Discussion in '1940' started by dbf, Dec 3, 2011.
TNA Catalogue Reference: CAB 106/240
Courtesy of Drew
THERE and BACK by "X" (Colonel C.E. RYAN, H.Q. Woolwich Garrison, Woowich)
Part I - 10th to 14th May
Part II - 15th to 30th May
Part III - 30th to 31st May
Part IV - 31st May
The news came to Officers in many ways. One of them got up as usual on Friday 10th May 1940, and at 6.60 was in his bath when there came a knock at the door. It was a Serjeant come to tell him that the Germans had crossed the Dutch and Belgian frontiers, and that the B.E.F. advance to the DYLE was on. The 12th LANCERS starting at 1 p.m. were to lead and cover the 2nd CORPS, which, crossing the frontier East of LILLE, were to move up by two roads over the ESCAUT and DENDRE past the outskirts of BRUSSELS to LOUVAIN.
The distance was about eighty miles. Vehicles were spaced at ten to the mile and moved at 12 1/2 miles per hour which allowing for 15 minute halts before each even clock hour meant an average speed of 11 miles an hour. As vehicles by the thousand had to move on each road the last to leave moved off days after the first had arrived.
By the afternoon of the 10th the steady and smooth flow had begun. The frontier barriers were down. The Belgian frontier guards stood aside, and they with groups of children and knots of grown ups watched the stream of vehicles from the roadside. The children showed some enthusiasm; they were all 'thumbs-up' and there were cries of "Vivent les Anglais!" The grown-ups looked on soberly.
That night was noisy and garish. Alerts in succession followed All Clears at different ranges in different places and at such frequent intervals that they overlapped one another and ceased to have any exact significance. There were bursts of gunfire and the thump of bombs softened by distance. Searchlights and the upward stream of Bofors shells combined into a minor Brock's benefit. Whereas before, by the nightly concert, a strong muster - or should it be 'song' - of nightingales that lived in the woods near PHALEMPIN used to fill the early night with their clear notes and busy twittering.
In the morning it was our turn to be off. A farewell smile meant vaguely to encourage was met and rebuffed by a shocked: "Et vous souriez!" from the reproachful chatelaine. "Pour en finir, Madame, on doit commencer". But that was not said. Poor lady! Her forebodings were natural and justified indeed. She was last seen by an 'A' Mess member near DINARD in BRITTANY during the brief venture of the 2nd CORPS.
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As a spectacle the road movement was nothing. Only an ordered trickle, then a stretch of empty road, then another trickle. But its persistence, hour after hour, day after day, gave it purpose, bringing to mind the inevitability of gradualness. There had been some bombing of the river crossings. Slight at AUDENARDE on the ESCAUT, heavier at ALOST where the DENDRE was crossed. This delayed, but failed to interrupt, the movement. BRUSSELS was mildly en fete for the occasion. Flowers and cigarettes were pressed upon the passing troops. Some streets were partly crowded. A few 'Vivent!' Thumbs-up was the fashion. But one skulking figure was seen to walk away after a deliberate thumb-down gesture.
A Belgian division was in position in our allotted front on the DYLE about LOUVAIN, and were disposed to dispute possession. It was their country. Through LOUVAIN ran the high road and the natural approach of the invader to their Capital. It was for them to defend it. National pride and honour alike were involved. To the East and North-East the Belgian Cavalry Corps were up in contact with the Germans on the hither side of the ALBERT Canal. There was time therefore to resolve the international issue that had thus been raised and meanwhile our cavalry pushed on and reconnaissance proceeded for occupation while infantry and guns lay back scotching up the Belgian Infantry division.
On our way back to SOTTEGEM where 2 CORPS Headquarters was, we tried to get some food at ASSCHE. A stout party came up to the car and hailed us in a big voice with: 'Wha-at you wa-ant?' Informed, he then shouted for Ta-ta, his niece, and they bundled us into their house and hospitably gave us coffee and brandy and bombarding us the while in strong American English.
Next day - Sunday May 12th - a tentative suggest that we should side slip Southwards past LOUVAIN to let the Belgians have their wish was vetoed. The competitive allied occupation of the area was leading to congestion. Moreover refugees and Belgian soldiers too, from the forward area were beginning to straggle back, and aded to the crowding of the roads. Our guns and infantry had gained a footing overnight, and the Belgians were tactfully persuaded to clear our front and close on their fellows to the North. This was gradually done, and the 3rd Division proceeded to complete deployment on the CORPS front its Right joining hands with 1st CORPS, its Left in touch with the Right of the
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Belgian Army. The front was covered by two cavalry regiments. SOTTEGEM was not throughout to be a happy choice for CORPS Headquarters on account of the lie of the railways near it and so a move was made to ESSCHE-ST. LIEVIN.
The air defence of BRUSSELS presented some problems, and among theme was the question of combining our Anti-Aircraft resources with those of the Belgians. An Officer was sent to the British Embassy to gain information of the layout. Admiral Sir Roger KEYEES … happened to be in the Military Attache's room at the time ………….. The Belgian Anti-Aircraft hierarchy were enthusiasts on their subject. They took the visitor down to their underground operations room and with a combination of modesty and pride gave a full explanation of their system and how it was working. It seemed to have all the features of our static system but on a miniature scale. They showed a map of the observer system and pointed sadly to the large areas to the North East from which reports had now ceased to come. It took the visitor a long time to get the information he wanted.
The trickle of refugees had now become a stream of such proportions as to need a big organisation to handle them and to shepherd them away to the West by routes that would interfere as little as might be with military movements. They came back in cars, in horse-drawn vehicles, on bicycles, on foot. Every car had one or more thick mattresses on the roof as some protection against splinters and also perhaps for bivouacking at night. At frequent intervals down the lines the scarlet blankets given out by a relief organisation made bright splashes of colour against the sombre background of their Sunday bests. For some of the children it was an adventurous picnic in glorious weather. For the old folk hobbling along dusty weary and footsore, it was a painful repetition. But the most moving sight for a father to behold was that of the mother with young children too small to walk far, and her man no doubt called up for the war. So mounted on a push bike with one chiled in front of the handlebars and a second behind the seat together with a few essential belongings she made shift as best she could. Military duties preclude a soldier from helping, and it is not good for him to dwell on these things, but the fighting spirit of many must have been sharpened by such sights and whetted again by the thought: 'If land war came to ENGLAND ……'
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On the grass verges of the tree-lined main BRUSSELS - LOUVAIN road a Guards Battalion was marching up in business-like tactical formation towards the front. Coming from the opposite direction, down the centre of the road, or all over the road, rather, parties of Belgian soldiery straggled along in no formation at all. …
Asked whether they had encountered the enemy in any force, the reply was: "Pas grande chose: quelques peu mitrailleuses." Why then had they come back? The answer was given in a tone of finality as if explaining it all - "Mais les AVIONS!" …
They were followed later by some of the regiments and batteries of the Belgian Cavalry CORPS as formed units in tolerable military order. Their withdrawal left the British infantry covered only by a thin screen of our own cavalry. These in turn withdrew under cover of some harassing fire at long range on approach roads from our 60-pounder guns. The stage was set for contact with the advancing Germans.
Some anxiety was felt from an early stage about the situation on the left of the CORPS, which was Left also of the B.E.F., and this was reflected in certain dispositions and precautions. The cavalry were withdrawn to this flank. The arcs of fire of a proportion of the guns included a Northerly bearing. Air reconnaissance was directed particularly to this flank. Liaison Officers were ordered to make continuous reports of our Allies' dispositions and how the situation was developing there. These reports included the bearing of the commanders and their staffs.
Meanwhile, on our own front, the Germans felt their way forward gingerly. Watching eyes came first, noting each and every sign of occupation in the forward areas. Having taken up position not in contact with the enemy our infantry probably failed to realise how closely their dispositions were being studied and men continued to move about freely in the open in the immediate vicinity of their defended localities. For their carelessness in this matter they later paid dearly in casualties when the first concentration of German mortar fire came down with what seemed to be uncanny accuracy on those very points where our men were thickest on the ground. It was an expensive lesson. CORPS Headquarters moved up on 14th May to a Northern suburb of BRUSSELS. The deployment had been completed
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without any serious interference from the enemy. His activities were confined to intermittent bombing from the air and some mortar fire. The LOUVAIN position was firmly held. A mass of guns (156 not including Anti-Tank guns) were forward with the 3rd Division. A large quantity of ammunition was being dumped. This was the high water mark of the forward flow. The troops were in good heart. Next day, Wednesday 15th May, the ebb set in.
It was not from our immediate Left, but from far on our Right, and from causes beyond the control of the B.E.F., that the trouble came. The forcing of the MEUSE crossings on General CORAP's front and the deep and rapid penetration beyond of the German armoured Divisions compromised the formations on his Left. The neighbouring French Army Commander had to refuse his flank sharply and hurriedly, and to follow this step soon afterwards by a withdrawal that threatened to leave the B.E.F. in the nose of an ugly salient if it did not at once conform. Orders came to withdraw out of the LOUVAIN position. An immediate trickle back was to begin. The Left edge of the map was consulted and iron tyres guns were sent off there at once. This became a habit during the next few days. Thinning out was to being that night and to go on at a slow rate until the actual withdrawal from the line of the DYLE which was fixed for the following night. The threat of tanks coloured all dispositions. Water lines became all-important and the obstacle they offered was deemed to outweigh the disadvantages imposed by the awkward alignment of a river and the holding of forward slopes, portions of which were necessarily commanded from high ground on the far bank. The first main bound back from the DYLE was to be to the SENNE the canalised BRUSSELS River. A temporary intermediate position based on two villages, STEEREBEKE on the Right, NOSSEGHEM on the Left, was chosen to regulate the withdrawal and reduce the changes of a running fight back to the SENNE. The forward guns of the 4th DIVISION tucked in behind the river were in action and ready to give long range cover at need for this position. Thrust out at a right angle to the River from a point just North of BRUSSELS and stretching towards NOSSEGHEM an infantry brigade of the 4th DIVISION was employed for flank protection facing North. This brigade was, as someone aptly put it, to roll
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itself in a puttee, in step with the move back from the intermediate position. A mobile flank guard under a cavalry brigadier was also organised.
On the night of 16th May the 3rd DIVISION thinned down to a rearguards of one infantry brigade with a liberal allotment of Anti-Tank guns. An F.O.O. from the 4th DIVISIONAL ARTILLERY joined the brigade headquarters at STEEREBEKE on the intermediate position. 3rd DIVISIONAL Headquarters had been established for the night close in rear at a Chateau near WOLUWE ST. ETIENNE. The rear parties left the forward defended localities and fell back in the small hours to and through the intermediate position in front of which the flank guards then passed a light screen. An Officer from CORPS Headquarters visited division and Brigade Headquarters during the night, and owing to the combination of old maps and new locations spent most of the few hours of darkness finding his way round. In the morning he found the flank guards commander at NOSSEGHEM Crossroads cracking the shells of boiled eggs lightly against the outside of the turret of his tank in which he was having breakfast. The night movements had gone smoothly and a clean break had been made from the enemy. He did not show up until about 8.30 a.m. when he began to feel his way along the LOUVAIN - BRUSSELS road.
It has been said how the slower moving guns were sent Westward at an early stage. A day or two before this was done what might be called a practical joke was played up us by the delivery by train at a point just West of BRUSSELS of sixteen iron-tyred 6" Howitzers without men of the Regiment to which the guns belonged other than a small unloading party, and - this was the point - without any towing vehicles. Those had not materialised when the move back began. If not over shadowed by greater events so as to be completely forgotten, the Odyssey of those guns out to be written up. A Sapper unit kindly took them in tow for the first stage of their adventurous journey back to and beyond the ESCAUT.
To return to the 17th May. BRUSSELS had been declared an open town. The withdrawal to and through it, went off without any notable incident. One 60-pounder gun had to be abandoned to the enemy because its trailer was damaged beyond repair in collision with a Bren carrier.
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The Germans came on very slowly and did not have time to become troublesome before a further withdrawal took place. On this day CORPS Headquarters was moved back to the village of TERLINGEN, West of the River DENDRE. An opportunity was taken to reconnoiter the river line from our own and the enemy's point of view. One member of the reconnaissance party having spent the night before sleepless took a perfunctory part since he slept solidly in the car between the actual view points. From the SENNE to the DENDRE the Germans followed up much faster and our rearguards became involved in some sharp fighting. On our Left the Belgians fought their way back steadily and, keeping level, formed a fighting front with the CORPS on the line of the DENDRE. On reaching the river one Division was exchanged for another. The Officers with the six-inch Howitzers had managed to get eight of them sent back by rail. The rest, with about thirty men and no vehicles were stranded near CORPS Headquarters. A suggestion for sending up a special train for them was made but turned down as not practicable in the time. In the end three Scammels of a Recovery Section were scraped up, the Officer in charge was given subsistence money, and they took the road like a gypsy caravan column, the three vehicles towing two, two, and three, guns respectively. Owing to the lie of the river our Left shoulder was thrust forward at this stage in touch with the Belgians at ALOST. At a brief and business-like Conference with his Divisional Commanders at AYGEM on the afternoon of the 18th our Commander gave his orders for the withdrawal to take place that night to the ESCAUT. The movement was to begin on the Left and to be carried on towards the Right at timings calculated to ensure that when the last unit went the whole CORPS should be moving squarely to its rear.
We had a strong Anti-Aircraft layout behind the DENDRE position. Targets were not wanting. Of these the gunners took heavy toll, their bag reaching double figures in the few days, claims being supported in almost every case by actual wreckage on ground that we held.
The pace of the withdrawal had been fast. Refugee movements had been out-stripped. The inhabitants had no clear idea of what had happened. A Belgian soldier had been overtaken just before he reached the DENDRE and made Prisoner by a German advanced guard. He was disarmed and told to report to a unit commander in rear. Instead he went into the house of a friend nearby, changed into an
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old mufti suit and re-appeared on the road as a refugee. Reaching the DENDRE he crossed by a partly destroyed bridge, and satisfying a British Company Commander about his story and bona fides, was allowed through. He then went to SOTTEGEM where in a cafe he celebrated his escape, and proceeded to recount his morning's adventured to those present who happened to include two Officers from CORPS Headquarters. His audience were frankly incredulous: the Germans could not possibly be within thirty kilometres of where he had said that he had been taken. When he stuck to his guns their attitude turned to hostility. Here was a Fifth Columnist, they said, if not a spy. An old man appealed to the Officers to arrest him. To humour him they examined the soldier's credentials. His papers, the note from the Company Commander, the river crossing point fitting the latter's unit - all these fitted the facts as they knew them. There was no case against him. But, not wishing to cause alarm or despondency, they managed to get away from the cafe without disillusioning the inmates.
The next bound was back to the ESCAUT. CORPS Headquarters were set up at WAMBRECHIES, with a command post at RENAIX as a half-way house for the move. On their Left, instead of Belgians, they found the 3rd CORPS in position on the river line. Again the retirement was completed without interference by the enemy, and there were hopes that we should now stand and fight. The Recovery Section brought the eight six-inch Howitzers back to BERCHUN, a village South West of OUDENARDE, but on the left or wrong back of the river. There the tucked them away under cover and appointing the burgomaster caretaker, left them and reported what they had done. Later, a party came to the village to fetch them, but when the called at the Burgomaster's office he had been evacuated. They searched the village in vain and went off without the guns. Luckily before it was too late, the C.C.R.A. of the 3rd CORPS happened upon the cache, and had them pulled over the river. The breech blocks and sights were unearthed from the lorries of a Sapper unit, and the guns at last came into action - but only to be destroyed and abandoned a few days afterwards.
The ground we held was uncomfortably overlooked by the 700 feet high MONT ST. AUBERT to our Right front and by a corresponding piece of high ground opposite our Left. Anti-Aircraft batteries, in particular, who for the
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most part sought the ridge tops for the sake of an all-round field of fire at low angles of elevation, were almost indecently exposed to view. Their attitude towards the situation on the ground was one of detachment; they were single-mindedly - and subjectively interested only in what was going on in the air. Told to cover our front line, they interpreted their instructions generously and came well up. One 3.7 battery of four guns was within machine gun range, but this one had chosen a low site as a sop to prudence. As before, they had plenty to do. The long daylight hours of unbroken sunshine had made the men look more tanned than if they had just returned from an Indian Practice Camp. As an example of their activity, which at first sight seemed like showmanship, it so happened that at no fewer than three out of four gun positions visited on 20th May the detachments were ordered to take post as the visitors arrived and fired a series at a German aeroplane which obligingly appeared. At the forward 3.7 position it was a HENSCHEL, the pilot of which may well have been astonished, for at the time he was flying some five miles behind his own front line. The visitors were impressed, but there was some retaliation from a section of field guns. The 3.7's were ordered to go a bit further back. In going to these four gun positions a lot of country was covered and it was strangely deserted. The first feeling it gave you was how empty the back of the front seemed in comparison with the crowded similar areas in the last war. Then, of course, it was trench warfare. Now a war of movement with exceptionally wide frontages that absorbed so many troops that few were left for reserves and to give depth. The inhabitants had left, but their departure had been too hurried for a thorough of livestock, and they had told the troops to help themselves to produce. There was unlimited fresh milk and at tea-time in one battery cook-house the cooks displayed a whole bucketful of boiled eggs, on the top of which some goose's eggs held pride of place. The empty area in which the Anti-Aircraft units were commonly placed, the big distances to neighbouring units of any kind, and the fact that they were not under the same Commander as other units in the area made them a constant source of anxiety when the when the situation was changing so much from day to day. The fear was that they would be out of touch with a new situation, be left without orders, and then act inappropriately on the strength of a rumour, almost certainly false. At one village the only sign of life was a well-dressed man past middle age who stood forlornly at the roadside.
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He and his wife were refugees from TOURNAI. They had spent the night in a barn where she, poor lady, had fallen and broken a leg, and where they were, the sole occupants of the village, footless and without medical aid. The head of the Belgian Mission acted effectively and reported that he had had her removed by ambulance to PONT-A-MARQ hospital.
Hopes of standing on the ESCAUT were disappointed, when like the DYLE, the SENNE and the DENDRE, it had to be abandoned without a fight. But morale was unimpaired, the attitude of the troops being one of truculent defence. The move was only a short one this time, across the frontier into FRANCE, and it took us back to the winter line where we had started from the 10th May, only twelve days before. The plans of the dispositions which had been deposited in LILLE were dug out and distributed. The Germans felt their way forward cautiously and in some places stopped short of contact at first; on of our divisions accordingly took the opportunity of enjoying the initiative and during the night sent out strong offensive patrols to make contact with them. CORPS gave up its Headquarters at WAMBRECHIES to a division and itself moved back to ARMENTIERES where 1st CORPS Headquarters was already installed on the 'island'. The situation on the Right was beginning to wear a black look. The 3rd CORPS, leaving 4th DIVISION behind, moved across to the open Right flank. 2nd CORPS handed back 1st DIVISION to 1st CORPS and took back 4th DIVISION. These adjustments placed the Belgians on our Left once more. Some amenities were still to be had in LILLE in spite of the situation, and Madame ANDRE was able to provide an excellent dinner on the night of the 22nd.
Two days followed of disquieting news, and still more disquieting rumours, from the Right. The Germans had reached the sea at ABBEVILLE, and there were conflicting reports of the extent of their progress Northwards along the coast. Some anxiety too about our Left was beginning to re-awaken. But so far the penetration had been confined to enemy armoured divisions, and behind their advanced elements the large tract of country could only be thinly held, and hopes persisted that we should yet to be able to make an incursion into this area and break through to join hands with the main French armies in the South. The CORPS front remained intact and there was complete confidence that they would be able to look after the
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enemy immediately opposed to them. The proper strategic course for the Germans to adopt was dispassionately debated about this time at low level. Some held that they ought to try to put the B.E.F. in the bag. Others pointed to the advantages of the big effect on FRANCE of compromising the MAGINOT LINE, and to the obvious difficulty of altering the direction of movement of big formations already committed to the advance. Also, compared to the main French Army our modes little force of a few divisions was an insignificant prize. Little did we dream then of what lay so close in front for FRANCE.
ARMENTIERES attracted the bombers. There was more than one visitation daily. A hit was made on the Asylum after which the inmates were enlarged for their safety. Clothed in loose fitting coats and baggy trousers of dark green corduroy with caps of the same material peaked fore and aft which gave them a gnome-like look, these unfortunate creatures strayed aimlessly and without comprehension through the streets and along the roads out into the countryside. The bombing went on, and it was decided to move CORPS Headquarters. They were advanced to LOMME, not far from LILLE. As they were settling in a heavy and continuous bombardment could be heard going on far to the South. This we were told was ours, not theirs. Actually it was a preliminary bombardment for an attack by the French on the Right of the 1st CORPS.
By now our former lines of communication were compromised. New supplies, stores and ammunitions were reduced to a trickle, but certain things were still to be had from existing dumps. As the Germans crept up along the coast, and inland, from the South, so the rear administrative areas became more and more restricted. While the SCHELDT was held they ran back Westwards, but now this direction would have gin the 1st CORPS no room at all behind their front. To accommodate them the administrative tail of the 2nd CORPS was cocked up towards the North West, and the area extended to the East of YPRES and in it the names of all the towns and villages smacked of the last war. The French, too, began to use this area, and a heavy movement of their transport vehicles of all kinds went on for a day and a night from the South through LOMME to the North. CORPS Headquarters had a battery of 18-pounders for its local protection against tanks. During the night a strange tank lumbered towards one of the
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guns which fired two rounds and hit it twice before it was realised that it was a French I tank. No harm was done, and the occupants were quiet unperturbed and accepted the gunners' profuse apologies with a nonchalant 'Ca ne fait rein, ce nest que la guerre'. There was another incident about this time which did not enjoy the same happy ending. Two French aircraft of an American type were bring the pay for LILLE Garrison and were flying low as they were about to land on LILLE-RONCHIN aerodrome. They were mistaken by a sergeant for German aircraft and his Bofors quickly shot them both down. The aeroplanes were of an unfamiliar type, and this was just about the time when there were fewest of our own aircraft about. The restricted area behind had squeezed out aerodromes and our squadrons had been evacuated to ENGLAND. The Germans had hoisted an observation kite balloon opposite our front, and when we asked an R.A.F. visitor if he could do anything he promised to ring up the Air Ministry about it.
Although the Belgians had fallen back towards GHELUWE they were still an army in being on our Left. But knowing, or guessing, what was going to happen, and happen very soon, our Commander took immediate steps to meet the contingency of an open Left flank from MENIN to the sea. The 4th DIVISION, on the Left of the B.E.F., established a defensive flank facing North along the line of the canal from MENIN towards COMINES. 18-pounders were put in action at the crossing places over the YPRES - COMINES Canal, and a machine gun battalion was ordered there too. The last named canal ran well inside the CORPS' new administrative area, and on the East or enemy's side of it in place of outposts there had come to rest such units and detachments as the DIVISIONAL PETROL COMPANY, the CORPS PETROL PARK and the heavier echelons of a French light motorised division, together with some attendant Anti-Aircraft guns. They were all got across the canal during the night and early next day. YPRES looked spick and span from a little distance on the day before, but approaching nearer it suddenly took on an old familiar look, clouds of pink dust spouting skyward as a big formation of escorted German bombers passed overhead, pursued accurately but unfortunately without apparent effect by Anti-Aircraft shell bursts.
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It happened. The Belgians threw in their hand. This did not come as a shock because it did not come as a surprise; but it confirmed the wisdom of our Commander's anticipation. The defection simplified the issue and gave a clear definition to the question: What are we - the B.E.F. and French formations still with us going to do now? The outlook was black. It was hard to see what we could do. Perhaps we should rest our Right on the sea, and with strong advanced and Left flank guards and a weaker rearguard try to cut our way out to the South. There was little or no talk about it, but it was only human that one should think about the chances. Speculation was cut short by the arrival at CORPS H.Q. LOMME, on Sunday, May 26th of orders for the evacuation through DUNKIRK.
Reduced to its simplest terms, the plan was for the B.E.F. and French with it, covered by rearguards, to go back to an Assembly Area near the Port, whence the personnel would march to the ships and embark for ENGLAND. The Belgian defection and the decision to re-embark are put down hear in the order in which they came to mind. The simple deduction is to be resisted, until the factors bearing on the relationship of the two counts have been weighed and there has been time to disentangle cause from effect. With amplification and local interpretation the plan came to this. The object was to get as many of the personnel of the B.E.F. back to ENGLAND as was humanly possible. Two selected Officers from each regiment and certain others were to go back at once to make sure of a nucleus at least. The heavy Anti-Aircraft guns were to make their way back and get into action in the Assembly Area at once. The heavy and medium guns were to be destroyed and abandoned where they now were. Transport for the other guns, for men and for such essential things as ammunition was to be kept to take them to the Assembly Area where on arrival the vehicles were to be destroyed clear of the roads and not by burning. Documents were to be burned, office gear jettisoned. Baggage was to be reduced down to what Officers and men could carry by hand. To keep the ring for this manoeuvre formations were to find their own rearguards.
To leave destroyed guns in the forward area would, of course, serve as an early pointer to the enemy of our intentions. Our Commander therefore, agreed, provided that Divisional Commanders agreed also, to an attempt being made to get back the heavy and medium guns some
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of the way at least. The Divisional Commander on the Right [handwritten: MONTGOMERY] would not accept the risk of these guns and their large vehicles obstructing the bottlenecks at the crossings over the canal behind him, and the Divisional Commander on our Left [handwritten: JOHNSTON] could not spare the guns as he was fighting a battle; so they were duly destroyed in their forward positions. One of our patrols working North of the COMINES Canal intercepted a German staff car, and having dealt with the occupants, took from it a copy of orders directing the advance of a corps towards YPRES through the area lately occupied by the Belgians. This constituted a strong threat to our exposed Left flank and through it to our proposed lines of retreat. The development of this thrust, which soon began, accentuated the precarious look of the elongated, narrow bag-line salient containing the B.E.F. and the remains of the French. The impetus of the first movement carried small parties of German infantry across portions of the dry ditch that was the YPRES - COMINES Canal, and unpleasantly close to the Eastern slopes of the MESSINES ridge along the top of which was one of the main withdrawal roads for a division still in position on the Winter line. Though the canal line was strongly held by the guns of the 5th DIVISIONAL ARTILLERY, they could not as their Commander justly remarked, hold it by themselves. The infantry were stretched over a wide front, were tired and without reserves. They were in no case to restore the situation; indeed, it looked doubtful whether they would be able to stabilise it even. The Divisional Commander accepted his predicament in a matter of fact way, and asking to be reinforced if possible made shift to hold his ground with what he had got. The two forward divisions between them had only one battalion in reserve. It was used to relieve the Right brigade of the Left Division, and after relief this brigade was ordered back to help defend the MESSINES ridge, and to keep the enemy at arm's length from the line of retreat. Meanwhile the CORPS on our Right had been able to get some heavy guns back, and these, coming into action facing East, pounded away at targets near ZANVOORDE and TEMBIDEN [handwritten in margin: TENEBRIELEN] with their 8" shells. On this, the afternoon of 27th May, German airmen dropped leaflets printed in French and English point out to the troops the futility of further resistance, drawing their attention to a little map reproduced with the text which purported to set out their hopeless situation and urging them to lay down their armes and surrender. The leaflets
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had a certain souvenir value. As propaganda they were a failure; the actual situation was generally known to be appreciably worse than that depicted on the sketch maps. Some of the CORPS Staff had been sent Home. The bulk of those remaining went back to a rear headquarters near ABEELE on the Franco-Belgian frontier. The Commander, with a small staff remained at L'ALOUETTE - a group of buildings on the outskirts of PLOEGSTEERT WOOD. Headquarters were clustered round him. One Division was at another peacefully named hamlet - ROSSIGNOL, others near PLOESGSTEERT village. The roads back toward ABEELE were crammed with vehicles, French and English, radiator to exhaust, and in places three deep, looking hopelessly jammed. With bombers overhead and unable to move one felt very naked, but the tree-lined roads seemed to afford some protection all the same; the Germans stuck to their marked preference for bombing the villages rather than the roads between them. Every now and then the blocks would clear themselves in some mysterious way, but it took nearly three hours to cover the 7 miles via LOCRE, DRANOUTRE and KEMMEL back to ABEELE by car.
On arrival it was learned that the original plan of having an Assembley Area had been abandoned in favour of having a defended perimeter close to the sea and just deep enough to give some cover to three main points of embarkation at LA PANNE in BELGIUM, BRAY DUNES and DUNKIRK. News of the change had been sent off to the Commander by motor contact officer in a car, but owing to the crowded roads it was thought advisable to employ other means. A second Officer, giving the first an hour's start, set off on foot and threading his way through traffic blocks, and taking short pillion lifts over the clearer stretches, overtook the first in the middle of a jam, and beat him by half an hour at the Command Post. In doing so he learned that the bare rack of a motor bike is no place for a thin man on pave roads. There was some rain during the night, the first since May 10th, and before. The temporary discomfort of wet clothes was outweighed even by this short-lived change from weather which had so favoured German operations by day and by night, on the ground and in the air. By next morning the rain, traffic blocks and confusion of the night were gone and the Commander stepped out of his Headquarters building at an early hour to watch an ordered stream go by at the regulation speed and distance of vehicles from the forward divisions moving back to build up the extension of the Left flank towards the sea.
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The ground East of the MESSINES ridge was firmly held and the steady move and even pace of the march past gave the feel of a situation well in hand. North of the ridge another Division, reinforced by the infantry of its own duplicate was holding YPRES.
On the way back to WULVERINGHEM where CORPS Headquarters was now established, just outside the perimeter, the roads were clear except at one point where there were some empty French vehicles in the middle of the road, their drivers having abandoned them temporarily for the ditch on account of two or three bombers high overhead who were taking pot shots at the countryside. We made no bones about following the Frenchman's example and had the supreme satisfaction of seeing one of the bombers winkled out of the sky by an Anti-Aircraft shell from a vast height.
POPERHINGHE had been battered and we had to make some deviation to find a way through. At and about NIEUPORT where the Left or Eastern end of the perimeter met the coast an improvised defence was in being the garrison including cavalry detachments, gunless gunner riflemen and some odd French units, the whole supported by a very few field guns. During this day, Tuesday 28th May, the gap was gradually closed between the Southern end of the NIEUPORT defences and the Northern end of the defensive Left flank that had been built up from the South to YPRES. The movement was hampered by a lucky hit by a shell which destroyed the bridge at one of the main crossings over the YSER Canal, and by some confusing counter movements by the French, who seemed to be ubiquitous, and more often than not wanting for some unexplained reason to move in the opposite direction to that in which our own troops were going. There were frequent contacts with them and discussions were facilitated by the command of their language possessed by our Commander; if you shut your eyes you would imagine that you were listening to a Frenchman speaking, but from the absence of gesture alone he did not look like one speaking.
CORPS Headquarters moved next day inside the perimeter to the village of ADINKERKE near FURMS, and just on the Northern bank of the DUNKIRK FURMS Canal. G.H.Q. was a couple of miles to the North, at LA PANNE on the coast. Just before we moved off a French Cavalry regiment filed into the Chateau grounds at WULVERINGHEM to water and feed their horses, we thought.
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They led them round to the back of the Chateau from where we heard a crackling noise at intervals and soon men began to return dismounted. They were shooting their horses in batches. This could be thought consistent since we were to destroy our vehicles before entering the perimeter, but a cavalryman's horse was one of his weapons, there was still fighting to be done and all personal weapons were to be taken into the perimeter.
On the way back to ADINKERKE some straggling parties of British soldiers were to be seen: this was only natural after the confused nature of the fighting and movement of the past week, when many Officers and men had got separated from their units for days together; but it was not too good to see that a number of men who ought to have had rifles ha don longer got them. False rumours of German progress were current during the day causing local and temporary excitement. A few sticks of bombs welcomed us on arrival at ADINKERKE. There were plenty of targets in the crowded sections of roads but the bombs did little harm.
One of our troubles was that we were short of proper maps. The sheets we had of the desired scale did not include the coast and the small scale maps showed little detail. A visit to G.H.Q. on the 30th elicited the fact that copies of the desired Sheet 29 had been sen over from ENGLAND but nothing more definite was known than that they were probably somewhere in DUNKIRK, and would be sent to us if they could be found. The Commander-in-Chief was walking down a street in LA PANNE.
Embarkation was in progress on the bench under intermittent bombing. A good many thousands had already been got on to ships. So far, so good. There was comfort in having an object which was one of degree rather than of kind, and progress towards its fulfilment could be measured from hour to hour and day to day by mere arithmetic, with definite stages at one quarter of the B.E.F., one half, and so on.
The Germans had followed up in their methodical way and were in contact all along the perimeter. They came first by the road approaches to the canal crossings and finding these destroyed or held fanned out on either side to feel for possible crossing places. At one point
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guarded by gunner riflemen the latter were well pleased with themselves in their new role when a message from their would be assailants was intercepted and translated to them - to the effect that the crossing was very strongly held and that they would have to try elsewhere. At BULSCAMP there was an inconspicuous bump in the ground which passed unnoticed by our infantry. It had no height to speed of but in the flat surroundings offered useful command over our bank of the canal. The enemy, quick to appreciate their advantage, got some machine guns up and cleared out men back from the canal bank to the circumference of a semi-circle of respectful radius from the bump. At another point their pioneers boldly began bridging operations at a place where they were exposed to fairly effective Bren gun fire. They suffered casualties but gallantly brought up more and more pioneers to replace them until the bridge was completed; the Bren gunners had their reward when the German infantry, after one attempt, would not face the crossing. From NIEUPORT to the right the CORPS had three divisions in the line, and the best part of a fourth in reserve. We could go no further it was now a fight for time. The CORPS Headquarters gave its quota to the embarkation staff.
BRAY DUNES Plage is a small French watering place with a short stone revetted esplanade on which there was a bandstand and behind a row of houses facing the sea. The sandy beach stretches in a straight line to LA PANNE and beyond on the Right, and for the seven and a half miles to DUNKIRK on the Left. Behind and on either side of the houses, there is a wide belt of sand dunes with big ups and downs, pierced by a single approach road.
When we arrived between 9 and 10 on the evening of May 30th we found another staff in position who told us that there were about 7,00 men waiting in the dunes and on the beach to be embarked. Our orders were later than theirs and prescribed that a new priority of embarkation from the beach in consequence of which those already there were to move on to Dunkirk to make room for fresh arrivals. At this they demurred, particularly about some two to three thousand men who were
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were footless. We then produced the written order, but they would have none of it without reference to their own Commander. The matter was left unsettled for a rapid look round the beach and embarkation arrangements before it got quite dark. On return to the scene of the argument the opposition had brought big guns to bear in the person of a Commander, who soon settled the matter.
After the lighted offices the beach was a dimly seen nocturne of dark tones, relieved by the phosphorescence on the water, a red glow from the burning oil at DUNKIRK and the occasional winking of a lamp above the office, screened on the landward side, signalling to the waiting but invisible ships. Widely spaced along the water's edge a line of shadowy clumps stood out against the lighter background of the sand and sea, and fifty yards behind there was a similar line, and another fifty yards behind that. Each clump comprised a boat-load of men waiting patiently for their tun to embark. The night was still, the men talked quietly. As each boat came in there were a few orders and a clump filed off and as many as could got into it. The clumps got off at a slow fire broke the stillness but only a very few men were hit. A number of men were sent off to DUNKIRK.
All through the night thousands of men were converging on BRAY; those whose Officers came ahead we managed to get halted in the sand dunes. But as soon as it grew light parties of men of every size were led on to the beach by their officers, or came there without officers, until the beach was packed with them. They were ordered off to wait their turn in the sand dunes but their going made little impression as they were soon replaced by newcomers. Worse than this, a light on-shore breeze sprang up at dawn and freshening at sunrise reinforced the flowing tide to an extent that made the launching of boats a task beyond the skill of the unpractised hands that were trying to do it. Only an occasional boat got clear of the small waves breaking on the shore into the unbroken water beyond and on to the ships. The boats were manned by soldiers who did not al bring them back to shore but allowed them to drift in on the tide and come to shore a mile away from where they were wanted. Prospects began to look most unpromising.
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It did not remain so for long. A report of empty ships waiting in DUNKIRK Harbour led to several thousand being sent off there. One divisional commander set off at the head of his men to trudge the seven miles through the sand. And there were several smaller parties. Another helpful factor was that a lorry pier would be usable at half water.
These piers, which proved invaluable, were a bright idea produced by someone to enable the men to step direct into floating boats instead of having to launch them. At low tide the leading lorry was driven down to the edge of the sea to form a pierced, another was put in column of route immediately behind it, then a third and fourth and so on until the line reached high water mark. Filled sandbags were put into the bodies to steady the vehicles when half submerged. Stout planks were fixed in an upright position to the sides of the lorries their lower ends resting on the body floor, and using these uprights as supports, spars were lashed across from side to side about the level of the top of the hood. A single plank footway rested on top of the spars and ran the length of the line of lorries being ramped to ground level at high water mark. A rope handrail completed the job. Men could move along the pier in single file about twelve feet apart. The sapper Officer in charge was an enthusiasts; no sooner had he completed the extension of the first pier than he proceeded to assemble vehicles most of which had to be towed or pushed and to gather materials for a second, and before that had gone far he had the idea of a third in mind. The waiting parities were combed for sappers to help him. Had it not been for him and his piers the men put on to ships from the BRAY beach would have been numbered by hundreds instead of by thousands. He worked tirelessly and was evidently enjoying himself.
Another aide to rapid embarkation came in the shape of motor launches and pinnaces which not only carried more men than they had probably ever done before but towed a number of rowing boats as well and plied quickly between ships and piers. For three hours on either side of high water the men were got off at the rate of about a thousand an hour. Then the tide went out again, the laborious process of launching boats had to be resumed when it was found that some of the bigger boats which had not been used during the towing operations were now strands so fast in
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the sand as to be immovable - and the rate of embarkation fell off sharply. But work was pressed on with the second pier.
Like a reservoir when you close the outlet the beach began to fill up again. The Officer in charge, paradoxically called the Assistant Military Landing Officer, whereas his frustration was precisely the opposite, was kept busy ordering, marshalling, persuading, advising. Naval Officers came ashore from time to time, but there was no Beachmaster, and the absence of this term from the military vocabulary may account for the title A.M.L.O. Exhaustion, lack of food and water, and the distance to DUNKIRK were the standard obstacles to keeping BRAY uncontested when the tide ceased to serve. The larger parties, usually complete units, were easy to handle and many of them, after getting water and a short rest, moved off to DUNKIRK. More difficult were the hungrier and even more tired parties of seventy men from ten different units with a couple of Officers from none of these who had a way of slipping back from their allotted place of waiting in the dunes and queuing up out of their turn behind the next boatload on the beach; and there was a body of some hundreds of French soldiers who came out of the blue and squatted expectantly at the base of one of the piers, but after being given some water to drink were tactfully persuaded to move on toe their own embarkation beach at MALO.
A few light shell burst on the beach from time to time, but with little effect, finding the gaps rather than the men. Predatory dive bombers hung about black against the sky, circling with steeply banked turns, over the shipping, like birds of prey. In the early afternoon more German aircraft appeared higher, and then a strong formation of our own fighters. From the ensuing dogfight one aircraft fell a flaming wreck into the sea, and others came down steeply looking the worse for wear. One parachute could be seen a tiny white speck high up. Another object fell thousands of feet vertically and then blossomed into another parachute. When our fighters left, more bombers came as if they had been waiting for their going and began to attack the ships which retaliated with gunfire and getting on the move zig zagged in avoiding action. Then some heavier enemy guns joined in and searched the water off the piers for the ships with noisy bursts some of which fell perilously close to boat loads of men who were caught between shore and ships which could not for the moment
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accept them. On shore we had perforce to mark time and from our front seats in the stalls anxiously followed the progress of this grim regatta.
It did not last long, there were no major casualties, and we resumed work. The tide came in, a number of boats which had drifted were collected., and by 7 p.m. the second pier was completed and in use. With men going off steadily from both the numbers on the beach were growing visibly fewer. We took advantage of this quiet period to get off a considerable part of walking wounded. The foremost lorries having settled into their sandy bed and with varying list the forward half of the pier gangway was a slow and perilous journey for them as few had the use of both hands and both feet. They were helped along and put into the boats without mishap. Among the various embarked during the day were: one of our own fighter pilots complete with parachute; a party of French Officers whom we though were gate crashing until we found out that they were members of the French Mission with the B.E.F.; an Officer who had been taken Prisoner and escaped who was dressed in battle dress trousers and a sweater and carried a flea bag over his shoulder; a posse of military police - escort to four captured German airmen incongruously wearing British greatcoats over their own clothes and inclined to argue the point over being taken to ENGLAND; then there was a distinguished looking Officer of the Dutch Flying Corps duly vouched for by a note from a Staff Officer at G.H.Q. and his companion who looked, and probably was, all right but having no similar credentials, had to be refused; finally there was a difficult case - that of some civilian members of the BRITISH GRAVES COMMISSION who were spoken for personally by a Staff Officer, given a note to the ship's Commanding Officer to the effect that there was no military objection to their going provided that they did not fill soldiers' room, and, of course, that there was no naval objection either; they got on to the gangway but idd not make it as a senior officer decided that it was inexpedient to take them over. One of our CORPS Commanders asked for and was promised a picket boat from a destroyer for a definite time, as one might bespeak a taxi; it looked doubtful, with all the chances of hitches and delay, whether this promos could be punctually fulfilled, but sure enough the picket boat drew up at the pier-head exact to the minute and he went aboard.
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By dark the beach was so clear of troops that we positively had to tout like travel agents for passengers. That completed our task and in accordance with our orders we handed over our duties to Divisional representatives but remained for a time with a watching brief as the Divisions of our own CORPS and what was till left of CORPS Headquarters including the acting Commander came down to the beach for embarkation. The CORPS had held its allocated stretch of the perimeter to the last in spite of enemy attacks which broke in indeed on one of the Divisional sectors near NIEUPORT; but they were turned out again by a local counter-attack in the course of which they got such a mauling that they were driven beyond their starting point and were said to be still running when the Division left. When the tide went out the old difficulties recurred, and embarkation came to a stand-still once more and a stream of troops passed down the beach towards DUNKIRK. Just before midnight - it was now 31st May - some accurate and fairly heavy harassing fire began, some of the houses were hit, the bandstand was set on fire, as was an ammunition vehicle on the beach; the piers were damaged one of them being breached, and in the space between them a number of men were killed and wounded. The search for the latter was facilitated by the light of the blazing bandstand; an Advanced Dressing Station was fortunately handy in the cellar of one of the houses on the front, but the Medical Officers were already so busy tending other wounded that neither of them could come out to the beach, nor were any stretchers available. THe unfortunate men, some of whom were badly wounded, were given water, and the survivors were carried in on improvised stretchers to the Dressing Station. The shelling went on for an hour or two and interrupted the movement along the beach from LA PANNE, which had been very heavily shelled, past BRAY, towards DUNKIRK.
At first light in the morning it was low tide. A line of ships could be seen anchored far out. Men lined the foreshore for a couple of miles or more opposite them some of them trying to launch stranded boats. When the ships put out their whalers there was a general movement into the shallows towards them, but although some men waded out until the water was up to their armpits they failed to reach them. At 5 a.m. the attempt to take men off in this way was postponed and they came out of the water to dry themselves.
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A German pilot, seeing his opportunity, chose this moment for making a machine gun attack from an unpleasantly low height, and some men were hit, but surprisingly few having regard to the perfect linear target that presented itself.
It now became a choice between waiting for a few hours until the tide should serve again or going on to DUNKIRK. The latter course was adopted by or for most and the beach became fairly clear. Some tows were brought in to wading depth and embarkation recommenced, under some light harassing from an occasional shell or bomb. The waiting troops dug themselves little pits in the sand and fired back at any low aircraft; an Officer was seen to empty his revolver at one. The dive bombers continued to attack the ships. Two old destroyers were anchored as close inshore as the depth of water permitted. One of them - which we took to be the IVANHOE - received a direct hit. We saw the burst of the bomb confirmed by the sides of the ship shoot suddenly up like a great grey stalk the top of which mushroomed out into a cloud of swirling black smoke seamed for a few moments with what looked like fiery worms. It was a nasty sight. We though it was all up with her, but when the smoke cleared, though heavily down by the stern she was still there.
Just before mid-day we, in our turn, started on the 7 1/2 miles tramp along the beach to DUNKIRK. It was slow and heavy going for tired men. At MALO, the French embarkation point, numbers of them were formed up on the beach also waiting for the tide. A little way out were the carcasses of three Merchantmen, heavily heeled over with great gashes in their sides. When were arrived at the mole no ship was in, so we joined those who were waiting there. There were some packing cases: in one we found some biscuits which reminded one of one's hunger. Another was full of two pond tins of tea, of no interest to us. A third - a flat one, this - leaning against the parapet of the mole had a posthumous interest: it contained Maps, hundreds of copies of One over Fifty Thousand, Sheet 29. The Mole was hard but the afternoon was sunny, and it was only natural after two wakeful nights to drop off to sleep.
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On waking half an hour afterwards the scene had changed to one of bustle; a destroyer had crept in and was snugly berthed against the Mole the top of which rose above the bridge, and on the Mole troops had formed up in a long queue from the head of which they were filing on board. Not having shaved or even washed for forty-eight hours the idea of a bath on board during the crossing became an obsession, but that was not to be. Presently we reached the head of the queue and were going down the gangway, when pandemonium was let loose. The H.A. guns fore and aft on the ship began firing and there were cries of 'Hurry on there, please, hurry on!' Which we did. The leader of four dive bombers had spotted us and was manoeuvring for position. The end of the queue was hustled on board. Orders were given to case off. As the leader swooped the chatter of the Bren guns which the troops had brought and mounted on board added to the noise. A sailor who had clambered past a breach on the inner side of the Mole could be seen in the toils of a nightmare struggle to lift the heavy loop of an over taut hawser securing the stern clear of the bulged top of a bollard. The bombers made their attack in quick sequence, in the middle of which the sailor managed to cast loose. One of the bombers was shot down, one dropped his bombs harmlessly in the water on the outside of the Mole; another would not face the dive under fire and we saw him jettison his bombs in the open sea as he turned away; the fourth pressed his attack and there was some damage from the splinters.
We were swinging during the attack, itching to be on the move, and as soon as we were sufficiently round, it was full speed ahead. All the deck space was crowded with troops, so much so that the Captain shouted the order: 'Sit down, please, everyone - we're rather top-heavy'. As we cleared the harbour mouth we passed with cheerful exchanges a small paddle boat with the troops so crammed on board as to look like the section of a football crowd.
We had not gone far when the aft lookout reported that a suspicious looking formation of aircraft was rapidly overhauling us. Word was passed round for extra Bren gunners to go up to the bridge and for all available
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clips of Bren gun ammunition on board to be handed up there too. Sitting with our backs to the bridge and looking aft over the well deck we had a good view. Without slackening speed the Captain began to take full avoiding action: it rivalled Harvey's course in "Captains Courageous", when the onlooker toll him it would have broken a snake's back to follow his wake.
The guns opened up again and were soon reinforced, this time by an inverted hail storm of Bren bullets. Our fresh assailants, five of them, were of a tougher kidney; they dived in turn the only difference among them was that some pulled out of their dive later than others. The whine of the bomber and whistle of bomb could be heard above the continuous din of the firing. There was no direct hit, but we gained a first hand working knowledge of the effect of near misses. We could follow some of the booms, dark brown against the sky, down to the water at the ship's side; one clutch which fell unpleasantly close were all duds; another bursting below the surface made the ship shudder and falter in a way alarming to a landsman, but to a sailor no more perhaps than a mild sample of the feel of a depth charge. Most of the bombs however burst on the surface and their splinters whipped viciously off the water. The funnel was soon perforated like a colander, and the severed end of an aerial flapped against it, sparking as it touched it. On he crammed decks a fairly heavy toll of casualties inevitably took place, but fortunately the ratio of killed to wounded among the total of about two hundred hit was low. The wounded were tended by their neighbours during the attack who applied tourniquets and first field dressings. It was a warm afternoon, with little or no wind, so most of our greatcoats hung on the rails in front of us, and many of them looked the worse for wear, particularly so one belonging to a Major the padded shoulder of which had been fairly hit by a splinter so that streamers of white material hung down from it like an untidy bunch of ribbons. 'You're not the man we though you were', someone remarked to him when he reached for his coat to put it on; he was suffering from the further indignity of having had most of the seat of his trousers removed by another splinter but this wound was superficial.
The attack had lasted perhaps half an hour, but it seemed much longer. When it was over Medical Officer went
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went the rounds and checked up on the amateur first aid efforts and dealt with the more serious cases and were followed by sailors with pannikins of hot tea for the wounded. The throb of the engines grew less and we gradually slowed down to almost a standstill. There was some talk between the engine room and the bridge about damage to the oil system. A 'No Smoking' order was given and we wondered idly whether the sparking aerial mattered. In mid-channel the engines were stopped and we hove to. Two mine-sweepers, one French and one English appeared almost at once and stood by. After some consultation between the Captains shouted through megaphones one of them took us in tow. Progress was slow, but pleasurably peaceful.
After a matter of minutes only of towing an engineer came up on to the well deck wit a cheery grin on his face and shouted up to the bridge, that he had been able to do something about the oil and could get one of the engines going. The towing hawser was cast off and the ship moved off under her own steam again, and we began to revise our estimate of when we should reach home. Another aircraft warning from a look-out surprised someone into voicing a heartfelt: 'Oh, not again!' - a deprecation, sincerely if silently echoed among his hearers. It was a false alarm. Three of our own aircraft flew past, low on the water like seabirds; and raised a cheer.
On entering DOVER harbour we turned in a big circle to swing our berth. We were almost round when the order was given for full speed astern, and there was a shout: 'Hold on everywhere!' A French transport was crossing immediately in front of our bows at speed. We just failed to lose way in time and our bows rammed her lightly amidships. We bounced off and shot backwards but in doing so listed so suddenly and steeply to port that a few men were spilled off the well deck into the water; in righting herself the destroyer listed almost as sharply to starboard. Small boats shot across the harbour to rescue the men.
At 10.15 p.m., six hours after sailing, we stepped ashore.
If you notice any typos, please let me know.
Many thanks Di, excellent work indeed.
I tried looking Ryan up in the 12 Lancers Regimental History and he's not listed. There are two possible citations for him at Kew. Reading the article he is obviously a Staff Officer with a Corps of Div. I aslo wondered what ship he was on heading for Dover-At this stage all I can say is it was a Destroyer, my understanding is that only Destroyers were allowed into Dover during Op Dynamo.
I found the following piece the most thought provoking-Overlooked in every book I've read on the campaign to date and probably could be one of the reasons why the BEF thought so hard in places:
But the most moving sight for a father to behold was that of the mother with young children too small to walk far, and her man no doubt called up for the war. So mounted on a push bike with one chiled in front of the handlebars and a second behind the seat together with a few essential belongings she made shift as best she could. Military duties preclude a soldier from helping, and it is not good for him to dwell on these things, but the fighting spirit of many must have been sharpened by such sights and whetted again by the thought: 'If land war came to ENGLAND ……'
It must have been a very sobering sight to see.
Yes thanks dbf , from the content P20 also appears that the lorry piers were very effective .
Certainly a glowing description of the Sapper officer who worked on them. (I actually had an 'ahh' moment when reading about the placing of sandbags in the vehicles for ballast. Clever chaps all round).
They also slashed the tyres of the vehicles. I've still not got to the bottom of who's idea it was originally-There's a strong argument and a book (on my shelf that I've not read yet) that says it was a CMP Officer and he got the RE to help him. Naturally all the RE unit war diaries that were involved claim the credit.
Separate names with a comma.