Prologue to war diary, book and biography continued
Page 2 - Escape from Dunkirk
Near the shoreline, one boy of about twenty not far from me had his stomach ripped open and he was fighting to live, asking for his mum and crying. A few of us went to him but he was too bad for us to help him; blood was everywhere. That poor boy soon died, out of pain, to join his mates. It is the most dreadful experience to see a comrade killed in such a way. Some young lads who had lost their nerve went crazy and lay on the sand crying; others knelt and prayed. Mind you, I am sure we all prayed in our own way. No one, of course, could help behaving like this - it was just because of the trauma they had endured and had at last given way to their feelings.
The near impossibility of getting back to England left many of us rather stunned, as it just did not look possible. Our lads, or what was left of our battalion, stuck together among the dunes to obtain some protection from the bombing and strafing. We had had nothing to eat except hard tack biscuits and bully beef - we hadn't had a hot meal for God knows how long and the lads who usually shaved looked really haggard.
None of us could see any sign of the 23rd Division assembly area and nobody seemed to know what to do for the best. Then the planes came over again, causing more deaths. Only twenty yards from me some lads had been hit by shrapnel and one of them was in a serious condition - the medics were there - but he would not live.
A sleepless night was ahead of us. There was no plan of action and even the officers seemed to be showing signs of tension. At about midnight we heard a plane coming, but it was not a bomber; it was dropping parachute flares and suddenly it was as light as day and eerie and fluorescent. Towards Dunkirk, there were dozens of fires caused by burning vehicles, and the flames from the burning oil storage tanks lit up the clouds. Very quickly, the Stukas came over doing their killing, flying the length of the beach, and we dug even deeper into the sand. Lads on the beach were running all over the place, but there was nowhere to go. I don’t know why God was allowing this to happen, yet I saw so many boys praying to him, on their knees.
The morning eventually came and we were very cold, hungry and utterly miserable but there was no let up from our discomfort. I was beside Major Petch and he said, ‘Come along, Cheall, I want to see if I can find somebody in authority to give guidance to us.’ From our elevated positions among the sand dunes we could see, more so, the thousands of soldiers on the beaches. Most of them, at this early hour, were lying around on the sand, certainly wondering what the day would bring; it would take a miracle for us all to be lifted off. I can’t recall seeing any signs of despondency though; after all, we were soldiers, even if we were somewhat dishevelled and only showed natural tendencies to want to get out of the predicament we now found ourselves in. Oh, for a mess tin full of tea and, for most of the lads, a Woodbine!
Around 1100 hrs it looked as though officers on the beach were trying to organize the men. The Major and I went along the beach to try and find somebody with any news of what was happening about the evacuation. We had walked about one mile when we met our divisional commander, Major General Herbert. He was collecting a column of our 23rd Division in order to proceed to Dunkirk to try and get on a boat, since there was no chance of us being evacuated if we stayed where we were. He told Major Petch to collect his lads and join the column with utmost urgency. We hurried back to where our company was waiting to give them the news.
In the distance, we could see what must be Dunkirk. The five miles’ walk there, tired as we were, seemed like fifty on the soft sand, which played havoc with tired legs. Ahead of us I could see the oil tanks with black smoke and flames pouring from them after they had been bombed. As we made our way along the beach, a fighter plane zoomed down to machine gun the men; many of us knelt down and fired with our rifles without any success.
We could see ships out at sea making their way from Dunkirk to England and could also see the dive-bombers after the ships. To our horror, many other ships had been sunk, their funnels and superstructures sticking out of the water - it was a ships' graveyard and it looked dreadful.
Eventually, our column reached the pier, or East Mole as it was called, and we waited in a long queue until it was possible for us to board a ship. Really, it is almost unbelievable, but even when we were attacked by planes we didn't move in case we lost our place in the column. The Mole was a wooden jetty only about five feet wide and one thousand four hundred yards long; it was never supposed to have large ships berth alongside.
Story continues on next page ...
[Click below to hear the sound of a WW2 Stuka]