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A Week in Belgium

by Vic Chanter

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Archive List > Dunkirk Evacuation 1940

Contributed by 
Vic Chanter
Article ID: 
A2278352
Contributed on: 
09 February 2004

From the memoirs of Vic Chanter

FROM CHATHAM…

On May 21st 1940 I left the Flagship, HMS Galatea, to return to Chatham Depot Ship, HMS Pembroke. I commenced a course to be made up to Trained Operator, and whilst in the middle of the exam, a messenger entered to ask for me by name to be kitted out for a special project. After partial kitting out procedure, I was allowed back into the examination class to continue the test paper. Within two minutes I was called out again to complete preparations for Dunkirk.
I was issued with webbing, belt, holster and pistol, but there was no one to authorise an issue of ammunition. With no time to lose I was doubled away to join a group for transport to Dover.
Along with others at Dover I boarded a vessel — possibly HMS Esk — to cross The Channel.
On the approach to Dunkirk we turned east along the coast and our group was then taken inshore by launch. At a point now too shallow for the launch we scrambled over the side with our gear - I had an Aldis lamp, semaphore flags and a pistol with no ammo — and waded ashore at La Panne.
A pall of smoke hung over Dunkirk, and we were to discover that La Panne was to be evacuation headquarters. Our ‘home’ for the next few days was to be the beach, so we billeted ourselves on and were adopted by a Bofors gun crew, until they too had to destroy their gun and be evacuated by us.

…TO DUNKIRK

May 26th/27th
Commencement of evacuation and German shelling and bombing of the town.
May 27th
Landed at La Panne beach where troops were being diverted along the coast from Dunkirk.
Commenced organising orderly queues — lines of soldiers — for embarkation into small rowing boats and floats; lines which often dispersed into the dunes behind the beach upon the arrival of bombs and bursts of machine gun fire from German aircraft strafing the sands. I was surprised at the deadening effect of the sand on the bombs.
Our small landing party of Royal Navy personnel (several seamen and one signalman — myself), under the command of one officer, was adopted by one of the several Bofors gun crews dotted along the stretch of open beach. These lads, manning the gun, remained with us for the first few days whilst they watched us policing the evacuation of others.
Commandeering floatable personnel-carrying material was at a premium owing to the lack of boats and rafts. Once a troop-laden craft had reached the comparative safety of an awaiting rescue ship lying offshore, we could hardly expect volunteers to row back to shore with it. Some abandoned boats did drift back to be rescued by us for further use.
All troops for evacuation were ordered by us to abandon every bit of surplus kit to allow for space, and rifles not used for rowing purposes were to be destroyed. That didn’t go down well with the squaddies.
In the early days it proved difficult to get some of the soldiers to wade out before attempting to get into the boats. Some of the boats became overloaded, sticking in the sand. At this point it was almost impossible to persuade some to jump out to lighten the load; though we tried to assure them that we would allow them back in once we could reach deeper water.
On one such occasion, three of us (RN) had just managed to re-float a full-to-the-gunwale cutter. “Okay. Get going. Row like hell!” we screamed at them. We turned and made for shore, wading up to our armpits in the water, when I felt and heard an almighty bang. As I fell forward into the sea, I knew I’d been hit on the back of the head. I surfaced and the situation became clear — and later a bit of a laugh. The soldiers in the boat had responded so well to our order to ‘Get going!’ but on one side only. Consequently the cutter swung round 90 degrees, got caught up in a swell and came down on you-know-who. I guess those lads in the boat got home somehow.
It’s obvious that we RN lads were consistently getting wet through, but we were never short of a change of uniform. All over the beach was the pick of the army, discarded uniforms, kit, photos, everything. Perhaps some lucky ones found time to grab the few most treasured possessions that they could cram into their battledress pockets, but for the most it was the time for survival — and leaving their old memories behind.
So sadly, at times, whilst looking for dry clothing to put on, searching through the discarded packs strewn along the sands, I would come upon family photographs, with wives and children looking up at me — a complete stranger! Indications of haste and urgency required that a soldier couldn’t stop and salvage from his own belongings the few very personal articles that were his alone, and not issued to him.
One hoped that the owners of these keepsakes would soon be united with the ones in the photographs. Not all of them would make it to England, and those that did - how long would it be before they were away again to some other Theatre of War?
After the first day or so we began to receive in La Panne motorised units. Then a new stratagem was devised. At low tide the highest vehicles were to be driven out to a given point, and by driving and parking other trucks alongside, a pier was formed from which the troops were able to clamber into the boats that were now able to come alongside.
This procedure was a most welcome break for us. First we had the organisation of the structure (the pier), between bouts of shelling and low-level bombing and machine gunning from enemy aircraft, and then we had the easier filling of the boats. No more brute force required pushing the boats out and getting wet through.
I know that none of the RN personnel knew just how much energy was spent during those sleepless hours and days. The army, by the time it had reached the beach, had already expended so much energy. We of the RN landing party had arrived fresh upon the beach. Frequent 24 hours of servicing boats did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm for the job; but enthusiasm, however, doesn’t compensate completely for spent energy. We were, therefore, thankful for the labour saving piers that we helped to build.
So good was the organisation that troops were now able to embark, sometimes under the orders of a senior army officer, with fewer directives from us. We could now spend more time with our own group and discuss the future. H.Q.Staff at La Panne, plus General Gort (Lord Gort), would at some time soon have to be evacuated. We had also to make provision for our own escape procedure.
It was at one of these get-togethers, a foray into the Bofors gun crew’s rations, that a direct hit was made on one of our piers by a German bomber. Reading about such an occurrence is one thing, but experiencing such frustration is something else. The lads waiting there on the pier, ready to be taken off next for their journey back home, had been so close. We no longer joked about, “Anymore for the Skylark?” The gap in our pier was never filled in!
We also had more time to watch where the enemy shells were falling as they screamed overhead — if you hear them they’ve missed you! Mostly they were now going over the beach towards the rescue ships lying off. A lot of harsh words were said around us at the time. No one said it was going to be easy. We did see a couple of dog fights, but nothing to stop the strafing of the beaches, the bombing and machine gunning, and nothing to stop the enemy from receiving information about troop and shipping movements from the German recce aircraft.
Soon with the evacuation of the guns’ crews along the beach it would be time for the demolition of everything of use to the enemy. I suppose it could be regarded as a vandal’s training ground Devastation strewn over miles of sand.

May 31st/June 1st
General Lord Gort left H.Q. handing over to General Alexander.
June 2nd
Major General Alexander left.
June 4th
Further evacuation ceased.

As Dunkirk had become extremely hazardous as an evacuation point, more and more troops were concentrated along the beaches to the Northeast. We at La Panne must have looked from the air like an ants’ nest. Unfortunately German air activity increased; the most demoralising probably were the Junkers JU87s, also known as Stukas, as they emitted a foreboding scream on their downward dive.
Our neatly organised groups and lines of awaiting troops along the sands would first of all disperse into the dunes. Then, as the planes pulled out of their dives, passing low overhead, soldiers everywhere could be seen firing their rifles in anger and frustration — a gesture of defiance. Eventually, more groups and lines stood their ground, so the evacuation resumed in some kind of orderly fashion.
As the numbers awaiting evacuation dwindled, and the chances of us being left behind increased, our officer began letting our group off one at a time along with the army. Night time drawing in on what was to be our last day found us searching for suitable floating material for ourselves.
During the darkness later that evening, whilst the officer and I were helping some of the remaining soldiers into a boat from what was left of our pier, he asked who I was and suggested that I should leave with the next lot. An hour or so later we came together again and discovering who I was said, “I thought I told you to go off with the last boat.” I remember making some weak remark that my services might be required for getting the last boats away; the tide was going out.
We knew it was time to leave when we saw the flash of gunfire behind us in the town, and shrapnel was hissing in the water around us. But where was our transport? We made up a group of four and wandered along the darkness of the beach to find the two dinghies we had previously earmarked. These we carried to the water’s edge, and once again we heard the disturbing hiss of shrapnel, which hadn’t been noticeable on the sand.
We waded out until we were able to pull ourselves into the floats. The officer and I were in one (perhaps he was taking no chances with me this time), and his orders were that both dinghies should stay as close as possible as we paddled into the darkness.
How far we went out with the receding tide I’ve no idea, but out of the blackness a voice hailed us and we came alongside. Scrambling nets were already down the ship’s sides.
A voice rasped, “Up you go.” My immediate reply was, “After you, Sir.” The officer, by now probably a little confused at my well meant but unseamanlike manner, shouted a brisk, “Get Aboard!” I was back in the Royal Navy.
Well almost. Grabbing at the ropes of the scrambling net was the first thing we had done, and no way were we going to release our hold until we were inboard of the rescue vessel, whoever she was.
My next task was to stand, usually fairly hazardous in a tiny dinghy in a swell, but not in the circumstances. I pulled myself upright and hauled my legs over to the rope rungs. At this point I should explain to the layman a disquieting phenomenon. As a person’s foot steps onto the rope rung of the netting with that person’s full weight, any adjacent rungs tighten to the horizontal as the rung taking the weight drops to its lowest point. (Are you still with me?). The next step taken has the same effect, and so on. One has the feeling of taking gigantic steps upwards and still getting nowhere.
That being understood, I was getting nowhere; my arms were pulling me up but my feet had suddenly become lead weights, the legs were unable to raise them to the next rung. Welcoming hands reached down and hauled me aboard. The officer suffered the same indignity with the same gratitude.
There was no feeling of a job well done. No, it was all in a week’s work. Something required doing and it got done, and I remember that amongst others on top deck, I just ‘got my head down’.
Upon arrival in England I joined seething streams on railway stations and trains with ant-like purpose of rejoining their units.
Eventually I arrived at Chatham RN Barracks to discover that from the uniforms into which I’d changed on La Panne beach I had contracted Scabies.
What followed was a process of kit fumigation and/or burning. The infected parts of my body had to be scrubbed to break open the skin in order to treat the parasitic mites. Ugh!
After a stay in hospital quarantine, leave was very welcome.
-------------------
Fiftyeight years later I traced the officer concerned, who had written an article in a NATO magazine with identical stories, which confirmed our identities.

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