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A Sapper's Story: Dunkirk Missed by One Dayicon for Recommended story

by Hubert Fernbank

Contributed by 
Hubert Fernbank
People in story: 
Hubert Fernbank
Location of story: 
England, France and Germany
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Contributed on: 
12 November 2003

As a Territorial in the 226th Field Company, I was called up for war service on 2 September 1939, the day before war was declared. After preliminary training, mainly in pontoon bridging — some of it at night — we embarked for France in January 1940.

Freezing conditions

The winter was one of the coldest I have ever experienced — the Thames froze over. Our first night was spent in a disused jail. There was no heating, so we lit a fire on the floor, but as this was made of bitumen it caught alight so we had to put it out!

The next day we set out on a 200-mile road journey in open-ended lorries, for northern France. To relieve the cold an enterprising member of our part had acquired a bottle of Cointreau, which helped a great deal.

Building reinforced pillboxes

On arrival we were billeted in an old factory with no heating. It was so cold that we used to put on more clothes to go to bed. Baths were taken in tubs at a local pithead.

Our job was to build reinforced pillboxes. We worked 24 hours a day in 8-hour shifts. On one occasion we were visited by the Duke of Gloucester, who signed his name in wet cement on one of the pillboxes.

Missed Dunkirk by one day

In May 1940, I was granted home leave. I learnt afterwards that I had missed Dunkirk by one day, because those coming on leave the next day had been sent back to their units.

At the end of my leave I had to report to the Railway Transport Officer at Exeter and was given a travel warrant to Waterloo Station. We then went down to Southampton and embarked for Cherbourg.

'40 Hommes ou 8 Chevaux'

From there we were loaded on to cattle trucks labelled '40 Hommes ou 8 Chevaux'. Well, 40 men in a truck meant that only a few could sit down.

We journeyed for 24 hours until we reached the west coast of France, stayed there a fortnight and then returned to Cherbourg the way we had come. We only realised later how lucky we had been to escape the oncoming advance of the German Army.

Half our company lost

What was left of the 226th Field Company — we lost half of it — met again at Monmouth, and there we had about a month's rest. We then went down to Devon and were engaged in putting up beach defences and mines on the south coast.

I was medically downgraded at this time and posted to the Combined Operation Training Centre at Inveraray, where I spent that winter. In 1941 the Centre moved to Argyllshire. From there, I was posted to No. 5 Engineer Stores Base Depot (ESBD) in Horley, Surrey.

The ESBD dealt with such things as items of oil installation, water supply and electrical equipment including generators — the latter coming mainly from the USA.

Living in foxholes

On D+23 — 29 June 1944 — we set sail from Newhaven and arrived off the Normandy coast. We climbed down a rope ladder on to a landing craft and then reached a floating pier, each pair of men carrying a jerrican of water between them.

At this time the Allied bridgehead was only three miles deep, so we were pretty crowded. For the first few days we lived on iron rations, and for a month or so we lived in foxholes. As the weather was fine we came to no harm.

Sky black with American bombers

One evening, I think it was in August, the sky became black with hundreds of American bombers that bombed Caen. This lead to a break out of the Allied forces.

As winter came on we were left far behind the front line. By this time a railway siding had been built, from which goods were dispatched further up the line.

Heavy snow in Paris

Towards Christmas we were given leave to Paris. There was heavy snow, and the French simply opened the covers to the sewers and shovelled the snow into them. The only public transport was by the Metro, in which people were crowded like sardines.

Above ground the only transport was by bicycle taxi. A friend and I paid for our ride with a packet of 20 cigarettes. Try to imagine travelling down the Champs-Elysées with no other traffic about.

V2s and devastation

In the spring of 1945 we moved to Antwerp, where my job was labelling goods wagons for onward transmission to Germany. The V2s were flying overhead but did not land on Antwerp.

Later we moved on to Hamburg. I remember our train stopping at a placed called Celle, where there was hardly a building left standing. Hamburg itself was badly bombed, and we wondered how they could even start to rebuild the city. But evidently they did.

New use for army boots

I spent a short time in Neumunster and from there was sent home to be demobbed in February 1946. At the demob centre in Taunton, we were given a civilian suit and shoes, and allowed to keep our army boots. I kept mine for years and wore them for gardening.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - A Sapper's Story

Posted on: 13 November 2003 by Hubert Fernbank

Regarding landing on beach at Normany,
the words"paid men", should read "pair of men." please amend


Message 2 - A Sapper's Story

Posted on: 13 November 2003 by Hubert Fernbank

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