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A Gunner at Dunkirkicon for Recommended story

by Dundee Central Library

L/Bdr. Douglas Haig Hodge, 1939

Contributed by 
Dundee Central Library
People in story: 
Douglas Haig Hodge
Location of story: 
Dunkirk, France
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 March 2005

Before we went to France, the king to came to inspect us at Cookham crossroads, near Aldershot, where the guns, 4-inch howitzers, were stored in garages. I was a member of the gun sub (sub-section operating one gun). At the time of the inspection I had laryngitis and, when I came out of hospital, the old colonel (Royal Army Medical Corps) said, 'Seven days' leave is no use to you. We'll put another three days on it - how's that?' Naturally enough, I thanked him and he called me a 'good lad'.

The main drawback was that the Battery wouldn't provide a travel warrant, as for the purposes of sick leave, you were left to your own devices. The fare cost 12 shillings (£0.60) and I went round the entire Battery until I'd almost got the right fare. The last lad I asked was Jack Coutts, who gave me the final shilling. I went from Kings Cross right up to Dundee but there was no money for food or drink or anything else. All I got were questions as to why I had come back, although my mother was probably quite impressed with me.

When I returned, I got my marching orders to meet the battery over in France. They had what they call 'traffic control'. When you arrived at the station, you just gave them the name of your regiment and division and they told you what train to take. We left Dover and landed in France. I was issued with a 100-franc note and I thought I'd never be poor again in my life. When I came to spend it, well, that was another story. I finally joined the regiment and we went on to the border in the Lille area. Then, when the phoney war ended in late spring, we saw a dogfight overhead. We eventually took up positions behind the Maginot line, then proceeded to Louvain (Leuven).

We had four infantry battalions in our division - the King's Own Scottish Borderers (K.O.S.B.), the Grenadier Guards, the South Lancashire Regiment and the East Yorkshire Regiment. We were told, and I quite believe this story, that when the Germans began their advance, the K.O.S.B. drove them back three miles. We then got the order to cease fire and limber up. I was patrolling the road beside the guns when retreating down the road came the Belgian artillery. They were horse artillery and you should have seen the guns with beautiful engravings on the barrel. When someone down the road shouted a gas warning, there was bedlam as horses and soldiers were thrown into a state of panic. It must have been bad where they had just come from.

We moved back from Louvain and were awaiting orders when we saw the planes flying along the road and machine-gunning civilians. I saw them coming down and saw the explosions but it was terrible and there was nothing you could do. Outside Brussels, we saw an extraordinary sight, as Belgian civilians evacuated the area in their caravans. We hardly had any sleep, we rarely knew where we were and we were frequently in contact with the Germans. Some couldn't take the strain. One regular sergeant, who had been recalled to the colours, took fright. He had a bad case of the jitters and made a point of keeping his head down when we most needed him.

We came to Dunkirk in 15-cwt. trucks. We left the guns1 at a chateau in Tournai. After we had fired a few rounds, we were told to drain the hydraulic recoil fluid so as to render the guns useless when taken by the Germans. As we came out of Tournai, the road was packed with refugees. When the bombers came down the road, I was lying in a ditch and it was then that I saw a woman with a little child. What exactly became of them I do not know but that was the time I began to detest the Germans, I hated the very sound of their name.

Without our guns, we were now classed as infantry and I remember reading in the paper at a later date that it was in fact the 9th, our Dundee Battery, which held the line. We were badly mortared outside Dunkirk and took quite a few casualties. Captain Laird, the Battery Commander and peacetime florist in City Square, marched about like the proper infantry officer in front of his troops. He was a 'real warrior' and on one occasion when I told him I only had one round left, I asked him what I should do. 'Fix bayonets and charge' was his unhesitating reply. As we came down the road, there were lots of horrible sights, such as injured cattle lying in the fields in great pain. Whenever we encountered crowds of refugees, the order was to drive through them as best we could.

We took quite a bit of mortar fire but you got to the stage where you didn't really care what happened next. The boy beside me, Jimmy Low from Dundee, was wounded in the leg and I just told him to lie there and he'd be all right. Sergeant Barnes, an office clerk before the war, was another one to be wounded in close proximity to me. In actual fact, everyone near me was getting wounded except for Captain Laird, who bore a charmed life. I was so blasé about the whole situation that I didn't realise we were all fighting for our lives. There was no cover except for a small ditch and the water went over the top of your boots. When I got back, I found out that I didn't actually have a pair of boots but I can't recall when I lost the other half of the pair!

We went through some 'flurries', by which I mean flights of aircraft attacking us, to get down to the beach at Dunkirk. We had rifles and we fired volleys at the planes, which actually stopped them in their tracks. We marched to the beach and I somehow got separated from the rest. We were taking heavy shelling from the Germans and when those shells landed — oh my goodness me, what an explosion! I ended up in a trench, and here's an English boy sitting in the trench smoking his pipe. So the first thing I asked him was whether he had any fags, quite an ironical question in view of the fact that they were burning millions of them not too far from our position. 'Aye, Jock,' he said (he was an English lad) and we went on to have a good chat about the mess we were in and what a tragedy it was for all concerned.

We got into groups - 30 of us as I recall - and went down to Dunkirk Harbour. This big hospital ship with red stripes on either side came slowly in and the nurses were waving to us. I don't remember the name of the ship but that ship saved our lives, because the shelling was coming down our lines just like what Montgomery inflicted on the Germans at El Alamein. Give the German pilots their due, the planes sheered off when they saw the hospital ship in the harbour.

Anyway, a trawler came in for us and its name was the Lord Inchcape. We went along the right hand side of the wooden pier, whilst the French were on the other side of the pier embarking on yet more trawlers. There was a matelot with a revolver who ensured that the French and the British went onboard the respective ships allocated to them. There was no mixing of nationalities at this stage of the war! So we got onboard the Lord Inchcape and there was a 12-pounder gun on the focsle. The cry went up, 'Are there any artillerymen here?' So we volunteered to man the gun and were told 'Come on up, Jock.' We put up a good rate of fire - bang, bang, bang — against these aircraft, but none of this took place before the hospital ship departed.

We steamed out of Dunkirk that night. It is said that Napoleon was the only man able to sleep standing up but we were so tired that we doubted it very much ourselves. The weather was fair as we crossed the Channel and landed at Dover, where we marched ashore behind the Grenadier Guards, who were part of our division. You should have seen them sloping arms and their sergeant major shouting at our raggle-taggle all the way down to the train. It has been said that we felt like a defeated army but nothing could have been further from the truth. Some of us got needles and thread and stitched 'B.E.F.' (British Expeditionary Force) on as shoulder titles on our uniforms. People would see us in the pub and say, 'Come and have a pint on me'.

Not everyone was so understanding. We were walking through the park one day, when this old man said, 'What the hell do you think you are?' We looked at him and realised he was a colonel. 'Where's your hat or your cap or anything that should be on your head?' he said. 'At Dunkirk,' we replied, to which his rejoinder was 'Get out, you scurrilous Scots'. I think he understood the nature of our plight, since he had a chestful of medals from the First World War.

We got on the train and eventually arrived at Pembroke Docks. There was an old lady at one of the stations on the way - Yeovil I think it was - who said, 'If I had another stove, I could keep a good supply of tea going'. I had a primus stove, which operated on pressurised petrol, so I said to her 'I've got a rare wee stove,' and she said to me, 'Oh, you're a real Scot, aren't you'. Well, I got a cup of tea and I thought it was great, so there you are. There was a toilet on the train, so I thought I'd get my face washed and I ended up as the cleanest face in the carriage. I honestly can't remember the last time I had had a wash or a bath before that.

That's how it happens in wartime when you're on the losing side.

Douglas Haig Hodge via Dundee Central Library

1 In the Royal Artillery, the guns are perceived as the battle honours of the regiment and it is only under the most extreme of circumstances that they are abandoned intact to the enemy. If all else fails, the guns are 'spiked' by causing an explosion in the breech or barrel, or by using more ingenious methods, such as those outlined by L/Bdr Hodge.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 24 March 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

This is one of the best accounts I have read about the BEF and the fighting retreat to Dunkirk. I do hope that there is more to come.

Regarding the footnote, the term 'spiking' dates back to the Napoleonic wars. If a cannon had to be abandoned a metal spike was hammered into the touchhole, thus making further use of the gun impossible.




Message 2 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 20 April 2005 by Dundee Central Library


Thank you very much for your kind message, which I will relay to Dougie. He is a grand character, immaculately turned out and with a wicked sense of humour. Unfortunately his vision is severely restricted through diabetes.

I will be getting a second instalment from Dougie but this will start on D-Day, his regiment landed on June 6th, and take him through to Bremen.

Best wishes

David Kett, Dundee Central Library


Message 3 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 20 April 2005 by Dundee Central Library


Further to my earlier message, I have notified Dougie of your comments and indicated that I had informed you of his part in D-Day.

He instantly issued a mild rebuke by telling me that lots of people landed on D-Day itself, but his regiment landed at H-Hour, which was 7 a.m. "if I remember rightly"!


David Kett


Message 4 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 20 April 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper


H-Hour is the time for a scheduled action by a designated unit to take place. It varied enormously between units, starting at 0016 Hrs on 6 June 1944 when gliders crash-landed alongside the Caen Canal.



Message 5 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 02 May 2005 by Dundee Central Library

Thanks Peter, I stand corrected. I think Dougie's fairly proud of the fact that his was one of the first unit's ashore, which sounds good to me!

All the best



Message 6 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 18 August 2005 by tonyturnbull

I write on behalf of my father, Tony Turnbull, aged 86 but still fit and well and living in Edzell, Angus, who was with the 76th Field Regiment when it landed on D-Day, having joined them on its return from Dunkirk. They were indeed, one of the first units ashore. His story covers the other half of the Regiment's war time history from D-Day on and is told in these same pages.

He would, I'm sure, be pleased to make Dougie's aquaintance if the opportunity permits.

Andrew Turnbull,


Message 7 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 19 August 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Andrew

From your additional information I can work back, your father was in a crack RA Field Regiment. The 76th (Highland) Regiment, RA were divisional troops of the 3rd Infantry Division, 1st Corps, 2nd Army. His divisional flash was a black triangle, point upwards, containing a red triangle, point down.

He landed on Sword Beach at Queen Red sector (Queen sector being sub-divided into Red Beach and White Beach), but your father wasn't only in action at H-Hour, he was already in action well before then! At around 06.30, still 15,000 yards (13.5 Km) offshore eighteen LTCs carrying the self-propelled 105mm guns of of the divisional artillery prepared to come in with guns blazing. The 18 LTCs were in three groups of six LTCs in V formation with 7th Field Regiment in the middle, 33rd Field Regiment to the left rear (as viewed from the lead LTC), and your father's regiment, the 76th Field Regiment to the right rear. Range finding was done from a radar equipped motor launch.

The first salvo was fired at 06.44 from LCT No.331 by A Troop, 7th Field Regiment. Their third salvo hit the coast on target and the rest of the seventy-two 105mm guns joined in bombarding the Queen Beach defences at the rate of 200 rounds a minute. By the end of this fierce bombardment 6,500 rounds had been fired. All available personnel on these eighteen LTCs were engaged in carrying shells, the cardboard packages were thrown overboard leaving a long trail. Soon the German artillery began to reply, they were facing the German strongpoint at Hermanville Brêche (StP 20, codenamed 'Cod' by the Allies) and the LTCs had to take evasive action, their guns still pounding. Of the eighteen LTCs six were damaged by enemy fire, five by obstacles, and three by mines; two of these fourteen became total wrecks and only four out of the eighteen were unscathed. The firing stopped at H-5, and flail-tanks of the 22nd Dragoons went in to clear beach obstacles for the following infantry, the leading companies of the 1st South Lancashire Regiment on the right and the 2nd East Yorkshire Regiment on the left at 07.30.

Your father's account of his part in this stirring action will be invaluable to the Archive and I very much look forward to reading it.

Kindest regards,
Peter Ghiringhelli


Message 8 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 14 November 2005 by jenny_wragge

I think it's possible that the Captain Laird in this story could have been my grandfather, Thomas Balfour Larid. He was a seed merchant; his business was Laird and Sinclair, which had nurseries at Moniefieth, and also a shop in the City Centre. I got a look at photo albums my mum has (I'll need to get another look) of his. There is a photo of him with his TA organisation in 1938 - it was the 76th Highland Field Brigade, "303". I'd love to know if you think your Captain Laird was him. He died about 1980/1981.


Message 9 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 28 November 2005 by Dundee Central Library

Dear Andrew, Peter and Jenny

Thank you for your contributions, which I will relay to Dougie.


David Kett (Dundee Central Library)


Message 10 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 29 November 2005 by tonyturnbull

I think undoubtedly, that Thomas Balfour Laird is your grandfather. The Tommy Laird that I met when I was posted to the 76th (Highland) Field Regiment in June 1940, had been a Territorial Officer in the pre-war 76th. In 1939, the 76th were switched from the 51st Highland Division to the 3rd British Division and thus changed places with the 23rd Field Regiment. The 76th took part in the pre-Dunkirk battles before the evacuation. The 23rd were captured with the rest of the 51st (H) Division at St. Valery.

Tommy Laird was, I think, second in command of 303 battery, which I joined at a place called Toddington (about 11 miles north east of Cheltenham). As my grandmother's home was in Newport, I was indeed fortunate to be posted to the 76th, a Dundee, Forfar & Fife Territorial Regiment, after being commissioned. I and 2 others from the OCTU were made most welcome.

The 3rd Division were the first to be equipped with 25Pdr guns after Dunkirk and stayed in the south of England on anti invasion duties. After Toddington, we moved to Weston-super-Mare, then Winfrith, then Blandford, in early summer 1941. We were living under canvas and the Mess was a small marquee. Tommy Laird had acquired a dog. One of its parents must have been a Dachshund, but I am not sure of the other! It was a delightful animal, which Tommy christened Monty, after Montgomery, the Divisional Commander, who later became the famous Field Marshal.

I think Tommy left the regiment whilst we were at Blandford. There was a lot of reorganisation with new regiments being formed so he probably departed with promotion. By the time of the D-Day landings, there were very few of the original 303 battery Territorial Officers left in the regiment.

The Tommy Laird who I am remembering certainly had a delightful flower shop in City Square in Dundee. I did not know of the seed merchants' business. I did visit the flower shop.

I was very sorry when he left the regiment, because he was one of those people who make life seem better when they are around.

Kind regards.

Tony Turnbull.


Message 11 - A Gunner at Dunkirk

Posted on: 02 December 2005 by jenny_wragge

Dear Tony

Thanks so much for your response. I new Tommy (or Pop as we called him) until I was about 10 or 11, so obviously I have particular memories of him, and it means a lot to me to build up a picture of him from the perspective of others, so that the real man, rather than the much-loved but irascible grandfather, emerges.

Best wishes

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