- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Norman Smith
- Location of story:
- Dunkirk in 1940
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 February 2004
Dunkirk Memoirs of Sgt 7346129 Norman Smith RAMC
Preamble by his younger son, Paul
On his retirement from work Norman Smith wrote his life story. After his death in 2001 his sons, Roger and Paul, added to it with their mother’s life story prior to her marriage, and the nearly twenty years that Norman and his beloved wife Irene enjoyed after retirement.
Norman’s Dunkirk recollections are reproduced below. Norman was born on Christmas Day 1919, the son of an Old Contemptible, and so was just 20 years of age when he was sent to France.
Norman Smith’s War
1938 was a time of war scares. In November I joined Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.) Territorials, and this was to occupy me for the next seven years (and my mind ever since).
In summer 1939 I experienced Army life at the camp for a fortnight with a large number of troops. During the last three days of the camp I wore the stripe of Lance Corporal. The bounty of FIVE POUNDS and TEN SHILLINGS seemed a fortune. With the international situation getting worse it was rumoured that we should not be allowed home after the camp ended. We did go home but not for long. I was mobilised on 1st September 1939. Monday 11th September saw my unit, 145th Field Ambulance, arrive in Newbury for training until going to France to join the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.).
New Year’s Day saw the whole Division paraded around the racecourse and the King visited each unit. We gave him three well-rehearsed cheers. On 2nd January 1940, trains poured into Southampton unloading soldiers wearing Full Marching Order, plus two blankets, rolled gas cape, gas mask on our chest, haversack rations, and all our cloths plus a spare pair of boots were crammed into back packs. No kit bags were allowed so we were laden like pack mules as we filed aboard the Lady of Man, an Isle of Man ferry. The ship was packed to the limit and our movements kept to a small area. We sailed in the late afternoon everyone gazing at the snow-covered shore of England. Sadly for many it was for the last time. After an unsettled night crossing the Channel the troops unloaded in Le Havre as dawn was breaking. We marched to an ice-covered warehouse where the squaddies sat on the floor and enjoyed a breakfast of stew. We had arrived in La Belle France.
First Casualties — and the Journey to the Belgium Border
Our unit stayed in Le Havre until the afternoon and then entrained to travel a few miles North. Finally we stayed at some remote village, dismounted and marched two miles to an isolated farm to spend the coldest night of the century on the floor of a barn (no straw). It was here that our transport joined us, the lorries having been driven from Cherburg by our young drivers. Mixed up in the convoy were our soon-to-be-used ambulances. After breakfast the unit loaded up and we continued our journey by road, the roads were shocking and not gritted.
Tragedy struck a few hours later when a lorry overturned on a bend, injuring the soldiers inside. Worse was to follow when Corporal Hart, whilst running to assist, was hit by a skidding vehicle coming up behind. The injured were loaded into the ambulances and we continued on to the next town. It was a shock to find that Corporal Hart had died in a few minutes from a ruptured spleen. We stayed the night in that town, the injured taken to hospital. The whole Field Ambulance paraded to carry our comrade to a local church. The convoys of troops slowly went north and eventually our own unit arrived in the village of Montigny en Gohelle, which was to be our new home. We were now in a mining area not far from Arras and the famous Vimy Ridge of previous war.
If you read the history of the war you will realise that we were part of a concentration of French and British troops on the Belgium border making elaborate defence against a German attack. However, the only contact with the enemy was miles to the east beyond Metz, and only the odd skirmish at that. A token British force was there too, about 3000 men. In the meantime we settled in as though we were still in Newbury, still training and having spit and polish parades. I saw George Formby at a theatre in Douie on the night that I drew a lottery ticket to see a big star. I was unlucky in the Gracie Fields draw.
Soon we would be seeing a bit of real action and would be the first Field Ambulance of the Territorial Army to join the token force in the east.
In March we entrained again, this time into cattle trucks (40 hommes 8 cheveaux), with our vehicles on flat tops behind keeping perfect formation. Two days later we arrived in Metz and drove to the barracks in the fort of Vikring, a part of the Maginot Line fortifications.
A Main Dressing Station was established in the barracks, and two small parties were sent a few miles forward to the infantry battalions in contact with the foe. Being the only British in the barracks we soon settled down with the French, mainly a Light Tank Regiment. I was lucky to go on a visit underground and see the vast artillery preparations made; every piece of ground covered for miles in front. The Germans did not attack there though.
When my turn came I took a small party forward to Bizing and joined H.Q. Company 2nd Royal Warwicks. This was my Dad’s old Regiment — and Regulars too! There were no medical officers in this area and my job as Sergeant was to treat and evacuate the wounded back to the Mobile Dressing Station (M.D.S). During my spell there were no wounded but we were busy enough treating sick and slightly injured. The night times were worse because German patrols had a habit of coming around to cause trouble. We were doing the same to them, of course.
Soon I was back in Vikring and helping in the M.D.S. A few wounded came through but not many. When we had been there five weeks we were relieved by the 51st Highland Division who suffered twenty wounded their first night in the line. After staying to help their Field Ambulance to settle in we were loaded back in cattle trucks and taken back to Montigny. Soon our reverie was to be disturbed.
The Balloon Goes Up
On May 10th, the Germans invaded Belgium and Holland. You will have to read history to learn how the British and French rushed into Belgium leaving all the defensive fortifications behind them. A few days later the Germans crashed through the French at the Ardennes and blitzkreiged to the coast at Calais leaving the B.E.F. and some French Divisions trapped. I only knew my own experiences at the time - which was all confusion and occasional panic.
Our unit loaded up the vehicles, discarded a lot of junk, and joined the convoys pouring over the border. It was cheers all the way. There was the odd air raid, but we reached Waterloo (shades of Wellington) all right. When halted in a wood we were surprised to see columns of refugees down the road coming towards us. This was our first of many shocks to come. From then on it was a case of waiting for orders, delivered by Despatch Riders, to move somewhere else. We had no radios at that time and on occasions Riders got lost, so orders came very late. Often we left a village just before German tanks arrived and some medical units were soon captured.
Although air attacks including machine gunning came every day we saw no direct fighting on ground. We set up small dressing stations whenever we stopped and treated the odd casualty. Ambulances took patients from us to go somewhere towards the coast. Then one day we were taken from our Division (48th) and sent to the coast arriving in the afternoon at La Panne. La Panne is a seaside town on the Belgium coast, very near to the French border. Here everything was calm, with cafes open as though it was peacetime. I recall having a dip in the sea that day. Our unit was set up in the Hotel Kursaal facing the sea, with the ground and first floors got ready for patients and the staff billeted in the higher floors. Our vehicles were parked nearly with A and B Company stores loaded for a quick move. I think this was May 21st.
The Navy Arrives
Looking out of my room at dawn I suddenly saw a lot of ships appear. Excitedly everyone thought reinforcements had arrived, but little did we know that the evacuation had started. That day we had loads of wounded coming in by all sorts of transport and everyone was kept busy from then on. After treatment the wounded were sent 12 miles along the coast to Dunkirk, hopefully to get home. Then the raids came with a vengeance. Bombs dropped all around us, walls fell down and we were really open house. Fortunately there were no direct hits on our building but the closest killed the crew of an Ack Ack Gun twenty yards away.
Then came the Belgium surrender on the 27th of May, another shock to our morale. By now troops were marching through the town, past our Dressing Station and on to the beaches lining up to be taken off the boats. They were ferried out to larger ships on the horizon. We were too busy to be jealous.
Closing Days at La Panne
Tragedy struck us when our vehicles were hit, one driver killed and several wounded. I was in the party that salvaged what medical equipment we could. The evacuation continued on Thursday 30th May from our beach but the regular shells arriving indicated the close proximity of the Germans, so that all further evacuation took place four miles down the beach at Bray Dunes, just over the French border. From there all the way to Dunkirk the great escape carried on.
Back at Hotel Kursaal we were busier than ever. Wounded were still sent by road to Dunkirk but that was soon to end, the remainder would have to stay. La Panne was now getting deserted and on the morning of Friday 31st May I went with an ambulance eastwards to a town a few miles away to pick up a wounded Tommy [the sobriquet for a British soldier]. The local telephone exchange had told us about him but unbeknown to me it was in no mans land. Luckily the Germans had not advanced and we got back safely.
Later in the afternoon a draw was held for medics who were to stay with the wounded - I did not get a cross [which would have meant that he was to stay] on my ticket. In small groups we marched down the beaches to Bray Dunes along with the Welsh Guards, amid intense shelling and bombing. My party made it safely and at Bray Dunes we waited our turn.
On a ship at last
When our turn came we filed onto planks nailed on the tops of lorries going out to sea forming an improvised pier. Eventually I was picked up by a small rowing boat and taken to the destroyer H.M.S. Vivaceous, having to use a scrambling net to get on board. The ship had recently been hit by shell so I was sent below to help the ship’s doctor with the wounded. It was a rough night, especially when our gun started firing into La Panne. All the loose bits of the deck above fell among us.
The next morning saw us alongside the Mole at Dunkirk picking up soldiers during a terrific raid. I was ordered on top to deal with the many walking wounded that came aboard. The ship sailed away under a thick smoke screen towards Dover. After burying two dead at sea we arrived back in England in the afternoon.
On to Wales
After our ship docked the troops marched to the station where ladies, God bless them, gave us tea and sandwiches. Then it was on to trains for an unknown destination. There was only me and a cook from the Field Ambulance. We wondered how our mates had fared and later we learned that three more had lost their lives.
The train journeyed on through England, stopping for refreshments and giving out cards for us to notify our folks. My first card was to my darling Irene who I hoped to see soon. In the early hours of Sunday we arrived in Tenby in South Wales and were taken by coach to Saundersfoot to be sorted out. A week later it was back to Tenby. Then a few days afterwards it was by train to Hereford and meeting the rest of the Field Ambulance to help reform what was left of the 48th Division.
Norman’s war moved into a new phase, but first he went home and married his Irene, a union that lasted one week short of 61 years, marked then by Norman’s death. Irene survived him by 15 months.
Norman was to return to mainland Europe on D-Day+12 (18 June 1944) — but that’s another story for another chapter.
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