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15 October 2014
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Memories of Dunkirk

by Wymondham Learning Centre

Contributed by 
Wymondham Learning Centre
People in story: 
Humphrey Gillett, Fearless Freddie and Janet Gillett
Location of story: 
Dunkirk and La Panne
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
25 April 2005

This story was submitted to the BBC People’s War site by Wymondham Learning Centre on behalf of the author who fully understand the site's terms and conditions.

Early one evening I was sent for by Fearless Freddie (the Sergeant Major) and told to take about four men and a truck and travel inland a few miles to form an ADS in a suburb of La Panne. This did not seem a good idea to me personally but I accepted it needed to be done and I had no option anyway, so off we went. It also seemed unnecessarily depressing too in that we had to set up the ADS in a stone mason’s yard surrounded by gravestones. Lying in the road outside there was a little girl with most of her face blasted away. She was quite dead but for some reason we carried her little body in and laid it on a stretcher. There was nothing we could do.

Things were quiet at that time and we sat about until my company commander came along to inspect us, saying that he would return after he had been to the mess for dinner. It was dark when he returned and things were still fairly quiet. ‘Come with me, Corporal,’ he said and led the way towards some nearby sand dunes. I followed and some shells passed overhead, first one way from the enemy guns and then the other way from our naval ships anchored off shore.

The Major led the way into a shed which was very dark but had a big beast mooing and munching somewhere inside. Then to my utter astonishment he tried to pull me down onto the hay at the same time grappling with my fly buttons. Shells passed both ways overhead and the cow mooed as well she might at this incredible lapse of military discipline. I was actually having to struggle with my Company Commander and I was utterly amazed as there had never been the slightest departure from correct formal relationships between us at any previous time.

It is only recently that I have come to think that perhaps I should have been kinder and more understanding towards him but these days are very different in such matters and I was only a boy at the time, and a pretty frightened one too.

What I actually did was to shout ‘Excuse me SIR’ and remind him that he was an officer and also a doctor and finally he gave up and I more or less dragged him out into the open and scooped a hollow in the sand dunes where he went to sleep.

At first light there was more shelling and several landed too close for comfort but none of us were hurt. Still I think this encouraged the Major to leave saying it was no place for him, and he was off. I never saw or heard of him again and I never mentioned what happened when the unit returned to the U.K.

After a little while I decided that if our O.C. could go there was no particular reason why we should stay guarding the body of one poor dead child. Nothing much else seemed to be happening nearby so I called out ‘All aboard’ and we climbed into the truck and headed back towards the sea front. We were only just in time and more than likely this decision saved us from five years in a prisoner of war camp, or worse.

When we reached the front the unit was all lined up in column of threes ready to march along the beach to the jetty at Dunkirk for evacuation. The three field ambulances in the division had drawn lots for staying with the wounded but the 7th FA had been lucky.

The column of threes idea didn’t last long as a low flying aircraft came along and sprayed the beach with bullets and we scattered for dear life. The whole beach was littered with the debris of wars with beached wrecks crashed aircraft and the bodies of the dead. There were also minor items of personal equipment that could have been salvaged given better discipline. The Guards carried their rifles throughout. I knew personally men who were still throwing things away to ensure they had a new issue when the train taking us north was passing Clapham Junction.

As we marched along we were overtaken by a truck driven by a certain Pte xxx who had spent most of his time in the B.E.F. doing ‘jankers’ for various offences. He had found himself a truck and the petrol to drive it, and standing in the back were most of the officers of the 7th FA. A victory indeed.

When we reached Dunkirk the Colonel called us together and we had a meal of bully beef, carefully burying the empty tins, as later on in life I used to recount to the children at school. Then we filed along the jetty which was badly damaged and mended in places with those legendary mess tables. We had to get onto a destroyer that was tied to the jetty. Its guns were firing at aircraft and some shells were landing in the harbour.

I went to the far side with John and we sat down on a torpedo but a small motorboat drew alongside and the skipper shouted for some of us to jump and go with him and we had no hesitation in doing so. I said I would like to sit outside and watch events but was rightly ordered down into the tiny cabin where I promptly lay down on the floor and went to sleep. I suppose I had not slept for several nights and was totally exhausted.

I woke up as the boat entered Ramsgate harbour and dozens of dear kindly helpful English ladies were lining the jetty with cups of tea, postcards for our loved ones, smiles, kisses and buns. They gave us a wonderful welcome, almost as good as if we had won the war, perhaps even better.

Sitting in the train waiting to go north was a wonderful time. We sang and sang, thrilled to have escaped just as the steel trap was sprung. We were the lucky ones and had got away. I didn’t know that even at that moment there were brave men actually going the other way in a desperate attempt to hold Calais. There was a wholly selfish sense of unreality and larger issues were either not understood or if they were, they were ignored. Pull up the Gangplank.. I’m aboard.

The train passed to the west of London and carried on to Doncaster where we were marched to the racecourse and allowed to rest and recover in tents. Naturally I phoned Janet as soon as possible and, dear girl, up she came, though how she got leave from the News Department of the BBC at such a time I don’t know. We found a friendly family who gave us a room and didn’t want us to pay for it.

I happened to mention to Janet that some of the men in the tents were not from the Dunkirk evacuation but just normal troops stationed there.

‘Oh’, said Janet, ‘I thought they were all heroes!’

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