Keeping the Dunkirk spirit alive

Tony Earnshaw reports on the experiences of his grandfather while Michael Hickling talks to two Yorkshiremen who live to tell the tale.

Dunkirk is becoming hazy history. First person accounts are harder to find as the ninety-somethings who were there dwindle rapidly. Most of them can no longer continue with their annual pilgrimage across the Channel to mark a colossal military disaster which became a sort of triumph.

I never knew my maternal grandfather, Bill Barraclough. He died when my mother was not quite seven. Born on May 5, 1900, Bill served in the Great War as a boy soldier. In the 1930s he was a Territorial and later a member of the Home Guard. On the outbreak of war, he was 39 and by now the father of six children, he enlisted in the Royal Engineers. His 40th birthday on May 5 1940 saw him in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

This was still the phoney war, although it was real enough for much of the European mainland. Since September 3, 1939, Hitler had invaded Poland and Czechoslovakia and overrun Denmark and Norway. On May 10, 1940, the day Churchill was made Prime Minister, the Nazis rolled into Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France and the serious shooting also started for us.

On the night of May 16, the German Blitzkrieg smashed through the last French defences. Under-prepared, out-gunned and overwhelmed, most of the BEF along with French and Belgian troops fought running battles against a larger, faster and better equipped enemy who pushed them back towards the sea.

In the words of Churchill this disastrous turn of events left stranded "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army". A plan, codenamed Operation Dynamo, was conceived to try and get them home.

Men of the Royal Engineers, like thousands of others, were separated from their units. Moving north-west to the coast, they blew up bridges and the lock gates of canals to hinder the enemy advance. They placed booby traps on houses and crossroads. These scattered soldiers jumped in and out of ditches to avoid roads jammed with traffic, refugees, wrecked vehicles and spiked field pieces. British troops blundered into towns and villages just taken by the Nazis and left in a flurry of explosions and gunfire.

At Dunkirk they found a shambles. Allied troops huddled together on the 25-mile-long stretch of beachfront from Gravelines in the west to Nieuport just across the Belgian frontier in the east.

The beaches were strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe. Soldiers sought what cover they could find by flattening themselves against the dirty grey sand or dug slit trenches in the dunes. Others found shelter from the bombing and shelling in the cellars of ruined buildings. As supplies ran out, demand for food and water became acute.

Bill had been underground for several days when he drew the short straw to go out foraging. What he found, as he ventured into streets, was a baby. It lay crying in the arms of its mother slumped dead in a doorway.

Family lore tells how he took the infant back to his incredulous comrades. No-one seems to know what happened to the child, but Bill had felt he could not abandon it. Maybe it reminded him of the new-born son he had left behind in Yorkshire. Close to the beaches came the flotilla of little ships – the pleasure cruisers, dredgers, lifeboats and coal barges manned by civilian crews who ferried men from the long, winding queues to larger vessels anchored off the sandbanks and shallows.

The sea was so filthy with fuel, oil, blood and the detritus of war that it resembled a stinking viscous soup. Bill, a tall, lean man, agreed to help a stranger – a non-swimmer – and carry him piggy-back style out to the boats. As they struggled to salvation, a Stuka dive bombed them.

The waves offered zero protection. Bill plunged beneath the water and moments later ploughed forward to a waiting boat. As he clung to the side he attempted to lift his comrade into the outstretched arms of a Royal Navy rating. "He can't swim," gasped Bill.

"Let him go," came the reply. Straining to lift the dead weight on his back, Bill's eyes met the sailor's and understood what the sailor couldn't tell him: he bore a bloodied corpse on his shoulders. The man's head had taken the full force of the bomb blast. Without looking back, Bill dropped the body and made his way onto a deck crammed with other exhausted evacuees.

Bill's deliverance was short-lived. As the boat got under way it was sunk, either by torpedo or another bomb from a Stuka. After some time in the water Bill was picked up by another ship. He was dragged on board minus his boots, socks, trousers, underwear and battledress.

Thus it was that a man who had embarked as 1903064 Sapper W Barraclough returned to these shores a few months later resembling a choking, slimy, exhausted and half-naked vagrant.

On Sunday, May 26, the first day of Operation Dynamo, 7,010 men were returned to England. At dawn the following day Hitler ordered his Panzers to advance in a pincer movement, but

to stop 13 miles from Dunkirk. His plan was to cut off the BEF, encircle the French forces and surround the beleaguered allies.

That crucial delay allowed the BEF and a third of the French First Army to escape. By day nine on June 4 the final tally was 338,226 – 198,229 British and 139,997 French soldiers. Churchill called it "a miracle of deliverance".

Bill Barraclough served his country all the way through the war, returning to France almost exactly four years after he left her, on June 6, 1944, D-Day.

He was demobbed in 1946 and died from cancer, at 48, on October 14 1948.

His wife Charlotte – my grandmother – always claimed he carried the cancer back with him from the malodorous waters of Dunkirk. He told the story of his war to Lottie who, in turn, passed it on to her children. Following her death in 1970 most of the detail of Bill's wartime experiences were lost.

The collective memory of Dunkirk was kept alive throughout the world by the formation in Leeds in 1953 of the Dunkirk Veterans' Association. The driving force was a Leeds schoolmaster, Harold Robinson, who had been captured at Dunkirk. Initially there were about 20 young men in their twenties and thirties and at the association's height it had over 100 branches in this country and abroad. They disbanded 10 years ago and their standard, which Harold Robinson had devised, was laid up at the Royal Armouries

Jim Else, of Crossgates in Leeds, was member number 18, became acting chairman and was made an MBE.

At Dunkirk, a private in the British Army was fighting for one shilling and fourpence a day – about 7p. When a man was called up he was asked if he wanted to make over part of his pay to a loved one. Jim asked for the weekly fourpence to be sent to his mother in New Wortley in Leeds.

As a child, Jim was the only one at his elementary council school to win a scholarship and he passed his high school matriculation exam, enabling him to go to college, at 14, two years early. His father was a coalman and an evangelising socialist, so there was no money to further Jim's education. Anyway he wasn't interested. He joined Leeds Corporation Electricity Department as a clerk and that's how he was recruited into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, on September 15, 1939, even though he had asked to join the Royal Navy.

On March 11, 1940, he was posted to France, attached to one of the rear headquarters of the Second British Infantry Division. There was little work to do, certainly no fighting, which was just as well because he had no ammunition. So he made trips to the cinema and saw Gracie Fields perform at a local theatre. Jim liked her style. When the curtain went up, Gracie insisted that everyone in the first two rows (the officers) stand up and go to the back of the auditorium and the last two rows, occupied by other ranks, were told to come to the front.

One day Jim was dawdling with a French dictionary, sitting on a window ledge with his feet outside, when two tremendous bangs disturbed his peace.

"I thought, 'crikey, that's some practice do'. Then I heard a shout, 'get down here into this cellar'."

They retreated to the next river line where a big mansion was taken over as the new headquarters. Jim was posted as a sentry by the sergeant major who told him: "I'm not giving you any cartridges. We don't want our officers shot."

They continued pulling back but Jim, now 91, does not recall any feeling of being on the run. At Neuve Chapelle, when they were just about out of food, he got on his bike and went picking mushrooms. "I wasn't worried at all," recalls Jim. "I was rather content. They called ordinary erks like us 'useless mouths' although I didn't learn that until after the war."

Posted as a guard, Jim was armed this time with an anti-tank rifle. "But I only had two or three rounds and I hadn't been shown how to stop a tank."

An order came that the top brass were not to be captured. One of them was despatched in a small van with Jim and seven or eight others to make the 10-mile dash to the coast. On the outskirts of Dunkirk they destroyed the vehicle and hurried down a straight road towards town. "We were being shelled but there were these marvellous big ditches beside the road. Once you got into one of those, a shell actually had to hit you to do any damage."

The part of Dunkirk Jim saw was not greatly damaged. On the sea front, perhaps the oddest sight was a Salvation Army stall handing out tinned food, one tin per man.

Why didn't the German advance just keep going and overwhelm all the men on the shore – most were defenceless? Jim shrugs. "We weren't told 'owt. We were not in the picture."

The drill on the sands was to get a number and when your number was called a boat was supposed to be ready to take you off. "We were also told that if any man was separated from his group and got a chance to get back to England to do so."

Some of the soldiers Jim talked to had been on the beach for a week. The corporal gave Jim and his detachment permission to go and look for food. At the dockside they discovered a destroyer, HMS Greyhound, whose heaving deck was 16 feet below the level of the quay. Jim jumped.

HMS Greyhound steamed into Dover at four o'clock the following afternoon. Jim was put on a train for Aldershot and accommodated in a bell tent. Shortly after, Anthony Eden came down to address the survivors. Jim recalls: "He appeared on stage saying "How marvellous...!' But he was drowned out by people chanting, "We want some leave..."

As the welfare officer of the Dunkirk Veterans' Association, Bernard Richardson, 91, is still in touch with the needs of the men who were there. At home near Lofthouse in West Yorkshire he leafs through the typewritten membership list, most of it scored through with blue pencil, deleting those who have died in recent times.

Aged 20, Bernard was milking on the farm one morning in October 1939. At lunchtime he found the postman had been with his call-up papers, and he never went back to the cows. Four months later, 1518434 Gunner Richardson was in France with the 73rd Heavy Anti Aircraft Unit, on the edge of a forest, with no idea where he was.

"There were three guns surrounded by banking and dugouts. I thought the Germans were on the other side. I looked over and saw a feller ploughing with some horses and thought, 'this isn't so bad'. We basked in the sunshine wondering what to do." He had trained in England on 3.7in guns. In France he found old three-inch naval guns which were pretty useless for shooting down modern aeroplanes.

"On a day off we walked into a town. We didn't know which it was because there were no signposts. It turned out to be Arras. Walking up and down we found there were a lot of pilots who were attached to the advanced air striking force." They were flying obsolete aircraft like the Fairey Battle and Blenheims. In low-level attacks the formations were ripped to pieces. Bernard recalls one sortie when 14 took off and two came back. Eventually his unit received an order to remove breech blocks. "That's disaster, it means blow your guns up." The game was up, the retreat was on.

Today Bernard is the keeper of a black plastic ring binder containing the testimonies of some of the men who made it through all this.

"I keep in touch with those left and the widows. Ten years ago there were 100, now we can muster about five." He puts the list aside. "It's all being forgotten about now."

This anniversary will probably be the first time since Bernard joined the veterans' association that he won't make it back to Dunkirk.

YP MAG 22/5/10