“There weren't any English newspapers in the far-off corner of Western France where we had been putting in the final fortnight of our war training, so we weren't exactly in touch with events. But somebody in the camp had a radio that worked occasionally. It was that which told us on a Sunday that the Germans had invaded Holland and Belgium.We knew what that meant and were glad. "Won't Be long now, " said the chaps, "now for a smack at Jerry at last. " We were trained to a hair and just fed up with waiting.
It was a lovely day, that last day in camp, real hot summer weather. There were no parades that afternoon, so I went out with another platoon ser-eant, a pal of mine, who got it badly at Mt. Cassel Afterwards. We strolled down through the French lanes, watching the farm people at work and down to the estaminet in the village. There we had several beers to ease the dust. We talked shop about our platoons, comparing notes about this man and that and about what was likely to happen-the usual sort of army stuff. Dick said, "God, I'm glad to be here, " and we had another. Back at the camp there were rumours of an im-pending move but that night we turned in as usual, as if the war had been a thousand miles away.
The Next morning, however, instead of "reveille" at 6:30a. m. we got a "fall-in" at 5:45. Men tumbled out just anyhow but we didn't look so bad, especially my platoon. We were wide enough awake when the company commander came along. He hadn't much to say-just: “We're moving,men. I don't know when and I don't know where. When you fall out you'll get your breakfast. Then get everything ready." He waited a bit and then said he wondered if there was a man in the company who didn't feel as glad as he did that now the job was on for which we had come. We all roared out:"No!" He gave a little grin at that and turned away.
The orders came that afternoon and the battalion got on the little local train which carried us downto the main-line station at Rennes. There was a long wait there under an avenue of trees while all the battalion supplies were put on board. A battalion is not an easy thing to move. It can't be done in an hour. But at 10:50 that night we entrained and,dog-tired by now, got down to sleep. All that night, the next day and another night and day the train rumbled on - if rumbling is the word, because there were constant long stops. Sometimes we pulled into sidings while faster trains filled with supplies went past.
On the second day we saw trainloads of refugees go by in the opposite direc-tion. We went by circuitous routes. We had plenty to eat though it was mostly tinned stuff. I found out then that a clasp knife with a good tin opener at the end is just about the soldier's best friend.
At some stops the cooks dashed across the plat-forms with their dixies and tea and sugar ready for the boiling water, which must have been wired for ahead. In the last war I've Heard that troops going up the line had to scrounge water from the engine for their tea. In this war we got this tea-water problem better organized. The washing problem hasn't been solved, though. When we got to the end of the journey we were as black as sweeps.
The end came at a place called Seclin, south of Lille. We lined up outside the station and sooner we were in some sort of order then there was an air-raid warning. It was the first time most of us had heard one, and you should have seen the rush,including the officers, to get the Brens fixed on their anti-aircraft mountings. But all our eagerness was wasted. We caught just one glimpse of three Jerry Aircraft very high up. A couple of our fighters came across toward them and they cleared off. After a clean-up and some food in an orchard, we crossed a bridge over the railway track and there we saw a reason for our stopping so short of the Belgian frontier. Up the line toward the east there was the wreckage of a great German bomber right across the rails, which were twisted apart. Break-down gangs were at work. On the other side of the bridge we embussed into great lorries and set off again, still not knowing exactly where we were going. It was near the Belgian frontier that we ran into our first real glimpse of the war.
Our lorries dropped from 30 m. p. h. to a snail's pace because of the stream of refugees pouring toward France and pack-ing the roads with every kind of vehicle that could move and some that couldn't. It was the sight of these people, the old men and women, the tired frightened children, that made the boys mad. It put fresh heart into them to get at Jerry-tired though we all were from nearly four days with no rest except cat naps in the jolting train. At last we came to the place which turned out to be our assigned position-a place called Oom-burgen, about 40 miles west of Brussels and astride a main road from the capital.
We debussed there shortly before dusk into more orchards and then saw something of the German Air Force. They were coming over, medium dive bombers at no great height, in droves of 30 at a time. What beats me is why they didn't plaster the main road, which by this time was packed with traffic, military and refugees, going all ways but mostly west. Watching that traffic it dawned on me then-ond on most of us-that, instead of taking part in an advance, we were really taking part in a retreat. All we had done was to get far enough up to become a rear guard. You must remember that we had had no news for days of what had been happening. That day would have been, I think, the fifteenth. One of our chaps who could speak French had learned from some refugees that there was heavy fighting going on around Brussels.
That night we slept in barns round Oomburgen. The cooks had got up and we had the first good hot meal since we started. There were stringent blackout orders and it was just my luck as an orderly sergeant tobe up most of the night, stumbling around in the darkness to see that the orders were carried out. All through the night I could hear the Jerry air-craft droning about far above in great numbers. Their sound reminded me of the wild geese we'd hear on winter nights crossing the Yorkshire moors.
In the morning we learned what our job was. The whole battalion was to line up at intervals along this main road to keep traffic going, keep refugees off the roads and in the fields and adopt such action against advancing enemies as became necessary. We got our anti-tank guns in position by 5 a.m. The refugees were a big big problem. Speaking mostly Flemish, they could not understand us nor we them. If they were ordered off the roads by gestures they pretended not to understand and dully plodded along or else started wailing and just sat down. You can't push women and kids about and we scarcely knew what to do till one of us hit on the idea of seizing the leaders, pointing skyward and then to the road and saying with horrible grimaces: "Una bombe. " Then we'd point to the fields, smile, and wave cheerily.
That worked all right. As we were getting the road clear, the rumble of gunfire in the distance was growing nearer. Early that morning we let a Guards Battalion through-or what was left of them. They had been in some heavy fighting, we were told, trying to stem the German advance across the Albert Canal. But they were cheerful and swinging along as if they were moving up Buckingham Palace Road. At midday, having had no actual contact yet with the Germans, we also were ordered to withdraw.
The traffic down the road was now a mere trickle. It was disheartening but we were told that there were not enough for us to do any good and besides our position was "in the air. " We Marched-the first of a lot of marching -till 1:30 a. m. We had covered about 25 miles, when some of the battalion got to rest in an old abandoned farmhouse. I slept in a hen coop on the floor under the perches - and glad of it. The next day we covered another 20 miles and found an empty village to rest in. As soon as it was light the Germans began bombing and machine-gunning the village. Though the raid went on for a couple of hours and the village street was packed with our transport, there were no casualties.
A fire spoiled their aim and drove them off.
Throughout all the days afterward I never saw Jerry aircraft press home an attack against any opposition. They don't like reasonably accurate fire and I've seen the appearance of a single Spitfire clear the sky like magic of half-a-dozen German bombers. Again it was marching - 20 miles the next day and 20 the next, always with the German bombers coming over in droves, bombing and machine-gunning. We kept together and pressed doggedly on. Now and then we'd see a great pillar of smoke in front or behind as bombs landed, and we'd hear the shout, "Stretcher bearers!" passed along the line. On the whole we had few casualties. By now we were good at getting to cover off the road as soon as the raiders approached.
That second day we were beginning to tire badly under the long forced marches in full kit and the continual bombing, but in the afternoon we passed the Guards Battalion who had passed through our lines on theBrussels road three days before. They were eating by the roadside and they must have done 75 miles in those three days. They gave us a bit of cheer as we went past and I'm afraid that we, knowing that we were the youngest battalion in the British Army, showed off a bit in front of those Guards, pulling ourselves together and practically marching at attention.
That night we got to Seclin-back to where we had started five days before. Their transport picked us up and rushed us through the night to appointments seven miles from Douai. We could see the city burning on the sky-line. Some of the men fell asleep where they stood as we waited in the darkness for orders. There was a continuous roar of artillery fire and bombing towards Douai and the sky was ablaze with "contact" lights sentup by the Germans.
At last orders came. We were told to dig in along the canal bank nearby. The opposition was about five miles away towardDouai and we were to hold them.We got well down by dawn and then for two days got a taste of the real thing in the way of bombing. They bombed us to hell. Every few min-utes from dawn till dark the dive bombers came over in relays. They'd come in flocks overhead and then form a line. The leader would turn over and come down. You'd hear the high screaming crescendo of his motorand then the sound of the bomb that seemed to be coming right at you.
The terrific "whump" of the explosion made you gasp and seemed to split your skull. Soon we learned to distinguish between bombs. A whistling sound meant that it was some distance away. A sheet-ripping sound was nearby. Personally I didn't do much thinking about anything but it did me good to keep my thoughts on my platoon and go along the section posts. If you have got the wind up, having something to do helps. I Had the wind up a lot, especially during the first day of concentrated bomb-ing along that canal-bank trenchline. I had the real taste of it in my mouth. Somehow it tasted like a penny I once popped in my mouth whenI was a kid. But when you are an NCO you mustn't show it.
Once, crouching under a huge salvo of bombs that sent showers of trench parapets down on top of me, a phrase of the commander-in-chief flashed through my mind. He had said that war was days of intense boredom mixed with moments of acute fear. I suddenly realized how true it was and burst out laughing-until I saw the next man alone looking at mequeerly. After two days in this position, with no Germans yet in sight, we were moved farther to the right and told to dig in again by the canal bank,covering two bridges that were ruined. Jerry was a mile away, hidden behind a knoll over which he lobbed mortar fire. He came no nearer but the same bombing went on and now shells began to arrive. Still we had comparatively few casualties -because of the way we looked after our-selves, I suppose.
After three days there, we were hurriedly moved out as the enemy were past our flanks. We marched from 10:30 at night till 4:30 in the morning when our transport picked us up deadbeat and brought us into Armen-tières. The town was being heavily bombed but they didn't stay long when our fighters turned up. Our convoy went hrough. Unfortunately nearly half of it was misdirected and went on toward Mount Cassel instead of toward Steenvoorde. Going down the valley they ran bang under Jerry's Guns placed along a bridge. They got hell and lost a lot of men. I only heard that afterward, when the remnants rejoined us for the last stand in front of Dunkerque.
My convoy of about half the battalion went on toward Steenvoorde. Near there we went through the most intensive bombing we had yet experienced. The afternoon sky seemed black with dive bombers. Before we could get to field cover, a salvo hit some of the lorries in front, killing and wounding every man inside. A company sergeant major who had got it badly in the side and arm was lying on the road when I got up, shouting: "Leave me, leave me!" Some of his company carried him off the road through the machine-gun spray and the bomb blasts and they were get-ting a dressing on him in a field bombhole within a minute or two.
We just stuck it there till night came and the bombers cleared out. Thenwe went into the village. No sooner were we settled down than I was sent for and detailed to take a section out to a forked road at midnight and set up anti-tank guns covering one of the forks. The company dug in the darkness and my officer told me that we were now covering a mainline of retreat for other troops through to Dunkerque. Their road lay off somewhere to our left. We had to stop anything coming in from the right to cut them off.We lay there till dawn.
Though Jerry washelling heavily I nearly fell asleep at the guns once or twice. What kept jerking me back each time I drowsed was a little stray dog we had picked up. He was cuddled under my arm and kept on shoving his cold nose against my wrist. It was a funny thing about those dogs. Scores of them followed us through the retreat. We used to think it was because they knew we were English. At Night they slept with us in barns, huddled up against the men they had picked out. There was one we called our " air-raid warning, " a little black-and-white mongrel. He could spot the difference between dive bombers and any other. When we were in a village he would come pelting into the billet as they came over and bury his nose and shiver against the man he had been following.
Before that dawn broke we got another set of orders.
We were told that our battalion had been selected to make a last stand along the right flank of what they now call the Corunna Line and to hold the last gate open for the troops to get through to Dunkerque. We knew it was an honor for the work we had already done, because we were to hold this last line with some remnants of the Guards and a peaked battalion of the French Army. There were also some of the Green Howards who, on the left of us at Douai, had smashed up a German mass attack and then, like the Camerons,had gone in with the bayonet. They had killed thousands. I had watched the Germans coming over on our left at that place and they struck me then like chaps who were being driven on from behind. They went into machine-gun fire all night though they were being mowed down.
That Struck me as being just plain silly, in men who are supposed to be soldiers. But they couldn't stand cold steel. That's what broke them-when the Green Howards and the Camerons smashed up nearly a division. We were longing for the same chance. We went back two miles and were now seven miles from Dunkerque.
There we dug in on the banks of the Bergues Canal, facing west and south.Water from the smashed locks was helping to form another barrier on our right. On our left were the roads, the gateway through which thousands of troops were pouring to the beaches. Our neighbors, the French, were also digging in. I thought they were marvelous chaps. Our artillery, battery after battery, was forming in the pocket between us, having passed through the gap we had kept open.
We had just got chin down in the trenches when it started. First came endless relays of dive bombers, then the shelling from the guns we had brought up behind the retreating army. Those two days were the worst and we had heavy casualties. The second day Jerry got up to the woods in front of the trenches but we kept up such a barrage of machine-gun fire in the woods that nothing came out of them. Over our heads, our guns were keeping up drumfire into the enemy positions. Attack after attack was smashed and he must have lost a lot. It was an inferno; but I think our stuff was heavier than his. At night the stream of troops through the gap died down and we were ordered to retire on Dunkerque. But the Germans had the road ranged and we turned off three miles to rest. It took us twelve hours to cover the six miles into Dunkerque.
We Found Dunkerque, a mass of ruins, with fires everywhere and thousands waiting on the beaches. On the right was a mile-long jetty, badly bomb-torn. We queued up and walked along it in our thousands in the darkness.I did think that it wouldn't be nice to be caught here when daylight and the bombers arrived. So did lots of others, I suppose, but everything was or-derlyand quiet as we moved along, the less tired ones holding the others up. When my batch got to the end we found two destroyers there.
The way the Navy got us on board in that pitch darkness, lit only by shellfire, wasa miracle of speed and coolness. The whole destroyer seemed to be loaded in less than half an hour. We slid out to sea leaning over with the weight of men aboard. Daylight was just breaking when we cleared the harbor. Along the coast I could see the glare of fires in villages and towns all the way down to Calais. The skies inland were ablaze with Verey lights and bursting shrapnel. That was the last thing I saw or heard before we got to England, because I fell asleep. I did hear alarm bells and a shout of "man action stations forward,“ but I didn't care. Looking back through all those 21 days, the queer thing is that not once did my company have a real go at Jerry. That's all I want now. In a few days we'll be okay and ready again...”