Men In Battle: A senior officer’s account of Dunkirk

Discussion in '1940' started by dbf, Jan 24, 2015.

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    A senior officer’s account of Dunkirk


    I was very tempted to postpone this programme, the first of my new series, because I felt that we were all rather fed up with hearing about wars and rumours of wars. But you know the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that military history - which after all is what I am going to try and talk to you about tonight - is of vital importance. So I decided to go on and describe to you the miracle of Dunkirk because it was a miracle. Now as I shall try and explain it was very much a man-made miracle and the men were British.

    Now I first entered this contest on the 13th May 1940 when I took over command of the 2nd Battalion The Middlesex Regiment which had just moved up into Belgium at that moment. Now let me remind you of what the situation was like at that time.


    Here you have Holland, Germany, Belgium and France. Now during the period of the Phoney War, that is during the previous 8 months, Belgium had been trying very hard to remain neutral. So no Allied soldiers were allowed into Belgium. The result was that the French and the British and the French again were lined up on the frontier.


    But as soon as Germany invaded the Low Countries, as she did you know, on the 10th, with the agreement of the Belgiums, the left of the line was advanced to the River Dyle, just beyond Brussels, and the Belgians then came in on the left of the Line. And that was the position we were holding at that time when I took over command on the Dyle.

    Now I was a Lieutenant-Colonel commanding a battalion, which consists of about 700 men, and we belonged to the 3rd Division which was under command of a certain General Montgomery, whom I had never met but whom I had heard a lot about. Now the thing that impressed me most was that this was an extremely efficient Division. Now I think that went for the whole of the British Expeditionary Force as well. It was quite obvious that the period of the Phoney War had been used for some very hard training. That was just as well because the German Army of 1940 was a most formidable fighting machine.


    You see, they’d burst out of Germany, on an enormous front and they were now sweeping across Belgium Holland and France, at great speed. Those Stukas were the bane of our lives!


    They were very much ‘a force of all arms’ as you can see: very well trained and they all worked closely together.

    They launched their first attack, on us, on the next day on the 14th: they made a slight penetration but we counter-attacked and we drove them out. The same thing had happened on the 15th. And we were really rather pleased with ourselves; after all, we’d seen the Germans off in our first battle. But, there were very unpleasant rumours going around, about some disaster on the right, on the French front.

    And then, on the 16th, we were ordered to withdraw from our position back to the line of the River Don. It was simply infuriating! And it was very difficult to explain the troops why we had to leave this strong defensive position and go back. Of course that was the beginning of the withdrawal to Dunkirk, though we didn’t know it at the time. Now I know now, but I didn’t at the time, that had we not gone the whole of the British Expeditionary Force would have been cut off.

    Now let me explain, remember it was the 16th. On the 16th that was the position.


    Now on that day the German tanks were right round here. They’d swept through the Ardennes, crossed the Meuse and burst a great hole in the French front and they were round here threatening our Lines of Communications up which come all our supplies. Now when that happens there is no other alternative but to withdraw. So back we went, from position to position.


    But the situation went on on deteriorating and when we were back on the frontier, that was where we’d started from. The German tanks were right round here on the coast, like that. They’d cut right across our Lines of Communication and now there was only one port left: Dunkirk.


    Now, if that wasn’t back enough, three days later the Belgium Army who was on our flank there, surrendered, leaving a gap of 30 miles open here with the Germans coming in.

    Now just look at the situation. Wide gap there, Germans coming in - Germans, Germans, German armour - and in the centre a small lozenge: the British Expeditionary Force with some French as well. It was a pretty difficult situation.

    Now I reckon that any bookmaker would have laid very long odds against us getting away. But we did. And that’s where the miracle came in. I would say that there were two main reasons.

    Firstly, as I have already said, there was a well-trained force. An untrained army couldn’t possibly have competed with that withdrawal and secondly we had confidence in each other. Now that’s very important during a withdrawal: you must be able to trust the units on your right and left; you must know that they will stay there until the time when they’re due to go. And we did all trust each other. That was the first reason.

    But the second and even more important reason was the really magnificent behaviour of the Regimental Officers, Warrant Officers, NCOs and men. Now when I say magnificent, I mean magnificent. You have no conception of the confusion that was going on inside that lozenge which I showed you on the map.

    There were masses and masses of refugees: the most pathetic sight in the world. There were streams of demoralised French and Belgium troops: some with arms, some without. Masses of horse-drawn transport all over the place. There was shelling, constant air attacks and all the time we were going back, back, back.

    And yet, the morale and discipline remained absolutely staunch to the end. Now that was a very fine achievement.

    Let me give you just two examples:

    A Company Commander of mine had had a sharp brush with the Germans and when I went over to him and said: ‘How are you getting on?’ he replied ‘Don’t look round sir, I think we’re being followed.’ Followed we certainly were.

    I shall never forget a column of very tired troops marching along the road and in the rear rank was a man with a long, lugubrious face, and as they passed me I saw the little soldier beside him look up and say: ‘Why don’t you give your face a holiday chum and try a smile!’ Now those are the sort of characteristics which makes the British soldier superb in these very difficult situations. Because it was difficult.

    And it went on for a fortnight and oddly enough fatigue was a much greater enemy than the Germans. You see we moved every night and all night, and we usually held positions by day on waterlines or rivers where we might or might not be attacked. Now I find that even after two nights and days without any sleep at all that it’s a bit difficult to think straight and this went on for much longer than that. And when we got back I think we were all suffering from complete exhaustion, with the exception of one man: General Montgomery. In some astonishing way he managed to regulate his life so that he always got the requisite amount of sleep. Well mind you, he did this during the whole of the war, so that when he got back to Dunkirk he was as fresh as a daisy. Took a fortnight and on the 29th the unbelievable had happened: we were back.

    We got back here. Now here is a larger scale map of the same thing.


    On the 29th we were holding a position along this Furnes [Veurne] Canal here and that was the final position which we had to hold to enable the evacuation by sea to go on from Dunkirk, and from the beaches, and from La Panne which was 10 miles away there. The evacuation by sea back to the United Kingdom here.

    Now of course that evacuation had already started and a good many of the rear units had gone. Now many people believe that it was chance or luck that we got away. It wasn’t at all: it was first class planning and improvisation. Mainly by two men: General Sir Ronald Adams, who was the soldier responsible for the organisation of the beaches, and Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay; he more than anybody else because he was the Admiral of Dover and he was responsible for the whole of the naval evacuation.


    Now I asked Admiral Sir Vaughan Morgan, who was Chief Staff Officer to Admiral Ramsay at Dover, how it was organised and this is was what he said:

    “Broadly speaking I would say that the Navy’s task was threefold:
    First of all to supply the ships and beach craft necessary to embark the personnel.
    Secondly, to provide reasonably safe routes to the approaches to and from Dunkirk.
    And lastly, to maintain all ships and vessels taking part in the operation.

    This latter was no easy task since some 900 craft were eventually involved. It became clear to us, in fact, that we should have to lift numbers vastly in excess of the numbers originally mentioned. The Board of the Admiralty, with great foresight, had arranged for all reasonably suitable craft, on the east coast and the south coast, to be sent to Harwich, Ramsgate and Dover.”

    Now that was a brilliant appreciation on the part of the Board of the Admiralty: to make the largest possible number of ships and craft available. No detail mark you: leave the detail, quite rightly, to the men on the spot. But however many ships they could provide it was obvious that we couldn’t possibly take back all our equipment and all our transport. So when we got inside our bridgehead, over the Furnes Canal, we had to immobilise it and destroy it. It was a terrible sight: a veritable graveyard of the sinews of war.


    All those were ours, you know. Some of them were shelled, some bombed and some just destroyed.

    That Furnes [Veurne] Canal had poignant memories for me. It was the last time that I was to command a battalion in action. Because the next day I was sent over to take over command of a Brigade, that is three battalions, over on the left flank.

    Now I don’t think that any Brigadier has ever made less impact on a brigade than I did on that one. I had just about found the battalion headquarters, perhaps one or two company headquarters and that was all. Because the next day we were ordered to withdraw from the Line and go down to La Panne where we were to be embarked in ships and go back to England. So I stood at a central point and watch ed them all pass back: they pulled out and by 10 o’clock the last of them had gone. So I turned round myself, to go down to La Panne and report to my new Divisional Headquarters.

    Now the town itself was being fairly systematically shelled and there were a certain number of houses on fire. But of course I thought, and I had every right to think, that the whole of the Brigade was by now on ships on their way to England. What was my horror therefore when I arrived on the front to find the whole of the beach one solid mass of men. Luckily the sand was taking up the splinter effect of the shells, so the casualties weren’t as high as you might have expected. There were ramps running down to the sea but the tide was right out and it was quite obvious that no evacuation was going to take place from there. There must have been six thousand men crowded onto that beach and it was a very desperate situation.

    And so obviously thought my new Divisional Commander General Johnson, a VC, because when I got into the room where he had his Headquarters, to my astonishment I saw him pick up a telephone and ask for Whitehall 9400 - or whatever the War Office number was - and then he got almost straight through to a Staff Officer at the War Office. And I heard him say ‘None of my Division can get away from La Panne and’ he said ‘this is not a very healthy place.’

    And he held up the telephone and at that moment as luck would have it, a shell burst with a resounding crash on the roof. Then he said ‘I’m moving the whole of my Division 10 miles along the beach to Dunkirk and you will arrange for them to be evacuated from there tomorrow morning.’ And we were all despatched immediately to get the Division moving. Now my particular task was to get the men out of the cellars and by the time I’d done it the beach was pretty well clear. So I followed them along, at the rear, towards Dunkirk. Now when I came round the first headland, there I saw the ships: the ships which the Navy sent over to help us.


    Now I asked Admiral Sir William Tennant, who was the Chief Naval Officer at Dunkirk itself, to tell me how it was organised, and this is what he said:

    “When we arrived on this long sandy beach, which already was becoming black with British troops, there came from the direction of England almost every conceivable kind of craft: the armada which had been collected by the Naval Commander-in-Chief at ?

    Thames barges and Dutch scoots, and yachts and trawlers and drifters and motor boats and lighters - self-propelled lighters - and all the small tugs that had been found available were towing long strings of ships’ lifeboats. They were streaming over towards the beaches, some of them already had been stranded at high water, and loading went on night and day. The naval beach-parties, in many cases remaining up to their waists, helping soldiers into these boats for as many as 14 hours.

    But I think we’ve got to remember that the real burden in heat of the day was borne by the destroyers and the personnel ships: the personnel ships that we all know so well as pleasure steamers or excursion steamers. They were able to come into the outer Mole. When I first arrived with my naval embarkation party in the inner harbour at Dunkirk, we were greeted by a dive-bombing attack and the Stuka bombs straddled the destroyer. The inner harbour at Dunkirk was a pretty good shambles. Every pane of glass was out of the buildings and it was obviously no place at all from which to embark an army. We then immediately went and looked seaward and inspected this long skeleton breakwater, now famous as the Mole. We tried a ship alongside that night and it seemed to work quite satisfactorily. So we asked Admiral Ramsay from Dover to send over destroyers as fast as possible. And it was by means of this Mole that the larger proportion of this quarter of a million men were able to be embarked within 6 days.

    But it was no easy task for these destroyers and captains, for these old merchant captains of the personnel ships, getting in alongside it. It had never been meant to take ships alongside it and it required great seafaring skill to do so. Some of these ships did 8 or 9 trips backwards and forwards from Dover, and they were bombed each way, dodged mines and shells and in spite of that they kept going and this Mole was the one thing really that I think made this colossal evacuation possible.”

    I reckon that was a Naval epic.

    Next morning as soon as it was light inevitably the German bombers appeared to continue their attacks on the beaches. And then we saw the R.A.F. streaking in from the sea and we were very glad to see them. Mind you, if it hadn’t been for them we would never had got away at all. There is no doubt that the Army was in a proper mess and the two sister services, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, were doing their best to get us out of it.


    And that’s what it looked like. And that went on for night and day for nine days.


    But you know the extraordinary thing was that morale remained high throughout and there was no lack of discipline - I never any indiscipline anyhow. But all the same, you know, it had ceased to be an Army. It reminded me of khaki-clad football crowd leaving, shall we say, Wembley after a cup final, streaming along the beaches to Dunkirk.

    I arrived in Dunkirk to the most terrific noise of army and naval anti-aircraft guns that I have ever heard in my life. But do you know I was so tired I didn’t even look up and nor did anybody else. We were met by a Lieutenant Commander who also obviously hadn’t slept for three or four days and we were marshaled along the famous Mole to a destroyer. Then came the comfort of the wardroom: a cup of coffee laced with rum, very nice. But fate hadn’t finished with us yet. Suddenly there was a resounding crash and the ship stopped and started keeling over. We climbed pessimistically on to the deck to find that as we had thought, we had been bombed. But two other craft were pulling up on either side of us. I got on to a small Dutch cargo boat, commanded by a very cheerful young naval lieutenant.

    In answer to a request from the bridge, I manned the forward anti-aircraft gun, it as a Lewis gun. Now I can say quite honestly that this was the only part of Dunkirk which I thoroughly enjoyed. I fired magazine after magazine. Of course I didn’t hit anything but I had no responsibility: that had passed to the Naval Lieutenant on the bridge. All I had to do was to keep that gun in action and it was a wonderful relief.

    All the same I wasn’t looking forward to our arrival in England. We’d hardly covered ourselves with glory in our first brush with the enemy.


    And there you can see a tired, disheveled army landing on the southern ports of the United Kingdom. That was not an army, you know, which had been beaten in a pitch battle. Those men had been on the move day and night for the last fortnight and they were utterly exhausted.

    What was my surprise when I arrived myself, to be greeted by cheering crowds waving, giving me coffee, cigarettes and all the rest of it. We might have been a victorious army instead of one that had scuttled out of France and lost most of its equipment. But I realised then and not for the first time, what an extraordinary kindly people the British are and mind you, that welcome made all the difference to us then.

    There was a train in the station and I asked where it was going to. I was told Reading. I thought that would suit me very well because my wife and daughter were living quite near there. So wet and very, very tired but with a happy feeling that the rest of my Brigade were also in trains somewhere in England, I sat down in the corner and went fast asleep. Several hours later I woke up in Darlington.
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