- Contributed by
- People in story:
- James Bradley
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- Contributed on:
- 06 February 2004
This is James Bradley's account of Dunkirk, 1940:
'I joined up because I thought it was necessary for all young people to consider that their freedom was at risk. Hitler was making his usual speeches and upsetting a lot of people, causing trouble in Europe, and I couldn't sit back and just let the invasion of other people's countries go on. I felt I ought to be one of the people - and there must have been millions of them - who wanted peace and an honourable world to live in.
I joined up in March 1939. I believed that there was going to be a war (although I hoped there wouldn't be), and I wanted to be trained so that when the war started I could fulfil my obligations to my country. I also realised that we'd told Hitler very plainly that if he attacked Poland he was at war with us. I intended to be there, and to be heard and to be seen, because you cannot let freedom slip through your fingers. I wanted to be a part of something that would bring the world together again.
I was a Bren gun machine gunner, first class. I was very enthusiastic. You could use it in close combat and on aircraft. You could also put it on fixed lines to be put into a gap, where the enemy would come through. I thought it was a wonderful gun and I passed out first class. Then I had my badge with BG on it - Bren Gunner.
France and Belgium
We went to France and landed at Cherbourg, drove all the way along the coast and went to the Belgium frontier. At that time I thought it would be like the First World War, because we were putting up barbed wire. At first, Hitler sat behind his tanks, but when they knocked holes in the line and came crashing through, we were in a different type of warfare.
When we first arrived in France it was like peacetime. We got on very well with the French people and we used to go for day trips. But then Hitler struck at the Belgians and the Dutch, and we moved forward, which seemed strange. We'd dug trenches, and he [Hitler] had a mobile army. I hoped our generals knew this! You got the feeling that things were getting a little bit questionable. We took everything - the guns, bren gun carriers, everything we had - and dashed into Belgium.
There were no prepared positions for us - it was a mobile war now. They [the Germans] had superior numbers in the air force, they had superior tanks, and they had superior equipment. Basically we were outnumbered. We moved back and there were battles and retreats and so on. We could see that the Belgians were streaming back and the whole thing was going over the side, but we got back into France and fought in one or two places.
Guns were firing and we were giving them a bad time. I didn't think they were going to put up with that for very long. But then over came sixty dive bombers; I've never seen anything quite like it. They plastered the hill, guns were blowing up, and we were told that we'd have to stand and fight to the last. Then we were told that we had to get out of there — we had to save the regiment or what was left of the regiment.
They said that we were to get a rifle and a bayonet and after that we were on our own. We had to get back to Dunkirk. If they'd told us to get back to New York, I couldn't have been more surprised because I didn't know where Dunkirk was. I began to think to myself, I've got to survive - I must survive to fight on in this war.
I saw where the shells were landing and where their mortars and their machine guns were slashing away at the undergrowth. A track went downhill; it was hollowed out, and there were some dead English soldiers in there. I crawled down that channel. When I got to the bottom, and after hiding, I made my way into a wooded area, and I thought, Dunkirk?! I didn't know where it was but I thought it must be north, so I started heading north.
I found a group of British soldiers near a bridge. They said, 'Come on! Quickly, quickly - hurry along. We've got to blow this bridge, but we're waiting for certain vehicles to come through. In the meantime you can join us, because the Germans are getting near. '
A sergeant was told to put me in number four position, whatever that may have been. Anyway, he said, 'Come on. Have you got plenty ammunition?'
'Yes, yes I've got plenty.'
He said, 'I'll take you round the back here, there's a slit trench by a barn. You go in there and if they're sniping at us, don't take on more than you can handle. If you get a chance, knock off as many as you can.' And then he said, 'I wish you good luck.'
I said, 'This is a wonderful slit trench - it's cut nice and square. He must have been a good guy that did that.'
He said, 'Unfortunately, he died in it,' which gave me a feeling of sudden cold. I was in a trench that a man had died in.
It was a really hot day and, looking behind me, I could see a house. The door opened and a woman came out dressed in black, an old woman wit grey hair. She saw me. I was dying for thirst, so I said, 'Aqua!' She waved, went inside and closed the door, and I thought, well, that's bad luck. But the next minute the door opened again and she brought out a tray carrying cut glass and a jug of water. She walked across the farmyard, and there were bullets going over and a few mortars crashing. I thought she was mad!
She came over to me. I couldn't speak French, she couldn't speak English, but she said something like 'Ma bonne me,' [sic], and gave me the water. And I said, 'Get going, get going, go!' She walked straight back and half way there she stopped and turned to spit, waving her first, and said something like, 'Salle bosch!' I thought, she's some woman! I wouldn't cross her!
La Panne and Dunkirk
Eventually I did get to the coast. When I came to the sand dunes, I could see that Dunkirk was a blazing mass of burning oil and a battle was going on.
I moved along the sand hills to Le Panne, a little to the right of Dunkirk, and there were hundreds and hundreds of soldiers on the sand. Ships were coming in, trying to pick up the soldiers. I thought, they'll never get these people off here — but we just had to be disciplined. I saw the most magnificent bit of British discipline there. They went down in the water, stood in rows of four, and the tide came in and then the tide went out, and then it came back again. I remember three tides, and I stayed there a night. There was the odd guy who left for obvious purposes - to nip back over the sand dunes. Then he'd come back and a hand would go up and someone would say, 'Over here, over here!' It was terribly British - I think I became a man there.
Unfortunately the dive bombers were knocking out the ships and terrible things were happening. I saw them hit a destroyer, packed with men on board, and it went on its side. Hundreds of men went into the sea, thrashing about there - many of them couldn't swim, I'm sure.
The next morning I think was 24 June. There were dead lying about, nobody could do anything about that, but there were some lads moving around, and some badly wounded.
A little ship came along - it looked like a Dutch coaster, a real old tub. Those on board stopped, shouted and waved. I thought this was the time for us to move on, but somebody said, 'No, no, they're waving at us to tell us to stay where we are.' They lowered some small boats down to the sea and rowed inshore. We had to get into one of these little boats, which should have taken about three people but there was about eight of us in it - the waterline was getting near the top.
They dropped a rope ladder down the ship's side and we had to climb up that. Some of the chappies were so weak they fell back in the sea. So they threw ropes down and tried to tie them and pull them up.
A dispatch rider, a twin who came from Hastings, was behind me, and I thought he must be mad because he was wearing a tin hat, a rifle and all his equipment. If he fell into the water he wouldn't have stood a chance. He moved around in front of me, and there was no panic. It must be done calmly, I thought. If we're going to get there, let's do it like real men. Then he fell in the water. I shouted to him but he went down. Bubbles were coming up, and he just went down, down. I couldn't do anything.
Dunkirk changed my character completely. It changed my thinking about soldiering and actually about killing - accepting it as a part of your day, which you would never do otherwise. You fight back the fear, you put a lid on it — it's a way of life that takes over, because you want to survive. The feeling for survival is a wonderful thing.'
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