- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Donald Fewkes
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 August 2004
About mid-April 1939 (aged 19ish,becoming 20 0n 5th May 1940), after satisfactorily passing the quite severe training in Berkshire followed by very severe training a little later in Cornwall, we were duly notified that we would shortly form an overseas draft as reinforcements for the B.E.F. (the British Expeditionary Force).
Our first disillusion occurred in Southampton, when, scrupulously clean, with brasses and boots shiny, we boarded a filthy coal carrying ship from Wales called the Saint Ceriol. Our draft numbering approximately 100 recruits then sailed, and after about an hour or so we head the loud noise of the anchor being lowered. We ascertained that the skipper had been notified that a U-boat had been seen during the afternoon and instructions given to heave-to. We were bound for the French port of le Havre. We learnt that the B.E.F. draft (us) would probably go rather hungry as no rations were available, as normally the ship could sail from Southampton to le Havre in no more than three hours, and rations for the troops were not a high priority. It was fully twenty-four hours of discomfort, as the St. Ceriol could not cater for we troops. Tea - minus milk and sugar, was available. When the engines were running again we were all weary with the pitching of the ship, and thirty hours after leaving Southampton we reached le Havre.
There were no officers or N.C.O’s in charge of us, fortunately there were a large number of vessels moored in le Havre and the lads of the B.E.F. draft showed they had initiative, and in about an hour of begging, or scrounging, quite a lot of edible and drinkable goodies were passed to us by members of the French navy.
We were all filthy due to the coal dust that seemed to coat everything on the St. Ceriol. Obviously a good clean up was needed. All we could find in the harbour were a few standpipes providing only cold water. It was better than nothing. We only had one towel each but we managed not to soil our towels too much by rinsing our bodies rather well before attempting to dry off. When I’d got myself fairly cleaned up again, I saw a group of about a dozen military police patrolling the harbour and approached them, reporting that we had no commander, and the circumstances in which we found ourselves. The senior warrant officer of the military police detachment was very efficient, and very speedily reported our situation to the Brigade Major, who was able to find out that we had to report to a French district called Forges les Eaux, where we stayed until May 1st, knowing we were to join our Royal Artillery Regiment as replacements. We went by train nearly to Brussels. We were somewhat amused by the notices in the rail cars that they were for eight horses or forty men. On May 3rd we detrained and were taken by trucks to our Royal Artillery Regiment, which was on a war footing but short of a lot of men for a multitude of reasons. We all had a brief interview with the Colonel, and each of us was put with an experienced soldier. I was put with a Brigadier-General who was a former regular soldier having served for five years in Palestine before the war. On May 5th I had my 20th birthday, and five days later we learned that Germany had invaded the Low Countries on the Channel coast, and had also attacked the French defence system known as the Maginot Line, which the French Government had built over several years thinking that they would be safe, as they thought it would be impregnable, and that the Germans could not break through it’s defences.
We had advanced to the outskirts of Brussels and a signal was made to reverse because of a very real risk of becoming surrounded by the advancing German troops. We fell back to the small town of Ath, almost due south of Brussels. There was a very strategic road bridge over the river, and our Colonel ordered a light anti-aircraft group to be sited on the bridge. The weapons were only Bren and Lewis guns using rifle ammunition needing 0.303in. diameter bore. It was quite busy from midday when we arrived in Ath, until about 7.30pm when we were astounded to find the town being filled with Belgian army troops, and I was quite shocked to see most of them carrying their white flags of surrender. They drove past us on to the bridge, waving and laughing at us .We saw Dutch and French also, all moving through Ath as fast as the width of the bridge would allow.
We heard later from the lieutenant responsible for our group that the Colonel had been on to the Commander-in Chief, Lord Gort, and had learned that the situation was rather tense, particularly due to the breaking up of our allies who were deserting their gun positions which they had been preparing for several months.
We obeyed the rule of moving only when darkness fell, but travelling at night was not necessarily safe either. I was travelling in a high vehicle called a Matador, which had a mounting for a Bren gun in the roof which was conveniently suitable for a gunner to have a full circle of fire if necessary. The Matador was at the rear of the convoy. At this point we were driving through a village. I was able to see something blazing being dropped from one of the upper windows on to the truck just in front of our Matador. I knew that the truck was conveying ammunition and cans of petrol. The driver of the Matador had seen what had happened and signalled with the horn and the vehicle stopped. Our driver pulled to one side and stopped maybe twenty yards in front of the now blazing vehicle, and the driver and his deputy ran and joined us in the Matador. By the time we crossed the village, the intense heat of the burning petrol was causing the ammunition to get overheated, and for a start the shells exploded inside the metal cases which each held two eighty-four pound shells. Very wisely, the Matador driver put his foot down in order to get as great a distance from the truck, which was nearly destroying the village with the exploding ammunition.
We had very little idea where we were, but got advice from the military police that seemed to be standing at each corner or crossroad where we could easily go wrong. The only thing was, that when we stopped just before daybreak, at about 6a.m. we had to get off the road and into the woods. The cooks were getting breakfast ready for us. I had to get into a ditch with a Boyce anti-tank rifle - which I had only fired on a range in Berkshire - and it fire a round 0.505in diameter, and had a kick like a mule. We felt that the Boyce might stop an Austin Seven scout car, but not any of the Jerry tanks we’d seen pictures of. I must say that I felt rather exposed, just crouching in a ditch with the probability of being faced with a Jerry vehicle, heavily armed and with a clear view along the ditch. One of the cooks brought me some food, for which I was more than ready. I actually felt I was acting out a dramatic scene of “the prisoner ate a hearty breakfast”. I had been in this position for about three hours when the Commanding Officer, on receiving instructions from HQ, decided to move to a healthier area. I learnt that HQ was receiving fairly accurate reports about Jerry’s movements, and our CO told us that it was thanks to the RAF “spotter” aircraft. That was some relief, but the RAF fighters did not seem to have the mastery of the Stukka dive-bombers. The roads we were travelling were narrow, mainly going through forests. Thousands of Belgian and French civilians were walking along these roads also. They had prams and wheelbarrows heaped up with big loads of household goods and their young children. Unfortunately, it delayed us for about two days; eventually we learned that the French police and the British military police were directing the civilians one way and the British military another.
As the day passed and we reached the Channel, we were all very shocked to see how many troops were lined up hoping to get a lift in one of the small boats to be ferried out to one of the larger vessels. Our Colonel summed up the situation as extremely hazardous, particularly as these were between four and five hundred thousand British and French troops brought from Dunkirque and Calais, although the French troops were returned to France quite soon.
There was some quite heavy fighting between the British and Germans across the Furnes Canal. About twenty or twenty-four of our regiment were detailed to support one of the Coldstream Guards Company rifle fire between the two sides of the canal. The action lasted between six and seven hours, and then we were instructed to march with weapons to Dunkirque harbour. When we got to the beach side of the mole, the Beachmaster, a Royal Navy Commander, met us. We had several quiet hours to wait before we were able to board, although Stukka divebombers were much in evidence.
When we boarded, I was shocked to see two hospital ships submerged in the harbour, in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Seeing stretchers floating ominously in the oily water was quite sickening.
Most of my regiment, about 180 in all, managed to get on the destroyer, which came alongside the mole. It was dark when we heard the engines softly throbbing, and we wondered where we were going; I was surprised to find we were moving northwest instead of east. We had a quiet trip until about 2a.m when daylight appeared. Someone said “Look over there; it’s the white cliffs of Dover”. I could hardly believe it, and with that, we heard the noise of a Stukka divebomber preparing action against us. There were three of them. As those three aircraft screamed down, every one of us on board had something to shoot with, be it a rifle, Lewis gun, or Bren gun, not forgetting the destroyer’s multiple pom-pom. One of the bombs exploded near our stern and it transpired that our steering gear had been damaged. The three Stukkas flew off and we had a worrying time awaiting assistance in the form of a powerful RN tug.
In about two hours or so we were towed into Dover harbour. I think most of us felt pleased on the one hand to be back in dear old England, yet I think we all felt ashamed
that we had been beaten so severely. At least a lot of the troops that were rescued were able to go on to serve in other theatres of war such as Norway, North Africa, Italy, and some were able to travel through India into Burma and defeat the Japanese: all things which could never have been done without the Royal Navy rescuing so many of the British Expeditionary Force.
Although most of us troops were pleased to be back in Britain, we felt a certain amount of shame, too. People were so welcoming to us, and not a word of criticism was ever addressed to us. We had boarded a train in Dover, and all most of us wanted was to stretch out and sleep, something most of us had sorely missed over the previous month.
The train stopped at all the stations along the route. It was not stopping for us to dismount, only so that the good generous folk from the nearest town or village could give us food, wish us well, etc. Although we wanted to sleep, we also wanted to be sufficiently awake to respond to all the lovely people who were treating us like heroes, even though we felt that we’d let them down. There seemed to be so many stations before we reached Aldershot, where a tented encampment had been prepared for us.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.