Looking for Bray Dunes - A Prologue to Bill's book
A note from Bill
Before you read the Dunkirk chapter of Bill's war memoir, please read this note Bill wrote to give his family more background on the Dunkirk episode in his war diary.
"Although it will be very condensed, I will try to explain to you about Dunkirk, but first a few facts.
Winston Churchill was a brilliant man and for years he had been warning the government that Germany was rearming and preparing for war, but his warnings fell on deaf ears. All Europe, except for Germany, were totally unprepared for war. The men of our 23rd division, who were Territorials, had never done any training to turn us into fighting units. The same thing applied to other Territorial Army divisions. Belgium and Holland wanted to remain neutral so did not arm or prepare defences and would not allow our observers into their countries so as not to offend Germany.
Our divisions went to France early April 1940 as a labour division. None of us had even fired a rifle. We prepared landing strips for the RAF. Now when the war really started and Hitler attacked on 10 May 1940, our only real plan was to push into Belgium whenever Germany crossed the frontier and that is what happened. The Dutch were soon overrun and the Belgians capitulated soon after. British troops were moved anywhere to try and plug gaps along the front.
Our lot were constantly on the move, never in one place for more than two days. We soon got used to our weapons, trying to hold the German advance, but could never attack because we didn’t have the training or weapons. We just had to take all they threw at us and fired our rifles whenever we saw a grey uniform and square helmet!
The enemy all along the front were most powerful and used what was described as blitzkrieg tactics. Their bombers would give our lads a good pasting and straight away the tanks would attack, followed by a well-armed infantry. It was the infantry we went for.
When the evacuation from Dunkirk first started, all non-combatants were lifted by ships off the beach straight away to avoid congestion, and as the perimeter became smaller, less well-trained soldiers made their way to the beaches, while the better-trained soldiers held off the enemy to enable the ships to get men away.
Without going into detail, from May 10 to May 28 we were plugging gaps wherever we were sent to. Then we had to make our way to the beaches – being bombed and strafed all the way for 12 miles - and finally got away on 1 June. Some day, you will have time to read my war books and only then will you fully understand why and how it all happened as it did.
If our army had not got away from Dunkirk, some 340,000 men would have been finished because England was very short of manpower and could not otherwise have taken the aggressive action we took as the war progressed.
Hope this has made it all a bit clearer for you.
Bill Cheall, 1994
30 May 1940 - Looking for Bray-Dunes - World War 1939-45
Britain and her allies were at war with Germany. My B Company was part of the British Expeditionary Force in France. Germany had invaded the country and was now putting pressure on the allied forces. We had orders to retreat to the coast to a place called Bray-Dunes, near Dunkirk, in order to evacuate back to England.
It seemed to have taken a very long time but, after some hours and twelve miles, we saw a cluster of buildings in the distance and added a little more haste to our walking. We were surprised that our destination seemed no larger than a seaside village. Eventually, we came upon one main road through the centre of the village, rather shabby and uncared for, which was understandable. It looked just like Dodge City, but it was great to us. It was Bray-Dunes and we were very pleased to have sight of it but other troubles were very soon to descend upon us.
We walked down the sand-blown main street and at the end came to a small promenade overlooking the sea. Not a soul was in sight apart from our lads. We turned left and walked along this narrow promenade; it had a wooden rail along the seaward side, and there was a six foot drop to the beach. We stood and looked at the sea which could mean our salvation - the other side of that water was England. Oh, that lovely sea, with England just on the other side - how simple!
We walked to the end of the promenade, about two hundred yards, which led on to deep soft sand, followed by huge, six-foot sandbanks. The sea was about two hundred yards away from the high water mark and both east and west the beach was very flat. The accompanying sight which greeted us will forever live in our memories. On the beach, running both ways, there were many tens of thousands of khaki-clad figures milling around for as far as we could see, but there was nowhere to go. And there were columns of soldiers, three-deep, going out to sea up to their shoulders trying to get onto the small boats to take them to England. It was 30 May.
I don’t know how, but we made our way to the water’s edge and looked out to sea across to the horizon and saw the ships going to Dunkirk. We then made our way back to the deep sand dunes in order to gain some protection from the bombing and strafing. Many of the boys on the beach were in a sorry state; the Stukas had just been over.
One must remember that not all soldiers are hard-bitten individuals and some of the younger lads showed great emotion. I saw young soldiers just standing crying their hearts out and others kneeling in the sand praying. It is very easy to pass critical remarks about these lads, but we others knew the ordeal these weaker-willed boys were going through, and helped them as much as we could during their emotional and distressing ordeal as medical help was a very scarce thing on the beaches. So much had been bottled up inside these young soldiers that, at last, the bubble had burst and it was uncontrollable.
Dead soldiers and those badly wounded lay all over the place and many of the wounded would die. It was tragic to see life ebbing away from young, healthy lads and we could not do a thing about it - it was heart-breaking. What few stretcher bearers there were always gave of their best - they were extraordinary. How does one quantify devotion to duty under the conditions which prevailed in those days? The folk at home could not possibly have any idea what their boys were going through.
There was no panic, just haste. We joined this mass of tired and hungry lads. Amidst all this tragedy, the Stukas would return, machine-gunning the full length of the thousands of men. They could not miss and a swathe of dead and wounded would be left behind; really it was awful, many of us fired our rifles at the planes, but they were useless. Nobody can imagine what it is like to be bombed by a German Stuka. They came out of the sky, screaming straight down, then dropped their bombs and pulled up into the sky again. I don't know why we ran - it was just instinct, I suppose.
Near the shoreline, one boy of about twenty not far from me had his stomach ripped open and he was fighting to live, asking for his mum and crying. A few of us went to him but he was too bad for us to help him; blood was everywhere. That poor boy soon died, out of pain, to join his mates. It is the most dreadful experience to see a comrade killed in such a way. Some young lads who had lost their nerve went crazy and lay on the sand crying; others knelt and prayed. Mind you, I am sure we all prayed in our own way. No one, of course, could help behaving like this - it was just because of the trauma they had endured and had at last given way to their feelings.
The near impossibility of getting back to England left many of us rather stunned, as it just did not look possible. Our lads, or what was left of our battalion, stuck together among the dunes to obtain some protection from the bombing and strafing. We had had nothing to eat except hard tack biscuits and bully beef - we hadn't had a hot meal for God knows how long and the lads who usually shaved looked really haggard.
None of us could see any sign of the 23rd Division assembly area and nobody seemed to know what to do for the best. Then the planes came over again, causing more deaths. Only twenty yards from me some lads had been hit by shrapnel and one of them was in a serious condition - the medics were there - but he would not live.
A sleepless night was ahead of us. There was no plan of action and even the officers seemed to be showing signs of tension. At about midnight we heard a plane coming, but it was not a bomber; it was dropping parachute flares and suddenly it was as light as day and eerie and fluorescent. Towards Dunkirk, there were dozens of fires caused by burning vehicles, and the flames from the burning oil storage tanks lit up the clouds. Very quickly, the Stukas came over doing their killing, flying the length of the beach, and we dug even deeper into the sand. Lads on the beach were running all over the place, but there was nowhere to go. I don’t know why God was allowing this to happen, yet I saw so many boys praying to him, on their knees.
The morning eventually came and we were very cold, hungry and utterly miserable but there was no let up from our discomfort. I was beside Major Petch and he said, ‘Come along, Cheall, I want to see if I can find somebody in authority to give guidance to us.’ From our elevated positions among the sand dunes we could see, more so, the thousands of soldiers on the beaches. Most of them, at this early hour, were lying around on the sand, certainly wondering what the day would bring; it would take a miracle for us all to be lifted off. I can’t recall seeing any signs of despondency though; after all, we were soldiers, even if we were somewhat dishevelled and only showed natural tendencies to want to get out of the predicament we now found ourselves in. Oh, for a mess tin full of tea and, for most of the lads, a Woodbine!
Around 1100 hrs it looked as though officers on the beach were trying to organize the men. The Major and I went along the beach to try and find somebody with any news of what was happening about the evacuation. We had walked about one mile when we met our divisional commander, Major General Herbert. He was collecting a column of our 23rd Division in order to proceed to Dunkirk to try and get on a boat, since there was no chance of us being evacuated if we stayed where we were. He told Major Petch to collect his lads and join the column with utmost urgency. We hurried back to where our company was waiting to give them the news.
In the distance, we could see what must be Dunkirk. The five miles’ walk there, tired as we were, seemed like fifty on the soft sand, which played havoc with tired legs. Ahead of us I could see the oil tanks with black smoke and flames pouring from them after they had been bombed. As we made our way along the beach, a fighter plane zoomed down to machine gun the men; many of us knelt down and fired with our rifles without any success.
We could see ships out at sea making their way from Dunkirk to England and could also see the dive-bombers after the ships. To our horror, many other ships had been sunk, their funnels and superstructures sticking out of the water - it was a ships' graveyard and it looked dreadful.
Eventually, our column reached the pier, or East Mole as it was called, and we waited in a long queue until it was possible for us to board a ship. Really, it is almost unbelievable, but even when we were attacked by planes we didn't move in case we lost our place in the column. The Mole was a wooden jetty only about five feet wide and one thousand four hundred yards long; it was never supposed to have large ships berth alongside.
Thousands of men had formed queues leading down to the sea and were in the water up to their shoulders, doing their utmost to get onto one of the small boats, which very often capsized. Beach masters had a very difficult task keeping some semblance of order, but by and large the lads just waited patiently for their turn to come until the planes came over. Those in the water just ignored the bombs - where could they run? And anyway, the sea absorbed a lot of the blast. There was always the hotheaded lad who thought he had more right to get away, but the officers only had to draw a revolver and they calmed down and accepted the inevitable. In the prevailing mood of many of the men it was common to see groups of soldiers kneeling down, being led by a Padre, in prayer.
There by the side of the jetty, a ship was waiting to be loaded with human cargo. We walked along the wooden pier and back came the planes - it seemed never ending - trying to bomb our ship but without success. We walked along for about a half-mile to the ship we would be boarding. Miraculously, the Mole was still intact, but there was a six-foot gap in the planking where a bomb had gone through without exploding and loose planks had been put across. Another thirty yards and we came to our ship. At the top end of a gangway stood an officer, counting soldiers as they went aboard.
The ship was a ferry ship called The Lady of Mann (how could I forget that name?). How lucky we considered ourselves to be; out of all those thousands of men, we were being given the opportunity to be evacuated. It was almost impossible for men of the same companies to stay together, but that was no consequence at a time like this.
The ferry was fast becoming packed with grateful lads. The Captain would know how many men the ship could carry, but God alone knows what would have happened had a bomb hit us! I was lucky enough to be on deck to see what was happening and it must have been very claustrophobic down below deck. I kept my eyes on the nearest Carley float in case the worst happened. The fact that we had managed to get on a boat was no guarantee that we would reach England because the Luftwaffe was doing its utmost to prevent us. As the ship was filling up, a Padre came and stood on a ladder, called for silence and prayed for our deliverance to England. At last, packed like sardines, the ship started to tremble and, so very slowly, we pulled away from the Mole - it was 1800 hrs.
Being a little taller than many of the lads enabled me to have a panoramic view of the whole length of the beach - how many of those boys would get back to England and how many would be killed or taken prisoner? The beach was as crowded as ever; then suddenly I saw a German fighter plane skimming above them, firing cannons - it reminded me of a row of dominoes being knocked down from one end.
The dense black smoke from the blazing oil storage tanks still reached far into the sky. There was another loaded ship about one mile ahead of us, and suddenly I heard the Stukas returning, diving almost vertically. I saw the bombs leaving one of the planes and was certain our time had come, and that this was the end. My thoughts were mixed with prayer and despair as I prepared for what I thought was inevitable. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth, my whole body braced for the inevitable impact ...
How the heck did it all come to this? As the bombs came tumbling out of the sky towards us, my life flashed before me and in an instant I re-lived every moment of my time since just before the start of the war, when life had seemed so good…..
To find out what happens next and what happened beforehand in this story, you may wish to buy the book