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From Holiday to Horror: Dunkirk, 1940icon for Recommended story

by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

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paul gill - WW2 Site Helper
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Reg Gill
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11 February 2004

This document is part of my father Reg Gill's tape-recorded notes on his World War Two service, which I have transcribed.

Although Reg was subjected to what was the most concentrated bombing the world had seen in Malta, the visions he had and the experience of diving into ditches already filled with civilian victims of aircraft attacks still upsets him. I haven't asked for more details along these lines.

Reg Gill, formerly of Leeds General Infirmary Territorial Army (TA), was an RAMC lance corporal working with many of his former colleagues in the 18th General Hospital in Etaples. He had just passed a very superficial test as a radiographer and been promoted to sergeant. An eager crowd of thirsty drinkers awaited him as he entered the sergeant's mess for the first time.

This is the story of how those phoney war days went sour, and how he nearly slept through the Dunkirk evacuation.

Occupational francs

Luckily, at that time, the first month, we still hadn't received any pay because of the communications problem, but the major registrar had managed to raise a lot of money. 'Occupational francs' they were called, printed by the British and accepted by the French. We could buy food, which was our main concern being so hungry and cold.

Occasionally, I used to go off with the lads on the tram that ran on rails all the way from Etaples to Le Touquet, the seaside resort made famous by Edward, Prince of Wales, and Mrs Simpson. It was a yachting centre, and as soon as we had our money, off we went, straight into Le Touquet. Bottle of wine, French bread, egg and chips, confiture and, of course, having demolished the first plateful, ‘Encore la même chose!’

As it happened, we had been extremely well treated in the rate of exchange. Even as a lance corporal, by comparison with a French wallow [sic], I was rich. I think we had 175 francs to the pound. When I tell you that a brandy or whisky cost two francs, and egg, chips and wine cost five or six francs, you can see that we were extremely well looked after from that point of view.

Ping pong in Etaples

When the snow went it gradually became warmer. In fact, within a couple of weeks, towards the end of March, the frost went completely, and the sun came out. Remarkably, it became quite warm. Of course there were very few casualties. In fact, we didn't have any casualties at all.

I was passing a recreation hall in Etaples, and I heard the sound of table-tennis balls being batted about. I found this irresistible, so in I went, in army uniform, to find a bunch of French youths knocking a ball about.

Communication was difficult, but with the few words I knew I asked them what they were doing. They said they were the Etaples table-tennis team. They played in the Pas-de-Calais league and were practising, as they always did several nights per week, for matches against teams like Montreuse [Switzerland], Aberville [sic], Boulogne and Camier [sic].

They were very friendly, and I was awarded the honour of playing their captain and no. 1 player. I had a very good game with him. I managed to beat him, eventually, which impressed everybody of course.

Hoping the line would hold

All that was to change. From the newspapers that we were able to get, it appeared that things were hotting up on the front line. But we weren’t unduly worried. The French were confident that the Maginot line would hold, and the papers told us that the British army was the finest that had ever set foot on foreign soil.

We had reached a high state of civilisation. Every morning the local patisserie would send a van round full of goodies — cream things, chocolate éclairs, beautiful bread and cakes — which of course we were well able to afford, so really there were compensations.

It did look a bit nasty towards the front line. Patrols were increasing on both sides — this was towards the end of April — but we continued to visit Le Touquet, have nice meals, swim in the sea. I continued to play table tennis, though I didn't play in another match. I played with my French friends had coffee with some of the young ladies, life was very good … and then it happened.

The tide begins to turn

All our faith was in the Maginot line, which, the French said, was impregnable. We had our own army there, small by proportion, but we felt it would probably continue much the same course as the World War One — eventually we would win. I mean Britain always did win, and Britain and France together would surely win, but things were nasty.

The Germans had broken through in the Ardennes, which is wooded country, hilly, impossible, so people said, for tank warfare. For that reason it had been very lightly defended. The Germans broke through against a division or two of the French territorial army with very little opposition. From then on things got rapidly worse.

The Germans sweep in

The Germans swept through north-central France, in a wide arc this time, heading not for Paris but the channel ports, in a circular movement that took them rapidly down to Abbeville and to the coast just north of Rouen. They then proceeded to advance up the coast, which put us in a very difficult position.

This was only one branch of the German army. The rest of it advanced towards central France, but as far as we, the British army in northern France, were concerned it looked very sinister indeed.

An influx of refugees

We were told we had to be ready for very heavy casualties. That, on the way to Etaples, there were about 600 French Moroccans or Gooms, [sic] as the French called them, and we had to be prepared to admit them. As far as X-rays were concerned most of them were going to have shrapnel and bullet wounds.

While we were waiting for these casualties, streams of refugees arrived, in cars, broken-down lorries, carts and lots of trains. They’d come down from northern France and the Belgian frontier, which the Germans had overrun, and were absolutely demoralised. They cluttered up all the roads. Transport was impossible. This great influx of refugees from Belgium and the northern parts of the Pas de Calais was sweeping down the road that led from Etaples.

Immediate evacuation north

As far as we were concerned, the 600 Moroccans didn't arrive. However, we were told that the Germans were seven or eight miles away north of Aberville [sic] and heading up the coast towards Etaples and Le Touquet.

We were warned to be prepared to leave everything as it was, to pick up our kit bags and our equipment, water bottles and everything, and march north towards Boulogne and Calais immediately. Eventually, we were assembled by the colonel and told that this was taking place, but we couldn't leave yet because the order to move hadn't been given.

Tempted by a rowing boat

One or two of us looked rather longingly at some rowing boats across the estuary, riding at harbour in Le Touquet. It wouldn't have been easy, and we could have been shot as deserters, but we considered taking them. We thought that if we were indeed to be cut off from Le Touquet, a 40- or 50-mile journey by rowing boat would be a lot better than being in a prison camp for the rest of the war.

But as we didn't know what the exact situation was we didn't feel completely despondent. We felt that surely if the French army capitulated, the British army would put up a fight.

Burying the Occupational francs

Eventually, we did get the order to move and headed up the coast, leaving everything as it was. Before we left, a great hole was dug in the sands, and the sergeant's mess funds, a box full of Occupational French francs, were buried in it.

I don't know the exact location. I suppose it has been found because there's a housing estate now where our camp was. As the French franc after the war was devalued by a 100 times, it wouldn't have been a great deal of use anyway.

Marching across country

As we started to march up the coast, German bombers were coming over in vastly increasing numbers, dive bombing the whole time. The roads were impossible. We were told we couldn't retreat via the roads, because they were being bombed and were completely choked with refugees.

Some of the refugees were now going in the opposite direction, so there was now a proper hiatus [sic] of poor Belgian peasants in carts with women, children, animals and bikes. It was complete chaos, with some heading down the road from the German army in Belgium, and others coming up the road, having been cut off by the Germans in Abbeville. We were told to march across country road, across fields.

The long march north

We were each appointed an officer. Mine was my radiologist, Major Lees. I saw very little of him in France actually. He appeared once a week, asked ‘Is everything all right, sergeant?’ and disappeared again, goodness knows where. If I know Major Lees, I suspect he had a private practice somewhere.

We had broken up into parties of about 20 with an officer in charge and set off in the direction of Boulogne and Calais. We marched and marched and marched. It seemed interminable. We were dog tired. We were hungry. And we were also apprehensive.

Germans bombers swarmed above us

Overhead were swarms of German bombers, German fighters machine-gunning the roads, anything that moved. There were swarms of dive bombers , of Junkers 87s, Junkers 88s, but very little RAF. In fact, subsequently, it was a regular complaint that was made by the British troops: ‘Where were the RAF over Dunkirk?’

I remember seeing one RAF plane the whole of that first day of our retreat. It was a Lysander scout plane, which dived down to have a look at us and buzzed off again. I think it was probably a very unhealthy place for him to be to.

Diving for cover

Whenever German dive bombers appeared, we always made a dive for the nearest cover, usually the hedges. Not to be caught in an open field was the thing.

If there was open ground to cover, we went like a bat out of hell. When we reached the other side, the hedge, we’d lie down to have a look round to see what was coming.

Sharing a bottle of whisky

When it got dark, I'm not sure how it happened, but a lorry emerged and was parked in the dark on a country lane, and Major Lees told us to climb aboard. Inside were most of the medical officers, including the colonel, the pharmacist, Ron Milburn, and Joe Knapton. It seemed that we were the nucleus of the 18th General Hospital. We were in fact the Territorial Nucleus, the General Infirmary nucleus. By this time we were too exhausted to be concerned about that.

The lorry set off slowly in fits and starts, obviously making detours to judge by the swaying and the ruts. I think we crossed a few ploughed fields, and, despite the bangs and crashes outside, most of us slept. I know I did.

I remember very little about it. Ron Milburn produced a bottle of whisky, goodness knows from where, and we shared it between us. I really had more than enough, and I think the colonel was very disapproving, but I felt a lot better after that.

A sanctuary of sorts

When the lorry stopped, in the small hours of the morning, we were told to get out and follow our respective leader. I think I followed Major Lees to some building high up in the town, overlooking the harbour. There were fires all around.

We went into the building, and I remember everyone being in the main hall, though I'm not sure where it was. Somebody told me afterwards that it was a convent, but I’m not sure.

We lay down on the floor to sleep. I had wandered off and found a camp bed, under which I slept, and it was only by a miracle that I didn't get left behind. In the small hours of the morning, we were told to get up and get out. We marched down the road to a railway siding, where there were a lot of wounded troops, both French and British.

Functioning in a daze

We unloaded a train and put the stretcher cases aboard one of a line of ambulances. The walking wounded we collected, and then we all set of for the harbour, a mile or so away, maybe a bit more.

We were in a daze. It was dark, with dawn was just breaking, and in the harbour, which I found out afterwards was Dunkirk, there was a funny-looking ship waiting. I was told afterwards that it was a Dutch 'skoot' [sic]. which, because of its shallow draft, was capable of entering shallow water. This was an enormous advantage in a tidal place like the English Channel.

Reluctant to leave for ‘Angleterre’

The ambulances came right up to the ship. We loaded the stretchers and put the French and British walking wounded aboard. Many of the French didn't want to go. When they were told we were going to ‘Angleterre’ they didn't want to know. Some wanted to go back down the coast and join in the fighting again, but most seemed to acquiesce and go reasonably well.

The ship was pretty well full. I don't know what happened to the rest of my unit. Most of the people aboard the ship — and there must have been several hundred of us — were our own small company, that is the ones who had been in the lorry, the colonels, half colonels, majors and sergeants.

A ring of fire

The ship was ready to take off. In fact as soon as we had got the last one aboard the captain was extremely anxious to get off. I don't blame him, because the harbour was being bombed. Not as badly as it was to be a couple of days later, but it was on fire.

Of course ships in the harbour were being bombed, but most of the fires were caused by retreating British troops, who were burning lorries and petrol dumps and things. The whole thing seemed to be a ring of fire.

Destroyer escort

We had a destroyer escort, or at least there were destroyers out to sea, and they were firing down the coast toward the Germans, who were not very far away, probably five or six miles. There was a cruiser further out, with a longer range, firing at the Germans.

We proceeded out of the harbour, which as far as we were concerned was absolutely splendid, until one of the destroyers dropped a depth charge about 50 yards away from us that made the whole ship leap out of the water. We were petrified and thought we had been hit by a submarine or a bomb or something.

Learning to smoke like a chimney

That was my record of Dunkirk. I should say that up to then I didn't smoke at all. But those who did smoke seemed to get a great deal of comfort from it during bombing raids, so I did start then.

Everybody had a ration, and it was considered the right thing to do. So, from smoking nothing at all, I smoked like a chimney after that.

A seat to sit down on

We crossed the Channel, and sometime about midday we arrived at Dover, where we were given a hero's welcome. We were filthy, hungry, tired and worn out, but they were extremely kind to us and gave us sandwiches and coffee and sorted us all out into units in a big hall. There were even seats to sit down on, something rather unusual.

We were back in Britain, and this was quite marvellous. Of course Dunkirk went on for several days after that. Our evacuation must have been 31 May, possibly 1 June, and things got a lot rougher later for the troops who were behind, especially for the ones who were guarding the perimeter.

I’d lost all my friends

Within an hour or two we were on a train going somewhere, though we didn't know where. I'd lost all my friends. I hadn't known anyone on the train from Dunkirk.

When the train headed off, I suppose it must have been about midday. It was a tiny little train — they were lovely in those days — a steam train, with a corridor and, fortunately, a toilet. It was full of a miscellaneous collection of troops, a few of whom were medical corps but I didn't know them.

The train went along a single track for hours and hours and hours, up through Hampshire, possibly Dorset. As evacuees we were shunted around quite a lot. All the main lines were extremely busy with front-line troops and reinforcements. There must have been a possibility of troops being rushed to France to try and help the perimeter. It didn't happen, but the main lines were being reserved for that reason.

Reunited with my unit

After several hours we stopped somewhere, possibly south of Oxford. At the station we were given food — tea and sandwiches — and were able to stretch our legs for 20 minutes or so. The train then took off again, until, eventually, by evening we’d arrived at Peterborough, where we disembarked.

To my amazement I found most of our unit in the station. They had arrived on another, earlier train. But it couldn’t have been that much earlier, as they were still in the station. I was formed up again with our unit, and we marched to the Lincoln Road Territorial Barracks.

An honour to serve the BEF

We were told there would be a meal in the evening, and we could go into Peterborough, which was about a mile away. I made straight for a barber-shop and was given first-class treatment — shampoo, shave, hot towel, everything. It was really super, and the barber said it was an honour to serve members of the BEF.

In terms of the welcome given to troops back from Dunkirk, that barber’s attitude was typical not just of Peterborough but also of Britain in general at the time. Everywhere we went shopkeepers didn't charge us anything, which was just as well as our pay was several weeks in arrears. I liked Peterborough, though there was very little to do, but we were given leave. Ten days, I think it was.

Always certain we would win

Churchill was speaking regularly on the radio. We had the navy, and most of the airforce was in tact. We all knew we would win the war. We just thought it would be a bit more difficult now.

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