- Contributed by
- Vic Chanter
- People in story:
- Vic Chanter
- Location of story:
- La Panne (now De Panne)
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 June 2003
From Chatham to Dunkirk
On 21 May 1940, I left flagship HMS Galatea to return to Chatham depot ship, HMS Pembroke, to commence a course to be made up to Trained Operator. In the middle of the exam, a messenger entered the examination room and asked for me by name. The upshot was that I was to be kitted out for a special project.
After I’d left the room for a partial kitting-out procedure, I was allowed back to continue the test paper. Within two minutes I was called out again to complete preparations for Dunkirk.
Transport to Dover then Dunkirk
I was issued with webbing, belt, holster and pistol, but there was no one to authorise an issue of ammunition. With no time to lose I was doubled away to join a group for transport to Dover. Once there, along with several others, I boarded a vessel — possibly HMS Esk — to cross the Channel.
On the approach to Dunkirk, we turned east along the coast, and our group was then taken inshore by launch. At a point too shallow for the launch, we scrambled over the side with our gear — I had an Aldis lamp, semaphore flags and a pistol with no ammo. We waded ashore at La Panne.
A pall of smoke over Dunkirk
A pall of smoke hung over Dunkirk. Between 26 and 27 May the evacuation and the German shelling and bombing of the town both started.
On the 27th, we landed at La Panne, which we discovered was to be the location of evacuation headquarters. For the next few days, our home was the beach. We billeted ourselves on the shore.
We began the organisation and policing of orderly queues — lines of soldiers — for embarkation into small rowing boats and floats. With the advent of bombs and bursts of machine-gun fire from German aircraft strafing the sands, the lines often dispersed into the dunes behind the beach. I was surprised at the deadening effect of the sand on the bombs.
Evacuation craft in high demand
Our small landing party of Royal Navy (RN) personnel (several seamen and one signalman — myself), under the command of one officer, was adopted by one of the several Bofors-gun crews dotted along the stretch of open beach. The lads manning the gun remained with us for the first few days and watched us policing the evacuation, until such time as they too had to destroy their gun and be evacuated.
Commandeering floatable personnel-carrying material for use in the evacuation was a problem, owing to the lack of available boats and rafts. This was compounded by the fact that once a troop-laden craft had reached the comparative safety of an awaiting, offshore rescue vessel, we could hardly expect anyone to volunteer to row it back to land. Some abandoned boats did drift back to us and were rescued for further use.
Using rifles as oars
As space was at a premium, all troops for evacuation were ordered to abandon every bit of surplus kit. Rifles, those not used for rowing purposes, were to be destroyed. That didn’t go down well with the squaddies.
In the early days it proved difficult to get some of the soldiers to wade out to the boats, with the result that some were overloaded too close to shore and got stuck in the sand. When this happened, it was almost impossible to persuade anyone to jump out to lighten the load, even though we offered reassurances that we would allow them back on board once the boat reached deeper water.
A direct hit
On one such occasion, three of us (RN) had just managed to refloat a full-to-the-gunwale cutter.
‘OK. Get going. Row like hell!’ we screamed at them.
We had just turned and were making for shore, wading through the water up to our armpits, when I felt and heard an almighty bang. As I began to fall forward into the sea, I realised I’d been hit on the back of the head.
When I surfaced, the situation became clear — and later a bit of a laugh. The soldiers in the boat had responded well to our order to ‘Get going!’ — but on one side only. Consequently, the cutter had swung round 90 degrees, got caught in a swell and come down on you-know-who. I guess those lads in the boat got home somehow.
It’s obvious that we RN lads were constantly getting wet through, but we were never short of a change of uniform. All over the beach was the pick of the army — discarded uniforms, kit, photos, everything. Perhaps some lucky ones were able to grab their few most treasured possessions and cram them into their battledress pockets, but for most it was a time for survival — and for leaving behind their old memories.
So, sadly, at times, while looking for dry clothing among the discarded packs strewn along the sands, I would come upon family photographs, out of which wives and children looked up at me — a complete stranger. They were a poignant indicator of the speed with which the soldiers had left, so great their haste that they couldn’t even stop and salvage their most personal belongings.
We could only hope that the owners of these keepsakes would soon be united with the loved ones in the photographs. But, not all of them would make it to England, and of those who did — how long would it be before they were away again to some other theatre of war?
A makeshift pier
After the first day or so we began to receive motorised units in La Panne, after which a new evacuation stratagem was devised. At low tide, the highest vehicles were to be driven out to a given point, and a pier formed by driving out and parking up more trucks alongside. From these, the troops would be able to clamber into the boats that were now able to come alongside.
The hard part was the organisation of the assembly of the pier between bouts of shelling, low-level bombing and machine gunning from enemy aircraft. Once it was done, though, this procedure was a most welcome break for us. It made filling the boats so much easier. There was no more brute force required to push out the boats and get wet through in the process.
Using enormous physical and mental resources
I know that none of the RN personnel realised just how much energy was required for the sleepless hours and days that the evacuation entailed. By the time the army had reached the beach, it was virtually drained. We of the RN landing party had arrived fresh, so the frequent 24 hours we spent servicing boats did nothing to diminish our enthusiasm for the job. Enthusiasm, however, did not entirely compensate for exhaustion.
We were thankful, therefore, for the labour-saving piers that we helped to build. So improved was the evacuation by this, that troops were now able to embark with fewer directives from us, sometimes just under the orders of a senior army officer.
‘Anymore for the Skylark?’
We could now spend more time with our own group and discuss the future. HQ staff at La Panne, plus General Gort (Lord Gort), would at some time soon have to be evacuated. We had also to make provision for our own escape.
It was at one of these get-togethers, involving a foray into the Bofors-gun crew’s rations, that a direct hit was made on one of our piers by a German bomber. Reading about such an occurrence is one thing, but experiencing the frustration that it caused is something else. The lads waiting on the pier, next in line to be taken off for their journey home, had been so close. We no longer joked, ‘Anymore for the Skylark?’, and the gap in our pier was never filled.
If you hear them they’ve missed you
We also had more time to watch where the enemy shells were falling as they screamed overhead — if you heard them they’d missed you. Mostly, they were now going over the beach towards the rescue ships lying off shore. A lot of harsh words were spoken at the time. No one said it was going to be easy.
We saw a couple of dog fights, but nothing to stop the strafing of the beaches, and the bombing and machine gunning, and nothing to stop the enemy from receiving information about troop and shipping movements from the German recce aircraft.
With the evacuation of the guns’ crews along the beach, the time for the demolition of everything of use to the enemy was approaching. The subsequent devastation was strewn over miles of sand. I suppose it might be regarded as a vandal’s training ground.
Between 31 May and 1 June, General Lord Gort left HQ, handing over to General Alexander. On 2 June, Major General Alexander left. By 4 June, any further evacuation ceased.
As Dunkirk had become extremely hazardous as an evacuation point, more and more troops were concentrated along the beaches to the north east. We at La Panne must have looked from the air like an ants’ nest.
Unfortunately, German air activity increased. Probably, the most demoralising part of this was the Junkers JU87s, also known as Stukas, which emitted a foreboding scream on their downward dive.
At their approach, our neatly organised groups and lines of awaiting troops along the sands would initially disperse into the dunes. Then, as the planes pulled out of their dives, passing low overhead, soldiers everywhere could be seen firing their rifles in anger and frustration — a gesture of defiance. Eventually, more groups and lines stood their ground, so the evacuation resumed in some kind of orderly fashion.
Preparing our own escape
As the number of those awaiting evacuation dwindled, our chance of being left behind increased. Consequently, our officer began letting our group off one at a time along with the army. Night time on what was to be our last day found us searching for suitable floating material for our own departure.
During the hours of darkness later that evening, while the officer and I were helping some of the remaining soldiers into a boat from what was left of our pier, he asked who I was and suggested that I should leave with the next lot. An hour or so later we came together again and discovering who I was said, ‘I thought I told you to go off with the last boat.’
I remember making some weak excuse to the effect that I’d thought my services might be required for getting the last boats away, that the tide was going out.
Paddling into the unknown
We knew it was time to leave when we saw the flash of gunfire behind us in the town, and there was shrapnel was hissing in the water around us. But where was our transport?
We made up a group of four and wandered along the darkness of the beach to find the two dinghies we had previously earmarked. These we carried to the water’s edge, where we once again heard the disturbing hiss of shrapnel that hadn’t been noticeable higher up the beach on the sand.
We waded out until we were able to pull ourselves into the floats. The officer and I were in one — perhaps he was taking no chances with me this time — and his orders were that both dinghies should stay as close as possible as to each other we paddled into the dark.
‘After you, sir’
How far out we went with the receding tide I’ve no idea, but out of the blackness a voice hailed us, and we came alongside. Scrambling nets were already down the ship’s sides, and a voice rasped, ‘Up you go.’
My immediate reply was, ‘After you, sir.’
The officer, by now probably a little confused at my well-meant but unseaman-like manner, shouted a brisk, ‘Get aboard!’
I was back in the Royal Navy. Well, almost. Grabbing at the ropes of the scrambling net was the first thing we had done, and no way were we going to release our hold until we were aboard the rescue vessel, whatever it was.
Giant steps and getting nowhere
My next task was to stand, usually a fairly hazardous procedure in a tiny dinghy in a swell, though inevitable in the circumstances. I pulled myself upright and hauled my legs over to the rope rungs.
At this point I should explain to the layman a disquieting phenomenon. As a person first steps on to the rope rung of the netting with their full weight, any adjacent rungs tighten to the horizontal as the rung taking the weight drops to its lowest point. (Are you still with me?) The next step has the same effect, and so on. There is the feeling of taking gigantic steps upwards to no avail.
That being understood, I was getting nowhere. My arms were pulling me up, but my feet had suddenly become lead weights, with my legs not able to raise them to the next rung. Welcoming hands reached down and hauled me aboard. The officer suffered the same indignity with the same gratitude.
All in a week’s work
There was no sense of a job well done. No, it was all in a week’s work. Something had required doing, and it had got done. I remember that, among others on top deck, I just ‘got my head down’.
On arrival in England, at railway stations and on trains I joined up with the seething streams of men whose ant-like purpose was that of rejoining their units. I arrived eventually at Chatham RN Barracks, only to discover that I had contracted scabies from the uniforms into which I’d changed on La Panne beach.
A process of kit fumigation and/or burning followed. The infected parts of my body had to be scrubbed to break open the skin in order to treat the parasitic mites. Ugh! After a stay in hospital quarantine, leave was very welcome.
Some 58 years later I traced the officer concerned, who had written an article in a NATO magazine with identical stories to mine, which confirmed our identities.
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