This account of the British retreat to Dunkirk and the evacuation that followed was written by Gunner Sidney Fowler and was originally published in the Newsletter of the Friends' Hall Gooch Street, Birmingham.
The document was provided to us by David Woodhead, whose father was a friend of Sidneys.
We had been in our positions for about two days when Jerry made the attack. We had the order to fall back when a Major told us to go into our positions again, but a few hours later the B.D.R. came told us to withdraw and just as our troops were coming out of action Jerry came through the woods.
He withdrew and sent infantry to outflank us with tommy guns and light machine guns. Seven Anti-tank guns had got out before he came and they travelled as fast as a Bedford can go and after leaving Jerry behind they stopped and put a couple of lorries across the road and left them burning to hinder Jerry when he came up. A few of our troops were left behind to hold Jerry back with two Bren Guns. All the cover they had was a petrol pump. One of these gunners held them off until they got under and spiked the guns. The Captain was shot three times in the back and was driven off with a N.C.O. who had brought hum to the lorry. With another driver they set off again. After going a bit further they threw the Captain out; he was dead; before that they had taken all papers from him. We had a roll call the next day. Still some men missing but most of them came in during the day. Out of the 90 men trapped only five were taken prisoner and two killed.
In the afternoon those who were not on duty were either sleeping or washing their things when the guns of both sides started again. After about an hour Jerry drops one short - as a matter of fact it was only 50 yards in the field next to us, and one of our men, a fitter, got lifted up and thrown against the wall of a café and he was very lucky that he did not suffer anything worst than shock. If you had been there you would (after, but not at the time) have had a good laugh over it, because at one time they were asleep, the next there was nothing in sight except the lorries.
THE FRENCH REFUGEES
After about an hour, word came from B.H.Q., to get ready to move in five minutes. Inside that time we were on the road. After about another hour and a half waiting we started to move off. We passed through a town that had been heavily shelled by Jerry - worse than the centre of Birmingham, because they had the range and was shelling it for ten hours.
Meanwhile there was one thing which I hope never to see over here, that is people of all ages, young and old, taking just a few belongings on their back or in cars or wagons, sometimes pulled by horses or cattle. So thick was the throng that we could hardly get by. We were on one side of the river and the French were on the other. They had a fire on which they were doing some cooking. The flames from this fire was four or five feet high, so we shouted across to them to put it out, but would they: - no, - until we were forced to put a shot over their heads; they soon put it out then. I was on duty again during the night and again Jerry started to shell and it was not long before we answered him with our own.
The next morning we rolled our blankets up and put them in the lorries in case we have to move off in a hurry, then we set to, having a bite of food and a drink of tea, We happen to turn the wireless on to hear the B.B.C. news and heard the King of Belgium has given word to his army and all his services to pack up. This was the first time we had heard that they had stopped fighting. To-day we had about ten fowl given us, so we started to clean them and help cook the dinner; when it was half cooked there came an order from B.H.Q., to get ready in five minutes to move.
The French had moved out some hours earlier while we were asleep, but at this point, just let me say a few words about their guns, etc. In the first place they were too soft - not hard enough like our English metal, so that when they came under fire the barrels became too hot and their A.T. Shells would not go inside the tanks as they were not powerful and hard enough. But one of men handling the Bren kept Jerry at nay long enough for our men to get our gums out; for this he won the M.M.
In the following afternoon, after we had got over the news of the Belgium King, we had orders to move and be on the road in two minutes; this was done and after waiting against an hour or two we finally got under way. After going here and there we reach a school which was close to the French border.
Started to dig trenches to-day after we had the lorries under cover; while we were digging, a lone plane came over, dropped his load just after the A.A. hit him. He tried to get control of the plane against but couldn't, so bales out but he left his machine guns on. He was found 1 ½ miles from where he landed, his plane came down five miles away.
Everything went quiet for a bit. We heard on the news to-day that Jerry has broken through at Sedan and had reached the coast, but still they said we were retreating according to plan. To-day a man who we learned later was dressed up as a tommy, riding through the town as a D.R. called out "the Germans are a mile away, you better pack up quick". Inside two minutes they were leaving the town. This was a lie but both France and Belgium were rotten with this sort of German of both sexes. Our Captain was killed and his driver wounded by these sort of people. Nothing further happens to-day. We manage, by putting so much apiece, to buy some loaves.
To-night we all went to sleep except for the two sentries. Must have been to sleep about an hour when the order came to move and we had to move out in a hurry because Jerry's barrage was creeping up; already the windows had almost gone. We had been on the road about to hours, sometimes in France and back in Belgium, when we stopped near a mansion; it was just before this that we saw Belgian soldiers breaking their arms over the rocks at the side of the road.
A few hours sleep and we were up again. Took food out to the lads but we could not get through. 68 Byt., try to do the same as use but overshot our lines, went into the German lines and were killed. Just a little food left, no rations getting to us, still don't know that we are heading for Dunkirk.
THE ROAD TO DUNKIRK
In the morning we move off at about 10.0 a.m. We had been riding for four hours when 25 planes came over us; everyone took cover, I leaped a barbed wire fence into some water where I was covered half to my knees. After they had passed over we carry on till night fall when we stopped for the night. It was here we first learn that we were heading for Dunkirk. One of our lorries missing with two men; expect they will turn up shortly. After we put the lorries under cover, we made our bed, then has a hot cup of tea, then we went to bed.
The N.C.O. in charge of us call us all together and told us about Dunkirk, told us to throw all our spare kit away and keep one blanket only, gas mask and steel helmet. This we did. After this it took us about an hour to make roads for the lorries to get out, with the brush wood that was by the side of the road. The reason we had to make these roads was owing to the mud, as the lorries would sink in and not be able to get out. This took us well until dinner-time.
Two of us went into a farmhouse near by. There was nobody in it, the doors open so in we went and found three loaves; these we brought away with us as there were signs of the people leaving in a hurry. These loaves were shared between us, it ran to 1 ½ pieces each; it was our first bit of food since early yesterday morning.
After dinner we had to be ready to be on the rad. Again our 30 cwt trucks were told to go back and pick up the infantry. Meantime we was given our share of cigs. The two drivers of the 30 cwt trucks had theirs before they left. Soon they came back with the infantry, some of them got on our 15 cwt. It wasn't long before we started moving in the convoy. After going a few miles we came to a place where there were three tonners on both sides but they could not be driven as Jerry had machine-gunned along the road and had hit the lorries, also private cars. But just before then he happened to bomb and hit a petrol store in the woods and there were some burnt out lorries there; we had to get past one by one and could only just manage it; going further along the road we got stopped by Military Police who hold us up for an hour. Some of the convoy got through after this but five lorries were held up for another half hour: it was because of this we lost them so we made our way as best we could to Dunkirk. After stopping the night in a wood we left early next morning. We had only about 15 miles to Dunkirk having to leave our lorries. There was a squadron of men burning them so Jerry would not have them.
Well we start to walk to Dunkirk. When we arrived at the cross roads we stopped as we didn’t know which way to go, left or right. We waited until some infantry came, and followed them; and what a walk it was. Tired and weary, not had a wash or shave for a few days and without food, this 15 miles took it out of us and even then we did not go to Dunkirk proper. It was a bay along the coast about 10 miles away, I think. Well we arrived at this bay at about 2.0pm in the afternoon, and was we glad?
WAITING ON THE BEACH
Only there about an hour when a dive-bombing attack began in which about 25 planes took part. This they kept up for about an hour, in which they set on fire three ships also machine gunned the rest. Then all went quiet, but while it was going on, everyone was lying down and keeping still. I felt the sand go over my foot time and time again; I thought it was done by the planes in machine gunning the sands. After that it went quiet; we look round and found that it was made by .303 cartridges from our own infantry.
There was, as far as eye could see, nothing but a mass of solders, some were either getting a raft or swimming out to the boats; some never got there, some lost their heads and was shot; this was happening every day. We started to walk here about a dozen strong and now after tea there were only three of us left. Went to try and find some food, the best I could manage was about six blocks of chocolate; this was all we had all day but with water in our bottles we didn’t do so bad.
Managed to get into a squad ready to go aboard ship. Went off the sands under the N.C.O., when two of our Spitfires came over; these was the first English planes we had seen - and the last. From what I seen at Dunkirk and La Pas, I remember that old saying "Thank God we got a Navy", and believe me it was true; the R.A.F. didn't help us much. After those planes had circles round twice they made off for England. They had not been gone five minutes when out of the clouds appeared the Hun, about the same as before, again making an attack on the ships; he was leaving the sands alone because he wanted to stop our only avenue of getting away. The first plane made a bombing attack, followed by a second, third, fourth and so on. Again we were lying down in trenches dug by hand; here one of our comrades was killed by a blast which burst 15 yards away - he was not lying well down. If you had seen the sands flying about you would have understood a sandstorm.
Still the attack went on and there was one thing I notices, that was, these bombers always turn to come down for another attack at almost the same spot. Well we had a Bren in these sand hills for A.A. and our first burst hit Jerry and made him tip up on one wing and fight for the controls of the bomber, but it was no good, he came down in the sea. Our sailors picked them up, three of them, and the first thing they did was to put them on board before our own men. Ships small and big were coming and going, full up with solders of any unit.
We were told to get some sleep as we would be moving as soon as it was dark. We tried to sleep if only to rest our sore feet. Night came and we start down the sand hills never thinking we had to walk about 8 miles to Dunkirk. After going for a bit came across a soldier that had been blown off a ship. Somebody had carried him for a bit and then left him. We carried him till we got to a Fleet Air Post.
Still walking on we saw fires in the ships that Jerry had hit. One was a Hospital ship. As we passed we could still see the markings of the Red Cross. Taking it in turns to carry the wounded man as we walking on, we heard the Hun planes in the distance, at a part of the town of Dunkirk across the canal which runs by 'Hell Fire Corner'.
It was about 2.0 a.m. when we finally arrived at Dunkirk. By now my foot was past the soreness stage. We had to wait half an hour when word came round that Jerry had machine gunned the six ships which were waiting for us, so badly that there will not be any loading to-night. Then we had to walk back as small distance. Meanwhile the fire in Dunkirk had gone worse. We got to sleep for about two hours, when just after dawn Jerry came again, in fact it was the bombing that woke me up. I woke the others and we went under cover. This was the first time a Hun plane had machine gunned the sands. The sun was shining and it was a clear day for Jerry.
To-day they started loading at the quay; we got on board and was issued with life-belts and we started to steam out after about an hour. No sooner we left than another ship took our place. We stood out just past the quay, waiting for dark when the Hun appeared again and this time he hit the ship I was on. The blast lifted me up in the air a dozen feet but I landed on the deck again. We was given ten minutes to get off the ship. I believe most of us did get off the doomed ship, in fact I reached the sands again. I forgot to say that he also machine gunned us while we was in the boat. Well, the water reached the boilers and off she went and started to settle down in the bay.
Having got out of this I went on looking for the other two and happened to come across them. Still his bombers came over (Can-not understand what happened to our own Air Force, do not see any except those two I spoke about). Went to sleep to-night as best we could, only one blanket between three of us.
Dawn broke, we awoke to the noise of gun fire. These were the bombers again but this time the Navy's pom-pom guns stopped them from doing any damage. Soon after they left, Jerry's artillery opens fire; they're getting closer. Well, his first few shots went in the edge of the sea doing no damage then he shorten his range and was getting his shells on the spot known as Hell-Fire Corner. Shelling went on all the next day. Smoke is coming from the town. To-night cannot sleep. No food, wash or shave for 4 days. Shelling continued all night and next morning. Soon some German airmen who were brought down taken on board before the Tommies.
Still no food. Trying to make as squadron of 50 so we can get aboard ship; wonder if we can get the other 20 to-day. The sands still packed with troops though no so many as yesterday.
Soon a nasty thing. A Hun dressed as a Frenchman armed with a tommy-gun killed 20 or 30 before a Tommy killed him. Nightfall comes and still want 6 to make up the number. Tired, worn out and weary we try to get some rest, but the noise keeps us awake.
To-day is Sunday, we make up the number. Now perhaps it won't be long before we leave this place. This squadron is given a number, H.127, and when this is called out we go aboard. It is late afternoon and the Officer on the quay calls out "H127 go forward a bit on the quay". Now we shan't be long before we are in England. Just before we reach Hell Fire Corner see a sight that sickens me, of sailors piled at the side of the canal, it’s the shelling I suppose. Going along a bit farther start running; suddenly all lie flat, its time for his shell to come over and no sooner had we laid down when it came. Up, we can start running, although after this last few days can’t run much; this time a shell landed on the pier and we only had a plank to get across. Once past we run to the ship; soon we are loaded and move off.
ON THE SHIP
After we had sailed round the pier the sailors came and threw some loaves at us. The first real food for days. Soon be over now, so want to sleep a bit.
They wake me up as they pull into Dover. Here Jerry made a bombing raid just after we left the ship, lasted about half an hour. Training waiting for us. Tired out, want to sleep, the first decent sleep for a week nearly. Woke up by knocking on the windows, it was the Salvation Army bringing tea and a sandwich, also writing paper to write home, which we did. 3.0 p.m. in the afternoon, reach Yeovil, some hot food, a change of clothing and a good night's sleep. Next day get paid in English money, first time for weeks.