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Dunkerque: A Brief Encounter

by les-elliot

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Frederick L Elliot
Location of story: 
Dunkerque, France
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
31 May 2004

Dunkerque A Brief Encounter
by Frederick L Elliot

Nearly sixty five years after Dunkerque, many of my memories have faded. But not the end of this one. One commentator on a recent TV series said that, "in World War 2, the armed force's odds for survival on water was 40:1, against bullets 8:1 but at Dunkerque - they were next to nothing". Here is my story about surviving those odds.

My name is Frederick L Elliot. Friends call me Les. Now aged eighty five years old. I am partially blind with macular disease, and partially deaf as the result of my exposure to the shelling in the early part of 1940.

I was born and brought up in Durham. In 1939 I was still living with my parents and elder sister, making a modest living in the plumbing and heating industry. Life seemed slower in those days. However, life suddenly accelerated when Prime Minister Chamberlain announced on the radio, in September, that Britain had declared war against Germany.

At the time, few of us believed it would happen. Whilst some people I knew of immediately volunteered for service, I hesitated. I tried to digest the significance of the situation. As I did, the recruitment campaign quickly switched to call-up. By November, at the age of nineteen years, I had become a member of the Royal Army Ordinance Corp.

You will find me in their records as Corporal F.L. Elliot, Serial Number 7614203.

My basic training took place in Chilwell near Nottingham. To be honest, things moved too quickly to become either home sick or struck by fear at the prospect of entering a war. I admit I was a little naive then. I had my first ever pint of beer on the train to Chilwell and was promptly sick. During training, friendships were brief as new recruits were soon dispersed to their next assignments. For me this led to a journey to Portsmouth. One of the sergeants there who inspected our parades was called Mantovani. I later discovered he was the son of the famous musician.

Fortunately for me, but not so for many comrades, this was to be the first of two visits I would make to the south coast of England during the next six months.

Our ship departed in early January 1940, bound for the west coast of France. At the time it seemed a long journey, certainly more than a day. We landed on the quay side of a small town, really more of a village then, called Pornichet. I recall it being about an hour by truck, due east, from Nantes. Not that I really appreciated where Nantes was. It was much later that I discovered it to be a far cry from the now infamous Normandy beaches to the north, and even farther from the defences of the Maginot Line over 400 miles to the north east.

I remember the weather was cold. Parts of the sea off Pornichet had frozen. Initially we camped in tents. Soon we moved to our main base, about an hours drive away, called Le Garve (I think). It was set up as an ammunition depot and our mission was to prepare all munitions in readiness for supporting operations further east.

The French residents were hospitable, though friendships were short. I met a young French girl about my own age called Juliet. She lived in the village nearby. Somehow we got by despite the language barrier.

I remember thinking how poorer France seemed compared to England. They would often rummage through our canteen refuse.

Although we worked hard there were moments for relaxation and amusement. On one occasion a few comrades and I ventured into what we thought was a public house. The land lady and her waitress's transparent attire suddenly made us realise that we did not need a French dictionary to understand our mistake. We left in a rush. There was also the local bathing facility where we used to wash. I was shocked, to say the least, to see French women having to use the same facility as men without any embarrassment.

In the lead up to June 1940 we were informed that the German Panzer Division had penetrated the Maginot Line. The artillery there was geared for aiming east, in no way able to cover its rear. Furthermore, as the German's blitzkrieg steamed on, Paris had surrendered.

The speed of events was incredible. Within hours we were on the move, our sole objective to assist in and be part of the British evacuation from France. Our destination was Dunkerque. We travelled in trucks, many of which were not military but commercial types which bore painted over livery signs such as the names of breweries. Our journey was under cover of darkness and often under trees in order to hide from enemy planes flying over head. We encountered masses of refugees on the road to Dunkerque. I remember the sound of children crying and having to drive over fields to avoid them. It took us several days. We missed the main evacuation date because we were ordered to make a detour around Dunkerque. This was to avoid congestion, as German U-boats were slowing British rescue attempts and there were also worries of attack by German tanks.

The final stretch of road to Dunkerque was blocked with broken down vehicles, many of which were on fire. So, we walked the last few miles.

On arrival, I saw that the beach was covered with soldiers mostly lying down. We were not sure who was dead or who was resting. The sky was a criss-cross of war planes. Distant field guns were firing in our direction but, fortunately, seemed to over shoot into the sea. Now and again we would climb on to a hill to look behind us. We could see German tanks stirring dust in the far distance.

One soldier said to me that his wife was expecting a baby and hoped it would not be a boy. He said he did not want his son to have to face such an experience in the future.

I have vivid memories of German war planes shooting at the troops and vehicles congregated on the quay side. In particular, how they would swoop at us and we would line up behind sea walls for protection. The German pilots quickly learned it would be more effective to pursue us along rather than adjacent to the walls, so that we could not hide behind.

I also remember seeing a large ship with a funnel bellowing smoke. It was HMT Lancastria. I saw a German war plane nose dive and pull away at the last second having dropped its bombs mid-ships. Not long after, I saw the Lancastria keel over and gradually sink.

That same day a Royal Navy ship ferried us to a larger cargo vessel waiting to rescue us. Shouting and loud speaker announcements from our rescue ship drowned the air. Soldiers cheered the sight of two British Spitfires seemingly hunting down the German planes. Our rescue ship's captain crying out, "hurry, hurry, the bombers will be back !".

Once on board the cargo ship, I noticed two massive holds with iron ladders descending into them. The chaff on the floors suggested its normal content was grain. During our voyage home, I slept under a life boat on deck rather than in the hold below. The number of able and wounded soldiers crammed there meant the humidity and stench was unbearable. There was little food or drink, only snatches of sleep between tending those injured. We were glad to be moving and prayed that no U-boats lay in wait.

Initially we sailed up the coast for 5 hours or so to avoid U-boats. We eventually began our crossing of the English Channel at night. The total voyage took nearly 3 days. Many wounded soldiers died en route. We did not talk much. All aboard were numb with the shock of what had been experienced.

My memories of landing in Plymouth are of the welfare service receiving us. But most of all a huge crowd of cheering people on the quay. Bigger than a football crowd. As we docked they threw to us chunks of bread. At that point we felt like heroes, proud but overcome with a sense of being the lucky ones.

Someone told me that fifteen hundred people had been on board the Lancastria. Of course, its demise was not made public knowledge at the time. It is only through a TV series that I later found out that the real scale of fatalities was much greater.

Especially on Remembrance Day or whenever I see a poppy,
I think about the pointlessness, the horror and destruction caused by war. And I think about lost comrades.

My remaining war years were spent at camps in Britain. I eventually settled here in Colchester with my wife Margaret.


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