DUNKIRK AND DAD
I've just been to see the epic new 'Dunkirk' movie at the Carlton Westgate on its first night of release and what a gripping and intense film it was. It showed vividly, the carnage, chaos and total anguish that so many young men went through back at the early stages of the war and it brought home to me the few memories my late father shared of his own experience of that desperate episode in our nations history.
Dad was involved in many battles throughout the second world war that started with Dunkirk, but he rarely spoke of such matters. Indeed, one very clear thing I do remember him saying quite regularly was "if you'd seen what I've seen - you wouldn't want to remember".
Stoic modesty and a quiet personal pride were his way, but over the years he did let some things 'slip out' and I do remember he once told me that British preparations in northern France had been so poor that when hostilities started, some soldiers were still carrying fake rifles made of wood.
However, he must have been lucky and had a real rifle, because at one point my Dad found himself ordered by a superior to lay on the bonnet of his jeep, brandishing the very 'live' weapon and firing it whilst he was then driven, under enemy fire himself, to save some men trapped and cut off on the outskirts of Dunkirk.
Dad was later decorated in person by King George with the Military Medal for that particular bravery. My Mum was very proudly in attendance at Buckingham Palace. Dad really was a very modest man and 'joked' that he "didn't have much choice' in the matter really" (but he went on to receive an oak leaf on his Africa Star when he was later 'mentioned in despatches' yet again for further outstanding gallantry in the desert).
My Mum also tells of Dad and a chum taking cover overnight in a well at Dunkirk. It somehow haunted Mum to think of them both hiding there, trying to rest, whilst the chaos raged in the darkness around them.
Dad was in one of the last groups of men to get off the beach and he spoke of the many times, day after day, over and over, wading out to boats only to find they were full, and then having to return to the beach time and time again, often under fire.
I sometimes look at those famous wartime black and white pictures of thousands of men 'like a never ending snake of dots on the beach' at Dunkirk and I wonder if one of those dots is Dad.
In the end he very thankfully made it onto a boat, but I also clearly remember him once saying that the very worst thing about the crossing home was the sound of men in the darkness, totally weakened from fatigue and unable to hang on to the rigging on the boat that he was on, slowly and quietly slipping down and into the water with muffled yells of desperation. "Truly awful sound - after getting so far" he once said.
Another memory he did share, was that when he landed at Dover he truly thought the soldiers would receive a heroes welcome. Instead they were briskly fumigated and swiftly ushered straight onto blacked out trains and rushed away to camps so that local people couldn't see just how desperate they all looked.
Many decades later (must have been in the 1980's) I was working as a young man in electricity supply and on one particular day our team was maintaining an 11KV substation at Howe Barracks in Canterbury, which at that time was adjacent to the small Buffs library/museum and next to the main entrance to the military complex.
I mentioned that my Dad was a former member of the 'Buffs' to a soldier guarding the gate and told him about his exploits at Dunkirk, across north Africa and in Italy. He must have spoken to someone because later that morning another soldier came and took down my Dad's details. Later still I was summoned from the substation up to the military curators office. He turned to me and said "Your Dad was a very brave man indeed. I'll leave you with this for a few minutes" and he pointed to a book, left open on the table.
As he left he said "It's the diary of some action your Dad was involved in at Dunkirk and his name is listed with others that were decorated for bravery at the end of the chapter".
And sure enough - there he was!
James Walter Hart MM