Born in 1920, Richard was 18 when war was declared and when to France a month later as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). This narrative was assembled with D-Day Revisited from Richard’s submission to the Musée du Débarquement on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June 2019, along with other recollections.
I first went to France as an 18 year old Anti-Tank Gunner and took up a defensive position in and around the small village of Avalin, near Seclin just south of Lille. On 10th May 1940 when the German attack started we were hurriedly moved into Belgium, but as General Rommel and his Panzers moved south we were quickly moved back to the Arras area to join an attack on his armoured columns by the Royal Tank Corps.
This attack failed and so began a long withdrawal via Vimy Ridge, La Bassée Canal, Bethune, Merville, Bailleul and Berques where we made our last stand. Out of the nineteen we started with, we only had two guns left and our casualties were heavy. As we ran out of ammunition we were told to destroy the guns; we were no longer an effective fighting unit and split into small groups trying to defend the bridges over the canal. Finally our only remaining officer sent word along: “That’s it… make for the smoke, the Navy’s there to help us off.” So we made our way to where a huge cloud of smoke could be seen: this was Dunkirk.
I saw the film recently and cannot align myself to it. They showed soldiers smartly dressed in overcoats, packs neatly on their backs, a near empty sea, a couple of Spitfires flashing back and forth, and a beach without the litter or debris left by a defeated army. It wasn’t a bit like that.
My own Unit, with obsolete weapons, was desperately trying to hold the line at the canal but we were forced back by superior weapons, numbers of the enemy and the continuous Stuka dive-bombing attacks. The only British plane we saw was a Hurricane fighter which was shot down over Merville Aerodrome, joining many others which had been destroyed on the ground. We didn’t see a parachute so assumed the brave pilot was killed.
The roads into Dunkirk were crammed with burning vehicles: lorries, carriers, guns, the remains of a broken army. I witnessed the indiscriminate bombing and machine-gunning of roads packed with refugees: men, women and children… animals, horses and donkeys, all moving in the opposite direction. There was nothing we could do about it.
Upon reaching Dunkirk, we found the town was smashed and burning. We clambered over the rubble of falling buildings, waded up flooded alleyways and finally reached the beach where we were faced with a scene of absolute devastation. There were no long lines of soldiers; most of those left were patiently waiting for small boats to take them off to larger boats. A Royal Navy boat came in close to the beach and told us to wade out which we did; the sailors hauled us aboard like sacks of potatoes and took us to a larger boat further out. The sailors made many trips back and forth until there were about 30 of us on board and that evening we sailed to Dover.
This was 2nd June. I remember one of the Navy men saying: “What a bloody way to spend my 21st birthday!”
The only food on board was Carnation milk in small tins. Of course we were starving and drank so much of this that we were all horribly sick during the crossing. I’ve never touched a drop since. I was so glad to get off that boat that I forgot to ask its name, but I do remember the crew all had Norfolk or Suffolk accents. It wasn’t like that film; maybe they did their best but it wasn’t our Dunkirk. I’m the only one left now so I tell this story for my former comrades: to name a few – George Hambrook, Jim Finnis, Ted Smith, Syd Hollyoake, Hector Selih, John Martin and all those others whose names escape me.
Churchill said we would fight them on the beaches but I never ever thought that I would return to France one day, to another beach, but I did. It was a long journey via the deserts of North Africa, the beaches of Sicily and Salerno. In Italy we were ordered to cross mountains from north of Bari on the Adriatic coast over to the Naples area. It was in these mountains, about 21km from Naples, that we were suddenly told we were going home. That sounded like a dream come true, but little did I know what was in store.
We shipped out of Naples in early March 1944 and arrived in Scotland on the 17th. After a few days leave we moved south and were seconded to the Royal Engineers and became a ‘Port Operating Company (RE)’, with little time to train for our new role of working on ships or in ports and harbours but we soon became quite proficient.
We left Tilbury on the night of 6th June, now knowing that our destination was France, in particular the beaches of Normandy. We were on a slow old freighter loaded with petrol and ammunition. This was my duty now so the best way I could help was to get the cargoes ashore to support the front.
I remember standing on the bow of our ship scanning the horizon for my first view of France, hearing in the distance the sounds of battle and watching the planes going over. I desperately wanted to be there to avenge our defeat at Dunkirk, especially to pay back in full for the savage slaughter of those innocent refugees on the roads around Bethune and Givenchy.
So it was with very mixed emotions that I watched the day dawn, with the dim coast of France appearing out of darkness. We arrived off the beachhead early on the 8th. Four years ago, almost to the day, I had been driven out of France as part of a defeated army, leaving our weapons and equipment broken and burning, rescued at the eleventh hour by the Royal Navy. Now I was back; it was exciting, exhilarating, wonderful, and I couldn’t wait to get ashore. Our orders were to work non-stop until the ship was empty. This we did: all day, all night and all the next day. We were flaked out then were transferred to other ships and, after a rest period, we started all over again. At least the ship’s crew fed us well.
We remained working afloat until the Mulberry harbour was completed then we transferred to a base camp in Arromanches. During that time we helped to bring ashore thousands of tons of ammunition, food, water and petrol. Later we worked on the Port of Caen before leaving Normandy and moving East with the advance.
No, we were not the heroes. Mostly they are the young men whose lives were cut short, whose talents and energies were lost to the future. We didn’t storm those beaches on D-Day. We didn’t have to fight our way inland through the bocage, but we did our duty. We did all that we were asked to do, and no-one could ask more. And now? We just want our story told so that new generations can know what we did, and know the sacrifice made on their behalf.