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15 October 2014
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Dunkirk Memories

by welfordc

Contributed by 
welfordc
People in story: 
Percy Macdonald
Location of story: 
Dunkirk
Article ID: 
A2809154
Contributed on: 
05 July 2004

“Percy, if we could start of by taking you back to that morning that you talk about, can you tall me what are the first memories that come to your mind?

“Well, it’s one of surprise really, because we were suddenly told to parade within about half an hour just with a small pack, water bottle and rifle, all the other items of equipment we had we had to leave behind, so we had to parade in 30 minutes to do that. I happened to be pay sergeant at the time so I was concerned about the cash in the cash box so I asked the commanding officer what to do with the cash box and the money in the cash box. I opened the lid and he stuffed all the notes into his pockets and left the small change, that was the thing I particularly remember, but there was a subsequent movement about the money many months later when we linked up with the unit and the major was asked what had happened to the money. He said it was destroyed by enemy action, but I knew differently.”

“Did you keep quiet about that?”

“Oh yes, of course”

“So how did it feel that morning when you were told to just pack up and go, what was going through your head?”

“Well, confusion really, we weren’t told why we were parading we were just told to get out there in 30 minutes, which of course we did. Having got out there in 30 minutes, I’m talking about a unit of 500 people in it, 500 soldiers. When we got out on parade in 30 minutes we were herded, really herded as many could get on the back of a few lorries. Most of our lorries weren’t personnel carriers so we were just herded onto the back, then eventually we started to move somewhere, we were in the back so we didn’t know where. We went along for about an hour slowly, gradually getting slower and slower and after about an hour we were eventually told to get off the lorries, which we did.

“What kind of things were going through your mind, was it just confusion and panic?”

“Well no, there was no panic, it was just confusing because we didn’t know why we were doing it. Communications were very slight we had no idea we weren’t told anything. I presume the major knew, but when you’ve got 500 people you haven’t got a microphone you can’t tell everyone, you can tell the person next to you. Anyway, when we got of the lorries we started to walk, or march but not march really. There was some sort of sense of order but we started to walk and walk and walk. It was alright during the night time but when the dawn came and it got light, remember it was May and it got light at about 4o’clock in the morning and we were walking along the road and the Germans came over with their planes. What seemed like every 5 minutes, it wasn’t really, but we were jumping off the road into the ditches to take cover. We were impeded a bit by the refugees who were leaving their homes, quite tragic to see of course. We still had no idea where we were going but we could see we were circling and there was a lot of smoke coming from a certain area. As the roads twisted we seemed to be getting towards this smoke. We didn’t know at the time but it turned out to be Dunkirk on fire. We had never heard of the word Dunkirk, we didn’t know. Eventually we arrived at the coast which turned out to be Dunkirk. It was a beach but all I could think of was my poor feet. We had been walking for 12 hours or more and I had got blisters and allsorts so the sight of the sea was irresistible as far as I was concerned, so off with my boots and down to have a paddle. There was nobody else on the beach at this particular time when we arrived, on this part of the beach anyway. I hadn’t hardly got my little toe wet when an officer barked, not my officer, “What the hell do you think you are doing, get back to those dunes” Of course I did as I was told, so did one or two others. We hadn’t been back to the dunes a few minutes when we understood why he had said that. Planes came over, German planes machine gunning the beach”
“What does it feel like, can you describe the emotions that are going through you at the time?”
“Well yes I can really because at that time I still wasn’t sure what was happening. I didn’t know that within about an hour or so some large boats, fairly large boats, started to appear on the sea and seemed to anchor about 2 or 3 hundred yards from the shore. I then saw one or two small boats come off those boats to the waters edge. We were then told to start queuing, to get into these small boats. Well what happened was that you were just about to get a place in the queue and you knew it was your turn in about 10 minutes when we would have a warning about the planes and we would have to make a mad dash back to the sand dunes to take cover. Over the space of 2 or 3 hours this happened several times and each time when I went back I had lost my place in the queue. Not only had I lost my place but when we came back from the dunes we had lost all form of identity with our unit because by this time thousands and thousand more troops had arrived it was absolute chaos nobody knew what was happening. It was at this time after two or three attempts I sat in the sand dunes and started to think. My thoughts were that I can’t believe I’m going to get into one of those little to get into one of the big boats. I was only 21 at the time but I was pleased with my reaction. I was quite fatalistic about it. I thought what’s going to happen will happen anyway. I was more pleased when I saw several other soldiers panicking and trying to swim out to the boats. That had to be stopped. I couldn’t swim anyway so the thought never entered my head. Quite honestly I was pleased with my own reaction because I realised what was happening then but nobody had said, there was no means of communication it was absolute confusion. I suddenly realised that all my 9 months of army training I was on my own. We had been told what to do but now I was on my own, I had to make up my own mind what to do”
“Was getting on the boat for you almost like your ticket home that you could see in the distance but not quite reach”
“Yes, it certainly was, I remember thinking, it’s not far, but that stretch of water, I’m never going to make that stretch of water, that was the feeling. After several hours I heard talk. I’d lost all my friends and mates I was on my own. I overheard somebody say there were some navy boats just to the left of where we were sitting. I thought well it’s useless sitting here so I started to walk, fairly hurriedly I didn’t run though. I was so disappointed because I was still clutching hold of my rifle then suddenly I saw a whole pile of rifles where soldiers had thrown them away. My rifle wouldn’t have been any good because I had no ammunition, that’s fairly important, and the sand had got up the barrel so it wouldn’t have fired anyway. So I went along, there were army vehicles, all sorts of things everywhere. I suddenly saw this broken crate of sultanas or something and there was a heap on the ground. I picked up a handful of these and realised I hadn’t had anything to eat for about 15 hours. I carried on and eventually got to what turned out to be the Mole which is quite famous but it ‘s just a jetty, a wooden jetty as far as I was concerned. There was a queue of soldiers waiting to get onto the jetty so I joined this queue waiting to get onto the jetty. I hadn’t got about 10 yards onto the jetty and there was a bit of a hole where a plane had made a bomb. Being wooden the engineers had put a couple of planks so you had to get over these planks as best you could. We got to the end of this jetty and there were two destroyers side by side, not one either side of the jetty but side by side. I got onto the first one but was told to get on the second one. There was only one way to do that, it was to cock your leg over, so I cocked my leg over, a bit of a swell came and for a few seconds I thought there was going to be an awful accident, but I managed to get onto the second one. I expected to see it crowded when I got on but there were only a few of us so I just found a corner and settled down. Eventually we set sail and got frozen. I had no extra things to put on and seemed to be there for hours and hours but at least I was on my way. Eventually we arrived at Southampton and I was amazed to see hundreds and hundreds of men came up from below. They had all been down there in the warm and been fed by the navy and we few had been stuck up on top freezing cold and with no food. I had no idea so many people were below but when I think about it I suppose it was obvious really. Anyway I was in England that was the main thing. I was so pleased to be back I just followed instructions from then on. We were directed onto trains and shot off somewhere that turned out to be Salisbury. When we got there we were confined to barracks for about 10 days. We weren’t allowed out or access to a phone so I was unable to contact my family to let them know I was home and safe. It was about 11or12 days before I could contact them and when I finally did my poor old dad collapsed. He knew I had been to Dunkirk and that it would be a miracle if we all got out, so he had imagined all sorts of things about me. I really had a job to convince him that I was alright he was sure I was either dead or injured. It was very emotional when we did finally meet, he just couldn’t believe I was really there after all he had heard. I discovered afterwards that it was a government intention to keep it all quiet for a few days.
From my point of view I hated the whole thing. After all, most of us were just civilians in army clothing we were never soldiers. We didn’t want to be soldiers

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