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Falling Back to Dunkirk, 7th MAC British Expeditionary Force (Part 2)icon for Recommended story

by pauldavey

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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, 8,500 words (in three parts, click here for Part One and Part Three, Dunkirk), and comment as you wish. Any place name spelling errors are mine.

Incident at St Andrée - and search for a CCS

The CO of the unit to which we were attached, was a real ‘fire-eater’, an old Indian army man, and one could never do right. If a driver sat in his cabin, he should be at the ambulance steps, assisting the orderlies - if he was assisting the orderlies he ought to be in his cab, ready to drive away. This man should have been in a combatant unit, not in the medical corps, he actually expressed disappointment, when the unit was ordered to retire - it was too close to the line, all along, for a medical dressing station.

After a few days, I was sent one evening to St Andrée, with my usual load of wounded, and on the road through Sin, I noticed three German bombers, ‘hedge-hopping’ across the countryside. They passed low, over the road behind me, then climbed into the distance. A few minutes later I observed bombing on a distant hillside - the columns of smoke, which tell-tale, even if the noise is unheard. Then the planes appeared, travelling quite low, and at high speed. They dropped bombs behind me at Sin, turned and passing overhead, bombed the road in front. One blast rocked my vehicle and I drew into a wood nearby, and waited until the raiders had gone. I had been speeding up till then, in the hope of reaching Lille before they reached the main Journai-Lille road, but speed is upsetting to casualties, in a loaded ambulance, and I could not keep it up for their sakes.

When I reached the CCS at St Andrée, I was informed that they were full up, and I was ordered to proceed to Hazelrule. I did so, via Aimentieres, and Bailleuil, but found that Hazelrule had received a terrific bombing the previous day, and the CCS had removed elsewhere. I was directed to a railhead some miles away, where a hospital train was due at midnight. I found this rendezvous eventually, a small station called Stiemanche, and parked with ambulances from all parts. Black out was very bad here, lights, matches, torches, shining everywhere, while Nazi reconnaissance planes droned high above. I was glad to see my patients aboard and after a beer and a coffee (and cognac) purchased nearby - it was one in the morning - I departed.

I felt dead-tired and rather weary, the bomb which rocked Dinah earlier in the evening at Sin still left its effect on me, and I dreaded the long run to Journai. I drove to St Andrée, parked my bus with some of the others still at the 7MAC base, and had about four hours sleep. My orderly, from the field ambulance unit, was still with me, and we breakfasted, and proceeded to return to Quatre Chains.

Past Lille, and Helliennes, our journey was uneventful, except that Lille was by now extremely deserted. Hellienes had been bombed overnight, and looked the worse for it. At the Belgian frontier, I observed newly-dug trenches, and hurriedly-built fortifications. The Maginot Line was a myth, you must remember, as far as the Belgian frontier was concerned. I wondered at this, and could not see reason for a second line here, unless the front line at Journai was in danger. When I reached Quatre Chains, about 10 am, my fears were realised. The Field Ambulance Dressing Station had retired to Ruchin, South of Lille, and I was in front of even the advanced dressing stations of that unit. A man had been left at Quatre Chains to direct traffic, and he supplied this information, telling me that the troops were being withdrawn from Journai - I had noticed mechanised troops retiring in Lille, but thought it merely a flank movement, or a relief.

On reaching Ruchin, I had dinner, a short rest. Dinner was posh, an unusual savoury, but the unit’s cook had been exploring a deserted farm, nearby, and found a pig that did not go to market. About tea-time, enemy planes appeared, and bombed and machine-gunned neighbouring hamlets. It was not a restful evening, by any means, and I was thankful when detailed to leave, with one other ambulance, a no.1 MAC vehicle, appropriated complete with driver, by the Field Ambulance Unit. Routes were haphazard and no-one knew safe roads or where to find a CCS, so all ambulances were directed to report to a MAC control post, at a given map reference. We found the map reference, but the control post had gone, and after enquiring at a cafe, I was lead to the billets of a Colonel from where I begged information. He had heard of the control post, but did not know where they had gone, he had no large scale maps of the district, and could not suggest any available CCS for our casualties

We left, and I suggested Hazelsuche again - I knew the road, and hoped that the rail-head which I had previously visited, might have a hospital train in during the night. The journey was long and tedious, but I did not have to go as far as Hazelsuche, because I found that a civilian hospital, at Baileuil was accepting casualties. A lovely building, in vast grounds, built in the shape of a three-sided ‘rectangle’, with a lawn on which rested a forty foot red cross, in canvas. I unloaded my friend also, and we returned to Ruchin. Arrived at breakfast, and spent a day and night resting as much as possible. Early next morning, we again loaded and left for Baileuil. I have not mentioned that Cpl Vale, and Harrison had not returned from a trip to the CCS, and I worried as to the reason. Had they met trouble, or returned to

Sense of impending disaster

I reached Baileuil, via Aimentieres, about noon. Aimentieres was evacuating, a disturbing night - I wondered what was happening to my friends there, of whom I had several. Two French families and one English. (A man who had returned to Mademoiselle, after the Great War, married, set up home and a business.)

From Aimentieres to Baileuil, there was evidence of last night’s bombing, and when I reached Baileuil, the CCS was full, expecting orders to move, and refusing casualties. We proceeded to Hazelsuche, and the road was now packed with French troops, heavy ‘last war type’ guns and thousands of refugees. Every bend in the road was a ‘block’ - machine-guns, barbed wire, and such obstacles as steam-rollers, farm carts, wheels smashed in order to form a hindrance to Jerry’s anticipated advance.

In Hazelsuche, traffic was awful - bridges had been bombed, others blown up by the REs and only one temporary structure remained for all transport. I proceeded to the local GHQ, and eventually was granted an interview with the town major. This officer was elated at two ambulances, complete with drivers and orderlies, falling into his grasp; he instructed me to go to a civvy hospital, gave me a letter of introduction, and off we went. After unloading our patients, we were awaiting return of stretchers, blankets etc, when I commenced chatting with the French doorkeeper, or whatever they call him.

My French certainly was useful. He had read the letter of introduction which I had given him on arrival, and told me that the town major intended to ‘impress us’, for service locally, and would be driving to the hospital at any moment. This did not suit me at all - I was anxious to rejoin the 7. MAC, or even the Field Ambulance at Ruchin, but stay in Hazelsuche, a town that simply breathed ‘impending disaster’? No.

We did not wait any longer for our stretchers and blankets, but made off at great speed, on a more southerly route for Baileuil. Here we stopped at the CCS, it was early evening, begged a meal, and a night’s sleep in the vehicle park. We received both and felt both safe and comfortable, in our ambulances, parked beneath the trees on one of the avenues of approach to the hospital.

However, with the dawn, the CCS received orders to move. We were commandeered, about 100 vehicles were packed, lock stock and barrel, and the convoy moved off. Only very serious cases were left behind, with a small medical staff. I received equipment and not casualties this time, also my companion. We all moved at highest possible speed, across cart tracks, through fields, up very poor roads, to a village perched on a hill-top, namely [no name given].

We arrived about 10am, but only remained two hours. No breakfast, just a few pieces of bitter chocolate bought nearby, and water from our bottles, and throughout the two hours, enemy planes circled above, and bombed farms, woods, all around. I expected things to happen to us at any moment, but they did not. About noon we had some soup, from a field kitchen hastily set up in a stable nearby, and afterwards, the whole convoy streaked along the road to Aimentieres, and then back to Baileuil. In the village we had visited for a short time, life was proceeding very normally, in spite of all, and I understand that, in the bombardment from the air, which it received the following day, the casualties were very numerous.

Our run back to Baileuil was a ghastly trip, though it lasted little more than forty minutes. The roads were congested with refugees, and French artillery, travelling in opposite directions. Our convoy maintained a high speed, averaging over 30 miles per hour for the run, and this necessitated constant horn blowing, hard braking, and equally hard acceleration; cutting in and out of the congestion all the time. I first experienced the sight of enemy planes machine-gunning refugees, on this run. Not on the road we were travelling, but on a lane crossing the main road, winding up into the hills.

I first noticed the refugees running for the fields and ditches, and as my vehicle topped the next rise, I saw a large German bomber flying only a few feet above the road. Its rear gunner using his machine-gun to horrible advantage, on the panic stricken human beings massed behind.

Rejoined with the unit, and job at Ypres

When my companion and I reached Baileuil, we heard that the no. 7 MAC was at Vlamerterighe, on the road between Ypres and Poperingle. We decided to miss any chance of dinner at the hospital, tired and hungry as we were, and to give the CCS the slip, and rejoin my unit. I told my friend to bring his ambulance and orderly, too - I knew we could probably do with an extra driver and vehicle. When the convoy entered the CCS drive, we drove on, up the main Ypres road, a really fine concrete artery, and through Ypres, to find Vlamerterighe, a tiny village, about two miles further. Ypres looked surprisingly clean, a small town, but obviously rebuilt entirely since the Great War.

It was very good indeed, to see a friend of mine on sentry-go at the entrance to an estate, and to drive into the grounds of a really lovely chateau, now the 7 MAC’s head quarters. Two thirds of the unit was there, the vehicles parked alongside fish ponds, and under the trees bordering a stream which ran through the grounds. I handed in a brief report to m. Athens, and after tea, at about 4 pm - Ovaltine to be precise, I went down the road half a mile, to the barn used by our workshops section, for oil and petrol for ‘Dinah’.

This refill of petrol took longer than anticipated - enemy planes flew over constantly, bombing at random, any spot that might conceal Allied forces (why we were missed still amazes me), necessitating continual runs for cover. Just as I was returning through the gates of the car park again, I saw everyone go flat on the ground, and a large plane flew so low over us, that I thought for a moment, that the undercarriage must strike the roof of my ambulance.

At the chateau, our shelter was a cellar beneath the mansion, a veritable death trap in my opinion, though safe from blast, and 6 to 9 inches deep in water. Mr Atkins told us to get some sleep, as the unit was off at 9pm. I settled down for three hours, but after about 20 minutes I was aroused. We were off to evacuate a hospital at Ypres. My section officer was profuse in apologies, we were half dead with loss of sleep, but it had to be. I have not mentioned it but both Ypres and Poperingle had been bombed mercilessly about 3.30 that afternoon, shortly after we had driven through the former town, and that the place was littered with civilian dead.

We reached Ypres after a very long detour. The main roads were now filled with bomb craters, and Jerry was still at work, dropping explosives on main roads in the distance, as we could see by the columns of smoke rising at more or less regular intervals, across the plain. On our way to the hospital, we stopped several times. Only a portion of A section had been detailed for this job, about 14 vehicles, and I contrived a basin of coffee and some cake from a cottage during one of these halts, while our leader was consulting his map, presumably. The old Frenchman and his wife chatted to me at the door, while I ate, and he said that France was in peril of her life, this time, that we were cut off, and that with luck I should soon be back in England.

He was really French, born in Rouen, but his wife was Belgian. His son was somewhere in the Maginot Line. It was another week before I realised the wisdom of his words, or the truth of his prophecy, as the case may be. Anyway, we were not needed at Ypres hospital, when we arrived, another unit had arrived before us, and we returned to Vlamerterighe to find the 7th MAC in the act of departing. We followed.

All night we drove, at least, until an hour before dawn; I had a couple of hours sleep inside my vehicle, while a relief driver took over, Ivor Lloyd from workshops section. I was dozing at the wheel, and asked for him of necessity. A long night run, no lights, continual halts, at very low speed, does not help to keep an over-tired driver alert. Finally we parked our ambulances in and around a farmyard at a place called Borre, and we all went to sleep. At 5am, after about an hour’s sleep, the SM personally roused us, and we were off again. On waking I heard shells screaming overhead, and all the noise of a barrage once again - I doubt if it would have awakened me in itself

The whole unit was now destined for Baileiul, to evacuate the Casualty Clearing Station that I had been with, only 24 hours earlier. But, when we arrived, a very different sight confronted me. Not a window intact, one wing in ruins, and the walls covered with dirt and shrapnel marks. The grounds full of bomb craters. Most of the serious cases were in the cellar beneath the hospital chapel, away from the main building. We lined up our ambulances beneath the trees which lined the drive and two vehicles at a time proceeded to the chapel steps to load up. Medical officers, English nurses, all worked at top speed, but we felt that more trouble was in store.

Bombing at Baileuil

We had been there about half an hour, when a solitary fighter appeared overhead. He departed, after circling, leaving a large circle in the sky, similar to an 'O' left by a sky sign-writer. Then, after a few minutes, the bombers appeared, and I had just loaded Dinah. Soon bombs were whistling down on Baileuil, and the ground shuddering with concussions. All the wounded who could move at all, threw themselves from their stretchers, assisted each other, helped by drivers and orderlies who could not hope to restrain them, and leaving the vehicles, crawled into ditches, underneath bushes, anywhere close to the ground, seeking safety from the horror above.

Several bombs fell in the hospital grounds, only one damaging the building again, and showers of earth and stones rained on us all. When the raid was over, reloading was done, wounds examined, some redressed, and the continual demand for water for the casualties was obeyed. This whole performance was repeated thrice times, before our convoy left Baileuil, for the railhead at Steenonde, a few miles away. A skeleton staff remained at the CCS with patients to ill to be moved.

At the railhead, a hospital train was waiting, and we stopped all our ambulances along the roads nearby, allowing about 50 yards between vehicles, in case of air attack. We learned that the train could only proceed in one direction as the line had been bombed, which meant that it would have to make a long detour to reach the coast. However, before loading had been half completed, it was known that the line had been bombed to the east, also, and the train would not be able to leave at all. Those ambulances that had been unloaded, were loaded again, and we waited for nightfall

For what happened next, go to Dunkirk

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