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15 October 2014
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Phoney War and Dunkirk

by Franc Colombo

Contributed by 
Franc Colombo
People in story: 
Ronald Colombo
Location of story: 
North France
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
08 June 2004

January 1940 Rue de Dr Charcot, Marcq-en-Baroeul, Nord, France


From Southampton we crossed the channel to Cherbourg. We were the first part of the British Expedition Force. I cannot recall the name of our first stop but I know that it was near a canal. After a couple of days we moved to a mining village near Lens. My officer was billeted in a small house at the end of the village. The main body were billeted in a hall behind a bistro sleeping on the floor. Myself and others were in a empty house, again on the floor. Everything was strange to us. We tried to speak to the locals mainly with our hands but we got by. The lady of the bistro tried to make us feel at home by making us tea but the way she made it was putting the tea in a saucepan and boiling it, the taste was horrible but we said that it was good. In the bistro was the first time that we saw so many different drinks on the shelf and the beer all in bottles, not like the English pubs where they pumped the beer from the barrel. For me it was not so strange because of my stay in Italy. One night with some of the lads we said that we would start at one end of the shelf and see if we could reach the other end. We reached about a third of the way and by this time we were getting a little tipsy but we carried on, soon after we decided to call it a day. I was not too bad till we got outside then I did not know what hit me. Some how we managed to get back to our billet but as soon as I dropped into my bed space so my head was going round and the floor was going up and down, never again I thought. It was here that we saw our first French soldier on guard duty, he was sloppy, rifle over his shoulder and smoking a cigarette, if we did that we would be straight in the guard room. Bath parade was the shower in the coal mine.

Towards the end of October we were on the move again, this time to Croise Laroche about three mile from the city of Lille. It was the first big place we stayed in France. The main billet was in a tall building dividing three boulevards, one from Lille, one going to Roubaix the other to Tourcoing. Division H.Q. was in a chateau on the Lille boulevard. Capt. Hill had an apartment just opposite, I was fortunate I had a room at the top of the block which was the servants quarters and I had a real bed instead of sleeping on the floor or camp bed. One day with some of the lads we thought we would explore some of the highlights of Lille. Being it was the first big city in France that we were near, we took the tram which passed in front of our billet and found it uncomfortable with just a few wooden seats the main part standing, not like the trams in London with upholstered seats. It looked a very interesting place. We arrived in a big square, the roads and streets were all cobbled, big buildings and shops cafes everywhere in one street several cinemas and narrow streets with very old and quaint places. We enjoyed our trip and returned to our billets feeling happy, that was because of the drinks that we consumed. Another time with a friend we thought we would go for a walk round the area. We walked towards Lille till we came to a boulevard and decided to go that way. There were not many houses mainly fields. Just further along we saw a race course and further along we saw a cafe' and decided to go and have a drink. Some how we got talking to a family, that is to say in our fashion and I managed to say that I spoke Italian. He told me that someone he knew was Italian and usually came in to play cards and he was sure that he would be there the following evening. The following evening I went round and was introduced to him. We had a drink and started talking. He told me that his name was Giovanni and came from Varese. I told him that I used to live in Moltrasio near Como. After a few more drinks he invited me home to meet the family. I met his wife Maria, 17 year old daughter Tinuccia [ Tina ] and their dog Kiki, he was black curly hair mongrel, very friendly. When it was time to leave they invited me round to dinner the following evening. After that I went round most evenings. Tina was still at school and learning English so I helped her and she tried to teach me French. In the course of my visits I met some of their relatives, mainly Tina's uncle and aunt, Alberto and Angelina who lived just a short distance. By this time Tina and I were enjoying each other's company. When it was time to leave Tina would see me to the door and we would talk and kiss till her mother would call her.

Some evenings when the officers had a special guest for dinner it was part of my duty to serve at table. One day we had the Duke of Gloucester visiting us and he was invited to dinner. I was just serving him his soup when he laughed at something that was said, he sounded just like a cackle of a chicken. I nearly poured the soup over him because I was trying to stop myself laughing. Another visit was the Duke of Kent, then we had a change of Divisional Commander, General Montgomery took over, he was not very popular with the troops. One afternoon I went to my battalion which was billeted just outside Tourcoing to see how my friend George was getting on.

In January I went on leave to England. London seemed strange in the blackout and the buses and vehicles with the headlamps with just crossed slits showing the light. I visited the family while I was home and they wanted to know what it was like. I told them so far we had not seen any activity, it was just like a holiday. Then I went to visit my friends who had not yet been called up. I should have mentioned that I had some friends from school days, boys and girls. We always went out together to pubs or outings and parties on special occasions or just for the fun, mainly at Joan's house. After the boys were called up and we found that we had leave at the same time it was cause for a celebration. When it was time for me to return to France father saw me off at the station. I really think that he was concerned about me. The following evening after my return I went to see Tina, she was pleased to see me as I was to see her. Most Sunday evenings with her father and mother we would go to the local cinema. Tina and I would sit together holding hands. One time Tina asked me to meet her and she took me to see her friend Jacqueline who lived in an apartment on the boulevard. We talked for awhile then went home. When Tina told her mother where we had been she told us off because we were not chaperoned. One Saturday her father invited me to a football match to see Lille play. Tina said that she would come, I was pleased. That is when her parents suspected that we were more than just friends. We had several photos taken outside her house with her parents and me with kiki, then we exchanged photos. The one she gave me I had it on me through out the war. Another incident, her mother allowed us to go to the cinema in Lille on Wednesdays afternoons, when Tina did not go to school. One time when we were on the tram one of Tina's teachers saw us and reported it to the headmistress. Her parents had to go to the school and explain. She was nearly expelled. That put the end to our trips.

On the 10th of May the phoney war came to an end. Germany invaded Belgium. I did not have the chance to go and see Tina, we were busy packing up ready to move to Belgium. We went through Roubaix where a few weeks previous I went to a troops concert to hear Gracie Fields sing. From there we moved to Alost where we stayed the night. Up to this point we still did not hear any gun fire or activity. The next morning we moved just on the outskirts of Brussels. Mid morning we heard gun fire in the distance and saw enemy bombers overhead. They were bombing our forward positions. At Div. H.Q. there was a lot of activity going on. Capt. Hill was busy organising all the moves and stores I was with him all the time because now my duty was being his runner. While we were in Lille there was a lot of talk about the Maginot line, a big fortification from the German border to the Belgium, it was supposed to be impregnable. On posters were written, Le Maginot il ne paserons pas but the German blitzkrieg went round it. On the move again we were surprised to see Belgium troops and cavalry going in the opposite way in a disorderly fashion. Further along we stopped again, it seemed that we were going and stopping all the time. Finally we stopped for the night near Alost. Early next morning we were on the move again but this time we were going back and it was here that we encountered the first column of refugees. We heard that there was a big battle and that the Germans broke through our lines with a large number of tanks and that we had to retreat, also that Belgium surrendered. It was a pitiful sight to see old men women and children walking like zombies, cars, trucks heavily loaded, then the stukas bombing and machine gunning the civilians. We passed many dead and wounded and went through villages that had been bombed. We had our share of bombs and machine guns sustaining several casualties, having to take cover in the ditches. We also heard that the French troops were deserting leaving their flanks exposed forcing us to withdraw to stop being surrounded. Then we heard that we were going back to England to regroup and that we had to make our way back to Dunkirk. On the out skirt beside a canal we were stopped and told to destroy our trucks and all the equipment and tip them in the canal then make our way to Dunkirk. In the turmoil I got separated from my officer. On our way we heard the bombs falling on the town. In the town during one raid I took shelter in a cellar. In between raids we were told to make for the beaches. On our way we could see the devastation, the collapsed houses and the craters and fires, a pall of black smoke from a destroyed oil tank. Finally I reached the beach and was told to find a space and dig in. The beach was very sandy and it was difficult to dig a hole. I shared it with some one I did not know. All the time we were bombed and machine gunned. We were all saying where was our air force. On one raid it sounded if the bomb was coming straight for me but it landed some yards from us killing the occupants. All that was left of them was blood and limbs. We endured this a whole day and night, in that time we saw all kinds of ships coming to pick us up. I saw one destroyer full of troops making its way back to England being bombed and sunk. What boosted our morale was seeing Field Marshal Lord Gort V.C. He was supreme commander of the B.E.F. He was walking up and down the beach talking to different people and encouraging everyone disregarding his own safety. He should have been in overall command instead of Weygand, maybe it would have been different. While we were waiting we saw ships and boats of all sizes coming and going. Some of the lads went in the sea trying to reach them. One destroyer who had picked up a full load of soldiers and was on the way back was bombed and sunk. Then it came our turn. We were formed up in column and made our way to the mole. It was partly destroyed and we had to climb over some planks to get to the destroyer that was waiting to pick us up. I managed to go below, although it was not the safest place to be I sat at a long table and a sailor brought us a mug of hot tea and then I fell asleep. The next thing I knew was someone saying we arrived. Finally I set foot on English soil.

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