- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Bob Bloom
- Location of story:
- Dunkirk, France
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 February 2004
I joined the Royal Navy in 1938. I'd been on the Parkstone boats on the continental services for six months and they paid us off at the end of the season, so I decided that I would join the Royal Navy. I did my disciplinary course in Chatham Barracks and then transferred up to the Royal Naval Hospital in Gillingham where I proceeded to take various lectures and learn the craft of nursing until the war started.
I was still a probationary when the war started and a few weeks afterwards I took my examination and passed out. Then one day a notice went up asking for volunteers for the New Zealand Navy and I stopped forward with several others. I joined the Barracks again and it was a toss up as to whether I went on HMS 'Grenade' or HMS 'Grafton'. 'Grafton' was in Scotland — 'Grenade' was at Harwich. My friend Stuart, a London boy, didn't particularly want to go to Scotland, but I wanted to go to Harwich and we had to go separately to one or the other, so we had to toss up. I won the toss and I went to Harwich. He went on the 'Grafton' and was killed. I went on the 'Grenade' and I survived Dunkirk.
Narvik and Namsos
Prior to Dunkirk we were in the first and second battle of Narvik [Norway] and we were also in the evacuation of Namsos [Norway]. After the first battle of Narvik we were coming back as escort to the 'Warspite' when the 'Grenade' heeled over to over forty-five degrees and shot my medical officer across the ward room. He fractured his jaw and I had to feed him liquid feeds until we got to Reykjavik where I put him ashore. I was without a medical officer throughout the evacuation of Namsos.
Then we returned to Liverpool. We were going in for a boiler clean and we were going to get a fortnight's leave each. But then the news came in that the Golans [sic] were being overrun by the Germans, and the order came through that we weren't going to have a boiler clean after all. Instead of letting the water out of the dry dock, they started to pump it back in again and they said that we could have twelve hour's leave each watch. So we dashed home to Liverpool Street Station, had our beards shaved, said hello to our dear ones, then went back on the next train.
Across the Channel
We set sail from Liverpool and we came into a thick fog just off Southend Pier where we ran into the stern of a great big wooden trawler. We were going at knots and our bows were pushed right back. So we had to go in for a quick repair job to Sheerness, and we had to de-ammunition ship while this was done. We finally set sail and had a service on board for the National Day of Prayer.
We then proceeded to a place called Dunkirk. Everybody looked on the map and said, 'Where the hell's Dunkirk?' And it was up in Scotland. We said. 'We've just come from Scotland - we're never going there. 'And somebody said, 'Not Dunkirk in Scotland - it's Dunkirk in France.' We weren't told much more about Dunkirk. I also had a medical officer join the ship, which I wasn't told about until I met him. Normally a sick berth man like myself would set up a sick bay in the wardroom, aft, but nothing was said so I didn't set it up. And the doctor was brand new to the ship and the navy - he had no idea what was happening. It wasn't until we got to Dunkirk that he and I started to work together.
Smoke at Dunkirk
Anyway, the weather was rough - it was windy and drizzly as we went over. I knew we'd arrived when the mess man of the ERA's mess, which was opposite my sick bay, said to me, 'Look at all that smoke!' It came from the oil refineries over on the left as you entered the harbour. Nobody tried to put the fire out.
We went in and we lay alongside and then they brought a seaman in from the 'Fanella'. He had shrapnel in his shoulder. They took him on the seaman's mess deck and I went down with the doctor. I said, 'Right, we'll fix him up in a minute,' because we'd been summoned aft to the search light platform, which we used to call the 'bandstand'. I was taking the stretcher as it came down from the bandstand. Then the German aircraft started to machine gun us. And the Doc' call out to me, 'Drop!' So I dropped down and let go of the stretcher. The bullets went fore and aft — the wounded fella didn't get another one; he was lucky.
I went to the sick bay. I was climbing down the ladder on my return when - whoof! - I went up in the air! My tin hat must have stayed up there, because I've got hole, a dent in my skull where the nut inside the hat penetrated my skull. As I came down I fell straight into a flash because the oil went up. The oil tanks were under the stockers mess deck and a bomb broke through and set light to the oil, which flashed up in front of me. It was like being whipped. I prayed to god to take me home quickly, and with that somebody lifted me up, turned me round and pushed me. I could see daylight. I could also see steam and I made for the daylight - before I knew it, I was on the upper deck by the engine room.
I took one look round me and saw my hands - the skin was hanging off my hands like plastic gloves. I tried to pull it back on again, and then I just went bump, bump over the wires surrounding the ship and into the water. When I came up the oil was on fire and had caught my legs, around my ankles. I swam. I was fully clothed, but I swam towards three tugs. I couldn't get to them but I saw there was a ladder alongside, made of rough wood - I remember because I pulled the wood out of my hands after I reached the top.
The 'Crested Eagle'
When I reached the top I realised that I was on the 'Crested Eagle' — and I walked over the gangway with crowds of other survivors. A young AB was dishing out mine dressings and he said, 'How many do you want ' I said I don't want any, and he said, 'Well, go down forward.' The 'Crested Eagle' forward had been quickly made up of bunks. I got into a bunk, and began to shiver. Then all of a sudden the lights went out. There was only one other chap there. I said, 'Come on mate, we've been hit.' So he said, 'Where're we going?' I said ' I'm going back on the upper deck.'
As I went up the steps all the soldiers were coming down. So I said, 'Stop! Get back up - we've been hit!' And they turned round as if I was a general. They went straight back up. I got back on the upper deck and a leading radio operator from my ship said to me, 'Good one, Doc'. Stay with me. I'll look after you, ' and he put his grey coat around my shoulders. Then we were told to abandon ship. So I threw the coat off my shoulders, went to the paddle of the 'Crested Eagle', looked down and thought, well, I can't stop here, so I jumped in the water. As I came up somebody else jumped in and pushed me under again.
The ammunition on board the 'Crested Eagle' was going off and it sounded to me like naked electricity, splitter and splattering. I saw a chap swimming towards the beach, and I thought, god, I'll go with him. He got there first and crawled up the sand and just laid there. I was watching him all the time, and somebody came along - I don't know whether it was a beach master or who it was - but somebody came along and looked at him. Whether they shot him to put him out of his misery, or whether they did something else to him, I don't know. Whoever it was turned away and left, and he didn't stir anymore.
Barn door lifesaver
I said to myself, 'Bob boy, this is no place for you,' and I swam back into the river where I met two soldiers hanging onto a barn door. I said to them, 'Eh, I keep going blind.' I wiped me eyes and said, 'Where do you think you're going?' So they said, 'We're gonna kick this thing back to England.' I said, 'Well, you're kicking it the wrong way - you're going back into the town.' So they worked their way round to the other side of the door and I worked my way with them.
Then a whaler came alongside, with only two chaps on board. One of them said, 'Christ, it's our young Doc!' They pulled me inboard, right up close to the bow of the whaler. They covered me with tarpaulin or something. Now I went completely blind, but they helped me up a crash collision mat, which is a great big net. I asked, 'Where am I?' They ignored me and said, 'Take him to the wardroom for'ard.' Sloops have wardroom for'ards, so I knew I was on a sloop, but that's all.
They took me down and put morphine under my tongue and that was it - I just passed out. All I had left to my name after I was given my survivor stuff was my signet ring. They took my watch. I've still got scar there where the watch strap was. They took my money belt with all my money in it, which I'd placed into a condom so it was safe - but I didn't ever get it back.
Back at Margate, in and out of consciousness
The next thing I knew I was being lifted onto a jetty and it must have been low tide because they started to take me up some steps onto another platform. This was at Margate, and then they took me along a covered way - I could tell daylight from darkness, but I couldn't distinguish anything else. I know I finished up in a in a tent somewhere. I could hear running water and I asked somebody to give me a drink, then I passed out again.
When I came to I was being lifted onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. I asked where I was and they said, 'You're going to hospital.' So I said, 'Will you tell my Mum and Dad and my girlfriend where I am?' I kept shouting out their home addresses. So they said, 'Don't worry. We'll let them know.' Then I passed out again.
The next time I came to I was outside the x-ray department at Southern Hospital, Dartford. I heard somebody say, 'I don't know how much longer they're going to keep these poor little devils waiting here.' I said, 'It doesn't matter. You see to the others first. We're all right,' and I passed out again.
I was delirious for seven days. My Mum and Dad were sitting by the side of my bed with my girlfriend. I was in splints - both legs and both arms. I asked my Dad to cut off the splints - they were hurting me. He said 'I daren't do that.'
Maggot therapy, with and without anaesthetic
They let the flies get at me, and then they put me into a mosquito net, and plastered me - head and shoulders, both arms. The flies had laid their eggs which turned into maggots — they ate the puss and every few days I was taken to theatre. They gave me an anaesthetic, took the plaster off, cleared out the maggots and the loose islands of skin, then put some maggots back in my wounds and put me in fresh plaster. They did this at least four times. Then the surgeon, Mr Cohen, said, 'We don't want to give you another anaesthetic - you're having too many. We want to clear these maggots away, but we don't want to hurt you. If we hurt you, say so and we'll give you an anaesthetic.' There were three surgeons working on me - one on each arm and one on my forehead and face. I had to tell them which one was hurting me.
I had an abscess in both ears while I was in plaster so they had to drill through and pierce the abscess, and I had to lie in bed and keep squeezing this darn stuff out by rocking my head.
They gave me lots of surgery. They gave me a new nose, a new eye, eyelids, new ears - it's all artificial. I'm better looking than this underneath!
What did it all mean?
I thought Dunkirk was the beginning of the end. I thought I was going to sell matches on street corners. But it was really the beginning of a career because, if I hadn't been burned, I would never have been recommended to take a laboratory course, and I wouldn't have had my job at the distillers, which I enjoyed every day. I worked 365 days a year, even Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and my wife and kids used to say, 'Why are you going there on Christmas Day?' And I used to say, 'I've got to go down the factory and transfer the culture,' because I was working with living cells. I feel now that my life was spared so that I could heal other people.
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