‘How long do I have?’ I force a laugh. ‘Not long,’ he says very quietly. ‘They have confirmed your sentence of death. You are to be beheaded tomorrow. We don’t have long at all.’
Jane Grey was Queen of England for nine days. Using her position as cousin to the deceased king, her father and his co-conspirators put her on the throne ahead of the king’s half-sister Mary, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her crown and locked Jane in the Tower. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block. There Jane turned her father’s greedy, failed grab for power into her own brave and tragic martyrdom.
‘Learn you to die’ is the advice that Jane gives in a letter to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and find love. But her lineage makes her a threat to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and, when Mary dies, to her sister Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a potential royal heir before she does. So when Katherine’s secret marriage is revealed by her pregnancy, she too must go to the Tower.
‘Farewell, my sister,’ writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary finds it easy to keep secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After watching her sisters defy the queen, Mary is aware of her own perilous position as a possible heir to the throne. But she is determined to command her own destiny and be the last Tudor to risk her life in matching wits with her ruthless and unforgiving cousin Elizabeth.
The Last Tudor is a thoroughly absorbing novel which tells the story of the three Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary – and the roles they played during the lives of the last generation of Tudors – King Edward, Queen May and Queen Elizabeth. Cleverly crafted, Ms Gregory gives each girl her own voice and they each tell their story in the first person. The style of writing is different for each of the sisters which deftly portrays their differing characters and beliefs. I am well acquainted with the story of Jane Grey but knew little about her sisters; the author has produced a book here which focuses on these relatively unknown siblings and through their descriptions of their feelings for the important people of the time – love, envy, anger, hatred – we are given an insight into the events which shaped the Tudor dynasty. This is a very clever personalisation which makes the history accessible and never dull or slowing the pace of the story.
Jane Grey is the eldest, she has strongly held Protestant beliefs and holds anyone of the Catholic faith in contempt. In the telling of her story she portrays herself as a rather impatient young woman who says that she is dutiful and humble yet comes across as slightly arrogant. Jane truly believes that the reformed church is the only way to salvation and, as such, pities those who will never get to heaven. Religion is the focus of her life and she is politically naïve which makes her the perfect pawn for those who wish to bypass Princess Mary as heir to the Tudor throne. When Jane’s cousin, King Edward, dies and she is placed on the throne it is obvious that she is unwilling to play the part yet unable to do anything else. Her simple belief as a sixteen year old girl that everything will turn out right in the end is both touching and frustrating, and leaves you wondering if she really thought this or just convinced herself of the matter as reality was too frightening to contemplate. A rude awakening awaits the young queen when Princess Mary comes to claim what is rightfully hers…
The middle of the Grey sisters, Katherine, comes across as materialistic, vain and arrogant; she is fiercely jealous of Elizabeth I and feels deliberately slighted by her. Katherine’s belief that she is the true heir to the Tudor throne prompts her to marry without the queen’s permission; after all, in her view Elizabeth is an illigitemate usurper, and even Henry VIII had her declared as such by Parliament at one time. Katherine’s marriage leads to trouble for her and her family, and as the years go by there is a change in her character as her belief that she has been wrongly treated affects her physical and mental health…
The youngest sister, Mary, was very small (barely 4 feet tall) and initially seems to have stayed under the radar of Elizabeth I (no pun intended). However, Mary follows in the footsteps of Katherine, believing herself so insignificant that the queen will not care who she marries. I must admit to a little frustration at her actions, but the truth is that she did behave as Ms Gregory tells (although the historical fact is rather sketchy in places). Mary develops from a small, insignificant and unimportant courtier into a woman with surprising courage and strength of character, and a determination not to suffer the same fate as her sisters…
The Last Tudor is interesting in its depiction of Elizabeth I as seen from the perspective of her cousins – a selfish and troubled woman who seems to care little for the future of England. As such, it is a novel which portrays the difficulties of history – we can look back in time to individual views of events but it is not always possible to ascertain the truth, particularly of people’s feelings and motives. Ms Gregory has conducted a great deal of research whilst writing this novel (some of the letters of the Grey sisters are included at the end of the book) and gives an engrossing view of what happened and why from the perspective of the Grey family; others, of course, would have seen things in a very different light.
As with all Ms Gregory’s novels this one places the reader squarely in a time and place in history with vivid descriptions of life at the Tudor court – the food and drink, the revels, the political intrigue, the fears, the treasons. The author has used very skilled writing to tell the story of Elizabeth and her advisors, the search for a husband and an heir, the delicate political situation between England, Scotland, France and Spain, in such a way as to convey an understanding of the scene quite briefly (as it is the backdrop to the story of the sisters not the main plot), yet in enough detail for the reader to understand its impact on the three young women.
The Last Tudor is one of the best historical novels I have read in a long time which gives us a clever telling of the politics of the court of Elizabeth I through the lives of three young women, and which has made me rethink some of my previous views on the glorious reign of Elizabeth I, as such it has inspired me to look once more at that whole period of history. If you like historical fiction and have enjoyed books by Philippa Gregory in the past I can guarantee that you will enjoy this latest offering. And if you have never read one of her novels? Then this would be a very good place to start.
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.
I’d like to thank Stacey for her lovely write up of our interview about my life and writing. I do hope you can take a look and find out a little more about me and my writing.
As most of you know I now live back in the UK but the beautiful photo of ‘where I write’ is actually the view I had from my desk at Lakeside where most of ‘The Cavalier Historian’ was written. I was very lucky to have probably the best view in the world from an office!
My new book now has its title and cover and will be published later this year. For all who have been waiting for a preview – here it is!
Marston Manor is an old manor house in Oxfordshire which the new owner plans to turn into a ‘themed’ attraction based on the years of the English Civil War. When historian, Robert Hardwick, joins the project he is delighted to discover a family link with Marston dating back to the time of King Charles I and the witch persecutions of the 17th century.
But right from the start disturbing events raise mistrust and fear on the estate. Who, or what, is trying to halt the plans for the Manor? Can the disruption and sabotage be linked to the traveller camp in the woods or to the more sinister appearances of a ghostly old woman? And just who is Rebekah, and why does she have such a hold over Rob?
In his haunted dreams Rob finds himself living through the turbulent years of the English Civil War, experiencing it all through the eyes of his ancestor, Simon. Dreams which begin gently enough in the days leading up to war in 1642 but which become ever more frightening, ending with the terrifying events of the witch trials of 1651.
Rebekah is a novel which follows characters separated by more than three centuries, living in the 17th century yet somehow linked through time to present day events. Over the centuries they live through war and peace, experience love and loss, suffer fear and persecution yet, at the very end, is it possible for them to find hope for the future?
Intrigued? I hope so!
In my novel Simon often writes his thoughts and fears into a diary during the Civil War which is why I have chosen this design for the cover. Do you like it? Please do let me know what you think!
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