Stranger than fiction


Every account of Dunkirk told by someone who was there is different, yet each one is extraordinary – if the stories have one thing in common, it’s that none are commonplace. But the individual experiences of this vast shared event were so diverse; how can we compare the heroism of Captain G Johnson of the Royal Daffodil with the shabby performance of Virginia Woolf’s Harry West? For some people it was a nightmare, etched in the darkest places of memory. And yet for others, it was something of an adventure, a Boy’s Own Story. I think one of the things that moves me most about the Dunkirk story is the way one can identify with each individual, whatever their story.

And one of the most revealing things about The Dunkirk Project is the sheer diversity of response it has gathered over the last ten years, from downright rage to a very moving relief at finding this space to share things long hidden. And of course, it’s not without its humour and lighter side, even in the midst of the terror and turmoil – as one contributor observes these extremes of Dunkirk: ‘the entire horror and the relief’. Some of the strangest stories are those where the everyday is thrust up against the bizarre, highlighting the essentially surreal nature of this great improvisation. Many stories of this kind have been sent in by contributors to The Dunkirk Project, and never previously collected or published; often they paint the picture with just a few quirky details.

Here are a few highlights:

Sapper Alexander Graham King, ‘the mad hatter’ played his accordion in his top hat to entertain the waiting troops on the beaches for seven days before he joined a queue himself. We do like to be beside the seaside, presumably. (This is one of the stories I found in the Imperial War Museum archives.)


'Safe and well'

Safe and well in England.

Those words were the first news Elspeth Owen’s mother had of her father Jimmy Owen Jones’s safe return, after many days of anxious waiting for news. Elspeth remembered that her mother had kept this postcard and its blessedly reassuring message as a family treasure, and sent us this photo. For me the card evokes so powerfully the heart-stopping anxiety of those days and nights of waiting, and the enormous relief her mother must have felt – so much so that it becomes more than a treasured postcard: it’s like a talisman, a paper freighted with so much meaning, so much emotion, that it seems almost extraordinary for it to have survived. And then, just look at the handwriting – firm and sure, almost jaunty! This is a considerate man, aware that he is being anxiously thought of, wishing to end the torment of suspense for his beloved wife, and having already wired a message to her, sending the card ‘just in case the wire doesn’t connect!’ Elspeth wrote to The Dunkirk Project:

Moved by all these accounts. I have a postcard which my father Owen Jones sent to my mother Jean. It is written in pencil and says “Redhill Surrey 31/5/40. Safe and well in England. Just in case the wire [telegram] doesn’t connect! Jimmy.” On the other side it is postmarked 30 May so he is wrong about the date. Whenever I read these words “safe and well in England” the entire horror and relief of Dunkirk goes right through me. Elspeth Owen

Jimmy Owen Jones’s postcard on 1st June 1940 – Homeward


The names of Jimmy Owen Jones and Harry Bennett (next story) are both lettered on this page of the working model for Thames to Dunkirk. (For more about the working model and making of the big book, please see Creating Dunkirk, a new series for this edition looking at the art of Dunkirk.) The 17-metre-long book now lives in the British Library, but this small model (A3 size pages, that open to only 5 metres long) stays with me in my studio, and I’ve been able to add extra names of people who were there from contributions to the Project, so that each one is also recorded on the book’s pages. (More on the working model later.)


Liz Frear sent a lovely vignette about her father, Harry Bennett, suddenly realising it was his birthday. It doesn’t sound too bad, to be lying on the beach and remembering it’s your birthday, until we think that it must have been the most crowded beach he’d ever been on, much worse than Scarborough on a bank holiday. And the airshow overhead can’t have been much of a picnic either.

My father was on the beach at La Panne on the 27th May as his group couldn’t reach Dunkirk – he had been a clerk with GHQ in France for only a few weeks, then racing towards the coast evading the Germans all the way. It was while he was lying on the beach that he worked out it was the 27th and that meant it was his 22nd birthday. He returned to England with only the clothes he stood up in and said that the best meal he ever had was the bread and jam given him on the boat as it was days since they had had anything to eat.
(sent by Liz Frear on 27th May 2010)

A birthday on the beach: Harry Bennett’s story on 27th May 1940 – An extraordinary armada


Alec Harrison

This clipping from a London newspaper was preserved by one of the soldiers shown. Alec J. Harrison, second from left, was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from Dunkirk, and lived until his 80’s. His relative Linda Rowley sent us this photo and his story:

My mother’s first husband didn’t make it out of Dunkirk. He was taken prisoner there by the Germans and died in a POW camp in Poland of nephritis.

My mother’s cousin, however, did make it out on one of the last ships. He told me the story of sleeping in a barn (he said his unit was in disarray) and of making it to the shore to be picked up.

He had a photo of himself & 2 other soldiers on board, wrapped in blankets. He said they fed him a huge breakfast and how good it tasted. And another photo of himself and other soldiers just returned, in a newspaper clipping; the byline was a Tracy Harrison, probably on the 50th anniversary, but I was never able to locate the news article or that photo again. Before he passed away (on the anniversary of D-Day nearly 10 years ago) he had moved into a care home and threw all his mementos in the trash.

Thank you for this project; it is marvellous to read all these stories.

Linda Rowley’s story about Alec Harrison on 3rd June 1940 – Towards the end



George Wilkinson, whose father’s name (also George) appears on this page of the working model, sent us Lt. George Wilkinson RAMC’s story:

My father was a medical officer at Dunkirk, landed with a detachment from his Field Ambulance on 26 May, and finally taken off very late on 2 June. He recorded that week shortly after his return in a notebook… he very rarely spoke  of Dunkirk. It was only after he died in 1987 that we found the notebook. I re-read it this weekend, 70 years on. His account is sparse and the language rather formal: it was, I believe, written up immediately after his return. But its very ordinariness makes it all the more powerful. (I have recently blogged this account on my blog – link here )

 Lt George Wilkinson’s account of his experiences as a medic is woven through the River of Stories; it begins on 26th May 1940 – A very tight corner and continues on 27th May, 2nd June and 4th June.

[Those following The Dunkirk Project day-by-day over the anniversary may like to know that contributions are added to their appropriate days as people send them in (so you may like to look back at comments that have been added on previous days’ pages) and that you can still add a contribution at any time, on any day’s page, or a response to a question.]


Here’s a story from Vivienne Menkes-Ivry, whose father Eddy Menkes was a Belgian liaison officer at Dunkirk:

My father, Flight-Lieutenant Edouard (“Eddy “) Menkes, was a Belgian lawyer who did his national service in the Belgian cavalry, was called up at the beginning of the war and, as a good linguist speaking French, Flemish and English, was appointed as an interpreter by the Belgian Army.

As a result he acted as a liaison officer between the Belgian, French and British forces on the beaches in and around Dunkirk.

He apparently left on one of the last boats, having put on the uniform of a dead British soldier, and later wrote to his sister of the difficulty of wading out to the boat in water above his waist and of his admiration for “the sang-froid of the Tommies”. He had apparently entrusted a small suitcase and his typewriter to two of these Tommies, who regretfully later informed him that they had been unable to save his belongings (see postcard).

Vivienne Menkes-Ivry's father's Dunkirk postcard

Those twelve pairs of silk socks played a big part in the image that my sister and I, who never knew him, built up of our father.

Once he arrived in England he was told he must join one of the armed services. He chose the Royal Air Force, became a member of the RNVR (Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve) and was sent initially to the RAF base at Tenby in Wales. In due course he qualifed as a pilot and when posted to the RAF base in Millom, Cumberland, met and subsequently married my mother, a cypher officer in the WAAF (Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force). By July 1942 he had been posted to a night fighter squadron, flying a De Havilland Mosquito.

In June 1943 he was posted overseas, to 23 (Night Intruder)  Squadron based at Middle East Command in Luqa, Malta. He arrived on 15 June. On 2 August he was reported missing after a night raid on the Lipari Islands off Sicily and he was subsequently declared “missing presumed dead”. He was thirty-one, I was nine months old and our mother was expecting my sister. His name appears on the bronze memorial in the southern harbour at Valletta, Malta.

Vivienne has only recently sent in Eddy’s story, so I haven’t yet had a chance to add it to the working model for Thames to Dunkirk, but I will do so soon, and add a photo of the page here.


Another French soldier, Leon Wilson‘s story touches on the horror as well as the camaraderie between allies:

We were fortunate – so fortunate. We have said thank you to England a thousand times for sending the little boats to take us to the big boats – the destroyers – to take us back to England. I was on the beach for two days, and it was so horrible.. We seemed to be walking on dead bodies, not on sand. It is very hard to describe. Just walking on bodies. But at ten o’clock in the evening, we reached a little boat, which should usually take about six people, but there must have been twenty people already on it. But we were very fortunate that the boat took us. It took us to an English destroyer. I shall never forget the captain, who was one of the nicest gentleman you could wish to meet. He said ‘Come on you Frogs, sit down and have something to eat.’ It was a good joke at that moment! He told us, ‘Eat whatever you want, and we sat down to eat – and it was such that it was better than any meal at the Savoy today – bacon, cheese everything. It was a joy for us.

Leon Wilson’s story from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Second World War


Bonnie _ MC - Version 3

One soldier’s story is central to Thames to Dunkirk: Captain BG Bonallack, whose poem The Retreat gave the moving lines I set for the soldier’s account (the ‘type text’) on Thames to Dunkirk. More of his story can be read on BG Bonallack, Virginia Woolf and the making of Thames to Dunkirk, but there’s also another connection: his sons Tim and John Bonallack, and his daughter Jenny Peters have generously contributed to The Dunkirk Project some extra details about their father’s experiences. More of his story is told in Gun Buster’s exciting book Return via Dunkirk, and there are lots of extracts from that book throughout the nine days’ pages. But one fascinating little extra is that Tim Bonallack showed me his father’s own copy of Return via Dunkirk, on the endpapers of which his Captain Bonallack had written in pencil a key to the character’s names, so that his real-life companions-in-arms could be identified in the story. Here’s a photo of those pages:


And below is the page of Thames to Dunkirk where BG Bonallack’s own name had been alone before, the last name in the book – now with his companion’s names recently added:


So this working model, regularly updated, continues the working process for Thames to Dunkirk, and also its association with The Dunkirk Project‘s River of Stories, that runs alongside it. I’m now making a limited edition of this working model, one copy at a time, handmade in the same way as the big book and the working model itself, as a double-sided concertina artist’s book. The only difference is that each page is a full colour print of the book’s page, up-to-date with new additions, and it’s a half size facsimile of the working model, the size of an ordinary paperback book, and one thirty-second the size of the big book. Each copy is unique, in a handmade slipcase, and is signed and numbered in the limited edition (of fifty). Copies can be commissioned from me for £100 each – if you’d like more information just send me a note via the comments box.


So far all the highlights have been about men – who were obviously in the majority at Dunkirk. But there are many stories of the brave and heroic women of the evacuation too, including:

Corporal Elizabeth Quale, WAAF Liaison officer, who we meet describing the unbelievable chaos of Dunkirk town on the first day of the evacuation (26th May 1940 – A very tight corner);

Ann Darlington was a nurse in a chaotic temporary hospital in Leatherhead, coping with the confusion of a rush of wounded from Dunkirk (29th May 1940 – Nightmare)

Stewardess Amy Goodrich, the only woman to be awarded a Dunkirk decoration, swore that so long as the nurses sailed in the hospital ship Dinard, she’d sail too. (28th May 1940 – Out there) and Jo Kenny was one of those nurses on the hospital ship St Julien (29th May 1940 – Nightmare);

Back in Britain Lavinia Holland-Hibbert FANY had the job of driving returning men to hospital in ‘torn, oily wet uniforms – one officer had nothing on but a blanket and a monocle – and their faces were black and covered with oil.’  And heroic Lillian Gutteridge was still in Northern France towards the end of the evacuation, driving an ambulance full of wounded men towards Dunkirk when they were attacked by the enemy. She continued, though badly wounded herself, and managed to get the soldiers in her care to the Casualty Clearing Station on the last day of the evacuation. (3rd June 1940 – Towards the end);

And one of our contributors wrote to say:

Wonderful project and so pleased that so much has been recorded for posterity. My mother was a nurse at one of the casualty clearing stations on the coast for the arrival of the wounded. I wish I had recorded her talking about it all…

Version 2

This detail is from John Craske’s panoramic embroidery The Evacuation of Dunkirk, in Norwich Castle Museum (shown by kind permission of Norfolk Museums Service) – showing one of my favourite vignettes on the left, nurses in their neat starched uniforms, helping the wounded board the little boats that would take them out to the waiting hospital ship. More on John Craske’s tapestry and the art of Dunkirk here.


And what of the dogs? Here’s Kirk:

There was a little dog, a terrier-type mongrel, who came on board with some of the soldiers. He only understood French. When I spoke to him he wouldn’t leave me. That little dog came back with us on the other two trips that we made. He didn’t understand any English, which rather tickled some of the soldiers. After Dunkirk was all over, Kirk was collected by a PDSA van to go into quarantine for six months before he was taken on to the staff of the parish where our sub-lieutenant’s father was vicar. All of us cheered the old dog off. It was a very nice human touch amongst all that carnage of Dunkirk – as though people, in spite of all, were still caring.

(Ordinary Seaman Stanley Allen, aboard HMS Windsor, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices. 170 dogs were evacuated with the soldiers – information from the Imperial War Museum archive.)

SS Alderpool, June 1940


And the little ships? One of the most evocative broadcasts ever made about Dunkirk was recorded by JB Priestley on 5th June 1940, in which he pays homage to the little ships. He speaks of Dunkirk as ‘another English epic’, and his voice breaks as he talks about a ship he knows well, his own local ferry, the Isle of Wight channel steamer ‘our Gracie Fields’, who will not return from her last ‘excursion to Hell’:

‘Never again will we board her at Cowes… She has paddled and churned away for ever… This little steamer is immortal… she’ll go sailing proudly down the years in the epic of Dunkirk’ – and his last thought is of how ‘our great-grandchildren’ will remember the ‘little pleasure steamers’ of Dunkirk, ‘so absurd, and yet so grand and gallant’.

JB Priestley can be heard on the BBC Dunkirk archive

For 2020, the Dunkirk Project begins a new series focusing on some of the heroic ships of Dunkirk, with a feature on HMM Medway Queen, and more will be coming soon. Look out for stories from Captain G Johnson of the Royal Daffodil, throughout the nine days.


David Mitchell wrote to us in 2015, adding to a discussion on some of the effects of the traumatic experiences of Dunkirk on the later lives of survivors and their families. A very fine artist and musician and a lovely, cultured man full of humour and humanity, David was a very dear friend to my partner Frances and me; tragically, he recently died of Covid-19. He was a strongly principled man, and in earlier days he was a conscientious objector who served his 1950’s National Service as a hospital orderly. He was still very young in 1940 so his personal memories of Dunkirk were hazy, but he told us some of his cousin’s story:

I was nine when [Dunkirk] happened and totally unaware, but my much older cousin Laurie was captured and spent the rest of the war in a stalag somewhere. He was married with two small children, but his elder child, a little boy called Peter whom I just remember, died while he was away in one of those ways children did then, and the marriage never recovered from this and from his absence; they divorced after the war.

We love the Dunkirk Project and its development.

David Mitchell & David Hass, 2015. David’s contribution is on 4th June 1940 – Beyond Dunkirk


And just before the 2020 anniversary began, we received this message from Richard Day, reminding us of the essential humanity and courage of our family members and friends who were there, so often ‘rather reticent’, who carried their experience with stalwart fortitude, often made light of it, or sometimes couldn’t speak of it at all.

My father, Harold Jay, was called up on his 21st birthday October 1939. He served in the RASC and went with the BEF to France. Sadly I have forgotten much of what he said about his experiences, and he was always rather reticent. He did tell me about walking along the beach to get to the mole, and that he was taken off on the Harvester on one of its last trips, probably 31 May or 1 June. I have a photograph of him not long after he returned, looking very handsome, but with eyes wide open as if he had been through an appalling experience – as indeed he and everyone there had. I just wanted to put this down as we start the 80th commemoration of this astonishing event.

Richard Jay (3rd June – Towards the end)


John Diblee was also reticent about his traumatic experiences. Towards the end of his life, he was shown The Dunkirk Project by his son, Robin Diblee, and was able to talk about what had happened to him at last, sharing his story not long before he died.

At first light I surveyed my Troop, noticing with some dismay that we now tripled in size to around 200 men, our shouts of “B Troop” having attracted waifs and strays from other units. I separated out our legitimate Troop and led them to the beach.   We managed to get the boat afloat and were picked up by a minesweeper, HMS Skipjack.   My men were ordered to the hold and I wanted to join them but was told that naval etiquette demanded that officers remain on deck in the ward room.   In the ward room, there were officers from the DCLI (Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry), and I also found a good friend of mine, Ronald Temple who was in my regiment.   My own regulation boots having disintegrated some time ago with so much marching, I had acquired some excellent rubber boots when retreating to France which opened at the side, very serviceable in field conditions but I sweated so much in the ward room that they were half full of water, so I took them off.   Ronald kept his boots on, which was correct but his undoing.   

We soon came under fire in a concerted aerial attack which was described in John Masefield’s book “The Nine Days Wonder”.  [Masefield’s account of the attack on HMS Skipjack is quoted here]  In the ward room we could see little of what was going on, until a bomb from a Junckers 88 dropped through the wardroom roof between us straight through the floor and detonating in the hold, killing all the men of my Troop and blowing a hole in the bottom.   The Skipjack turned turtle, with Ronald and I managing to escape through the hole in the roof (caused by the bomb) but without life jackets.   We were hours in the water and a rough sea had got up.   With unshod feet, I managed to keep afloat, but Ronald with his boots on, could not.   One minute I saw him above the waves and the next minute he was gone.   I was eventually picked up by a commercial vessel, in an exhausted state.   The first person I saw on the deck was my batman, Private Nash.   “Your baccy and pipe, sir”. I had given him all my personal kit the previous day for his own use, an investment which paid dividends.   We kept in touch.

John Diblee (31st May – Lovely on the water). His moving account is spread over several days and begins on 30th May 1940 – The view from the air


James Killen sent this wonderful story of his grandfather Tammy Thorburn, boiler man on the same ship, HMS Skipjack, and his eventual return home:

My Grandfather Thomas (Tammy) Thorburn was the ship’s boiler man in the Skipjack Engine room when the ship was struck, and was missing presumed dead for nearly 4 months. My Grandmother & my Mother Minny, her three sisters & little Brother were at home one day late September 1940 when a knock came on the door in the night at their home in Fisher Row Musselburgh. They were all very afraid – my mum told me that her mum told her to stay away from the door, not knowing who might be on the other side, them being all little women. My mum just 13 at the time (she being the Tomboy of the family) ventured forward to the door much to the annoyance of my Grandmother who thought it might be the Hun! She was terrified, as was everyone else, but on my mum went:

‘Who is it?’ she cried.

The voice replied ‘Its yur Da Minny!’

‘My Da’s dead – go away!’ she replied.

The voice came back: ‘No Hen it’s me!’ and he put his left hand which was covered in bandage through the letter box. ‘Pull back the bandage on my fingers,’ he said.

This she did, and cried out to her mum, ‘It’s Dad’s wedding ring Ma!’ They opened the door – Tammy Thorburn Was Back, burnt from head to toe but there Large as Life itself. Gid old Tam – he lived till he was 83.

Tammy Thorburn’s story by James Killen on 31st May 1940 – Lovely on the water


One comment questioned how we ‘choose’ to remember Dunkirk and ignore other episodes of the war – particularly those left in France after Dunkirk – and even more startling – those sent to France by Churchill immediately AFTER Dunkirk, who then had to be ignominiously withdrawn westwards after the fall of France…’

This aspect is not forgotten on The Dunkirk Project. There are several stories about the aftermath, from the rearguard, people left behind, and those who were sent back into France, on the River of Stories on 4th June – Beyond Dunkirk.

This idea of ‘choosing’ what to remember or commemorate is really at the heart of this project. I’ve spoken about the construction of a national myth and how the selectiveness of the established archive tends to exclude stories that perhaps seemed less representative and central, or that voiced dissenting views, like Vera Brittain. The aim of  The Dunkirk Project is to open up our view of Dunkirk 1940 by revealing some of these hidden voices alongside more familiar accounts, and to illuminate the whole by highlighting some details.

In commemorating Dunkirk in this way, my intention is neither to celebrate it as a victory, nor to debunk the myth. I think it was a dire disaster, but a paradoxical triumph – of humanity in the face of overwhelming odds. As an artist, my aim is to draw an appropriately large-scale panorama of a surreally vast event, and to people this panorama with individuals who have shared their experiences, both positive and negative – and with this balance of darkness and light to open up the accepted official history into a more diverse overview that can truly accommodate an event shared by more than 300,000 individuals. This is what I aimed for in my artwork Thames to Dunkirk (which you can now see on film, in a new artist’s film for this year’s eightieth anniversary). As a development of that artwork, The Dunkirk Project‘s value as a resource and examination of Dunkirk 1940 is increased by the multiplicity and diversity of stories, views, opinions and considered responses it draws together, collects, stimulates, generates, and even provokes.

The eightieth anniversary of Dunkirk falls in May 2020 while here in Britain we are still being battered by the coronavirus pandemic. The voices of The Dunkirk Project speak to our uncertain times at an apt moment. It’s more important than ever to acknowledge the European, multi-national nature of Britain’s wartime struggle against fascism, as exemplified at Dunkirk, and to recognise how we, the inheritors of the world that was made then, are still living with the consequences of our past. In June 1940 when the Dunkirk evacuation had succeeded in bringing most of the army home, the threat of invasion was at its most acute, the Blitz was yet to come – and Britain was still at war for a further four years. The parallels with our own times are all too clear: when the immediate impact of the pandemic is over, the Climate Emergency will still be with us.

And now, coronavirus has cut a swathe through our population, brought our economy and industry to its knees, and forced us to re-examine our priorities in a changed world. Another clear correspondence with Dunkirk 1940 is that amidst the devastation and the suffering there have been some positives: the many heroes we’ve met – Captain/Sir Tom Moore, the NHS frontline, three-quarters of a million volunteers, our public transport drivers, our care workers and Andrea our local pharmacist, to name just a few. But the negatives are stark: the appalling suffering, the failures of leadership and the crises of supply for essential protective equipment, the struggle for co-ordination. Yet like the people of the evacuation, many have found a renewed compassionate empathy and awareness of community. We have indeed been all in it together. British engineers and fashion designers are falling over themselves to make essential personal protective equipment and ventilators; universities and research institutions are vying to produce tests, vaccine, antibodies; our theatres, online arts and the BBC are keeping us sane – in short, the real maverick Dunkirk spirit is alive and well in Britain today. Now is surely a good time to look again at Dunkirk, in all its complexity, to see what we can learn from it, in order to better understand the present and prepare for the future.

Liz Mathews, London 24th May 2020


One Response to “Stranger than fiction”

  1. Vivienne Menkes-Ivry Says:

    I should really love to have one of the limited-edition facsimiles of the working model so please put me on the list ! Vivienne (Menkes-Ivry)

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