30th May 1940 – The view from the air

Station Commander ‘Boy’ Bouchier assembled all the pilots in the billiards room in the officer’s mess, to tell us we had been assigned to take part in the protection of the British troops over Dunkirk. For fourteen days we went non-stop. I did something like thirty-seven hours in ten days. We just kept flying. We had no reserve pilots.

(Squadron Leader Al Deere, New Zealander, 54 Squadron RAF, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

Dunquerque had been frequently and heavily bombed daily and nightly for some weeks; it was on fire in many places, and blazing to heaven from its oil tanks. For the next week, bombs must have fallen on or near it every five minutes… the enemy sent over immense flights, in the almost certainty of success… they had a perfect target beneath them, columns crowded on roads, shipping crowded in a channel, masses of men upon a beach. During the week there were three hundred and fifty thousand men shut in within a narrow compass with all their possesions; any bomb dropping was certain to be destructive… This was to be an annihilation.

(John Masefield, from The Nine Days Wonder)

The tide was fairly low. A steamer lay on her side at the water’s edge. The sandy beach was about 100 yards wide. Down the centre stood the line of men, three abreast. The smoke… from the burning oil tanks drifted eastwards over the town. A few officers walked up and down. All was quiet. And then it started! A formation of high fliers came up from the west, and dropped stick after stick of bombs… This first attack was most unnerving. You felt so completely exposed on the beach… for a time some of us huddled under the hull of the wrecked steamer, but as nothing happened for some time, I called in all my men, and formed them up in the queue again for fear we should lose our place.

[During the early evening] I heard a Stuka coming down in a vertical dive right on top of me… I was by now dulled by hours of explosions… so the the imminence of death aroused no great feeling of fear… Either the bomb would land on me, or it wouldn’t…  I thought…of Margaret in those few seconds of suspense, and she brought me a sort of peace of the spirit. The next moment: Crash! Darkness! And then a vision of falling sand in front of me… I realized I had been missed, and…I could hear the plane climbing away over Dunkirk. The attack was over.

(Gunner Lt Elliman’s account from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

The Constant Nymph, with Dr Basil Smith and his two ratings were off Dunkirk – ferrying load after load of French troops to the Dutch schuit Jutland. The excitement staved off hunger which was just as well – the Navy had given them a sirloin of beef and a sack of potatoes but the little boat boasted only a two-burner Primus.

(Richard Collier, from The War at Sea, ed. John Winton)

We got into Dunkirk around five o’clock in the evening – we hadn’t eaten and it was really chaos. The sand was littered with bodies and crowds of chaps all hoping to get off… but there was no hope. They tried to organise queues, but it was very difficult. People were not only being Stuka-ed, but there was also panic on the beaches… On one occasion, a small boat came in – and they piled aboard it to such a degree that it was in danger of capsizing. The chap in charge of this boat decided he must take some action. He ordered one man who was hanging on the side to get away – but he didn’t, so he shot him through the head. From the people around there was no reaction at all…

It was bitterly cold at night. I came out of the water and I removed a corporal’s overcoat from a corpse on the beach… There was a very flimsy canoe, and two chaps paddled out in this canoe. A stuka had come down and machine-gunned them, and they both leaned the same way – and they were both drowned. The canoe was upside-down,.. floating some way off the beach. Bill swam out… and pulled it ashore, and we… paddled out. HMS Whitehall came past us with its guns blazing away at those Stukas, threw us a line and we were pulled aboard.

(Sergeant Leonard Howard, 210 Field Company, Royal Engineers, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

The Tom Tit was ‘stolen on impulse and without authority’ by Ron and Alan Tomlinson, and in her they made 16 trips ferrying men to the big ships. The Tollesbury, a 1901 barge from the Thames near Erith went with all her crew who volunteered; the Windsong, another sailing boat, must have been at considerable risk, being not very manoeuvrable, reported as ‘ready for sea and able to take 30 passengers’ –  she made several trips and brought many men home.

(Ships’ stories from several sources including the website of the Association of Little Ships of Dunkirk. More little ships’ stories throughout the nine days)

Our operations over Dunkirk fell into two main categories. One was that we would do a fighter sweep. We would sweep all the way round, behind the beaches and try and intercept any German aircraft coming up to attack the soldiers on the ground. In the other role, we would escort a bomber called the Blenheim, and be their fighter escort when they went to bomb targets that were related to the evacuation from Dunkirk. I think our ground crews were the people who got into more fisticuffs in local pubs, because after a few beers the soldiers would say, ‘Where were you?’ and our ground crews knew very well that we’d gone over there.

(Flying Officer Geoffrey Page, 56 Squadron, RAF, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

Mrs Richardson told me of a friend of her husband’s dead on the beach at Dunkirk – not a wound – shock… News of Louie’s brother,… the West boy [Harry]… landed in a sailing boat at Ramsgate… hunting his battalion – no clothes – won’t go back he says; but gives no word of his wounds. Some say he’s the only survivor of his regiment.

(Virginia Woolf’s diary. More news of Harry West on 2nd June)

We met the men coming back and drove them to hospital. They were 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. All the men said: ‘Where were our bloody planes? Never saw one.’

(Lavinia Holland-Hibbert, FANY, from Anne de Courcy’s Debs at War)

After the nightmare of the retreat, Captain Snook’s experience of the evacuation was not much better – ‘the din was appalling’. On the beach, he met five survivors of the destroyer Grenade which had just been blown up. Together they got into a little boat they found and set off for England, but the engine conked out halfway. Stranded for a while, they were eventually picked up by a trawler, and at last landed in Ramsgate.

(Captain HS Snook’s letters containing his account of Dunkirk are in the Imperial War Museum)

I will pay my tribute to these young airmen. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into the past not only distant, but prosaic, before these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power.

(Winston Churchill, 4th June 1940, in his speech to the House of Commons, reported by Sarah Gertrude Millin in World Blackout, her record of the first year of the war.)

Dunkirk Phossil 70 by Charlie Bonallack; image interpreted from aerial photograph taken from RAF plane in IWM archive, hand-painted on porcelain.

Dunkirk Phossil 70 by Charlie Bonallack; image interpreted from aerial photograph taken from RAF plane in IWM archive, hand-painted on porcelain. For more, see Dunkirk Phossils by Charlie Bonallack.

Here in the sand we grovelled, with the burning town as back drop, the flash of guns and bursting bombs as light and sound effects. Cold, hungry and despondent, we were sure we had been forgotten and deserted. With the first light of dawn the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht began, again, to hurl exploding horror at this sandy shore and at the ships, yachts, and all the other vessels of that noble company. For us there was a gruelling twelve-kilometre march along the loose sand… to march into the sea up to our necks only to march out again, a hellish diversion to be repeated again and again.

(Ken Anderson LAC, from Robert Jackson’s Dunkirk)

Many German pilots whose planes were shot down over Dunkirk were killed by small arms fire as their parachutes floated down. One who survived was First Lt. Erich von Oelhaven, who landed among the dunes, was captured by soldiers, and after a day sheltering in a foxhole in the sand from his colleagues in the air, was taken at gunpoint to queue for a trawler on a makeshift jetty of abandoned trucks. Observing that his armed guard was asleep on his feet, he escaped into the sea, and sheltered for hours between the jetty trucks, unable to stand as the tide came in, and floating with his head jammed in a pocket of air, while the Stukas and German artillery continued to pound the beach and the sea. He survived hunger, extreme thirst and concussion, for several days and nights until 4th June, when he emerged from hiding and collapsed onto the deserted beach, to be found later by German soldiers.

(Story from Robert Jackson’s Dunkirk)

The German planes, about forty big two-engined bombers flew on steadily in formation. They appeared to be approaching the direction of the road. If so we were for it. They couldn’t miss the target of the crawling column inextricably mixed up with all these thousands of foot-slogging, weary troops.  Already there were big bomb craters lining the sides of the road, showing us it had not escaped attention on previous occasions.  A mad rush for cover started. Men packed themselves into ditches, crawled underneath the wreckage of vehicles, flattened themselves down between the very grass blades in the fields, and stood up to their necks in the water of the canal.  In the space of a few seconds the mass of humanity that had encumbered the road had utterly vanished.  Not a soul was in sight.

(From Gun Buster’s Retreat via Dunkirk. More on Y Battery’s rearguard action as they finally approach Dunkirk tomorrow 31st May)

Brigadier Beckwith-Smith’s instruction as to how to deal with Stuka dive-bombers: ‘Stand up to them. Shoot at them with a Bren gun from the shoulder. Take them like a high pheasant. Give them plenty of lead. Remember, £5 to any man who brings one down. I have already paid out £10.’

(from Lt. Jimmy Langley’s account in Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk. More from Brigadier Beckwith-Smith on 3rd June)

The next day 30th left [for] La Panne [east of Dunkirk]. Reached there about 11pm and cruised about from 11 until 2am. It was most unpleasant as the whole place was on fire and the wind was blowing off-shore. [A fruitless trip, as the area was being so heavily shelled and bombed. The Royal Daffodil went back again the next day, nevertheless.]

(Captain G Johnson, on the Royal Daffodil. More from them tomorrow and every day until 2nd June)

How many men and women in this tiny country really listen with indifference to the hiccuping boom of the Nazi bomber as it passes overhead? The conquest of fear – and today it is conquered or effectively concealed by hundreds of thousands of decent citizens – is only the greater tribute to that unquenchable vigour of the human spirit which a whole nation displays. And for what? We in Britain are growing so accustomed to the demand made upon our endurance, our humour, and our self-control, that we have almost ceased to ask ourselves just why they are required. For what end is this people showing its superlative courage? For what purpose is it making, at incalculable cost, the emotional sacrifices involved in parting with children, abandoning homes, leaving husbands or wives in danger, closing down businesses, terminating professions, concluding social experiments which have embodied the hopes and dreams of a lifetime?

We are doing, permitting and enduring these things in order that we may destroy another great nation whose airmen, soldiers, sailors and civilians are also displaying superb gallantry and endurance…  It may be that now we have no alternative but to fight on against the men and women who have endorsed and practised the militaristic creed which forces us to perfect the arts of destruction. But I who so dearly love my country and so deeply admire its brave and imperturbable people, refuse to admit that I am joining the defeatists when I inquire what would have happened if all the energy, courage and resourcefulness which is now dedicated to the work of destruction, had been given to seeking a solution for Europe’s problems while time still remained? This question has significance for the future.

(Vera Brittain, England’s Hour, written in the summer of 1940. More from Vera Brittain on 2nd June)

They say that in Europe there has never been a more beautiful spring. I look through a row of windows at a blue sky, at trees still green and many flowers, and I think they have these things now in Europe too. It seems to me quite inappropriate that men should be flying through these blue skies, travelling through these flowery fields, firing death at people in summer clothes. A man (high in the Colonial Service) told me after the last war how, one day in France, he went into the fields and picked some flowers and recited to himself, standing alone there in the woods, a poem of Keats, and then came back to his dug-out and made himself drunk; and he wept at the memory. Summer ought to be a closed season for killing people.

(Sarah Gertrude Millin, 28th May 1940, from World Blackout.)

Photo taken from RAF reconnaissance plane, from the photo archive in Imperial War Museum

Photo taken from RAF reconnaissance plane, from the photo archive in Imperial War Museum

from A Young English Airman

Often unseen by those you helped to save

You rode the air above that foreign dune

And died like the unutterably brave

That so your friends might see the English June…

Yet knew, that your young life, as price paid over

Let thousands live to tread that track to Dover.

(John Masefield)

Tomorrow, 31st May 1940 – Lovely on the Water

8 Responses to “30th May 1940 – The view from the air”


  1. It was incredibly brave of Vera Brittain to make those comments about peace then. But she was right to lament that the extraordinary powers of humankind – energy, courage, creative intelligence – hadn’t succeeded in preventing world war (and still can’t maintain peace). Even though the pacifist movement was based on the enormous numbers of ex-combatants from the Great War who’d sworn never to fight again, so that it wasn’t possible to write them off as cowards or impractical idealists (since they knew of what they spoke only too well), Brittain was obviously aware that by 1940 it could seem unpatriotic or even treasonable to be a pacifist; she’s careful to stress her love of country.

    But the pacifist position has always been misrepresented and wilfully misunderstood. (I remember, after the 2 million strong peace march against the Iraq war, someone ironically congratulated me for my support of Saddam Hussein, ‘such a nice man’. That’s enough to put anyone off, which was obviously the intention.) But such attitudes didn’t stop her from saying the almost unsayable – why are people so heroic in such an emergency, but unable to make any effective effort to stop the situation arising?


  2. Stories of the RAF at Dunkirk remind me of my grandfather, on one occasion when I went to visit him when he was in his nineties, and he told me that the commander at Dunkirk was a Worsdell (also his own surname). My grandfather was a Squadron Leader, wounded during the siege of Malta, with a few medals, who talked about some of his war time experiences but was conspicuously silent about others. I’d never heard him mention anything about a relative at Dunkirk, and thought this was just confusion – but in fact he was right, he was just talking about an 18thC Dunquerque battle, as I later discovered. So history repeats itself.


  3. On the ‘Echoes of Dunkirk?’ conversation on the BBC Radio 3 message board (Platform 3), Vinteuil commented on ‘how we ‘choose’ to remember Dunkirk and ignore other episodes of the war – particularly, here, 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…’


    • There will be 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 what I mean about our construction of our national myth and how the selectiveness of the established archive does exclude stories that perhaps seemed less representative and central, or that voiced dissenting views, like Vera Brittain; The Dunkirk Project aims to open up our view of Dunkirk 1940 by revealing some of these hidden voices alongside familiar accounts, and to illuminate the whole by highlighting some details.

      I don’t have a hidden agenda either to discredit the British Army or to celebrate it. As an artist, my aim is to draw an appropriately large-scale panorama of a surreally vast event, and for this panorama to be peopled by individuals who have shared their experiences, 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. As a development of that work, 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.

      Liz Mathews

  4. elspeth owen Says:

    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


  5. Robin Dibblee sent The Dunkirk Project a vivid story of the experiences of his father John Dibblee (Major) at Dunkirk, where he arrived on 30 May 1940. His story starts here, and continues tomorrow:

    I was a second lieutenant of the Royal Artillery, commanding B Troop of one of the batteries of the 30th regiment. The details are a bit vague as everything got reorganised after we returned from Dunkirk, but I think there were four 25 pounders, assorted support vehicles and about 70 men in B Troop. We had been protecting the left (Belgian) flank of our troops, which when Belgium surrendered on 27th May, left us fatally exposed to the combined might of the German army.

    On the evening of 30th May I was OP (observation post) behind the regiment, up an imitation windmill (built as a restaurant). It was thought that this would make a good OP post, but I couldn’t see anything as the ground was so flat, and it gave the forward German gunners ample opportunity for target practice. This raised a lot of dust which made everything worse! I stayed there until all Ops were withdrawn. I therefore rejoined the regiment. Orders had been given to destroy guns and equipment and repair to Dunkirk. Destruction of the guns was an easy matter, firing each with a round reversed down the muzzle but we had no time to set fire to the support vehicles. I tried to burst the tyres by shooting at them with my revolver, which merely ricocheted off, in a dangerous manner!

    We were ordered to go to Dunkirk itself, so the whole regiment marched along the beach below the high tide mark (as the sand was firmer there). It was completely dark, and the regiment started to get split up as we couldn’t see each other. I set people to calling “B Troop” to keep my troop together, at least. As luck would have it, there was a large open boat complete with crew stranded up the beach, as it was low tide. I asked them when they proposed to depart. They said first light, as long as they had assistance refloating the boat. I said I could fill it with my Troop and duly booked our passage.

    (John Dibblee’s story continues tomorrow 31st May 1940 – Lovely on the water, and then on 4th June 1940 – Beyond Dunkirk.)

  6. Roy Martin Says:

    We left the elderly coaster Dorrien Rose on 28th May, having unloaded more than 1000 people at Dover and set sail again for Dunkirk. En route she struck a piece of submerged wreckage, but the crew made temporary repairs and arrived on the morning of 30 May. The Master’s log reports that:

    ‘The prospect was far from pleasing, as the last ten miles to the port were littered with sunken and blazing ships. Bombers were paying us frequent visits. The port lay under a pall of oily smoke and flames. There was no one to look to for instructions so we poked into the harbour. Someone ashore gestured us alongside a battered wall.’

    Masters had to be especially alert as fifth columnists were at work everywhere, giving false instructions. During the next two hours ‘in which it seemed there were always bombers overhead’ the ship loaded 600 troops. She sailed just after midday, landing her passengers at Folkestone that evening.

    (For the last act in the Dorrien Rose‘s story, see 2nd June 1940 – Tatter’d colours)


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