The Invasion of France at the beginning of the Second World War is known as the Blitzkrieg – Lightning War – and it really was like lightning. It was just six short weeks from the start of the invasion on 10th May 1940 to the French signing an armistice with Germany on 22nd June. Yet although Germany had defeated the French army many French citizens were not ready to submit to the conquerors and so the British government set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its instructions from Churchill were to ‘set Europe ablaze’ by helping to fight the Germans behind enemy lines.
Recruits to the SOE underwent commando training as well as learning how to use guns and explosives, to effectively sabotage enemy installations and transport, to use wireless radios, to be proficient in silent killing and unarmed combat. They also had to learn how to blend in and live in secret in occupied territory, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.
Many may find it surprising to know that women were members of the SOE right from the start. At first their role was only to work in the offices producing forged papers for the men who would be going into action (ration cards, passports etc.), or perhaps coding or de-coding messages from agents as well as transmitting these messages via wireless. It wasn’t until April 1942 that Churchill finally gave his approval for women to be sent as agents into Europe. Part of the reasoning for this was that women would be less conspicuous as they were always out and about – shopping or taking children to school etc. – men who were seen on the streets too frequently soon came to the notice of the Gestapo. So the SOE recruited women as wireless operators and couriers and, like the men, these women had to be proficient in the language of the country they were going to, know it’s customs etc. The ideal recruit would have spent some of their formative years in the target country and so would know how to ‘blend in’. In all 431 men and 39 women were sent as SOE agents to France during the Second World War, as well as agents sent to other occupied countries.
It would be impossible to describe the ‘average’ female SOE agent as there was really no such thing. A recruit could come from an aristocratic background or be working-class, she might have only just left school or be a mature and experienced mother, she might be demure or a little wild; the one unifying factor was that they were prepared to go behind enemy lines as the only women to bear arms during the war. They knew what they were signing up for, the chances that they could be captured and tortured, sent to concentration camps or executed, but that didn’t stop them.
One of the first women to work for SOE was actually an American called Virginia Hall who was living in France when the Germans invaded. Although she was disabled (she had an artificial foot) she managed to escape to England where she was signed up by the SOE and went back to France as a ‘correspondent for the New York Post’ (America had not yet entered the war at this time and so was considered neutral). After some time the Gestapo became too interested in Virginia so she escaped over the Pyrenean mountains to Spain (which could not have been easy with her disability). When she got back to England Virginia joined the newly formed US equivalent of SOE, went back to France prior to D Day and, after the war, served in the CIA.
Another famous SOE agent was Noor Inayat Khan who was born in Russia, the daughter of an Indian prince and American. Noor grew up in Paris where she became known as a writer and musician, but when her family fled to England to escape the Germans she trained as a wireless operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The SOE couldn’t ignore someone who spoke fluent French and could handle a wireless so they recruited Noor and she was sent to France in 1943. The network which she worked for was infiltrated and her colleagues arrested. Life was hard for Noor as she was forced to keep moving, finding a new place to stay every day in an effort to evade the Germans, carrying the all too conspicuous wireless with her. Noor continued to send reports to the SOE but her luck eventually ran out when she was betrayed and captured in October 1943. After spending months in solitary confinement Noor was sent to Dachau with three other female SOE agents where she was executed. Witnesses say that Noor spoke just one word at the end – liberté.
Violette Szabo came from a very different background to Noor Inayat Kahn, a cockney working-class girl who had spent some time growing up in France and spoke the language well. She was married to a member of the French Foreign Legion, Etienne Szabo, who died at El Alamein. Violette had a one year old daughter but didn’t hesitate when the SOE came knocking at her door and immediately agreed to be sent to France, knowing the risks involved. Like Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo was captured and executed (at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945).
Although 13 of the women who were sent to France by the SOE were executed by the Germans and 2 others died of natural causes the other 24 survived until the end of the war. One of these was Odette Strugo Garay. Odette had a Czech father and a French mother. She was recruited by the SOE in 1944 after her husband, who was a Finnish RAF pilot, was killed in an accident. After undergoing her training, including four parachute jumps, Odette was sent to France, (she didn’t receive her RAF wings as she had not completed five qualifying jumps). After a time in France Odette returned to England via the route through Spain and on the way met the head of the escape network, Santiago Strugo Garay, who was later to become her husband. After the war Odette and Santiago moved to Buenos Aires and it was there that she met the Air Attaché Wing Commander Dowling. During conversation she mentioned that although she had worked for the SOE and parachuted into France she had never received her RAF wings. He argued that her jump into France should count as a qualifying fifth jump and Odette finally received her wings in 2007. She wore the badge every day until her death in 2015, proud of the contribution she had made to the work of the SOE in France.
The 39 female SOE agents who served in France were ordinary women who did extraordinary things and, like their male counterparts, those who survived the war never sought the limelight but slipped back into civilian life as though their experiences during the war had never happened. They all felt that they were just doing their duty, no more than any other soldier who fought the Nazis. The women who went into enemy territory as agents of the SOE were pioneers – back at home women were working in the factories, taking over the roles of men who were away at the front, but the women of the SOE showed that not only could women do the work on the Home Front which had been done by men but that they could also fight like the men too. In my novel Heronfield Angeline is a radio operator who is parachuted into France by the SOE, her story is my tribute to the bravery of all women of any nationality who were prepared to put their lives on the line to preserve the freedom of others.
‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ is a perennial theme of Christmas. But throughout the years soldiers have spent Christmas in terrible conditions, far from their homes and loved ones. The Second World War lasted for six long years and some people didn’t see their loved ones during all that time. Christmas 1944 was one such time for American soldiers with the armies in northern Europe.
The Siege of Bastogne, part of the larger Battle of the Bulge, took place in December 1944 when German forces made a last desperate push towards the harbour at Antwerp. The seven major roads in the Ardennes area of Belgium all converged on Bastogne so Hitler saw control of this town as vital to his plans to divide and defeat the advancing Allies.
In the early hours of 16th December German infantry forces were ferried across the river Our; two hours later they began to advance under cover of artillery which knocked out the American lines of communication. The Germans had overwhelmingly superior numbers but were held up by a single company of Americans who fought fiercely, holding up the German plans to cross the Clef River for two days. On 19th December the American command post of the 28th Division moved to Bastogne where the Division put up a strong defence, but the 500 men were heavily outnumbered and forced to retreat by the evening.
The German offensive had taken the Allies completely by surprise, and by the end of the second day the 28th Infantry was close to collapse. Reserves were hurriedly pushed forward and units diverted from their assigned targets in order to hold back this last ditch effort by the Germans to retake land lost since D Day and push the Allies back into France. But although the attack had been unexpected the Americans moved quickly, thanks in part to the fast moving M18 Hellcats, and a tank battle was soon in progress, inflicting heavy losses on the German armour.
The 101st Airborne formed a perimeter around Bastogne, and three artillery battalions, each with twelve 255mm howitzers, were able to provide firepower in all directions although they were limited by lack of ammunition. The force was enough, however, to worry General von Luttwitz who did not want to have such numbers to his rear so was forced to slow his advance towards Antwerp and encircle Bastogne. On the night of 20th the Germans began an attack which was stopped by the Americans, although all of the seven roads into Bastogne were finally cut by the German forces leaving the Americans totally cut off.
Outnumbered 5 to 1, lacking cold-weather equipment, short on ammunition, medical supplies and food, and with most of the senior officers elsewhere, the situation for the Americans looked desperate. Worse still, there was no chance of re-supplying the forces from the air due to the worst winter weather in living memory. This also made it impossible for the Americans to offer tactical air support. The men on the ground in Bastogne were forced to hunker down in freezing conditions and pray for an improvement in the weather. The situation looked hopeless.
On 22nd December von Luttwitz sent a message to Brigadier General McAuliffe who was leading the defence of Bastogne;
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.
McAuliffe’s reply is one of the most well know military communications of the Second World War:
To the German Commander.
The American Commander
After the response had been translated for von Luttwitz the attacking forces began preparations for their final assault. Bombers attacked during the night whilst panzers attacked from the west where the defences were penetrated at one point. German infantry poured through the breach but were halted by the Americans. Major attacks continued to take place all along the defensive lines, with no break in hostilities to celebrate Christmas Day.
Patton’s Third Army finally arrived near Bastogne on Boxing Day. After fierce fighting communications with the besieged Americans were restored and supplies began to get through to the cold and hungry soldiers. The 101st expected to be relieved and sent back down the line after such a hard-fought defence but instead were ordered to resume the offensive against German forces. The wider Battle of the Bulge continued unabated into 1945.
One of the main characters in my novel, Heronfield, is caught up in the siege of Bastogne. I wrote about this battle as I wanted to portray the courage and fortitude of the men involved, men who fought against overwhelming odds – vastly superior numbers, cold and hunger – yet refused to give in. Their bravery helped to bring about one of the major turning points of the war. So whilst you enjoy your Christmas celebrations please spare a thought for these men, and all others who have fought and died on many Christmas Days in the past to preserve the liberty and freedoms we enjoy.
We have just marked Remembrance Day, honouring those in the armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. But we should never forget the civilians who gave their blood, sweat and tears during past wars. The people of Coventry loom large amongst those who should be remembered.
As darkness fell on 14th November 1940 the citizens of Coventry wrapped themselves against the biting cold. There was a full moon and the usual autumnal fog had not materialised, leaving clear skies dotted with bright twinkling stars. A beautiful evening. Until the bombs began to fall.
Even before the Second World War Coventry had been an important engineering and manufacturing city; with the outbreak of hostilities that role was massively increased as the factories played an important part in supplying the military in preparation for an expected German invasion. The civilians who worked in the factories lived close to their places of work, leaving them vulnerable if the factories were attacked. Yet despite the importance of its industry Coventry was poorly defended, with less than forty anti-aircraft guns and only about fifty barrage balloons.
It was early evening, 7.10pm, when the first sirens began to sound and the German Pathfinder planes began to drop parachute flares. The bright lights floating down were beautiful but with a deadly purpose – to mark the target for the wave after wave of bombers which were not far behind. The first bombers dropped their cargo of incendiary bombs, creating over 200 fires which lit the night sky, making any more flares unnecessary. In one long night 400 enemy planes attacked Coventry in four massive waves, flying east to west then making a return run west to east, trailing endless lines of bombs behind them. The fires were so fierce that they could be seen from 100 miles away. Guided by the destruction below them the enemy planes passed over again and again, dropping land mines and high explosives. In all 30,000 incendiaries and 500 tons of bombs and land mines were dropped, nearly 50,000 houses damaged and 20,000 rendered totally uninhabitable. Three quarters of the city’s industry was put out of action; telephone, water, electricity and gas supplies were all totally disrupted. The tram system was unusable and 156 out of 181 buses were out of action. During the attempts to bring the chaos under control 26 firemen were killed and over 200 injured; almost 1,000 civilians were seriously injured, more than 550 killed. Only one German bomber was shot down despite the thousands of anti-aircraft rounds which were fired. The raid on Coventry reached such a new, previously unimagined, level of destruction that Joseph Goebbels later used the term “coventriert” (“coventried”) when he described other mass raids which caused similar levels of destruction toenemy towns and cities.
Although the target of the attack on Coventry was the war industry, Hitler also wanted to try to break the moral of the British people. Very few of those on the ground were in the armed forces – mainly those who manned the ack ack guns and other air defences – the majority of people involved in the rescue operations during that night, and the days which followed, were members of the Home Guard and voluntary agencies. The victims overwhelmingly civilians. In my novel, ‘Heronfield’, I pay tribute to the civilians who were caught up in that terrible night of 14th November 1940; their courage and sacrifice, their endurance and strength should not be forgotten.
An introduction to the characters: Sarah Porter is an auxiliary nurse who is home on leave and staying with her mother, Alice. They share an Anderson shelter with their neighbours, the Cooks and the Normans. Sarah’s boyfriend, Joe, is a member of the Home Guard…
Joe met up with Bob Dean at seven o’clock. They made their way to the roof of the factory which was their spotting position for the night. Bob rubbed his hands together briskly.
“It’s going to be a cold one tonight.”
Joe nodded as he picked up the binoculars and slowly scanned the sky for enemy planes. “It’s just the sort of night when I’d prefer to be snuggled up close with a pretty girl to keep me warm!”
“And we all know which pretty girl that would be!” Bob laughed.
Joe smiled ruefully. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I could see her more often, but she’s hardly ever here.”
Bob’s reply was lost in the wailing of the siren at the other end of the roof. The two men covered their ears with their hands until the deafening sound ceased. Even then their ears still rang, and they felt the echo of the siren roll around inside their heads. Joe shook his head to clear it, then pointed out over the city.
“My God, Bob! Look at that!”
Away to their left the sky was full of planes, like clouds of midges in the air above a still pond on a hot summer’s day. But these midges grew and grew until the shape of the enemy bombers could be see ndistinctly in the clear, moonlit sky.
“How many do you think there are?” Bob had to raise his voice as the awesome roar of the plane’s engines reached their still smarting ears.
Joe shrugged. “I don’t know. At least seventy or eighty, I would think.”
In fact there were a hundred, closely followed by three waves of equal number. The two members of the Home Guard watched the leading planes drop flares attached to parachutes, to light the targets for those who followed. Then the bombs began to fall.
Joe saw the ack ack open up, sending what looked like little puffs of cotton wool into the air, and the shells seemed to have no more effect than cotton wool on the armada of aircraft above them. The roar and thump of falling bombs was still distant, but as the planes drew closer Joe felt the vulnerability of their position.
“I don’t think we’ll be much use up here spotting tonight,” he called over his shoulder to Bob, as he ran towards the roof door that led to the stairs. “Let’s get down to ground level and see if we can be any help there.”
“Don’t worry! I’m right behind you!”
Within moments they were running out into the street and away from the tank factory, which must surely be a target for the enemy aircraft. There was a high-pitched screaming sound as a bomb hurtled down close by. The two young men dived into the relative safety of a doorway just as the bomb struck. It destroyed the end house of a terrace and left the adjoining one only half standing. As they left the doorway and ran through the clouds of dust, Bob saw the first flickering flames of fire spread along the fallen roof timbers.
“Quick! Let’s put that out before it spreads!”
It was easier said than done. The two men ran to the area of devastation that had once been a kitchen, and began carrying water from a ruptured pipe in two bowls they found lying nearby. It was hard, hot work, running backwards and forwards across the heaps of broken bricks, tables, chairs and pictures. At last they had the flames under control and, finally, they were out. All the time, Joe had been aware of the roar and thunder of the planes, the echoing explosion of bombs, the thump thump thump of the ack ack and the wailing of sirens. Now he stopped for a moment to look around him and stood rigid with horror. The factory where they had been on watch was situated high on a hill, and the whole of Coventry was spread before him like a map. The air was alight with searchlight beams, and full of aircraft raining down bombs in an endless stream. On all sides he could see the yellow glow of fires started by incendiary bombs. He saw that the raid was not confined to Coventry’s factories alone. Fires were burning in all areas of the city.
“There’s no point trying to make it back to HQ through this lot,” he muttered. “Let’s just get down there and see what we can do.”
As the two men made their way down the street a woman ran round the corner ahead of them, screaming as she came.
“My baby! My baby!”
Joe ran to her. “What’s wrong?”
“My baby was asleep so I didn’t go to the shelter. My house is gone! Where’s my baby?”
She turned and ran back around the corner. Joe followed close behind. A whole row of houses had been flattened by a stick of bombs, leaving little recognisable behind. The woman ran to the rubble and began to dig with her bare hands.
“She’s here somewhere! I know she is!”
Joe pulled her gently away.
“Wait in the street, love. Bob and I will see what we can do.”
Over to his right a ruptured pipe spurted flaming gas into the air. Somewhere behind a weakened wall toppled, and fell with a crashing of bricks as the two men carefully began to remove the rubble. It was not long before their bodies were soaked with sweat, their hands bruised and bleeding. After almost half an hour they found the family’s pet dog, a mongrel whose skull had been crushed by falling masonry. Joe looked at Bob, but said nothing. They both knew that the chances of a child remaining alive in this were remote. They dug on, slowly clearing an area of the more moveable debris. Then Joe stopped, his head to one side as though listening to something.
“What is it?”
Joe held up his hand, and Bob fell silent. Then Joe began to dig frantically, a little to the right of where they had been before.
“I’m sure I heard a baby cry,” he whispered as he removed part of a roof timber. Sure enough there was the edge of a white lace shawl, covered in red brick-dust. They were close to the child. Joe began to move more carefully now. A door had fallen against a partially demolished wall, leaving a small triangular space at its base. Joe reached carefully inside. To his immense relief his hand made contact with a warm, moving bundle. Gently he eased the child from its sanctuary and handed it up to Bob.
“She must be the luckiest baby alive. There isn’t even a scratch on her. That door saved her life.”
Bob made his way carefully across the rubble. He handed the baby to her sobbing mother.
“There you are, love. Now you get yourself and your little girl to a shelter. Fast.”
She smiled up at him through her tears.
Bob turned and called to Joe. “Come on. Let’s see what else we can do to help.”
The hours passed quickly. Sometimes the two men helped to dig in the rubble for survivors, though they lifted out more than one for whom the raid had spelt death. At other times they helped fight the fires which raged throughout the city, a task made increasingly difficult now that the water supply was totally unreliable. Clouds of choking black smoke hung in the air obliterating the stars, and also the waves enemy planes, but the drone of their engines could still be heard, along with the explosions of their bombs. Joe lost all sense of direction and had no idea where he was. The scale of destruction was so awesome that he was lost in the city which had been home to him all his life. Midnight came and went with no slackening of the raid. Dirty and exhausted, Joe thrust his face into a bucket of water for a moment, then shook it to send drops of water flying in all directions. Feeling only a little revived by the icy water, he surveyed the carnage surrounding him, and prayed that Sarah and her mother were safe.
There was a shocked silence in the Anderson shelter as the first bombs fell. Then Alice spoke.
“Well, it looks like this is going to be the real one we’ve all been waiting for.”
“How far away are the bombs, Mummy?”
Mary smiled reassuringly at Tommy.
“Don’t worry, love. We’re quite safe here.”
“Can Daddy hear the bombs?”
Mary shook her head.
“I shouldn’t think so, he’s in the army now. Remember?”
“He’s a long way from home, so a few bombs here won’t worry him.”
There was the sound of more explosions, seeming to be closer, and Sarah felt a tingling in her feet, as though the very earth was trying to tell her of its pain.
“How long will this go on for?”
Alice looked at Mrs. Cook and shrugged. There was no answer.
For a time they listened to the droning aircraft and the crash of bombs, at a loss for words. Then they heard the screaming sound of a bomb tearing through the air close by. It landed not far away with a terrific explosion. This time Sarah did feel the earth shudder. Moments later, debris rained down on the shelter, the thumps and bangs waking little Lucy who began to cry fearfully. Mary lifted her down from the top bunk and held her close.
“There, there, darling. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The strange noises, and obviously nervous adults, filled the child with fear, and she continued to cry, despite her mother’s best attempts to quieten her. For a time the child’s sobbing was the only accompaniment to the awful cacophony from outside. Then a small, frightened whisper came from the top bunk.
“I’m scared, Mummy.”
Mary’s hands were full with little Lucy. She looked pleadingly at Sarah, who nodded reassuringly. She got up from the lower bunk and climbed up next to the little boy, having to lie down so she did not hit her head on the curved roof.
“It’s all right, Tommy. We’re quite safe here.”
The six year old looked at her with frightened eyes.
“Really. Would you like me to tell you a story?”
The small boy nodded and snuggled close to Sarah as she began to tell him the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The whole city seemed to be ablaze. Streets were blocked by rubble, hampering the fire engines and ambulances in their work. Even if the vehicles were able to get through, there were far too few to make the slightest impact on the devastation. Joe and Bob attached themselves to a fire-fighting team and their whole world shrank to the size of the small road where they were working. It was a world of heat and flames, roiling black smoke, screams and cries, the shouts of men trying to bring order to the chaos. All the time the planes droned overhead. The barrels of the anti-aircraft guns followed them through the sky until, locked in the cross beams of the searchlights, they fired at the monsters which were spewing so much death and destruction on what had so recently been a calm, ordered world.
Joe was exhausted after a day of working in the aircraft factory and half a night lost in the confusion of the air raid. Working under the orders of the senior fireman on the scene, he moved from one task to another like an automaton. The carnage no longer broke through the barrier his mind had erected to carry him through the night. The sight of a doll, its head crushed by a falling brick, touched him with a tinge of sadness, but as he helped yet another injured person from the ruins of her home and bandaged her wounds, the pain and blood moved him not at all. Joe wondered at this total detachment. He could only see it as a mental escape valve to enable him to preserve his diminishing energy.
The dark night was moving slowly and inexorably towards dawn when the ‘Raiders Past’ signal finally sounded at nineteen minutes past six, almost twelve hours since the first bomb dropped on the unsuspecting city. For a moment the rescue workers paused and raised their weary eyes in relief. The sky was now empty of planes, but they did not halt for long. The raid might be over, but the task of clearing the devastation would take days, probably weeks, of continued backbreaking effort.
Joe and Bob were directed into a house with part of the roof and wall missing. Their instructions were to search for survivors. Initially there seemed to be little damage. Dust hung in the air like a midsummer haze, but it did little to impede their view. The front room was undisturbed. The embers of a fire glowed in the hearth, a mug of cold tea stood on the table. As the two men moved out into the hall they heard a sound, perhaps a groan, coming from the direction of the partially demolished staircase.
“Is there anybody there?
Joe listened to the silence for a moment, then the groan came again. Within seconds Bob and Joe were at the staircase, carefully removing the shattered remnants of the banisters. They had soon uncovered part of a torso, a man, and Joe began clearing towards the head. The injured man was old and frail. A blow to the head had rendered him unconscious, but Joe did not think he was seriously hurt. A sudden intake of breath from where Bob was uncovering the man’s legs caused Joe to turn and look.
“What is it? Are his legs badly hurt?”
Bob shook his head. “No. They’re just trapped under the thing that made such a bloody great hole in his roof, and demolished this staircase.”
Joe felt his throat go dry and his hands clammy. He licked his lips.
“You don’t mean…?”
“Yes.” Bob nodded. “A damned great German bomb. I doubt it was brought all the way over here just to make a hole in a roof, so I guess that it’s liable to explode at any moment.”
“Then we’ve got to get this old fellow out.”
Bob sucked in his lower lip thoughtfully, then nodded.
“I think we can do it. The bomb’s resting on a pile of timbers and tiles and is trapping the leg against the wall. If I prop it up with a few more timbers, we should be able to ease him out.”
Joe nodded. “The poor old fellow must have been sheltering under the stairs.”
“That bomb certainly seems to have had his name on it.” Bob gently eased the timbers aside, his forehead beaded with sweat, his brow furrowed with concentration. Joe watched, unable to offer more help than to hold the man’s shoulders and keep him still. The seconds ticked by, each one seeming an hour, each minute a day. At last Bob looked up.
“I think we can get him out now.”
Joe released his breath. He had not realised he was holding it. Gradually he dragged the old man clear. One of his legs was lying at an awkward angle, obviously broken, and Joe was relieved that the unconscious man could feel no pain.
“Come on then, Bob. Let’s get out of here.”
“That could be a bit of a problem.”
Joe looked across at his companion, who spoke fearfully through gritted teeth.
“The timbers have slipped. The bomb is only supported by me now. I’m afraid that if I move it will go off.” He licked his dry lips. “Get the old fellow out of here. Then send someone in to prop up this bomb.”
Joe hoisted the man over his shoulder. “I’ll be back before you can say Jack Robinson.”
“You don’t have to come back, Joe.”
“I do. You’re my mate. Now just hang on a minute.”
Joe began to make his way along the hall. His burden was light, for the old man was frail, and it only took him a few seconds to reach the front door. The blast took him there, throwing him and the old man through the door with the force of the explosion, leaving them lying there on the pavement like two discarded rag dolls.
After what seemed an endless night. Sarah looked at the watch Joe had given to her the previous Christmas. 6.16. As she gazed at the watch her thoughts were centred on Joe. Where had he been through the long, dark night? Was he safe? For a moment her anxiety for him held her frozen. All night long she had prayed for the air raid to end, and now that it had she was afraid to leave the shelter to face the unknown. None of the others moved. Eventually it was Tommy who broke the tense silence.
“Can’t we go now, Mummy? I’m hungry.”
His mother smiled indulgently
“Of course. Come on, my dears.”
She picked up little Lucy, still sleepy and clinging tightly to her mother. Tommy climbed down from the top bunk and took her free hand. Alice rose stiffly to her feet as Sarah opened the door of the Anderson shelter. The early morning air was cold, and she shivered. It should have been dark, it was still over an hour before dawn, but an eldritch orange glow streaked the night sky lighting it so brightly that Sarah could see her surroundings clearly. Her home still stood, though the force of an explosion had blown some of the windows in. On one side Mary Norman’s house was intact, but on the other, where the Cooks lived, some of the walls were cracked and all the windows were shattered. The house next to the Cooks’ had no roof left, and the walls leaned at dangerous angles. One of the bombs that had landed close by, probably the one that had shaken the very foundations of their shelter, had scored a direct hit further down the street. It had demolished three houses and badly damaged four more.In others curtains billowed out from shattered windows. For a moment the small group of people stood in silence; then Sarah spoke.
“If it’s like this here, what will it be like in the city centre?”
Alice shivered. “Worse no doubt. Let’s get our place cleaned up first, before we go to look.”
Sarah shook her head. “No. You should stay here. The fewer people wandering about the better. But I must go. I have a feeling my training is going to be needed.”
Alice looked long and hard at her daughter. She feared for her safety, yet knew she was right. Finally she nodded.
“Just be careful.” Without waiting for a reply she turned to the old couple, who were staring speechlessly at their damaged home. “Come on, Mr. and Mrs. Cook, there’s plenty of room for you in my house.”
Sarah watched the small group split up, Mary Norman taking her two children home while the elderly couple gratefully followed her mother up the garden path and through the kitchen door. Sarah turned and made her way towards the centre of the city.
There was death and destruction everywhere. Houses lay in ruins. Shops and factories burned furiously and there were not enough people to put out the raging fires. People wandered injured and shocked through the streets, and Sarah felt she had awoken in hell. She was stunned and walked aimlessly through the destruction, not knowing where to go or what to do. Then she saw two ambulance men carrying a stretcher towards a bombed house and ran towards them.
“Wait!” she called. The two men stopped and turned towards her.
“If you’re looking for someone, I’m afraid we can’t help you. We’re very busy.”
The young men looked exhausted. Sarah guessed they had been working all night.
“No, you don’t understand. I’m an auxiliary nurse at home on leave. What can I do to help?”
The young man smiled gratefully. “Thanks, love. We could do with all the help we can get. Injured people are being taken to the local schools. Do you know where the nearest one is?”
“Good. Go there. I’m sure they could use your help.”
Sarah watched the two ambulance men making their way towards the bombed house, and wondered if Joe was as tired and dispirited as them. That was if he was still alive of course. As Sarah made her way towards the school buildings her fears for Joe increased, and she was tempted to try to find him. But where should she look? Where could she start? His job of spotting would have been over as the first wave of planes came in. What had he done for the rest of the night? Sarah looked around her at the destruction, which stretched away in all directions. She realised that to search for him would be a waste of time and energy. If he had survived Joe would go to her house. She hoped and prayed that would be the case.
As Sarah rounded the next corner, she saw the local school. Part of the classroom block was destroyed, but the hall was still standing. She was in a state of mild shock as she made her way across the piles of rubble and through the open door where she stopped, stunned by the sight which greeted her eyes. Those not too seriously injured were seated on children’s chairs, waiting patiently. A doctor and four nurses laboured incessantly amongst the more seriously injured, who were stretched out on tables that had recently held nothing more gruesome than school dinners. After a moment’s hesitation, Sarah made her way over to the doctor. He was completing the amputation of the leg of a teenage girl. It was a mercy she was unconscious for Sarah could see no anaesthetics and precious few other medical supplies. The doctor spoke without looking up.
“Wait with the others please.”
Sarah did not want to spoil his concentration but knew that she must speak. “I’m a nursing auxiliary. What can I do to help?”
This time the doctor did look up. His face was haggard but determined, and there was a look of intense gratification in his eyes.
“Thank God. Do you think you could deal with some of the less seriously wounded, while we do the operating?”
Sarah picked up a nearby first aid kit and made her way towards the injured. Most had superficial cuts which she could deal with, and she set to work. The number needing her attention seemed endless, and she worked long and hard, the needs of those around her driving all fears for Joe from her mind.
Sarah worked unceasingly throughout the day and on into the night. Long before the injured ceased to make their way to the makeshift hospital, they had run out of everything – dressings, sutures, disinfectant, bandages, painkillers, antiseptics. The list was as endless as their needs. Able-bodied people who had brought their relatives for treatment were sent home to search for any first aid supplies they could find. Clean sheets were brought in and torn up for bandages, then sterilised in an old tin bath of boiling water placed over a fire made from roof timbers. Water was collected from broken pipes, which dripped incessantly. There was no electricity, so light was provided by a few candles scavenged from nearby houses, but their light was barely sufficient. The windows were broken allowing the chill November wind to sweep in, and the hands of the doctor and nurses were numb from the cold. Some of those who were uninjured came to offer their aid. The blankets they brought were gratefully received, some being used to cover the windows, while the rest were distributed to the patients. There seemed little chance of evacuating any of the wounded to a proper hospital. So far there had been no communication with anyone in authority, and the destruction was so great that it seemed unlikely that there would be any improvement in communications for some time. An able-bodied young man in his twenties was sent to the Town Hall, in the hope that someone there could tell them what was happening and send them some aid. But as the day wore on they were still awaiting his return.
With facilities so limited, all those not seriously injured had been sent home, including those with broken limbs, but that still left almost fifty seriously wounded people laid on the school tables: a baby with a fractured skull and severe internal injuries, the teenage amputee, a mother who had given birth in the debris of her home and almost died from loss of blood, a man with a broken back, an old woman suffering severe shock and pneumonia. The list was endless. By late evening, more than twenty-four hours after the bombing had begun, there had been six deaths, two of them during emergency operations. The bodies were removed to a small classroom to await identification and burial.
The night drew on. Sarah had been working in the school for sixteen hours when she looked up to find that no one else was waiting for treatment. She straightened up slowly, her back aching from so many hours bending, her fingers numb with the cold, her head aching with a pounding, throbbing pain that had been going on for hours. As she rubbed her tired eyes, she looked around her at the people whose lives had been so dramatically changed in the space of just one day, but she could find no tears for them. She did not know why. Perhaps she was too exhausted, maybe she was in shock. She did know, however, that her family had been remarkably lucky, and for this she was extremely grateful. Mixed with this gratitude was a gnawing fear about what had happened to Joe. There had been so much death and destruction. Everyone who came into the school had their stories of bombed houses and shelters, raging fires, rescuers injured by booby trapped bombs and land mines. Her fears for Joe’s safety increased.
As she rubbed her freezing hands together, Sarah was approached by the doctor she had spoken to when she first arrived. He looked exhausted, his face haggard and grey, his clothes covered with his patients’ blood.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t even know your name.” His voice was weak and shook with exhaustion. Sarah guessed he was little more than thirty, but the day’s experiences had aged him immeasurably. She wondered if she looked as bad as he did; perhaps that was why she could find no tears for the suffering around her.
“My name’s Sarah Porter. I’m based at Heronfield House near Marlborough. I was home on leave last night.”
The doctor took a deep breath. “I’m Charles Bailey. I’m just an ordinary G.P., but somebody had to do this.” He looked around him. “God knows how long it’s going to take to make some sort of order out of this mess. If we don’t get some of these people to a proper hospital soon, they’re going to die.”
“Have you heard anything from the messenger you sent to the Town Hall?”
Bailey shook his head. “I doubt if he’ll be back before morning. I told him not to come back until he had some firm news.”
“I’ll stay on as long as you need me.”
Bailey smiled weakly for the first time. “Thanks, I don’t know what I would have done without your help, or that of the other nurses who came here. They all live locally. I suppose you do too?”
“Is your house damaged?”
She shook her head. “No. We were lucky.”
“Then I suggest you go home and get some sleep. I’ve sent two of the nurses home too, the other two will stay and help me tonight. Perhaps you can come back in the morning to relieve them?”
Sarah smiled weakly. “Thanks. I don’t mind admitting I’m exhausted.” She looked around at the patients. Some were unconscious, many more sleeping, others lay groaning in unrelieved pain. “I’ll see if I can get hold of some food when I come back.”
Bailey’s eyes lit up. “That would be fantastic. These people must eat if they’re going to survive.” He smiled warmly at her. “Now get off home. I’ll see you again in the morning. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Doctor Bailey.”
Sarah wrapped her coat tightly around her against the cold night air, and made her way over the mounds of rubble in the school playground. When she reached the road, she walked down the middle where there was less rubble to impede her progress, though still enough to prevent motor vehicles from knocking her down in the blackout, though the blackout was in no way complete. Fires still burned where houses, shops and factories had once stood. Rescue teams still worked amongst the rubble, although with diminishing hope. Work parties were beginning to clear some of the rubble from the roads. Sarah could not believe that these were the streets where she had played as a child, where she had shopped with her mother and walked with Joe. Coventry was unrecognisable. She had an empty feeling deep inside when she thought of how long it would take to get things back to normal. As she turned into her own road she saw for the first time just how bad the damage from the bomb had been. Six houses were totally demolished, while the Cooks’ next door to her mother’s was in very poor condition. The damage to her own home was superficial, and she was glad that her mother still had somewhere to live.
As she walked tiredly through the front door Alice came out of the kitchen.
“Sarah! Where’ve you been? I’ve been so worried about you!”
Sarah hung up her coat and made her weary way to the kitchen. She slumped down at the table.
“I’ve been at the local school, they’re using it as a makeshift hospital.” She looked across at her mother, who was filling the kettle. “It was awful, Mum. There are so many people injured and nothing much we can do to help.”
Alice took her hand and helped her up from the table. “I’ll have to boil the kettle over the parlour fire, there’s no gas. Come on, love.”
The two women made their way to the front room, where they sat in front of the fire as the kettle began to heat.
“Have you heard anything from Joe?”
Alice shook her head.
“Sorry love, I’ve heard nothing. But don’t worry, I’m sure he’s out there helping to sort things out. We’ve been busy here today, first clearing out the glass and boarding up the windows, then helping to clear the road. Mr. and Mrs. Cook are upstairs asleep at the moment.” She smiled encouragingly. “Your Joe is a good man. He’ll know you’re worried, but he’ll put his duty to help others first. He’ll be back, when things begin to get sorted out. Wait and see.”
Sarah nodded. “I’m sure you’re right, Mum. I suppose I’m just tired.” She tried to bury her fears deep inside as she began to tell Alice of all she had experienced during the day. The death and destruction, the pain and suffering, the feeling of helplessness. The tears began to flow at last, partly for Joe but mostly for Coventry, her home; for its people, for what they had been and what they had become.
How would you feel if your country was invaded, your homeland occupied and your government capitulated? Would you give in or would you fight to free your country? Citizens of France, like people in many other countries, had to face this dilema during the Second World War. For many people the thought of living under German rule was intolerable and so they chose to fight.
There was not just one resistance movement in France, different groups of like-minded people – from communists to Catholics, anarchists to aristocrats – came together to do what they could to oppose the Nazis. The German Blitzkrieg had overwhelmed France in 1940 and left a country divided with the north occupied by the Germans and the south run by the puppet Vichy government. Desperately unhappy and determined to drive out the conquerors many French joined the resistance; their initial aim was to attack the Germans wherever possible but over time they also developed intelligence networks which gathered information for the Allies, and also helped downed airman to escape. At first these resistance fighters worked in individual groups and had no contact with like-minded people but, over time, networks were set up which enabled better co-ordination and greater success. Soon postal workers were intercepting messages and telephone workers destroying lines, the railway workers blew up bridges and rails as well as diverting and derailing trains. There were other groups (notably the PAT line and Comet line) which helped downed American and British airmen get back to England, travelling through France and over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain before being sent back to England.
A tank corps officer who had escaped from France just before the surrender set up an official resistance in England with the help of the British Government. His name was Charles de Gaulle. On 18th June 1940 the BBC broadcast his call to the French people to start a resistance movement. His words were a call to arms: ‘Is the last word said? Has all hope gone? Is the defeat definitive? No. Believe me, I tell you that nothing is lost for France. This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is a world war. I invite all French officers and soldiers who are in Britain or who may find themselves there, with their arms or without, to get in touch with me. Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not die and will not die.’ Churchill publicly recognised de Gaulle as the leader of the ‘Free French’ and denounced the Vichy government which held a court-martial and sentenced de Gaulle to death in his absence.
To make the resistance more effective Jean Moulin convinced de Gaulle to unite all of the disparate resistance groups into one great army of resistance to give the Allies a better chance of defeating Nazi Germany. de Gaulle asked Moulin to set up a National Resistance Council which promised resistance fighters that they would get arms and money from the British if they agreed to fight together, which they eventually did in early 1943. Moulin was later betrayed and arrested.
Many people think that de Gaulle and the Free French were the only resistance in France, but that is incorrect. Some resistance movements took their orders directly from de Gaulle, others from the SOE (Special Operations Executive set up by the British to train and operate agents in occupied countries), there were regional groups, and groups which consisted of specific racial or political members such as communists or Jews. Over time people began to realise that this disorganised resistance was not as effective as it could be and, in June 1941, all communist groups joined together to improve their ability to fight the enemy. The Communist resistance fighters were not fighting for France to return to the way it had been before the war, their loyalty lay with international Communism and to Russia which was fighting with the British against Germany, their objective – to set up a communist government in France which would owe allegiance to the Soviet Union. These communist resistance fighters were renowned for capturing and killing German army officers; not unexpectedly this led to swift and brutal reprisals, sometimes as many as 50 hostages were shot in retaliation for the death of one German officer.
One of the best know resistance groups is the Maquis which was a group of guerrilla fighters who operated independently and fought in the rural areas of France, especially the high mountain regions. These ruthless fighters were experts at hiding out in the bushes which lined the roads then ambushing Germans, so they took their name from the maquis bushes that grow alongside country roads. In preparation for D Day the British dropped arms and money to the Maquis who were able to use the resources to prevent German reinforcements reaching the beaches of Normandy. German reprisals became evermore extreme, including the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane in June 1944.
Jewish resistance fighters often felt that they had more reason than anyone to fight the Germans. One example was Andre Scheinmann who was a German Jew who fled to France with his parents after the infamous Kristallnacht. Andre joined the French army at the outbreak of war, was captured and then escaped before pretending to be a collaborator and getting the job of running the railways in Brittany. In reality Andre was a member of the French resistance and was second in command of a complex network of almost 300 spies which reported German troop movements to the British. With this excellent information the British were able to bomb troop transports from the air whilst the group also blew up trains on the ground. Andre Scheinmann’s luck eventually ran out. Captured by the Gestapo he spent almost a year in a French prison before being sent to a concentration camp, finally ending up in Dachau where he survived to be released by the Americans. Andre was one of the lucky ones, it is estimated that there around 56,000 French resistance fighters were captured by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps during the occupation, half of them paid the ultimate price and never returned to their homes.
The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by the Germans and so de Gaulle chose the Cross of Lorraine as the symbol for the Free French and encouraged people to fight under this banner, particularly after D Day when the Allies asked that all resistance fighters wore armbands showing the cross to make them easily identifiable. These brave French fighters played a vital role in the early days of the invasion.
Of course, there were more ways to resist the Germans than by sabotage or guerrilla warfare. The coal miners of France bravely went on strike and so slowed the delivery of coal which was much needed for the war effort in Germany. Some groups produced clandestine newspapers which encouraged all kinds of resistance, from asking doctors to only approve known collaborators as fit to be sent to Germany on forced labour to letting farmers know how they could get food to resistance fighters. By far the greatest contribution, however, came from those who worked to gather intelligence for the Allies which was vital in the planning stages for the invasion of Europe. By early 1944, sixty intelligence cells were working flat out, in the month of May alone they sent almost four thousand reports to the Allies.
It was not only men who played their part. During the early years of resistance, when supplies were limited, many laboratories were set up to make explosives. France Bloch-Serazin was a scientist who made explosives in her apartment for the communist resistance; she also made cyanide capsules for the fighters so that they could avoid torture if they were ever captured. Bloch-Serazin was arrested and tortured in February 1942 before being sent to Hamburg where she was eventually executed by guillotine a year later. Then there was Madame Lauro who destroyed food supplies intended for the Germans by pouring nitric acid and hydrochloric acid onto the food in freight trains. The most famous resistance network, the Alliance Réseau, was led by another woman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. The Alliance worked with the SOE gathering information on German plans and military strength. Madame Fourcade gave animal code names to her network (she herself was called Hedgehog) and so the Alliance became known as Noah’s Ark. Madame Fourcade was captured but escaped and joined the Maquis; she fought with them until the end of the war when she was able to return home.
It is difficult to estimate the value of the work carried out by the resistance in France, but Eisenhower said that the resistance had made a contribution equal to ten to fifteen divisions (one division would have around ten thousand soldiers). It is also hard to gauge how effective these resistance fighters were, but it is known that 10,000 German troops were held back to deal with the Maquis du Vercors and so could not be moved to the front line immediately after D Day. It is impossible to say how many were involved in the resistance although the post-war government put the figure at around 220,000 men and women. And the casualties amongst the resistance? No-one really knows although estimates have been put at 8,000 killed in action, 25,000 wounded and around 56,000 sent to concentration camps, 27,000 are believed to have died there. As many as 5,000 aircraft men and possibly 1,500 POW’s escaped via the ‘lines’ thanks to the resistance; casualties amongst the French were high with possibly as many as one death for each escapee who reached safety.
It took a special kind of bravery to live in occupied territory for years, hiding your true feelings, acting in the dark to fight the oppressor, living in fear for yourself and your families. My novel, Heronfield, pays tribute to the French men and women who fought so hard for their freedom during those dark days of the Second World War.
Do you enjoy watching films about the Second World War? There is such a wide variety out there from action packed battle scenes to sagas on the Home Front, and many give us an insight into what it was like for civilians living in England – the bombings, the shortages, the evacuation of children – the list could go on and on. But what do we know about life for civilians on the other side of the Channel during World War 2? What would it have been like to live under Nazi occupation? Northern France is just a short ferry ride from the south coast of England, but life there was more complex and more difficult for ordinary people, people like you and me, who lived the unimaginable.
The biggest psychological issue for the French was to see their towns and villages patrolled by German soldiers, the swastika flying above the Hotel de Ville and at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The disassociation of seeing the unfamiliar in familiar places, of no longer seeing the French flag or feeling at home in the towns and villages where they had lived all their lives must have been an incredibly shock.
The other psychological problem for French civilians was not knowing what was happening in the rest of the world as the Nazis had a stranglehold on the media. The Paris daily newspaper, Pariser Zeitung, was written in German and contained around ten pages of news; this was usually summarised in a single page translated into French so real news was scarce and only what the Nazi regime wanted to tell people. This was the only news available, including heavily edited ‘news’ from the Vichy press. Pariser Zeitung was anti-communist, ant-semitic and anti-British; there was even a daily propoganda cartoon with an anti-British theme. Yet this was the only newspaper available to people in Occupied France.
As well as having to cope with enemy soldiers in their towns and villages, everyday life was also constrained by a curfew lasting from 10pm until 5am. No one was allowed out at night without an Ausweis, a German pass. The curfew combined with the blackout created a situation where, as dusk fell, people found themselves confined at home, curtains drawn, with no entertainment as their radios had been seized; it must have filled many people with despair.
Added to these problems was the endemic shortages which the French people suffered from almost the first day of the Occupation. The armistice which France signed with Germany meant that the French were responsible for the costs of the occupying German army of around 300,000 men; a cost of 20 million Reichsmarks every single day for the duration of the Occupation. As it was the Germans who set the exchange rate, obviously in their favour, this meant that there was little money to buy food. There was also little coal or petrol, which disrupted transport and meant that it was difficult to get food supplies from the villages to the large towns and cities. Imports were no-existant because of the Allied blockades, and labour was short on the farms because so many prisoners of war were being held in Germnay, as well as other able men being sent there to work in labour forces, so there were not enough people to work the land.
Many French families were divided by the occupation, either because some members lived in the Vichy controlled area whilst others were in the occupied zone, or because they lived many miles away from each other. An Ausweis was needed to cross the ‘border’ between the zones, and these were very difficult to acquire. The only correspondence allowed was between family members for which pre-printed cards were provided and people had to tick whatever applied to them (something like the postcards provided for prisoners of war). Little could be communicated with these if you could only tick words such as ‘prisoner’, ‘dead’ ‘in good health’ etc.
Of course, good health was something which was lacking as the food shortages increased. A huge amount of French food production went to the Germans, a situation which was exacerbated by a fall of about 50% in food production due to the lack of labour, fertilizer and fuel. Despite these problems with production the Germans seized about 20% of all crops and dairy produce, 50% of meat and a huge 80% of the champagne production. Such problems of supply and demand inevitably led to rationing with coupons issued to be exchanged for bread, butter, cooking oil and meat. Even so, the rationing only allowed civilians around 1,300 or fewer calories a day so home grown vegetables, home raised rabbits and chickens, and black market produce became key to survival. As hunger increased, particularly for young people in urban areas, queues outside shops became longer with no guarantee that there would be anything left to buy once you reached the front of the queue. Only those who could afford the ridiculously high prices could benefit from buying food on the black market, or buy the counterfeit food coupons which were often available. If a person was lucky enough to live in the countryside they could get more food by bartering cigarettes or skills although, as with most things, this was forbidden with confiscation of the food and imposition of fines if you were caught.
The Germans, to their credit, realised that this poor diet was bad for the youth of France and issued children and teenagers with vitamin tablets or biscuits through the schools. For most people, though, the only way to get some products was by substitution. Ersatz produce (ersatz being the German word for substitute or replacement) became the norm – coffee was replaced by toasted barley mixed with chicory, saccharin replaced sugar, wood replaced leather for the soles of shoes and wood gas generators on trucks and cars burned wood pellets or charcoal as a substitute for petrol. There was also a shortage of textiles so that clothes were often made from curtains or old blankets. Life for French civilians was, in a word, grim.
The population of France, bowed, hungry and desperate, was also subject to periodic bombing by the Allies which intensified as the Allied invasion approached. 550,000 tons of bombs were dropped and almost 75,000 civilians killed by Allied bombing during the war. In the weeks and months leading up to D Day the Allies targeted French railways, rail yards and railway bridges in particular, hoping to disrupt German troop movements immediately after the landings. On just one night, 26th May 1944, five cities in south-eastern France were hi,t with over 2,500 civilian deaths.
We often think of how difficult life was for civilians on the ‘home front’ back in England but forget their counterparts in France. The main characters in my novel ‘Heronfield’ see life on both sides of the channel, from the bombing of Coventry and rationing in England to life in the city of Saint Nazaire and the surrounding countryside. It is my tribute to those who were not in the armed forces but who suffered greatly during the dark days of the Second World War.
I would like to thank Jodie at Whispering Stories for her lovely review of Heronfield. As an author it means a great deal to me to know that my work has touched someone in this way. Here’s what Jodie said:
Set in Europe during the Second World War, Heronfield takes us on a six year journey of war, friendship, love, sadness, and hope. We meet many different characters, a few of whom are taken right into our heart.
I became strongly attached to one of the main characters, Tony. A young man hardly in his twenties, he is secretly recruited as a British agent in the efforts to foil Hitler’s war. I found myself feeling sorry for him when certain members of his family turned against him for shirking his duties when in fact, unbeknown to them, he was doing the exact opposite, but was duty bound not to tell them.
I felt the turmoil and heartache he was going through. He showed a tremendous amount of strength and courage throughout the story – all borne by his passion to defeat Hitler, to prove to his father that he was indeed fighting in the war, and most of all, the driving force to keep going – his love for a woman.
Another character I enjoyed reading about was Sarah, a volunteer nurse. She gets stationed at Heronfield, a family home turned war hospital. She has plenty of heartache along the way but it makes her stronger over the years. As the story progresses and I found myself rooting for her all the way.
Some characters are constant, and others are fleeting, but memorable all the same. We come across a German soldier who makes us realise that they are not just the enemy. They are human too.
The German soldier does a selfless and heartfelt deed. We meet him again later on in the story and he has the opportunity to end a life. Instead he chooses to back down and explains that he doesn’t agree with Hitler, but if he doesn’t fight under the regime then he’s as good as dead anyway. It’s a touching scene and puts a different spin on the people behind the enemy faces.
The story grabbed me from the opening pages, with the graphic descriptions of the attacks on innocent civilians by the Germans. It’s harrowing but draws you right in, and you get a real sense of what actually went on during the war.
I liked the mini segments that gave real life time lines of what was happening during the war in various locations. It gave a sense of where the story would head next, and the progress of the war. They were superbly detailed without being boring.
The author has expertly carried out her research. The environment descriptions, the horrors of war, the abhorrent conditions of concentration camps, torture methods meted out, and many more besides are so wonderfully detailed that I found myself there. I winced at the persecution of innocents, gasped and grimaced at the torture methods bestowed on one of the characters, and I shed quite a few tears along the way.
My heart was in my mouth many times and the raw emotion grabbed at me and didn’t let go, even after finishing the book. I’ve never read a story that’s taken me by the soul and stayed with me quite the way Heronfield has done, and that’s a really good and beautiful thing – and a sure sign of a brilliantly well-written story.
Sadly I can only give this book five stars. I wish I could give it more but five is the maximum! An absolutely amazing story that needs to be read.
If Jodie’s review has intrigued you why not read Heronfield yourself and see if you agree?
If you have already read Heronfield, then have you thought of leaving a review? I love to hear what my readers think.
76 years ago the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated under heavy fire from the beaches at Dunkirk and I wonder just how many of the younger generation know much about what happened?
Born in 1957 I didn’t live through the war but I was born close enough to it to have heard relatives talk about their experiences, and I grew up watching a seemingly endless procession of ‘Sunday afternoon films’ which told so many tales about the war, many of them incredibly exciting for me as a child who did not realise the full horror of what I was seeing. One film that always had a special place in my affections though was ‘Dunkirk’. What really thrilled me about this film was not so much the soldiers but the everyday folk, people like myself and my family, who became caught up in ‘Operation Dynamo’. The ordinary family next door who ended up doing extraordinary things.
The film, made in 1958, is 58 years old and unlikely to appeal to a younger generation, but that is not the only way that a fictional version of the evacuation can be told. My own novel ‘Heronfield’ tells the story of the war in Europe from Britain’s declaration of war on Germany to VE Day. The book opens with the story of Dunkirk told from the perspective of those on the beaches, the men who came to rescue them, the pilots in the RAF and the nurses back in the UK who cared for the evacuated troops.
Between 27th May and 4th June 1940 over 338,000 soldiers, British and French, were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk by a fleet of 933 boats. Private yachts and fishing boats, pleasure cruisers and commercial boats, all sailed in the ‘flotilla of little ships’ which rescued the beleaguered men. To begin with the outlook for the BEF was dire with Churchill warning Parliament to expect ‘hard and heavy tidings’. Yet, as more and more men were rescued, the press began to turn the story from one of defeat to triumph and Churchill had to remind them that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’.
Nevertheless, the way that the country pulled together in this bitter crisis was a great psychological boost to the population at large, and we still talk today of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ when describing the British people’s ability to work together in a time of crisis.
It was not the politicians, the High Command or even the officers who made Dunkirk into an enduring memory for the British, it was the ordinary men and women who played their part.
This is their story…
MAY – JUNE 1940
Tony felt as though he were fighting against a sea tide as he tried to make his way east. 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. He saw 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 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 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. The few motor vehicles 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. “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. He had never been far from home before, let alone in the middle of a war, but 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’re falling back towards a place called Dunkirk. No doubt we’ll be launching a counterattack from there.”
Tony brushed a stray lock of wavy brown hair from his forehead. He stood up on tiptoe 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 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 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 go 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 outmanoeuvred.” He led the way over a ditch, then through a narrow gap in the hedge which bordered the road. His companions followed 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 thronging 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 the whole German army is runnin’ around ‘ere in France. No wonder we’re retreatin’.”
“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, the hedges and walls that they had to cross from one field to the next barely slowing their brisk pace. 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, approached swiftly. They were still too far off for the men on the ground to see their markings, 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. It 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. Most 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 mingled with the sounds of fear. As Tony watched in horror from his hiding place, he saw a boy, no more than five years old, who had become separated from his parents. His cries of “Mamma! Mamma!” rang out shrilly. 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 could 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 on his shoulder.
“You can’t do anything to help those people! The planes are coming back! For God’s sake, get down!”
Tony looked up. 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, the only sounds 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 poured from its neck and back as it keeled over and lay screaming in the dirt, kicking ineffectively. The cart 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 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. Tony felt the earth shake 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.…
…The planes dived once more. Their engines screamed 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. Turning gracefully like three enormous birds of prey, they disappeared into the east. The air was still and quiet for an endless moment of time. Tony tentatively raised his head to look through the branches 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 devastation. 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, led him unerringly to the little boy’s broken body. As he reached the pathetic remains, the child’s mother found him, and fell to her knees in shocked silence. A young man, perhaps 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 them, Tony turned away. He looked around at the horrific scenes. There were a number of smoking craters where the bombs had fallen, ripping the road apart. The torn earth was 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 either by shrapnel from the exploding bombs or the deadly accurate machine-gun fire that accompanied them. Everywhere was red with the blood of the dead and dying.
It was a scene of utter carnage. 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’ll 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 all right 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’s 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’ve 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’s 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 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 on 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 afraid 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, concealing the way ahead. Jim ordered two of the trees to be 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 gave him two grenades. ‘Just treat them like cricket balls’ he said, ‘aim for the tracks as though they’re 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 bile 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, made 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.”
Jim nodded. “It’s never easy to lose a fellow soldier.” 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 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, greatcoats 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 recognised 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.”
Tony shrugged. “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.” Tony 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 recognise the boy who thought like that.”
Jim nodded. “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.”
The young lieutenant lay down and wrapped his greatcoat tightly around himself to keep out the cold as Tony nodded. “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 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. 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 smells 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, 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 newcomers 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 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. Further down the beach, where there was no cover, men crouched in shallow fox holes scraped out of the sand. Some 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 loose covering of sand, and Phillips looked round at the calm acceptance of the men on the beach. Some soldiers were already carrying the dead up towards the promenade. They no longer needed a place on the ships. Others were treating their wounded companions in the open.
“Some of these men have been here for days. God knows how they can stand it,” Phillips 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 man’s 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. 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 the sound of his blood pounding in his ears, David turned towards the enemy plane, hoping to approach it unseen. He wondered 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 God’s 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 spiraling dive. David did not have time to see if the pilot bailed out, 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 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.”
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 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. 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 offered a silent prayer that the damage was not too great, that he would make it home. Another enemy plane, this one with a shark’s 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 VADs 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’re 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. 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, I expected the wounded to come in ones and twos, but it looks like they’re expecting far more than that today. Do you think the rumours that our men in France have been defeated are true? I’ve heard the whole army is being evacuated under fire, but surely that can’t be right?”
“Of course not. It’s only been a few weeks, there’s no way the Germans 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. 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 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, but they look as though they’ve 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 were 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. They soon awoke with cries of pain though, 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. 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. 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’s 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. She shrugged her shoulders.
“Well, I suppose it will be all right 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. 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.”
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. “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 all right. They were shot down, but they’re 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 dining 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. All the time 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 than 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 all right, 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. David dived in pursuit, imagining the fight that Martin must be putting up to bring her under control, and praying 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, almost a laugh, came over the RT.
“We must have drunk enough to float all those boats down there.”
David looked down, and realised that they had now dived perilously close to the heaving grey waves.
“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. 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.”
“Good luck, David. Kill one of those bastards for me.”
David could say nothing as he watched Martin’s Spitfire waver in the air, as though the pilot were losing control.
“I’m tired. 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 day’s 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 sympathising 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 towards 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 was responsible for his nickname of Polar Bear, or sometimes just Bear. When David 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’re considered to have put in a magnificent performance, and are 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’s ahead.” Bear looked grim. “Let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve got a difficult few months in front of us.”
David stared glumly into his 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 so. 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. Tony looked around at the now familiar scene. 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 man’s 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 we’ll 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.”
“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 opened her 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 on 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. That should wake me up!” She sipped the scalding liquid, then yawned “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. It’s sad, but after a few hours I was so tired that their condition didn’t seem to worry me anymore. The sight of dirt and blood and gangrenous flesh all came to feel part of normal life.” She shuddered. “I hope I’m not going to become immune to suffering. I don’t want to lose all feeling for others, but I was glad that I couldn’t feel anything. They made me so sad, 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, rubbed her tired eyes.
“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. “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. 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 recognise it?
To the left of the door, Sister Freeman was arranging a sheaf of notes on a small desk. She looked up as Sarah entered.
“Ah, Miss Porter. Will you get the patients’ 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 VADs. Sarah had anticipated that it would be a calm, quiet environment with the convalescing soldiers, but the unexpected influx of untreated evacuees from Dunkirk had left a controlled business-like 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 specialised 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 and re-habilitating amputees. She was thankful for the VADs 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 she deemed necessary. 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. 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 on 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. “All right, but I’ll be back to see you later.” She moved on to the next bed. The occupant had fresh clean bandages over his eyes, and she recognised 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 girl’s. 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?”
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 name’s Joe. 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’ll 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. 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 realising 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 a 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. A protective railing had been placed on both sides 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. 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. 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 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’s 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. The burning port behind them and the dozens of ships afire ahead of them cast an eerie glow on the scene. 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. Tony realised 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. 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 standing 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, perhaps 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, 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 to them since they left the beaches. 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’ll have brought back nearly four hundred men.” He rubbed his eyes tiredly. “I’ll try to get back one more time tonight, but it’s not easy. The navy has only cleared three narrow channels of mines, and with all 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 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 you can write to let your families know 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. “I’m glad about the postcards. My family must be worried sick about me. They’ll be glad to hear I’m all right.”
“I shan’t bother with a postcard.” Tony sat down on a packing crate. “Don’t forget I’m still a civilian. I’m catching the first train home, and I’ll be there long before any postcard can arrive.”
Jim nodded. “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. All right?”
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 from 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 Marlborough. It was now almost six in the evening and the journey, together with his exhausting activities of the previous two weeks, left Tony so weak that he could barely stand. He was lucky to find a delivery van going his way and it 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 as he pushed the door open. It would be good to see his family again, and then to get some rest.
A frown began to furrow his brow, and 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, although Tony was too tired and bemused to notice the auburn hair, lively green eyes and clear skin. The woman, however, 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, 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’s my family? What’s happening here?”
Sarah’s eyes opened wide. “Are you Sir Michael’s son, Tony? He was in my ward, trying to find out if anyone had seen you at Dunkirk. He’s been very worried about you. He’ll be so glad you’re safe.”
“I’d like to see him, if you’ll only tell me where he is.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Sarah 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. Two more VADs 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 just putting his stethoscope away as Sir Michael burst into the room.
“Tony? Is he all right?”
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 he was alone with his son so no-one could see the tears of relief coursing down his cheeks.
If you would like to follow the story of Tony, Sarah and David why not purchase a copy of Heronfield on Amazon
I have always loved a good comedy, Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo included. No one, for even one moment, thought that the French Resistance was in anyway like the ‘adventures’ of Rene, yet many people seem to think that the bumblings of Captain Mainwaring and his men somehow epitomised the Home Guard during the Second World War. So, who were these men really?
It was on 14th May 1940 that Anthony Eden, in his first speech as Secretary of State for War, asked for volunteers to join a Local Defence Volunteer force (LDV) with the aim of fighting the Germans if they should successfully land on British shores. In his speech he said ‘We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of seventeen and sixty-five, to come forward now and offer their services in order to make assurance [that an invasion would be repelled] doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers. This name describes its duties in three words. You will not be paid, but you will receive uniforms and will be armed. In order to volunteer, what you have to do is give your name at your local police station, and then, when we want you, we will let you know…’ Later in the year Winston Churchill changed the name of the volunteers to the Home Guard, saying “Such a force is of the highest value and importance. A country where every street and every village bristles with resolute, armed men is a country against which the tactics that destroyed the Dutch will not succeed…a country so defended would not be liable to be overthrown’
Early 1940 found most of the British public expecting an invasion. Many men had already been called up to serve their country. Some who wanted to fight were either too old, too young, not fit enough or serving in reserved occupations which were vital to the war effort. These men all wanted to do their bit too, to defend their homes and families from the Nazi invaders. They saw the LDV as just the place for them.
The numbers of men who wanted to serve caught the government off guard. They expected around 150,000 volunteers in total yet, just twenty four hours after Eden made his broadcast, 250,000 men had signed up and, by the end of June, there were just under one and a half million men in the LDV. Numbers did not fall below one million until the Home Guard was stood down in December 1944. In the first wave of volunteers, approximately 40% had served in the First World War. The age limit for joining the LDV was from 17 to 65, although these limits were often quietly ignored. For example, P. D. Willeringhaus, aged just 16, was mentioned in dispatches for brave conduct; and Alexander Taylor, who signed up when in his eighties, had previous served in the Sudan in 1884. (I wonder if these men were the inspiration for Pike, Godfrey and Jones in Dad’s Army?)
Initially all members of the Home guard were volunteers, but as 18 was the conscription age for the army, it was decided towards the end of the war that conscripting 17 year olds into the Home Guard would give them training and acclimatise them to the military life before being called up to serve in the regular army.
We are used to seeing the Home Guard portrayed as infantry units, but this was not the whole picture. There were mounted units and waterborne units such as the Upper Thames Patrol, there were factory units formed by workers to protect their factory during an emergency, there were coastal defence units and anti-aircraft units, motor transport and bomb disposal.
Over 1,600 members of the Home Guards died whilst on duty, four of whom were decorated posthumously.* Approximately 1,000 other medals and commendations were awarded to men serving in the Home Guard. Anyone who had served in the Home Guard for three years was entitled to receive the Defence Medal, other medals for service during World War 2 were not available to them as they had not served overseas. If a man had served less than three years but was killed on duty, or left the Home Guard because of wounds received on duty due to enemy action, he would also received the Defence Medal.
Whilst some aspects of the TV series Dad’s Army are highly fictionalised, there are others that are accurate. When first formed, the volunteers had whatever weapons they could find – shotguns and air rifles, pitchforks and scythes, knives and bayonets tied to the end of pieces of wood – before eventually being issued with real weapons. These ‘new weapons’ were, however, mostly relics from the First World War and hardly the best choice to hold back an invading army. Volunteers trained in the evening in unarmed combat, basic sabotage and weapons handling. Training was amateur and ad hoc, leading to many accidents, and it was not long before the government saw the need for more formal training. The first guerrilla warfare school for members of the Home Guard was set up at Osterley Park in London; three mores such schools were soon to follow.
Home Guard duties were varied, ranging from acting as sentries to checking identity papers, from questioning strangers in their local area to removing road signs to confuse the enemy if they should invade. In the spring of 1944, around 100,000 men from the Home Guard were working on anti-aircraft batteries, mainly aiming to down V1 rockets before they reached populated areas.
The “Home Guard Handbook” published in 1940 stated that the main duties of the Home Guard were:
Guarding important points
Observation and reporting – prompt and precise.
Immediate attack against small, lightly armed parties of the enemy.
The defence of roads, villages, factories and vital points in towns to block enemy movement.
Every member of the Home Guard was expected to know:
The whole of the ground in his own district.
The personnel of his own detachment.
The headquarters of his detachment and where he is to report for duty in the event of an alarm.
What the alarm signal is.
The form of reports concerning enemy landings or approaches, what the reports should contain, and to whom they should be sent.
By the end of 1944 the tide of the war had changed. The Allies were on mainland Europe and pushing towards the German homeland and a ‘Home Gard’ was no longer needed to repel an invasion. Therefore, on 3rd December 1944, the Home Guard was stood down and became an inactive reserve unit. They were finally disbanded on the last day of the year 1945, and the Home Guard, Dad’s Army, ceased to exist.
As recognition of their role, the Home Guard were asked on the first anniversary of their formation, and again on their fourth, to the mount the guard at Buckingham Palace. This is an honour which many regiments have not held in the centuries of their existence, and goes to show just how important and well respected these volunteers were.
In my novel, Heronfield, I wanted to show that it was not just soldiers, sailors and airmen who served during the war, but that everyone had a role to play. That is why I created the character of Joe, a young man who tried to join the army but was found unfit so he joined the LDV the day after Eden’s speech, protecting the aircraft factory in which he worked. The description of what Joe experienced during the bombing raid on Coventry on 14th November 1940 is an amalgamation of some of the work done by members of the Home Guard, and is my tribute to them.
*Posthumous decorations for Home Guard members
Section Commander G. W. INWOOD – George Cross
“Immediately following an intense air raid on the night of 15th/16th October 1940, Section Commander Inwood was called upon by the police to assist in rescue duty in Bishop Street, Birmingham. Taking charge of a party of six volunteers, he found that several people were imprisoned in a gas-filled cellar. A small hole was made and Section Commander Inwood was lowered into the cavity. With great bravery he succeeded in bringing up two males alive. Although nearly exhausted, he entered the cavern a third time and was overcome by fumes. He was dragged out by one of his comrades, but despite the attention of a doctor and nurse, it was impossible to revive him. He showed the highest form of cool courage and self-sacrifice for others.”
Section Commander Inwood died on 16th October 1940 and is buried in Yardley Cemetery, Birmingham. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 10th October 1941.
Lieutenant W. FOSTER, M.C., D.C.M. – George Cross
“When Lieutenant Foster was instructing a class in throwing live grenades a Mills bomb rebounded to the firing position. Without hesitation Lieutenant Foster threw himself on the bomb one second before it exploded, thus saving the lives of his comrades nearby. This officer’s gallant action was not carried out in the heat of battle, but deliberately in cold blood, and with full knowledge of the consequences. As a result of this action Lieutenant Foster lost his life.”
The incident in which Lieutenant Foster was killed took place on 13th September 1942. He is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, Alderbury, Wiltshire. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 2nd March 1943.
2nd Lieutenant W. COOK – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct
“On 3rd April 1943 2nd Lieutenant Cook was instructing in the throwing of live No. 36 grenades set with four second fuses. One grenade fell short, struck the parapet and dropped back into the bay at the feet of the thrower, who stooped to retrieve it. 2nd Lieutenant Cook, realising the danger of delay, dashed into the bay, pushed the man to safety, and himself seized the grenade but before he was able to throw it from the trench it exploded. He was mortally wounded and died three hours later. By his unhesitating action this very gallant officer, at the cost of his own life, undoubtedly saved that of one of his men.”
2nd Lieutenant Cook, who died on 3rd April 1943, is buried in North Merchiston Cemetery, Edinburgh.
Lieutenant L. B. BRUDENELL – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct
“For bravery and devotion to duty in saving life at the cost of his own during live grenade practice.”
Lieutenant Brudenell died on 28th February 1943 and is buried in Porchester (St. Mary) Churchyard, Fareham, Hampshire.
Spring will soon be with us and many people’s thought will be turning to their gardens. What will you plant this year? Some will plant flowers only, others vegetables, some a mixture of both. But during World War 2 your choices would have been very different.
How to feed the population of Britain was one of the perennial questions during the Second World War. About 55 million tons of food was imported into the UK at the outbreak of war, but the German U-boats began to hunt the convoys which crossed the Atlantic, causing great losses in lives and supplies. Essential foodstuffs were rationed, and within a month of the outbreak of war the Ministry of Agriculture launched its ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign.
Everyone was encouraged to dig up their flower beds and lawns to create vegetable gardens. The idea was twofold – to provide much needed food for the local community whilst, at the same time, freeing up space in the merchant ships for military supplies. Gardens, sports grounds and parks were soon full of vegetables, even Buckingham Palace gardens and the lawns and moat at the Tower of London became large allotments.
By 1943 over one million tons of vegetables were being grown in the ‘Dig For Victory’ drive, all encouraged by Ministry of Agriculture ‘food flashes’, literature and poster displays. Two key cartoon characters who encouraged the gardeners were ‘Dr Carrot’ and ‘Potato Pete’ who often appeared on posters in railway and bus stations, and in leaflets. Over 10 million leaflets were distributed during the war. The government also provided innovative recipes, including curried carrot and carrotade (a drink made from carrots and swedes). When there was a glut of carrots Lord Woolton had a novel idea to encourage people to eat more. He said that RAF pilots were eating carrots to help them see better in the dark. Radar was still a secret so the general population had no idea what was behind the increasing success of the pilots. They knew that, like everyone else, pilots were eating a lot of carrots so Woolton’s propogandists got to work. Within no time at all everyone was eating carrots to improve their vision!
People were also encouraged by Lord Wooton and others to try innovative recipes, and to scrub instead of peeling potatoes to avoid waste. As one poem put it:
Those who have the will to win, Cook potatoes in their skin, Knowing that the sight of peelings, Deeply hurts Lord Woolton’s feelings.
As well as growing vegetables, people also kept their own chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs. About 6,000 pigs were raised; they were especially popular because they could be fed kitchen waste, and by the end of the war 900 ‘pig clubs’ had been set up to coordinate the collection of waste, and to purchase pigs for groups of families who couldn’t afford one of their own.
Chickens were also popular. By 1943-44, people who kept hens in their gardens were producing around 25% of the country’s fresh eggs. By the end of the war there were over 250,000 members of the Domestic Poultry Keepers’ Council, raising in excess of twelve million birds.
In my novel Heronfield we get a clear feel for what life was like for civilians when Sarah’s mother turns her garden over to vegetable, bemoaning the loss of her beloved roses. But the importance of ‘Dig For Victory’ is then seen in the aftermath of the bombing of Coventry when people shared the supplies from their gardens in the first few desperate days before help arrived.
As the war progressed it became clear to everyone that the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign had been far more successful than could ever have been imagined. However, it was recognised that there would still be a need for home grown food for a long time to come. Civilians were encouraged to keep gardening, keep digging, long after the war was over.
Rationing continued for the British people long after the war was over, and with it the work of growing vegetables. It was a number of years before roses once again replaced radishes, carnations replaced cabbages, and what had been lettuce beds were once more lawns for families to enjoy.
I was very pleased to receive a 5 star review fro Readers’ Favorite; after all, it’s my readers who are most important to me!
Reviewed by Trudi LoPreto for Readers’ Favorite
Heronfield by Dorinda Balchin is a six-year saga set in England during World War II. It is a fantastic story that put me on the battlefield and into the lives of brothers Tony and David, their friends, family and loved ones. Heronfield is the home of the two brothers, but is now being used as a convalescent hospital for those injured fighting the Germans. Sarah is a young woman who is volunteering at Heronfield, nursing the soldiers back to health. David joins up and becomes a fighter pilot, making his father, Sir Michael, very proud. Tony becomes a secret agent, parachuting into enemy territory, setting up a resistance group, and working to destroy the strategic spots without getting caught – but he is unable to tell his family what he is really doing. Sir Michael thinks he is a coward and not willing to fight for his country. The story took me into many of the battles and to the horrors in the concentration camp that the prisoners had to endure on a daily basis. Heronfield also shared with me the happy times of falling in love and seeing friends caring for and helping each other through very tough times.
What a wonderful book this is. Dorinda Balchin wrote four hundred and ninety pages of an excellent story. It took me longer than I expected to read it, but each page made me cry, cheer, smile, and anxiously await D-Day and the end of the war. Heronfield is a fictional story with accurate historical events that made for a superb book. I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially if you enjoy family sagas and World War II history because it combines these elements in an incredibly good read.
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