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Falling Back to Dunkirk, 7th MAC British Expeditionary Force (Part 1)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, of 8,500 words (in three parts, click on the links for Part Two, St Andrée and Part Three, Dunkirk), and comment as you wish. Any place name spelling errors are mine.

Peaceful start

N.Wales 8th July 1940

Dear everybody, I hope you will forgive me and blame ‘that man’ for the time that has passed since my last letter. If I remember rightly, all was peaceful in France and Belgium then, and my particular feud was with the geese and other feathered frightfulness which haunted our billets. We were stationed at that time, in Villers Bocage, Somme, a village about seven miles north of Amiens. I get a kick out of the disclosure of what were then military secrets. Perhaps it would be better if I wrote a short resume of our travels up to my last date of writing, then I will continue giving names of places, instead of the mysterious ‘somewhere in France’.

First weeks in France

We landed at Cherbourg on a very wet Sunday last January, after a rough crossing from Southampton, a brand new motor ambulance convoy, complete with all equipment and over 100 vehicles - no one waved us farewell, and no one shouted welcome when we landed. We thought that we were England’s secret weapon, it was all so hush-hush. A couple of days of rain, cold, unloading, tinned-food, and general discomfiture, then a two day journey to Oiseau-le-petit, a village near Alencon.

We stayed here for several weeks, then proceeded to Villers Bocage. About the middle of April, our unit left the village. We had a real send-off from the people, with whom we had fraternised for some weeks, and who had treated us with every kindness, and much generosity. There was, I feel sure, genuine mutual sorrow at our departure.

Our new base was Fouguieres, a hamlet outside Bethume. We were here on May 10th, and crowded into the fields at 4 o'clock that morning to watch German bombers at work on our RAF aerodrome at Bruay. We thought it great fun ... then, much as we should have regarded a free view of the Crystal Palace fireworks in days gone by.

At this time, I had just returned with three other ambulances, from a detachment. We had been away from the unit for eight or nine days, working with a field ambulance unit at Amentieres, then at Gievecoeur-le-grand, south-west of Amiens, evacuating sick, and accident cases to a base hospital at Le Frepost, on the coast. It had been a comfortable job, plenty of driving, to a pretty little coast town fifty miles each way, through an almost English countryside.

While we were attached to this unit, we experienced many night calls and long drives to destinations given solely by map references, sometimes in thick fog, a type of obstacle we often encountered near to the coast. One incident, which now seems to be trivial, and humorous, in comparison with later events, occurred as follows.

At first - humorous incidents

We slept on boards in the loft of a high barn, with the vehicles parked below. Three of these barns and a farmhouse surrounded a square, full of pigs, fowls, straw and a mixture of mud and well..etc. The night in question was Friday, therefore a pay night, and a proportion of the camp had returned to the billets in a decidedly merry state. About midnight a yell awoke us, followed by general shouting, an officer’s whistle, and a call for an ambulance. Apparently one of the unit’s drivers had descended from the loft by the ladder provided and had dropped a cigarette end into a recently emptied petrol can. The petrol vapour remaining had exploded, burnt his hand, and removed from his face any necessity for shaving in the near future

Quite naturally, I think, he yelled, and his mate, waking with a start, jumped from his bed, and ran to see what was wrong. He forgot that he was billeted in a loft, and stepped into thin air. He landed wrong end up in the above mentioned mixture of mud, etc, and became a ‘shock’ case with slight concussion, right away. I drove the pair to the base hospital that night. They both recovered satisfactorily in a day or two. Visits to the hospital were very favourite trips for both the driver and his orderly. Food was plentiful there, of an extremely high standard, and a night spent in one’s ambulance, on the cliffs of Le Frepost, looking across the channel was a night of comparative luxury.

Reality kicks in

When I was recalled from this detachment, and returned to Fouguieres and the 7th MAC, it was May 9th. On the journey we visited Villers Bocage again, and spent a happy hour or so revisiting old friends, mostly café proprietors, but not forgetting M. and Mme Bauchy, whom I have mentioned in previous letters. We were very cordially received, and I regret to say that our four vehicles left the village and proceeded on the Doullens, St.Pol road with a trace of wobble steering, wheel wobble, I should say.

May 10th. At 4am we were hauled from our beds, our billets, or our vehicles as the case might be, by the wail of our siren, hand operated, outside the guardroom. We stood in the open field, blinking, rubbing our eyes, and adjusting steel helmets, lacing up boots and so on. Then we heard the planes, then a couple of machine guns sent a string of tracer bullets towards the sky, firstly little red lights chasing each other in a line towards the clouds, and then the harsher noise of anti-aircraft guns, and the thud of a pom-pom in Bethume.

Several bombers appeared, and two flew so low over our heads that we could distinguish the occupants. They barely cleared the roof of our chateau and made their way to the aerodrome outside Bruay, where they replied to some ack-ack fire (anti-aircraft) with their own machine-guns. The ‘fun’ continued for over an hour, and when they departed one plane was pouring black smoke from the fuselage, quite obviously on fire. There were no RAF planes in our piece of sky that morning, and the hit must have been due to ack-ack fire, an exception, I am sorry to say.

The usual way to spot a Nazi plane is to follow the line of ack-ack shell bursts in the sky, and you will find the bomber some way in front of the last shell burst. After the display, we returned to bed for an hour, and at reveille we learned that jerry had invaded Holland and Belgium.

The rest of our morning was hectic-last minute loading of petrol, rations and ammunition; last minute instructions to approximately 40 of us leaving for pre-arranged detachments in Belgium. The main road past our vehicle park was vibrating with the traffic passing, a whole brigade of over 1000 vehicles was moving up. First, light tanks, then bren-gun carriers, troop carriers, field artillery, and heavier guns, supply columns, petrol convoys, and the innumerable vehicles, of all descriptions thrust forward to meet the enemy advance.

Meeting the enemy's advance

I was detailed to take three other ambulances, and proceed once again to Aimentieres, for attachment to the 125th Field Ambulance Company. As I drove out of our park my Sergeant shook hands, and when the shock had left me, I realised the significance of his act - I called out that I’d soon be back to worry him again - ‘only the good die young’. We proceeded to Annizen, near Bethume, picked up a load of stretchers, blankets and other equipment, then proceeded onwards to St Andrée, near Lille, dropped our burden at the No 10 CCS (casualty clearing station), a huge civil hospital, and ‘Great War’ CCS. Then onwards to Aimentieres, on the Franco-Belgian frontier.

On the way we halted at a roadside café, ate some rations, bought some café-au-lait, and again noted the significance of having all payment refused by the café proprietors. So this is the real thing, we thought - the people believe we are going to our ends - they had that certain look in their eyes, when you bade them ‘au revoir’.

However, the detachment was interesting, but comparatively uneventful in the face of what followed later. Our work was to evacuate wounded from the field ambulance dressing station to the No 10 CCS at St Andrée, a drive of about 11 miles each way. As we had four ambulances, and took it in turn to stand-by for night calls, our days were orderly, and not over strenuous.

Many air raid warnings occurred here, but no bombs were dropped. I remember clearly an evening when the raid siren screamed while I was having a haircut, and the woman barber - most of them were women - hustled me, and two other customers into a narrow little cellar under the shop.

Towards the end of this detachment week, refugees began to increase in numbers, and the roads to be congested day and night. Thousands slept in fields, on pavements, under railway arches - shops became empty of food, and still the inhabitants of Aimentieres remained calm. ‘The jerries will never reach here’ they said, reassuring each other in the calm way they uttered this confident statement.

Our loads of wounded increased daily, though, and we became surprisingly indifferent to the nature of our patients' injuries. The hospital guard would ask ‘what have you on board’ and one would reply, ‘two skulls, one femur, and a nearly stiff’, implying two cases of head fractures, a wounded thigh case, and a poor chap nearly dead, through perhaps a variety of wounds.

On a Friday, the unit to which we were attached, moved back, and we accompanied their advance party at night. The journey was slow, roughly five miles covered in an hour, and we stopped for the night at a small town on the Bethume road. I forget the name, now, and it was here that I heard bombs falling on Bethume, and for the first time experienced the eerie sensation caused by the sound of a bomb whistling to earth, then the dull ‘lumph’ and the shudder of the ground. At 4-o-clock in the morning, it was not yet dawn, the day being cloudy, I was aroused and told to return to the main body at Aimentieres again, with one other ambulance and driver, Jock Gowan

I had an uneasy journey, because we continually heard planes in the sky, and the sudden ‘move-back’ of the unit aroused suspicions in our minds of the proximity of the front-line. Still, we returned safely and slept till noon, the following day. Then, we returned to our 7th MAC, now stationed at St Andrée.

One night we rested at base and I was out again on another, most eventful detachment, under Cpl Vale, to a field ambulance unit at Quatre Cheres, about two miles from Journai. We travelled at dusk, and our spirits fell as we sped along the road from Lille, through Helliemes, and Sin, and, approaching our destination, we passed lines of infantry moving up to Journai in Indian file. As we passed over a rise in the road we saw the horizon in front ablaze with flames, as far as eye could see, on either hand, and the roar of planes, the crack of field artillery, rattle of machine-guns made an unearthly discord of sound. We wondered what kind of a detachment this could be, and when we reached our new station, a chateau in a hollow, a mile from the main road, hidden by trees, we guessed we were in for some work.


Our men were holding Journai, we learned. Twice they had repelled the Germans, twice they in turn had been pushed back again, the town was a raging inferno, bombed night and day, held by infantry, fighting from house to house, or rather, ruin to ruin.

Behind us only 200-300 yards away, was a battery of field guns, and they were commencing a 24- hour barrage. Our chateau rocked all day and night, the windows lasted only an hour or two, after which we boarded up the spaces. The ambulances we parked in the grounds, but sleep was impossible, with the noise about us, and the whine of shells overhead; not now and then, but all the time, incessant, a never ending scream through the air, and the flashing and ear splitting crack of the guns. In the morning, a long range, naval type gun was brought up into position behind us, and this bombarded given targets, 16 miles behind the enemy lines. It only fired twice an hour, but when it did - if you were standing, well, you sat, and your clothes wrapped themselves tightly around you with the terrific blast that followed. Once when this chap went off, I was filling my tanks with petrol and I landed squarely on my back, drenched through with the stuff, and the can empty.

The days were busy here, all the 24 hours, and I drove constantly, as did the other three drivers, backwards and forwards to St Andrée CCS, with as many as 16 wounded in the ambulance each time; four stretcher cases, and the rest packed in on the floor of the vehicle, in the driving cab, every foot of space held a human body.

The Worcestershires had gone into position on a hill near Journai, and a jerry plane had seen them, with the result that their position had been given away, and the Nazi artillery had shelled them to blazes. Every barn, outhouse, cowshed, on the estate was crammed with casualties and I had the experience of travelling twice to the regimental aid post (RAP) to assist the already overworked field ambulances in removing casualties to the dressing station at Quatre Cheres. At the RAP one had to crawl behind walls, along dug outs, in houses keep away from the windows in view of the German line, and under shell fire all the time.

This was where my friend Kieshy, one of our other drivers, suddenly cracked up, and became ‘silly’ with shell shock. I had to take him back to St Andrée with the patients and bring out a spare driver from the base for Kieshy’s ambulance. Kieshy soon recovered, however, proving his case to be mainly one of over strung nerves, rather than shell shock proper.

Some of our night trips to St Andrée, via Lille, were nightmarish indeed, and I dreaded the return journeys to Quatre Cheres, always fearing that the enemy might have broken through. I knew the road fairly well and remembered several places from peace time, I had driven through part of the country then, if you remember I was in Normandy when war was declared.

For what happened next, go to St Andrée

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