Stanley Frederick Kirby was born on 29th May 1915 and died on 14th October 1994 in the place he had spent the majority of his life, Beccles. That was with the exception of the war years when he served as a driver, receiving his call up papers for 15th December 1939 after going to Norwich to Volunteer. This was despite the fact that his employer at the time felt he could get exemption because of the type of work they were doing. (Scrap Merchants).
At the start of the war Stan was 24. He worked as a driver and general ‘mechanic’ for Hales Scrap Yard in Beccles.
After being sent on what seemed like a tour of England uncertain of where they were going, his company (3rd Corps Petrol Park) spent a short time in France, not getting past Lille from details he gave, and were part of the thousands who were rescued on the beaches on Dunkirk in June 1940.
This is his story of Dunkirk.
‘Where’re we heading for this time? (I asked the NCO in charge) He pointed, in the darkness, to a glow in the sky.
‘We’re going to Dunkirk – that’s it.’ He added ‘We’re going home’.
Well if that’s Dunkirk lighting up the sky, its one hell of a place to be heading for.
We drove on.
We were told previously that there was one bridge left to get where we wanted to be.
As we drove, no lights, we met another convoy of British lorries going in the opposite direction.
Hell, I thought, one bridge? Hope we’re the ones going in the right direction.
We arrived close to Dunkirk at 1am on May 27th.
Come daylight we were told to wreck our lorries. We’d found the rest of our company. Well most of them. Blokes were starting their engines and letting the oil out, slashing tyres, not that I took much interest. I think I saw some hammering their engines.
I spoke to somebody and said I had the sergeant in the back with a bullet behind his knee cap, got there via his thigh.
OK get down to the docks.
On dear, what were those planes dropping, unloading, that kept making those banging noises!
Off we go.
From that point vehicles were parked nose to tail. Some appeared to be loaded. Petrol? Don’t, or didn’t want to be near one of those if it’s hit.
Drove as near as I could get to the docks, left the lorry and we helped the sergeant to shuffle nearer the jetty from which we were going to embark.
We sank, collapsed, or sat on the pavement, leaning against the wall, plenty of company. One bloke was standing next to where I sat, stooped and grabbed my shoulder
‘Thought it was you,’ he said. It was Cyril Payne from Beccles. He was in the RAOC’s ordinance corps. He said ‘They tell me we’re going home?’ I said ‘So they tell us. He lifted his tin hat and said ‘look I just had a hair cut, what the hell will my missus say?’ It was, well, non existent. Hygiene was its reason. The jetty was getting its attention from the ‘nasties’ so much so that our sergeant said ‘let’s get out of this’. So it was off to …… ??
Sgt Wilcox got into the cab with me and Jim stood on the running board and hung on. I drove back the way we had come. Town was getting a shambles. Driving along one street Jim shouted ‘Hold it, I’ve lost my coat’. I wouldn’t stop.
He said ‘There’s a bottle of whiskey in the pocket.’ I wouldn’t stop.
Planes still bombing. Got to the edge of the town and stopped. Jim ran back for his coat and found the whole street had caved in, the street, coat and whisky was buried. Could, or would have been us as well ------------?
Where we’d parked there was an Abri (air raid shelter). We got in it. Seemed wrong to me, but it was, I suppose, everyone for himself. Spoke to some infantry blokes near where we were, who asked some questions I couldn’t answer, and I asked some they couldn’t answer.
Back in the shelter I made a little French boy laugh, putting my finger in my mouth and blowing, pressing the back of my tin hat against the wall so that it popped up off my head. He found it amusing, about 6 – 7 years, at a guess. Poor little cap had little else to amuse him. He wasn’t alone, would have been his mother with him.
We were in there about an hour, at a guess.
In that time a Frenchman came and told us the lorry was on fire. I chased out and found a piece of ‘summat’ from a nearby burning building had fallen on my camouflage net twix cab and tarpaulin cover. I got the extinguisher and played fireman. Could have let it burn. Never saw it again.
When we were in the shelter in Dunkirk an English soldier came in and asked who the lorry outside belonged to
‘Mine’ I said. ‘Can I borrow it’ he asked.
I looked at our Sergeant. Such a request was out of my hands.
‘Borrow, what do you mean?’ he answered that he had left his mate about a mile out of town cowering in a ditch too scared to move and he aimed on going and picking him up and bringing him in to where we were.
‘No way’ said Willcox, adding that I could drive him out and pick him up if I so wished. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t wish. Had driven that way only this morning, how one could drive back, turn around and return didn’t seem to make sense to me, not taking in to account the fact that things seemed to be getting worse. (Knowing now, what one didn’t know then, he could have had the confounded lorry, regardless of what would have happened to it.)
When looking after the lorry I noticed two French women sweeping glass up on the pavement, outside their homes I suppose. Must admit the place was getting untidy. We were wondering our next best move, when somebody said ‘everybody has to get up (northwards) onto the beach, we’re going to be picked up there.’
Sgt Willcox by now was finding his leg one big handicap and to walk along the road towards the beach was only managed by wrapping his arms around Jim’s and my neck, so we didn’t make good progress.
Hadn’t gone far when a DR (a bloke on a motor bike anyway) stopped and offered him a lift and us a respite. We got him on the back and he was gone. Jim and I got to the beach with no further bother.
Place was like a bank holiday I thought, but we hadn’t seen nothing yet as far as crowds went.
It got dark and I found amongst all the discarded gear an enamel plate (10 inch?) and used that for digging myself in the sand. Safety or comfort? All this while I had hung onto one of my blankets. It proved handy.
Was digging and swearing talking to Jim when a voice in the darkness said ‘Is that you Kirby?’ It was Sgt Willcox.
I thought that remarkable, pitch dark and thousands of us and we were together again. Was peaceful at night except for the glow of fires in the dock area; loads of black smoke. (oil?) Come daylight, more bombing. Don’t think they were much bothered about the likes of us, we were I suppose, POW’s in the making.
Could now see that queues were being formed into the sea ready to be picked up. So we drifted off the dunes, onto the beach proper to join one of the queues. We thought.
Three times we got on the end of a queue to be asked what unit are you? 3rd Corp Petrol Park. ‘Sorry not your lot this is etc etc….. unbelievable.
I think now that ‘our lot’ were not there to queue with the fact that there was just the three of us. We were on the point of being told to get lost for the fourth time, when an officer recognised our Sgt Willcox. They were both peace time serving men, so we were allowed on the end of their queue. Blokes in front of us didn’t mind, but we became unpopular later on ….
Come dark again, we were still on the end of the queue and still on dry land. Am sure that at night we drifted back onto the dunes. I can remember being up off the beach when we saw more shipping heading our way.
‘Cor’ said I, ‘there’ll soon be enough for one each’. Several boats had been hit and were out of commission as far as we were concerned. One or two bodies laid at the waters edge, we were told they were ones that started to jump the queues. Could of course have been start of panic, if not stopped at the start.
Boats were coming in as close as they could and row boats were ferrying us out to them. When digging with my plate, the night of the 28th, (at a guess) Jim said to me ‘What do you want for your birthday Darkie? (my nickname) I said ‘a B...y whole skin will do me fine’. I got it.
Little aside about the blanket I said I hung onto. That night a corporal, total stranger came to me and said ‘I’ll have my blanket now’. Won’t write what I said, but he insisted it was his and he’d asked me to carry it for him. ‘What’s up Kirby?’ called Sgt Willcox. When I told him, he told the corporal in no uncertain terms what to do. Kept me blanket! Drink was hard to come by; used to kick discarded water bottles to find one with water in; some had wine etc. No thanks! Have no recollection what so ever of eating for days.
One night (29th May – My 25th birthday) our queue was turned away from the sea and started to tramp southwards.
We’re going back to the docks, we were told.
This is handy! Sgt Willcox still needed help. Docks were still being attacked and burning. After a spell we were about turned, somebody had changed their mind. (!!!!) Point was, we were now at the front of the queue. That’s how we became unpopular. We tramped to the waters edge and the water was up to my ankles about midnight, was up to by thighs by daylight, still waiting for the next row boat. Don’t know if the depth of water helped his leg, but Sgt Willcox, managed, it was now very much a case of self preservation and I didn’t see him again, ever. Did hear he got back in one piece.
Had to wade out to the boats, they couldn’t afford to repeat grounding on the beach. Time was too precious. Wade out, and climb in; some trucks were driven into the sea forming a kind of staging for the boats to approach. I reached ‘my’ boat, water nigh to my armpits. Good job the sea was calm. In the effort of lifting, pulling myself aboard, somebody behind pushing, a sailor on board said to me ‘Sling that B…y rifle you’ll have my eye out’ I did.
When on board I helped a sailor on his oar, as did others. We headed for a destroyer and nobody, I’m sure, had been up a Jacob’s ladder as fast as I did, didn’t need the offered help at the top!
I had a bandoliun full of 303 bullets and they were more than pleased to relieve me of them; machine gun ammo. (Useful) We were put below decks, out of the way. All were given cups of tea, out of their rations.
Queried the banging that kept on, sailor said it was the 4.T anti-aircraft gun.
What’s down there? I asked him. He came up through the floor via a small aperture with a heavy rounded lid. ammo, he said, get hit down there you wont have any worries. Was on my own again, I mean, I didn’t know where Jim and the sergeant were.
Reached Dover on May 31st, piled into trains, and left. First stop at a station, the platforms contained crowds of local women, (no ladies!), handing us blank postcards on which to write home. We filled them in and they stamped and posted them for us. Kind thoughts and action. So mother knew I was back in Blighty if nowt else.
We ended up in Tidworth, where all were sorted out and began to see the 3rd Corp Petrol Park (ex BEF) again. It was nice weather and we lay about in the sun wondering when we were ‘gonner git’ some leave. Must have been a fortnight before we were allowed home. No travel warrants. Ran for the train at Liverpool Street, got aboard, three of us and the ticket bloke came along and I had to pay 17/6 return fare. I suppose we looked what we were ‘cause there was a murmur of ‘shame’ when we had to pay. Nobody else did, not expected either.
That was June 1940. Stan later went to South Africa on the Empress of Canada (sank on the return journey by the Italians) then to Suez, Cairo, Scilly and Italy. He saw the Pyramids and while in Naples he saw Vesuvius erupt in 1943. The only time he had in hospital was with Sandfly Fever in Africa and a touch of Sunstroke which became apparent when he passed out on Parade!.
His demob papers eventually arrived dated exactly six years to the day of joining up, 15th December 1945.