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Escape from France

by douglasmason

Contributed by 
douglasmason
People in story: 
Harry Mason RASC 119517 / REME 100572
Location of story: 
North France
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4099340
Contributed on: 
21 May 2005

The following account has been written by Doug Mason on behalf of my Father who is the subject of the story. All dates and accounts are recalled through memory and so may not be wholly accurate.

I had recently finished my Motor Vehicle Engineering Apprentiship in August 1939. Having served my "time" at Sadgroves of Conybere St. Balsall Heath, Birmingham and Bristol st. Motors (Ford)I was now classed as a fully qualified Motor Engineer/Fitter. I was 21 years old. By now of course the whole country was expecting to be at war soon but everybody was still clinging onto the hope that it would'nt come to that, and an agreement could be reached to keep us out.
I was still at Bristol St. when on September 3rd 1939 we all heard as expected,"Britain is now at war with Germany".

At the time it was not the case that having worked for a company as an apprentise, you would be offerd a full time position with that firm. So at the time my immediate future was unknown.

Some of my mates decided to join up straight away, others said that they would wait to be called up. I had talked about it with Mom and Dad and with Mr. Banaster my girlfriends Dad. He had served with the Royal Artillery in the first war and he said not to volunteer for anything. Dad said that they wouldn't want me anyway because of my size and disability. But every passing day another friend would tell me that they had joined up and I felt as if I was letting them down.

So, on Friday November 10 1939 I walked into a Church hall on the Stratford Rd, Birmingham, where the Army had set up a recruitment office and spoke to a army officer about my possibly joining up. I was told that because of my recently acquired skills I would be useful but because of my disability, I was born blind in my right eye, I would never leave England. So I signed up and went home to tell my family and girlfriend. Marie, my girlfriend, thought I had gone mad and her Dad said he knew I had, but they respected my reasons and said that as I was not going overseas it would be alright.

On Sunday the 12 November I had an unexpected visit from two Army officers. They said that because I was a Diesel engineer, thanks to Ford, I was desperately needed.( Most British vehicles were petrol and most American Vehicles were Diesel)so even at this early stage the army was aware that US equipment was to be used. To my amazement I was orderd to report for duty that day at Aldershot, Mandora Barracks.

So I got together some belongings, went round to see Marie, said my goodbye's, went back to see Mom and Dad and then was on my way.

I got to Aldershot late that afternoon havig ridden my motorcycle through some horrific weather, I was absolutely freezing. The guards on the gate told me where to report to, I was fed, Dried and shown where to sleep. The next morningI met a couple of other lads who were half way thruogh their 12 week basic training,they told me to report to quartermasters stores to be kitted out, I hadn't got a clue what to do, who to see, anything. Anyway I aws issued with my uniform, given a number and shown how to salute,stand at ease. Later in the main barracks I joined some other lads who were almost at the end of their training, we didn't do much of anything else until Wednesday. This was the 15 November. We woke had breakfast and received our orders...." Go home, 3 days embarkation leave. Return Sat 18th."

When I got home, my family and Marie couldn't belive what I told them. Not untill I showed the copy of my orders, I couldn't really belive it myself but everything was happening so quickly I hadn't had time to consider what would happen or where I might be going, wehadn't got any idea. I made the most of the hours I had and was in quite jovial mood, it was really quite exiting. Cause at this point I was fairly sure that I would be staying in England or at least Britian, because the recruting officer had said so. So, on Sat 18th Nov 1939 I returned to Aldershot and reported for duty. There was a lot of activity in the barracks and every one was in high spirits.

On Sunday 19th I was sent to stores and issued with a Lea Enfield 303 rifle, which had been in storage since 1918. Oh, and 1 round of ammunition. 1 round no less. The gun was covered in grease and wraped in brown grease proof paper, and was only 3 inches shorter than I was tall. The lads back at Barracks showed me how to clean it with gallons of boiling water. I was then given the rest of my kit and a knap sack to put it in. I still hadn't got a clue. With help and advice from the others I got it all into order. Then we got our next orders....Be ready to move 0.100 hours Monday 20th. At about midnight we started to walk in full kit to Aldershot station. I could have said march but it was more of a walk,we boarded a train in the early hours and were on our way. We didn't know where we were going but you could have chosen from half a dozen rumours.

It seemed like we were on that train for days, but by late morning, perhaps around 11.00 am we arrived in Southampton. The train went straight to the docks to within a few yards of the ship, it wasn't long before we had got off the train and were standing in the deck of a troop carrier.

Later that day we sailed. It was very late that night when we landed in Chebourge, France. Still unawere of our final destination. Like in Southampton there was a train waiting at the docks,and it didn'ttake long to get everybody onto it and we spent the rest of the night and the next morning travelling through France.

So now its Tuesday 21st I think. I had been in the Army for 11 days. I was somewhere in France, with a unit I'd only just met, I had had no basic training, I'd got a gun I didn't know how to fire and only 1 round anyway. OH GOD !!!

At midday the train came to a halt. We were orderd off and got ready for a march. A MARCH ? How do you do that? I was at least a foot shorter than the next shortest man and I had no parade ground Knowlage at all. Never-the-less we Marched. Full kit and Rifle. The gun on its own weighed 9 lbs, god only knows how much the rest of the kit weighed, and I really struggled.

We went on for about an hour, seemed like a week to me, but at last we halted. It was only now that I was told officially that I was in the Royal Army Service Corp and we were seperated into units of about 60 strong and told where we were. the place was,is called, St. Ettien De-Mount Luc in the Loire Valley near Tours. We had taken over a porcelain factory and we would be converting it into work-shops which would in due course become Number 1 Heavy Repaire Shops or no 1 HRS. We were then fed and watered and barracked in a farm barn which became our Billet.

Over the next two weeks we tore down kilns, dug pits, made benches and were just about ready to start our work. Our main task was to strip down impressed vehicles, inspect the parts and rebuild them to military spec. So thats what we did,trucks, cars, bikes you name it. We took them apart and rebuilt them, they went to war. We carried on for about 3 months up untill March 1940.
In March I was able to take 10 days leave when I went Home. On March 16 1940 I married Marie my childhood sweetheart. We had a Fish and Chip supper to celebrate and went down to Coombe Martin for two nights staying in a B&B. On the 19th I started back to St. Ettiane.

The impress work continued through May and into June. We had heard many rumors but it wasn't till June that the order came.......
"Evacuate. Destroy everything. Take only what you can carry. Destroy all weapons Vehicles, Plant and Machinery en-route. Head for Dunkirk".

It took a while to destroy no1 HRS but we soon got underway. Heading North and West we started for the port. If we came across anything the enemy could use we destroyed it as orderd. Trucks were run without oil till they seized up. Any weapons or ammo we set charges and blew them but time was pressing and we had miles to go. It took several days of picking up stragglers and weaving through the refugees but we were nearing Rouen about 70 miles from Dunkirk. We came across a couple of MP's who were amazed to see us, we soon found out why, they said that Dunkirk had already fallen on June 4th. We were trapped. They were heading for the south coast port of Marseille and suggested we tag along, so we did.

A couple of days later, its about 9th or 10th June by now I Guess, we came across some more men heading more or less due west. They had heard that we could escape through a port called St. Nazaire. They seemed pretty sure of themselves and as we were running desperately low on fuel we voted to go with them. We had been on the move for about 9 days with little rest not much food little water and almost no fuel, about the 11th or 12th we got to the outskirts of St. Nazaire. Total confusion. There were hundreds trying to get out. Troops, civvies, men women and children. Nurses,Nuns all sorts. Then there were shop keepers and cafe owners trying to keep their businesses going refusing to give in.

To my astonishment we came across fresh troops heading East. They had been sent over to try to fight a last desperate rear guard action to buy time. Unbeleivable, 338,000 troops lifted from Dunkirk and still high command were sending fresh men. We made it to the docks, and thank God there were boats there and even a ship. The SS Lancastria. Because I had been in the saddle for so long I was suffering from conjunctivitus and the port officialls told us that the only MO arround was on the Lancastria. I was issued with a pass that allowed me to board the ship to see the MO. I thought my luck was in, once on board they wouldn't put me off again. But they did. I saw the MO and he gave me some cream to use on my eye but I had to return to shaw. That ship was packed, 4 maybe 5000 people, troops, civvies, nurses, clergy and children. She sailed that night abou the 17th or 18th June. She steamed away to a muted cheer from the docks, she hadnt got far just out of sight over the horizon when they attacked. Stukas. They say one of the bombs went straight down the funnel, she only took 14 minuets to sink only a handfull survived. Turns out I was lucky that day.

The next day there were a couple of Tramp Steamers in port and one of our chaps Alf Smith had managed to get a place for two of us because the engine had been playing up and the skipper thought a couple of engineer would be useful. After some debate about who should go It was decided that I should go because I was considered the best Fitter and Alf should go because he got the place so we boarded the boat.

So around 100 evacuees, 5 crew and 1 skipper set off in the early hours of the next morning. We were on our way home. I cant describe the emotions, tired, hungry, terryfied of attack, ecstatic we had got out,sorry for the lads we left behind. The passage went without incident and it occured to me months later that at no point was the vessel in any machanical trouble and none of the crew asked for any assistance, funny that? At one point during the crossing one of teh crew was heard to say
"seen any more skip"
"No" was the reply.
An RAF officer said "seen any more what?"
"Boats" said the crewman.
That was the end of the conversation, all I know is that when we left there were no more boats in port and as far as i can recall St. Nazaire fell a few days later. I never saw any of our old troop again.

Late that night I think it was June 20th we docked at Falmouth, we were safe.

This account is a shortend version and will be revised as time allows. Dad went on to serve in North Africa and was Demobbed on 17 march 1946. He never saw his brother Ron after he married Mom because by the time he came home Ron had served with the RAF and was killed over Dresdon in 1945, but thats another story.

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