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World War II
A Narrative History

"Dunkirk Evacuation"
Capt. Richard "Gun Buster" Austin
Return via Dunkirk (1940)

The evacuation

With the fall of France, the British Expeditionary Force withdrew to Dunkirk where, from May 26 to June 3, under fire from German artillery and aircraft, 340,000 British and French troops were evacuated. -- ed.
Eventually we arrived at the spot on this side of the last canal separating us from the sea, where we had to abandon the vehicles. They were smashed up in the darkness and pushed into the canal. The men formed up by the roadside and the roll was called for the last time....
And once more the fifty of us started off, this time on foot, formed-up in threes, the Major and I walking at the head of the column .... We continued towards Malo-les-Bains, crossing the railway, and marching through the ruined street of Rosendaal, whose skeleton walls stood around us like the ruins of some bygone civilization .... Mysterious shadows flitted about the streets, in and out of broken doorways, and disappearing silently round corners. They were stray inhabitants who had been cut-off by the swift march of events and were living in cellars. And a few looters. And, probably, a few spies. The German gun-fire was now incessant, the flash of the explosions continually lighting up the scene for a second or two on every side of us.
We were now in the region of the dunes, which rose like humps of a deeper darkness. And these in their turn were dotted with the still blacker shapes of burned-out skeletons, and crazy-looking wreckage that had been heaped up in extraordinary piles by the explosions of bombs. All these black shapes were silhouetted against the angry red glare in the sky, which reflected down on us the agony of burning Dunkirk.
Slowly we picked our way between the wreckage, sinking ankle-deep in the loose sand, until we reached the gaunt skeletons of what had once been the houses on the promenade. The whole front was one long continuous line of blazing buildings, a high wall of fire, roaring and darting in tongues of flame, with the smoke pouring upwards and disappearing in the blackness of the sky above the rooftops. Out seawards the darkness was as thick and smooth as black velvet, except for now and again when the shape of a sunken destroyer or paddle-steamer made a slight thickening on its impenetrable surface. Facing us, the great black wall of the Mole stretched from the beach far out into the sea, the end of it almost invisible to us. The Mole had an astounding, terrifying background of giant flames leaping a hundred feet into the air from blazing oil tanks. At the shore end of the Mole stood an obelisk, and the high-explosive shells burst around it with monotonous regularity.
Along the promenade, in parties of fifty, the remnants of practically all the last regiments were wearily trudging along. There was no singing, and very little talk. Everyone was far too exhausted to waste breath....
The tide was out. Over the wide stretch of sand could be dimly discerned little oblong masses of soldiers, moving in platoons and orderly groups down towards the edge of the sea. Now and again you would hear a shout:
"Alf, where are you?..."
"Let's hear from you, Bill..."
"Over this way, George..."
It was none too easy to keep contact with one's friends in the darkness, and amid so many little masses of moving men, all looking very much alike. If you stopped for a few seconds to look behind you, the chances were you attached yourself to some entirely different unit.
From the margin of the sea, at fairly wide intervals, three long thin black lines protruded into the water, conveying the effect of low wooden breakwaters. These were lines of men, standing in pairs behind one another far out into the water, waiting in queues till boats arrived to transport them, a score or so at a time, to the steamers and warships that were filling up with the last survivors. The queues stood there, fixed and almost as regular as if ruled. No bunching, no pushing, nothing like the mix-up to be seen at the turnstiles when a crowd is going to a football match. Much more orderly, even[,] than a waiting theatre queue.
About this time, afraid that some of our men might be trailing off, I began shouting, "2004th Field Regiment ... 2004th Field Regiment ..." A group of dead and dying soldiers on the path in front of us quickened our desire to quit the promenade. Stepping over the bodies we marched down the slope to a dark beach. Dunkirk front was now a lurid study in red and black; flames, smoke, and the night itself all mingling together to compose a frightful panorama of death and destruction. Red and black, all the time, except for an occasional flash of white low in the sky miles away to the left and right where big shells from coastal defence guns at Calais and Nieuport were being hurled into the town.
Down on the beach you immediately felt yourself surrounded by a deadly evil atmosphere. A horrible stench of blood and mutilated flesh pervaded the place. There was no escape from it. Not a breath of air was blowing to dissipate the appalling odour that arose from the dead bodies that had been lying on the sand, in some cases for several days. We might have been walking through a slaughterhouse on a hot day. The darkness, which hid some of the sights of horror from our eyes, seemed to thicken this dreadful stench. It created the impression that death was hovering around, very near at hand.
We set our faces in the direction of the sea, quickening our pace to pass through the belt of this nauseating miasma as soon as possible.
"Water ... Water ..." groaned a voice from the ground just in front of us.
It was a wounded infantryman. He had been hit so badly that there was no hope for him. Our water-bottles had long been empty, but by carefully draining them all into one we managed to collect a mouthful or two. A sergeant knelt down beside the dying man and held the bottle to his lips. Then we proceeded on our way, leaving the bottle with the last few drains in it near the poor fellow's hand so that he could moisten his lips from time to time.
On either side, scattered over the sand in all sorts of positions, were the dark shapes of dead and dying men, sometimes alone, sometimes in twos and threes. Every now and then we had to pull ourselves up sharply in the darkness to avoid falling over a wooden cross erected by comrades on the spot where some soldier had been buried. No assistance that availed anything could be given to these dying men. The living themselves had nothing to offer them. They just pressed forward to the sea, hoping that the same fate would not be theirs. And still it remained a gamble all the time whether that sea, close though it was, would be reached in safety. Splinters from bursting shells were continually whizzing through the air, and occasionally a man in one of the plodding groups would fall with a groan.
Along the entire queue not a word was spoken. The men just stood there silently staring into the darkness, praying that a boat would soon appear, and fearing that it would not. Heads and shoulders only showing above the water. Fixed, immovable, as though chained there. It was, in fact, practically impossible to move, even from one foot to another. The dead-weight of water-logged boots and sodden clothes pinned one down .... I was filled with dread that when the time did come I should be unable to move.
Suddenly out of the blackness, rather ghostly, swam a white shape which materialised into a ship's lifeboat, towed by a motorboat. It moved towards us and came to a stop twenty yards in front of the head of our queue.
....Four sailors in tin-hats began hoisting the soldiers out of the water. It was no easy task. Half the men were so weary and exhausted that they lacked strength to climb into the boat unaided. The sailors judged the situation perfectly, as being one for rough words, threats, and bullying methods. The only spur sufficient to rouse our worn-out bodies to one last supreme effort.
"Come on you bastards..."
"Wake up, blast you..."
....The gunwhale [sic] of the lifeboat stood three feet above the surface of the water. Reaching up, I could just grasp it with the tips of my fingers. When I tried to haul myself up I couldn't move an inch. The weight of my waterlogged clothes, especially my cherished greatcoat, beat me completely, desperately though I fought. I might have been a sack of lead. A great dread of being left behind seized me.
Two powerful hands reached over the gunwhale and fastened themselves into my arm-pits. Another pair of hands stretched down and hooked-on to the belt at the back of my greatcoat. Before I had time to realise it I was pulled up and pitched head-first into the bottom of the boat.
"Come on, you b---. Get up and help the others in," shouted a sailor, as I hit the planks with a gasp. It was rough medicine. But the right medicine for the moment.
The moment came when the lifeboat could not hold another soul.
"Carry on, Mr. Jolly. Carry on," cried the sailor at our helm to someone in the motor-boat. And we got under weigh, leaving the rest of the queue behind to await the next boat.
Return via Dunkirk is out of print but available from ABEBOOKS