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Dunkirk aged 17

by w e birtles

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Archive List > Dunkirk Evacuation 1940

Contributed by 
w e birtles
People in story: 
Bill Birtles
Location of story: 
Liverpool to Dover via Dunkirk
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 January 2005

Dunkirk Age 17

I caught the train from Victoria for Dover. On arrival made my way to the Harbour Master’s Office. The place was alive with people, ambulances staff cars with officers with red flashes on their collars and Staff sticks under their arms, Red Cross and St John’s personnel, soup and tea kitchens, piles of blankets, stretchers 6 deep.
I found the office and a Wren attended to me. I showed her my letter, she looked at it.
“Sorry, but it’s the office on your right.”
I made my way to the next office, went in. All the staff were in civvies. I rang the bell. A gentleman answered,
“Yes, can I help you?”
I showed him the letter, he opened it, took out the letter, looked at it.
“You are from Liverpool?”
“Can I see your ID, please.” The same old routine.
I passed it to him. He looked it over, handed it back.
“Well, come in and meet the others. You are the last to arrive. The team is now made up, 16 in all, four teams of four.”
I followed the gentleman into another room.
“This is Bill,” he said. “Our team is made up. Find a place, Bill, and I will explain what we are here for. Well, the Admiralty have asked for our services to protect a ship which is going to Dunkirk to evacuate troops from there. As these ships carry no weapons we are going to try to keep off enemy aircraft with Lewis guns, four guns to be exact. Hence the four teams. One under Austin, Thomas, George and myself, Harry. And Amy will be in charge here. You`ll have Gunnery courses. No man can be at the gun for long, hence the team. We are going to use four guns, two on the bridge, port and starboard and two on the upper deck aft.
“We will need one gunner, one feeder and the two others loading the pans per gun. That is the idea all being well. By the way show Bill where he can get some overalls. We will be taking iron rations, biscuits, tea, condensed milk and an iron kettle. We can use the galley. This will be no picnic. Now, will you please put Bill’s things in a locker and give the key to Amy.
“Next we must collect our duffel bags and tin hats. Then to the Maid of Orleans to fix the guns. She’s berthed at the South Pier loading with cans of water. I heard twelve hundred gallons of it, because there is a shortage on the other side.”
Once on board Harry asked the Chief Officer where did he want the guns. He suggested two on the Bridge and two on the top dock aft. Harry already knew this but had to ask just the same. We stacked the ammo boxes around the guns, then Harry gave us a short lecture on the guns,
“Don’t panic if the Gun jams just the whip the pan off and let one of the others handle it.”
We returned to the office and on the back noticed troops marching down the quay, the going on board. It seemed funny to me that we were going to evacuate the troops on the other side of the Channel and still carrying troops to France. I kept it to myself.
We returned to the ship about 8.30 pm. She was due to sail around 2 am, 26th May. One of the soldiers told me they were members of the RASC and Corps of Signals on special duties.
Harry came round and told us to get our heads down. It could be a long time before we could get another. I looked around and found a piece of tarpaulin, a half of a life belt which I could use as a pillow. As our team had been assigned D starboard on the top deck I decided to kip near the gun. I got my head down in my duffel and, wrapped in the tarpaulin, was soon asleep. I t was a bit hard but I had not slept for over 24 hours. Around 5.30 I heard life on board. I was soon on my feet, rolled the pillow in the tarpaulin and stored it away.
The first thing I did was to find the 2nd Steward to find out if he had a spare brush I could use. I found him and he gave me one. The brush was to be used to brush the cases away from under foot where they could be dangerous.
Around 6.30 am we pulled away from the pier and I heard that we were going to take the shortest route to Dunkirk, Route two, some 39 miles.
Harry called us all together. He told us,
“These guns are to be used against the Jerries - and no-one else, so please take care.”
With the lecture over we manned the guns and left harbour into the English Channel, tin hats on. Planes from Britain flew over towards France. They were an opportunity to use our gun sights but they were soon out of range.
It was right, we were taking Route Two. The Channel became alive with all sorts of ships, some coming, others going, just like Piccadilly Circus.

Besides the troops we had on board we had nurses and two doctors. We heard that the German tanks were at Gravelines, south-west of Dunkirk shelling shipping. We could see some of the shells hitting the sea. A fountain of water shot into the air. Ahead of us Dunkirk was having a hammering; a heavy bombing, and we had to lay off for several hours. Then, I believe Dunkirk decided that as Dunkirk was having a hell of a bashing and there were far too many ships for our safety we were to be recalled. Which gave us the opportunity to get our heads down in shifts.
We were called back on board at 10 am and we left harbour again at midday 27 May. We took the same route but were instructed to slow down as it was chaos at Dunkirk. When we did dock, the troops and nurses and doctors went ashore. Planes went over and we had a go at them, but at last we were able to take off a thousand men - and how glad they were to get home.
The following day, 29th May, we were back again and had five hours along side the quay. The smell of burning buildings was not healthy but the captain was able to take off 1,372 troops. The following day we docked at the East mole and this time 1,253 men were brought home. The next day Harry told us our party was to stand down. The Maid sailed again. This time she landed 1,800 including 400 French troops we returned that evening, 1st June. Things were getting rough, ships everywhere and Gerry dive bombing and we about collided with a destroyer (HMS Worcester). She was limping home after being bombed. The Captain decided to stand by Worcester and both ships limped into Dover. We came ashore and made our way back to the office and stood down. While we were in the office Amy told us that some of the Merchant Navy crews were in a mutinous mood after having no sleep and very little to eat and taking a hammering in Dunkirk. We heard one of the ships was the SS Tynwald.
The Maid of Orleans had made her last voyage to Dunkirk and was being repaired.
On the 2nd June we returned to the Dock office around 3 am only to find men and women cutting loaves of bread into large chunks and putting them into large paper sacks. Others were making paste sandwiches and putting them into cardboard boxes. Other organisations, the Red Cross, WRVS, Churches of all denominations, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, helped to give soldiers tea, water and something to eat. These survivors had had nothing to eat or drink for days and their lungs were filled with burning oil from the tanks near the docks and the burning dock buildings.
Harry, Austin, Thomas and myself were to join the Lady of Man, another Manx steamer, under a Captain TC Woods to relieve others who were showing signs of distress. George stayed behind to take charge of the rest.
We made our way to Dunkirk but were unable to dock as French fishermen lay alongside the mole. We saw soldiers having a go at them, threatening them with their rifles. It took us two hours to come alongside. Naval vessels moved the fishermen out to sea under threat.
The docks were well ablaze and the harbour was very tight to move in with all kinds of vessels sunk and debris and bodies floating on the water. With the bombing of the Stukas and the heavy gunfire it was hard to load the troops. We were in the dock for four hours and we had to leave on the high tide at 1.30 am with 1,200 British and French troops and made for Dover. We started to disembark at 5 am. The acting Captain told us to stand down so we returned to the office only to find that George and the others had been sent to Folkestone, some 10 miles from Dover.

Harry read a message from HQ to say that we would be leaving Dover and moving to Folkestone as things were getting rough on the other side of the Channel and that we must give the Merchant Navy all the help we could.
After a meal we set off for Folkestone and had to report to a Captain H Clarke, the Master of The Princess Maid. The road was packed with Motor Vehicles ready to take troops to hospitals or to camps. We reached Folkestone around 11.30 am on the 3rd. Harry made his way to the pier to find The Princess Maid, only to be told by a Naval Officer that his services would not be needed until 6 pm but while he was there he met George with his crew cleaning the Princess ready for tonight’s voyage. Harry rejoined us and told us that George had a bivouac at Sandgate and we could use it. Harry knew the place so he headed for it. After a brew of tea, he advised us to get our heads down.
Bombing was by now an everyday event, German planes and our fighters having a go at each other. You just slept through it. If you caught one, too bad. Although Jerry machine-gunned throughout the night but I slept through it and was woken by Harry with a mug of tea around 5 pm.
“Come on and get something to eat.”

We arrived at The Princess Maud around 6.45 pm and Harry reported to Captain Clarke for his orders. At 7 pm he called us aboard and gave us our orders. I was given Bridge starboard Lewis. I collected my pans and checked them and went through a dummy run. The barrel was clean, I should have no problems. I gave my all-clear to Harry and by now we were on our way to Dunkirk, ships everywhere, most of them heading Dunkirk. How the helmsman did it was out of this world. Being on the bridge you could see.
Dunkirk was being shelled and bombed. The smoke was that thick, oily smoke blowing inland. We managed to dock at the mole with difficulty and by 2 am on the 4th June we were overloaded with 2,200 British and French Army and Naval personnel. How we got out, God only knows. Harry played a great part in marshalling them. One of the destroyers pulled us off by the stern and at 2.30 am we were clear, leaving stern first, out into the Channel and headed for Folkestone. We had to wait for high tide to get in.

The troops were very restless, so near, yet so far. Harry took the loudhailer from the bridge and used it as only service men understood. He told them that they must be patient. We would be going on the tide within the hour. Some 63 ships worked the last 24 hours and just after 3 am Admiral Ramsey called it a day. The great operation, Dynamo, was over and Dunkirk fell to the Germans.
But further west more troops still had to be evacuated. Harry and the crew went to report to Newhaven some 8 miles down the coast. We had caravans as billets and were told to stand down for the time being. But that night Harry told me that I had to report to Newcastle RTO by 9th June.
The following morning Harry and three others including myself took a run down the coast to see if we could help anyone. Harry was a man who could not keep still, had to be doing something. To me he was a great leader. We finished up at Portsmouth. It had been bombed that night and some of the Naval Barracks had been hit. Harry reported to the Main office and came back and told us, in his words,
“Everything’s under control. And they thanked me for my help. So back to Whitehaven.”
It was slower going back but we got back to the caravans at 4.30 pm.
Harry and I left the site half an hour later. I did not know what was happening, Harry doing the driving. We had only been on the road some ten minutes or so when we turned left up a farm track and came to a quick stop at what looked like a farm but had been camouflaged.
Harry opened the car door.
“Come on,” he said. So I followed. He did not knock but just walked in. I stood by the door.
“Come on in,” he called. It was a beautiful lounge, brass ornaments. I expected some fellow with a rifle to appear any moment. I heard a click and the door opened and a tall military gentleman walked in.
“Harry! What the hell are you doing here?”
Arms went around each other and I stood aside.
“How about a dozen eggs and a bit of ham for starters and a bottle of special. By the way, this is Bill.”
I put my hand out and shook his.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
“And you, son. I pity you working with this bugger.”
Harry jumped in,
“We will have to go, uncle. It was nice to see you.”
“What’s the bloody hurry? You haven’t got what you came for.”
Harry winked at me and went out with his uncle. He returned with something in a brown paper bag and something wrapped in a cloth.
“Thank you, Uncle. How much?”
His uncle gave him one look and said,
“Bugger off before I set the dogs on you.”
Harry just smiled.
“Come on, Bill. He will.”
The gentleman was still waving as he drove off.
Harry was smiling all the way back to the caravan. When he arrived back he put the paper bag on the table.
“How’s that?” Harry said. One of the lads opened the bag and found the eggs in it. Harry put the cloth parcel down.
“Go on, Bill. You open it,” Harry said. I opened it and could hardly believe my eyes. Six slices of ham.
“How’s that then?”
“How are we going to cook that?” I asked.
“No worry about it. We will go down to the local pub. I know the landlady. Come on, Bill. Let’s go.”
It was not open so we went around the back. Harry knocked on the back door and the landlady opened it.
“Come in, Harry. And your friend, too. Just what can I do for you?”
“Look, Jess, we have been on iron rations for a week. Could you rustle this lot up. The grill in the caravan is US.”
Jess said, “Look, go into the snug. Ted will draw you a drink and I’ll fix this lot up for you.”
Ted drew two pewter mugs of beer and Harry asked Ted to draw one for himself.
“How much?”
“Twelve pence, please.”
We had just finished our drink when Jess called from the Kitchen, “Ready!”
We went back into the kitchen. Jess said,
“I have put the eggs into the big Dixie with the ham.”
“How much, Jess?”
“Will two shillings do?”
So Harry gave her half a crown and thanked her.
“We’ll see you tonight.”
It did not take us long to get back to the caravan. Everything was ready, table laid and the water boiling. Well, the meal was ham and eggs and it went down very well - thanks to Harry.

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