Bill Towey was a Medical Orderly with the 11th Casualty Clearing Station, he had spent most his time at Dunkirk caring for the wounded in the Aid station established in the Casino. He had volunteered, along with 120 other men, to stay behind with the wounded, accepting that they would eventually be taken prisoner. Late on the 1st June the officers in charge decided they had more than enough volunteers – so they drew lots to decide who would take the chance of getting away in one of the last few ships to leave Dunkirk:
And so another uncomfortable sleepless night had passed bringing us to the beginning of a new day, Sunday 2nd June. Although we did not know this, the Navy had determined that this was to be the last day of the evacuation, so if we did manage to escape, it would be, as the Duke of Wellington famously remarked at Waterloo – “A damn close run thing!!” Early that morning Admiral Wake-Walker had returned to Dover from Dunkirk and reported to Admiral Ramsay that about 5,000 British and 30,000 to 40,000 French still remained.
About 340,000 British had already been evacuated, so we were indeed the last dregs in the bottle. Ramsay signaled his whole command:-
“The final evacuation is staged for tonight and the Nation looks to the Navy to see this through. I want every ship to report as soon as possible whether she is fit and ready to meet the call which has been made on our courage and endurance.”
That call was indeed immense for the naval losses were almost unbelievable. Of the 848 ships, 235 were lost though enemy action or other causes and destroyers took the greatest beating – 9 sunk, 5 of them French, and 19 damaged. (For these and other such details, obviously not within my personal knowledge see, for example – “The Miracle of Dunkirk” by Walter Lord and “The Sands of Dunkirk” by Richard Collier).
The fearsome Stuka dive bombers were responsible for a large proportion of those losses. And the sight and sound of those attacks going home and succeeding was one of the chief horrors for those on the beaches. It wasn’t so much the vessels themselves, as the fate of the crew and men on board, who thought they had been rescued, but weren’t.
For us on the beaches, the constant shelling and strafing continued relentlessly and on three occasions we were nearly buried by near misses and had to dig ourselves out. We had no food or water, nor any hope of getting any, but that was the least of our problems. There was time for me to resolve my problem of conscience. During our retreat I’d been greatly disturbed by seeing the merciless strafing of the pitiful columns of refugees, and now, under relentless attack, all I wanted to do was to hit back and to do so as hard as I could. Scarcely without appreciating it, I had become convinced that the use of arms was more than fully justified.
Near the landward end of the mole, Commander Clouston of the Royal Navy was in charge of the embarkation. In the very finest traditions of the Senior Service, he was the epitome of calm, amidst all the tumult , a great inspiration to us all. It is a matter of profound regret that this supremely courageous man, who had been personally responsible for aiding so many thousands of our men to safety, was not himself to escape the cauldron of Dunkirk. His boat was sunk by Stukas and he was not rescued.
Then, late in the evening, as if a magic wand had been waved, all the strafing, shelling and bombing stopped and we were able to clamber out of our holes in the sand and walk in an orderly fashion on to the Mole, clambering around the gaps blown in the decking by shellfire to board a waiting ship.
It was Sunday evening and, throughout our beloved homeland, churches in cities, towns, villages and hamlets had been crowded with those thanking God for the return of so many of their boys and praying for the safe return of the few who were still out there. I don’t know what sort of ship I came back on. Once aboard, I fell down and passed out – not surprising, since I had had no sleep for three days and three nights. At 10. 50 pm, Captain Tennant signalled Admiral Ramsay triumphantly- “BEF evacuated” – so we had just made it!.
In broad daylight, the next morning 3rd June, at Dover we were welcomed by a drill sergeant from the Guards in khaki, adorned with a red sash, pace stick under arm, boots bulled so that you could see your face in them, who bawled at us to pull ourselves together and did we think we’d been on a Sunday school outing!!.
A great feeling of rage swept over me – I wanted to go and punch his smug face in. But then, within seconds, I realised that his was the right touch, even if couched too provocatively, and I felt a strange pride that I was part of an army which could take such a thrashing and yet react in this way.
Read the whole of Bill Towey’s account at BBC People’s War.
On Sunday 2nd June 1940 the British knew that over 300,000 troops had been rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. Prayers were said for the safe deliverance of the great majority of the British Expeditionary Force. The Dean of Westminster described it as a ‘miracle’.
Yet many others were beginning to reflect on the position that Britain now found itself in. Although France had not yet fallen the situation looked grim.
I wonder as I gaze out on the grey and green Horse Guards Parade with the blue sky and the huge silver balloons like bowing elephants, the barbed-wire entanglements and soldiers about, is this really the end of England? Are we witnessing, as for so long I have feared, the decline, the decay and perhaps extinction, of this great island people?
The American Journalist Ed Murrow reported on the state of the RAF:
Yesterday I spent many hours at what will be tonight or next week Britain’s first line of defence, an airfield on the south coast… I talked with pilots as they came back from Dunkirk.
‘They stripped off their flight jackets, glanced at a few bullet holes in the wings or the fuselage [of their Hurricanes], and as the ground crews swarmed over the aircraft, refuelling motors and guns, we sat on the ground and talked. In the middle of the field the wreckage of a plane was being cleared up. It had crashed the night before. The pilot had been shot in the head but had managed to get back to his field…
I can tell you what these boys told me. They were the cream of the youth of Britain. As we sat there, they were waiting to take off again. They talked of their own work; discussed the German air force with the casualness of Sunday morning halfbacks discussing yesterday’s football. There were no nerves, no profanities, no heroics. There was no swagger about these boys in wrinkled and stained uniforms. The movies do that sort of thing much more dramatically than it is in real life…
The Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden broadcast to the British public that evening:
From the moment of the collapse of the Belgian Army there was only one course left to the Allied Armies – to hold a line round Dunkirk, the only port that remained, and to embark as many men as possible before the rearguards were overwhelmed. Thanks to the magnificent and untiring co-operation of the Allied Navies and Air Forces we have been able to embark and save more than four-fifths of that B.E.F. which the Germans claimed were surrounded…
The British Expeditionary Force still exists, not as a handful of fugitives, but as a body of seasoned veterans. The vital weapon of any army is its spirit. Ours has been tried and tempered in the furnace. It has not been found wanting. It is this refusal to accept defeat that is the guarantee of final victory.
Our duty in this country is plain. We must make good our losses and we must win the war. To do that we must profit by the lessons of this battle. Brave hearts alone cannot stand up against steel. We need more planes, more tanks, more guns. The people of this country must work as never before. We must show the same qualities, the same discipline, and the same self sacrifice at home as the British Expeditionary Force has shown in the field…