In which Roy joins the withdrawal to Dunkirk and is evacuated back to Dover in a Destroyer
By mid-afternoon a couple of Destroyers had anchored some three quarters of a mile off-shore. This was somewhat encouraging but, as yet, no beach control organisation had been set up. So once more it was every man for himself and one clever lad in or group (I believe it was Jack Birch) had been on ‘recce’ and found a small dinghy (apparently ownerless!), it was seized upon with great relish. It had no oars and the bung was missing from the bilge - this was soon bunged up and the boat launched. This nearly caused a disaster as most of the BEF attempted to board her and very nearly pushed it to the bottom. At this time Baron von Richthofen and his mates decided to take a hand and spray some lead around. This had the effect of producing a massive display from the Navy who turned all their Oerlikon and POM-POM guns on them. It also scattered the raiders attempting to hijack ‘our’ boat - which allowed us to paddle with make-shift bits of wood and rifle butts to HMS Javelin. We were hauled aboard, ushered below to a small cabin and served with large mugs of tea and unlimited sandwiches, which were most welcome as we’d forgotten our last meal.
No-one had told me or the Section drivers where we were heading for and by the time we got on to the main road most of the transport had been swallowed up in the confusion caused by the retreating troops and refugees. By this time light was failing and I was left with two 30cwt trucks and a 15cwt. One of which had the Section’s rations on board! We plodded on, trying to guess which way the mob had gone - we guessed wrong and eventually ended up in a farm-yard where we settled down for the night. The following day it was decided to conserve fuel so the lorries stayed put and I scoured the surrounding area on my bike to try and locate the Unit. One more night at the farm and the following morning a search party from the Unit located us and took us back to the fold. The rest of the section were most pleased to see us, or rather their rations! I got a roasting from the Section Officer for getting lost - of course.
Rumour had got around that we were to fall back on Dunkirk and the next few days were extremely chaotic. We seemed to be forever crawling along packed roads and snatching odd hours of sleep in woods, watching dive bombers attacking roads, bridges and convoys. I remember, one night, we were parked up in an old fort on a hill overlooking the town of Armentières and watching the dive bombers knocking hell out of it. There were some humorous moments that helped us along, one in particular stands out. One of the characters in the Section was a wild Irishman, one Paddy Powers, and one day when rations were very thin on the ground, we pulled in to a deserted village - except for the deserted farm animals. some of the cows were milked to ease their suffering, but Paddy decided he needed more than milk and espying a large pig he whips out a machete and proceeds to chase the squealing animal half-way round the village. To roars of encouragement he finally caught it and the section enjoyed a memorable meal that night! Within sight of Dunkirk orders were given for the destruction of vehicles and stores. This task was carried out with heavy hearts - to wilfully smash up perfectly good vehicles with sledge hammers etc., went against the grain. Especially as so many hours had been put in to maintain them in a road worthy condition. However, two or three trucks (and my Ariel) were saved and used to carry the sick and war-weary to the docks.
By this time it was more or less every man for himself as communication with Authority had broken down. Rumours went around that we were to be embarked the following morning (the 27th, I believe), so a small party of us sat around on some sandy wasteland at the dockside listening to a small portable radio. How this came into our possession, I know not! To our surprise, with a loud whistle, a bomb landed on the inoffensive radio, pushed it down into the sand and exploded. Luckily the sand absorbed the explosion and not one of us got hurt! As night was drawing on we were told to move on through the town, which was by now well alight and still being bombed, and make for the sand dunes to the north of the harbour. I had by now bid a fond farewell to the trusty Ariel and handed it over to a sergeant in the RASC who was destined to stay put for a while - I hope it brought him luck!
The walk to the beach was not without incident as the Luftwaffe had taken a violent dislike to our presence and vented their spleen with some gentle bombing and strafing. However, I duly arrived with a small group of about half-a-dozen assorted drivers and sappers and we made ourselves reasonably comfortable in a hewn-out dugout in the sand dunes. We snatched the odd forty winks, but spent most of the night watching the fireworks over the town and harbour and the flames and massive black clouds of smoke from the burning oil storage tanks. Whilst on this theme, I might mention that shortly after the radio bombing incident, a ship laden with ammunition, tied up in an adjoining dock, received a direct hit and went up with an almighty ‘Bang!’. Once more our luck held out - no casualties.
Come the dawn and the only sign of shipping we could see was a distant Destroyer hovering about outside the harbour entrance. Odd groups of troops started wandering about the beach searching for food or amusement. One or two dispatch riders had got hold of a couple of motor bikes and enjoyed some sand racing until our Luftwaffe friends put a stop to that! A young officer, (Unit unknown), had dug himself into an adjoining fox-hole and drunk himself into a stupor from a large cask of rum - probably lifted from the Quartermasters’s stores. Having finished it off he proceeded to draw his revolver and threatened to shoot one and all. He eventually collapsed into a drunken slumber and was relieved of his gun - he’s probably still there!
After this meal I fell asleep and awoke some hours later alongside the Western Dock at Dover, where we were loaded on a train and despatched to Aldershot. Apart from a short break for tea and buns, served at Paddock Wood station, I slept for the whole journey. On arrival at Aldershot we were installed in a temporary tented camp where I remember crawling on to trestle table and falling asleep again. Eventually came back to earth on Sunday morning the 1st of June. Joined a queue at a phone box and got through to home and reported my safe arrival.
The Destroyer, HMS Javelin (F61) in the above picture, is remembered in a website authored by Harry Amey, whose father served on her.
Refugees on the road to Dunkirk