With current celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, this week Memory Lane looks back to when local soldiers of the British Expeditionary Forces returned from France at the end of May 1940 following their “thrilling escapes” from Boulogne and Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo. With them came their first-hand stories of adventure.
As the news of the safe arrival of many of the men filtered through, the Chronicle reported at the time that there were overwhelming expressions of relief and thankfulness. However, there were still people without word of their sons, brothers or husbands so despite this success story in the history of the war, it continued to be an anxious time for many.
The embarkation of so vast an army under difficult conditions had meant that many soldiers were separated from their batteries. Communication was not always easy so the message to those still waiting was one of not giving up hope.
The Chronicle published the names of the men who were known to be safe. They included Gunner H J Daniel, Bombardier R J Wright, Gnr. D France R.A., Gnr. J Webb and Gnr. B Finding, all from Biggleswade.
Another Biggleswade lad, Gunner Leslie Bowles of The Dells had written to his mother saying: “Coming from the coast in the train, women at different stations gave us telegrams and postcards to send home. Looking at the papers you can see what has happened. We had several narrow escapes but after being on the beach for four days, we marched to Dunkirk where we were put on a boat for jolly old England. In France we were first stationed at Fleurbaix near Armentiers then we went on to St Omer until Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. It was then that we were first really bombed and machine-gunned. Some of us moved off from there. Those who stayed came into contact with the Jerries and were fighting them for two or three days with only rifles to defend themselves...Several times we had to walk over planks and ladders to get over blown-up countryside...”
Driver Marcus James King of Biggleswade had also written to his mother in an upbeat style that was typical of the wartime spirit saying: “We are ok and fit as fiddles and none the worse for our four exciting days. We had been getting little sleep and were just keeping in front of Bosch by about 20 minutes all the time, eventually catching a boat and arriving safely....We have seen as much of the ‘bloody’ warfare as we read about and some. We lost all kit, coats and everything except our rifles but we are still alive and that is everything.”
Some of the men had been in action since the invasion of the Low Countries and told of terrific German losses in the battle for the Channel ports. They bitterly condemned the machine-gunning of refugees and the bombing of hospitals. One, describing the attacks on refugees said: “Flying only 200 feet above ground they spared neither man, woman nor child. They mowed them down with machine-gun fire like grass under a mower”.
However, there were also “terrific German losses” reported with one witness recounting the sight of dead German soldiers piled in heaps six feet high.
It was certinaly a time of chaos. The local lads returned home to find signposts throughout the district had been removed in the event of enemy invasion and Eastern National buses were commandeered for the transport of BEF troops, leaving many locals temporarily stranded.
But for the time being, there was rejoicing at the success of the evacuation which prompted Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech on 4th June 1940.