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Escape from Dunkirk

by Edwin Steadman

Contributed by 
Edwin Steadman
People in story: 
Edwin John Steadman
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Contributed on: 
22 February 2004

I am currently writing about my experiences from the war. From Dunkirk to Italy, Africa and Greece.This is an excerpt from my first draft covering Dunkirk. There are lots of gaps in it and I hope overtime I can fill these.

When it became time for me to return to France I don’t think that I was ready but duty called so there was no looking back. We landed at Boulogne and on my return things had not altered so it was back on the telephone exchange trying to speak French but eventually through a form of English and broken French and we got by.

It seemed that by this time our friend Hitler was into playing war games and before we knew it a German spotter plane landed on our strip and there was no gun available to do anything about it so he took off in perfect safety, this however was soon rectified be cause guns were soon installed so we were never paid another cheeky visited again at such close quarters.

Next came the orders to move up to Brussels and that was as far as our troop got. The sky was blacked out with enemy bombers and the whole of Brussels seemed to explode and catch on fire. We stopped at a huge house, great big iron gates and a cobbled drive, this I where my war started. They placed me in the gateway with a Boys anti-tank rifle, to fire this weapon, which was like a gigantic rifle, the position was to lay down behind it as it was on a tripod and sight the target, the gun fired a .55in armour piercing bullet and would probably pierce about a half inch steel plate. My orders were if I saw any German tanks to let them have it, this of course was where the joke came in because the German Panzer Mk II tanks that were approaching were heavily plated and so that meant I was of little danger to the enemy and was frozen and scared stiff.
Luckily there was no reason for me to perform the task because we had to pack and get moving backwards. This would be somewhere in the region of the 15th May 1940.

We were constantly being bombarded by Stuka dive bombers and there was an effort made to get the Hurricanes in to halt the Stukas but they had been ordered back to base in Kent. As we retreated back to Arras the enemy followed and landed in an prepared ambush by the BEF armour and guns, however these were eventually destroyed by the Stukas although German casualties were very heavy.

By the 20th May 1940 Calais was under siege and the BEF were getting trapped in Dunkirk. Our retreat was a slow process because there was an awful lot of refugees on the road and jerry was strafing us and killing quite a few civilians. This made you feel awful on their behalf however war was war and as it became very clear you had to learn not to be so soft but it is impossible to change ones nature so it was thought but that was all in the future.

After many days on retreat our unit arrived in the town of Dunkirk this would be roughly about the 26 May 1940 and Operation Dynamo (the evacuation) was underway. When we saw the beach it was crowded so we organised a form of lamp signals to guide the boats in. However we were called on to return outside of the town to fight a rearguard action to allow the lads to embark. At this point we were under constant bombing and shelling and our efforts were having less effect as more lads were going to the beach to try to scramble on the boats.

It would be pathetic to try and describe the situation but to try and describe hell is impossible. The nights were spent hoping that the air raids would miss and that there would be a morning, for some of us that really came true but for many many more there was no morning. One night a lad came to me and Fred Clap (my pal from Manchester) and we bedded down in a shallow slit trench with a very frightened young man between us. That night there was very heavy strafing from the jerry aircraft so sleep was nearly impossible. When day broke we found that the young lad had been well and truly killed so at the expense of others we were once again spared.

At this point here I must say that the sky was full of enemy planes and amongst it all was two spitfires or hurricanes. They were having a field day shooting the enemy down but a antiaircraft gun opened up and to our grief shot a spitty down. We rescued the pilot out of the sea but boy was he cursing those gunners so now we had one more on the beach.

It was several days, but it seemed a lifetime, before we were assembled to try and reach some sort of transport back to blighty. We were told that the prisoners we had would not be taken on board so they were handed over to some French troops.

We were eventually helped on board a destroyer — and I still can’t recall the name of that ship. The sailors were so helpful and really inspirational. We felt safe now not thinking that just one good bomb from the Luftwaffe and we could all be back in the drink again. We were still under constant fire and an armour piercing shell penetrated the deck and went straight through the table where we were sitting - fortunately it did no hit anybody.

At this point I found myself thinking about all that had happened and thanking god for the protection that I had received and thinking that had the BEF not been so calm and organized I don’t think that as many of the lads would have been saved. All this seemed so unreal. Just one down point though officers were supposed to organise parties for boarding and consequently this meant that they would be the last off the beach and on two occasions I saw officers taking off their uniforms and changing into soldiers kit so that they would be included in the boarding parties instead of organising them. I suppose it was every man for himself as far as they were concerned and who could be the judge of that, times like that I think that a sense of reason went out the window.

Thankfully the crossing was swift and the sea was calm so it was with heart felt thanks the old white cliffs came into view and with us all trying to thank the crew we disembarked in Dover - dead beat and so scruffy. People were just milling round us trying to give us drinks and ciggies. We were so down hearted but proud to be British and thinking that one day we would stuff those Jerries well and truly and that was not as far away as was thought at the time, however that there again is another story.

I must at this point and with great pride include a poem written by a another local Dunkirk survivor and given to my daughter for me. It is headed, the retreat through Dunkirk.

listen to me and I will tell
A story great and true
Of a mass of British Tommies and all that they went through
Although the luck ran all against them and allies quit as well
These undaunted soldiers went through and then came back from hell
The Belgians on the left of them refused to carry on
This let the German troops right through they thought the battle won
The nazi planes came snooping round dropping bills around their heads
‘Your surrounded give in’ that’s what the leaflets said

The Germans thought our men were trapped but plans came through the breach Make for Dunkirk, the orders said the navy holds the beach

And so the great retreat began men from far and near
Men whos undaunted courage Boche tried to turn to fear
Even the civilian populace their homes in flames behind
Were served out with the soldiers with slugs and bombs that whined
The trucks were running on the roads in convoys large and small
Full of kakhi clad squaddies who had answered to the call
And there in sight a plane appears a nazi there’s no doubt
Stop the trucks and all alight hey heard the captain shout
The trucks were stopped, they all got out and laid down in the ditches
Although the water nestling there soaked right through their breeches

When the raider had passed over the men took to the trucks
Some were cursing loud and long some disgorging muck
Still the race with time went on to get right through the gap
Before the Germans close it up and those brave men entrap
At last they reached the port, their goal while shells were hurling lead
Some boys were left wounded there but some poor souls were dead

There out at sea the ships all lay to reach them meant a wade
But each man waded through the sea and thus was history made
Now whilst they sailed across the waves the nazis still flew over
But they refused to follow them within six miles of Dover
And now my story’s ended I’ve done my best for you
So cheer the British navy who guarded our way through

As a foot note to this poem I must add that all credit due to the boys in blue and all the little boats and civvies not forgetting the RAF although few in number tackled the thousand of German planes and destroying so many of them and in the process loosing our brave lads, some of the pilots were only kids and that is a point which must never be forgotten.

As for the poem, I am fully aware that it is not a Burns or Longfellow but it is from the heart.
At last it was blighty and in safety at last. I can’t tell you the feeling that was experienced by us. To be back again on English soil meant so very very much to us lucky lads who had made it home. We were saddened by the thoughts of many of our pals who didn’t and it was not to sink in fully until we had been home a little while.

We were then bussed to Prestatyn Butlins holiday camp Wales it was a strange situation because there were still some holiday makers there. We relaxed for a week and next stop was Warwick racecourse where we reassembled in our own regiments. Once again we were on the move this time to Lemington Spa and then to Harrogate policing the town.

Edwin John Steadman
2572649 Signalman
E Operating Section. 1st Corp Signals HQ 1940

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Message 1 - Hi

Posted on: 22 February 2004 by Andy1971

Hello mr Steadman, I enjoyed reading your post. I hope you manage to get your story published.

Thankyou very much for your service and our freedom.


Message 1 - Mr Steadman's Story

Posted on: 22 February 2004 by greatWarwickSchool

Thank you so much for posting your fascinating account. I note your time in Warwick at the end of your account - I head the History Department at Warwick School and we would be delighted if you would like to come over to talk to the boys about your experiences. The students would find your account fascinating and we could certainly arrange transport for you.

With all good wishes,

John Jefferies

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