or Brigadier. He carried a Lewis gun in lieu of a rifle (one being issued to each detachment). Well, as I crossed the street, a bomb came whistling down and I and the Brig threw ourselves flat on the ground — Gosh I said, that was near, but the Brig just said “near enough”. I expect he had heard many such noises. I eventually got into a cellar with a roof level with the street and a big building above. There were a few of our chaps in there too, but I only remember James Barbour (Barbours Linen Threads) and an officer from our Battery who prayed aloud most of the time especially when a raid was on and bombs falling. I was in the cellar a good many hours and eventually at night the cellar doors at street level opened and someone said the Navy were going to do a job for us. God Bless the Navy.

I was instructed to make for a burning house said to be near the beach. By this time I had disposed of nearly all of my equipment including some presents I had bought to take on leave. I could see enough to know there were some dead or dying lying about and I eventually sat down on an area of rye grass.
In the darkness one couldn’t just see who was near, there were clumps of people but I knew some of our chaps were within hearing distance. After I had been sitting on my own for some time with my hands around my knees and my knees under my chin, an officer came along and sat down in front of me and used my legs as a back rest. After a while he asked if I could spare him a cigarette. Now it so happened that some time before this I had been near a canteen van which was giving away its stock of goods, as we had earlier destroyed our equipment and I got several packets of cigarettes so I was able to give him a packet. He then asked if I still had my water bottle and when I said ‘yes’ he said his water bottle was full of rum: ‘give me yours and I’ll give you some — an exchange for the cigarettes’

I can’t remember all the places I visited between 9 am after leaving the lorries and equipment wrecked and leaving the cellar but one sticks in my mind: a small clump of trees, some fellows thought they could hide there from the bombs but I refused to go and was lucky because it was bombed and some chaps got hit. Now, about the officer that was sitting with me, he was a lieut Armstrong from a Battery in the 3rd Searchlight Regiment, I was with the 9th Battery but there was also 10, 11 and 12 Battery in the Regiment and he was one of these.

We sat there for a long time in darkness when someone shouted out to him that parties of 50 men were being formed under an officer and would he go and see if he could arrange to lead a party. Mr Armstrong went to see about this and soon came back to arrange and said ‘follow me’. We walked some distance, I think I was in the lead behind Armstrong when we came to this pier or wood jetty now known as the “mole”, about 4 feet wide and 1600 yards long, nearly a mile out to sea, with breaks in it here and there, repaired with loose planks; quite tricky in the dark without a torch! In due course we reached the gang plank and went aboard and I opened a door leading to a saloon and sat down beside men from my Battery and my own troop officer. MrArmstrong did not come aboard with me and said he was going back for more chaps.

I sat in the saloon with my boots unlaced in case we were sunk and although bombed, the bombs fortunately missed and we got across to Dover — who could not accept our ship so we went along to Folkestone and got in there. From Folkestone we were taken to the railway station for a special train to Bodmin, Cornwall, that is about as far West as they could take us. When the train stopped at stations people along the platform offered us sandwiches, cakes etc and we were all hungry.

Looking through my letters home I see I say we were 8 miles outside Dunkirk for a week before actually going in on Monday 27th May and raids every 20 minutes for 10 hours. Also in this letter I mention loosing one top front tooth: I remember well three or four of us were told to go to a spot covered with some bushes or whins to collect some rations, these were all tinned food; the chap with the rations started to throw the tins to us and a chap in front of me was carrying a basket which he raised to catch a flying tin of bacon, the tin ricocheted off the basket and hit my tooth, breaking it off level with the gum. The tooth root was actually cracked down to the bottom and was removed in a tented dentistry at our HQ site at Chute Causeway, Wiltshire sometime about June, July 1940.

I did not see my friend Cecil Lee until about early June and I asked him when did he leave Dunkirk. He said the 6th June, maybe the last man to leave. It seems he was lying in the sandhills behind the beach with another soldier whom he had met somewhere and a plane or planes came over machine gunning the sandhills, when the raid was over Cecil was OK and spoke to his friend, there was no answer — he was dead. This gave Cecil a bad shock he may have missed death by inches so he moved back into town. In the days that followed he came across a wounded soldier who couldn’t walk, so Cecil got him onto a bicycle and managed eventually to push him down to the beach and found his unit who took this wounded man but in spite of pleas by him, the unit would not take Cecil who eventually got away; he said about the 6th of June!

Earlier I mentioned James Barbour of Hilden, well it seems he was friendly with Gunner ‘Bogey’ Campbell and I was told that in Dunkirk an ammunition truck had been left in a street unattended and that ‘Bogey’ Campbell had got into the driver’s seat and driven the truck away. ‘Bogey’ Campbell was never seen again, I suppose the truck exploded. After the war James Barbour installed a lift in the Royal Victoria Hospital and beside the ground floor entrance I have seen a brass plate on the wall which it says: “Given in Memory of Gunner Bogey Campbell’ or words to that effect.

I did hear that Brig McShane, mentioned earlier, got onto a boat of some sort and the captain, seeing McShane with a Lewis gun, immediately recognised that he would be useful if the boat was attacked and got him a suitable location somewhere on the deck so that he could fire at any approaching enemy aircraft.

I am not myself a very religious man but I’m sure I prayed going through Dunkirk and at other frightening times since. I do know that I thought an unseen hand helped me through Dunkirk and I felt a very lucky person to be alive. On the first Sunday in England after returning I sought out a friend and went to church to give thanks.

George Douglas Gilbert
Text written March 1990

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