WE are now commemorating what was probably the greatest military evacuation in history – the rescue of 338,226 Allied troops from Dunkirk and the beaches between 27 May and 4 June, 1940.
I have special reason for remembering – for my Uncle Bill was number 300,003 and my Uncle Herb number 300,004 – or thereabouts. The numbers have to be a guess really – say to the nearest 50,000 – for at the time everyone on the beaches and the quay sides were too busy keeping their heads down to make an exact tally of who was where and when.
It was enough that Bill and Herb were there. Two brothers from London's East End who'd joined up the same day. Their meeting on the beaches of Dunkirk was the only such encounter they had throughout the war. Both made it back to England and carried on the fight in different theatres of war.
Dunkirk was a time of heartbreak for tens of thousands, but for Bill and Herb it was not the blood and carnage that concerned them so much as a Dear John letter from his wife carried by Bill on the great retreat through Belgium and France to Dunkirk. Herb's was a much simpler – and shorter – period of heartbreak.
Herb's passion since school days had been motorbikes – and when war broke out he was still saving to buy his first bike. When he finished his training he volunteered to become a dispatch rider-- and he became for all intents the owner and proud user of a brand new motor bike – and the taxpayer had footed the bill! For once the army, notorious for usually putting round pegs into square holes, had done the right thing and put the right man into the right job.
For a short time Herb was in paradise, wedded to his sparkling new machine. Day by day he and his bike carried messages of up and down the military lines of communication. At first, messages of hope and optimism. Then growing despair. Until Uncle Herb and his shining machine wound up with so many others at Dunkirk – where both man and machine were expelled from their Eden by a large and muscular military angel in the form of a military police sergeant enforcing orders from on high.
Herb had foolishly thought he would be taking his cherished bike back home with him. But the rescue ships had space only for men, not machines. When he was ordered to drive his bike into the sea and sabotage its essential parts, he refused. It was then the military policeman drew his pistol and gave Herb a choice – obey orders or else. Still protesting and shouting obscenities to the world, Herb did as he was told, and with a broken heart put his wonderful very own first motor bike out of action and at the mercy of water and salt. It was some consolation that the Nazis wouldn't have her.
Then a miracle happened – among the thousands who clung to life on the beaches as German Stuka dive bombers carried out a relentless bombardment, Herb met his brother Bill – and for the only time in all the years of war that followed, they served together briefly and as they waited for rescue they shared accounts of their heartache.
Once back in England they parted and didn't meet again for six years – their military careers following paths as widely divergent as North Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Balkans, France, and Germany.
But before he could get on with the big war Bill, who was in a state of permanent rage, needed\to find a way to cure his heartbreak. Bill was not one of those who sided with the 'Vengeance is a dish best eaten cold' brigade. Bill believed in getting stuck in – and the sooner the better.
Like many of those who came back from Dunkirk, after joining a unit and being kitted out, Bill was given a short leave. His first call was to what had been until recently his happy matrimonial home in Luton.
Bill had only been married a little more than a year when the war started. He'd done well by his new bride, and money he'd saved was gladly spent on new furniture for their home. She'd only to name it, and he bought it. And did she name it!
When Bill went to war, like most people he thought he'd soon be home again – back to his Eden.
Unfortunately, a serpent wormed his way into Bill's Eden and into the arms of his wife (known from that time to Bill's family as 'that cow').The serpent was one of those men who escaped military service because they could afford the services of an obliging doctor and a faint heart became translated into a weak heart, or because they were in 'essential occupations'. Most were essential, but for some it meant they worked in a factory, were handy with a screwdriver and spanner, and were well in with the manager.
Such a one was Bill's serpent and he was at home in Eden when Bill came seeking retribution. Unfortunately, Bill was unable to get in – his wife had prudently changed all the locks to their Eden.
And so, as Bill stood shouting and banging on the door, Fate, in the guise of a Luton constable on his evening round, took another hand in Bill's matrimonial affairs.
After listening to Bill's somewhat incoherent story of what he was doing, the fatherly representative of the law put his arm round Bill's shoulder, gently edged him away from the house and onto the pavement. 'Now, now, young fellow. We don't want to get into trouble, do we?' he asked . 'Why don't you go home and sleep it off now. You'll feel better in the morning.'
Bill might have replied that he was at home, was in trouble already, and didn't share the constable's sunny optimism about the curative powers of sleep. But being a law abiding (more or less) young man he gave up for the night and travelled to my home to stay with my mother and father. But it was only a temporary retreat.
The next evening Bill was back in Luton. Aided by the blackout, he waited unobserved under a railway arch that spanned the road a few hundred yards from his house. He guessed, correctly, that his wife and her lover, would have to pass under the arch on their way to the local pub. A few heated words were exchanged by all three parties, two of the parties abandoned words in favour of direct action, at the end of which the serpent was wishing he'd chosen a safer essential occupation – such as clearing land mines on the Russian front. Bill's knuckles were still raw when he arrived home that night and my mother bathed and bandaged his hands. Those busted knuckles – and a broken heart – were the only wounds he suffered in six years of war. He recovered from both quite rapidly.
Bill never saw or had contact with his treacherous Eve again. He used the quickie divorce system which the Army had set up to deal with such cases – the divorces usually came at the end of the war but the wife's allowances and pension rights stopped immediately.
Bill went off to do some training with the Commandos in Scotland. We next saw him later in the year when he came home on leave and the big blitz had started on London. He only stayed two nights – before heading back to Scotland. He said he wanted to get out of London – the bombing made him nervous.
A few days after he'd left, Bill's family were involved in their own kind of Dunkirk evacuation. His mother and sisters were forced to flee from their top floor flat when incendiary bombs came through the roof. In the light of the burning East End docks they trudged miles through water and rubble in search of shelter. They thought they had found refuge at a school in Deptford, but relief turned to despair when they were turned away because it was already overcrowded with homeless men, women and children. They eventually found helter in another – and the next day found out the first school had been hit by a bomb shortly after they had been turned away. Virtually every one of the hundreds of souls in the building had died. Including another of Bill's sisters.
As for me, my life was abruptly turned upside down up by the events leading up to Dunkirk, which was just some 20 odd miles across the English Channel from where I was living – Folkestone. Like tens of thousands of other London children I was evacuated the Channel coast, some bright spark in Whitehall obviously thought it a jolly good idea to get the capital's children as close to the enemy as possible.
It's not a matter that occupied my mind at the time. I enjoyed living in Folkestone – especially being chased by cavalry men, sabres drawn, when caught sneaking through Shorncliffe Camp when on our way to school at Sandgate.
I was much put out when forced to leave Sandgate in the mass evacuation of the coastal area's children, many of them like me bundled off to Wales. Our London classes had been most comfortably billeted at a Church of England school within spitting distance of the Channel waves. Each day, from time to time, the sturdy ecclesiastical stone-built classroom would shake, rattle and roll, as the mine hunters found and caught a Nazi mine, or the Royal Navy dropped depth charges on real or imagined submarines.
For the next few months my school work deteriorated while I was in Wales. I put it down to all that peace and quiet! It wasn't until a bit later in the war, when a mobile Bofors ack-ack gun used to park outside the front door of my house nearly every night at 9pm and let off a few rounds before speeding away to another site, that my arithmetic and English showed marked improvement!