Unpublished account of the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Discussion in '1940' started by High Wood, Aug 9, 2023.

  1. High Wood

    High Wood Well-Known Member

    I have been lucky enough to have been lent a typed account of a neighbour's grandfather's unpublished war memoirs. These were originally written up in a notebook but were later typed up by the veteran's family. I have their permission to upload extracts to the forum but I do not want to identify the soldier at this point.

    Sufficient to say that he was a pre-war regular having enlisted into the Royal Fusiliers in March 1934. In April 1941 he was seconded to the 1 Glider Pilot Regiment, and later served in Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy and Arnhem. Taken PoW in September 1944, he later served in Palestine, Germany, Ghana and Sierra Leone. He served in the T.A. and eventually retired from military service in 1965 after completing 31 years service.

    There are over 50 pages and I do not have time at this stage to retype them. I was hoping to add notes and make minor corrections to some of the spelling errors, which seem to have crept in during the transition from notebook to print.

    It is one of the most honest accounts of warfare that I have read, possibly because it was not intended for publication, and it therefore contains some strong language and some honest descriptions of warfare.

    I, and the family, would welcome any comments and additional information regarding any of the events mentioned in the narrative. I will upload other sections in the relative sections of the forum, i.e. Sicily Landings, Normandy and Arnhem, in due course.

    I have photographed the pages rather than spend time retyping them. If any are unreadable, I can rephotograph any sections that are not legible.
    Cpl Hadaway, Dave55, von Poop and 6 others like this.
  2. High Wood

    High Wood Well-Known Member

    France 1939-40.
    Dun 1.JPG

    Dun 2.JPG

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    Dun 4.JPG
  3. High Wood

    High Wood Well-Known Member

  4. High Wood

    High Wood Well-Known Member

    I am going to post the Sicily Landing section of this narrative in the Italian theatre section.
  5. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Well-Known Member

    Thank you so much for sharing this remarkable document :cheers:

    In the course of my research I came across many accounts related to the events that took place in Belgium during May 1940. Regardless of their origin, I always found that events narrated by NCO’s or Junior Officers (i.e. people in middle-management functions) contained the most valuable or rewarding information. Since most of them were never meant for publication they are usually refreshingly honest. Moreover, they usually tend to narrate specific details that never would be mentioned in the memoirs of typical high-ranking officers.

    Since the document you shared on this forum clearly contains valuable information, I confess I somewhat fail to understand your reluctance to state the identity of the author. This is of course my personal opinion, but this anonymity somewhat reduces the historical value of this very interesting document.

    Kind Regards,
    John West likes this.
  6. High Wood

    High Wood Well-Known Member


    the reason that I have not revealed the name of the N.C.O. who wrote the document is that I do not own it. It belongs to a neighbour of mine and he has asked me to research what I can of the narrative. As I know very little of the various theatres that he served in which include Dunkirk, North Africa, Sicily, Normandy and Arnhem, I suggested that I should upload various sections to the forum in the hope that some of the specialists and enthusiasts would share their knowledge and expertise of the subject matter. This has certainly helped with the Sicily section, where I have received invaluable information and copies of the War Diary and official reports thanks to the generosity of a forum member.

    As the four daughters and the grandchildren of the N.C.O. are still alive, and all have knowledge of the narrative, my neighbour had to ask his extended family for permission for me to share it with the forum. Permission was granted on the understanding that I would not divulge the writer's name.

    Once the research is finished and I have added confirmation and corrections to the narrative, I am sure that the family members with review their decision about revealing the name.

    Best wishes,

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  7. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Well-Known Member

    Good evening Simon,

    I understand and respect that, since the family of the author is unwilling to disclose his identity, he is to remain anonymous. Therefore I won’t bring this up again. I secretly hope though that discussing the content of his document may eventually make the family realise how valuable these notes are and make them change their mind.

    The first topic I would like to bring up is narrated on the first page. It relates to the burning down of the University Library of Louvain. In his text, the author clearly states (and obviously honestly believes) that the destruction of the building (which at the time contained about 900.000 priceless books and manuscripts…) was the work of the British Army. In his own words: “Bad mark Albion! And what Philistines your soldiers are!”


    At the time, this cultural disaster indeed caused widespread international indignation, especially in the U.S.
    The Germans were of course quick to take advantage of this golden propaganda opportunity. They swiftly assembled a makeshift board of inquiry as a means to accuse the British in the international press. This board was chaired by Prof. Dr. Kellermann, attached to the Technische Hochschüle of Aachen. The findings of this inquiry, however, seemed to have been so full of obviously twisted facts, fake testimonies and false assumptions that they undermined the board's (and Germany's) credibility. As a result, a second German investigation was ordered. If memory serves (confirmation needed), it was conducted by Count von Beust who also investigated the burning of the Reichstag in 1933. To my knowledge, the conclusions of this second German inquiry were never published.


    Immediately after the war though, a third inquiry was conducted by the Belgian War Crime Commission,on behalf of the Prince-Regent and the Belgian Government. Their mandate was to investigate several incidents that took place during the German invasion. The Commission found sufficient indications (not evidence!) which reasonably allowed to conclude a deliberate shelling of the library by the Germans. The findings of the Commission were published in 1946 and completely exonerated the British (though several questions remained unanswered).

    To this day, the destruction of the library remains shrouded in mystery and controversy (hence the value of the statement in the document). It is unfortunate though that the author doesn't elaborate how he learned about the library's destruction or how he came to the determination that his countrymen were to blame. It would perhaps be interesting to cross-check with other accounts in order to learn if others made a similar statement.

    Last edited: Aug 30, 2023
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  8. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    I suspect that the information which came through to him about re-taking Louvain can only have related to the counter-attacks across the railway lines to the east of the city. Prior to the BEF disengaging, apart from German bombing and shelling, the only action was in the eastern suburbs.

    The writer states that he "learned later" and puts the comments in quotations so it's likely that these were from the international press. The reporters of the neutral United States were given good access after the campaign and were used as part of the propaganda that Christian has referred to.

    The matter was particularly sensitive in the U.S. as it was mainly due to US help that the library had been rebuilt after the Great War. It had been burned down in 1914, after the town had fallen to the Germans as part of a catalogue of atrocities and killings of civilians. It is often overlooked that the behaviour of the German troops in May 1940 was much more restrained than those of 1914 which more resembled those of earlier wars where captured cities were simply looted and burned.

    The Allies of course made full propaganda use of the incident in 1914 and later, so it's perhaps not surprising that the Nazis tried to do the same when the rebuilt library suffered similar damage.
  9. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Well-Known Member

    Another interesting extract in the text: “Away to the west a pall of black smoke marked the position of Dunkirk. Ahead and as close as she could get, lay a large battleship, which I later led to believe was the monitor ‘Erebus’. Even then obsolete, she had been brought out of retirement to assist in a bombardment of the German lines of communications. I watched as she fired a large caliber gun and traced the trajectory of the projectile, which must have hit a gas holder or something of that sort, well inland. First a mighty flash, then after a few seconds pause came a puff of compressed air against my cheek, then lastly the sound of the explosion.”

    To me, this suggest that the writer was positioned somewhere east of Dunkirk, most probably somewhere along the coastline (probably in the dunes) as he could clearly observe the features of the ship. A little further down the text, the author provides another clue as to his location: “We were now situated in what would appear to have been the ‘upmarket area’ of La Panne…". To me (a local) this profile immediately suggests Saint-Idesbald.

    I am not a naval expert (far from it), so please feel free to correct me.
    A quick Google-search suggests (confirmation required) that the monitor HMS Erebus (I 02, launched in 1916) was still in service in 1940. She was decommissioned and scrapped in 1946 after a very distinguished career. I could only find one reliable reference source confirming that this ship did indeed conduct bombardments off the Dunkirk evacuation beaches. Further detailed information in that regard would be most welcome.


    Anyway, whatever the identity of the ship, it must have hit a very potent target in order to produce a shock wave that could be felt as far as Saint-Idesbald. There is only one incident that could fit the profile described by the author: on May 30th 1940, at 18h30 (local time) a train filled with ammunition was hit near the Furnes railway station, resulting in a massive explosion that shook the entire area. Debris flew as far as the Grote Markt. The surrounding area was completely leveled…

    To this date, no-one was able to ascertain with a reasonable degree of certainty who managed to hit the train. Just as in Louvain, this incident generated some controversy. As far as I know, no-one ever explored the possibility that it might have been the Royal Navy that had hit the bullseye!

    This hypothesis seems to be worth exploring and – again – highlights the historical relevance of Simon’s document.
    Could anyone help confirming (or disproving) this 'Erebus-theory'?

    Kind Regards,
  10. High Wood

    High Wood Well-Known Member


    I wasn't aware until I read the narrative that the Louvain library had been destroyed for a second time in 1940. I was aware of its original destruction during the Great War and its consequential use as propaganda in order to reveal the true nature of the Hun invader. Babies impaled on bayonets, Canadian soldiers crucified on church doors, mass shootings of entire villages due to the actions of a few Franc-Tireurs, that sort of thing. An absolute gift to the propagandists.

    One of the reasons for putting various sections of the narrative on this forum is to gain a greater knowledge of the events described within it and, I really appreciate your help with putting the flesh on the bones.

    The more that I read the narrative, the more I realise that it one man's view of his wartime experiences and not an attempt at an official history. He does not seek to cover himself in glory or make himself out to be a hero. Rather, it is an honest account of one man's experiences, his exasperation with his circumstances, with the lack of proper organisation and adequate communications, the sense of every man for himself. A professional soldier, who by the end, is war weary and a little cynical.

    In the Sicily section, he mentions an incident regarding a British officer, who had been carried in his glider, and an Italian solder, the event was probably over within about three or four minutes, and he does not reveal the name of the officer. In fact he does not mention him again during the narrative, mainly because he and the officer were separated, and the narrator spent a lot of time with a few other ranks avoiding the counter attacking Italians, hiding in ditches and a papyrus marsh, having run out of ammunition, and through being wounded. The officer was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during the landings and was undoubtedly a brave man. The incident does not alter the officer's bravery but rather shows himself to be a fallible human being, as we all are.

    Some of his comments regarding certain incidents must be based on rumour heard at the time, or long after the events portrayed. I was interested to read his comment regarding the R.A.F. during the Dunkirk evacuation. Like so many others, he claims that he never saw them and yet we know that they were flying in the vicinity and taking losses.

    Best wishes,

    Last edited: Aug 30, 2023
    Christian Luyckx likes this.
  11. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Well-Known Member

    Hello Simon,

    Perhaps I should clarified my thoughts. Over the last few years I have been reading huge amounts of accounts. Most of them were meant for publication and, as a result, I could often feel that every word had been carefully chosen, every sentence carefully weighted and every paragraph carefully considered. I would not feel surprised to learn that more than 50% of those texts had been written by a ghost writer and reviewed several times prior to publication. To keep a long story short: the 'academic' style of those accounts, lacked personality, spontaneity and authenticity.

    I experienced a couple of times, during the course of my career, the same exasperation as the author. I too became somewhat cynical and I witnessed others around me developing a similar attitude. I believe this to be some kind of psychological safety valve allowing people to deal with stress and pressure. Finding these same markers in the account convinced me I was dealing with an honest, personal narrative with no strings attached.

    So yes, the document you were so kind to share with us is indeed somewhat atypical - this is the reason why I find it so fascinating. Yes, it is a one man's view of events and yes, his style is somewhat unorthodox. In my view, however, all of this doesn't diminish in any way the historical relevance of his testimony.

    As to me, I feel privileged I could add 'flesh to the bones' and am waiting in anticipation to learn what other members might come up with. Isn't that what this forum is all about?

    All the best,
    High Wood likes this.
  12. Christian Luyckx

    Christian Luyckx Well-Known Member

    Dear all,

    After some inputs kindly provided by forum members, it would seem that the ship, identified in the account provided by Simon could not have been HMS Erebus. So, either the author mixed up dates and events (another theatre of operations?), or the ship providing fire support in the account was misidentified. Personally, in light of the other matching details mentioned in this account, I tend to favor the second possibility.

    Unfortunately, unless someone can provide additional insights, I fear we may have reached a dead end following this trail.
    Ideally, we should need to find another account or document indicating a warship providing fire support to troops inland on May 30th 1940 around 18h30. Also, we should not disregard the possibility that the warship we are looking for might have been French.

    Enjoy your WE,

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