4th June 1940 – Beyond Dunkirk

TtoD p 22 detail

On 4th June Dunkirk fell to the Germans.

(from Five Days in London, John Lukacs)

The ‘miracle’ of the Dunkirk evacuation was well known to those who were alive in 1940. The accepted version is that all 338,226 members of the British Expeditionary Force were saved from the beaches near Dunkirk by the Royal Navy and an armada of ‘little ships’ who volunteered for the task. Churchill described the rescue of ‘every last man’ of the BEF as a ‘miracle of deliverance’. There is no doubt that these two groups performed magnificently, but, as with so many ‘miracles’, the story includes some myths. One was that only Royal Naval vessels and the ‘little ships’ were involved; the other that all of the BEF were evacuated.

In fact almost as many troops were left in France, most to be evacuated in the following three weeks by merchant ships. Certainly the Navy rescued the majority from Dunkirk and it fell to the various Admirals to organise all of the evacuations, but merchant ships carried more than 90,000 troops to safety. About three quarters of these were saved by railway steamers, ferries and excursions ships (generally described as ‘Packets’). The rest were carried by cargo vessels, coasters, tugs and barges. A further 5,548 stretcher cases were moved by other railway steamers acting as hospital carriers. In addition the Navy operated Dutch schuyts and British paddle steamers; [these last] still manned by their peacetime crews and civilian volunteers.

(Roy V. Martin, from Ebb and Flow: Evacuations and Landings by Merchantmen in World War Two)

It’s a complete mess. There are guns everywhere, as well as countless vehicles, corpses, wounded men and dead horses. The heat makes the whole place stink. Dunkirk itself has been completely destroyed. There are lots of fires burning. Amongst the prisoners are Frenchmen, and blacks… some of them not wearing uniforms, real villains, scum of the earth. We move to Coxy de Bains by the beach. But we cannot swim because the water is full of oil from the sunk ships, and is also full of corpses… At midnight there is a thanksgiving ceremony on the beach, which we watch, while looking at the waves in the sea, and the flames in the distance, which show that Dunkirk is still burning.

(German staff officer who entered Dunkirk on 4th June, from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

The signal ‘Operation Dynamo now completed’ circulated by the Admiralty on 4th June by no means implied that all BEF troops had been evacuated from France. There were still more than 100,000 British soldiers south of the River Somme; the British 51st Highland Division had to secure nineteen miles of the front line. ‘On this day alone 23 officers and over 500 other ranks were missing, wounded or killed… June 5th must have been the blackest day in the history of the battalion.’

(from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

The little boats all summoned again, as if to fetch off more troops… 20,000 of our men cut off.

(Virginia Woolf’s diary for 12th and 13th June 1940)

Some French soldiers were lifted from Dunquerque harbour during the next midnight, by French and English ships, the last ship (the Princess Maud) leaving at 1.50 on the 4th. As she left, a shell fell in the berth she had occupied a moment before… Though the lifting was finished, some useful cruising was done later, to pick up stragglers. The RAF and a number of motor-boats cruised over the Channel, and helped to find and save men wrecked in a transport and a barge… On the evening of June 12th, some survivors were seen by a British aeroplane, who reported them to the patrols; a motor-boat went out at once and brought them off… These must have been among the last to be saved. The numbers lifted and brought to England from Dunquerque alone during the operation were: British 186,587; French 123,095 and those brought by hospital ships etc 6,981, [making a total of] 316,663.

(John Masefield, Nine Days Wonder)

On the beaches and in the dunes north of Dunkirk, thousands of light and heavy weapons lay on the sands, along with munitions crates, field kitchens, scatttered cans of rations and innumerable wrecks of British army trucks.

‘Damn!’ I exclaimed to Erwin. ‘The entire British Army went under here!’

Erwin shook his head vigorously. ‘On the contrary! A miracle took place here! If the German tanks and Stukas and navy had managed to surround the British here, shooting most of them, and taking the rest prisoner, then England wouldn’t have any trained soldiers left. Instead the British seem to have rescued them all – and a lot of Frenchmen too. Adolf can say goodbye to his Blitzkreig against England.’

(Bernt Engelman, Luftwaffe pilot, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

Philip Newman [the surgeon at the Chateau] was captured by the Germans along with the wounded at the Chateau. In January 1942 he escaped for the second time (he had been recaptured after his first escape) and made it back to England.

(from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

‘When a week ago I asked the House to fix this afternoon for a statement, I feared it would be my hard lot to announce from this box the greatest military disaster in our long history.

I thought, and some good judges agreed with me, that perhaps from 20,000 to 30,000 men might be re-embarked, but it certainly seemed that the whole of the French First Army and the whole of the British Expeditionary Force north of Amiens and the Abbeville gap would be broken up in the field or else have to capitulate for lack of food and ammunition.

This was the hard and heavy tidings for which I called on the House and the nation to prepare themselves a week ago.’

(Winston Churchill, House of Commons 4th June 1940, quoted by AD Divine’s in his Dunkirk – who adds with restrained pride the following conclusion:)

Not 20,000 men but 337,131 came safe to the ports of England.

‘This is not the end’ as Winston Churchill was to say of another, later, event.

The first attempt to rescue those left behind was named Operation Cycle: this was hampered by fog, the lack of ships’ wirelesses and heavy shelling. The evacuation ‘fell far short of [Admiral James’s] early hopes’. About 8,000 men of the 51st Highland Division were cut off and ordered to surrender; but by 13 June over 15,000 other troops had been saved.

Reinforcements were sent through St Malo; two thirds didn’t get beyond the port before they were recalled; wits in Southampton said that BEF meant ‘back every Friday’

Operation Aerial began on 15 June when 133 ships were sent to Breton ports; most of the 140,000 British troops were saved then. These vessels also mounted an evacuation of the Channel Islands. On 17 June the British liner Lancastria was sunk off St Nazaire.

(Roy Martin, from After Dynamo, May 2015 for The Dunkirk Project; his story continues below.)

Roughly four o’clock in the afternoon… the sirens went again… There was an instant attack… a terrific bang and blast which blew me off my feet – straight into the lap of an army officer. Another bomb went off and the ship lurched… [and] started heeling over. Another bomb went off… Machinery like trucks, guns, stuff that was on the deck – human beings all hurtled down into the rails of the ship, into the water. One of my most vivid pictures is of the big masts… running parallel to the water, and people were running along this and jumping off. I saw a rope and grabbed it… I couldn’t swim so I had to get hold of something that would keep me afloat… I grabbed an oar between my legs and a kitbag under each arm and just floated there.

(Sergeant Peter Vinicombe, Wireless operator, 98 Squadron RAF, aboard Lancastria, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

At least 2,710 people drowned, making this Britain’s worst maritime disaster.

(Roy Martin, After Dynamo, continuing below)

We were practically the last to embark on the Lancastria. By this time, she had round about 6,000 troops and air force on board. We were assigned to palliasses right on the bottom of the hold. It was pretty grim and, having a strong sense of self-preservation, I thought, ‘Well, on the trip home, if we get attacked by submarines or hit a mine, we wouldn’t have a chance down there – particularly if the lights have all gone.’ So I decided to stay on the top deck. When she was hit I went to the bow to have a look back, and she was sinking slowly in the water. So I said to this chap, ‘Well, I’m a swimmer. I’m over the side.’ I just looked down about a thirty foot drop, took my tin helmet off, my uniform, my boots, clutched my paybook and my French francs and jumped over the side. When I broke surface… I swam about a hundred yards and came across a plank, which looked as if it had been blown off one of the hatches. So I sat on that, and the thing that surprised me was how calm I felt. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll sit on this. You’ll never see anything like this again.’… Fifty yards away from me, men were singing ‘Roll out the barrel’.

(Corporal Donald Draycott, Fitter, 98 Squadron, aboard the Lancastria, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

The sinking of the Lancastria was the subject of a BBC documentary and a page on the BBC History site tells the story in full with some moving images. Click here for a link to the archived page.

It’s something that you look back on with astonishment – that from the little trawler which picked us up, we were able to watch the final lurching and sinking of the Lancastria. She overturned completely in the end, so you could see the propellors, and even then you could see men standing on her upturned bows, afraid to jump into the sea. That was a pretty awful sight to behold… That was awful.

(Private William Tilley, Clerk, Royal Army Service Corps, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

After the rescues from Breton ports and the evacuation of the Channel Islands, the ships moved to Bordeaux, where much treasure was also saved. They then went on to St Jean de Luz, near the Spanish border. Embarkations only ceased when the Armistice came into force on 25 June. More of those rescued from these ports were Polish and Czech troops and civilians. The Polish liners Batory and Sobeiski embarked their countrymen and British cargo ships saved many more. Further British and Allied troops and civilians were lifted from southern France. Voyages from western France took days, rather than hours, those from the south took weeks to reach the UK.

During the three operations the Royal Navy sent 102 ships and 45 requisitioned Dutch coasters. The Merchant Navies, mainly the British, provided 129 passenger ships and 141 cargo ships – an awesome response.

(Roy Martin, from After Dynamo.  More from Roy Martin in this page’s comments, as well as an account from Miss R Andrews who was rescued by the Ettrick, one of the last passenger ships to leave St Jean de Luz.)

Just then (it was almost midnight), we had our first taste of the kindness of a great people; ladies of the British Red Cross (I had no idea who warned them, or who had even thought of warning them) went from one compartment to the other with hot tea and pieces of delicious freshly made cake. What a luxury after the stale bread we had eaten for the last five days. We even received some warm milk for the children. My wife and the nurse could not restrain their tears. I also saw tears in the eyes of the Red Cross volunteer, a very kind and distinguished-looking lady with white hair, who was helping us. We were far from the Germans. That cup of tea and piece of cake had comforted us morally as well as physically.

(Paul Timbal, among those evacuated from Bordeaux on the Broompark on 19th June 1940, part of Operation Aerial. Timbal’s story is told in The Suffolk Golding Mission by Roy V. Martin)

SS Alderman carried 3,500 Poles from Northern France to safety in Plymouth, June 1940 Photo from Polish Institute & Sikovski Museum in London, contributed by Roy Martin

SS Alderpool carried 3,500 Poles from France to safety in Plymouth.
Photo from archive of Polish Institute & Sikorski Museum in London, contributed by Roy Martin

It is said that many thousands – it is even said that four-fifths of them – have got back. A few days ago one thought they must either surrender or die. They have fought their way out in the greatest, strangest rearguard action ever known. Corunna, when one thinks how much fiercer and crueller war is today, cannot compare with it. However, it is a victory over adversity, not over Germans; it is a moral, not a physical victory.

(Sarah Gertrude Millin, 1 June 1940, from World Blackout.)

General Bernard Law Montgomery criticized the shoulder ribbons issued to the troops, marked ‘Dunkirk’. They were not ‘heroes’. If it was not understood that the army suffered a defeat at Dunkirk, then our island home was now in grave danger… Churchill saw things in much the same way: ‘Wars are not won by evacuations.’

(from Five Days in London by John Lukacs)

In retrospect, it was Dunkirk that lost Germany the war, because it suddenly brought Britain to her senses – made us realise that, with all our allies surrendered to the enemy, we alone had to carry the fight.  The rest is history.

(Arthur Addis, Ammunition Officer, HQ, Third Division, BEF, quoted from the BBC website archive of the Dunkirk Evacuation by kind permission of his wife.)

No British soldiers were left on the beach and it is remembered as a success rather than a retreat – ‘snatching glory out of defeat’.

(The entry for ‘Dunkirk’ in the Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1991)

I, like so many others had taken for granted the history of England, of which Nelson was a part. And I knew that I, too, should in future feel a sense of responsibility.

(Second Officer Nancy Spain, WRNS, from Voices from the War at Sea, ed. John Winton)


I wish to express my admiration of the outstanding skill and bravery shown by the three Services and the Merchant Navy in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Northern France. So difficult an operation was only made possible by brilliant leadership and an indomitable spirit among all ranks of the Force. The measure of its success – greater than we had dared to hope – was due to the unfailing support of the Royal Air Force and, in the final stages, the tireless efforts of naval units of every kind.

While we acclaim this great feat, in which our French Allies too have played so noble a part, we think with heartfelt sympathy of the loss and sufferings of those brave men whose self-sacrifice has turned disaster into triumph.

GEORGE R.I.  (Letter quoted in AD Divine’s Dunkirk, Appendix A; Appendix B contains the official list of the hundreds of ships, boats and other craft which took part in Operation Dynamo, and Appendix C lists 36 pages of Dunkirk Honours and Awards)

A brutal, desperate adventure forced on us by the most dire disaster.

(AD Divine, from Dunkirk. Divine went to Dunkirk on board the White Wing with Rear Admiral Taylor and was awarded the DSM)

Stele by Liz Mathews, text by Valentine Ackland

This morning I lingered over my breakfast, reading and re-reading the accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation. I felt as if deep inside me there was a harp that vibrated and sang, like the feeling… of seeing suddenly… a big bed of clear, thin red poppies in all their brave splendour. I forgot I was a middle-aged woman who often got up tired and also had backache… somehow I felt everything to be worthwhile, and I felt glad I was of the same race as the rescuers and rescued.

(5th June 1940 diary entry in Nella’s Last War: A mother’s diary, quoted in John Lukacs’ Five Days in London)

The little ships, the unforgotten Homeric catalogue

of Mary Jane and Peggy IV, of Folkestone Belle,

Billy Boy, and Ethel Maud, of Lady Haig and Skylark,

the little ships of England brought the Army home.

(Philip Guedalla, 1941)

On Sunday morning news came over the radio – Britain had declared war on Germany… What I feared more than my own death, war raged by everyone against everyone else, had been unleashed for the second time…. Once again I walked down to the city of Bath for a last look at peace.  It lay quiet in the noonday sunlight and seemed just the same as ever.  People went their usual way, walking with their usual gait.  They were in no haste, they did not gather together in excited talk… and for a moment I wondered: ‘Don’t they know what has happened yet?’  But they were English, they were used to concealing their feelings.  They didn’t need drums and banners, noise and music, to fortify them in their tough and unemotional resolution.

…I knew what war meant, and as I looked at the crowded, shining shops I saw a sudden vision of the shops I had seen in 1918, cleared of their goods, cleaned out,… I saw, as if in a waking dream, the long lines of careworn women waiting outside food shops, the grieving mothers, the wounded and crippled men, all the mighty horrors of the past come back to haunt me like a ghost in the radiant midday light.  I remembered our old soldiers, weary and ragged, coming away from the battlefield; my heart, beating fast, felt all of that past war in the war that was beginning today… And I knew that yet again all the past was over, all achievements were as nothing – our own native Europe, for which we had lived, was destroyed and the destruction would last long after our own lives.  Something else was beginning, a new time, and who knew how many hells and purgatories we still had to go through to reach it?

The sunlight was full and strong.  As I walked home, I suddenly saw my own shadow going ahead of me, just as I had seen the shadow of the last war behind this one. That shadow had never left me all this time, it lay over my mind day and night.  Perhaps its dark outline lies over the pages of this book.  But in the last resort, every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives.

(The closing paragraphs of The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, first published in German in 1942, translated by Anthea Bell and published by Pushkin Press in 2009.)

Inscription in AD Divine's Dunkirk

19 Responses to “4th June 1940 – Beyond Dunkirk”

  1. Lt. Wilkinson RAMC, whose story we’ve followed since 26th May, we left on the morning of June 3rd arriving back in Dover. By 4th June he’d finally reached home, where he recorded his experiences in a notebook – the last entry being on June 5th:

    ‘June 5th
    The five [medical officers] returned to Castleman’s where a special celebration was held, so much so that George gradually became quite inarticulate and finally retired gracefully to bed.’

    (Many thanks to George Wilkinson for contributing his father’s story.)

  2. ‘Does anyone know what role was played by the Czechoslovak forces at Dunkirk? By the prominent number of Czech flags at the commemorations, it must have been considerable,’ asked Vizzer on the BBC history message board conversation about The Dunkirk Project

    Tricetarops replied: ‘the Czech presence would be about the Liberation of Dunkirk. The Czech Brigade was attached to the Canadian Army and was part of the force besieging Dunkirk 1944-45. The German army surrendered to General Liska in May 1945.

    • Roy Martin Says:

      More on Polish and Czech forces at Dunkirk and in the subsequent evacuation operations:

      A lady called Halina Macdonald first put me onto the photo (shown above of SS Alderpool crowded with evacuees) – some of her family were on the ship. (The source was the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London who gave me permission to use it in my books.) The ship ran out of food and water on the two-and-a-half-day trip. The Admiralty decided that the ship should go onto Liverpool in that state; but the Master and the Captain of the escort refused and said that they were off to Falmouth. The Admiralty then relented and let them come into Plymouth.

      There is another great Polish story from that time – how the Chorzow, a little Polish cargo ship, saved the Polish National Treasure and took it to Falmouth. From there it went to London/Glasgow and then the Batory took it to safety in Canada for the duration of the war. Another good account is how a young Czech student called Marianne Adler escaped from the south of France on a tramp steamer. Somerset Maugham was also rescued from there by the same mode of transport – he wrote about his experiences in Strictly Personal.

  3. This collection of individual voices and responses (from then and now) emphasises the diversity of the people who were involved. A nostalgic view of Britain’s ‘finest hour’ can give an odd impression of uniformity, as though all the variations of political belief, religion, class background, race, gender, sexuality, had suddenly vanished. But involved in Dunkirk were Fascists, Pacifists, Communists (and no doubt every shade of political opinion in between), many different nationalities and races, many different religions – including of course Judaism – or none, the whole range of classes (when class divisions were absolute), social outsiders of every conceivable kind – among them the gay people whose war-time experiences are now coming out – and women, still second-class citizens despite their essential contribution to the war effort.

    The united resistance to Nazism, the co-operative effort of Dunkirk, made by so many diverse kinds of people seems more extraordinary and courageous than mere unthinking obedience by a passive population. All these stories reclaim the Dunkirk myth for the individuals involved, they become separate beings again, not an army of nameless soldiers whose deaths are represented by numbers, or anonymous women nursing the wounded, but people with personalities, real lives of their own, strong voices.

    • Liz Mathews Says:

      The artist Stella Bowen, writing in July 1940, expressed this unity of resistance by multifarious individuals vividly in her book ‘Drawn from Life’:

      ‘Events [are] forcing everyone to examine the roots of their security and the charter of their citizenship… Now that the storm is here, it does not seem to matter much whether one used to be called a ‘flabby liberal’ or a ‘dirty red’. It does not matter whether one was a diligent wage-earner with an insurance policy and a hire-purchase home, or a thriftless artist who did as he liked and lived on luck and charity, for now we are all swimming for our lives in the same stormy waters… we continue to fight for our existence. And we are getting nicer all the time, so that even a poor stuck-up painter can feel sisterly towards football-fans and people who eat prunes and tapioca. Surely this is an improvement!’

      Stella Bowen’s daughter Julia Loewe wrote in 1984 about her mother: ‘she was basically apolitical, though her heart was in the right place. (Who can doubt now, that it was right to be a pacifist in the First World War, and equally right to wish to fight the Nazis in the Second?)’

  4. Liz Mathews Says:

    On the Radio 3 message board conversation ‘Echoes of Dunkirk?’ (www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbradio3.F7497566), comparing ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ with ‘the spirit of the Blitz’, a contributor asked for ‘any more stories?’

    My own family hasn’t told me any stories about Dunkirk itself (except that my mother vividly remembers the newspaper reports while it was happening, though she was only a child) but the Blitz – yes: my grandparents’ house was destroyed by a doodlebug in the last year of the war and my grandmother was severely wounded, though she saved her baby’s life. My mum climbed out of the rubble, and her younger sisters and mother were rescued – my grandfather was out at work (as a stoker in a factory) and came home to find it gone.

    My grandmother, just one of the ‘more civilians than combatants [who] were wounded and killed in the second world war’, spent several years in hospital, enduring repeated operations, and though she lived until the 1980’s, her health, her relationship with her children, and her life were profoundly affected. My family still feels some of these effects today (how not?), though it’s not something that my mum likes to talk about much.

    The past is a part of everybody’s present.

    • I was born in an air-raid, and my first memory is of being taken down into an air-raid shelter in the garden… I was wrapped up in a utility blanket – the smell and feel always brings back that – lovingly handled – descent into the dark.

      This is a wonderful project. True remembering is essential to our humanity.

  5. More on the long-term effects of Dunkirk:

    Mary contacted The Dunkirk Project passing on two stories of Dunkirk experiences.

    Harold, a neighbour, talked often in the village of being left behind. One of the rearguard, he didn’t reach Dunkirk in time to be evacuated, was captured by the Germans immediately after Dunkirk fell, and force-marched across Europe to a prison camp in Poland, where he spent the rest of the war. His bitterness lasted for the rest of his life.

    Alan, a painter from Somerset, was one of the rescuers; he took his own boat and succeeded in bringing several men home, but was so disturbed by what he had witnessed that for the rest of his life he painted almost nothing but images of Dunkirk and what he saw there.

    • linda rowley Says:

      My mother’s first husband was taken by the Germans at Dunkirk and died in a POW camp in Poland.
      My mother’s first cousin was among the last soldiers to be rescued at Dunkirk, and lived to his 80’s.
      Just the luck of the draw, I suppose.

      • David Mitchell (a conscientious objector who served his 1950’s National Service as a hospital orderly) has emailed with 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.

      • Linda Rowley added some more information to her relatives’ stories on yesterday’s page 3rd June 1940 – Towards the end. These sad stories give an insight into how the lasting consequences have resonated down the years.

  6. Liz Mathews Says:

    Vita Sackville West began work on her long poem ‘The Garden’ in 1939, and continued intermittently throughout the war. Towards the end, she wrote:

    “This war will be over soon.”
    Yes, in September or perhaps November,
    With some full moon or gibbous moon,
    A harvest moon or else a hunter’s moon
    It will be over.

    Not for the broken innocent villages,
    Not for the broken innocent hearts:
    For them it will not be over,
    The memorable dread,
    The lost home, the lost son, and the lost lover.

    Under the rising sun, the waxing moon,
    This war will be over soon,
    But only for the dead.

  7. Roy Martin Says:

    Good luck with the site.

    Troops and civilians continued to be lifted from ports in the west and south of France until 25 June. Most of the rescues were carried out by merchant ships, ranging from Ocean Liners to little coal boats. In all about a quarter of a million people were saved after Dunkirk. Among them were many Polish and Czech citizens.

    I have written a book that includes several chapters about the part played by merchant ships in the rescues from France and would be happy to provide more information if required.

    • Many thanks to Roy Martin for the stories and photo on this page about these post-Dunkirk evacuation operations, and for sharing his expertise and great fund of stories with us. More information about Roy’s books can be found on his website at http://www.brookhousebooks.co.uk – his latest book is The Suffolk Golding Mission: A Considerable Service, which tells the astonishing story of the tramp steamer Broompark, among the 180 merchant ships that sailed from France in the three weeks after Dunkirk. Instead of the 500 evacuees that Captain Paulsen expected, he was introduced to two men who were intent on saving a valuable cargo and a number of scientists… The cargo included two crates of gem diamonds (even then valued at up to £3000,000 sterling), plus the Allies’ total supply of Deuterium Oxide, a nuclear moderator, as well as 600 tonnes of machine tools and many secret papers and plans. Roy Martin’s masterly handling of this exciting story adds another twist to the evacuation tale – another extraordinary happening that seems like the stuff of fiction but is all too true.

  8. We left John Dibblee on 31st May 1940 Lovely on the Water, on the deck of a commercial vessel heading homewards, but his war experiences didn’t end there:

    For the remainder of my war, I had the misfortune to be on the Dieppe Raid, again as forward OP for an elderly gunboat with single gun. As we disembarked, I knew my role was pointless, as the naval signalman’s radio could not get any signal from our ship. We did however manage to survive as many Canadians did not, albeit as prisoners of war. A reprisal of Hitler’s was to handcuff all Officers of the Raid in captivity. We sat out the War in an OFLAG near Kassel, before joining many of the forced marches retreating from the advancing Allies. After our guards finally fled, we were picked up by American troops and returned to the UK within 48 hours, a disorientating experience.

    (Many thanks to Robin Dibblee for talking to his father John Dibblee about The Dunkirk Project, and contributing the resulting story.)

  9. Roy Martin, who has told us so much about the evacuations from France after Dunkirk by merchant ships, sent the account of an Englishwoman rescued by one of the very last ships to sail from St Jean de Luz. I’ve quoted her story at length here because it’s such a vivid account of an ordinary person’s extraordinary experiences – and also shows what the merchant ships were up against in their valiant rescue operations:

    In June 1940 Miss R Andrews was a nurse at the American Hospital in Paris (AHP) among several other English members of staff. Although ‘the French authorities and even the military were still thinking Paris would never be taken, luckily the AHP considered the situation as it concerned us four English women who – if the Germans took Paris – would certainly be interned’, and they were lent the hospital director’s Buick to drive down to an AHP nursing home in Chateauroux, about 100 miles south of Paris, to ‘stay down there until the threat of an attack on Paris of the possibility of war on French soil had blown over’, apparently unaware of the whole Dunkirk scenario. They set off on 10th June, just 3 days before the Germans marched in to Paris, ‘fully expecting to be back in Paris in a few weeks’, beginning a journey that was ‘quite ghastly. Millions of Paris inhabitants all had the same idea and the roads were jammed with cars. It was very hot and soon everyone’s car engine began to boil as we edged along.’ By evening they had made it as far as Orleans, where they met a lot of ‘RAF personnel on their way to Brest to be picked up by the ss Lancastria. We learnt later that it had been bombed by the Germans with a loss of about 3,000 men.’

    After many difficulties they arrived at Chateauroux on 12th June, ‘& found it chock full of refugees – soldiers retreating on their own, hundreds of cars, people of all nationalities, Belgian farmers with all their goods and chattels loaded onto creaking farm carts, men pushing bicycles with bulging luggage & usually a dog on the handle bars.’ There they learned that ‘the roads we had come along had been bombed by German Stukkas, and that France was to be partitioned, and all communication with Paris was henceforth cut. We knew then that there was no going back & that our future was quite uncertain – except that we had to get to England somehow, even if it meant going through Spain.’ After a week in Chateauroux, looking after refugees, ‘we decided to move on towards Bordeaux and the Spanish border [armed with] blankets and a supply of tinned food & some money’, as well as the precious Buick full of petrol.

    On the next stage of their journey they evaded ‘a strange phoney Englishman’, stopped briefly at the military hospital in Angouleme ‘full of French & Polish soldiers in wards and on corridors lying on mattresses on the floor’, learned of the fate of friends and relatives left behind in Paris and now interned for the duration, parted for ever with Miss Andrews’ little dog Vicky, ‘cried buckets’, and eventually realised how serious their situation was: ‘There was nothing we could do to help at the hospital. Everyone said that being English we must push on & get back to England if we didn’t want to spend years in an internment camp. So we went on to Bordeaux to find the British Consul & get advice.

    ‘But the town was crowded with refugees and the Consulate was besieged by frantic Brits.’ They encountered ‘an adorable young man in Naval Uniform [Ian Fleming, apparently] organising the evacuation of the entire British refugee population during one afternoon’, who advised them of the imminent arrival of a Dutch liner they could sail with, and feeling confident of this outcome, they went shopping in Biarritz – and inevitably missed the liner. The next few days were spent hanging about, exploring Biarritz and going to the Consulate twice daily for news of ships. They were rewarded on 20th June with the news of a British liner due that day. ‘We were told to drive down to the quay and that we would have to abandon our cars. As ours belonged to the Director of the AHP we hoped to do better than that so Kingie and I set off to see a rich American ex-patient & friend of the Director who lived near Biarritz.’ Of course they missed that liner too. (‘We were a bit dismayed…’)

    ‘However the next day it was announced that the very last boat would be coming in to St Jean de Luz near the Spanish border. So we made an effort & went off down there arriving in the late afternoon.’ After bravely risking a delicious meal of roast duck in ‘a famous restaurant there’, the four English women did at last manage to board the ss Ettrick, and were given a cabin to themselves by the English crew. Over the next two days before the ship sailed they were joined by ‘the remnants of the Polish army – all 600 of them’, as well as ‘King Zog of Albania with his sisters, his wife, his young baby, his retinue, his servants, his luggage, and his country’s state treasure in huge long metal coffins one of which nearly fell in the water’. The Ettrick finally got under way on Monday 24th, crammed with evacuees and accompanied by the huge liner Arandora Star, also full to bursting, and escorted by two destroyers.

    ‘For five days we zig-zagged across the Bay of Biscay’ – eventually anchoring off Plymouth on Friday 28th June, where they ‘were taken in ferry boats to the quayside where WVS women gave us bars of chocolate and a band played the Marseillaise. Well that was the first time we really realised we were refugees in our own country and I for one burst into tears.’ Later, ‘the lot of us repaired to a refreshment room in the station where ill-advisedly they bought a bottle of whiskey & made us weep all the more. After an uncomfortable seven hour journey in the guards van of our train to London we arrived next morning met at the station by a relative of one of our party who very kindly bought us a splendid English breakfast (food again!). That morning we learnt about Dunkirk.’

    (Miss Andrews’ story extracted from her account in the IWM archive, ref 99/37/1. Many thanks to Roy Martin for sending the story to The Dunkirk Project.)

  10. Roy Martin Says:

    Thanks are really due to my daughter-in-law Claire and her daughter Ruby. Armed with rather vague details they found and copied this report, and another. Plus a December 1943 collection of photographs from the Tyneham area in south Dorset, showing the many buildings that had been hurriedly evacuated for D-Day training. The people, including members of our family, were never to return and most of the properties are ruined.


  11. […] of the shell-shocked and tired young men at war, depicted in Joe Wright‘s Atonement. Thirdly, the media focused on the story of a few civilian boats, which also took part in the rescue […]

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