Before you read the Dunkirk chapter of Bill's war memoir, please read this note Bill wrote to give his family more background on the Dunkirk episode in his war diary.
"Although it will be very condensed, I will try to explain to you about Dunkirk, but first a few facts.
Winston Churchill was a brilliant man and for years he had been warning the government that Germany was rearming and preparing for war, but his warnings fell on deaf ears. All Europe, except for Germany, were totally unprepared for war. The men of our 23rd division, who were Territorials, had never done any training to turn us into fighting units. The same thing applied to other Territorial Army divisions. Belgium and Holland wanted to remain neutral so did not arm or prepare defences and would not allow our observers into their countries so as not to offend Germany.
Our divisions went to France early April 1940 as a labour division. None of us had even fired a rifle. We prepared landing strips for the RAF. Now when the war really started and Hitler attacked on 10 May 1940, our only real plan was to push into Belgium whenever Germany crossed the frontier and that is what happened. The Dutch were soon overrun and the Belgians capitulated soon after. British troops were moved anywhere to try and plug gaps along the front.
Our lot were constantly on the move, never in one place for more than two days. We soon got used to our weapons, trying to hold the German advance, but could never attack because we didn’t have the training or weapons. We just had to take all they threw at us and fired our rifles whenever we saw a grey uniform and square helmet!
The enemy all along the front were most powerful and used what was described as blitzkrieg tactics. Their bombers would give our lads a good pasting and straight away the tanks would attack, followed by a well-armed infantry. It was the infantry we went for.
When the evacuation from Dunkirk first started, all non-combatants were lifted by ships off the beach straight away to avoid congestion, and as the perimeter became smaller, less well-trained soldiers made their way to the beaches, while the better-trained soldiers held off the enemy to enable the ships to get men away.
Without going into detail, from May 10 to May 28 we were plugging gaps wherever we were sent to. Then we had to make our way to the beaches – being bombed and strafed all the way for 12 miles - and finally got away on 1 June. Some day, you will have time to read my war books and only then will you fully understand why and how it all happened as it did.
If our army had not got away from Dunkirk, some 340,000 men would have been finished because England was very short of manpower and could not otherwise have taken the aggressive action we took as the war progressed.
Hope this has made it all a bit clearer for you.
Bill Cheall, 1994
30 May 1940 - Looking for Bray-Dunes - World War 1939-45
Britain and her allies were at war with Germany. My B Company was part of the British Expeditionary Force in France. Germany had invaded the country and was now putting pressure on the allied forces. We had orders to retreat to the coast to a place called Bray-Dunes, near Dunkirk, in order to evacuate back to England.
It seemed to have taken a very long time but, after some hours and twelve miles, we saw a cluster of buildings in the distance and added a little more haste to our walking. We were surprised that our destination seemed no larger than a seaside village. Eventually, we came upon one main road through the centre of the village, rather shabby and uncared for, which was understandable. It looked just like Dodge City, but it was great to us. It was Bray-Dunes and we were very pleased to have sight of it but other troubles were very soon to descend upon us.
We walked down the sand-blown main street and at the end came to a small promenade overlooking the sea. Not a soul was in sight apart from our lads. We turned left and walked along this narrow promenade; it had a wooden rail along the seaward side, and there was a six foot drop to the beach. We stood and looked at the sea which could mean our salvation - the other side of that water was England. Oh, that lovely sea, with England just on the other side - how simple!
We walked to the end of the promenade, about two hundred yards, which led on to deep soft sand, followed by huge, six-foot sandbanks. The sea was about two hundred yards away from the high water mark and both east and west the beach was very flat. The accompanying sight which greeted us will forever live in our memories. On the beach, running both ways, there were many tens of thousands of khaki-clad figures milling around for as far as we could see, but there was nowhere to go. And there were columns of soldiers, three-deep, going out to sea up to their shoulders trying to get onto the small boats to take them to England. It was 30 May.
I don’t know how, but we made our way to the water’s edge and looked out to sea across to the horizon and saw the ships going to Dunkirk. We then made our way back to the deep sand dunes in order to gain some protection from the bombing and strafing. Many of the boys on the beach were in a sorry state; the Stukas had just been over.
One must remember that not all soldiers are hard-bitten individuals and some of the younger lads showed great emotion. I saw young soldiers just standing crying their hearts out and others kneeling in the sand praying. It is very easy to pass critical remarks about these lads, but we others knew the ordeal these weaker-willed boys were going through, and helped them as much as we could during their emotional and distressful ordeal as medical help was a very scarce thing on the beaches. So much had been bottled up inside these young soldiers that, at last, the bubble had burst and it was uncontrollable.
Dead soldiers and those badly wounded lay all over the place and many of the wounded would die. It was tragic to see life ebbing away from young, healthy lads and we could not do a thing about it - it was heartbreaking. What few stretcher bearers there were always gave of their best - they were extraordinary. How does one quantify devotion to duty under the conditions which prevailed in those days? The folk at home could not possibly have any idea what their boys were going through.
There was no panic, just haste. We joined this mass of tired and hungry lads. Amidst all this tragedy, the Stukas would return, machine-gunning the full length of the thousands of men. They could not miss and a swathe of dead and wounded would be left behind; really it was awful, many of us fired our rifles at the planes, but they were useless. Nobody can imagine what it is like to be bombed by a German Stuka. They came out of the sky, screaming straight down, then dropped their bombs and pulled up into the sky again. I don't know why we ran - it was just instinct, I suppose.
Story continues on next page ...
Welcome to Bill Cheall's Dunkirk story Page 1 - Escape from Dunkirk