- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Tom Perrin
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- Contributed on:
- 15 February 2004
Just before midnight on May 25, 1940 I was awakened by the toe of a boot, whilst I was lying asleep under an army lorry, and told to get ready to move. My unit, the 9th Army Field Workshop, R.A.O.C., was in the tiny village of Oestvleteren, nearYpres in Belgium. By 2 30am the convoy was formed up and on its way back into France which we had left only five days before. Our destination was the small town of Barguest where we arrived soon after dawn. After crossing the canal we bivouacked for the day just outside the town, camouflaged the vehicles and spent the rest of the morning resting. Soon after midday we were ordered to render our vehicles useless by smashing the engines, radiators etc. with sledge hammers and pickaxes. Tyres were burst by rifle fire through the walls. As we were a Royal Army Ordnance Corps workshop we had tons of stores and machinery, which also had to be destroyed. At about 9.30pm petrol was poured on all equipment which we could not carry, and as we left the last party of about sixty set fire to the camp and we humped our personal kit and marched towards the great pile of smoke which was the town of Dunkirk, 14 miles away.
Our party arrived in the sand dunes to the east of Dunkirk in the early morning of May 25th. We were given instructions to disperse, find some shelter, and meet at eight o'clock in the morning. I found a foxhole against a wall, got in and fell asleep. When I awoke it was full daylight I couldn't seen any of my 9th Army Field Workshop comrades so I made my way via the sand hills to the beach. I was about 3 miles east of Dunkirk somewhere near the small town of Bray Dunes. The beach was covered by soldiers organised in columns of 50 so I joined a column which was the fourth from the sea.
A few small rowing boats kept coming in from the sea, loading with soldiers and rowing out to larger ships standing off in deeper water. Every now and then the beach was strafed by German aircraft but most enemy activity was concentrated on Dunkirk docks from which a huge pall of smoke drifted eastwards. The columns moved forwards very slowly but by about 6 o'clock I was in the group nearest the sea when there was a very intense air attack along the beach and the column broke up as people ran to find some cover. After the attack was over the column reformed and I rejoined but right at the back of the group. For some reason the sergeant in charge decided to count the number in his group and it came to 53 so he told the last file to get lost and as I was in the file I lost my place. I wasn't best pleased at that moment but within minutes I was very grateful for his action.
Instead of joining another column I wandered along the edge of the sand and a small boat rowed by a sailor grounded quite near. The sailor asked me to unload some of the boxes of rations from the boat. I agreed and jokingly said on condition that he gave me a lift when the job was complete. I carried the last box ashore and went to get aboard but it was now filled with men from the column which I had just left. I reminded the sailor of our bargain and as the boat, now full, was grounded on the sand the sailor made some of his passengers get out to refloat the boat and then insisted that I got in before anyone else. I was quite pleased to see that the sergeant who had dismissed me from his column was still waiting on the shore as we tried to row away from the beach. It took quite a bit of organisation but eventually we made a little progress. It is said that Englishmen are all sailors at heart, but our attempts at rowing proved this theory to be wrong; if we had not been given a tow by a motor launch we would have spent the rest of the war somewhere off the coast of France.
We were towed by the launch to the Royal Navy sloop, H.M.S.Dogger Bank where I had to climb up a scrambling net hanging over the side of the ship. I was wearing a greatcoat and carrying full marching order, big and small pack, tin helmet, water bottle and bayonet, and a rifle. I was also wet through to above my waist, not the best gear to go mountaineering in. By the time I fell over the side on to the deck I was exhausted. I must have been almost the last to get aboard because the sloop quickly began to move further away from the beach. I thought England here I come. Not so! We tied up alongside a destroyer, H.M.S Grafton and we were all transferred to this ship, a long weary process as other ships around us were attacked by the Luftwaffe.
For some reason even when there were no other people to come aboard we waited and waited and waited until it was dark. Eventually we began to move eastwards parallel with coast for some distance before turning towards England. I dozed on the deck which was packed with soldiers, when I was awakened by a loud explosion and looking to where the sound came from I saw the bow and stern of the ship that was in convoy with us, the destroyer H.M.S. Wakeful, disappear into the sea. She had been torpedoed amidships by a German E-boat and had broken in two. She sank in a matter of moments with over 1200 lives. The Grafton fired at the E-boats and then stopped to look for survivors.
About thirty minutes later just as our ship got under way there were two huge explosions as the Grafton was hit by two torpedoes, which blew off the stern of the ship. I was standing by a fan inlet which had a high pitched whine, and in the silence after the noise of the explosions I remember the fan running down and the pitch of the sound getting lower. We lay, wallowing in the channel swell praying that the bulkheads would hold. If they had gone there would have been few survivors for there were no life jackets and most of the lifeboats and rafts had been damaged in the explosions. Everyone was ordered to keep still and to keep silent. I still remember the eerie silence, 1400 men making no sound, only the slap, slap as small waves lapped against the ship. There seemed to be two options now, either the-E boats came back and finished us off, or rescue. Which would be first?
It’s obvious that rescue came first. Out of the morning mist appeared a destroyer escorting a cross channel steamer the S.S.Malines which tied up alongside the Grafton and in single file we crossed from the bridge of the helpless Royal Navy ship to the deck of the steamer. It took quite some time before everyone was off the Grafton as there was a considerable number of wounded, some of them stretcher cases, but eventually the last person left the Grafton and we pulled away on what we sincerely hoped was the last part of our channel crossing. When we were well clear H.M.S. Ivanhoe torpedoed the hulk of the Grafton, which disappeared quickly below the waves.
Under escort we finished the crossing and entered Dover harbour, tied up and disembarked. All I had when I walked down the gangway was my battledress and rifle the rest of my kit was on the Grafton now at the bottom of the Channel. At the bottom of the gangway I had to hand over my rifle to a military policeman and was then ushered on to train, which quickly steamed off into Kent. The train stopped at Paddock Wood station where we were given some tea and a sandwich, the first food I had since we smashed up our equipment 48 hours before. We also were given a stamped postcard to fill and these were collected and posted by the W.V.S. The train then wandered all over southern England eventually arriving at about dusk at Bulford Camp station on Salisbury Plain. After a couple of days at Larkhill Camp where we were not allowed to mix with other soldiers in the camp the R.A.O.C. personnel were sent to our depot at Nottingham to be sent on four days leave immediately as there was no room for us there. I travelled through the night via Derby, Sheffield and Normanton to Mirfield, from where I hitched a lift on a newspaper train which dropped me off at Hillhouse Sidings, a few hundred yards from my home at Fartown, Huddersfield. From there I walked home.
I still can't make up my mind as to whether it was a good day or a bad day.
At the end of May 1995, almost 55 years to the day later, my wife and I were on holiday in Kent and decided to go to France for the day via the Channel Tunnel. After a very swift and comfortable journey from Folkestone we drove off the train on to the motorway near to Calais. I asked Joan where she would like to go for the day and as she didn't mind where I suggested that as it was May 28th I would like to go to Dunkirk to see if I could find the place from where I left France 55 years before. We drove eastwards along the motorway leaving Dunkirk about four miles behind and then turned towards the sea.
Turning west we made our way slowly working towards Dunkirk. At the eastern end of the town of Bray Dunes I stopped the car and went down to the sands. A huge extent of beach stretching to Dunkirk appeared and I started walking along the edge of the sea towards the city until I suddenly felt that this was the place. What a contrast to what I remembered from so long ago. As I looked around no lines of soldiers, hardly a soul in sight. I looked out to sea; no rowing boats, sloops and destroyers: I looked up to the sky and where there had been black oily smoke from horizon to horizon there was now a perfect blue summer sky with a hot sun shining down.
I stood there for quite some time letting all this peaceful scene sink into my memory. Then I walked back to the car and drove back to Calais and the Chunnel and England. A slightly different way of coming home than the last time!
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