- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Frank Masters
- Location of story:
- Liverpool To Gleneagles via Dunkirk.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 September 2005
Extract from the diaries of Frank Masters who at the time of Dunkirk
In 1940 was a trained nurse and a Corporal in the Royal Medical Corps.
One night we were confined to barracks and a concert was given in the Church Hall by the cast who were appearing at the Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool. They came in dribs and drabs as each finished the second house of the twice nightly vaudeville show. Our show finished about eleven thirty so bedtime was much later than usual. Reveille next morning was also earlier than usual and we were told to pack all our kit and within a couple of hours we had been transported to Lime Street Station and loaded onto trains. If anyone knew our destination they were not telling so supposition led to Aldershot, Wales Cornwall and many other training areas in the UK, even Scotland but Exchange Station would have been the starting point for the North. One or two suggested France without much conviction until we were each given loaf of bread and a tin of bully beef and told to make sure it lasted for twenty four hours — no butter, no tea just the personal water bottle we had filled before leaving the billets. The train chugged slowly South and after about eight hours travelling at various speeds and many stops one or two who could remember their geography lessons at school suggested Southampton or Portsmouth was a distinct possibility. They were right as it turned out to be the former and the train terminated its journey in the docks by the side of a cross channel ferry. This was exciting as the naval experience of the greater majority was the half hour trip to New Brighton and foreign countries were only seen on those great travelogue programmes that were the shorts before the big picture at the cinema. We sailed at night and ate the rest of the bread and bully beef and a few sweets if you had been able to nip off the train at a station before the Sergeant could stop you getting to the sweet stall. Next morning, after a restless night trying to sleep on the seats, the stairs or the floor with your head on your kit bag, our ship entered a port which according to the sailors was Cherbourg.
We disembarked with all our kit and sat down behind the large ocean terminal. The Army had erected some large boilers, about three feet across, with an iron lid and rounded bottom over the firebox which was fed with bits of wood and some coke (made from coal and not in a bottle). It had a chimney that belched smoke but the whole machine was welcome on two counts, it generated warmth, particularly on a dull October day as six in the morning, and secondly the soldier tending the fire invited us to produce our mess tins, opened the lid and with a large scoop filled one half of the mess tin with McConaghie’s Stew and the other half with tea from the adjacent boiler. The first real food we had for twenty four hours and the first hot drink. I can still taste that stew today, one of my most memorable meals.
A couple of hours later a train of wagons came into the dock area and this gave us something to occupy our minds as we all tried to remember our faltering French and interpret the inscription on each of the covered wagons with laths a couple of inches apart covering the top third of the sides of each vehicle. It read 20 Hommes, 8 Chevaux so we concluded they were used to carry horses and cattle. The S/Sgt’s order to get aboard was not accepted seriously until the next order, similar in context, but elaborated by expletives, was more convincing. We spent most of the day in those wagons, cold and hungry, sitting on our kitbags. We were given a couple of loaves of bread and more bully beef to share among the 20 Hommes, thank God there were no Chevaux.
I believe the starvation rations had an ultimate purpose in reducing the need to carry out the daily functions of the body at less frequent intervals as no arrangements had been made to satisfy that need. In the evening, as nobody had studied the geography of France, we had to rely on station names for interest, we had no idea where we were until the train stopped for a longer period than usual. Then McGhee’s voice replaced the station announcer ( if they had them in those days) and unlocked the double doors and invited us to join him of the side of the track, no station in sight but a goods siding on one side on the track. We picked up our kit and were marched to a grotty old barn. We each selected our spot and unloaded out kit. By the time we had a meal — yes McConaghie’s Stew and Tea, we settled down for the night. The locals seemed to have locked themselves in their houses as nobody was visible on the streets but when a man ventured forth from the local estaminee (pub) he was asked in French with a scouse accent our location. We were on the outskirts of a town called Le Mans, not that it mattered because where the hell as Le Mans, we did not have any maps
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