A diary of the events leading up to and including the Dunkirk evacuation by a young officer in the British expeditionary Force. This very personal account is "officially" covered in. History of the Royal Engineers, Volume 8, pages 22 to 42. It was written in shorthand at the time and then re-written in its present form whilst the author was resting after the evacuation.
Lieutenant (as he was then) Clarke was the Engineer Intelligence Officer of 4 Division when he kept this diary.
After the evacuation, He joined technical military intelligence at GHQ Home forces in London. He then saw active service in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy (mentioned in dispatches), with a break in Haifa, Palestine, as staff college instructor. After the war, he served on the Allied Commission for Austria (Military division ACA), and (at home) setting up the Territorial Army in East Anglia. He qualified as a Technical Staff Officer at the Military College of Science, subsequently serving in Technical Military Intelligence, designing mines and fuses, and on works and buildings in Germany.
After his appointment as Military Assistant to the Controller of Munitions, he was offered a job in industry, and retired from the army with the rank of Lt Colonel, to direct research and Development with the Hoffmann Manufacturing Company in Chelmsford. He retired to Pentlow, and later Foxearth. He died at Pentlow Mill in 1998
Wakened early by the crash of gunfire from the frontier. Another sunny day bringing out the reconnaissance aircraft. As I come downstairs Madame Rouzet is polishing the tiles and she greets me cheerfully. She is a Flamande from Blankenberge and calls me her "autre enfant". I get on famously with her grandchildren Jean and Denise who come most weekends from Lille where their father is a timber merchant. But generally the British are not popular. When I ask Denise why she replies, "On dit que vous vous faites toujours chez vous". I am certainly made very much at home in the Rouzet household.
It is two hundred yards from my billet to Croise Laroche, where the roads to Tourcoing, Roubaix and Comines meet. The HQRE 4 Div Mess is in an empty house near the crossroads. It has been furnished nicely; the curtains have been sewn by the daughters of the house at the Doctor's billet. Breakfast is a hurried meal because I aim to be away before the CRE, Lieut-Colonel Coxwell-Rogers, comes downstairs. I can hear him above in his bedroom as soon as he gets his riding boots on. Being caged up with a tiger is inspiring. "What does he know about building pillboxes?" a sapper has been overheard to say, "He hasn't been off a horse for the last ten years". But we seem to get them up quicker than the Construction Companies.
The Adjutant, Paul Hodgson, tells me to hold the fort in the morning because he has to go and check on the aggregate barges; delivery is a bit slow. Our office is a first floor flat a few yards down the Comines road. Round the walls I have stuck charts with coloured pins showing the progress of pillbox construction, Bren, Machine-gun, or Anti-tank gun. I have given them names beginning with B, M or T respectively. The map references never seem to be quite right, My draughtsman has just finished a tracing showing them all as yellow spots ringed with black so there will be no more argument. Devote the day to checking my monthly report to my namesake at II Corps HQ hoping that it will not come back this time corrected in red ink. Am too hungry after midday to concentrate. An excellent French cook comes in to deal with our lunch and dinner, a cottage loaf of a woman who only demands unlimited beer and permission to bring her little boy along with her. Our former French Liaison Officer, Henri Hauck, particularly appreciated her rare roasts after the burnt offerings of the sapper cook.
Telephone active with the usual trivialities; winding the handle is good indoor exercise. 18 Field Park Company have lost the bulldozer again. 30 Field Regiment RA have indented for yet more sandbags; are they to be supplied? A battalion in 10 Brigade has cut up the local dance floor for revetting material and are faced with a bill for £50. The infantry working party for offloading stores has failed to arrive at the goods yard. Corps want our return of outsize boots by tonight's DRLS (Despatch Rider Liaison Service) and 225 Field Company have forgotten that "Nil Returns" are required. A French civilian arrives from the Mairie with a pot of blue paint to say that he has instructions to black out the windows.
This evening the CRE, Adjutant and Geoffrey Pawle, the Field Engineer, have gone to Lille for an evening conference with the contractor for mechanical equipment, so Lipscomb and I are alone for dinner. He is our doctor, a stout Australian with popping eyes, fond of good living and his fellow men. We do not linger because he has promised his host a game of chess, and I have to make a final check on my . pillbox report in the office; find two map references still wrong. About ten o'clock a single aircraft flies over making a peculiar throbbing noise. Footsteps clatter along the street and a whistle blows. I walk back to my billet past a line of cars with blazing headlights and blaring horns held up by a policeman at the crossroads.
French air raid precautions...
Gunfire rattles the windows at first light. An hour later I wake with a start to the sound of a Bren gun. Spring to the window and see a small high-winged aircraft against a pale blue sky. As I watch it drops a red flare. Towards the frontier red dots curl slowly upwards. Excited talk from below. "Comment, tous les deux!" When my batman Sedgewick, an efficient but incomprehensible Geordie, brings me my morning cup of cafe cognac (by courtesy of Madame Rouzet) he says that the Germans have invaded both Holland and Belgium.
Confirmed at breakfast that 4 Division will be moving into Belgium under Plan D, making first a short disengaging move to Roubaix. This means a mass of office work, preparing handover documents and bringing files up to date. All files relating to local activities to be handed over. Personnel files to be put in order and delivered to Records. Pillbox construction to be carried on by 2 General Construction Battalion. Stores, surplus to the active service scale G 1098, to be dumped under the care of the Barrack Officer on the racecourse (no receipts given). Maps to be sorted through and a selection packed; we have them up to Brussels but what shall we need to the west? Better take two each of Armentieres and Poperinghe to be on the safe side.
At Division HQ down the road all are in ripe good humour. General Johnson looks twenty years younger having successfully warded off General Eastwood who was about to succeed him. The Duke of Gloucester has had to leave though he wants to stay. Henry Straubenzee and John Stevens in Intelligence have little news but have set up their battle map with blue marks (for the enemy); parachutists at Assche and Alost, Belgians fighting in the Ardennes, a few towns bombed. Arm-bands are to be worn, and I proudly put on my green band with a black E for Engineer Intelligence Officer. As I come out there is a roar of motor cycles and the Corps Commander, General Brooke, sweeps up the Roubaix road, his fish flag fluttering from his car.
Company commanders arrive after lunch for a conference, Gillespie of 7 Fd Coy who has taken over from Le Sueur (now CRE 5 Div), Macdonald of 59 Fd Coy, Windle of 225 Fd Coy and Arthur Nixon of 18 Fd Park Coy. 3 Div are already crossing the frontier for Louvain, and 4 Div is to move in reserve to Brussels where we are to prepare the bridges for demolition. Saturday 11th May
Paul Hodgson takes the new French Liaison Officer, Sauervein, resplendant in his uniform of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, to Roubaix with the Divisional Advanced Party. We are allotted two big empty houses in the Rue Gay Lussac but the keys cannot be found. This will be a change for the section from their comfortable billet next to the office, four flats with parquet flooring.
The telephone rings; parachutists reported above the open country east of La Madeleine. Pass the warning on to companies and set off with my pillbox files to see Lieut-Colonel Worsfold, 2 Gen Constr Bn RE. On my way back remember the parachutists and think this may be an intelligence matter so head for the area. There are fields of roots and occasional dark woods, and I stand up in my 8cwt truck carrying Driver Hewitt's rifle ready loaded. Wonder whether I ought to explore the woods. Suddenly I come upon a line of men advancing towards me with fixed bayonets led by a desperado waving a revolver. In time I recognise Rolio Gillespie who is disappointed to find the parachutes to be no more than anti-aircraft puffs. Sunday 12th May
An early breakfast to get the mess packed up. The main Div convoy leaves on the five mile trip to Roubaix at 1000 hrs. I lead the HQRE Section of thirty men, four despatch riders and Wilkinson the MT corporal on motor cycles (four 35Occ BSA and one 500cc Norton) and the rest in Morris trucks, two 8cwt, four 15cwt and one office truck which got through the garage entrance tinder the flats with an inch to spare. The CRE and Adjutant have got the two Humber cars on their own affairs. At Roubaix we stop near the old exhibition ground and the Camp Commandant "Monkey" Hill directs us to park the vehicles fully loaded under trees in the square. Transport is not allowed near offices or billets. I put the two Gregory's on guard, and the rest lug the kit with a lot of grumbling up the slope to our houses which are at least open though without light, heat or blackout. Locate Div HQ and "A" Mess where the CRE will be feeding ready to move forward with the General in the morning. Set up the office and notify companies by DR. Wish we had wireless.
Supper at the Rue Gay Lussac is a melancholy affair in the twilight. My room at the top of an echoing staircase faces south. As darkness falls there is a distant rumbling of aircraft and the sky is white with searchlights making it light enough to write.
Sauervein and Geoffrey Pawle set off first thing in the Humber shooting brake driven by Turner, leaving me in charge. Will see them in Brussels. A quiet morning preparing all the information I have about Belgium and fitting out rny "Intelligence Box" with coloured pins etc. Have a large-scale map of Brussels and its environs, so make a chart of the crossings over the canal with serial numbers to make sure none are left out. We have little information because the Belgians have remained unassailably neutral.
Visit Div HQ to bring my mapboard up to date with Straubenzee's. The possible defence lines ahead of us are, in succession, the Escaut, the Dendre, the Senne (and Willebroek Canal) through Brussels, the Dyle through Louvain, and the Meuse (and Albert Canal). The Boche have already crossed the Albert Canal and the bridge at Maastricht has fallen intact into their hands. Horsed reconnaissance units are moving west towards Louvain where 3 Div is already in position. Contact has been made with the French in the Ardennes. No indication where the main attack is coming.
Set off for La Madeleine to visit companies, but meet 59 Fd Coy strung out along the main road and stop to talk to the OC, John Macdonald, a charming man. He has sent a subaltern forward and is moving into Belgium this afternoon in support of 11 Brigade. At Croise Laroche I call in and say goodbye to the Rouzets, Madame kisses me and weeps. She says that the Belgians will fight like tigers. I warn her to get packed up ready to join her relations in Aix-en-Provence.
Back at Roubaix I find that orders have been issued for a move forward tomorrow. We are a late serial, but the Doctor has to leave early as advance party taking one depatch rider (Leeming) and the cooks truck.
Another perfect day with no sign of enemy aircraft. We take the southern route for Brussels. The frontier poles are raised as we leave the dusty French pave for the Belgian concrete roads, a neatly ordered line of vehicles, at eighty yards spacing precisely, patrolled by motorcycles. The spacing does not last; just across the Escaut I have a row with a gunner who tries to cut in with his Scammeli tractors. My drivers have no maps, only route cards, and if they lose the convoy they may miss the rendezvous.
Clean-looking people stand beside the road waving and throwing flowers. But at Ninove there is a change-they are huddled in groups. There is a smoking crater near the road junction with bits of blue-painted board lying on the lip. A long straight road with Belgian troops on bicycles riding two and two. Suddenly they fling them down and run into the field, pointing upwards. High in the clear blue a silver Heinkel III Recce Bomber is droning to the west ignoring the anti-aircraft puffs miles behind.
The western outskirts of Brussels are indicated by new concrete roads for unbuilt housing estates, not shown on the map. A cluster of motorcyclists is waiting at the rendezvous. As I come up, Leeming swings out ahead of me. Half a mile on he guides me to the right up a cobbled street to a village square full of apple trees. We park the vehicles underneath them, breaking a few boughs in the process. The advanced party has a meal ready in the billet alongside. The doctor has chosen a house in the street as a mess; the lady of the house is flattered and charming. The office is another house a few doors down marked by our sign, white 18 on a blue ground. Report safe arrival to Geoffrey Pawle who is upstairs sorting out messages. Unpack my things, get the company locations and set off on foot for Div HQ because no vehicles are allowed near. The street leads over the hill and I have to pick my way through piles of bicycles. The cafes are full of Belgian soldiers, drinking and singing. One shouts "Good mornink" at me and tries to look at my mapboard. I shake him off.
Div HQ is established in an imposing glass fronted building on the forward slope, probably a school. Children are playing round the feet of the Military Police. Back to the mess for tea where the cook, Garland, has settled down well in the kitchen and is talking fluently to Madame. Go to the office to see if Geoffrey wants relieving, but he is deep in conversation on the telephone about explosives lorries and does not want any tea. Warn Hewitt, my driver, to be ready with my 8cwt truck in half an hour, and try out the piano while the kettle boils.
The centre of Brussels is full of shoppers in cotton frocks and trams are crossing the great bridge in the middle of the town. The only sign of war is a Belgian bridge guard. The map does not show all the bridges; there seems to be one every 200 yards. There is a large park of vehicles and a petrol depot on the wrong side. North of the town the canal is wider but narrows to about sixty feet at the bridges, the principal crossings being the two low-level steel lifting bridges at Vilvorde. I cross here and drive on to the end of our sector marked by a railway bridge which is the responsibility of the Belgian Corps on our left. I list every crossing by description, sketch, map reference and estimate of guncotton and ammonal required. Back in the office the CRE has arrived and reports from company reconnaissances are beginning to come in. I am up till 2 am summarizing, checking and identifying.
Clear moonlit night with continual red flickering to the east. The section is snoring peacefully. Nice bed with clean sheets.
Wakened by gunfire; a Heinkel 111 flying high probably taking photographs. Brussels is beginning to look more seemly. The trams are still running but our sappers are pickaxing at the road surface. Drive in my truck along the canal to Vilvorde and then up the towpath on the east bank. Something has happened to a group of houses whose rafters are showing. Then I see that the railway bridge has been demolished. II Corps have a report centre at Laeken and I call in on my way back to tell my namesake that the Belgians are beginning to blow their bridges. He expresses surprise.
Geoffrey is in a raging temper having been visited in the office by Brig Anderson of 11 Bde who does not mince words. He wants sandbags. I take over while he goes forward to reconnoitre a line of anti-tank obstacles covering the Louvain road in case of a Belgian withdrawal. Soon a message comes through that all bridges are to be prepared for demolition by 0800 hrs tomorrow. I send on to companies by their despatch riders of whom we have one from each company standing by at HQRE.
To Brussels after lunch to see how work is proceeding. Columns of Belgian troops looking clean and cheerful are marching back. All the bridges seem to be covered. Tubby White has his section at work on the great bridge. John Osborne of 225 Coy worried by what he thinks is a spy at the next bridge. The corporal in charge points out to me an elegant officer in Belgian uniform who has been there a long time and has been asking questions. He is now running up and down patting the marching soldiers on the back and shaking their hands. I walk across the bridge and accost him. He turns with a charming smile and says "How do you do. Do you wish to see my identity card?". I examine it critically as if i knew all about Belgian identity cards. At that moment Lyon, the Intelligence Officer of the Northants appears and walks away with him for questioning.
The office is in a flap; the explosive lorries are an hour overdue. Geoffrey leaps on a motor cycle. He has scarcely gone when a message arrives to say that demolition is postponed for twenty-four hours. Alan Gesty, the second-in-command of 59 Coy arrives with his CSM who he has placed under open arrest for being found in a state of inebriation. Pity because he is an excellent chap and a fine looking soldier. He is to be in my care for the rest of the campaign. At midnight a message arrives, the explosives lorries have been found. I sleep well.
Straubenzee's map shows an ominous blue bulge to the south lined with question marks. 3 Division and our own covering troops are to fall back to avoid being cut off and need two more crossings north of Brussels. To provide these we have to use our equipment bridges, preparing them for demolition as we put them up. One bridge will be made from our folding boat equipment, the other from our small box girder resting on two barges.
I am sent off with the Camp Commandant to help recce a new site for Div HQ in a village six miles to the west. Am given an unpromising lane of barns and pig-styes for HQRE. The only house is locked, the owner having gone to Tournai Find a barn for the section and a tiled room for officers at the back of a house in the next street, with a feather bed and. access through a ground floor window.
Coming back to Brussels on my motor cycle the sound of gunfire is persistent. Down on the canal Gus Galloway, a little dark haired Canadian in 59 Coy, is building folding boat rafts under the trees. He is going to run them across the road and into the water after nightfall. Further down two barges lie alongside the farther bank being filled with gravel by a scoop under the supervision of John Macdonald to bring the decking down to the right level. At Vilvorde a trickle of civilians cross the bridge pushing handcarts watched by the Royal Fusiliers who are providing protection parties. Back to the office along now-deserted roads to write my evening report. Brussels, a city of the dead, streets empty and echoing. Round the corner come troops trudging in single file along both gutters wearing the red-and-black ' triangles of 3 Div. A lorry without lights .nearly runs me down. At the great bridge there is glass all over the road-they must have blown the camouflets.
The news at the office is that Alan Gesty has fallen off his motorcycle and been sent to the rear, so HQ 59 Coy must be shorthanded. When the CRE dismissed me I thankfully set off for our new billet, arriving about midnight. Sedgewick has laid out my kit on the feather bed, but choose the floor as looking cleaner.
Wakened by bright sunshine at 6 am-two hours to go. Wash under the pump and leave a canvas bucket of water for Geoffrey and the doctor who are still snoring. Go down the road to Div HQ.
In the orchard outside the Field Security Office a truck is standing with a group of Military Police looking in the back. One says "Look Out! He's got a knife!" and there is a scuffle. On the floor of the truck somebody is squirming around wrapped in white silk. I see a bald purplish head with a gash across it. An NCO tells me it is a parachutist and curses. From the direction of Brussels comes a distant thud followed by two more, windows rattle. The bridges have been blown.
Back at the billet my good deed has not been appreciated because the bucket has leaked. Sedgewick is frying bacon in an outhouse. Should I go back to Brussels after breakfast or await orders? At that moment Paul Hodgson arrives in the Humber brake with Turner, tired and hungry. He says that the CRE is remaining with the Divisional Commander and Geoffrey is to report to him. I am to take an urgent message to 12 Brigade while he gets some sleep. Set off with Hewitt in my 8cwt; find the village, but no sign of the Brigade Headquarters. Could they have pulled back? There is a signaller winding up wire. As I stop to ask him, a car draws up beside me with a pink Brigadier Hawkesworth leaning out. "Ah, here's a sapper!" "Sir?" "The bridge at Vilvorde has not been properly blown and I want it done at once. Get in touch with the Royal Fusiliers to provide a covering party". "Right away Sir". No time for me to get hold, of the CRE even if 1 knew where he was. The Vilvorde job belongs to 7 Fd Coy who are in support of 12 Brigade, and their headquarters is only a mile or two away. When I arrive the second-in-command, Vaughan Williams, and Derek Curtis are having breakfast. GiMespie is out at the bridging site. I deliver my message. "Afraid that was coming", said Vaughan Williams, "How much sleep have your section had Derek?" "About three hours." "Go yourself now and contact the Commanding Officer of the Royal Fusiliers. I'll send them along in about half an hour."
I drive off to find Gillespie, making slow progress because the road is now full of refugees observing no traffic rules and abandoning their gear whenever an aircraft appears. Gillespie's truck is standing by the roadside at the folding boat bridge. Everything is quiet. On the far side is a Tetrarch (light tank) of the Inniskillings who are holding the bridgehead for the benefit of stragglers. Smoke from, a burning house lies low over the water. Gillespie stands by the waters edge watching two sappers in a dinghy. I report my mission for Hawksworth and he turns on me. "How dare you order my company out! Don't you know there's nothing between Vilvorde and the enemy? The CRE has sorted all this out already." "Shall I stop them?" "Yes, and I will go and see Hawkesworth."
The only way to get to Vilvorde quickly is along the canal bank, Germans or no Germans. I tell Hewitt to go flat out and wish my tyres did not scream so loudly. It takes me half an hour to get to Vilvorde where the road bends round away from the canal. We turn right, up the main street and stop where the 7 Fd Coy working party are having a smoke, their vehicles tucked into the side of the road. I walk towards the canal. At the last bend in the street a Bren carrier is parked at the ready, and opposite is the sign '67 Tac HQ' on a brown ground. Stumbling down steps into a cellar I find the CO of the Royal Fusiliers and Derek looking at a map. I report that the bridge was not to be blown again after all. "Well that's that," says Derek "but we think we ought to have a shot at that last girder anyway". The CO is not too keen. He has withdrawn his covering party and re-establishing it might cost casualties.
Nobody knew what there was across there now. "I'll check with Brigade," he says. Meanwhile I walk down to inspect the bridges. The main girder on one has not been properly cut but it is impassable to vehicles. There is a rifle shot and a bullet whines overhead. I jump into a slit trench. Nothing to be seen. Return to meet Derek coming up the steps. "All off?" "Yes, back we go!" The sappers stamp out their cigarettes. I follow the convoy back so I can report they are safe, and branch off to Laeken to get some information from the II Corps Report Centre. Nothing there; they have pulled out. Drive on to the former Div HQ office and find nothing but a rear party of CMP who say that everybody has gone back to rear HQ.
Something is going on and I had better get back. I postpone my tour of the blown bridges in Brussels.
In the orchard there is another victim. John Stevens, a cold light in his green eyes, is shooting questions at a dejected figure in shoes and ill-fitting battle dress who sits on a chair facing the sun with his eyes bandaged. In the background two CMP lurk hungrily. To their disappointment it turns out that he is a member of the British Embassy trying to get away; he thought he would have a better chance dressed up as a soldier! The news is that we are to fall back behind the line of the Dendre now held by 3 Div.
The news is that we are to fall back behind the line of the Dendre now held by 3 Div. The doctor and Sauervein are to set off at once with the advanced party for Resseghem, while I get some sleep and bring on the section with the HQ Div convoy after dark. We have to be across the River Dendre by first light. The Adjutant and CRE are together in the Humber Snipe elsewhere so I am to take the shooting brake. The RSM, the CSM and the Sergeant Clerk ride in 15cwts. A tracing has been issued showing the route which avoids both Alost and Ninove. I have a torch to look at the map but the shooting brake is not blacked out so have to be careful. We are allowed no lights.
I start badly by taking the wrong road out of the village. Rather than face turning each truck round in the dark, I drive into a field of roots, take a wide sweep and drive out again and back; successful, but have now lost the convoy ahead. Take my direction from the flashes in the eastern sky. On the main road Graham comes alongside on his motorcycle. "Sir, Hodder has broken down". "How long?" He went back to find out and eight shadows behind me slushed to a standstill. "No verra bad; ten minutes". Suppressing the feeling that we are well in the rear of the whole British Army I decided to wait. Twenty minutes later we start. There should be a left turn soon. .. . Can hardly see the road, let alone landmarks. Turner is not much help, being so shortsighted that I have to tell him how far is he away from the edge of the road. This could be the place, but there is no going back if it is wrong. Leeming shepherds the convoy round. Next there should be a right turn; but I only have seven trucks instead of eight. "Foster has gone back to look for Gregory", says Cpl Wilkinson alongside, "He must have gone straight on at the last turning". I start off again. From here according to the map a beautiful wide road leads to our destination, but instead it is getting narrower and narrower. I am climbing a hill, and I feel the tyres ploughing through sand! I come to a fork. The gunfire has stopped, there is no moon and I have no idea which way I am pointing. The lanes are too narrow to turn. There is a cottage, pitch dark because it is after midnight. I knock on the door until a man emerges, his wife behind. They do not speak French. I go in and spread out the map on their table. They are excited because they have never seen a map before. I cut them short and ask the way to Resseghem but they do not seem to have heard of it. I take the right hand lane. Half a mile later it ends at a gate.
Repeating my previous performance I drive into the field and do a wide circle but this time the Humber sinks down to the axles in the soft ground. I tell the other trucks to turn round as they can, and Goddard backs over Leemings motorcycle. The moon is now up and a mist is rising. It is 2.00 am. We load up the motorcycle and offload the Humber. At last it comes free with a lot of pushing and the convoy sets off back down the lane. The other fork leads downhill between steep banks. A dark figure looms in front. "Where does this road lead ?" "Dunno sir, but its blocked by ammunition lorries up ahead". We'll see about that. I squeeze past the first lorry, and turn to see the others squeezing past too; then two more, and then I come to the last, I rouse the driver and make him pull over. We cross a stream by a grove of poplars. Up a little hill there is a hurricane lamp with the welcome sign HQRE. Inside I surprise Dick Walker, Adjutant RE 3 Div and lately of 7 Fd Coy who puts me on the right road.
The doctors anxious face is a cheering sight at the rendezvous where we are well overdue. Foster like a good despatch rider has already arrived, taking the sensible route by instinct. Gregory turns up later in the morning having followed an RASC convoy along the main road.
No time even to set up the office truck. I am to leave at once as the next advanced party with Sauervein. Div HQ is to move to Waregem behind the River Escaut today so there is no time to lose.
The main road is a mass of traffic of all formations moving west with no attempt at spacing or discipline, ambulances, three-ton lorries, Belgian horse drawn artillery. One horse has a flap of flesh hanging off its rump. As we draw near the Audenarde bridge traffic becomes two then four abreast, mounting the verges in attempts to gain position. This would be a holiday for the Luftwaffe, but there is not a single aircraft in sight. AII Corps Staff car draws up alongside me and there is Major G G S Clarke. "About that last pillbox return of yours," he begins. . . . The jam is caused by sappers of 44 Div, a welcome sight, preparing the bridge over the Escaut for demolition. After Audenarde, the road to the north west is deserted.
I stop in Kruishouten and we buy cold sausage and cheese. Waregem is a pleasant little village with a chateau. The road with the chateau is allotted to "gunners and sappers". We move like lightening. While I hang the RE sign on the wrought iron gates to keep out the gunners, Sauervein marches up the front steps and bawls out a surprised Belgian family having lunch. In future they will be permitted to use the kitchen and one back bedroom. By the time he has allotted the other bedrooms, with a suite for the CRE, his interest begins to wane. But when Madame at the house next door shows reluctance to accommodating the section, he perks up. "Salle femme! This is war you must understand. . . . Do you not hear the cannon? Boom, Boom!" Then he goes to sleep on the lawn while I proceed to find a billet for the RSM. The CRE would be pleased; he is partial to chateaux, and I have to be firm with Monkey Hill who is having second thoughts about a place for "A" Mess. Finding the key of an empty house takes me out of the village, but I get back at five o'clock in plenty of time to meet the main convoy. Sauervein is frantic. "I have been looking for you everywhere! Everybody has gone away. The location has been changed to Sweveghem". I said I have to return the key, but Sauervein said that it would be a ridiculous waste of time. We creep shamefacedly into Sweveghem behind the convoy, but the doctor has done wonders in the short time he was given, finding us an office in one corner of a large classroom in the school. I balance my Intelligence Box on two desks and make out my reports.
Things at the RE Mess are not too happy. The doctor has found an empty blue-tiled shop in the main street but it is too narrow to park a truck there so the equipment has had to be carried which makes the dinner late. The CRE has arrived tired and cross, and Paul Hodgson is lecturing people on the sole purpose of HQRE, ie, to administer to the CRE's comfort. I entirely agree but lack of sleep has overtaken me and I am not a bit hungry. I retire with Geoffrey to the loft allotted to officers and collapse on the wooden floor.
Aroused by a Bren carrier clattering past. As the noise dies away a muttering shuffling remains. The window is level with the loft floor so without getting out of bed I look out to see the refugees. Later there are church bells and as I go to breakfast the townspeople in their best clothes are going to church.
Take my map board to Div HQ. They have got the chateau this time and no mistake, taking it over from the Belgian Corps HQ. They had to push antique furniture aside to set up their "tables 6ft" and install telephones.
We are to stand on the Escaut which is a relief, with 44 Div on our left and 3 Div on our right. The maps are hopeless so the first task for us is to be a complete road survey. Geoffrey and I divide the Div sector between us and set out on reconnaissance. Eastward from Sweveghem the road undulates for a mile or two and then sweeps down to the river. Beyond, tree covered hills rise to dominate our whole forward area; but as yet there is no sign of life. The four bridges in our sector are manned by 44 Div RE. Across the northerly one the refugees are pouring, shepherded by the CMP onto side-roads. They are very orderly with carts, perambulators, cars topped with mattresses, household utensils suspended, donkeys behind and dogs underneath. They wave as I drive past. Everywhere troops are digging-in guns making use of every bit of cover. Every minute or so a ranging shot comes flip-flopping overhead. Our right hand boundary is the Bossuyt Canal which rises by a series of locks to the watershed. Crossing the bridge at one of these locks I see to my horror that it is prepared for demolition with the detonators in position and no one on guard. In a nearby house I find the NCO who has knocked off his party for a smoke. Take him outside....
A dung cart goes past the window with a shovel stuck in the top. Business as usual, but not today on the forward slope. There is no going down to the river. The Germans have got across during the night on the 44 Div front and their shells are ranging on various landmarks, farms and crossroads, throwing up a cloud of pale brown dust every few minutes. Some dead animals in the fields. Nobody stirring, not even refugees.
Back to lunch having completed my reconnaissance. Sauervein plunged in gloom at the news that General Giraud has been captured. Go to Div HQ afterwards for the latest news. The map is covered with blue marks and question marks. There are fifth column scares-we shall be glad to get away from Flemish speakers who sound like Germans. Brigadier Anderson has been shot at. As I come out through the garden a padre is being marched in between two military police. Behaving in a very odd way and refusing to give his name, but is obviously British and hear later that he comes to his senses under John Stevens' steely influence. The French have closed the frontier so the streets are now milling with refugees. No civil administration in evidence. Get talking to a girl in a blue dress and advise her not to try to get into France.
Enemy aircraft reappear in the afternoon flying high with attendant puffs. They remind Div HQ that their chateau is too obvious and we are warned that we might have to move out of our school to make way for them. The doctor goes to prospect alternative accommodation while I finish my road report. Despatch tracings to HQ Div and Brigades.
Gus Galloway rings up to say that a carrier pigeon has been launched from near the 59 Fd Coy office in the outskirts of Sweveghem. I take Sauervein and meet him on site where he points out the suspect house, guarded by a few sappers. As we watch another carrier pigeon flies out from the roof. I draw my revolver and fling open the front door. Inside an elderly Belgian couple are cowering. A policeman appears from nowhere. "Pigeons monsieur? But here all the world has pigeons". I am conducted upstairs to the pigeon loft. The anticlimax is too much for the policeman
Struck by a happy thought he says "Where is your licence?". The old man produces a dirty screw of paper. It is out of date. He is put under arrest. Many words are spoken by all Belgians present, simultaneously. Outside the guard is getting restive as pigeons fly out from all over the place. A crowd begins to gather and the policeman is on his mettle. Up the street he dashes into house after house, coming back proudly leading a little group of criminals. What did I want him to do with them? Something bold is expected of me, but summary execution seems inappropriate.
To play for time I bundle them into the back of my truck and drive off to the Field Security Office. I go in and ask Basil Bartlett if he is collecting pigeon fanciers. As his answer leaves no room for doubt I turn them loose hoping that the walk will teach them a lesson. Continue on a tour of companies. 18 Fd Park is settled in a barbed wire factory. Glorious afternoon with the fields hard as iron. A thick column of dust rises from a group of houses half a mile away, then another and another. Harassing fire.
I get back to the office to find a panic. The Adjutant has been looking for me for hours. We are to fall back to behind the French frontier, occupying as luck has it, not our old sector but one to the left; so we take over 5 Div sector and 3 Div moves into ours. I am to leave immediately for HQ 3 Div and show them where all the engineer work is, especially the pillboxes. We have handed all our records over but I carry them in my head. Hewitt is standing by with my truck. I am not allowed to take Sedgewick because he has become too useful as Mess Steward, but he has packed and loaded my kit. I shall have to rough it with a batman/driver.
HQRE 3 Div are near Aalbeke and I arrive in plenty of time for dinner. They are old friends, and are interested in my account of the 4 Div war so far. They are to move next day, so Lieut-Colonel Desmond Harrison suggests that I should go round to G(Ops) after dinner to report. Pat Ronaldson takes me round and introduces me to the GSO1. He has received a pillbox tracing but it does not seem to be quite right. I am shown a table where I sit down and mark up their map. They do not think that 4 Div has done very much work at all. They wish they were in their old sector where they have dug a continuous fire trench from end to end as well as building twice our number of pillboxes. It is getting dark and the lighting set has not been switched on. A voice snaps "Who are you and what are you doing?" A little man with a face like a weasel has come into the room, his jacket undone. I am surprised to see red tabs under his jerkin. I stand up and explain. "All right, carry on". He turns away. It is Montgomery, the Divisional Commander.
Back at HQRE Hewitt has laid out my kit on a couch in the passage.
With nothing to get up for next morning I am pleased to see the others hurrying away. The doctor of 3 Div RE cooks me an excellent breakfast. There is nothing
I can do because everybody is packing up, so I walk round the village keeping close in case a call comes through. The place seems deserted. I suppose the people are all in the cellars.
Orders come that 3 Div HQ is to move to Bondue, (see map), that night. I leave with the advanced party after lunch. It seems like coming home, zigzagging round the frontier barricades into France and our old sector. Visit the Citadel to call on the officers of the Secteur Defensive de Lille with whom we have laid out many happy switch lines. They are sitting mournfully in a basement by candle light. Shake some very limp hands and feel embarrassingly hearty. At La Madeleine I see the Fd Park Coy has arrived and call in to see if they have found our dumps.
Winkfield has not missed anything. The windows of my old billet are shuttered; the Rouzets I am glad to see have left for Aix-en-Provence. Tourcoing is still crowded with children playing around the pillboxes. There are enemy recce aircraft about but no attacks. Every tree has a vehicle under it with a unit sign every few yards. I am hailed at one unit to advise on whether the roof of the place they have chosen as an office is strong enough. Reassure them. They have opened the frontier again at Roubaix because a column of refugees is moving west, diverted towards Mouvaux off the main road.
When I get back to HQRE 3 Div I find that Desmond Harrison is planning a private-enterprise scorched earth operation for the following morning. As a guest I am of course invited to join the fun. He has spotted a weaving mill in Mouscron on the Belgian side of the frontier. Being disappointed by the amount of material falling into German hands, and having plenty of spare energy he has decided to burn it down before breakfast.
The whole of the HQRE staff take part in the operation, just filling one truck. We cross the frontier with explosives and cans of petrol as dawn glimmers ahead.
This is now the front line because our rearguard has fallen back from the Escaut during the night, but according to the picket there are no reports of the enemy. To be on the safe side we drop off a sentry at our right-turn off the main road with instructions to fire two shots if an enemy patrol appears. We have guncotton ready to blow the gates but they are standing ajar. We drive up to the black mass of the factory and tumble oat. Dick Walker has explored the sprinkler system by daylight and sets to work to lay the explosives to cut it. The rest of us disperse to various buildings. The store house allotted to me is stacked with milky white reels of thread piled twenty feet high into the gloom. I pull down pile after pile onto the floor and spread shavings around. Then comes a whistle warning us to muster by the main gate while the sprinkler charges are blown, a shattering noise in the early morning peace. Now we must work fast. I slosh petrol around, open all the doors and windows; strike a match. There is a roar of flames followed by dense choking smoke. I run back to the yard where the CRE is dealing with the oil store. I never realized that oil is so difficult to set alight. I follow him into the next shed, piles of reels and criss-cross passages. The smoke gets thicker. Will he never come out? I go further down after him and meet him halfway back with the flames leaping behind him Suddenly there is a click, a rushing noise and we are both drenched. The sprinklers have won after all! Outside thick black oil smoke is cariing up. There is a noise of tracks, a carrier going fast down the main road; probably one of our patrols coming in. "Better get going. Everybody here?" Dick Walker is missing. It is already light. Somebody runs back, and a long half minute passes. Then they both come running and jump on behind the truck. As we drive back through the zig-zag we hear the clanging of a fire engine's bell.
After breakfast I set off on my tour of brigades. There is an impressive display of energy; everywhere weapon pits are being dug and culverts prepared for demolition. My reception, at brigades confirm my favourable impression. In every case I am received by the brigadier with the utmost courtesy. Brigadier Woolner (late RE) invites me to a drink but I have to hurry on. In general they have had oo difficulty in finding our pillboxes but do not think much of their siting. But our efforts will be useful in diverting enemy attention away from the fieldworks they are building for themselves.
A summons arrives for me to report immediately to HQRE 4 Div at Wervicq Sud in the former 5 Div sector. When I arrive I find I am in hot water again. The Chief Clerk packed the spare maps in the back of my truck without my knowledge. Sedgewick has been made an unpaid lance corporal and I have lost him for good. So nobody had kept a place for me and Hewitt has to rig op a bed in the corner of the mess where it has to be taken down to eat. The doctor and Foster are wearing beautiful new sheepskin jackets. "If I don't take them the Germans will" he says. Paul Hodgson says something about getting down to a job of work after my prolonged holiday,
I set off for 7 Fd Coy to plan a wiring operation near Halluin for the following night. The night is very dark and it takes me two hours to travel the four or so miles, and then only finding Company HQ by the aid of the flares the enemy are now dropping. The atmosphere there is rather strained; Vaughan Williams has sent the French Liaison Officer upstairs to get properly shaved.
Div HQ has settled in a large white house overlooking the River Lys valley and visible for miles. Straubenzee and Stevens are in a little room behind. A Bren gun is mounted on the window ledge with which Straubenzee takes a pot shot at aircraft from time to time. The news is stimulating. The enemy has reached the coast and we are to stand here and fight it out. We certainly have plenty to fight with. I have never seen such a concentration of formations as yesterday, the white triangles of 1 Div and the crossed keys of 2 Div as well as the TA divisions. I go clown to the Lys and look across the bridge to Menln, occupied by the Belgian Corps on our left. The bridge is under guard and prepared for demolition. Shells axe falling occasionally on Menin, A mother is doing her washing on the river bank, a child playing beside her.
A shell lands in the 18 Fd Park Coy. Arthur Nixon brings a piece to show us. When I take it round to G(Ops) with my first "Shelrep" there is nobody in the office so I sit down to read the latest summary. "Excuse me". A padre has come in. I say I am a visitor like him but he does not seem to hear me. "My colonel has sent me to find a parking place for our transport. Can you advise me what to do?" I suggest he sits down and relaxes. "But you do not understand; it Is a gunner unit and it is essential that I find some place for the transport at once". Then he gets abusive. "You staff officers are all alike; none of them will help me". He wanders off down the passage wailing "What am I to do; will nobody help me?"
Drive to 18 Fd Park Coy for the wiring lorries after dark and bring them forward to a rendezvous with the 7 Fd Coy section doing the wiring. I know the roads having traversed them In the days when 5 Div had the sector. Things fairly quiet and the operation passes without incident. Saturday 25 th May
There Is a noise of AA fire over Wervicq followed by two dull thuds. A pane of glass breaks. "They are bombing the bridge; go down and get It blown at once" Liaison with the Belgians has broken down and if the charges are displaced the enemy might capture it intact. I spring on my motor cycle and ride for the town, above which the smoke is rising. The streets are full of broken glass. At the bend before the bridge the ADC is standing In the middle of the road, and a sapper is paying out electric cable. He tells me that he has passed on the order to blow. There is a mighty roar and bits fall around. I go forward to check that the demolition is successful.
Geoffrey Pawle is sent off to cross the Lys lower down and recce the canal from Comines to Ypres as a defensive position. I am to recce the Lys itself, west from Halluin, making sure that the Middlesex who have joined us to guard it do not leave any barges unsunk.
My first quarry is a group of barges near Halluin which the Middlesex are attending to. As I watch them at it I am conscious of a hostile presence. Behind me a group of very tough-looking bargees are staring at me. I walk nonchalantly to my motor cycle and ride off to the next point. At Bousbeque there is another section of Middlesex, the corporal is worried because one barge is still occupied. He points out a houseboat with a smoking chimney. I walk across the field towards it, and up the gang plank. There are lace curtains and china ornaments and an elderly couple very frightened. I give them ten minutes to pack their belongings and get out. They ask me where they are to go, and I cannot help them. The river here loops away from the road so I continue across fields, the towpath being the opposite side. There are steep banks making barge-finding difficult. Behind me black smoke curls up from the burning houseboat.
At Wervicq the river is deserted. Shells are falling near the church tower on the far bank, probably ranging. A column of transport comes shuffling across the bridge at Comines and a French officer leans out of the leading car, asking me the way to Lens, He comes from the Leger Division Motorise and Is moving south to rejoin the main French army. I ask him what is happening to the north and he says that all Is confusion.
When I get back I find all confusion at HQRE too. The Belgian defence has collapsed. Paul Hodgson says he would not have sent me along the Lys if he had known there was nothing the other side. Div HQ is exposed and has to move quickly to LinselJes a few miles to the south west. The doctor has done the billeting with Ms usual efficiency and we have a nice terrace house with clean sheets for all. Unfortunately a medium regiment has set up across the road and fires most of the night.
Geoffrey arrives in the small hours very cross having fallen into a ditch.
Our office is established in the stables of Div HQ's new chateau, and we should be very comfortable. But by the afternoon the flap is really on. We are apparently about to be attacked by two German corps, and one officer and one other rank from each unit has to get back to England to "tell the tale". Geoffrey Pawle has rested, and is sent off with Foster for Dunkirk with the Div HQ party.
We are to withdraw from the Lille salient tonight, but there is no mention of embarkation. I am to lead the HQRE section and rendezvous with the HQ sections of the companies led by the seconds-in-command at Beveren, the II Corps Report Centre, travelling by Nieukerke and Poperinghe. This time I take the Humber Snipe driven by Smith, together with the section transport and Doctor, Sauervein, RSM, CSM, Staff Sergeant, office staff, cooks and despatch riders but without an advanced party. We start soon after sunset. Ahead a heavy streak of smoke lies across the horizon. Gun flashes are no guide this time because they are all round us.
The CMP Traffic Section have marked the first part of the route with a gala of glow-worm lamps, but they give out when the going gets difficult. To avoid other divisional routes we move by a mixture of road and lane to Armentieres and without lights the going is slow. The moon is rising when we reach Nieukerke. A line of black shapes is standing ahead and glass lies thickly near the cross roads. We inch our way past the heavy lorries. There is a smell of death and a pile of tangled equipment. We tarn right beyond the town onto a concrete surface and proceed at speed, but soon close up behind some medium gunner Scammell tractors. From now on it is stop-go. Monday 27th May
By the time we see Poperinghe ahead it is daylight. A solid line of transport is waiting to get through the town. Every minute a shell crashes down into the main square and a cloud of dust rises. Bang-Crash. The queue shifts forward a hundred yards and stops. Bang-Crash. Ambulances, staff cars, matadors, all mixed up as at Audenarde. Must keep our convoy together. Bang-Crash. Something ahead comes loose and we all move forward, into the square and away.
To the left there is distant thunder, and tiny black dots are weaving in the cloudless sky. An hour later more black smoke rises ahead and Stukas can be seen screaming down through it. This looks like Beveren. Stop the convoy on the side of the road and drive on into the town with Graham on Ms motor cycle as soon as things are quiet. Find Bradfer-Lawrence of 18 Fd Park Coy who congratulates me on not having arrived a few minutes earlier when I could have shared a slit trench with him and watched his transport disintegrating. Drive on searching for the II Corps Report Centre without success until I find myself beyond the town. Here is a track leading away from the road along a hedge offering some air cover to a field with a few poplar trees. This seems a good place for the section to rest. Leaving Graham to reserve the area I drive back to bring up the convoy.
We park under cover and the cooks serve breakfast. I post Bourner, our toughest despatch rider, as air sentry with the mounted Bren gun. The doctor sets off to Beveren to buy some fresh bread which he finds essential. The rumble of traffic on the road lulls us to sleep in the hot morning sun. Suddenly there is a scream like splitting silk and a Messerchmidt 109 shoots over our heads a few feet above the poplars followed by another and another; a sharp turn, round and over us again. Bourner lets them have it with the Bren gun and the rest of the section falls flat. After a long minute everything is peaceful again. There are no casualties so perhaps they were firing at the traffic and not at us. The doctor returns without any bread, pink and angry having spent some displeasing moments in the 18 Fd Park Coy slit
I set off again to look for the Report Centre and find the 59 Fd Coy sign outside a farmhouse. Gus Galloway is sitting on the verandah having breakfast. He asks me whether I am scared. He has no news. I also find Bill Hedley of 225 Fd Coy. He has no news either and we discuss what to do if we cannot make contact with anybody before the enemy arrives. I drive on to prospect an area where we can make a stand and find some convenient barbed wire defences across the fields to the west indicating the frontier.
Aircraft still active as never before, but the section have not been disturbed again. They seem to knock off at meal times. Time to think about accommodation for the night, so the doctor sets off one way while 1 take Sauervein the other. We stop by a likely-looking asbestos barn. A Heinkel is flying about and two Belgian soldiers of the Chasseur Regiment are lying in the ditch. "Quesque vous chassez sous les arbres?" says Sauervein. The barn is full of manure, but the doctor has found something, I go back with him to have a look. It is a farmhouse with a red brick path leading up to the low door; the neat kitchen will do very well as an office. As the doctor steps outside again a Junkers 88 roars over the roof a few feet up. He lifts his arms and curses like Balaam.
Back at the section news has come via a despatch rider from the CRE. We are given the map reference of 11 Corps HQ where we are to report to the BGS. 1 pick up Gus Galloway and drive to Corps where we find none other than Brigadier Pepper, our late tactics instructor from the SME Chatham, so we are on our mettle.
The BEF is withdrawing into the area Nieuport-Dunkirk and the bridges across the Niueport-Bergues canal have to be prepared for demolition. We have no one inch maps of the area so borrow one each from the limited Corps stock. We decide to divide the bridges between us; I am to take inclusive from Fumes to the railway bridge halfway to Hondschoote. I study the map with the doctor and choose for our destination a wooded area near Adinkerke about the middle of our sector. He sets off in the Snipe with Graham on his motorcycle having fixed a road junction as rendezvous. I bring on the section as soon as it has packed up, taking the main road to Furnes which is not overcrowded.
I am pleased at the sight of a line of Belgian troops in overcoats digging in. "Are you digging an anti-tank ditch?" asks Sauervein. "No, m'sieur", replies the sentry, "We are building a railway". Hoogstade is deserted. As we turn left down the street I see a provisions shop with the door swinging upon, and rubbish on the pavement. Inside it has been ransacked. Piles of tins have been pulled off the shelves and out of the drawers, many without labels. We may need these. I bundle the lot into the back of my truck.
The road to Furnes is long and straight, running through open fields. On our left a Bofors AA Gun suddenly opens up and I see a flight of Messerschmidt 109 fighters flying low towards us. As soon as they have passed overhead the leading aircraft peels away and comes screaming down. Regulations require that under air attack a convoy should proceed as if nothing were happening. In practice every vehicle has stopped and every man is lying flat in the field before the first guns start ripping. The Messerschmidts sweep over one after the other, jerking and swerving as though they are thoroughly enjoying it. The Bofors keeps firing; I keep praying. Then they are gone. Sheepishly we walk back to our trucks; they are still there. There are no casualties either. They must have been firing blanks. We drive on.
At Furnes there is a Belgian guard on the bridge but it does not look to have been prepared for demolition. I turn left along the tarmac road which leads along the south side of the canal to Dunkirk. Graham is waiting at the road junction. He leads us up a side road to the left where we stop to wait for the doctor. There is no air cover and plenty of aircraft about so I tell the section to leave the vehicles and get inside an old first-world war German pillbox in the field alongside. When we are inside, the RSM asks me to tell the section what is happening. "Mr Galloway", he says, "has told his section that the whole Royal Navy is lying off the beaches ready to take us off". I tell them what I know which is not much. "Watch it Sir", says a voice, "There's some civilians in here with us". At this moment the doctor arrives. He leads us down the road, turns right across a wooden bridge, then by grass track across a field to a wood. Inside the wood there is a large white house and a couple of empty huts. It seems perfect and nobody is there.
We are within a few yards of the Furnes-Dunkirk road having come round into the estate the back way. I tell the section to dig slit trenches and get the cooks offloaded into one of the huts. Coming back I find that the trenches have not been started and there is some grumbling. The RSM says the men are tired. There is a noise of machine guns close outside the wood, and a high-winged monoplane with British markings, a Lysander, flies down the road gunning the transport. From now on all aircraft are treated as hostile. When I look round the trenches have been dug.
I explore the house. It is empty and ransacked. Rummage is piled in every room and the lavatories are clogged; no water. There is a grand piano, rather out of tune. The batmen clear out a small room and erect our camp beds. The doctor feels the need for fresh bread so we set off on a shopping expedition leaving the section resting. There is nothing in Adinkerke. The frontier post beyond is deserted. Ahead a column of smoke fills the sky and stretches back over our heads. As we reach the Bray crossroads we hear a dull booming overhead and decide to observe events from the ditch. We can see bombers weaving in and out of the smoke clouds ahead, the sparkle of heavy AA bursts and the red five-bead strings of light AA curling slowly upwards. Over all the thunder comes the continuous whistle of falling bombs.
We decide against the fresh bread and enjoy a pleasant late dinner of Camembert and tinned lobster.
Paul Hodgson arrives in the shooting brake with news. The Div RE have counter-attacked with the bayonet at Wameton and Macdonald is missing believed killed. Gus Galloway has to take over from him so I am to look after the 59 Fd Coy HQ Section. We have fallen back and are occupying the left of the perimeter and Div HQ is at Coxyde. I am to stay where I am and carry on preparing the bridges I have allotted myself, while 7 Fd Coy take over those on the other side of Furnes. I am to do the work tomorrow morning; there is an ammunition point near Les Moeres. Any spare effort I must put into collecting barbed wire from the hedgerows and any picks and shovels I can find. 18 Fd Park Coy will send a lorry. He does not want any tinned caviare.
Soon after he has gone, 59 Fd Coy HQ Section move in bringing with them a wounded man who groans in a corner of the hut under the doctors supervision. I divide the sections up into search parties and set off on my reconnaissance. I soon run into trouble. At Furnes when I examine the bridge a jumpy Belgian officer asks me what I am doing. When I tell him he pats his revolver and says that this is a Belgian Bridge and is not to be blown up by the British. I leave immediately and go to find the Town Major. He says that liaison is tricky but he will try to sort it out. It is very quiet, and a shot rings out from across the canal. I lower the windscreen of the 8cwt truck and rest the Bren gun on the bonnet. Round the corner is a group of soldiers, John Osborne with a party from 225 Fd Coy. I warn him about the Belgian.
Set off driving along the towpath. First comes a lattice girder foot bridge; 201bs of guncotton should settle that. Then comes a steep old single arch masonry bridge which will need ammonal. There are about twelve bridges including the steel girder railway bridge at the end. I am looking at the last when the Chief Engineer, Brigadier Phipps, drives up with Major Boggs, both calm and cheerful. They are pleased to see that things are happening. Boggs gives me specific advice about the ammunition point. While we are talking a formation of bombers flies over towards Dunkirk so we lie down on a grassy bank. I find the ammunition point in the form of boxes dumped for a mile or so along the verges of a road with nobody in charge. Just help myself to guncotton, ammonal and accessories in liberal quantities.
Back at the section a lot of material has been brought in and the CSM of 59 Fd Coy has been a tower of strength. A lorry load has already been collected. We are no longer alone. An infantry battalion wearing red hackles has occupied the field, and in our house there is a brigade HQ. The mess staff have made a very good job of clearing the dining room, and have laid the table for dinner. After I have called on the brigade major I work out my plans for tomorrow. There is nobody in either section who knows anything about demolitions so I allocate a party under an NCO for each bridge and will just have to tell them what to do. I give a short lecture on demolition equipment in the hut, and send them off to bed to be ready for an early start.
We set off at 0500 hrs in three vehicles. At Furnes I arrange for Bourner to cover me with the Bren gun in case the Belgian is still there. But the bridge has already been prepared for demolition and a party from 225 Fd Coy is standing by.
We stop at each bridge and I drop off the demolition party and the explosives, briefing the NCO on what to do. This takes time but nothing can go wrong. It is mid-morning before we reach the last bridge. Being a railway bridge the only wheeled access to it is by the road which here runs on the wrong side of the canal and upon which German troops might appear at any time. How am I going to get the demolition party away? Fortunately on my way back I find an abandoned Renault car in working order which I leave with them. I work up the bridges again from Furnes to see how preparations are progressing. While giving a hand to excavate*an abutment a party of Belgian troops marches up the road towards the enemy carrying a white flag to the jeers of the British. There is a small wooden bridge for which I have no NCO so I set alight to it and am duly rebuked by Brigadier Phipps who arrives at that moment for attracting the attention of the enemy. No burning is to be permitted.
Once the preparations are complete I leave an NCO and one man on each bridge as firing party with orders to fire and withdraw if the bridge is in danger of capture by the enemy. Assure them I will send out rations, but before I have to do so the bridges are taken over by 225 Fd Coy and I pick my parties up. The sector is now humming with activity. There is not enough room for a whole army's transport. In a field an RASC unit is having a splendid time lining up its lorries along a drainage canal and knocking them in one by one. A column of thick-armoured French tanks with tiny guns stands deserted along the verge. The Cameronians have moved into our wood. We have collected a large pile of wire and shovels which no lorry has been recently to collect. Have we been forgotten? We entertain a stray Pay Corps officer to dinner, and afterwards I set off on my motor cycle to report to the CRE. It is now dark and I stop to ask the way of a military policeman. His hand clamps like a vice onto my shoulder, and then relaxes. "Christ, Sir; thought you were a Jerry!" After a long search around Coxyde I find Colonel Coxwell-Rogers up a dark flight of s,tajrs and he welcomes me with courtesy. I am to keep my section in the wood and stores will be collected. The Division will be withdrawing from the perimeter for embarkation in the next day or two and the HQ Section of 59 Fd Coy will revert to its own command. It will be wise to stay away from the beaches as long as possible. Back to the wood in the small hours.
All quiet in the morning. Our infantry neighbours have left in the night. The doctor goes off with the wounded man. HQ 59 Fd Coy pull out.
By midday no lorry has arrived to pick up the material so I send Leeming off to find the CRE. He comes back two hours later to say that he can find nothing and nobody in Coxyde. Outside the wood everybody has gone. The countryside is silent and empty except for all sorts of abandoned vehicles. I decide to get ready to move. Destroy three of our trucks including the office truck, burn papers discreetly, put on my best service dress and boots, pocket my razor and toothbrush and throw the rest of my things with the stores down a pit in the wood. Load the food, ammunition and weapons into the remaining two trucks and the Humber Snipe, and marshal them so we can pull out at a moments notice. The doctor arrives, a welcome sight, to say that 4 Div HQ has moved to La Panne but we are definitely not going to embark tonight. Sauervein is to report immediately to the French Liaison Mission.
We relax and offload for supper. I tell the section we shall not be moving that night, but set off on a motor cycle afterwards for La Panne to prospect. I find the CRE in a house on the front. While I am there a message comes through from G Branch about embarking the following night. The sea is calm and the tide is falling revealing a long sandy beach. In the mist offshore the dark shapes of ships can be seen, blue lights winking from mastheads. Outside I run into Brigadier Phipps. He tells me that the II Corps engineers are to act under his orders to embark the Corps. I am to move my section down to the beach bringing all floating equipment possible. Back to the wood by midnight.
Move off before dawn, leaving the wood which has served us so well and cross the canal bridge at Adinkerke, prepared for demolition by 48 Div RE. There is a lorry on fire in the road but we can squeeze past. An embarkation office has been set up at the entrance to La Panne where tickets are being handed out for the beach. As sappers we are waved past; nobody pays any attention to the tickets. I turn along a sandy road running parallel to the beach. On my right is waste ground, on my left a line of houses standing on higher ground which slopes down to the beach beyond. I find an empty one without difficulty for the section, offload the food and cooks gear and park the transport opposite.
It is a fine windy morning with sand blowing along the beach. The sea is rough. No ships are visible. A party is trying to launch a boat through the breakers but it overturns. There are several boats lying at the waters edge without oars. A pier made out of lorries parked alongside one another stretches down towards the sea. Beyond there is a light AA Bofors, about half a mile up the beach. The beach is almost empty but groups of people stand around by the houses chatting. Having reported I find a warm place by a sand dune and go to sleep.
I am aroused by the arrival of Brigadier Phipps and Lieut-Colonel Le Sueur, now CRE 5 Div and formerly OC 7 Fd Coy. A second pier is to be built but no more boats are to be launched until dark. Some folding boat equipment will shortly be arriving. Meanwhile I am to search for "runner" lorries which are difficult to find because of the rule about not bringing transport back. I set off in the Snipe with Smith driving. Aircraft are beginning to appear in ones and twos but are met with such a terrific Bofors and small arms fire that they veer off. Even Smith has his rifle out as soon as we stop, taking pot shots but a long way behind. I show him how to follow through. Two aircraft are brought down, to great cheers from the sand dunes, one in flames, the other into the sea. It is quite a social gathering now that everybody seems to have arrived, CREs Harrison and Coxwell-Rogers, with Gillespie, podgson, Galloway, Tubby White and Derek Curtis. It is amusing to see the French Liaison Officers crouched in a row in a slit trench they have dug and wearing their tin hats.
Their trench is near an access road onto the beach. Across the road there is a small house where a military police post has been established. I am standing on the pavement near a glass grating, about to ask Sauervein what he thinks he is chasing down that hole when there is a mumbling which rises to a roaring whistle. I throw myself flat into a depression in the sand. . . . Dizzy with concussion I look at the grating where the glass is alt shattered and conclude that the bomb has gone down there. Across the road smoke is rising from the shattered police post and people are being helped out.
Is the section all right ? I find them, comfortably settled in the billet. The cooks, are handing out cups of tea. We shall not need the transport again now so I get Corporal Wilkinson to drain out the oil and run the engines hard. One by one they seize up, but I keep the Snipe intact for emergencies locking it up with the imprest box in the back.
The second pier of vehicles has now been built and the Corps Fd Park Coy arrives with its folding boat equipment and decking lorries. As soon as the mens dinners are finished I get them out onto the beach offloading decking and lashing it onto the tops of the lorries to make a continuous footway. It has to be tied very firmly to resist the breakers when the tide comes up.
Rumour comes that the CRE has been killed. "Oh My God!" says Graham, but his face lightens for a moment on hearing that it is some other CRE. It is in fact Le Sueur. He, Hodgson and Galloway were talking together on the beach when another bomb from the same stick as mine killed all three. Tubby White was wounded. Now it is not fun anymore.
Bill Hedley brings out a section of 225 Fd Coy to help with the lashing down, but we are beginning to run short of decking so I walk off along the waterline to see if there is anything useful among the flotsam. There is a young soldier floating face downwards in the surf. I pull him out and try artificial respiration but he is cold as Ice and I am wasting my time. Take one identity disc and his paybook to send in.
It is mid-afternoon when I get back to the piers. At the end of the beach towards Nieuport an observation balloon can clearly be seen. It must be German because shelling starts at about 1600 hrs, falling several hundred yards away near the Bofors gun. Bill Hedley goes off to search for boats and oars while I carry on with the lashing down. By 1700 I look round and I find am working alone with Bourner, so I go back to the billet where I find the section sitting. The RSM says they have come in for tea, but the billy-can is still cold. I get them out again grumbling; they can have tea when the job is finished which should not be long.
By 1800 hrs we have used up all the decking and all the lashings, and the shelling has come too close to be comfortable. There is not a soul In sight, still no ships, no boats, but at least the wind has dropped. There is a lot of junk near the sandhills which I prefer not to look at too closely. Embarkation from La Panne seems like a wild dream. The section settle down to sleep after their tea. It is getting dark and the billet is illuminated by the flickering light from a taming lorry in the street outside. Small arms ammunition keeps popping off. Open the last tin of lobster and chat with Bourner. Gloom. Go to check up on the Snipe as a possible getaway vehicle, but find that somebody has broken a window and stolen the Imprest box. More gloom. Have a short nap.
When I awake I feel much better. The shelling has stopped and the sea is glassy calm. The dark shapes of several ships look to be within swimming distance. The tide has risen and nicely submerged the bottoms of the piers where folding boats have magically appeared. I hardly reach the embarkation point before a line of troops starts moving silently down from the sandhills, stopping and starting again as the boats get away to the ships. There is a stove-In dinghy at high water mark in which I stand making encouraging remarks to people I know as they load up to the gunwales and splash off into the darkness. There goes 12 Brigade HQ. Now comes the HQRE section led by the doctor; they have not had a single casualty under my charge so now I can relax. Feeling the need of a good clean-up I walk up the beach to the houses where I meet John Hanson of 59 Fd Coy bound on a similar errand. We walk into a pitch black house and find ourselves in a big echoing room. From the corner comes the sound of groaning. A Belgian lad is lying on a bed and we ask if we can do anything to help him. He wants a glass of water. He has been hit in the back by a splinter and this is a hospital but the staff got frightened and ran away leaving him alone. I bring him water and wish him luck.
Back at the piers embarkation is still proceeding, but more slowly. Several officers are running about efficiently giving orders and gathering in stray boats. There is nothing I can add so I curl up in my dinghy and have a nap. When I feel better I stand up and find that embarkation has stopped. There are a few small groups at the waters edge but the orderly queue has withdrawn. There are apparently no more boats. Some folding boats have been stove in on the superstructure of the lorry piers; others have been abandoned by their crews at the ship and washed along the coast without oars. Shortly after midnight shelling begins again, this time on the houses which are soon merrily ablaze. The tide is falling fast; offshore the ships are still standing by, their blue masthead lights winking.
A powered whaler appears with a naval coxswain. We hold it clear of the lorries. He asks what is happening and why people have stopped coming. When he hears there are no more boats he is surprised and says he will pass the news on. He takes on a full load and roars away into the darkness. Ten minutes later he is back for another lot of people, but drives the whaler onto the beach and sticks fast. We all push to no avail. "Christ," he says "What's the petty officer going to say now?" The tide is now clear of the bottom of the pier and the whaler is high and dry. I walk round the end and come across Jake Calvert with a remnant of 59 Fd Coy. We discuss what to do. I think of the Snipe, look up at the blazing town and reckon that the outlook is not that bad. In an hour or two La Panne will be outside the perimeter so there is no future in staying here. We gather up the group and move along the beach towards Bray Dunes keeping as close to the water as we can away from the light of the fires.
The ships are still lying off the beach, but will have to pull back before first light.
Another group joins us led by an officer with a flashlight. Some way along there is a ship lying close in. and somebody suggests signalling for help. It works. There is an answering signal from the deck and within a few minutes a boat appears in the surf. This time we hold it well out and make people wade waist deep. A rough queue is formed and the whole party is embarked in three trips. Nobody breaks queue and one officer goes with each boatload. Kind hands help us up the companion, way of a minesweeper and give us hot cocoa. They take away my uniform to dry it and I collapse exhausted on the floor of the wardroom. I hear vaguely through my dreams the diving of a Stuka and the shout "They've got Grasshopper!"
When I wake it is light and I look outside; we are still horribly close inshore, engaged in pulling a destroyer off the sand. Rumour comes that we have been ordered to proceed to Dunkirk. I am woken up next by people pouring into the wardroom. We are alongside a rnole packed with troops wearing French helmets. At last we put to sea to the accompaniment of five bomb crashes and the deafening noise of the ships anti-aircraft cannons firing above our heads.
At Sheerness I am given back my uniform nearly dry, minus my silver cigarette case and wallet-without money I cannot make my way home and have to deliver myself to the troop train. We are given a very welcome lunch at the naval barracks but I feel somewhat ill-dressed covered in tar. The RTO gives us cards to write our telegraph messages on, but in the event they are sent by post which causes my family some anxiety.
In the train the DADMS says that to win back what we have lost will take many years of bitter fighting. We feel ashamed of our "also-ran" performance, but are much moved by the sight of every road, as we come into London, packed with cheering people waving Union Jacks as if we had won a splendid victory.
It could be that these people are worth fighting for.