Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dunkirk


Before the War
(bike: probably a Phelon & Moore Red Panther)

Following Christopher Nolan's film, there has been a lot of interest recently in that curiously mythic event of the summer of 1940, the evacuation of Dunkirk, perhaps the "hardest" Brexit imaginable, and the epitome of the British love of a magnificent defeat. As it happens, my father was at Dunkirk, and in his final years I managed to persuade him to commit to paper his vivid memories of this and the rest of his military service as a Royal Signals despatch rider, which spanned the entire war, from France, through the Western Desert, and finally to India and Burma. As an independent agent, criss-crossing the landscape from unit to unit, an observant DR necessarily got a wider-perspective view of the war than the average soldier. I have extracted here the chapter describing his experience of Dunkirk in its entirety.

Chapter Four (Dunkirk) from: Memories of a WW2 Despatch Rider, by Douglas Chisholm. [ the full text, lightly edited by me, is available at: http://www.soton.ac.uk/~mic/Dad ]

Got back to base one evening to find Bill Asher had got a fire going with a dixie boiling ready to brew some tea. I took off my gloves and respirator and hung them on a gate post - suddenly there was a loud whooosh and a big bang, the fire and dixie went up in the air in a cloud of ashes and steam. I dived into a ditch on top of someone who beat me to it - there were twigs and leaves falling from the bushes on to my face, presumably from bullets or shrapnel. After a short while it quietened down and I went to get my gloves and respirator; the gloves were stitched to the gatepost by splinters of wood and the respirator was cut to ribbons - the haversack was in shreds and the carbon granules were dribbling out of the canister. I had to find the Quarter Master to sanction the issue of a new respirator; I don't think he was very pleased, it probably meant a lot of paper-work! I kept the gloves as a souvenir.

Riding through a village I caught up a convoy of French horse drawn vehicles, guns, etc., when we were jumped by several Stukas who started bombing and strafing. Soon there were dead and wounded horses all over the road, some trying to gallop away with overturned wagons.  The noise was horrendous, the screams from the planes as they dived, bombs, machine guns, horses screaming, French running in all directions. I was in a ditch trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, when a Frenchman joined me saying over and over "Oh, mon dieu!"; he had a nasty gash on his wrist and had no field dressing so I bound him up with mine.

Another time I worked my way to the front of a column of vehicles to discover they were stopped by level crossing gates. I sat there for what seemed hours, keeping a watch for unfriendly planes; I folded my arms along the handlebars and rested my head on them. I felt so tired, the next thing I knew I was lying on the road with the bike on top of me. I had fallen asleep!

Riding through places that had been bombed was hairy, there was broken glass, wooden door frames with large nails sticking out, roof tiles, bricks, all very unstable and liable to cause punctures.  I soon realised that being on a bike was not the best way of knowing what was going on all around, it was difficult to hear any but the loudest and closest noises and impossible to see what was happening behind, so I began to stop occasionally and listen; I also watched carefully the actions and reactions of anyone, especially if they were paying close attention to the area behind me. If there was any sign of unwelcome activity I got off the road as soon as possible, parked the bike, and  moved swiftly off the road at right angles to the direction of approach of the problem.  I fully agreed with the lesson rammed home by the instructors at Prestatyn: "the safety of the message is the most important thing", as that also implied my safety!

One raid resulted in me being covered in white dust which I assumed to be chalk.  It did not come off very easily, so I must have looked a strange sight. Later I caught up with some of the section just after dark. Occasionally it became as light as day, someone was firing parachute flares which hung in the sky for quite a while. I went into a small room at the rear of a building and in the dark managed to find a vacant space between some of the lads already asleep on the floor.  I thought the floor felt a bit bumpy, but a chance to get some sleep was most welcome. At first light I went outside, to discover that the room was a coal shed, and I was now covered in a mixture of chalk and coal-dust.

Refugees heading west away from the Germans were a big problem, they came in cars, buses, horse-carts, on horse-back, bicycles, prams, wheelbarrows, just walking, all spread right across the road going in the opposite direction to what we were going, and threading through the crowds was hard work. They were a sitting target for German bombers and fighters who just flew up and down the roads unchallenged. So some of the sights along the way were not very pleasant. Gradually, mixed in with the civilians I saw occasional khaki uniforms, they had no weapons or steel helmets, just mixing in with the crowds. Sometimes as the result of a raid there would be groups of bodies, men, women and children pulled off the road, perhaps under some trees and left there. After a time I suppose we just got to the stage when it became the norm and no longer felt involved in something over which we had no control.

During one of these strafes I felt a thump on my right leg just below the knee. That night when I took off my boots the right sock was caked with blood,  whatever hit me had gone through the very thin skin on my shin almost to the bone. Luckily I had a spare pair of socks and the wound was not painful and it healed quite quickly.

During the early days we were riding quite deep into Belgium, but slowly it seemed that we were not going so far, and units were moving west. We recrossed the French border near Poperinghe. As we moved back deeper into France I was detached from the Section, to work with a captain with several trucks with wireless and other equipment. The captain seemed to be in a bit of a flap, got his map out and said, "Go and see if we can get to this location along these lanes". I went and took a look, and told him, "We can get the lorries through, and there is no sign of enemy activity". Off we went, it was a bit tight in places, and when we arrived at the spot pointed out by the captain I got a roasting because the overhanging trees and bushes had scratched the paint on some of the lorries!

Soon the columns of refugees thinned out and there were practically no civilians, but more and more uniforms, some I didn't recognise, all without rifles. They took up the whole width of the roads, so it was easier to get up on the verges and have a bumpy but quicker journey. For the first time there were lorries heading in a northerly direction packed with British uniforms and looking lost. I kept getting asked, "Is this the way to Dunkirk?", and when I'd helped they went off in a hurry.

We began to see mixed groups of men from various regiments and different arms walking in the same direction as the lorries had gone, a fair number still carrying their rifles.

I was attached to a major with a wireless truck. As the messages came in we'd go off to find a unit, occasionally on return to our starting place someone would be waiting with a new map reference, always further north or north-west. The fields alongside the roads (which were on raised banks) were becoming covered with water, to make it more difficult for Jerry tanks. If bombs or shells landed in the fields up went fountains of mud and water.

One night we slept on the edge of a field under a hedge with the bikes out of sight from aircraft. We were woken at first light and told not to start the bikes, but to wheel them to the edge of a railway line, then at intervals carry the bikes over the tracks without any metal touching the lines, wheel the bikes a considerable distance, before being allowed to start up. We never found out why. Up to that time I had been wearing over my battle-dress a Barbour suit, it was warm and waterproof and although it was fraying on one leg from battery acid spillage caused when I'd fallen off a few times, I liked it because it was ideal when sleeping outdoors. But about this time an infantry officer advised me to stop wearing it because, being a greeny-grey colour, some of his chaps might mistake me for a Jerry and take appropriate action, so I dumped it.

While riding it was difficult to be aware what was going on all around - apart from the engine noise, trying to ride against the flow of men and trucks took a lot of concentration. I found that watching the column coming towards me gave early warning of a bombing or strafing attack; the column peeled off the road on either side like earth off a ploughshare. A Jerry fighter came towards us at ground level followed by a Spitfire. To stop the Spit from firing the Jerry flew straight along the road just above our heads - to our delight the Spit got his propeller under the Jerry's tail and slowly pulled up, forcing Jerry to climb or have his tail cut off. They climbed, one under the other until Jerry levelled out, the Spit followed, a short burst of machine gun fire, the Jerry tipped on his nose and crashed into a flooded field, burying the plane well past the cockpit. A great cheer went down the line of men who were by now back on the road, heading north.

Our next move was to the house of a smallholding just off the road. We could now see the cloud of black smoke hanging over Dunkirk and watch bombing raids on the town. The columns of men no longer needed to ask the way, all they had to do was head for the smoke. They were by now very ragged looking; occasionally a company of infantry would march by in good order, but not often. There was abandoned equipment everywhere, in fields and side roads.  I was amazed to see a field full of artillery and big ack-ack guns, it looked like hundreds of them, many of them had their barrels pointing to the sky, but the barrels had the ends blown out like the petals of a flower.

One night I was riding through a small village and was slowed down by an M.P. with a torch: there were hundreds of infantry men lying in the market place in orderly rows as if on parade - three ranks in perfect lines. I could only assume they were one of the Guards Regiments taking a rest before marching on.

I had scrounged a mug of tea from the crew of a Bofors gun when a twin tailed plane came into sight from the north, they got off several clips of shells before the plane veered away and disappeared. I said "I reckon that was a Lockheed Hudson, one of ours". They said for them every plane is unfriendly.


In training, Sherwood Forest (no, really)


In France
(bikes: BSA WD M20)

By now the journeys were getting shorter and more frequent, so every opportunity was taken to get a few minutes sleep. Petrol was obtainable by syphoning it from abandoned vehicles, the bikes stood up to the rough treatment very well. During one trip along a cinder track I suddenly found myself on my back, the bike several yards away. I hadn't heard a bang or seen a flash so I stayed where I was. Nothing happened so I checked myself over, my right elbow was very sore and the battle-dress sleeve torn and frayed a bit. Just below the elbow was a large graze, so I checked the bike - just a bent footrest and brake lever and that was that. I saw some RAMC blokes, they had a look and told me that I'd live and asked if it hurt?  I said no, and they said, "It will now", and they rubbed some sort of gel into the graze and I was sent on my way.

Digging a slit trench one day we unearthed boxes of .303 rifle ammunition in very good order, but dated from WW1, just about eighteen inches below ground.

A group of Artillery men stopped for a rest on the verge near us and I saw they were concerned for a young officer who had his great coat slung over his shoulders and looked "all-in". I went across and asked if I could help and noticed that a piece of shrapnel triangular in shape, each side about an inch and a half long was wedged vertically in the brim of his steel helmet, just in line with his eye, so I said, "That was close".  He said he wasn't worried about that, then showed me his right shoulder which was a mangled mess of blood and bandages. There was nothing I could do, and after a while they resumed their trek to Dunkirk. Later I wondered if they were the survivors of a group of four Bofors guns I had watched being bombed, machine-gunned and knocked out in a field earlier that day.

The sound of gunfire was gradually coming nearer and we seemed to be increasingly inactive, then one day the major said we had finished our job, we were to destroy the wireless sets and vehicles and make our own way to the beach at Dunkirk. I didn't fancy walking what seemed quite a way to the smoke cloud, so I rode to the outskirts of the town, then drained the oil out of the engine, set the throttle to high rev's, kick-started the engine, and set fire to the petrol tank and walked away.

It was evening by the time I got onto the beach, there were groups in trenches dug in the sand, others seemed to be wandering around aimlessly. Some were wading out to sea hoping to get on one of the small boats that came in as close as possible.  I took off my boots and hung them round my neck and got to the water's edge, realised it was low tide and decided to wait until the tide was right in, then I wouldn't have so far to wade in order to get on a boat.

I walked up and down the beach for a time wondering if I would see anyone I knew, but no luck. There were lorries that had been driven out as far as possible at low tide, so at high tide they formed a jetty which gave easier access to the boats. I made myself a hole and tried to get a few minutes sleep, but air raids on the larger boats waiting well out to sea made it difficult.  I watched one raid and was sure I saw one bomb go right down the funnel of a destroyer which seemed to explode in slow motion. When the smoke cleared there was nothing left.

At high tide there were bodies being washed ashore so I gave a hand to drag them above the high tide mark. Two torpedoes suddenly hurtled up the beach, clear of the water, their propellers sending up cascades of sand and water - 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 onto 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, and shown into a barrack hut where I got down on the floor and sank into a peaceful sleep.

After Dunkirk

Dad died in 2008. He was never one for going on about the war, but he had a terrific album of photographs that others in his unit had taken and which lived in the bottom of a bedroom wardrobe, which I used to pore over as a boy. I would insist on knowing all about the who, where, and what of those mainly benign images, and Dad would reluctantly revisit the past, no doubt redacting his memories somewhat for my childish ears. For boys of my age, born in the 1950s, WW2 occupied a similar place in the imagination to that held by Star Wars, say, or Lord of the Rings for later generations. It must have been hard for our fathers to have reality and fantasy brought together in a potentially explosive way, daily, in the form of comics, toys, and children running around the streets playing "army".

When they realised they were getting too old to look after themselves, my parents 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). In this way 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. This 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 – 55 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? I'm sure they were blowing the other way."

16 comments:

Martin H said...

Wonderful post, Mike. Even with the benefit of detailed account such as your dad's, we can't begin to imagine the experience. I haven't seen the remake, but the 1958 film, with John Mills et al is a long time favourite of mine. If you know it, you'll remember a brief scene featuring a despatch rider. I'm sure that film is now regarded as flawed in many ways, but it is a classic as far as I'm concerned. My late stepfather was at Monte Cassino and Salerno, to name but two battle sites. He was detailed to help bury the dead at Tobruk and, at 89 years of age, still wept when he spoke of some of the young officers whose hands were like those of children.

Mike C. said...

Martin,

No, I've never seen it, and I'm fairly allergic to British war films, not least because of their stereotypes of working-class other ranks!

Yes, one of my uncles was an 8th army infantryman, and fought up through Italy, something which affected him quite badly in later life.

Mike

seany said...

Thank you for sharing this very personal piece of history experienced by your dad Mike, I'm sure British understatement has saved us from much more gorey details of your dad's war experiences.
We all of us who live in these islands owe a huge debt of gratitude to these brave people who saved us from what can only be imagined as a horrible fate at the hands of a German nation in the grip of nationalist insanity.
Michael.

Mike C. said...

Seany,

Probably yes, but on the other hand driving around on a motorbike or truck does mean you can scarper when things get rough...

I think the thing we forget, when it comes down to it, is that none of these guys had any real choice in the matter, any more than the German troops did. You do what you're told, or else...

Mike

seany said...

I can't disagree with you Mike, which makes things even more depressing unfortunately, are we all just reacting to the times and circumstances which we are born into or do we occasionally get to make more humane decisions, I'd like to think so, but as the Scotsman said "I hay me doots".
Michael.

Mike C. said...

Michael,

The bravery of conscientious objectors and those who confined themselves to medical and stretcher work cannot be underestimated. To make that stand involved making some tough choices against the grain of authority and popular opinion.

Mike

amolitor said...

Nicholas Monsarrat wrote a short story about Dunkirk entitled "I Was There" which is really about the place the event holds in the hearts and minds of the British.

The punchline is that none of the guys swapping their personal Dunkirk stories at the bar were, in fact, there. But also, he says, in a way, all British were there (although he might possibly have said English)

Mike C. said...

Blimey, there's someone I would have assumed nobody reads any more, along with Somerset Maugham, and all those other once famous names that went out of fashion after the 1960s.

But, yes, thee's a truth there about my compatriots -- the modern day equivalent would be the improbable numbers of fantasist ex-SAS troopers hanging around the place.

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

"Luckily, I had a spare pair of socks". Great stuff. Thanks, Mike.

They were talking about the film on Jeremy Vine last week, and how a lot of people these days don't know anything about Dunkirk. One woman said she went to see it with her dad, who was there, but he didn't like it. He just shook his head and said "It wasn't like that". Now it was.

amolitor said...

The Kapillan of Malta is one of my favorite books. Monsarrat would probably be better read had he not mounted a spirited defense of British colonialism. Tres tres unpopular in some circles.

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

"Now it was" -- too right. I was actually quite shocked by an interview I heard recently (not about this film) where the writer was defending his bending of the facts of a dramatisation of some historic event or other, on the grounds that audiences "understood" the necessity of this. Oh, really?

Mike

Mike C. said...

Andrew,

Yes, I see in his Wikipedia entry he's referred to by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (eminent Kenyan author) as "one of the geniuses of racism". That'd put a dent in anyone's reputation...

Mike

Paul Mc Cann said...

Assuming your fathers writing has not been edited he appears to be a natural story teller. I would love to read more of his reminiscences. That touch of modesty, under statement, and british reticence so delightful. Do tell more.

Mike C. said...

Paul,

See the link above the extract -- (most of) the whole thing is there. At least, until the university realises it hasn't deleted my share of their web-space!

I edited his spelling and some repetition, but they are his words. Like a lot of people who grew up in the days before free universal education, he was a smart guy denied the life that ought to have been his, leaving grammar school at 14 because of the fees.

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

If your dad's memoirs are likely to be deleted by your old employer, you need to find a new home for them. There must be a website which would be only too happy to host them.

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

No worries, it's all safe and sound (including a few copies in book form, with one at the Royal Signals museum), it's just conveniently online there. Sometime I'll put it up somewhere else, maybe even on my own website (much as I resent being upstaged by my own father!).

Mike