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- Arthur Davey
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- 21 January 2004
This account is the best description of events leading up to the evacuation at Dunkirk, that I have read. The original letter is in my possession. In summary it recounts my grandfather's experience as an ambulance driver with the BEF during the months leading up to Dunkirk. He witnessed the machine gunning of refugees by German aircraft, the speed and confusion of the withdrawal and the horror of being trapped under bombardment in the port of Dunkirk itself. The narrative is very descriptive and at times funny. Following Dunkirk Arthur spent the next five years in North Africa without break. Please take the time to read his story, of 8,500 words (in three parts, click here for Part One and Part Two, St Andrée), and comment as you wish. Any place name spelling errors are mine.
Dunkirk - a safe haven?
The word passed around that we were going to Dunkirk, to meet a hospital ship, and we were delighted at the prospect of a ‘safe retreat’ and probably some sleep and food at last. Surely a post like Dunkirk was adequately defended and fairly secure from air attack! At Steenonde, we had no food worthy of the name, only beer and coffee with cognac from cafés around. A few army biscuits helped to ‘fill up’. All this time, Jerry circled above, and drew his ‘circles’ over hamlets around, to be dive-bombed a little later. The countryside seemed crowded with fires, and smoke columns, but still he left us alone. Perhaps our red crosses were dirty, and not clearly visible from the air. The 40-foot red cross of canvas in the grounds of Baileuil had been his first hit. The bomb had torn it to shreds.
It was about 7pm when we filed off on our 45-mile run to the coast, and I was in the section lead by Cpl Saunders, in Cpl Vale’s sub-section. It was soon quite dark, and we seemed to travel in a zig-zag fashion, up one lane, down the next, along cart tracks, anywhere off the main arteries, where bomb craters added to the danger of air attack. The roads were blocked at every junction, with troops and mechanised units, and every road block was a trial to negotiate in the darkness.
Near to Vlamerterighe, our old base, the convoy was held up, passing another convoy, by one of the leading ambulances running into a ditch, blocking the road, or rather our half of it, until a workshops lorry could get there, and haul it out. This hold up was a tiring and nerve straining business - drivers kept flashing lights, against instructions, patients were calling for water, and asking about the delay; another convoy was endeavouring to pass us, and meanwhile, Jerry was dropping parachute flares all over the countryside. They were little pin - points of light at first, that grew as they descended, and eventually lit up large tracts of land. Every moment we thought that they would spot our vehicles, and the tension was unbearable.
When we did start off again, the convoy split up, and about 20 of us, under Cpl Saunders, proceeded to get lost up a cul-de-sac. The lane finished at a farm, we halted, and the business of reversing each ambulance about a quarter of a mile, to a space wide enough to turn in, commenced. About 15 drivers fell flat asleep, immediately we halted, and each in turn had to be aroused, and guided back. Then, all in line once more, we set off for Dunkirk, the dawn just breaking. A matter of 10 miles from the port, a large enemy bomber flew low over the road, going in the opposite direction to us, but he ignored our little convoy, fortunately.
Then, as we reached the town, and speeded along a road, running parallel the canal, we saw shell - bursts in the sky, heard AA gunfire, and realised that our dream of a secure haven was entirely false. A huge cloud, dense black, hung low over the town and sea, swirling and eddying, the smoke from the huge oil storage drums on the quayside, bombed a day previous. Soon, we could see and hear the roaring flames, too, and the nightmare welcomed us.
We drove through a town that was already showing signs of a severe bombing, and straight onto the quayside. Here we managed to scrounge a drink of tea - our breakfast. The quayside was busy with vehicles, all army ones, naturally, and we soon learned that a hospital ship was not due until the evening. We returned in small sections to the town, and parked along streets leading to the square, and, at intervals, around the latter. We had barely finished parking, before the sirens sounded and enemy raiders returned. They dive-bombed the town, and though their attack seemed concentrated on the docks and the oil storage drums alongside, several bombs fell in the town, and shrapnel and pieces of debris set up a ‘hailstorm’ for a short time.
When this raid had passed, most of the casualties carried by the vehicles around me left the ambulances, and sought shelter in the cellars of the shops and cafés. We were ravenous, but the very few restaurants remaining open had nothing to sell except cognac, lemonade, and dry bread. One had just time for a quick drink before the sirens sounded again, and this time we decided to remain in the café. A corporal from an artillery unit sat down and played a derelict looking piano, but he had only played half-way through ‘There will always be an England’ before a bomb dropped nearby and shook us in both senses of that expression.
We hoped the song was true, but doubted if the title included Dunkirk, and bolted to the cellar. A Frenchman and family were already there and appeared to resent our intrusion. They all, apparently, were obsessed with the idea that the presence of troops would attract the bombs to their particular shelter. After a while, however, they grew more friendly, and withdrew some coffee, bread and jam, from a hiding place, and shared it among us. This sort of thing went on all day, with very short intervals between the raids, never more than 15 minutes.
About 6 o’clock we were ordered to return to the quay, and having assisted the wounded aboard the ambulances, with one exception - a poor chap who had died that afternoon from wounds and shock - we drove to the waterfront. Here, a scene which I’ll never forget, met our eyes. The quayside, approach, and all the converging roads were packed with ambulances - there must have been several hundred, and the jam was four and even six abreast in places. The progress was about six yards in an equal number of minutes, and followed by five minutes at a standstill. All the time we’re fretting and fuming, and watching the sky for raiders. In the distance, that is - overhead it was dark with the smoke from the oil drums. We could tell that unloading onto a ship was proceeding rapidly, by the number of ambulances passing empty, on the way to various rendezvous outside the town.
The lucky ones were those in front, by the time I had reached the dock the ship was fully loaded and had sailed away, leaving about 30 or 40 vehicles, full of casualties, behind. Jerry was bombing the town itself now, and it was rapidly growing dark, somewhere around 9.30, I suppose. On the quayside general confusion reigned. Crowds of soldiers, of all units and corps, were crowding around - their idea that they were bound for England for reforming. The few drivers, including myself, could find no-one in authority, except our three remaining lance-corporals, and the average man approached had a kind of stunned complex. You spoke to him, he showed signs of hearing you, but would walk away without replying. In some cases, officers too.
We recalled that our Sergeant was waiting at the entrance to the docks, to inform us of our rendezvous, where we should rejoin the rest of the MAC after unloading, so three of us, leaving the ambulances and remaining drivers on the quay, walked to this spot. We could find no trace of any member of our unit, and assumed that we were temporarily forsaken. After a long argument, we decided to park our seven ambulances, ignoring other ambulances of other units, whose drivers would not budge, outside a public shelter on the waterfront, and to carry our wounded below for the night; also, have some sleep ourselves.
We were outside the shelter arranging our buses, when a corporal of the 7th MAC drove up on a motor-cycle, and ordered us to join a procession of ambulances leaving the portside. Apparently, an officer had taken charge of the various vehicles standing about, and was proceeding to escort them to a more or less safe park, for the night. We went about three miles to the west end of the town, and parked under some trees alongside a canal. Here, we spent a few hours in sleep, rolled in groundsheets underneath our ambulances.
I awoke with the dawn to a series of whistles, recalled where I was and crawled further under the engine. Two of my casualties were now alongside me, and the other two, with the orderly, were lying on the canal bank. When the raid had passed, we got up, and looked around. The oil tanks were blazing still, we could hear the roar of the flames, and half the town appeared on fire. Though the sun would soon be up, the dense black smoke clouds were still reflecting the light of the flames below, and while we gazed a German reconnaissance plane was drawing white smoke circles over a village west of the town - victim of the next bombardment.
At the end of our line of vehicles was a deserted farmhouse, and a sandbagged shed, which would shelter a dozen, tightly packed. We had no food but the water supply was alright at the farm, and we were able to appease our casualties never-ceasing demand for water. Several were now delirious, and these - along with two severe shell-shock cases - set up a diabolical clamour in the two ambulances in which we had segregated them.
We decided to scrounge food by hook or by crook, and tried three shacks adjoining the canal-side, which glorified themselves with the words Café-Byssh, over the doors. These had been deserted, and looked so empty that we did not bother to break down the padlocked doors. Then, one of us found an abandoned lorry about a quarter of a mile away. The truck had broken down and the personnel had deserted.
We ‘rushed’ it. In the back we found biscuits, several tins of milk, corned beef, boiled bacon, and some tea. I had about five pounds of sugar in Dinah’s tool-box, so had other drivers, so we were very fortunate. Rejoicing, we filed back to the car park. An officer arrived ‘out of the blue’, made a fuss and accused us of looting. After a pretty heated argument, he left us and we proceeded to make breakfast. We returned to the lorry for some m.o.v. tins - meat and vegetable ration that is. It is a type of Irish stew, cooked and canned, requiring re-heating to make it palatable.
We drank tea, ate snacks, fed our patients, slept, took cover, all day, the following night, and the next day. The raids continued and seemed to increase in ferocity, if possible, and the second day was a ghastly experience. The bombs were falling on the town’s outskirts and very near to us now. We alternated between the canal bank and the sandbagged shed, slept between raids, and felt pretty shaken each time the bombers passed. The smoke rings were close now, and each time the planes returned we expected to be hit.
Jerry was systematically ‘blitzing’ Dunkirk, and not missing much. Along the canal bank, both days and nights, soldiers were marching, dirty, bandaged, worn-looking, in single-file, towards the docks, and we realised this was no strategic retirement but a decided withdrawal from Northern France and Belgium. We heard tales of abandoned vehicles, abandoned stores, petrol dumps, forced marches, outnumbered forces, etc. Everywhere Jerry was advancing, and had drawn a line from coast to coast, round the diminishing sector that held the BEF.
Meanwhile, our officer, who had been away all day, returned with a Major, and informed us that we were to return to the quayside, one ambulance at a time, at 3-minute intervals, commencing at 5.15. A hospital ship was due and air protection would be given.
We left the canal bank at the time ordered, and drove through the shambles that was a town but a few days before. The roads were strewn with debris, bricks, masonry, girders; full of craters, here a dead horse, there an overturned ambulance, a couple of lorries blazing fiercely. Houses were blazing, walls tottering, a small band of men doing impossibilities with fire hoses, and drowning all, the roar of the blazing oil depot, whose smoke and flames could be seen at night from the English coast.
As we crossed the canal bridge, men were opening the sluice gates, and the embankment had been blown up in one place. Here the water was pouring into the fields and ditches outside the town - we guessed Jerry was near if they were flooding the country.
When we reached the quay, and drove onto the huge concrete jetty, now holed with craters, and jagged at the sides, where bombs had torn away sections of the concrete, no ship was waiting. We turned off our motors, and proceeded to wait - for the ship or the bombers. We guessed who would arrive first, as we now heard that our ship would not arrive until 9 o'clock. After about 20 minutes, it seemed hours, had passed, about 30 planes appeared high in the sky, from seaward - we thought they were our own at first, then, when they dived, we knew that the promised air protection was merely a ‘nerve-tonic’.
There was a stampede for shelter, the two remaining sandbagged dug-outs on the quay could hold very few, and the majority, wounded and sound men alike, ran across planks, or jumped, onto the decks of the barges, and small steam freighters in the harbour. I landed on a coal boat, with a man whose leg was in splints. My two patients with arm and head wounds managed easily, but my orderly half carried the other casualty, whose leg was in a St Thomas splint.
It seemed safer on the boats somehow, while bullets and shrapnel rained on the decks and quayside, and the earth and sea alike vibrated with the concussion of the bombs. The planes were dive bombing, and the scream of their engines, then the whistle of the bombs, would be followed by the noise of the anti-aircraft guns which opened up after the planes flattened-out after their dive. In the middle of this raid the drivers were recalled to move up the ambulances on the jetty. A blazing warehouse at the beginning of the quay was liable to collapse. It did so, but all the vehicles except one were in safe positions when the walls fell out.
The above raid over, the quay became crowded again, but within ten minutes, another squadron appeared, and the above performance was repeated. This time I found shelter among bales of blankets stacked farther along the jetty - if one could hide one’s head, one felt secure. If only one could be the size of an ant, instead of an elephant - there always seemed a part of one’s body that one could not squeeze in, however one contracted.
The above happened more times than I can remember clearly, but about 8.30, a destroyer appeared outside the harbour, swung through the mouth, and anchored on the far side, guns blazing at the skies. The feeling of confidence that the appearance of the Navy created, I cannot explain - everyone cheered up so visibly, and when a hospital ship drew alongside a little later, we felt really safe. The ambulances were driven, pushed, towed, to the gangways, and the neatest, swiftest, handling of stretchers that I have yet seen, followed. Within three quarters of an hour, we were all aboard, ambulances pushed over the quayside, and kit abandoned. All the majority took on board was rifles and small kit.
Some fellow had about thirty gold rings on a string. He had been near a jewellers shop when a bomb had blown the shop front out; another chap had a revolver; another a marble lounge clock, the face studded with gems, of what value I do not know. Privates were wearing officer’s greatcoats, and vice-versa, some men were laden with souvenirs of all descriptions. A Sergeant in an infantry unit went up to a ‘Captain’, and saluted, - the ‘Captain’ replied, ‘Don’t salute me, I am only a b....y driver’.
Below decks we drank tea, there was gallons of hot tea aboard, and then I slept, and remembered little more until we reached Dover. I do recall a shudder, and heavy concussion, just as we left Dunkirk, but though we first thought the ship had been hit, it was learned that an enemy plane had been brought down, to crash on the end of the jetty, with its bombs still on their racks.
We left Dover by train, and reached Redhill station just as the business crowds thronged the platforms for city trains. Everyone seemed hilarious - you would imagine that the evacuation of France, still proceeding, spelt victory, not defeat. I suppose, that in many ways, it did. Soldiers were flinging French coins from the carriage windows, and the business crowds were scrambling for them.
Before midday, we arrived at Aldershot, had a meal, handed in ammunition, and had a roll call of names, numbers, and units. We were 14, of the old 7th MAC and we wondered who, and how many, would get back. After a day we were sent to Blackdown Camp, and for two or three days, fed well and slept. Then we went to Mouton-in-the-Marsh, spent about a week lying in the fields, sun-bathing, eating, attached to a troop-carrying unit, but doing no work whatsoever. We slept on palisades in a loft over a barn, and enjoyed the absence of authority.
From Mouton-in-the-Marsh we went to Marlborough Camp, and here received three days leave - our first since we returned. After leave, we returned to Marlborough, then to Swindon, where the 7th MAC was reuniting; and more leave. About two thirds of the original complement was here, and the unit left for Pwllheli, North Wales after about a week. From there onwards I think you know most of the news.
The second half of this letter has been written on board the ship that is conveying the 7th MAC, with its new strength, abroad again, and I apologise for my bad writing, and some nearly illegible passages. There is neither room nor comfort for writing, on-board, and I was anxious to complete this long-promised story. I have endeavoured to keep the details as accurate as possible, from memory, but I have had to omit the names of some towns, because I have forgotten them. Others, I know are spelt incorrectly, but diaries are forbidden on active service, and I have no map with which to check.
I am sending this to Beryl, firstly, but I have asked her to forward it to Mother, Aunt Bis, Aunt Hilda, in the hope that it will fill some of the long gaps in my correspondence with them,
With love and best wishes to all, Arthur
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