“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Those famous Churchillian words will ring in the ears of generations to come. For me, it brings back visions of a wide, treacherously exposed narrow strip of flat sand.
From a distance it could be mistaken for a holiday scene, with a swarm of pleasure craft giving trips to queuing holiday makers to look at the big ships out in the deeper water. But no, closer inspection reveals a vision of hell as the chaotic remnants of the British Expeditionary Force struggle to survive on the shell smashed beaches around Dunkirk harbour.
The mottled beach separated the grey forbidding sea from swarms of desperate, exhausted, dishevelled men, huddling in slit-trenches amid grass-topped dunes. The nauseating stench of oily smoke, wet serge uniforms, blood, cordite and death is what my nightmares are made of.
Just after dawn, vague shadows against a blue grey horizon slowly materialized through the coastal haze. Groups of tiny boats shepherded by larger vessels were scattered as far as we could see. Hope welled in our hearts and tears in our eyes.
Under the eagle eye of the beach-master, a Regimental Sergeant-major from the Black Watch, we queued for hours on end out into the choppy water; in lines four-deep, standing in silence, up to our armpits in blood-stained, debris-strewn water, waiting our turn to be called forward ten or twenty at a time. Behind us on the filthy beach, men sat in small groups, some heating their last ration of water into a weak brew, over a can of burning oil, maybe the last tea they will ever taste.
Nearby, bandaged men, supine on blood-stained stretchers; some whimpered in pain, others just lay in silence, a cigarette limply held between parched, pale lips, hoping beyond hope that they will see tomorrow. Some lay face down and unmoving, their identity covered by their waterproof capes, their life drained into the soft sand beneath – they will not see their tomorrow.
The shallow waters were crowded with hundreds of small boats, rocking dangerously as sodden, war-weary soldiers struggled to clamber aboard. Some boats made it all the way across the Channel to safety. Others didn’t make it, strafed by canon fire, blown to bits by bombs, or capsized by the scramble of men to escape from hell.
A few miles in-land the Royal Ulster Rifles were fighting a desperate rear guard action to hold open the final escape route for the stragglers, but they were rapidly losing ground. At the coast, drivers of any vehicles were ordered to disable them, denying their use to the advancing enemy. New arrivals moved off to join the shredded elements of their regiment or to link up with other soldiers separated from their mates – these were the lucky ones.
Our line out into the soul-numbing cold of the English Channel grew longer by the hour. Some distance ahead, Lance Corporal Stan Wilkins fumbled in his battledress breast pocket and pulled out a crumpled but dry packet of Woodbines. I watched him break one in half and offer a share of the cigarette to the man in front. Second Lieutenant Bertie Sproston used his good hand to adjust the red stained, salt-caked sling that supported his broken left arm and accepted the half cigarette. Stan flicked open an American style Zippo lighter and they enjoyed the fleeting luxury and camaraderie of the acrid smoke as it invaded their lungs. A whistle, a splash, then an almighty explosion threw us into our own personal hell as an artillery shell exploded in the water twenty feet away from them. The two men, together with seven others, disappeared. Our line quickly closed up and slowly we waded forward, away from the lion’s den, into the jaws of Hades.
Hours later we reached a small battered motor cruiser. More and more men piled in until her skipper shouted “No more. We’re full. Wait for the next one!” Our hearts sagged. The burbling engine moved the little boat slowly away from our shivering line towards the ropes and nets slung from the side of the ancient paddle-steamer Crested Eagle. Bombs from another screaming Stuka attack crashed into the water close to her overloaded deck. Two men were thrown overboard and once again had to join the long queue to take their chance with the rest of us.
The ship’s hooter wailed its mournful note as the overworked paddles thrashed up a maelstrom and the old stalwart slowly crept away from us out into deeper water. She was carrying more than four times her safe capacity. The captain set her head for the start of the long circuitous route up the coast to cross the Channel north of the mine fields, then down the English coast to eventual safety. Later I learned that when Crested Eagle returned to Dunkirk the following day, she was hit by four bombs and three hundred men died in the horrific fires that followed.
I, for one, will always remember the men and boys who were enlisted into the Royal Navy for just one month who, with their inadequately prepared little recreational river boats, were without doubt true examples of heroism. The self sacrifice and extraordinarily brave action taken by so many ordinary men to save three hundred thousand in the sure knowledge that their individual actions may never be known is unique.
Winston Churchill summed up the operation, which lasted between the 20th May and the 4th June 1940, thus:
“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations...We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender...”