Sunday, 30 May 2010

A Miracle of Deliverance

Seventy years ago, my father was rescued from the beach at Dunkirk. In his words:

At high tide there were bodies being washed ashore so I gave a hand to drag them above the high tide mark. There were some explosions on the beach even when there was no air attack in progress - they must have been artillery or mortar shells. Again most of the time all they did was scatter the sand around.

Two torpedoes suddenly hurtled up the beach, clear of the water, their propellers sending up cascades of sand and water, several of us stood and watched for a while until somebody said "Perhaps their explosives are on timers!" - we backed well away until I suppose the compressed air in their motors ran out, then they just lay there, like a couple of stranded fish.

A rumour went round that we should make our way to the East Mole at dusk, so I thought I'd give it a try. It was dark when I got to the Mole and we were marshalled by a group of sailors into single file and then told to move along, there seemed to be hundreds of French soldiers just standing there watching, it was very eerie. Once on the mole we realised why we were in single file, great holes had been blown in the concrete and these had been bridged by planks about two feet wide and we could hear the waves about twenty feet below. When we got on a solid piece of mole we were told "wait, make way for wounded". Some were on foot others on stretchers, when they passed we moved on again. Finally some more sailors helped us on to a slide made from planks and we slid down quite a distance and landed on the deck of a ship, we were told to spread ourselves round the ship. I got my back against a rail of some sort and sat down. I woke up to the fact that we were moving so dozed off again. I vaguely remember hearing a machine gun on the ship firing, and thought that everything must be under control, so went back to sleep.

At dawn I got up and had a look round and realised that although it was a civvy ship it was manned entirely by the Navy, then I was amazed to find that it was the ship in which I had sailed from Southampton to Le Havre - the "Tynwald". I think we docked at Dover and were surprised to see flags and banners waving and women offering us tea and sandwiches. We were hustled quickly on to a train waiting in the docks (we were not a pretty sight!), and off we went. If we went slowly through a station people ran alongside the train offering food and cups of tea, we were puzzled by all the flag waving and cheering, having just been chased out of France. We arrived at Winchester station and were lorried to the Kings Royal Rifles barracks, given two blankets, shown into a barrack hut where I got down on the floor and sank into a peaceful sleep.

At this distance in time, and with my father now dead, I can both look back at our family's spear-carrying role in a famous national drama with some pride, but also with a sense of the way "history" swallows up human-scale reality, like a vast whale gulping down tiny krill to no more purpose than to make yet more whale.

The men in the pictures on this page from my father's photo album are visibly having quite an adventure, I would say. These citizen soldiers had recently been rescued from great peril, and now find themselves on a glorified scout camp and motorbike scrambling trials in Yorkshire. The captions on the reverse of the photos say things like "Lovely Grub!" and "Wot, no bath?" They have no idea that their unit is shortly to ship out for the deserts of North Africa, and then to the hills and jungles of India and Burma, where they will do whatever they are asked to do, grumpily but unquestioningly, and if necessary die in the process. Several do.

After Dunkirk
uniforms not designed by Hugo Boss

My parents, after they realised they were getting too old to look after themselves, moved from Hertfordshire to Norfolk, to live in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. For the sake of some company, Dad joined the local branch of the Dunkirk Association, where men of like age and with a shared, unique experience could swing the lamp a bit over a cup of tea (men in their eighties tend not to drink pints).

He found himself at the epicentre of one of the darkest chapters in the Dunkirk story, the massacre of captured British troops of the Royal Norfolk Regiment by the SS at Le Paradis. The terrible story can be read here. Talking with these men, I think, shifted something in his perception of his own wartime experiences, rather like realising -- 50 years after the event -- what a close-run thing it had been at times, not just nationally, but personally.

For the first time, he began reading accounts of the war and attending Remembrance Day parades in chilly churchyards in Norfolk. And he asked me to find him a copy of this painting by Charles Cundall, which he'd seen on TV:

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940, by Charles Cundall

I bought a print of it from the Imperial War Museum, which he framed and hung over his bed. Shortly before he died, he said to me, "You know that painting of the beach at Dunkirk? It's not quite right, you know. Those great big clouds of black smoke? They were blowing the other way."


Martin H. said...

Thanks to men like your dad, there was no boat for us to miss.

Marvellous to read his first-hand account.

Mike C. said...

You can read more here, if so inclined:

I loaned him a laptop while he could still see well enough to write, and he tapped away for a year or so. His memory for detail was legendary.


Martin H. said...

Thanks Mike. I'd like to read more. It's a privilege.

Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful tribute. I particularly liked the part about the torpedoes. It must have been as if spaceships had landed in front of the men. Awe and fear.


Bronislaus Janulis said...

Nice tribute, and I've always liked that painting ... even if it's a fine example of "artistic license".

Nana Jo said...

Thank you so much for this amazing account. I feel like I have found a lost part of my own history.

As I commented on Martin's blog, this post has a very personal meaning for me. My grandfather (my father's father) was killed during the evacuation from Dunkirk. A fisherman and jack-of-all-tades living in Hastings, he was taking part in the rescue. His widow was left with seven children ranging in age from thirteen to just a few months old to raise alone. My father was nine years old at the time. He and one of his brothers became child evacuees sent out to the countryside by railway. These two events, the loss of his father and the evacuation, had a profound effect on the rest of his life.

willow said...

I'm popping over from Martin's blog. I'm so glad I did. Such a permanent impact in his memory that he knew the clouds were wrong in the paintings. Amazing account. Thank you.

Nancy said...

I was reading a historical fiction book last year about this very event and the author described it much as your father - almost as though she had interviewed your father. It's an interesting thought to realize that men in war (or any of us anywhere in life) see just one perspective of an event and perhaps don't realize what's happening a mile away. I'm grateful to your father and men like him who served and fought for freedom's sake. I'll try to come back and read his memories that he tapped out on the laptop. Thanks.

Vicki Lane said...

Fascinating post! Martin suggested I stop by and I'm glad I did. And I'm glad for yourfather's keen memory.