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15 October 2014
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Chapter 1 - Part 2: Evacuation from Dunkirk and back to UK

by Ken Potter

Contributed by 
Ken Potter
Location of story: 
Dunkirk, Dover, Liverpoo
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 December 2005

The 98th Field Regiment was designated ‘Corps Troops’. It was not an integral part of any specific Division, but at the mercy of the Corps Commander whims to switch us about to plug gaps wherever required.
We moved North over the Belgian border, blasted most of the way by Stuka dive bombers. We went into action proper I think on 14 May, were switched further East to give support to another Division for two days and then back again to our original position. Very soon the German shelling became too hot and we had to move southward back across the French border. During this withdrawal I found my self with the Sussex Battery HQ looking for shelter in a very fragrant cow barn. Lord Cowdray was the Battery Commander, he came in, looked around at all of us feeling extremely low. He said “Well come on all of you, it’s not like home but why don’t we make ourselves as comfortable as we can?” This wonderful attitude was so typical of the 98th Field Regiment.
It was not long before we found ourselves back in our original gun positions at Le Forest. The next ten to twelve days were a nightmare of rearguard actions amid dive bombing and long range shelling. Finally somewhere around 25 or 26 May we received orders to retreat to Dunkirk, spike the guns that could not be got back there and destroy all vehicles and equipment.
From then on the trek back on foot was a nightmare, the road was a mass of troops and civilians carrying what they could. We were bombed and machine gunned from the air and, when we got to the Falais Gap, shelled from both sides. When I got there, Dunkirk beach looked as crowded as any holiday beach on a summer bank holiday. The moving ones were still alive.
Constantly dived bombed by Stukas six or seven at a time we had nothing to throw back at them. From time to time, but not as frequently as we would have liked, a single Hurricane, sometimes two, would scream in out of the sun and knock hell out of them. They stayed as long as they could before making for home, presumably for more fuel. Those Hurricanes did more for morale at that time than anything else.
In the meantime everyone waited for the opportunity to get off the beach, I had long since lost touch with everyone except Rolls who stuck to me like glue. Many of the small rescue craft had been sunk by the dive bombers and offshore one could see all kinds of craft trying to get closer through the wreckage. Some were standing off while troops waded out to them. All the time dive bombers were strafing everything and everyone.
There were a number of Beach Masters who struggled to control the flow of men into likely avenues of escape. Together with another group I was directed back to the dock area to a bombed jetty with several corpses on it. Luckily for us a small French ‘packet boat’ was able to get alongside and take us off. Normally it would have carried 20 or 30 passengers. When we reached Dover having picked up some from the sea we probably had two or three hundred on board. We arrived in Dover in the dark completely exhausted, I don’t think that I had more than one or two cat naps in seven days. Trains were waiting in the Dover Docks sidings and we were soon packed aboard where everyone fell asleep. This would have been 30 or 31 May 1940.
The next thing was being awakened by someone thumping on the outside of the steamed up carriage window beside which I was squashed. I lowered the window and found on the platform outside a number of women with trays of steaming hot cups and mugs of tea that they were handing up to us. I poked my head out of the window and saw that the station name had been painted out so as not to help low flying enemy aircraft find their way around. I asked the nearest WVS “Where are we” and when she said “Headcorn” I was amazed. I told her my name and that my family lived 4 miles away at the top of Knole Hill. I asked her if she would telephone them and tell them that I was back. She said she knew the name Potter and would telephone them when our train had left. This she did and the family, who had been listening to the evacuation news on the radio, were overjoyed to know that I was back in one piece.
It was some hours later that we all awoke to find ourselves in Yeovil station in complete darkness and told to disembark. An assortment of Army trucks and civilian lorries had been awaiting our arrival for some time and they carted us off to Yeovil Barracks. There they had made preparations to house the troops but not for any officers. On our train there had been about 8 or 10 officers of various ranks from all kinds of Units. We flopped down on the luxurious leather upholstery of the Mess anti-room and promptly went back to sleep while the Orderly Officer tried to sort out some sleeping quarters for us. Meanwhile the radio in the corner was pouring out continuous news of the evacuation. The next thing I knew was being awakened by the sound of the National Anthem being played at midnight with the BBC closing down. At the same time an enraged Colonel commanding the Yeovil establishment charged in shouting “ If you cannot stand to attention for the National Anthem gentlemen, turn the damned thing off”. Having been on our feet continuously without sleep for 6 or 7 days we felt that his attitude, however correct, to be a bit unreasonable!
We rested for about a week at Yeovil after which I was sent back to my original unit 44th (HC) Division now temporarily stationed in Oxford. As a stop gap I became acting SOME under Lt. Col. Lee (my TA CO) at Div HQ in a side street just behind what used to be a lovely old pub in one of the main streets of Oxford. I was temporarily replacing the original SOME. He was a major killed somewhere along the line out of Dunkirk.
I spent the next two weeks feverishly arranging for the Divisional workshops and LADs to locate, inspect and impress civilian vehicles. These were then issued to the fragmented BEF units that were trying to reform themselves all over the Country. These varied from baker’s vans to 10 ton lorries which in those days were BIG and 150/ 250cc BSA motor cycles for Don Rs (dispatch riders). Occasionally we got a Triumph Speed Twin that was probably all of 750 cc and again, in those days really BIG. The overlying thought all the time was the possibility of the Germans trying to follow up with some form of invasion or infiltration. The need to get units re-equipped with any kind of transport was of paramount importance. At the same time the Ordnance supply side was pulling out all the stops to find armament, instruments and small arms not to mention clothing and everything else that an army requires when it has lost the lot.
When the new SOME arrived, I rejoined the 98th Field Regiment at Leicester. I went home for 8 days leave and rejoined the 98th at Lincoln where it had moved into a rather palatial pillared country residence of some very landed gentry person. I cannot remember its name, but no doubt it is now one of the National Trust properties. It was here that I had the ‘business end’ of what I had been trying to arrange from my temporary exalted position in Oxford.
In my own war establishment of the LAD was a motor cycle for my own use. While getting in all the impressed vehicles for the Regiment, one Triumph Speed Twin came in. I decided that it would do for me for running around the Lincoln area where I felt quite safe on it. However on a 24 hour leave which we got from time to time I decided to use it to quickly buzz down to Ulcombe to see the family. Half way there on a long straight stretch I wound it up to something over 70 and promptly went into a speed wobble. I have never been so terrified in my life. After that I decided to let one of the Batteries have it for their own Don R.
I had been back with the 98th for only about a week when I was posted to the LAD attached to the 65th Field Regiment with promotion to acting Captain. Whether this posting had anything to do with my activities as acting SOME at Oxford or not I don’t know. The 65th,which was one of the Artillery regiments of the 44th Division, was commanded by a Lt. Col. West.
Rightly or wrongly he considered that his previous OME should have been promoted and not moved on. He took it out on me, being just about as difficult as he could be about everything. It was not a happy Regiment and when I saw a notice on the board inviting volunteers for service in the Middle East I stuck my name down. This was within days of joining the unit. On the 30 July 1940 I reported to the 51st Training Depot at Aldershot for ‘service overseas’, losing my ‘acting’ third pip in the bargain. Between leaving the 65th and sailing I managed a couple of quick visits to Ulcombe to say good-bye to the family.
I used the three or four days at Aldershot mostly in getting kitted out with all the tropical gear that the War Office thought you ought to have. It was aided and abetted by London outfitters who ‘advised’ that you needed much more. On arrival in the hot climes I found that much of it was useless and replaced it with items of local production. One of the essential purchases made on WO instructions was a topee, a white pith helmet reminiscent of Boer War days, it had its own special metal hat box too! One item in particular that lasted me for several years living in the open in bush and jungle was a pair of heavy silk pyjamas given to me at the last minute by Aunt Madge. Her advice “They will be cool when it is hot and warm in the cold nights of the desert ... I know from experience”. She was right.
On the 2 August 1940 with all trunks and baggage labelled I left Aldershot on a midnight train bound for Liverpool. At about 11.00 the next morning I went on board the P and O liner Strathaird, which had now become HMT Strathaird.

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