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15 October 2014
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From Dunkirk to Dad's Army

by kegshpa

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Archive List > World > France

Contributed by 
kegshpa
People in story: 
Stan Church
Location of story: 
Dunkirk and Chelmsford (Essex)
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A8469606
Contributed on: 
12 January 2006

Stan Church went to a grammar school in North London, which was an adapted old mansion. He found out later that he was at school at the same time as Peter Sallis, who plays Cleg in ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ and Wallace in ‘Wallace and Gromit’. He wrote to him recently, and received a card from him. His mother was a publican in the Green Dragon in North London and then moved to the Golden Fleece in Brentwood. After that, she took over the Nag’s Head in Baddow Road. Stan and his brother joined Marconi and both started on the shop floor as instrument makers. As conscription was in action, he decided to choose which division of the army he wanted to be in so he joined the Territorial Army (TA) at Stratford. They were called the 54th East Anglian Division of Signals. When war was declared, he and his division were at Shorncliffe in Kent. They went into their mobilisation stalls and were in France by the end of September. This was the period called the Phoney War. They moved through France and ended up in Lille near the Belgian border. There, they maintained equipment. On May 10th, when war became active, his regiment moved into Brussels. They were outflanked by the Germans and were trapped in a pocket. Space around them got tighter and tighter. Despite not being in the front line, his division was always ready if enemy troops broke through the front line. They were trained in using arms. The situation was getting perilous and they knew that they would have to evacuate. The French and Belgians were holding the line with them, but the Belgians packed up and surrendered, which left a big hole in the line. The Germans poured through the hole and it looked as though they were not going to get out. It was decided by Churchill and the war cabinet that they would evacuate as many troops as they could. They set in motion a fleet of ships, mainly warships such as destroyers, which were going to come over and take them over the Channel from the town of Dunkirk. They destroyed their vehicles, because if all the vehicles were taken to Dunkirk, the roads would have been very congested. They started marched towards Dunkirk in the morning and reached there by nightfall on the 27th of May. Dunkirk was easily visible because the oil reservoirs there had already been bombed and this created a huge plume of smoke that could be seen for miles. On the way to Dunkirk, they had to take shelter by diving into ditches to avoid the hoards of Luftwaffe aircraft overhead raining down bombs on them. They spent the night and the next day on the beach, while the navy tried to bring small boats in to evacuate them, but it was a slow process. They were bombed and strafed on the beach, but because they were on the beach, the troops could dig themselves shelter against the bombs that were constantly coming down. Stan made his way to the Destroyer and boarded it, and made they made their way back to England being careful to avoid the mines that had been planted in the Channel. They were greeted as heroes, even though they had been beaten and forced to give up all their equipment. The Germans had been planning this operation for a long time and their army was very well equipped, and the Territorial Army was only a small army who were not used to open warfare. All their equipment except for rifles was left in France. After Dunkirk, preparations were made for a German invasion. Stan went with his unit to Broadlands in Hampshire, and that was his division’s headquarters. After joining this centre, he was asked to go for an interview to be seconded to the RAF. He went to Uxbridge for a test, passed it and was posted to the RAF at a place called Upper Hayford in Oxfordshire which was an operational training unit. Over there, there were Hansen and Hamden bombers. Their job was to maintain the equipment, both wireless and flare piles which were large beacon pipes which were switched on when the bombers had taken off or returned. Stan enjoyed this job as he said, “A blue job’s better than a brown job.” He was again posted to his unit in the Territorial Army, but was put on reserve and had to stay home because he was of more use making equipment back at Marconi as an instrument maker because the army had lost so much equipment. During that time he worked on equipment which was known as ‘bending the beam’. This was producing transmitters which sent out false radio signals to direct German bombers away from areas that were vulnerable to bombing. He also made radar for the navy, of which the later versions played a big part in helping to win the Battle of the Atlantic. He also joined the Home Guard. He joined in the D-Company which covered Springfield. He did fire watching at night time to watch out for incendiaries dropped in the air raids. He compares his experience in the Home Guard to the comedy series Dad’s Army because of many similarities to the characters among his comrades. The territorial headquarters were based near the multi-storey car park in Parkway. They used to have to mount guard at night, and they had a regular soldier there, a sergeant whose job was to instruct the home guard. Many of the home guard were soldiers who fought in World War One, but some had never been in the army. He says there was a lot of aerial activity over Chelmsford, where Marconi was bombed, and Hoffman’s was hit three times. Stan said that the worst raids were in the latter part of the war, where the Germans deployed flying bombs called V1s or ‘Doodlebugs’. These bombs terrified the public because they made a loud screeching sound as they flew through the air. The third attack on Hoffman’s was by a V2 rocket which caused much devastation. There were three other raids just on Chelmsford itself. During that time, Stan was working nights at Marconi and narrowly escaped being hit, as the four buildings next to Marconi were destroyed at the same time. Marconi was the next building in line, fortunately for Stan, the German pilot ran out of bombs. He said that there wasn’t as much bombing on Chelmsford as there was on London, Coventry or Liverpool, but there was enough to cause heartache among the public. At that time, the Americans arrived and built airfields all around Chelmsford, the nearest one being Boreham. They had two airforces: the eighth air force, a strategic airforce, which had Liberator bombers and B-19 Flying Fortresses and the ninth airforce, a tactical airforce which had twin engined B-25 and B-26 plane which had a shorter range. They were based here so that they could support the D-Day invasion. Stan said that the Americans got up to a lot of mischief such as getting into fights at dance halls and stealing local people’s bikes. He said that there were many comical episodes that happened that made him and his comrades laugh. One such episode concerned a rocket battery where twenty pairs of rockets were poised to counteract air raids. One night during an air raid, the sirens sounded and the 40 rockets were launched. 38 of them went towards the advancing Luftwaffe planes, but one unfortunate person had got their coordinates 180º in the opposite direction. Two rockets went flying in the opposite direction and were nowhere near their target. Another such mishap occurred in August. It was a hot night, so the home guard took off their clothes and got in the cooling ponds. Suddenly the air raid siren went off and the soldiers got out of the ponds equipped with boots and rifle, but nothing else! Stan said that being in the Home Guard was similar to being in Dad’s Army because of all the hilarious mishaps such this that occurred. At VE Day, there was a big celebration at his mother’s pub in Baddow Road. However, at VJ Day, after the atomic bombs were dropped on the two Japanese cities, Stan felt that warfare would never be the same again and felt quite disconcerted. He felt that winning the war opened a new chapter of the future. After the war, Stan went back to work at Marconi. He currently works with the British Trust and Conservation Volunteers and lives a reasonable healthy life.

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