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A Collection of Memories by John Rawlings - Chapter 5

by gmractiondesk

Contributed by 
gmractiondesk
People in story: 
John Rawlings, Corporal Drew, Peter Rawlings, Ron Rawlings, Reg, Jerry, Fred Harris
Location of story: 
Dunkirk, Poperringe, Margate
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4610837
Contributed on: 
29 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by (Helen Smith) on behalf of (John Rawlings) and has been added to the site with his/her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

Chapter Five

DUNKIRK

We advanced slowly to the east until we reached the Belgium frontier, a neutral country. Here, we stopped indefinitely and were able to provide more suitably for our personal needs. Lapugnoy was a small, untidy village given over to the demands of outdated coal mining. Everywhere was encrusted with coal dust and the resident miners had the pallor born of long periods underground. Housing consisted of small dwellings which had been passed on from one generation to another with little evidence of regular maintenance. This was to be our home for several weeks. We were not far from Lille, to which we were sent on a bathing parade. This was provided by the Royal Engineers with a mobile unit which used the same water repeatedly. The showers worked very hard to get us to a reasonable state and with a complete set of Army underwear, we felt on top of the world. That was the last bath we were to have until we got back to England.
Daily delivery runs kept us busy and provided a broad map of the surrounding countryside. We all seemed to be conscious that we were now close to the invisible enemy. Our vehicle park was in disused brickworks with a reasonably sound hut and entrance gates which gave some semblance of security. At night we mounted an armed guard, provided in turn by each section. On May 9 1940, my section provided the guard from six pm until six am the following day. Sessions were two hours on, four hours off. I was given the last session. The guard commander gave me orders at four a.m. and told me that the earlier part of the night had been uneventful He left me as I wearily walked up and down my beat. At five a.m. there was a distant hum too small to attract attention but as the minutes passed I was aware that it was increasing and shared my concern with the guard commander, Corporal Drew. Using the choice of epithets he considered fitted the occasion, he replied in words which, summarised, could be translated as “I don’t know”.
The noise was now increasing rapidly and as six a.m. approached there was a sudden crescendo which filled the heavens. It was now light enough to see the procession of aircraft streaking westward, and on those heavier machines flying lower, one could see the swastika. The “phoney war “was over and the real conflict was just beginning. It was May 10 1940. Everything now happened at once. Bombs and incendiaries had dropped on the village and we gave what assistance we could until the civil authorities arrived. What happened then has been forgotten and only some of the events are recorded here with little evidence of the light-hearted banter of earlier chapters.
As the Germans advanced, so we retreated. There were advances followed by further retreats, each with a particular aspect. I well remember delivering rations to the RAMC in which my brother Peter was serving. I was told that he had gone to have a look at a deserted building across the fields but he would be told that I was there. Whilst waiting, there was an air raid and we all took cover watching the dive-bombers from a distance as they dropped their cargo. Back in my lorry, now empty, an officer approached and asked my name. He then told me that Peter had been hit by shrapnel in the raid but I was not to worry as he had already been evacuated and was on his way home. It was a horrible wound which kept him in hospital for a long time, but I am glad to say he survived.
Some days later the CO called a company parade of all those in camp. This was very unusual so close to the “front line”. He told us that we were not to worry as we would, no doubt, hear a lot of firing that night. He explained that the Germans had walked into a trap and were now surrounded. He said that this was identical to the position in WW1 which had led to victory in that conflict. Where he dragged up that fiction is unknown. That, to our minds, appeared to be when the final retreat started. We moved every night seldom knowing where we were going. We followed the vehicle in front, only discernible by the spotlight on the rear axle. Many drivers fell asleep whilst driving but with an unexpected ability managed not only to stop, but to put the gears into neutral and to switch off the engine. When woken up later and ordered to move on, they were unaware of having stopped.
We stayed in one village long enough to get some food from the local estaminet. A well-built aircraftsman was telling his somewhat aggressive listeners that he was not a pilot (RAF planes were seldom seen) but was a skilled mechanic. On his specially designed lorry he had every conceivable piece of machinery of tremendous value. He moved with the pilots from one airfield to the next, keeping the planes in the air. He left, but soon returned, out of breath, to tell us that his lorry had gone and the airfield was deserted. As we left we suggested he would be better with the RASC with smaller and less expensive vehicles. Such exchanges were frequent and sometimes humorous as we shared one another’s despair.
Not knowing the changing situation, we were now delivering rations by section. This meant that a dozen or so vehicles travelled together to a common map reference to which each regiment or company would report and collect their unit’s daily ration. The map reference was invariably a prominent cross road, and a collection of vehicles there was highly dangerous, as will be seen. We arrived at such a map reference in good time and found some infantrymen already there, waiting for their own transport on to which the rations would be offloaded. As we were chatting, we heard a shell overhead and one of our lorries burst into flames. The other soldiers jeered as our drivers jumped into a ditch and counted the salvo. Seventeen shells were fired, probably from a light tank or armoured car. All our vehicles were well alight and we lost everything including our personal kit which we always carried on the vehicles. All the infantry were dead. Our other echelon came along later and, recognising our burnt out lorries, looked round for survivors, only to find the dead soldiers one of whom, I was told later, looked like me. They returned to their echelon and told my brother Ron of their fears. When Ron eventually got back to England he could not let the family know as the information was unconfirmed. As we got out of the ditch we saw our platoon officer stop a passing truck and, waving his revolver, tell the driver to take him to Dunkirk, the first time we had heard the name spoken. Our sergeant was also seen driving off on his motorcycle and did not reappear until we reformed in England. Corporal Drew stayed with the section.
It was forty or fifty miles to Dunkirk and we were without transport. We started walking but the road was often blocked and the platoon got divided. Soon I was alone with Reg and we stayed together for the rest of our journey. Machine gun attacks were frequent and we would get off the road and find a ditch for safety. On one occasion a soldier who was rolling drunk, became an obstruction in a gateway and refused our offers of help to safety. Leaving him, we found the protection of a ditch and jumped in to find it half full of water. A Jack Russell terrier had attached itself to us but had to be carried as he was too small to stand in the water. More planes had joined in the attack and we experienced the phenomena of believing that every bullet was aimed at us individually. At this stage, in an act of great bravery, I said, “ Reg, we have still got our rifles and five rounds of ammunition, let’s have a shot at them”. It seemed that the gunners had heard me speak as a line of fire passed close behind us. “ I don’t think so, Jerry” (an unfortunate nick name I had acquired) Reg replied, “they might see us”. At the height of each attack, Reg with great compassion, lifted off his tin hat and covered the terrier’s body in protection. As we left, we saw the drunken soldier, still asleep and still alive. After walking many miles, we approached Poperringe, a sizeable town, and there on the outskirts, complete with a lorry and the remainder of the platoon, Corporal Drew was waiting for the last two of his charges before moving on. We got through the town with some difficulty and with the open road ahead hoped for quicker progress. Alas, this was not possible as the roads were thick with retreating soldiers determined to reach the Channel. Finally we found the road blocked with a petrol tanker with a full load which the Royal Engineers had been ordered to blow up rather than leave its valuable contents for the enemy. We abandoned our lorry and ran as fast as we could past the tanker before the explosion. Again Reg and I were on our own and we never caught up with the others, all of whom got back to England.
As we approached Dunkirk the road forked. The signpost pointed to the town some five miles away to our right, and to Ostend and Calais to our left. The straggling troops did not hesitate but followed the endless stream to the right. In the triangle of the fork there was a group of gunners (Royal Artillery) with their guns pointing down the road from which we had come. Reg and I stopped for a short rest and had a chat with them. They told us that they had been ordered to delay the enemy as long as possible to allow the maximum number of troops to get to Dunkirk, hopefully to find transport to take them across the Channel. They had limited ammunition and were unlikely to get any more. Their orders were to keep in action as long as possible but to surrender when the ammunition ran out. I have often wondered how those gunners felt as the troops in their thousands passed them on the way to the coast and, hopefully, to have a chance of getting back to England. After the war, I was reading a magazine chronicling the retreat to Dunkirk. I recognised, immediately, a photograph of the gunners standing by their guns waiting for the Germans to arrive. The accompanying article told the whole story. The gunners had obeyed orders and stayed at their posts until overrun by the advancing Germans. They were taken prisoner and eventually released. When the photographer got home after the war ended, he found the undeveloped film and sent it to the magazine publishers who researched the matter and wrote the article which I was reading,
Eventually we got to Dunkirk with thousands of others, all lost and with no directions as to which way to turn. Suddenly we heard a voice shouting, “Come on lads, this way”. We saw no one but followed the direction of the voice which led us on to the main jetty. And there we stayed, tired and dispirited with little hope. We did meet up with one of our section, Fred Harris, our farmer/driver of chicken fame. He was cleaning his rifle oblivious to what was going on around him and making a jolly good job of it. When it was spotless, shiny and bright, he stood up and threw the rifle into the sea. A show of defiance or the end of his tether?
While we were waiting for a ship to arrive to take us back to England, we were sitting on the quayside under the shelter of a high harbour wall. We had been told not to show ourselves as this would help the German artillery to range their guns. Some time later there was a murmur growing to a roar as an officer was seen at the head of a group of soldiers marching along the top of the wall. From their clean appearance we guessed they were base troop who had not been through the experiences of those waiting patiently below them. By the time they reached us the waiting troops were threatening to shoot them off the wall. The position was saved when a sailor came from the opposite direction and told them to about turn and get off the skyline. This conversation took place just above where we were standing. The officer drew himself up to his full height and said, “ I am in charge of my men. I led them into the war and I shall lead them back to safety. Now, get out of my way.” It was now very quiet and the sailor’s reply was clear and concise. “You are not in charge of anything. The Royal Navy is in charge here. Now about turn and get off the wall. If you don’t I will get the lads down there to open fire”. Fortunately he accepted the position and retreated at the double.
Later a cross Channel packet tied up and was soon full with Reg and I on the lowest deck below the water line. Our first action was to take off our boots. Then Reg decided to look for the NAAFI which we had been told was on the ship. I was asleep when he came back with two mugs of warm tea which tasted like nectar, though I was disgusted when told that he had been charged four pence per mug after all we had been through.
As the ship neared the coast, Reg and I fought our way to the upper decks to feast our eyes on England and safety. On a platform alongside us there was a group of soldiers doing exactly the same as us, but one if them stood out from among the others. He seemed to be more interested in a large metal box he was carrying and was openly bragging to those closest to him of his good fortune. During the retreat he had “come across” a deserted billet which had been used by the Army Paymaster unit. .Nobody was about so he had taken a box, full of currency, and this would be his nest egg when the war was over. In normal circumstances the foolishness of his plans would be obvious but at the time, fanciful ideas abounded. In the event, one of his listeners probably reported the information to the ship’s company. An hour or so later as he disembarked and walked down the gangway to freedom he was joined on either side by a policeman and taken away under arrest.
We arrived safely at Margate, threw our rifles on to a huge pile and walked barefoot to the road. We felt, we knew, we were a defeated mob, miserable and dejected, but as we got to the road, there seemed to be the whole town shouting and cheering, waving flags, offering food and drink in profusion, in times of severe rationing. We made our way to the station to join a train which was to take us to Trowbridge. As we passed through Kent, it was the same all over again. Gardens backing on the railway were packed with cheering residents.
With such a wonderful welcome we fell asleep.

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