MAY – JUNE 1940
Tony felt as though he were fighting against a sea tide as he tried to make his way eastwards. The narrow hedge lined road was crammed with a heaving mass of humanity, all heading west, pushing and jostling the young man, slowing his progress to a crawl. Old men and women, young mothers with children at their skirts and babes in their arms, all moving at a maddeningly slow pace in the crush, weariness apparent in their every movement and dull fear in their tired eyes. Everyone carried bundles of their most treasured possessions – a few photographs, money, clothes, food. Many pushed handcarts ahead of them, all of their worldly possessions in a muddled heap and their homes left far behind. A lucky few rode on farm carts drawn by horses which should have been at work out in the fields; but although it was less tiring for those who rode than those who made their way on foot they could go no faster. The road was so thronged with people that it was impossible for the carts to pass them and what few motor vehicles there were were reduced to a crawl until they reached a place where the weary refugees could step aside for a moment to let them pass. Yet with all that pressing mass of humanity there was no noise, save for the shuffle of feet and the rumble of wheels and, infrequently, a baby’s hungry cry.
Tony and his companions, a Lieutenant and three Privates from the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force, had joined the road from a narrow country lane some half a mile back.
“We’ll never rejoin our Company at this rate.” Private Watson, a veteran of the Great War, re-adjusted the Lee Enfield rifle on his shoulder as he grumbled at the slow pace. “We never had this trouble on the Somme.”
Private Phillips smiled grimly. “‘Arf of France weren’t tryin’ to go t’other way at the same time was they mate.” He was a short man in his early twenties who had joined up when Hitler invaded Poland and though he had never been far from home before, let alone in the middle of a war, he was taking it all very calmly. “What we needs to do is find an easier route.”
“That’s true, but a route to where?”
Lieutenant Briggs shrugged at Watson’s remark. “I don’t rightly know Private. The last I heard was that we are falling back towards a place called Dunkirk. No doubt we’ll be launching a counter attack from there.”
Tony brushed a stray lock of wavy brown hair from his forehead as he stood up on tip-toe and tried to see over the heads of the people in front of him. As far as he could see the road was like a writhing black snake, or a column of ants at a summer picnic. He turned to Briggs who was trying to force his way past a hay cart laden with household goods.
“I’m afraid I don’t know this area of France too well so I can’t lead you overland. I know that Dunkirk is somewhere on the coast but I don’t know its exact location. Still,” he stepped aside to let an old woman pass, her only possession a small bag of bread and cheese, “it would be better to get off the road or we’ll never get anywhere. Why don’t we just get into the fields next to the road and walk along beside it?”
Briggs nodded. “My thoughts exactly. Who’d have thought it would come to this so soon? It’s only eleven days since the Germans launched their attack and we seem to be completely out manoeuvred.” As he spoke he led the way over a ditch then through a narrow gap in the hedge which bordered the road, his companions following close behind.
They found themselves in a field of newly sprouted wheat, bright green in the warm spring sunshine. A gentle breeze passed in waves across the fields as though in obscene parody of the fleeing mass which thronged the road on the other side of the hedge.
“What the hell happened to the bloody Maginot Line? That’s what I’d like to know. I thought it was supposed to be strong enough to hold back the enemy for months, if not years.”
Briggs turned to the man who had spoken. “As far as I can tell Smith they just went round the ends.”
“Bloody ‘ell!” Phillips spat into the hedgerow. “That means that the whole German army is runnin’ around ‘ere in France. No wonder we’re retreating.”
“Enough of that talk Phillips. This is a strategic withdrawal not a retreat. Now, let’s get moving.”
Briggs led the way with Kemshall at his side. Their pace was swifter now that they had left the road, and the hedges and walls that they had to cross from one field to the next did not slow them down at all. They had been moving along in this manner for almost half an hour when the muffled drone of airplane engines could be heard approaching from the east.
“Ours or theirs?”
Briggs shrugged at Tony’s question. “Have to wait and see.”
As the sound of the planes drew nearer the people on the road halted their shambling progress to turn and gaze heavenward, eager to identify the approaching machines. Three black dots in the sky, flying in a ‘V’ formation, approaching swiftly. They were still too far off for the men on the ground to see the markings on the planes but Briggs had seen that ominous shape before, when he and his companions had become separated from the rest of their Company.
“Stukas!” He turned towards the men behind him as he shouted. “Into the hedge!”
As one man the three soldiers leapt for the relative safety of the newly leafed hedgerow while Tony, untrained in military matters, hesitated. Briggs pushed him as he passed. “Come on! Run!”
As they hit the ground and rolled beneath the hedge Tony saw the planes bank and plunge into a steep dive. The sirens fitted to their undercarriages produced a terrifying scream which was echoed by hundreds of human voices as the refugees on the road panicked. Those at the edge dived for the comparative safety of the ditches whilst the majority milled about in total confusion, unsure of what to do or where to go. The screaming of the planes rose to a terrifying pitch as the Stukas swept along the road, machine guns blazing. Cries of pain now mingled with the sounds of fear. As Tony watched in horror from his place of concealment he saw a boy, no more than five years old, who had become separated from his parents. His cries of “Mamma! Mamma!” rang out and Tony would have rushed to his aid but for the spouts of dust which reached out ahead of him, the impact of bullets which raced along the road and intercepted the frightened child before the Englishman had time to do more than climb to his knees. Screams of pain filled the air as the small body was spun around by the impact of the bullets then crumpled and fell to the ground.
The Stukas were climbing high now after their first pass and began to execute a tight turn. Tony felt a restraining hand upon his shoulder.
“You can’t do anything to help those people! The planes are coming back! For God’s sake get down!”
At the sound of Briggs’ voice Tony looked up and saw that the planes had completed their turn and were beginning to dive again. Bullets whistled in all directions and many of those who had failed to find shelter in the ditches and hedgerows now fell screaming. The initial panic was over and the only sounds to be heard were the high pitched screaming of the planes as they swooped in, the thud of bullets and the cries of the wounded. As the planes passed overhead Tony saw a carthorse rear up in the traces blood pouring from its neck and back as it keeled over and lay screaming in the dirt, kicking ineffectively as it tried to right itself. The cart which it had been pulling turned over crushing the family who had been sheltering beneath it. Tony felt sick.
He closed his eyes as the planes climbed once more and found that he was praying.
“Please God, let it be over. Don’t let them come back.”
But his prayers remained unanswered; the planes turned and swooped once more. This time the chatter of machine guns was replaced by the whistle of bombs. One fell close by, and Tony felt the earth shake beneath him a moment before the heat of the shock wave hit him. Shrapnel flew everywhere and he crouched low to avoid it. Another stick of bombs fell …crump…crump…crump.… As he buried his face in last years leaf mould and covered his head protectively with his arms Tony’s terrified mind retraced the events which had led to his being there in the midst of so much death and destruction, seeking safety in the memory of people and places that he loved.
The family gathered around the radio in the drawing room, intent on the voice which issued crackling and hissing from the speaker. It was a Sunday morning and the first time the family had all been together since the eldest son, David, had joined the Royal Air Force. Sir Michael Kemshall stood with his back to the warm September sunshine, which flooded through the window. His hands were clenched tightly behind his broad back, sweat stood out upon his brow and the balding patch on his head. His thoughts were many miles, many years, away on the bloody battlefields of Flanders where he had fought as a young man, and he silently prayed that his sons would be spared the need to fight for their country as he had done. Louise Kemshall, Sir Michael’s pretty French wife who seemed to have aged little in the twenty-three years of their marriage, sat with her slim hands folded in her lap; fair hair framed her strained features as she listened to the radio and prayed silently for her two sons. David Kemshall stood beside the fireplace, at twenty two years of age he was a tall slim man with dark hair reminiscent of his father at that age, his RAF uniform lending an air of threat to the uneasy family gathering as he gazed across the room at his brother. Tony was two years younger than his brother and was leaning forward with barely concealed eagerness to hear the words coming direct from London.
It was two days since the German army had invaded Poland; now, on Sunday September 3rd 1939, the whole nation waited to hear what the Prime Minister, Mr. Neville Chamberlain, was about to say.
“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at Ten Downing Street…” The voice that issued from the crackling speaker and spoke directly to thousands of homes sounded tired but not defeated. “This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note, stating that, unless the British Government heard from them by eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.”
Louise’s hands clenched tightly together as she held her breath, eyes darting to her two sons then swiftly away again so that she need not meet their gaze.
“I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
Tony watched his mother close her eyes, as though in pain, and knew that she was thinking of her two sons who would now have to go and fight. His heart went out to her, she had lived through one war and lost people she loved, so her fear was understandable. Yet he felt that, somehow, this war would be different, and underlying his sorrow for his mother was an upwelling of excitement and anticipation at the thought of going to war. The family listened on in silence.
“You can imagine what a bitter blow it was to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed…”
David unconsciously straightened to attention as the words of the Prime Minister amplified the fearful, expectant silence in the room. His mind was on his Squadron and the need to rejoin them as soon as possible, leave or no leave; this is what they had been preparing for for so long, and he knew that he was ready. Sir Michael looked across at his firstborn son, already in uniform and willing to fight for his country, a mixture of pride and anxiety apparent in his gaze. The voice on the radio continued.
“We have done all that any country could do to establish peace. The situation in which no word given by Germany’s ruler could be trusted, and no people or country feel themselves safe, has become intolerable…”
Sir Michael stood with the sun warming his back and watched with unseeing eyes the dust motes which danced in the sunlight. He felt strangely detached. His sons would be going away to fight as he had done in his youth, yet his home was still so peaceful, everything apparently unchanged, belying the fact that his country was now at war and nothing would ever be the same again. He closed his eyes as he listened, slowly coming to terms with the changed world.
“We have resolved to finish it. It is the evil things which we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression, and persecution… and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.”
As the Prime Ministers finished speaking and the three men stood to attention as the National Anthem began to play Louise sat numbly in her chair, barely hearing the music as her troubled mind envisaged the bloodied and broken bodies of her sons lying lost on some God forsaken battlefield. As the Anthem came to an end Sir Michael walked slowly across the room, switched off the radio and turned to face his family. There was silence for a few moments as the full import of the words which they had heard registered for each of them, then Sir Michael spoke.
“Well, this is it then. After all the talk of appeasement we are at war again.” His gaze took in his two sons, his hopes for the future, and his voice choked with emotion at the possibility of losing them. “May God go with you both and bring you safe home at the end of this.”
But nothing happened. David was recalled to his Squadron where he flew endless training flights as a Law of Conscription was passed enabling the Government to call up all men aged eighteen to forty-one when the need arose. The grounds of the house were defaced with the construction of the obligatory air-raid shelter and the family carried their gas masks at all times, Sir Michael would never forget his experiences of mustard gas in the trenches and prayed fervently that nothing so horrific would be unleashed upon the citizens of England in their homeland. Still no attack came, and the Government sent no aid to Poland. By the end of September it was all over. Poland was now a part of the Third Reich and England was at war, but no one seemed to know what to do about it.
The winter passed. The Kemshalls listened intently to the news of the British Expeditionary Force being sent to France. Yet no battles took place, none of the expected air raids materialised, and they began to join with the rest of Britain in talking of the ‘Phoney War’. There was a cautious optimism in the air; surely it would all soon blow over and no Englishman would be called upon to fight. Tony, like many young men of his age, was filled with frustration, desperately wanting to fight, wanting to take part in heroic deeds like those that he had heard of and read about in his childhood. But the opportunity never came and he continued at University with the other undergraduates eager for something, anything, to happen to relieve the boredom of lives which had promised so much excitement in September and delivered nothing. As spring progressed lives began to return to normal and Tony reconciled himself to the inevitable fate of completing his University studies before joining his father in the family engineering business.
Then it happened.
In April Germany invaded Norway and Denmark and there was little that Britain could do to oppose them. Then, on 10th May 1940, Hitler turned his attention to the west and threw his war machine into Holland and Belgium. The thoughts of Britain turned to the Government, the resignation of Chamberlain and the appointment of Churchill as his successor, but not so the Kemshall family at their country home just north of Marlbrough. Here all thoughts turned to France, to Louise’s mother, Madame Chanterelle de Thierry, and her home in Saint Nazaire. Old and alone now, unable to face the decisions which war might thrust upon her without the support of her family, she needed someone beside her. David was now on standby so Tony volunteered to travel to France to be with his grandmother until the situation was resolved.
The young man had set out the following day, his uneventful journey slowed by troop movements once he reached mainland France. Madame de Thierry had been glad to see him although she thought the concern behind his visit to be totally unnecessary, and said so in her usual brusque manner which belied the warm heart and nature which Tony so loved. Then the news had begun to come in from the Front. The Germans were sweeping through France at an amazing speed and there seemed little that the French and British forces could do to oppose them. Tony’s concern grew with each passing day until finally, against all the protests of his grandmother, he had managed to get her onto a ship bound for England. Only the promise that he would bring her home again as soon as it was safe finally persuaded her to leave the country house which had been home to her since the day of her marriage fifty years before. She had been a young woman in that house, loved her husband, mourned him and their son, grown old there in the home which she had not deserted even in the darkest hours of the war with Germany, the war which had brought so much pain and loss to her family, yet also much happiness in the form of Michael Kemshall. Tony decided not to travel with his grandmother but instead had headed eastward towards the fighting to see just what was happening and if there was anything he could do. Somewhere out there were the adventures that he had always dreamed of and which might now be waiting for him just around the next bend. He had met up with Briggs and his companions three days later and headed east with them in search of the remainder of their Company, and adventure.
Maybe it would have been better for him if he had returned to England by sea with his grandmother.
The planes dived once more, engines screaming like lost souls from hell, and Tony tried to bury himself deeper in the leaf mould. The ground shook and heaved, the chatter of machine guns accompanied the roar of exploding bombs. At the end of the run the three planes climbed high into the sky and, turning gracefully like three enormous birds of prey, disappeared back into the east. The air was still and quiet for an endless moment of time before Tony tentatively raised his head to look through the branches of the hedge at the road beyond. For a moment he thought that his ears might have been injured in the raid for no sound accompanied his vision of people pulling themselves slowly, incredulously, from the ditches and hedges and staring open mouthed at the scene which confronted them. Then the sounds began. Anxious voices calling the names of lost friends and relatives; the moans and cries of the wounded; cries of anguished disbelief from those who found loved ones amongst the dead.
Tony forced his way through the hedge and onto the road. His feet, guided by instinct rather than thought, leading him unerringly to the small broken body of the little boy. As he reached the pathetic remains the child’s distraught mother found him and fell to her knees in shocked silence. A young man, the boy’s father? laid a comforting hand on her shoulder as they stared in dry-eyed horror at the child. Sensing that he could be of no use to thee Tony turned away and looked around at the horrific scenes that surrounded him. There were a number of smoking craters where the bombs had fallen, ripping the road apart and leaving the area around them surrounded by bodies, or parts of bodies; broken cases from which personal belongings were strewn; dead animals. Between the craters lay many people injured or killed by either shrapnel from the exploding bombs or the deadly accurate machine gun fire that had accompanied them. Everywhere was red with the blood of the dead and dying.
It was a scene of utter carnage and Tony felt sick. Fighting down the nausea he forced his leaden feet to move and approached the nearest body to see if he could be of any assistance. It was a woman, her ancient lined face which had seen so much life was streaked with blood and dirt, now peaceful and still in death. He moved on. A man twisted and broken by the force of the explosion which had lifted him and thrown him against a tree; a horse, still in the traces, its hooves pointing in the ugliness of death towards the sky. Then, to his left, Tony heard a baby cry. Spinning round on his heel he heard the cry again, muffled as though something covered it, a strange eerie sound amidst so much death and destruction. For a moment he could not see where the sound came from, was unsure whether he had heard aright, then he saw the edge of a shawl protruding from beneath a woman’s body. Carefully he rolled her over to find a tiny infant clasped tightly to her breast. Loosening the arms of the woman who had died shielding her daughter he gently lifted the child and looked around, uncertain what to do next. A girl of fifteen, maybe sixteen years of age, gently touched his arm.
“Parlez vous Francais Monsieur?”
Tony nodded and the girl continued to speak in French.
“The dead woman is my brother’s wife, he is at the Front with the army. I will care for my niece.”
Tony frowned, his eyes moving constantly between the baby and her dead mother.
“Monsieur? The child?” The girl held out her arms and what she was saying finally registered on Tony’s traumatized mind. He gently handed the child to the girl who turned and walked away without another word.
“God go with you” Tony whispered to the retreating back.
The young Englishman did not know how long he spent on the road tearing cloth for bandages, binding wounds, comforting the dying, before he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and looked up into Briggs concerned features.
“Come on Kemshall. We must be going now.”
“But what of these people?” Tony’s tired gaze swept the scene of carnage. “There are many more who need help.”
Briggs nodded. “I know. But we must leave them to their own people. I’ve got to get back to my Company.” His voice was filled with compassion. “Stay if you wish.”
Tony looked around him, his face filled with pain and anguish at the death and destruction which had rained down upon them from the skies, then he shook his head. “No, you’re right. There’s not much I can do here. I’ll come with you and if I can get hold of a gun I’ll pay the Germans back for this.” He stood up and took a final long, hard look at the carnage around him. His voice was filled with anger and bitterness when he spoke. “I want to remember every detail of what those animals have done. Waging war on innocent refugees who can’t fight back. I will remember this and do all that I can to avenge these people.”
His face held an unfamiliar harshness and maturity as he turned and followed Briggs back through the hedge to where the remainder of their small party were waiting. They too had been doing what they could for the injured, each emergency medical kit was empty and their grim faces told Tony that they all felt the same as he did. Briggs turned and led the small group of Englishmen silently on their way.
They travelled in saturnine silence for two long hours before Briggs called a halt. A fire was hastily lit and water boiled to brew tea. As they sat, sipping the steaming liquid which revived their tired minds and bodies, the young Lieutenant spoke to Tony.
“Do you plan to join up when you get back Kemshall?”
Tony nodded. “Yes. And the name’s Tony. After what we have been through together today formality seems so unimportant.” His face was grim. “But, yes, I intend to fight the Germans. The war seemed so clinical to me back in England, almost like a story from the books I read as a child, but to have seen what we have seen today fills me with anger and hatred. If we came across the Germans now I would fight them with you Briggs, never mind the formality of joining up.”
“I’m James, Jim.” Tony smiled and nodded in acknowledgement but said nothing as Briggs continued. “I was impressed by the way you handled yourself today. Never having been in action before you must have found it frightening, yet you handled it like a veteran.”
Tony nodded. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I was scared, but my anger was greater.” He finished his mug of tea and rose to his feet. “Shall we get moving Jim? The sooner we join up with your Company the sooner I can begin fighting.”
They had not been on the move for long when they noticed a change in the movements of the refugees on the road. The exodus to the west slowed then stopped. People stood around in small groups talking and gesticulating wildly; many looked westwards along the road then back towards the east from whence they had come, all looked confused and unsure of the direction which they should take.
Jim Briggs looked westwards but could see nothing that might possibly be responsible for the confusion of the refugees.
“Something must be happening.” He turned towards the low stone wall which formed the border between the field they were crossing and the road. “You men wait here and I’ll see what I can find out.”
“Do you want me to come with you? You might need someone who can speak French.”
“That’s alright Tony, I’ll manage” Jim replied in perfect French and Tony smiled as he watched the young officer vault the wall. Jim spoke for a time with an old man who gesticulated wildly first to the east and then to the west then, with a shrug which seemed to say ‘so what do we do now?’ he fell silent. Jim spent long moments gazing westwards, a frown of concentration furrowing his brow, then he turned to look over his shoulder to the east and distant Dunkirk. After a few moments he nodded as though concluding an argument with himself and coming to a decision. Vaulting the wall once more, he made his way back to the small group of men waiting for him and began to speak as soon as he reached them.
“There is a rumour that the Germans have reached a place called Noyelles.”
“An’ where the bloody ‘ell is that?”
Jim smiled grimly. “That, Phillips, is on the coast to the west of us.”
“But I thought the enemy were coming down the coast from the east?” Tony frowned; he did not like the way things were turning out.
Jim nodded in answer to his comment. “That’s right, but apparently they have swung round to the south of us and then pushed up to the coast at Noyelles.”
They were silent for a moment, each thinking the same as his companions but not one of them daring to speak. At last Watson broke the silence.
“That means that the whole British Expeditionary Force is surrounded.”
Jim nodded. “That is assuming that the rumour is correct. I don’t think we should rejoin the Company with nothing but unsubstantiated rumours to report so I intend that we go back westwards and find out what is really happening. Tony,” he turned to the only civilian in their group as he spoke, “I suggest that you continue towards Dunkirk and we’ll meet up with you there.”
Tony shook his head. “No. I’m coming with you.” He turned to look at the bewildered refugees as he spoke. “At least we have somewhere to aim for, but what about them? They left their homes to escape from the Germans only to find the enemy waiting for them down the road. Where do they go now?”
Where indeed? Few people were now moving on the road. Some stood in silent bewilderment, many sat on their packs and cases, heads bowed in despair. Women wept as they thought of the long miles they had covered, all for nothing; children lay in the road too tired to do anything but sleep.
Private Smith shook his head sadly. “The only thing we can do to help them is to push the Jerries back out of France.” He turned to Jim. “Shall we get moving then Sir?”
Jim nodded silently and led them back along the way they had come.
They had been on the move for less than an hour the when they heard an ominous rumbling sound.
“What’s that?” Phillips looked puzzled. “Sounds a bit like a train, but I don’t think it is though.”
Watson nodded. “I’ve heard that sound before. Tanks. Either they’re ours or that rumour’s true.”
Jim called led them away from the road and into a small wood some fifty yards further on. As they crouched in the undergrowth the rumble became louder, the squeal of metal grating on the surface of the road accompanied the sound then, above the brow of the hill, the muzzle of a gun appeared. The long slender gun barrel was closely followed by the main body of the tank and the few refugees left upon the road fled before it. A moment of sick fear filled Tony, would the tanks attack helpless civilians as the planes had done? But no, the tanks continued along the road as though the refugees did not exist, the turret hatches were thrown back and the commanders rode with their heads and shoulders in the fresh air to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the Panzer’s interior. The commanders paid little attention to their surroundings and Tony realised that they must believe themselves to be invincible to be moving so swiftly through enemy territory without fear of reprisals from either the French or the British. He counted twenty tanks as they breasted the hill and made their swift way eastwards. As the last one passed them Jim turned tight lipped towards his new comrade.
“The bloody nerve of them.” He was angry, partly at the attitude of the Germans but also at his own helplessness. “By God, I wish we could do something.”
Tony nodded. “You’re right. We have to do something, not only to show them that we might not be as easily dismissed as they think but also because now that they’ve passed us we are behind enemy lines. We’ve got to get past them to rejoin our own army.”
Phillips was obviously scared at the thought of being cut off and Watson laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry lad. Those tanks are sticking to the road. We can bypass them through the fields.”
Jim nodded. “We’ll get in front of them and then try to lay some kind of ambush. I know there are only four of us…”
“Five” interrupted Tony. “I intend to fight as well.”
Jim perused him thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded. “…only five of us, but if we find the right place and plan the action correctly we should be able to make an impact.” He watched the tanks advancing swiftly along the road. “If we want to pass them we’d better get moving or we’ll never catch up with them.”
Tony felt a cold knot of fear in his stomach. It was one thing to say in the heat of the moment that he was willing to fight but quite another to lie here concealed beneath a hedge, grenade in hand, awaiting his first participation in an action in which he might actually be killed. The small company had passed the tanks soon after midday while the crews were stopped to eat. Phillips had wanted to attack them there while the crews were out in the open but there had been no cover for the Englishmen and it would have been suicidal, so Jim led them on.
Some two miles further along the narrow road, now flanked by tall trees, took a sharp bend to the left so concealing the way ahead. Jim ordered two of the trees felled by grenades about thirty yards from the bend and the road was soon blocked by their leafy bulk. When the tanks came round the bend they would have to stop either to move the trees or to find a way around them. That was when the Englishmen would attack. Each soldier lay concealed, a grenade in his hand and a rifle by his side. Tony still had no gun but Jim had given him two grenades. ‘Just treat them like cricket balls’ he had said, ‘aim for the tracks as though they were wickets. That way I should hope that we could cripple at least a couple of them.’ Tony now nervously licked his dry lips and waited, hoping fervently that he would not let his new friend down. He did not have long to wait.
The heavy squeal of metal on tarmac soon reached them and, moments later, the first of the enemy tanks rounded the bend. Seeing the obstruction the vehicle halted, those following drawing up close behind. Three tanks were fully round the corner and the officers reviewed the scene. The leading commander leant down into the turret to consult his driver at the very moment that Jim leapt to his feet and threw the first grenade. It took the tank square on the front axle and the resulting explosion rocked the vehicle dangerously but did not overturn it.
Tony found himself leaping to his feet and throwing his grenade with the others. He could feel his heart thumping rapidly as adrenalin flooded his system washing away the fear and replacing it with a strange exhilaration. He was doing something positive at last! He watched as the first of his grenades hit the second tank a little too high to do much damage but his second throw was much more accurate and he saw the projectile fall on the tank tracks shattering a couple of the links. The air above him was suddenly filled with smoke and shrapnel from the other grenades and he dived for cover, the exhilaration of being part of the action now beginning to give way to a creeping fear as he found himself unarmed and unable to do more to inflict damage on the enemy. The British soldiers, hands free now that their grenades had been thrown, took up their rifles and began to fire at the commanders of the Panzers who were retreating into the turrets which turned inexorably towards their attackers. The machine guns positioned on the front of the hulls began to chatter, bullets smashing violently through the hedge which concealed the five men.
Rifles cracked to his right and left and Tony fervently wished that he had one too and could do more than just lie there impotently watching as the skirmish unfolded. His mouth was dry, his hands shaking and his breath coming in ragged pants as he watched Jim beside him, firing rapidly and with great accuracy at the machine gun slits. His face was a mask of concentration yet he still had time to speak.
“All three have been damaged to some extent and we can’t do anything more now that they have the lids on those things. It’s time we were going.” He rose to his knees as he spoke. “Come on lads, let’s get out of here.” His voice was loud enough for all of the party to hear. “Stay parallel to the hedge and for God’s sake keep your heads down!”
Watson led off, closely followed by Smith, then Tony and Jim with Phillips bringing up the rear. The machine guns still raked the hedges, shattering branches in the process, and Tony felt a large splinter embed itself in his cheek. With his head hunched low between his shoulders and blood trickling from his cheek he followed the man in front as quickly as he could. None of them saw the 75mm gun of the first tank being brought to bear, the first they knew of it was the report of the gun firing then the ground in front of them rising up in a cloud of earth and debris. In front of him Tony saw Smith stumble and fall to his knees, and beyond him the sickening sight of Watson, a large bloody hole in the centre of his chest and sightless eyes staring at the sky. He stopped in his tracks, head spinning and gore rising in his throat. This was a man he knew, a man who had been vibrant and alive seconds before now lifeless and still in a spreading pool of blood. Tony felt himself beginning to shake as his body reacted to the excitement, fear and horror of the previous few minutes, minutes in which he had experienced more than in many a year of his previous existence. He felt his knees beginning to weaken and crumble. He wanted to sit down and weep.
“For God’s sake keep moving or we’re all done for!” Jim’s voice reached Tony as though from a great distance yet it brought the civilian back to reality and he took a deep breath, ready to move on. “Pick up Watson’s gun. I’ll deal with Smith!”
Turning his horrified eyes away from the corpse of the man who had survived the Somme only to die beneath a French hedge twenty years later Tony picked up the Lee Enfield and moved on. He glanced over his shoulder to see Jim and Phillips each with one of Smith’s arms around their shoulders, half carrying, half dragging the man whose left leg trailed uselessly behind him. Tony turned again and fixed his gaze on the wall ahead which separated this field from the next. If they could get over that they would be able to use its cover to reach a small wood further away from the road.
The tank gun spoke again and another section of the hedge exploded but this time no one was hurt. Tony reached the wall and paused for a moment to regain his breath then, as he flung himself frantically upwards, bullets thudded into the stone showering him with chips but leaving him unharmed. He landed safely on the other side and looked up to see Smith being pushed over the wall by his companions amidst much cursing and swearing. Grabbing the young soldier by the voluminous material of his greatcoat Tony dragged him down into the comparative safety of the wall and the last two surviving members of their party quickly followed. Phillips was bleeding from a wound in the arm but seemed not to notice it as he helped Jim lift Smith to his feet and, head down, make for the safety of the woods.
The gun roared again and a section of the wall behind them was demolished but the Germans could not see them and were obviously loathe to waste ammunition on the gamble of perhaps getting another lucky shot. So, after two minutes of running with the fear of an explosion that never came, the four men entered under the eaves of the wood.
Once under the protective cover of the trees the small party stopped to regain their breath and tend their wounded. Smith’s leg had been shattered above the knee and was bleeding profusely. The small party had used all of their emergency field dressings after the Stuka attack and so the wound was dressed with a strip of cloth torn from Tony’s shirt, a rough splint was improvised from the branch of a tree and a crutch fashioned from a forked branch. Then they turned their attention to the flesh wound on Phillips right arm which was soon bound up. When the splinter was pulled from Tony’s cheek, it began to bleed again but soon stopped as he pressed his handkerchief against it. Jim was the only one who had escaped unscathed and he watched as Tony uneasily turned Watson’s Lee Enfield over in his hands.
“Do you know how to use that?”
Tony nodded. “We often went shooting at home and I’m sure I can handle this. It’s just that…” He paused for a moment and looked back towards the road. “Well, this isn’t how I’d planned to get a gun. I’d rather be unarmed and still have Watson here with us.”
“It is never easy to lose a fellow soldier. I wish we could have brought him away with us to bury him, but that would have put all our lives at risk.” He too gazed back at the road. “At least it must have been over instantly and he would have felt no pain.”
As they looked back at the road they saw movement as the crews of the three damaged tanks set to work on repairs. The three commanders spoke together in a huddled group before moving back round the bend and out of sight of the British soldiers. Moments later the sound of tanks revving up reached them and there was a crash as one of the behemoths forced its way through the confining hedge and trees into the field. It moved slowly across the pastureland, by-passing the stricken tanks, before regaining the road through the gap in the hedge which had been caused by the shell which had killed Watson. The remaining tanks followed the first through the field and Jim smiled grimly.
“We obviously did a fair amount of damage if they’re not waiting until the repairs are finished.” His voice was grim. “That’s three less tanks to bother our boys while we’re re-grouping. Now,” he stood as he spoke and helped ease Smith, grimacing in pain, to his feet, “let’s get moving and try to meet up with the rest of our lot at Dunkirk.”
They spent the night huddled around a fire to ward off the chill May night air, great coats pulled tightly around their shoulders, weapons and gas masks close at hand. Tony woke in the small hours to the damp and chill of the night. He stretched stiffly before placing more wood on the embers of the dying fire, then lay on his back to gaze up at the star-studded sky above. There was not a cloud in sight and the stars sparkled like diamonds. Tony though wistfully of the many nights he had camped out with David before the war with nothing to disturb his nights save the hoot of an owl or the rustling of some small creature hunting in the undergrowth, now all that his imagination would allow him to see was the torn and bloodied body of Watson. There was the sound of movement and he reached hurriedly for the Lee Enfield rifle beside him as an increasingly familiar fear gripped him. When he recognized the slim frame of Jim Briggs he let go of the rifle and relaxed.
Tony shook his head.
“No. I was thinking about Watson.”
Jim sat beside him and gazed sightlessly into the flames, his mind reliving the last few hours.
“I know it was your first action Tony, and you did well. You should be proud of yourself.”
“At times like this you do what you have to.” He looked across at Jim and frowned. “What I don’t understand though is how you could just leave Watson there.”
Jim turned towards Tony and, for the first time, the younger man saw the pain which the more experienced soldier had been hiding from him.
“It’s as you say. We do what we have to do. If we’d stopped to bring him away more of us could have been injured or killed; and he wouldn’t have wanted that. He’ll be found and buried, whether by the French or the Germans we’ll never know. But they will take care of the body, just as we will if we find a German dead beside the road and time permits it.”
“I guess you’re right, but it doesn’t ease the pain.” He sighed as he looked across at the sleeping soldiers. “War isn’t what I’d expected it to be. I was so excited last September, so eager to fight. Now, after the last few days, I look back and can’t recognize the boy who thought like that.”
“War makes us grow up. Fast.” He laid a comforting hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Now try to get some sleep, we’ve a long way to go tomorrow.”
Tony nodded as the young Lieutenant lay down and wrapped his great coat tightly around himself to keep out the cold. “I’ll sleep soon.”
He sat for a while longer gazing up at the stars. Although he had not even officially joined the army here he was, an accepted member of a combat group, desperately searching for a way back to the retreating BEF and safety. The war was not turning out how he had expected it would. There was none of the glory he had read about in his boyhood, none of the excitement, only pain and death and the cold of the night. He hoped that the war would not last long. At last he lay beside the fire and drifted into a fitful, troubled sleep.
It took them five days to reach Dunkirk, moving slowly because of the wounded Smith and Phillips, and because of the need to stay hidden from the enemy who were now close on their heels. For some reason the German tanks seemed to have slowed their advance and did not pass the small group of men, but there was always a chance of being spotted by the Stuka patrols and their days were filled with apprehension and fear. On the third day they had reached their own lines and watched as Smith was whisked off ahead of them by field ambulance; Phillips, although his wound was slight, could have gone too but decided to stay and walk the rest of the way with Tony and Jim.
The road was thronged with people. Children pulled boxes on wheels, the boxes laden to overflowing with their few possessions; old folks mixed with women and children; and now and then a group of French soldiers would be seen, as weary and dejected as the rest. They now knew that General Lord Gort had ordered a full retreat towards Dunkirk as the victorious German army gradually moved closer on all sides save that of the open Channel coast. Whenever they stopped to rest and talk with other retreating soldiers they were assured that there would be ships at Dunkirk to take them back to England. But there were so many soldiers! How would they find enough ships? And what about the civilians?
Tony felt as though he had been retreating with the soldiers for most of his life. He was no longer concerned by the looting he saw; at least things were taken without violence. Indeed he himself had acquired the odd loaf of bread and piece of cheese from deserted houses where the food would only have rotted if left. Yet, no matter how much a soldier he felt, he could not get used to the constant strafing by Stukas. They attacked in the same manner as before, shallow shrieking dives which sprayed the road with bullets, tight climbing turns and then back again from the opposite direction. Now people ceased to help those they did not know, saving themselves for friends and family; few had the energy, or means, to be of assistance to the wounded, the lost, the insane. Burning vehicles littered the road and the smell of burned flesh, rubber and metal were everywhere, clogging the throat and making breathing difficult. The men spoke little for their throats were raw and they were bone tired, the only thing keeping them going was the blind hope of Dunkirk and a boat home.
They saw the pall of smoke above Dunkirk long before they reached the port. The air above them was frequently filled with aircraft, mostly German, which seemed to be bombing and strafing something on the edge of the land. Somehow the civilians were being weeded out by the military police, who directed the soldiers onwards, but the roads were still crowded and progress was slow. At last they reached the outskirts of the town and made their way towards the sea on a tidal wave of helpless humanity. Then they were there, on the promenade, and stopped in stunned surprise. The sight that greeted their eyes was so unexpected that they could barely take it in. The long beach was a seething mass of waiting soldiers, wounded and weaponless, though the new arrivals could not see what they were waiting for.
“My God!” Phillips spoke in an awed whisper. “The whole bloody army is ‘ere! ‘Ow the ‘ell are we supposed to get away?”
Jim shook his head. “God knows! Though something must be planned or we wouldn’t be waiting here like this. Come on” he led the way down onto the beach as he spoke, “let’s see if we can find someone who can tell us what’s going on.”
They found a young Lieutenant down on the beach tiredly directing new comers to move along to make room for others who followed close behind. His uniform was filthy, his face drawn and haggard, but he seemed to know what was going on so they stopped to talk to him.
“It’s called Operation Dynamo,” he explained. “The navy has been ordered to pick us up off the beaches and take us back home. From what I’ve heard and seen they weren’t ready for anything like this and only had about forty destroyers available.”
“Forty! But it will take weeks for them to get us off!” Jim was appalled at the prospect and the young Lieutenant shook his head.
“That’s just it though. They started picking us up three days ago and I’ve seen all kinds of ships – destroyers, personnel carriers, fishing trawlers, even paddle wheelers and Thames barges. It seems they put out a call for all available shipping and even the local yacht clubs have turned out.” He shook his head again as though still unable to accept the enormity of it all. “Many of the boats out there are manned by civilians and many of them have made upwards of half a dozen trips already. Look, another lot’s coming in now.” He pointed down the beach and the new comers peered through the clouds of smoke in an attempt to see what was happening.
Then they saw them. Boats of all shapes and sizes moving into the beach under cover of the smoke. Soldiers rose wearily to their feet and formed orderly queues out into the water where they were helped aboard. Those too far away to have a chance of boarding this time just shuffled a little closer to the sea then sat down to continue their wait. It was all so quiet, so orderly, like waiting to embark on a summer pleasure cruise.
“You say it’s been like this for three days?” Tony was incredulous.
The Lieutenant nodded, then seemed to notice for the first time that Tony was not in uniform.
“Are you a civilian?”
The young officer looked uncomfortable. “I’m afraid we’re only allowed to take troops off from here. You can’t go with us.”
Tony felt a cold knot of fear in his stomach and his hands began to shake. Not go? Would they really just leave him behind to be picked up by the Germans? He knew that that would mean imprisonment until the end of the war and he felt sick. Why had he not gone with his grandmother from Saint Nazaire? He must have paled at the thought of what might lay ahead of him for he felt a comforting hand on his shoulder as Jim spoke.
“Don’t worry Tony, you’re coming with us.” He turned to his brother officer and explained. “This man has been with us through Stuka attacks and helped us to ambush a convoy of Panzers. He took part in the action and his grenade helped disable one of the tanks. He also helped to carry a wounded soldier out of enemy held territory to where he could get medical aid. I say he should get the same chance as the rest of us.”
The young Lieutenant nodded. “He’s one of us all right if he’s done all that, uniform or not.” He turned to Tony and smiled. “See if you can get hold of a greatcoat or something to make you look more like a soldier then you and your mates can move on down the beach. Just be patient and take your turn when it comes. Though heaven knows when that will be.”
With that he turned away and began wearily to direct the next group of newcomers.
“Come on.” Jim led his tired companions further along the beach as he spoke. “This way looks as good as any.”
Above the muffled sounds coming from the beach the unmistakable sound of diving Stukas filled the air as they started to move. All around them men dived for cover beneath the promenade wall while further down the beach, where there was no cover, men crouched in shallow fox holes scraped out of the sand or just sat and waited, praying that this time the gouts of sand thrown up by machine gun bullets would not reach them. Bombs fell, throwing huge fountains of sand into the air and the ground shook.
The attack only lasted a few minutes although it seemed like hours to the vulnerable men on the beach, then the planes moved swiftly away to re-arm in preparation for their next attack. The men sat up, shaking off a lose covering of sand and Phillips looked round at the calm acceptance of the men on the beach. The dead were already being carried up towards the promenade, they no longer needed a place on the ships, while their companions were treating the wounded.
“Some of these men have been here for days. God knows how they can stand it,” he said to no one in particular as two men carried a dead comrade past them. Jim stood up.
“Can we have his coat please? I’m afraid he won’t be needing it any longer.”
The two Privates looked hesitant.
“Is that an order Sir?”
Jim shook his head. “No, but our companion here will need something warm tonight if it gets cold.”
The two men thought for a moment, then nodded and stripped the coat from the body.
“Here you are Sir.”
Jim took the coat with a word of thanks and held it out to Tony. The young man looked at the dead soldier with half of his head blown away, then back at the coat. The collar was still wet with his warm, sticky blood and Tony shook his head, praying that he would not disgrace himself by being sick.
“I can’t wear a dead mans coat.”
“It’s the only way you’re going to get one and you won’t get off the beach without it.”
Jim still held out the offending article and finally, reluctantly, Tony reached out and took it.
David sat in the cockpit of his Spitfire, the roar of the Merlin engine filling his ears, as he followed closely on the tail of his Flight Commander. At last the coast of France came into sight. This was it, the moment of truth. Yet David felt no fear as he approached his first taste of battle, just an intense exhilaration at the thought of the contest ahead of him. As the planes approached the black pall of smoke, which hung like a shroud over the beaches of Dunkirk, he looked down at what he could see of the shattered remnants of the British Forces. They all seemed so remote spread out down there before him like ants at a summer picnic, as though the retreat was part of another world, and he did not stop to think about the fact that this was a fight to the death.
“Look out! 109’s!”
The voice through the intercom startled him and David looked wildly about. Then he saw it. A Messerschmitt Bf 109E, grey and evil looking with the black crosses along its sides. With his blood suddenly pounding in his ears and his ribs constricting the wild beating of his heart David turned towards the enemy plane, hoping to approach it unseen, and wondering if the opposing pilot was also facing combat for the first time. The German must have seen him approaching from behind for the plane began to turn a tight circle to the right and David followed it. His whole being seemed to be concentrated on the plane as it tried to evade him and David could see the pilot crouched in his cockpit as though to urge extra speed from his machine. Then the 109 was in his gun sight. With hands slick with sweat, holding his breath in utter concentration, David pressed the trigger which set his eight machine guns roaring and he watched the flash of his bullets as they ripped into the wing and tail-plane of the 109. Suddenly David felt bullets thudding into his Spitfire and his stomach churned with fear.
“For Gods sake look out behind you!” a voice yelled through the intercom as David swerved away to the left.
Out of the corner of his eye David saw another Spitfire in a steep dive on an intercept course with the German plane that he had been attacking. His comrade fired and hit the 109 with a burst of gunfire which tore off the left wing and caused the Messerschmitt to plummet towards the earth in a spiralling dive. David did not have time to see if the pilot ejected as he turned to fire on the plane which was pursuing him. Two rapid bursts of machine gun fire and he saw smoke pouring from the German aircraft. His fear was suddenly replaced with a wild exhilaration. He felt that he could do anything. He had shot down his first enemy aircraft and now the whole world lay before him. Then he looked at his instrument panel and noticed his fuel gauge. He spoke into the radio.
“Blue 2 to Blue Leader. Blue 2 to Blue Leader. Am returning to base. Low on fuel. Over.”
“Roger Blue 2. See you in the bar. Over.”
With that David turned and headed back towards England. The flight was uneventful after the hectic dogfight above the beaches. He flew straight and true, man and machine at one with the sky, his mind filled with images of the recent battle. When he landed at Hornchurch with only a few gallons to spare, his heart was still thumping with the excitement of combat, head aching from the smell of cordite, mouth dry. Now that it was all over reaction to the combat began to set in and he felt a deep weariness. As he made his way towards the Dispersal Hut to report to the Intelligence Officer his knees were weak with the relief of being back on the ground again.
Over the next fifteen minutes the remainder of the planes landed and it did not take the Intelligence Officer long to add up how many German planes had been confirmed or probably destroyed by the two flights of No. 74 Squadron. No sooner had he finished than the pilots were ordered to return to their aircraft, which had already had their bullet holes swiftly but expertly patched. The Squadron took off again, their planes completing the journey across the Channel in a tight formation which was swiftly broken when they ran into the enemy above the beaches. David felt a knot of fear in his stomach as he saw the mass of Heinkel bombers approaching like a gaggle of grey geese. Flying a little above these were a close escort of countless Me 110’s while, high above these, was formation upon formation of Me 109’s betraying their presence by their smoke trails at such a high altitude. How was their Squadron, only twelve planes, to combat such a huge number of the enemy? Then the RT crackled.
“B Flight take on the top cover. A Flight stick with me and we’ll show these bombers what we can do.”
David pulled back hard on the stick and climbed rapidly, the force of his climb pushing him back into his seat like a heavy fist. Then, suddenly, he found himself in the centre of a milling mass of Me 110’s. Locking in on the nearest enemy plane the Spitfires machine guns began to live up to their name. The first burst missed and David turned swiftly to stay on the tail of his prey. Tracer bullets from the rear gunner crept closer and closer to David and he crouched down as though to make a smaller target as he depressed the triggers again. This time he scored a direct hit and the enemy plane fell like a stone, both engines blazing.
Licking his dry lips and wiping the sweat from his brow David turned back into the dogfight. The sky was filled with tracer and flying bullets, he had lost count of the number of ominous thuds that he had heard ripping into the fuselage of his plane and he found himself offering a silent prayer that the damage was not too great, that he would make it home. Another enemy plane, this one with a sharks jaw painted on its nose, passed in front of him. Pushing his fears aside David tacked onto its tail and fired from about forty yards range. He could not miss and felt a surge of exhilaration as he emptied the last of his ammunition into the plane. As the enemy began to fall from the sky David pulled out of the aerial combat and headed for home.
Sarah Porter stood with the other VAD’s and nurses on the steps of Heronfield House waiting for the casualties they had been warned to expect. This would be her first experience of dealing with wounded people and she chewed nervously on her lower lip.
Sarah turned towards the VAD beside her.
“Something’s happening at last. When I joined up the day after Chamberlain declared war I didn’t think it would be nine months before I saw my first patient!”
Jane Scott grinned. “Yes, but the training has been fun hasn’t it?”
Sarah nodded and smiled.
“Yes. And I’m so glad we’ve both been posted here.”
“Yes, but it’s been bloody hard work this last week. Typical of administrators I’d think. We’re supposed to be at war for nine months and we do nothing. Not ‘till the Germans are chasing our boys right across France do they send us here to set up the convalescent homes and only give us a week to do it. Bad planning if you ask me.”
“Stop moaning Jane! At least we are going to see some patients at last!” She looked behind her at the old mansion house. “I don’t suppose many of the wounded would expect to be treated somewhere like this.”
“I bet it’s only for the officers. Ordinary soldiers will probably go somewhere a little less plush.”
“You are a cynic Jane. Still,” Sarah perused the edifice which was Heronfield House, “you have to admire the Kemshall family for giving all this up to be used as a Hospital for the duration and moving into that little Lodge at the end of the drive.”
“Little lodge! It’s much bigger than my home!” Jane laughed. “How the other half live, hey. I never thought I’d find myself in a place like this in a million years!”
“Then let’s make the most of it while we’re here.”
Sarah looked around at the people assembled on the steps. The nurses and doctors were ready to greet their patients, and a number of men had been called in from the nearby village to act as stretcher-bearers. She frowned to see so many people gathered there together.
“You know Jane, I expected the wounded to come in in one’s and two’s, but this looks like they’re expecting far more than that today. Do you think that the rumours that our men in France have been defeated are right? I’ve heard that the whole army is being evacuated under fire, but surely that can’t be true?”
“Of course not. It’s only been a few weeks, there’s no way the German’s could have defeated us yet.”
“Then what’s this all about?”
Jane shrugged. “I don’t know, but I think we’re soon going to find out. Look, here they come.”
Sarah checked that her auburn hair was neatly arranged and smoothed her starched white apron as she craned her neck to see down the sweeping driveway that led to the house. Sure enough two, no three, buses had just passed the Lodge and were making their way towards them. Sister Freeman, as senior nursing officer present, made her way down the steps to greet the new arrivals. As the first bus halted at the bottom of the steps Sarah licked her dry lips and put on a welcoming smile. This was it. As Heronfield House was to be used as a convalescent home the wounded would already have been treated at Field Dressing Stations before being brought back to England; thankfully she would only have to change dressings and help to re-build the strength of the men as they were made ready to return home, it would have been a far different prospect if she had had to deal with wounded straight from the battlefield. But she was wrong.
The first casualties to be helped from the bus were a group of officers. They were dirty, disheveled, some wore only part of a uniform and everywhere – on arms, legs, bare torsos – were bloody bandages.
“Good God!” Sarah was stunned. “What has happened to the usual casualty routine? These men should have had their wounds cleaned and properly dressed at a Field Dressing Post somewhere along the line, yet they look as though they have come straight from the battlefield. What the hell is going on out in France?”
As she made her way down to help the walking wounded while the stretcher cases were carried inside Sarah noticed the dirt and the smell, a miasma of sweat, blood, putrescence. She felt physically sick. Never had she expected to see anything like this! What were the conditions like further down the line if these men had come all the way to a convalescent home in the heart of England in this state?
Putting an arm around the waist of a young man who struggled to mount the steps with a swollen leg smothered in bloody bandages she quickly assessed his condition. He was unshaven, his face haggard from pain, lack of food and sleep. Blinking away the tears which pricked her eyes she smiled a welcome.
“Come on now. You’re home at last. Everything will be all right. You’re in England now.” She talked to him as though he were a child not really knowing or caring what she said, the words as much of a comfort to herself as to him.
Heronfield was not prepared for such an influx of men in need of emergency treatment; the small operating room was soon in constant use while those less seriously injured had to be tended in the wards. The crisp white sheets on the beds were soon filthy as uniforms were removed and bodies, unwashed for many days, carefully sponged down. The men were dead tired, some did not even wake when their uniforms were removed and they were washed, though they soon awoke with cries of pain as the field dressings which had stuck to their wounds were soaked and then peeled away.
Sarah helped her casualty onto a bed and he lay down thankfully. His leg was swollen to an unbelievable size and Sarah saw that it would be impossible to remove the trousers. A Sister hurrying past with a tray of syringes noted her hesitation.
“Cut them off down the seam as they may have to be used again.”
Sarah took a pair of scissors and began to cut the uniform away to expose the leg, bloody and mangled. The wound had obviously been dressed on the battlefield days before and then not looked at again, the sickly-sweet smell of putrescence rose from it and she fought to control her churning stomach. As the dressing stuck to the wound she began to soak it in warm water and the soldier winced in pain. His face was ashen and his eyes tightly closed when Sarah looked at him.
“How long has it been like this?”
“Six, maybe seven days. It’s hard to remember.”
Sarah was aghast.
“You couldn’t get treatment in all that time?”
The soldier shook his head. “Treatment wasn’t the most important thing on my mind, I was just glad to get away with my life. You can’t imagine what it is like out there.” He closed his eyes as though to try to drive the scene from his mind but the images were obviously still there for he continued to speak. “The whole bloody army is stuck on the beaches at a place called Dunkirk and it looks as though every ship in England has sailed to help us. I was brought off by a Thames barge.”
Sarah felt rather than saw someone at her shoulder and turned to look. It was Sir Michael Kemshall, owner of Heronfield House. She had seen him before but only at a distance and had not realised that he had come to the main house to greet the casualties.
“Can I help you sir?”
“I would like to talk to the soldier if I may.”
Sarah was not sure what to do and so she shrugged her shoulders.
“Well, I suppose it will be alright as long as he wants to. But don’t tire him.”
The soldier opened his eyes and looked at the balding man in front of him.
“Are you the doctor?”
Sir Michael shook his head.
“No. I’m just trying to find out if anyone has seen my son. His name is Tony. Tony Kemshall. He’s a civilian and he’s somewhere out in France at the moment. Have you seen him?”
The soldier shook his head.
“Can’t say I have sir, but there’s hundreds of thousands of men on those beaches. Most can’t even find their own Company again so there’s no chance of me remembering a stranger. They all seemed to be strangers to me.”
Sir Michael muttered his thanks and moved on in an attempt to find someone, anyone, who might know the whereabouts of his son. As he left a doctor took his place and lifted a corner of the now loosened dressing. He turned to the nurse who accompanied him.
“I think you should get this one prepared for surgery. You,” he turned to Sarah as he spoke, “there are more being brought in all the time. Can you get another one cleaned up for me please?”
Sarah nodded and moved across to the next bed where two men carrying a stretcher had just deposited a soldier. His eyes were covered with a blood soaked bandage, his uniform torn and bloody. Feeling desperately sorry for him Sarah laid a hand on his shoulder and he started at the unexpected touch.
“Hello.” Sarah’s voice was cheerful though her eyes filled with tears as she began to help him out of his uniform. “Let’s see what we can do for you then.”
David sat in the Mess with a half empty pint of beer, his second so far, in his hand.
“It was far more exhilarating than I’d anticipated.” He smiled grimly. “Once we actually came into contact with the enemy I didn’t feel afraid at all.”
“I know what you mean.” Martin Ritchie signed a chit for the drinks as he spoke. “The planes seem so impersonal, as though you’re not really shooting at people. It’s only when they bail out that their humanity sinks home.”
The door burst open and the rest of their Flight came in.
“Good news.” Ted Browne walked up to the bar. “Philip and Ken are both alright. They were shot down but are reported to be with the army on the beaches.”
“Not bad considering how many of them we shot down.” David turned so that he could see the station band who had grouped together around the piano in the dinning room and were beginning to play. “Still, they did some damage to us. You should have seen my kite!”
Martin laughed. “It’s the best impression of a sieve I’ve ever seen! But you’re not the only one. We’ll be lucky to get a dozen planes in the air tomorrow.”
David finished his drink and called for another round. It was funny how the combat seemed to have stirred up a terrific thirst in them all, perhaps it was a way of coping with the excess adrenalin for the drinking went on late into the night as they swapped tales of confirmed kills and near misses and the band played lively dance tunes as though attempting to make the men forget that they must be up again early the next morning to fly once more against the enemy.
The next day dawned to find a depleted Squadron out on the airfield. Of their sixteen aircraft only eight were serviceable enough to fly.
“Even less that we thought!” Martin grinned nervously. “What good will eight of us be able to do?”
“Don’t worry.” David grinned at his friend as they made their way towards their planes. “We’ll do alright, just like yesterday.”
The engines roared into life and the Flight took off for the uneventful trip across the Channel. It was only as they crossed the French coast that they ran into about fifty German bombers with their fighter cover and, regardless of the odds, attacked from below. All was a whirling confusion of planes and tracer bullets, there was no chance of avoiding the enemy, all they could do was to hope for the best as they picked a target and stuck to it until it went down.
“That’s two to me!” David’s voice was ecstatic as the adrenalin flooded his system. “One has gone down, I saw it flaming as it went; the other’s limping away with both engines smoking. I don’t think we’ll see him again today!” He looked down at his fuel gauge. “I’m getting low. Heading for home.” As he turned his plane in a sweeping curve back towards the Channel and home the RT crackled.
“I’ve been hit!”
It was Martin’s voice and David frantically scanned the sky to see where he was. At last he saw him. The plane was in a shallow dive as it headed north towards England. As David dived in pursuit he imagined the fight that Martin must be putting up to bring her under control and prayed desperately that the damage wasn’t too bad
“Hang on there Martin. Your engine is smoking but it will get you home in one piece.”
“No chance of me making it in one piece David.” Martin’s voice was strained.” I’ve already lost the bottom half of my leg.”
For a moment David closed his eyes in an effort to bring his whirling emotions under control. At last, head spinning, bile rising in his throat, he was able to speak.
“Come on Martin, pull her up.” He tried to force a little joviality into his voice. “You drank so much last night that you can’t be losing any blood yet, just alcohol!”
A strangled sound, a laugh? came over the RT.
“We must have drunk enough to float all those boats I can see down there.”
David looked down and realised that they had now dived perilously close to the heaving grey waves of the sea.
“Come on Martin. You can do it.” His voice was encouraging and at last he saw the plane responding, coming out of the dive into level flight some thirty feet above the waves.
“Escort me home David?”
“Of course. It’s your round first though Martin. Don’t ever give me a scare like that again.”
They flew slowly towards England talking briefly at times, but the silences between their comments became longer and longer and David could feel Martin slipping away.
“How are you feeling Martin?”
There was no reply.
At last a whisper.
“I’m tired David. The floor’s swimming with blood.”
David felt a lump in his throat.
“You can make it Martin. I know you can.”
“Thanks mate.” Talking was obviously an effort. The words were coming slower now, and slurred. “Do me a favour. Phone Mum and tell her it was all over very quickly. I don’t want her to think I died in pain.”
David felt tears in his eyes and dashed them away with the back of his hand.
“I’ll tell her Martin.”
“Good luck David. Kill one of those bastards for me.”
David could say nothing as he watched Martins Spitfire waver in the air as though the pilot were losing control.
“I’m tired David. I’ll be glad to sleep.”
The plane banked to the left and fell into the cold embrace of the sea while David continued grimly home alone.
It seemed strange to David to be flying without Martin. They had not seen much action but they had been together for some time and immediately hit it off. It is rare to find such a friend and David found his mind wandering as he flew towards France, thinking of the good times they had spent together, wishing he had been able to help Martin by intercepting his attacker, praying that he would not die in the same way. Martin had not been the only one who had failed to return from the previous days sortie, but at least the two other pilots had been seen parachuting down and it was hoped that they were still alive. Now just one Flight of six planes could be mustered due to the missing pilots and the number of bullet-ridden planes, but one Flight seemed to be enough.
As they approached the coast of France David tried to focus his attention on what lay ahead. This could be his opportunity to avenge Martin, or if he was too distracted, his last flight. As the six planes scanned the skies for enemy aircraft they were amazed to find themselves virtually alone after the crowded skies of the previous day. Only three enemy aircraft were sighted during the patrol, two were shot down and, as the other limped away home over France, David found himself wondering, for the first time, what the German pilot might be going through. He was in the same situation that Martin had been in, crippled and hoping to make it home, yet David did not find himself sympathizing with the pilot, only hoping that his plane would not make it, that he would die as Martin had, that it would go some way to avenging his friend’s death.
With fuel running low and magazines still half full of ammunition B Flight turned for home and landed at Hornchurch without further incident.
They were just downing their first pint in the Officers Mess when Flight Lieutenant Reynolds walked in, his shock of blond, almost white, hair responsible for his nickname of Polar Bear, or sometimes just Bear. When David had first met the Canadian he had thought him a little too old for a fighter pilot, already thirty, yet he had soon come to respect the man’s superb flying skills and excellent marksmanship. With an aggressive flair for leadership that was going to be very useful in the months ahead Reynolds was proving a popular Squadron Leader with his men.
Although a born leader his manner was quiet. As he approached the bar he carried himself with an air of confident authority and the strong face broke into a broad grin.
“Well lads, look at this!” He held out a flimsy piece of paper as he spoke. “It’s from Dowding, the C in C Fighter Command, to all you brave lads of No. 74 Squadron. Apparently we are considered to have put in a magnificent performance and are forthwith ordered to retire to RAF Leconfield to rest and try to find a few Spitfires that are not full of holes!”
“When do we leave?” Ted Browne’s’ face was wreathed in smiles. The last few days had been exhausting and he felt desperately in need of a rest.
“First thing in the morning.”
There was a whoop of joy and a rush to the bar.
“Although the Expeditionary Force has been defeated this is not the end of the war.” Browne took a long draught from his glass. “Hitler is sure to try to invade England next and we’ll be ready to push his Luftwaffe back where it belongs. He won’t have the upper hand for long”
“Right lad. And Leconfield will give us a chance to prepare for what is ahead.” Bear looked grim. “Let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve got a difficult few months in front of us.”
David stared glumly into is half finished pint.
“It’s a shame Martin won’t be coming. His Mum lives up in Yorkshire you know.”
Reynolds laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“We all know how close you were David. We miss him too. God alone knows how many of us will go down before this is all over, but we have to try to put it all behind us. What we must do now is concentrate on defeating Hitler. The grieving will come later.”
David emptied his glass and caught the barman’s eye to ask for another.
“I suppose you’re right Bear. But right now I’m just wondering what I’m going to tell his Mum.”
It was their third night on the beach. Behind them the buildings of Dunkirk were still burning fiercely, but far from being a problem this actually helped the evacuation. By day the huge roiling clouds of black smoke hid the beaches from the ever threatening Stukas and at night the fires lit up the quays, or what was left of them, making it a little less dangerous for the lucky ones who were embarking. As Tony looked around the beach seemed to him like a field of fireflies as each soldier sat quietly smoking, waiting for the slow process of reaching the ships to be over at last. He huddled deeper into the dead mans greatcoat, glad now that he had it for the wind coming in from the sea was cold and the lack of food made him feel its keenness even more.
“I’ll be glad to get back home where it’s warm and my clothes aren’t full of sand.”
Jim gave a weary, understanding smile.
“I know what you mean.” He looked up the beach, back towards the burning buildings, almost unable to comprehend the huge numbers of men behind them. “Still, we’ve come a long way down the beach and will get off long before those poor blighters behind us.”
Tony turned towards the sea. It was difficult to see the water for the number of small boats bobbing upon it and the men wading out waist deep to reach them. Some of the smaller boats were ferrying soldiers out to those whose draught was too deep to allow them to come close into shore and then coming back for more, time after time after time. Tony was still surprised by the orderliness of the evacuation. For two days now they had moved with agonizing slowness towards their only hope of escape from either death or imprisonment, yet there had been no fighting, no attempt to get there ahead of those who had been waiting longer. It made him feel proud to be British.
“With a bit of luck we should be able to get away tomorrow.”
Jim nodded at Tony’s comment.
“As long as the Germans don’t get here first.”
With that depressing thought in mind Tony lay down on the beach, shuffling to find a comfortable position before finally falling asleep to dream of Heronfield before the war.
Sarah woke slowly to the whispering of her name.
“Sarah! Sarah! Come on. Get up. We have to be on duty in half an hour.”
Sarah slowly opened he eyes.
“Oh, it’s you Jane.” She stretched tiredly and sat up. “Can you get me a cup of tea while I’m dressing?”
“It’s on its way.” Jane smiled, turned and left the room which the two girls shared. Yesterday had been their first full day of caring for the wounded and they had not left the wards until well after midnight; it was now half past six in the morning and Sarah had to be in her ward by seven o’clock. She washed quickly and was in her uniform adjusting her cap when Jane returned with the promised cup of tea.
“Thanks Jane. That should wake me up!” She sipped the scalding liquid, then yawned tiredly. “I’m exhausted after yesterday, I never thought we’d have to work that hard.” She shook her head sadly. “I thought we’d be dealing with one or two new patients each day, but there seemed to be no end to the number of poor men they brought in. You know it’s sad, but after several hours I was so tired that their condition didn’t seem to worry me any more. The sight of dirt and blood and gangrenous flesh all came to feel part of normal of life.” She shuddered. “I hope I’m not going to become immune to suffering, I don’t want to loose all feeling for others, but I was glad that I couldn’t feel anything. They made me so sad Jane, so much pain and suffering, I wanted to heal them all and comfort them all but there was so little I could do.”
Her friend, already in full uniform, stretched tiredly.
“I know what you mean. Those men had been waiting for so long for help, and what we could do for them just seemed like a drop in the ocean.” Her face was serious. “By the looks of things we must have been defeated in France which means that the Germans will be trying to invade us next. I’m scared.”
Sarah nodded, her eyes mirroring the concern of her friend. “So am I. If those poor men who were brought here yesterday are anything to go by we can’t have much of an army left.” They left their room and made their way down to their wards while they were talking. “Seeing them made me glad that Joe was found unfit.” She stopped and turned to face her friend. “I suppose that sounds terribly unpatriotic of me.”
“No.” Jane’s voice was understanding. “It’s only natural to want someone you love to be safe, and it’s not as though Joe isn’t doing his bit. He’s still working in the aircraft factory isn’t he?”
Sarah nodded. “As soon as I get some more leave I’ll be going home to see him.”
They walked the few remaining paces to the head of the stairs where Jane went up and Sarah continued along to her ward where she pushed the door open as the clock in the hall downstairs began to strike seven. As Sarah entered and looked around she let out a deep breath she had not realised she had been holding. All the mess, smell and confusion of the day before was gone to be replaced by an orderly, if small, ward in what had once been the nursery of Heronfield House. During their first few hectic days converting the old country house into a hospital she had helped to clear this room, making sure that everything that was not needed for convalescing soldiers, including many toys that had not been played with for years, was boxed and stored in the stables for the duration of the war. She wondered what Sir Michael Kemshall’s children would think of their old nursery if they saw it now. Would they even recognize it?
To the left of the door Sister Freeman was arranging a sheaf of notes on a small desk and looked up as Sarah entered.
“Ah, Miss Porter. Will you get the patient’s teas for them please; then we’ll freshen them up for breakfast.”
“Yes Sister.” Sarah left the room and went down to the kitchen where the tea trolley was ready and waiting.
The hospital which had been established at Heronfield relied heavily on the work of the VAD’s. Sarah had anticipated that it would be a calm, quiet environment with the convalescing soldiers, but after the unexpected influx of untreated evacuees from Dunkirk the day before there was a controlled businesslike atmosphere about the place that was unexpected though strangely invigorating. The one doctor assigned to the hospital, Dr. Henry Millard, was able to perform some operations although his main task was to see that wounds healed cleanly when the men were sent for convalescence after a period in a more specialized hospital. The unexpected arrivals of the previous day had left him rushed off his feet and two local doctors had been called in to help treat the wounded. The Senior Nursing Officer, Sister Freeman, was wondering how she would manage with just five nurses to aid her in the medical work of changing dressings, administering medication, re-habilitating amputees, and was thankful for the VAD’s who would carry out the remainder of the work, washing the patients, issuing bed-pans, bringing up food and drink, cleaning the wards and any other work which Sister Freeman deemed fit. So it was that Sarah passed a busy morning first bringing tea for the patients then washing them and preparing them for Dr. Millard’s rounds. While he assessed the patients, with the aid of Sister Freeman and a nurse, Sarah thankfully took a quick break for breakfast before providing breakfast for her charges and washing the floor of the ward. It was after eleven o’clock before she was able to put her duties aside and spend some time talking quietly with the patients.
The first soldier she had helped into the ward the previous day was in the bed nearest the door and so she spoke to him first.
“Hello. How are you today?”
The young man turned haunted eyes towards her, his hands clutching convulsively at the sheets as a nod of his head directed her gaze to the cage which held the bedclothes high above his wounds.
“How do you think I’m feeling? How’s a man like me supposed to go about getting a job with only one leg?” His words were bitter and angry.
Sarah did not know what to say so said nothing, just laid a comforting hand upon his shoulder. The soldier turned his face away, ignoring the hand that tried to soothe him.
“I don’t need your sympathy Miss,” he said at last. “Just leave me alone for now.”
Sarah nodded. “Alright, but I’ll be back to see you later.” She moved on to the next bed as she spoke. The occupant had fresh clean bandages over his eyes and she recognized him as one of the patients she had prepared for Dr. Millard the previous day.
“Hello. Can I sit and talk with you?”
The head turned towards her. “Yes, please. It’s rather lonely not being able to see. Can you tell me where I am?”
Sarah smiled. “Of course. You’re at Heronfield House. It’s the home of Sir Michael Kemshall but he’s allowing us to use it as a hospital. This ward was once his children’s nursery and there are now twelve beds in it, all occupied.”
The soldier was silent for a moment. “What’s your name?” he finally asked.
“Sarah. What’s yours?”
“Bob.” He sighed. “Your voice sounds a bit like my girls. Her name is Brenda and she’s waiting for me at home.” He reached up to touch the bandages, which swathed the top half of his head. “They say I’ve lost the sight completely in one eye and may only be able to see light and shade with the other. I wonder if Brenda will still want to wait for me when she knows about this?”
Sarah’s eyes pricked with unshed tears as she took his hand in hers. “I’m sure she’ll still want you. I’ve got a man of my own, his names Joe, and I know that if this happened to him I wouldn’t love him any less. I would just want to care for him to show him how much I love him.”
“I don’t want Brenda’s pity.”
“She won’t pity you Bob, but you will have to be careful not to confuse her love and concern for you with pity. It’s probably self-pity you’ll be feeling, and only seeing others feelings as a reflection of that. It’s you, the person inside, that Brenda loves, not just your body.”
He squeezed her hand tightly. “You’re a good girl Sarah. Your Joe is a really lucky man.” He took a deep breath, as though to prepare himself for some ordeal, then he spoke again, his voice shaky. “Could you write a letter for me please? To Brenda? She must be worried and I think she really ought to hear about this from me.”
Sarah nodded, then realizing that he could not see her gesture she spoke, her voice choking with emotion.
“Of course I’ll write for you. Just hang on while I get some paper and a pen.”
As she made her way to the desk by the door she glanced out of the window into the gardens and stopped when she saw the lone figure standing motionless, gazing south towards the Channel and distant France. There was a world of loneliness in his stance, as though part of him was missing and his heart and mind were reaching out in an attempt to draw that part back to himself and make him whole once more. It was Sir Michael Kemshall and she recalled from the previous day that his son was still in France. Her heart went out to the man as she sent up a swift, silent prayer that his son would soon be safely home.
The relentless intensive bombing by German planes had destroyed most of the quays at the port of Dunkirk, leaving only ‘the mole’, one of the two breakwaters which surrounded the harbour, for the larger ships to tie up against. From what Tony could see the mole was about two thirds of a mile long, its main bulk constructed of rock whilst most of the upper surface was boarded over with timber and, on either side of this, a protective railing had been placed to prevent people falling into the icy water. It was not wide, men could not walk along it more than three abreast, but it was their only way out to the larger ships which could not come close inshore, and from a distance its surface was a dark seething mass of men.
As the hours passed slowly by Tony saw that the water rose fifteen feet at high tide so that the men merely had to cross makeshift bridges from the mole to board their escape vessels, while at low tide they jumped down onto the heaving decks below, careless of danger to life and limb, only wanting to be away from the beaches at last. The line of men, three abreast, stretched back along the full length of the mole and then back across the beach like the sinuous curves of a snake. They were gaunt, unshaven, expressionless with exhaustion, many supported comrades who no longer had the strength to stand alone. When the Stukas came in there was nowhere to hide, men just lay down on the boards and watched bullets splatter across the harbour towards them, praying that this time they would escape. The Stukas bombed the waiting ships whenever they could dive below the heavy pall of smoke which hung permanently above the harbour, and the water was full of burning wrecks which made the task of evacuating the beaches even more treacherous.
Although thousands of men made their way out along the mole Tony could see that the vast majority of the stranded army had no such aid to reaching the ships and would have to leave the beach directly into the water. Tony, Jim and Phillips were amongst that group, and he envied those who were close to the mole and able to board without entering the cold waters of the Channel which would draw all heat swiftly and surely from their bodies. Too long in the water could be almost as fatal as waiting on the beach for the next German attack. Evening was drawing in and soon their fourth night on the beaches would begin. Thankfully they knew that it would be their last. Now only three or four men stood between them and the water’s edge; one of the boats out there, one of the ones which they could now see, would take them away from this living hell and back to the rolling green hills of England. As the light faded on the evening of June 2nd the Stukas came in for one final attack. Tony pointed out towards the mole as the planes screamed in a shallow dive. Many soldiers were lying down to avoid the bullets while those nearer to the ships continued to leap aboard.
“That trawler is rather low in the water.” Tony watched as the boat pulled away into the narrow channel of water leading out to the open sea. “It looks as though she might go over.” As he spoke bombs began to fall and although none of them hit the trawler the huge shock waves caught her broadside, lifting her and slowly but inexorably pushing the overloaded ship onto her side. The screams and cries of the soldiers who now found themselves struggling for their lives in the cold water were drowned by the roar of Stukas and the evil chattering of machine guns. Many of the men trying to escape the sinking trawler were dragged from the water onto an already dangerously overloaded yacht which rolled heavily in the swell for a moment before taking a direct hit from a bomb. The mast was hurled high into the air along with flailing bodies and burning sails. When the smoke cleared wreckage was still falling – a spar, planks of wood, a tattered strip of burning sail fluttering in the wind.
“The poor devils.” Phillips crossed himself as he spoke.
Tony was thankful that night was falling fast, forcing the Stukas to withdraw, although the beach itself was not left in darkness for the burning port behind them and the dozens of ships afire ahead of them cast an eerie glow on the scene. As they watched a small pleasure cruiser appeared out of the smoke, bobbing on the waves in indecent parody of its peacetime duties. A cheerful sounding voice called out from the wheelhouse.
“Come on you lot. Let’s get you back home to a nice cup of tea.”
The men in front of Tony began to ease their way forward and were soon being helped aboard. Tony counted sixty four men going aboard a boat that could only have been built to carry a quarter of that number and marveled at the bravery of the civilians who had made this trip so many times before yet still came back to aid the beleaguered army. When the small boat began to pull away Tony realized that there was no one else in front of him. The next boat to come to this part of the beach would be his ticket home.
He found himself standing in water up to his waist, the waves reflecting the flames of the burning ships in rainbow hues and Tony realized that the whole of the water’s edge was coated with a thin film of oil from the wrecks. It clung to their clothes and the stench of it invaded their nostrils as they stood as still as they possibly could for the oil made it slippery underfoot. Tony had never felt so weak and tired before in his life. The constant shaking of his legs was due only in part to the low temperature of the water, and at times black dots danced before his eyes. He had slung Wilson’s rifle onto his back, for he knew that he could not hold onto it much longer, and his hands hung limply at his sides. Jim noticed how weak his new friend was and understood exactly how he felt. They had had nothing to eat for three days and since their water had run out the previous evening they had existed on what they could gather from condensation for they had an unspoken agreement that none of them would go back up the beach, for that would mean losing their hard earned place and starting the endless waiting all over again.
They had been waiting in the cold water, which seemed to drain the last reserves of their energy from their exhausted bodies, for almost an hour when Phillips pointed a shaking hand out to sea.
“Look at that. It’s our ride home.”
Making directly towards them through the oil slick which covered the sea was a small private yacht. For a moment it looked as though it might run them down before running aground, then it tacked beautifully and halted inches from the waiting soldiers.
“Come on lads.”
A man in his thirties and a boy of about fourteen, his son? leant over the side and began to drag the exhausted men aboard. Tony watched as one soldier after another was hauled from the water, and prayed that he would not be left behind. At last, after what seemed like an eternity of waiting, he felt strong hands lifting him and laying him on the deck. The small, two berth, cabin was already crammed with thirteen men so that Tony, Jim and Phillips were moved to the back of the boat. Another five men were helped onto the deck, a total of twenty-one evacuees in all, when the boat’s owner took hold of the tiller and ordered his son to ready the sails.
“Don’t worry lads, we’ll be back,” he said comfortingly to those left standing in the water. Some of them did not want to wait for the next vessel and, thinking that there might be room for just one more, began to swim out after the yacht. As they got out of their depth the heavy uniforms began to drag them down. A dazed Tony saw three of them disappear beneath the surface of the water before helping hands pulled their companions back to the comparative safety of the shallows.
Nothing was said as the yacht picked her delicate way through the harbour, past the burning wrecks that blocked most of the safe passages. The owner of the yacht sat at the stern, steering them carefully around obstacles while passing quiet instructions to the boy at the sails. As they moved further from the shore Jim was able to see, for the first time, the full horror that was the beaches of Dunkirk and wondered again at the bravery of the men who came back time after time to do what little they could to help. He gazed off to port for a moment, a puzzled frown furrowing his brow, then his eyes opened wide in horrified understanding of what he saw.
“Look at that!” His voice was a hushed whisper and the others followed his pointing finger to see what could have affected him so.
At first they saw only what they thought was a causeway, some eight feet wide, extending far out into the sea. Then understanding dawned. It was not a causeway but a column of men, six abreast, standing as if on parade. Those at the front were standing up to their necks in water calmly waiting for the Thames barge which slowly approached them. The yacht swung wide to avoid a burning pleasure cruiser and the column of men was lost from sight. Moments later they rounded the end of the shattered harbour wall and were in the open sea.
“We’re heading for Portsmouth.” It was the first time their rescuer had spoken since they left the beaches and as Tony turned towards him he noticed the deep shadows under his eyes and the weary stoop of his shoulders.
“How many times have you been to the beaches?”
“This is our nineteenth trip. Twenty one soldiers at a time means that when we get you lot home we will have brought back nearly four hundred men.” He rubbed his eyes tiredly. “I’ll try to get back on more time tonight, but it’s not easy. The navy has only cleared three narrow channels of mines and with all of the buoys and lightships blacked out it’s easy to wander from these, so if you gentlemen would like to keep an eye open for any strange objects floating near us I would be most grateful.”
For a time Tony watched the heaving grey waves for any sign of mines but his tiredness coupled with the relief of being away from the beaches at last must have overwhelmed him, for he woke to find Jim shaking him gently by the shoulder.
“Tony. We’re home.” His voice was full of relief at an ordeal safely overcome and Tony sat up to look around him. They were sailing into Portsmouth harbour, but not the harbour he knew from peacetime for there were no lights shining and the yacht had to maneuver carefully between other vessels before coming to rest beside the quay. The soldiers rose gratefully to their feet.
“Here you are then lads. Home at last.”
Tony turned to their rescuer as he spoke and smiled a weary smile.
“I don’t know how to find the words I want to say. ‘Thank you’ seems so inadequate after what you’ve done for us.”
“No need for thanks lad. I’m just doing my bit for King and country same as you are. Now, if you’d like to go ashore I think I’ll get turned around and head back to France.”
The soldiers climbed wearily onto the quay to be greeted by smiling women, civilian volunteers again, who handed out mugs of steaming tea and doorstep sandwiches.
“Move over to the warehouse loves, and when you’ve rested a bit you can register so that the army knows what to do with you. There are some postcards there as well so that you can write to let your families know that you’re safe.”
They smiled their grateful thanks and moved off. Phillips noticed a friend nearby whom he had thought to be dead and the small group said an emotional farewell as he went to rejoin his comrade.
“Just the two of us now.” Jim sipped the scalding tea as he spoke. “I’m glad about the postcards. My family must be worried sick about me and will be glad to hear I’m alright.”
“I shan’t bother with a postcard.” Tony sat down on a packing crate as he spoke. “Don’t forget I’m still a civilian. I’m catching the first train home and will be there long before any postcard can arrive.”
Jim nodded in understanding. “I don’t blame you. Do you still intend to join up?”
Tony nodded, images of dead civilians mingling with the beaches of Dunkirk in his mind. There was nothing else he could do.
“Well, I can’t say too much at the moment but just before all this blew up in France I was given a posting to a new unit to take effect at the beginning of July. They said they needed men like me who can speak French and know parts of France quite well. You made a good showing of yourself out there Tony and I think they might be interested in you. I’ll speak to my superiors and see what they say. I can’t promise anything but if you can postpone joining up for a month or so I’ll be in touch. Alright?”
Tony nodded. “Just as long as it’s not some desk job translating French papers. I want to get some action against the Germans after what I’ve seen out there.”
“I know what you mean,” Jim agreed. “I’ll let you know as soon as I can.”
The Tony Kemshall who walked towards the steps of Heronfield House that evening was very different to the smart young man who had set out on his journey to France. He was still wearing the bloodstained greatcoat that Jim had acquired for him on the beaches of Dunkirk, his trousers were stained with seawater and oil, and his shoes were splitting at the seams. He had landed at Portsmouth and caught the first train for London at six a.m., changed at Guilford and again at Reading before taking the branch line to Marlbrough. It was now almost six in the evening and the journey, coupled with his exhausting activities of the previous two weeks, had left Tony so weak that he could barely stand. He had been lucky to find a delivery van going his way and it had dropped him off at the end of the drive. As his feet crunched on the gravel of the sweeping driveway and he approached the house which had been home to him for all his twenty years, he felt a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes. There had been times over the last few days when he had thought that he would never see his home or his family again, never walk the driveway to the safe haven which awaited him. He smiled happily as he pushed the door open, it would be good to see his family again and then to get some well deserved rest.
With hand gripping tightly to the door handle and a frown beginning to furrow his brow he stopped. Something was wrong. It was the same hallway with the same familiar furniture and pictures but there was a subtle smell, like a hospital, in the air and he could hear the murmuring of many voices upstairs. A door closed down the hallway and, to his surprise, a nursing auxiliary approached. Tony was too tired and bemused to notice the auburn hair, lively green eyes and clear skin though the woman noticed his dark hair and complexion and the tired brown eyes. Her professional gaze also took in the tattered and bloodstained clothes and the smell that had accompanied all of the soldiers who had come to Heronfield directly from the beaches.
“Hello.” She greeted him with a warm smile. “I’m sorry there was no one here to meet you but we weren’t expecting any more wounded. Are you just back from Dunkirk like all the rest?”
He nodded, his tired mind trying to work out what this nurse was doing in his home. “I arrived in Portsmouth this morning, but I’m not wounded. Just tired.”
Sarah frowned. “Not wounded? Then what are you doing here?”
Tony managed a weak smile. “I could ask you the same question. This is my home. Where is my family? What is happening here?”
Sarah’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “Are you Sir Michael’s son, Tony? He was in my ward trying to find out if anyone had seen you at Dunkirk. He has been very worried about you and will be so glad that you are safe.”
“I’d like to see him, if you’ll only tell me where he is.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Sarah was full of apologies, then she noticed the young man swaying on his feet and pulled up a chair. “You must be exhausted. Sit down while I explain.” She waited while Tony thankfully lowered himself into the chair, then continued. “Your father has given up Heronfield House for the duration to be used as a hospital and convalescent home.”
“Yes, I vaguely remember him talking about it before I left.” He smiled wearily. “I’m so tired and I was so eager to see them all again that I’d forgotten. Where are my family? Have they gone up to London?”
Sarah smiled. “No, they’ve not gone that far. They’re at the Lodge. I’ll get someone to take you down there. I’m sure you…”
Realising that he was safe at last Tony could stay awake no longer and slumped from his chair. As Sarah rushed to the side of the unconscious young man she called for aid and two more VAD’s came hurrying to help her carry him into the drawing room where he was laid on a sofa. One of the girls went to summon the doctor while the other ran down to the Lodge to inform Sir Michael that his son had arrived safe home at last.
Sarah had already removed the greatcoat and was loosening Tony’s filthy clothing when the doctor arrived to conduct a swift but expert examination. He was in the process of putting his stethoscope away when Sir Michael burst into the room.
“Tony? Is he alright?”
Dr. Millard nodded. “He’s fine, just exhausted. I think it will be best if we let him sleep then he can come down to the Lodge with you when he wakes. A few days rest and food and we’ll soon have him back to his old self.”
Sir Michael nodded his thanks as the doctor and Sarah left. Kneeling beside the couch he took his youngest son’s hand in his own.
“Tony. Thank God you’re alive.” His voice was little more than a whisper. “I’m so proud of you. So very proud.”
Sir Michael was glad that he was alone with his son so that no one could see the tears of relief which coursed down his cheeks.
It was lunchtime just three days after Tony had returned from Dunkirk and Sarah and Jane were taking a well-deserved break from work, sitting in the warm summer sun in the gardens of Heronfield House. Jane had been reading the newspaper and sighed deeply as she put it down.
“Even Mr. Churchill admits that we have suffered a great defeat. He says that we must prepare for an invasion any time.”
Sarah nodded sadly. “I wish I could go home and see Mum. She must be worried sick. And I’d like to see Joe again, just in case…”
Jane took her hand reassuringly. “I’m sure we’ll be alright. Hitler won’t get us without a fight.” She picked up the paper again. “We can all do our bit. Listen.” She began to read from the paper. “All signposts and place names are to be removed or painted out so that they will not help enemy paratroopers to find their way; defences along the coast line have been extended and many beaches are now ‘off limits’; it is now an offence to leave a car unlocked or a bicycle not immobilized or anything else which might help a German paratrooper.”
Sarah laughed bitterly.
“Much good that’s going to do us without an army!”
Jane shrugged. “It’s not over yet. We ought to be less pessimistic.”
Sarah sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Hitler hasn’t won yet. But it all seems so hopeless after Dunkirk. How on earth are we going to defeat the German army when most of our soldiers are in hospital, or a prisoner of war camp?”
There was the sound of footsteps on the gravel path and the two young women turned to see Tony Kemshall approaching. He smiled warmly at them.
“Excuse my interrupting, but aren’t you the nurse who met me when I came home?” Sarah nodded and he continued. “Can I speak to you for a moment please?”
Jane rose from the bench where they had been sitting.
“Well, I must get back to work. See you later Sarah.” With a quick wave of her hand she turned and ran across the lawn.
Tony looked more like his old self after three days of rest and home cooking. He was clean, freshly shaven and well dressed, and no longer so tired that his skin was pale and black rings circled his eyes. Unlike his first meeting with Sarah he was now able to take note of her looks and the warm, friendly smile. He felt an instant liking for the young VAD.
“May I sit down?”
Sarah nodded. “Of course.” She turned a puzzled frown towards him. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how did you get involved with the troops at Dunkirk if you are a civilian?”
Tony found himself responding to that quizzical look with a smile, it was so endearing.
“Of course I don’t mind. I went out there to help my grandmother to get to England and foolishly stayed behind. I suppose I thought it would be just like the books I used to read as a boy, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.” He frowned. “War is not all heroics with the goodies always defeating the badies. Still, I managed to get away in the end and I just wanted to thank you for being so helpful.”
Sarah was a little embarrassed.
“It’s all part of the job sir.”
“Gosh, ‘sir’ makes me sound so old!” His face held such a look of mock horror that Sarah had to laugh. “Please call me Tony,” he continued, “and may I call you Sarah? That is what your friend called you isn’t it?”
Sarah was not quite sure what to say. It was strange but she already liked Tony. He was warm and friendly and seemed in many ways to be just like her friends at home. Yet he wasn’t. He was a member of the aristocracy, a class of people who would never dream of speaking to her under normal circumstances, and she felt vaguely uncomfortable to be talking so freely with him. Finally she shrugged her shoulders. What did it matter, they would probably never meet again and, after all, there was a war on.
“Of course you may call me Sarah.”
She smiled across at him and Tony’s heart raced. That smile was something special and he decided there and then that he wanted to get to know her better. Searching for some sort of common ground he began to enquire about her family.
“Are any of your family in the Forces?”
Sarah shook her head. “No. There’s only me and my Mum. My Dad died just before the end of the last war, just before I was born.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright. I never knew him, and I never really missed having a father as a child. I suppose it was a case of not missing what you’ve never had.”
“What about your boyfriend? A pretty girl like you must have one. Is he in the army?” As he asked the question Tony fervently hoped that she would say no, there was no boyfriend, she was unattached and free to be courted, but his brief hopes were soon dashed.
“My boyfriend is called Joe. The day after war was declared I joined the VAD’s and he tried to join the army but they found him unfit. He’s taken a job in an aircraft factory so that he can feel he’s doing his bit.” Sarah smiled. “I shall be going home to Coventry in a couple of weeks. It seems ages since I’ve seen him.”
Tony noticed the extra brightness in her eyes and the softening of her smile as she spoke of Joe and for some unknown reason it saddened him. Here he was talking to a total stranger yet she was making him feel things he had never felt before, a longing to get to know her better and a jealousy of a man whom he had never met, and probably never would meet. Maybe he was still tired from his ordeal in France, still emotionally fragile after what he had seen and experienced, or maybe he had just found someone who could hold a special place in his life; whatever it was Tony was confused at his churning emotions and felt that he needed some time alone to think.
“Well, thanks again.” He rose as he excused himself. “I must go now as I promised to help my father with some paperwork. Good-bye Sarah.” He smiled warmly at his new acquaintance. “Perhaps we can meet again some time?”
Sarah smiled politely in return. “Yes, I think I’d like that. Good-bye Tony.”
As Sarah watched the young man walk back across the lawns her smile deepened. Somehow she knew that they would be friends.
Sarah arrived in Coventry on the nine o’clock train. It was dark and the blackout caused some difficulties for her but she knew that she would soon get used to it. There were very few vehicles on the road, the inability to use headlights and the shortage of fuel kept most people at home, or if they had to go out they went on foot. Sarah directed her footsteps along the edge of the pavement where every other kerbstone had been painted white and used these as a guide through the streets to her home. It seemed strange walking up to the door of a house where no light peeped out from behind the curtains; as a child she had always thought of the lights as a loving welcome home but now the house seemed dark and eerie. Sarah knocked at the door and, after a few moments, heard the sound of footsteps coming down the hall. They stopped on the other side of the door.
“Who is it?”
Sarah smiled at the sound of the familiar voice. No matter that the house was dark, this was home.
“It’s me Mum.”
“Sarah! Hold on a minute!”
There was the sound of a heavy curtain being drawn back and a bolt pulled, then the door opened.
“Come in love, I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow!”
Sarah went in and her mother closed the door behind her, shutting out the night. She drew the blackout curtain once again and switched on the light.
Sarah smiled at the mother. Alice Porter was plump and seemed to exude a feeling of love and warmth to all around her. Since the death of her husband in late 1918, only six months after their wedding and some four months before the birth of Sarah, she had provided for herself and her child by any number of jobs, usually cleaning, and though she had had to work long hours to make ends meet Sarah had wanted for nothing and had known the kind of loving home which many people would envy. Sarah reached out and hugged her mother.
“I managed to get a train as soon as I got off duty and didn’t want to waste any more of my leave than necessary on travelling. Besides, I couldn’t wait to see you.”
Alice laughed. “You mean you couldn’t wait to see Joe! He would have been at the station to meet you if he had known you were coming today. At least tomorrow is Sunday so he’ll be able to spend the whole day with you. It’s his only day off you know.”
Sarah nodded as she put down her small case and took off her coat.
“You don’t seem to have brought much with you love, how long are you staying?”
“I have to go back on Friday.”
Alice led the way down the narrow hall into the familiar kitchen and put the kettle on as she listened to her daughter talk. As they sat at the old wooden table and drank their tea as they had done so many times before Sarah told her mother all about her work at Heronfield House, of the wounded and dispirited soldiers she had seen after Dunkirk and her fears for the future. Alice took her daughter’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“Don’t worry love. The Germans didn’t get to England last time and I’m sure we can keep them out now. The worst they can do is drop a few bombs and we’re well prepared for that.” She indicated the gas mask which Sarah had placed on the kitchen table when she sat down. “Apart from those infernal contraptions which we have to carry at all times we now have an air raid shelter.”
“How did you manage to get one?” Sarah asked incredulously. “I thought they were being given to people with large families first?”
Alice nodded. “True, but I agreed that if I had an Anderson shelter in the garden I would share it with the neighbours, so old Mr. and Mrs. Cook from number 27 and Mary Norman and her two children from number 31 will be using it too. We’ve decided to work as a team and do our bit for the war so both of their gardens and what is left of ours after that huge corrugated iron monstrosity was put in have been dug over and planted with vegetables. It’s been hard work but worth it. We’ll be able to provide ourselves with at least half of the vegetables we will need so we will be able to use our ration coupons for other things.”
“I’m impressed Mum.” Sarah took her empty cup to the sink and washed it. “You know” she said as she turned off the tap, “it seems strange to stand here at the sink and only see the blackout curtain. I’m so used to looking at the garden.”
“You won’t recognize it now love. There’s a lump in what used to be the lawn where the Anderson shelter is and the rest is all vegetables.” She sighed. “I had to dig up all of my roses.”
Sarah laid a comforting hand on her mothers shoulder.
“Surely not everything has changed?”
Alice laughed, throwing off her melancholy thoughts.
“No, not everything! Joe is still the same! He often calls to see how I am, which is really kind of him. You’ve got a good man there Sarah.”
Sarah nodded, barely able to suppress her excitement at the thought of seeing Joe again.
“Yes, I know.”
Sunday morning dawned bright and clear and Sarah was up early so as to be ready when Joe came round. It was just before 10 o’clock when he called to ask Alice if she knew which train Sarah would be on only to be greeted at the door by the one he had been missing so much.
Sarah laughed, a gay abandoned laugh, and threw herself into the arms of the young man at the door. She kissed him happily and ran her fingers through his silky fair hair.
“Oh Joe! It’s so good to see you again!”
“Really? I’d never have guessed!” He laughed but made no effort to extricate himself from her arms.
“Come on.” Sarah pulled away and took him by the hand as she spoke. “Let’s go for a walk. I’ve got heaps to tell you.”
So they walked and talked in the warm summer sunshine, Sarah relating all that had happened in the twelve weeks since she had last seen Joe, and he describing his work at the aircraft factory.
“I don’t mind the work really,” he concluded. “I just wish I could take a more active part in things.”
Sarah squeezed his hand comfortingly.
“I know how you must feel, but your job is as important as any soldiers. Without the armaments from the factories there would be no chance of us winning this war. And now that our army has had to get out of France I would think that the planes you’re helping to built will be our main defense against invasion.” She smiled lovingly at Joe. “You are doing as much for the country as any man in uniform.”
Their steps had brought them to the beautiful cathedral in the centre of Coventry. The sun shone brightly on the yellow stone spires and the sound of voices raised in praise to God drifted to them on the breeze.
“Isn’t it beautiful.” Sarah’s voice was almost a whisper as she stood quietly absorbing the atmosphere. “I’ve always loved this place.”
“So have I. I’d hate of think of the Germans invading, walking down our streets and worshipping in our cathedral. That’s why I have done something about it.”
Sarah turned towards him in surprise.
“What have you done Joe?”
“But they found you unfit. Didn’t they give you another medical?”
Joe shook his head.
“I didn’t need one.” He led her to a grassy bank dotted with daisies and buttercups. “Sit down and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Sarah sat, curious to know what Joe had been up to. He sat too, facing her so that he blocked out her view of the cathedral.
“Did you hear Mr. Eden, the new War Secretary, on the radio a few weeks ago?”
“You mean when he warned about the danger of German paratroopers?”
“Well he also talked about something called the Local Defence Volunteers. He wanted men who are not in the forces to join the Volunteers to prepare to push back an invasion, or spot enemy planes, or any number of jobs like that. It’s a part time job so those who do join up don’t have to give up their jobs, and we don’t get paid to be in the Volunteers either.”
“And so you volunteered?”
Joe nodded. “Yes. I’ve got a uniform but no gun as yet, there aren’t enough arms to go round. My duty is aircraft spotting three nights a week.” He paused and looked at Sarah. “You don’t mind do you?”
“Of course not Joe. I’m glad you can feel fully involved in the war effort. If only all men could be so patriotic.” She put her arms around him and hugged him tight. “I’m so proud of you.”
“And I’m proud of you Sarah.” He kissed her gently and held her close, murmuring softly against her hair. “I hope this war will be over soon. I miss you so much when you’re away.”
They kissed again and the peace and beauty of their surroundings faded into insignificance as Sarah clung tightly to the man she loved.
Sarah’s leave passed quickly. Time spent with Joe seemed so short for his work at the factory and with the LDV could not be put aside for her, but it did give her more time to spend with her mother. Alice always seemed to exude confidence, it seemed that for her there was no doubt as to the eventual outcome of this war. No matter that the British Army had suffered a grave defeat they, and the civilians who had rescued them, had shown themselves to be courageous and resourceful, and Alice lived with the conviction that Hitler’s Germany would eventually be defeated. Sarah was never to forget the afternoon they sat together listening to the radio and hearing an inspired Churchill speaking to a people rocked by defeat but not bowed down. The two women, like everyone who heard those words, listened in silence to the man who was to lead their country into battle. His praise for the men who had fought with the British Expeditionary Forces was uplifting and his thanks to the civilians left people in no doubt that all men and women in the country could play their part in the conflict which lay ahead of them.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Sarah reached across the table and took her mothers hand in her own.
“Is this what it was like in the last war? Did you prepare to repel an invasion too?”
Alice shook her head.
“No love, it never came to that. Our men, and theirs, were bogged down on the bloody fields of France.” Her eyes had a distant look, remembering the man she had loved and who had never returned from the fields of death and destruction. “This war is different”, she continued. “It’s so unpredictable. But with a man like that leading us how can we fail to win? His words are an inspiration to us all.”
Sarah nodded. Yes, Churchill could thrill and uplift with his words. She thanked God that he seemed to have placed the right man in a position of power just when he was needed most.
The sun flooded the drawing room with its yellow morning light as the family sat in quiet preoccupation after breakfast, each deep in their own thoughts and barely conscious of those around them. Chantrelle de Thierry gazed into the distance as though her eyes could see nothing but the destruction of her beloved homeland; Louise was reading the papers and trying to glean any information that she could about what was happening on the Continent, while Tony gazed out of the window of the Lodge towards the imposing façade of Heronfield House. It seemed strange to be so close to his home yet not actually living there, especially when he thought of Sarah living up there and treating it like home. He wondered when he would see her again, and if she was looking forward to their next meeting as much as he was. Probably not. After all, she still had this ‘Joe’ who seemed to be so important in her life. He sighed. Life seemed so frustrating at the moment. He wanted to get to know Sarah better, but that seemed impossible: and he wanted to get back to France and fight; the need to do something seemed to burn in his heart like the flames he had seen surrounding the beaches of Dunkirk.
Tony could hardly believe that he had been home for three weeks already. He was feeling physically rested after his experiences in France, but found that his emotions were still in turmoil and he could not relax fully. At any moment of the day or night his mind would fill with images of the refugees, the tanks, the Stukas, the beaches. As he reflected on his experiences he knew that he could not sit at home while the rest of the country prepared for war, he was restless and eager to fight, keen to join up at the earliest possible moment. Yet he had promised Jim that he would wait to hear from him before he joined up, and now that promise weighed heavy on him. What was taking so long? He found his mind wandering back to their last conversation together as they said goodbye in Portsmouth. He replayed the words again and again in his mind. Jim had definitely said that he would call, and that there would be a job that he could do. What was taking so long? He wanted to join up now, to pay the Germans back for the dead boy on the road, the wounded and dead soldiers he had seen, the beaches of Dunkirk. He frowned deeply in frustration. What was taking Jim so long?
Sir Michael put down the letter he had been reading and turned towards his son.
“That was a letter from David. It seems that my two sons both had their first taste of action at Dunkirk.”
“David was at Dunkirk?” Tony turned towards his father in surprise, just the name conjuring up the feelings of tiredness, hunger, fear, hopelessness and dread which had been his all encompassing experience of Dunkirk. He heard once more the sound of the Stukas, the chattering of their machine guns and the thud of their bombs as they fell amongst the crowds of humanity which had thronged the beaches. Somehow he had not been aware amidst all the chaos of any British planes involved in the evacuation. He shivered as he remembered the horror he had experienced on the beaches and hoped that he would never have to face anything like that again. “You know Dad, we saw very few of our aircraft there. The sky seemed to be full of Stukas which kept bombing and strafing us, but we saw hardly any fights between British and German planes, it was as though they had complete control of the skies and our boys were nowhere in sight.”
Sir Michael nodded. “I can understand how you might have got that impression. From what David says in his letter they flew high and engaged the fighters above the clouds, sometimes above the beaches and sometimes inland, trying to stop the enemy planes reaching the evacuation point. He says that they couldn’t see anything of what was going on on the beaches beneath the clouds of smoke.”
“How is David?”
“He’s fine. He survived Dunkirk with no injuries, just like you.” Sir Michael gazed thoughtfully at his younger son. “He asks in his letter if you’ve joined up yet and, frankly, I’ve been wondering about that myself. You know more about what’s going on in France than most people. I thought you would have joined up by now instead of waiting to be called up.”
Tony frowned across at his father. “I hope you’re not implying that I’m trying to avoid joining up Dad. I want to get out there and fight after what I saw, I’m as eager to go as you seem to be to see me go. I was going to join up as soon as I got back but then something stopped me. The fact is, a young Lieutenant I met in France seems to think that a new unit he’s been posted to might be able to use me. I’m not sure what it’s all about but I promised not to join up for a month or so to give him time to make enquiries.” The young man turned to look out of the window again. “You didn’t see those Germans killing civilians like I did. Nor the chaos on the beaches. Now Paris has fallen and more than half of France is under German control. I mean to get out there, free Grandmothers home and drive the Nazis back to the holes they came from. If I haven’t heard from Jim Briggs in a couple of weeks I shall be joining up anyway and if his unit wants me they’ll just have to arrange a transfer.”
Sir Michael walked across to his son and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry son, I didn’t mean to imply that you are a coward. I just thought that a young man like you would have joined up sooner. Now that you’ve told me about this Lieutenant I quite understand. Let’s review the situation in a couple of weeks shall we?”
Tony turned and smiled at his father.
“Yes. And thanks for being so understanding.”
The two weeks were almost up when Tony finally heard from Jim Briggs.