A day at Dunkirk
John Pilkington Hudson
[scanned 30 July 2007 by his son Richard]
This odd item, with no beginning or end, was written on a long train journey from Christchurch to Dunedin, New Zealand, typed up, and forgotten! It is an authentic account of one of the bits of Dunkirk that I vividly remembered, written in 1946, only five years after the event.
As we topped the slight rise and saw the sea, we knew that our long walk to Dunkirk was over. We learned later that this was not Dunkirk town, but a small seaside resort, Bray Dunes, about three miles east of Dunkirk. The road, flanked by typical French seaside villas, ended at the Promenade, which had the usual ornamental iron railings and steps leading down to the sea.
It was now about 5 a.m., and broad daylight; but the air still had an early-morning chill although the sun was shining. The little seaside town looked normal, apart from the heavy pall of smoke to the east, the busy stir of soldiers unusual at such an early hour, and the complete absence of any civilians. The soldiers were an odd-looking sample, although I can’t remember realising this at the time – by now we had seen so many bewildering and even incredible sights that I suppose nothing seemed odd any more.
Until last Tuesday, after years of peace and a few months of “phoney” war, we had thought of soldiers as appearing only in three conditions – either moving in an ordered body from place to place, with or without their personal equipment, or, off duty, appearing shaven and neat in public, or in more or less undress moving about camp or billets or on fatigues.
It was therefore astonishing in a public street to see parties of soldiers, obviously going somewhere, often with equipment, yet walking in groups like parties of hikers out for a ramble. Nor had we before seen British soldiers in public with stubby, long-unshaven chins.
Our water bottles were empty and, feeling thirsty, we turned into the front gate of one of the villas to ask for a drink and refill our bottles. Having knocked and had no answer, I walked through the open front door and found five British soldiers sitting round the kitchen table which was heaped in wild disorder with dirty pots, half empty tins of food, and other remains of previous meals. With true hospitality (in other peoples’ homes) they invited us in and offered breakfast, which we declined in view of our earlier and unconventional but satisfying meal. We were glad, however, to drink a cup of tea, whilst one of us said chattily that we would like to fill our water bottles at the tap and then push on to the sea where, we had heard, troops were being embarked. We had heard vague rumours that we were to be shipped to Cherbourg to re-fit, or else (too good to be true) to England. This seemed to amuse our hosts, who seemed to be well-informed and soon brought us to earth with a bump with last night’s B.B.C. news which they had heard over the villa’s wireless set. For the first time for several days we began to realise what was actually happening, although we never realised the significance of Dunkirk until after our return to England.
The five in the villa had arrived with their unit on Monday, three days before, and had been told to wait on the beach to be “lifted.” In the course of a few hours they had watched two ships loading with troops and a hospital ship sunk within a mile of the shore. Their units had been scattered when the beach was bombed, and the five had decided to stay ashore. They had come to the villa, whose owner had long since left for “safety,” together with most of the other local inhabitants, and who was now no doubt
a refugee camping in the barn of an inland farm. The five had lived in the villa for three days doing themselves well on the contents of the housewife’s store cupboards, and here they were resolved to stay until something turned up – the sinkings had left them with a permanent distaste for sea transport.
This story shattered two more of our cherished illusions. As soldiers we knew that our lives and movements had always been part of an ordered plan, however obscure it might seem, yet here were soldiers apparently pleasing themselves and ordering their own destinies. Moreover, we had.all, I think, imagined that “evacuation” would be more or less like “embarkation”; but it now seemed clear that this would not be at all an orderly “going aboard” like our embarkation at Southampton some few months before.
One of us went to the sink to fill a water bottle, but the tap was dry. Perhaps a bomb had severed a main, or perhaps the owner had carefully turned off the water at the main before leaving – I never knew. They told us we could get water at a place further up the street which, fortunately as it turned out, we did.
Rather subdued at the news we went down the street to the Promenade, where we were dove-tailed neatly back into the B.E.F. by an N.C.O. of the Military Police, who told us to report to the Beachmaster (a term new to our vocabulary at the time) at the eastern end of .the Promenade. The Beachmaster was represented by a very weary-looking subaltern sitting behind someone’s drawing room table placed at the head of the steps leading down to the sands. He asked us what Division we belonged to, an indication, had we realised it, of the degree to which the B.E.F. had disintegrated – rank and file may stray away from their unit in battle, but rarely become separated from their Division. (“Geordie,” an infantryman from Glasgow, had joined us for company on the
walk to Dunkirk. His conversation was almost unintelligible, except for a few swear words in common usage throughout the army, and he, apparently, didn’t know what Division his unit did belong to. He started with us for the beach, but left us soon afterwards, and I never saw him again. Perhaps he saw some of his pals there.) On being told “44th” the Beachmaster’s subaltern directed us to a part of the beach bounded by two wrecked launches where we were told we would “rejoin our units.”
It was heavy going over a mile or so of loose sand to “our” part of the beach. Troops were everywhere, many standing four deep in long sinuous queues which stretohed down to the edge of the sea. The significance of these queues did not dawn on us until several hours later. Much of the sand was covered with a layer of thick blaok oily stuff that looked like tar – and the meaning of this, too, escaped us at the time. We realised later that the “tar” was fuel oil escaping from the tanks of wrecks lying off shore and washing in with the tide. It was horrible, dirty stuff which got on to everything and wouldn’t come off.
A wild medley of personal belongings and abandoned equipment was scattered over the beach. The sea was calm. The tide was partly out. Several motor launches and small vessels lay on the sands, whilst the masts and funnels of wrecked ships could be seen here and there off shore, and a white-painted hospital ship was lying aground, in shallow water, with smoke coming lazily from several unexpected places in her hull and superstructure. This was no doubt the hospital ship which the soldiers in the villa had seen bombed and sunk three days before.
At that time we saw no ships afloat, although plenty came later; but we noticed quite a lot of fellows, some quite or almost naked, lying in the sun by the edge of the water. It was a shook when later we realised that they were dead. Some had been drowned whilst trying to get into small boats, many drowned when small boats were bombed and capsized, whilst several were sailors washed ashore from the sunken ships. These dead, washing gently in the water as it rose,or left on the sands as the tide went out, became a feature of the Dunkirk beaches. One day we saw a squad of soldiers with an R.A.S.C. lorry collecting bodies, whilst another time a working party with a pile of blankets started covering them up. I heard a lance corporal being very indignant because “they” hadn’t come and taken care of the bodies, but it is doubtful whose responsibility it is to provide burial parties in an unprecedented operation like this. Many mounds and crosses at the foot of the dunes marked the resting place of those whom someone had found time to bury, and bore testimony to the inherent respect which British troops show to their dead. Never having previously seen many dead people, it was surprising to notice how calm and peaceful were the faces of most of those I saw (almost all drowned).
After wandering about for an hour without seeing a familiar face in the innumerable jumbled groups of troops on the shore, we gave up trying to “rejoin our unit,” and about 7 a.m. went up into the dunes, which here lie behind the shore, to get out of the rather cold wind on the beach. These dunes, low sandhills, up to perhaps 15 feet high, and covered in places with coarse grass, were several hundred yards deep between the shore and the farmlands behind. We found a sheltered spot, a few yards from the neach, shared some army biscuits and the slab of cream chocolate taken the day before from the abandoned Belgian car, and, being now tired and warm in the sun, all fell
asleep. We woke, hungry, about ten o’clock, and decided to look for food in the dunes. It was soon clear that this would be a fruitless search. Although the dunes were littered with equipment, belongings and supplies of all sorts, there was nothing whatever which could be eaten or drunk. We gradually realised that the dunes were full of permanent residents. In shelters made from a few petrol tins, in waterproof-sheet bivouacs and in hollows burrowed in the sandhills, soldiers were living a comfortable, carefree and lawless sort of life. Some of them, sunning themselves, with nothing on, outside their shelters, said they had been there six days, and all declared that the sight of ships being sunk off shore had left them with a distaste for the sea. These dune-dwellers had, of course, long since cleaned up everything to eat and drink on the dunes or shore, and many were no doubt well-provisioned, although few seemed to realise or care what would be in store for them if they stayed. None of the rank and file then realised that this was a total and permanent evacuation, and the dune-dwellers seemed to think that the tide would soon turn and “we” should start pushing the Germans back. One chap, with an unshakable faith in tbe Guards, then defending the perimeter, said that the tighter we were squeezed the harder we should counter attack (“see what happens to a spring when you squeeze it”) overlooking the fact that most of the British Army was on the beach with no equipment, getting its feet wet, and peering out to sea for signs of shipping.
By 11 o’clock we were back on the beach, where we were suddenly hailed by a dozen voices. By good luck. we had evidently wandered in the right direction, and we “rejoined our unit” (or the three-quarters of it which had reassembled) with a feeling of coming home. Still no shipping in sight, and a few patient queues of soldiers were still formed up, extending from the very edge of the sea back up shore. Our “unit,” about two hundred men of the 44th Division Royal Engineers (mainly personnel of Divisional headquarters and 2llth Field Park Company, R.E.) was squatting on the shore. We heard the comforting news that the C.R.E. (a man to inspire confidence) was leading the party, and that he had at present gone off to find out what was happening. It was a wonderful relief to feel that once again we “belonged” to someone with authority and knowledge of the situation.
The C.R.E. returned shortly after, and we started to move, plodding a mile or more over the loose sand until we came to a wall surrounding a huge brick building on the dunes. This proved to be a large French military hospital, where some obliging convalescing poilus later took our water bottles and filled them with a tepid, green and noisome liquid, which passed for water, from an open tank in the garden, no doubt used for watering by the gardener. This we subsequently drank with, as far as I know, no ill
effects (after having for months been drilled on no account ever to drink water in France from any source except the unit water cart.
I learned long afterwards from an officer on the C.R.E’s staff that not only had each division been. allotted an area, but had been made responsible for organising its own embarkation. In our neighbouring divisions the organisation consisted simply of forming queues on the beach, a technique we ourselves later followed. The queues, in many of which men stood for several days, experienced serious and unexpected technical difficulties connected with the rise and fall of the tide, and the reluctance of men to leave a queue for the purpose of foraging for food and water, whilst queueing was, of course, undesirable when the beach was being shelled or bombed. In consequence, personnel in the queues tended to suffer acute personal discomforts which could have been avoided.
The 44th Divisional plan was for each unit to be dispersed and “dug in” in the dunes, and for each to supply two guides who would be located at Divisional Headquarters, established at a vantage point on the beach in front of the hospital. Each unit was allotted a number, written down and put in a hat. When a ship was seen in the offing a number was drawn and the lucky unit’s guides chased back with the news to the area where their men were dispersed. The group at once formed up on the water’s edge in the hope that the ship would decide to “lift” troops from that part of the beach.
This was an admirable scheme, typical of the British genius for improvising a workable plan to meet an unexpected situation. It did not, however, work too well, as few boats visited our sector of the beach during the rest of the morning and afternoon. This may have been because our beach was relatively uncrowded with, of course, only one expectant queue at a time, whereas queues were far more numerous elsewhere. Since ship masters were only interested in lifting as many troops in as short a time as possible, and were indifferent which troops they loaded, it was natural that they should lie off the most crowded parts of the beach and give scant attention to an almost deserted part of the beach. “The well-laid plans of mice and men …….!”
During the early afternoon the quartermaster and a small party, including myself, went foraging in a small valley running from the sea to the railway behind the dunes. Threading our way between a press of abandoned French and Belgian vehicles of all sorts, mostly horse-drawn, my party searched in vain for food or drink, since all the vehicles had already been thoroughly ransacked, no doubt by the “dune dwellers.” The quartermaster, however, was more fortunate, finding nearby a sackful of tinned foods.
We made an ill-balanced but very welcome meal of the tinned stuff, which included some delicious French pate; but there was. not enough to really satisfy our growing hunger.
Late in the afternoon, after hours of restless and fruitless waiting, word came for us to queue on the beach, which we did at once, whilst other units of the Division followed suit. I never heard whether this move was due to abandonment of the Divisional plan, or whether it was a spontaneous movement as units realised that we were not getting anywhere. Dispersal in any case seemed pointless, as there had been neither bombing nor shelling, at any rate on our part of the beach, all afternoon, and troops have short memories. On the other hand, to be actually standing on the shore seemed to bring us a big step nearer home.
We now had an opportunity of studying what were surely the strangest queues of all time, and learned something of the technique of “queueing up for England.” The idea was for a unit to form a column three or four deep, with the front men at the edge of the waves, or even, preferably, standing in the water. The queues were spaced a chain or two apart, and some of them were most exclusive. If anyone tried to join the end of a queue he would be asked “Wha’ cher in chum?” If he belonged to the batallion or regiment or corps concerned (the basis of admittance varying in three queues I personally observed) he would be “admitted,” but if not he wouldbe warned off. This seems arbitrary, but the idea was to keep the queue short and “save a place at the end of the queue” for stragglers of their own outfit who might still appear.
Other queues, on the other hand, accepted all comers (at the right end, of course) and became of gigantic proportions, but it was generally considered that you stood a better chance in a small queue than at the rear of a longer one. I believe that queues on some parts of the beaches were strictly ordered and marshalled by the commanding officers of the units concerned, whereas in other parts of the beach there seemed to be nobody in particular in command, officers, N.C.O’s and men of hopelessly mixed units stood side by side in the queues and patiently waited their turn to be lifted.
About this time a motor life-boat appeared (many life-boats took part in the evacuation). The queues sprang into life, started yelling and waving,and the head of each queue moved out to sea. The front men waded out until they could go no further, and were up to their waists, chests or arm-pits according to individual height. The rest of the queue, of course, followed, with a certain amount of good natured pushing and jostling from behind, which imperilled the very lives of the front men. Sailors dislike coming too near inshore on a flat beach, because of the risk of grounding, and it was natural to suppose that the further we waded out the more chance there was of our particular queue being chosen by the boat.
The life-boat went to one queue (I don’t know how it decided which to attend), the life-boatmen hauled aboard as many men as they could pack in, and, within a few minutes, was chugging back to sea, heading for England. Excitement died down, most of the queues moved back on to land and everyone settled down again to wait for something else to turn up.
This manoeuvre could, of course, only have been carried through in an almost dead calm sea, and the perfect weather at the end of May, 1940, saved thousands of lives. Even so, I have heard since of at least one man at the head of a queue who, numbed with cold, slipped under in the excitement and was drowned within a few yards of shore and within a few feet of his fellows. Seamen on the merchant ships have also said that many soldiers, scrambling aboard from small boats with sodden greatcoats and even packs on their backs, slipped into the sea and were carried under and drowned with no hope of rescue.
Human nature being what it is, and everyone anxious to get away, it was noticeable that, as the tine went out, the head of the queues kept edging forward. When the tide turned and started to come in there was a general reluctance to move back on the part of those behind, with the result that those in front were soon standing in water that became deeper and deeper. I saw a queue which “stayed put” whilst the rising tide came up to the waist of the men in front and then receded to their ankles, simply because there was no one in the queue with sufficient gumption to move it back. The more orderly queues, of course, retired to the rear as the sea rose, and only entered the sea when a boat was in sight.
Several times during the evening launches and relatively small craft came to the beaches, picked the end off a queue (but never from our particular one), and went away again; but no larger ships visited that section of the beach during the day so far as I saw. Far to the east, however, a considerable amount of activity could be seen, including lorry movements across the sands which seemed to have no purpose, but which were explained next day.
It was a warm sunny day of calm seas and cloudless sky, such as Whitsuntide holiday makers dream of but seldom see in May. Apart from the fact that we had all had little to eat for 48 hours, and most of us had wet feet and lege, covered with sticky black oil, it was not unpleasant standing there in the fresh air with nothing to do but wait. There had been no sign, on our part of the beach at any rate, of enemy action during the day. At about 6 o’clock in the evening, however, there was a loud crash, followed by others, and we were under shell-fire from German field artillery.
The enemy was shelling the beaches, where there was an unprecedented collection of unprotected personnel. It was plainly unwise for the queues to remain in close formation on the beach, yet each was reluctant to leave and so forfeit a possible chance of being “lifted.”
Some units broke away to the sand dunes; but we stood firm, and, fortunately, the shelling died down shortly afterwards with no harm done, so far as we could see.
After days in the open air, and especially this day, spent on the sands in the blazing sun, we were now all burned brick-red or dark brown, and, mostly unshaven, must have looked a pretty tough set of ragamuffins.
We stayed in that queue all night. After the sun went down it got cold and miserable, although never quite pitch dark. We could just see the ripples marking the edge of the sea, and a glow to the west where Dunkirk town still burned – the flame by night and pillar of smoke by day which had now for so long been a background to the scene. My own recollections of that night in the queue are hazy, and I must have dozed off a good deal. We spent much of it, of course, sitting or lying or leaning on each other, half asleep and shivering; but were startled into life every now and again when shouts from other queues showed that a boat was about. As soon as anyone spotted a boat (or thought that they did) we all started to yell like madmen and wave our arms, the latter a useless gesture in the dark, though it no doubt helped to keep us warm. The cry was naturally taken up by neighbouring queues in the hope that the boat would make in their direction. At the same time the queues tended to surge a little forward, to the discomfort of the front men, who now had very cold feet and were trying to keep out of the water. Should a boat actually have appeared the queue would no doubt have gone well out into the water to meet it; but, despite a good deal of shouting and many false alarms, no boat came to us, or our neighbours, during the hours of darkness that night.
Throughout the night odd men and small parties wandered aimlessly along the edge of the sea. One of my few vivid recollections of that night was of a lonely voice whose plaintive “Boat Aho-o-o-y” seemed to come every few minutes away on our right. At one time, before it was quite dark, a few shells landed near enough to persuade us to “dig in” the sand, which we did with our billy cans, tin hats, or hands, after moving back up the sand to get enough depth above the water table. These little slit trenches proved remarkably cosy to men as tired as we were, especially to those of us still with gas capes in which we could wrap up to keep the wind out; but we later abandoned them to take up a position nearer the sea where we could see better what was going on.
Standing on the sea-shore, even at the end of May in unusually fine weather, cannot be recommended as a way of spending a night.
It should be explained here that troops were lifted from Dunkirk in three main ways. Ships of all sizes went into the harbour at Dunkirk port, tied up, and took on board very large numbers of troops. This technique had the disadvantage that the ship was, for a time, a sitting, stationery target for enemy artillery and dive-bombers. On the other hand, troops could be taken aboard at the double and at a rapid rate, so that the ship had to remain in the debatable waters for a relatively short time, but it involved great concentrations of troops in the dock area.
An alternative was for ships to embark troops from the shores flanking Dunkirk, where there were many thousands of men dispersed over several miles of beaches. The grave disadvantage of this method was that ships had to lie well off shore in tricky channels of deeper water, and either anchor or cruise slowly about whilst they picked up their complement of men. The ships could not, naturally, ferry troops out from the shore, since they had not the men or boats to handle the large number of men involved, although I believe some ship’s boats did come ashore to lift troops. The army was, therefore, made responsible for ferrying troops from shore, to waiting ships (although, of course, we ourselves knew nothing of this at the time). This was a deadly slow business; ships might be 1ying offshore for hours, vulnerable to bombing (though so far out of range of German field artillery). There was a fair supply of small boats on the beaches – local rowing and fishing boats and many folding and assault boats of the army’s normal supply. Two factors, however, slowed down embarkation by this method. The first was the fact that it is extremely difficult for unprotected troops to fill a small boat unless the manoeuvre is under strict control. The boat has, of course, to be near enough to the shore for men to wade out to it. Those who have tried it will recall that it is not too easy to hoist oneself into a rowing boat in a bathing costume after a swim. It is desperately hard to do so in full clothing, especially with a greatcoat, all sodden with water, if you are numbed with cold and tired out after several days without enough food or sleep. By dint of pushing from below and heaving from above as many men are at last crammed in the boat as it will hold (and probably more – a good many small boats were foundered in a few feet of water by overloading or incompetent loading from one side without a sufficient counter-weighting of the other.) When loaded it would often be found that the boat was firmly grounded by the weight of load. If it couldn’t be pushed off by those left behind, someone had to get out, and there was usually a marked reluctance on the part of those in the boat to do so. I actually saw one boat-load arguing the point whilst the ebbing tide, which ran strongly on this flat beach, left the boat high and dry, still filled with soldiers looking remarkably foolish! The second factor slowing down off-shore embarkation was the fact that, on arriving at a ship, all the men in the boat were, naturally enough, eager to get on board. This resulted in the boat being abandoned, often with its oars adrift, and led to a grave “wastage” of small boats available on the beach. A number of the boats were permanently manned by sappers, who made many trips between shore and ships and back again, and these boats were not, of course, “lost;” but boats later became so scarce because of abandonment that a collection service was started (of which more later).
[End of typescript: Handwritten notes: lines of lorries, collection service, walk to Dunkirk]
[For information: he eventually got back to England and reached Gretta (and us), who was at the time living somewhere near Yeovil, by joining a train party intended for a different part of the army; he may have only stayed with us for a few hours before rejoining the unit he was meant to belong to.]