Tempting the Fates

General Dare Wilson saw action in France 1940 (Dunkirk), Italy and North West Europe (where he won his MC) with the Northumberland Fusiliers and later the Recce Regiment. He then served in Palestine and Korea which he rates as the most vicious war he fought in. He was picked to command 22 SAS and was responsible for basing them at Hereford. His account of the world record-breaking free fall jump free falling from 34,000 feet makes thrilling reading ‘ one member died. He went on to fight the Mau Mau in Kenya and was in the last party to leave Aden when we withdrew in 1968. Dare then learnt to fly helicopters and commanded the fledgling Army/Air Corps. We believe that this is one of the most enthralling of the many superb memoirs we have published. Certainly it is the widest in its scope and makes for thrilling reading.

This excerpt covers the period when he was a young officer commanding a platoon in France in 1940. They marched over 150 miles in six days during the retreat to Dunkirk:

Before long we caught up with the rear of a company marching in file. In a number of cases a soldier was being assisted by the one next to him and we watched how they were unable to march straight, but would wander out of the column, as though unable to control their legs, until they were guided back into line. Then we reached a fork where a minor road offered an alternative route, without any conges- tion, and this we followed. It seemed there were more British troops ahead of us, because soon we came across a soldier at the side of the road, whom at first we thought was dead, but found to be uncon- scious. He had not been wounded and we concluded he was suffering from exhaustion, so tried to revive him using every means known to us. We failed completely and, being ourselves too tired to carry him, left him with heavy hearts. After a while we came across another, and another; I forget how many there were.

So, in the early hours of 30 May, we finally met the sea on the beach of Bray Dunes. The moon was in its last quarter and we could faintly discern the outlines of ships lying off in deeper water, beyond the shallow approaches to the beach, and a number of wrecks, that had been sunk by bombs. As we came closer we saw the orderly columns of men, stretching out into the calm sea. Soon a guide apppeared, who took us to the waiting area on the edge of the dunes, from which we could watch much of what was going on.

From here we awaited our turn, with Charles and his platoon next to us, as had so often been the case. Then, at intervals, further platoons and Battalion Headquarters arrived, with John Challoner, the acting CO, looking extremely tired, if not close to exhaustion. I had been carrying rum in my water bottle since we left Arras, as also had Nevil1e Gill. Both were now well depleted, having helped to revive many other flagging spirits during the long march. I offered mine to John, who reprimanded me for having seriously violated King’s Regulations, meanwhile seizing it and taking a good swig. He was one of a distinguished band of survivors from the trenches of the Great War who rallied to the Colours in advance of the Second World War, rejoining their regiments in preference to taking a staff or administrative appointment. I greatly admired him and those like him.

We had been told by our guide to hold ourselves in readiness to join one of the lines of troops stretching into the sea and Charles and I realized that we were so weary it would be as well if one of us were to stay awake. This we ensured by taking it in turns to remain on our feet, as we kept an eye on the progress of the nearest line preparing to embark. While we waited we could hear artillery fire in several direc- tions from the steadily contracting perimeter, but it was only sporadic and the bombing, too, could have been very much worse, for although, fifty years on, Harry McCarten remembered the conditions then as being ‘a bit warm’, the Royal Air Force was being very effective.

It was my tum to be ’On watch’, when an embarkation officer who was passing by said: ‘That line [pointing] will soon be moving again and it will then be your turn.’ I immediately woke Charles and we went together to tell John Challoner. He responded by telling us both to move as soon as we had the opporttmity. We took our platoons down to the beach and waited for orders. Eventually we were told to join different lines and did not meet again for several days.

It was a long wade out to join the waiting line and when we reached the tail we were waist deep. Progress was slow and I suppose we were in the water for about an hour, by which time we were in as deep as the shortest men could stand without having to be supported. The further the troops could wade the quicker was the Navy’s turn round of pinnaces taking men out to the ships. It became bitterly cold, but I never heard one word on the subject.

At last it was our turn and helping hands were heaving us into the boat. A few more minutes and we were clambering up a ladder into a Royal Navy minesweeper, the name of which we were all too tired to enquire. All my men were given spaces to lie down somewhere and I was led by an officer to his own cabin, where I took off most of my wet clothes and was asleep almost before I was horizontal.

It seemed only a few minutes before we were awakened as we were about to enter Dover Harbour and assembled for disembarkation. A most efficient military organization then took over as we were relieved of our weapons, asked for number, rank, name and unit, given a mug of tea and marched over to the railway station. I believe some effort may have been made to sort us out by regiments or formations, but the whole emphasis was on speed, so as to avoid bottlenecks.

Before long we were marched on to a platform where an empty train was waiting. My party was early into it and I had the strange feeling of wondering what I should be doing for my men and slowly reaching the conclusion that I no longer had any responsibility. My brain would not accept that the war was now, for us, in abeyance, though my body ached all over and protested at every command.

I looked out of the carriage window, gazing at the dishevelled appearance and degree of exhaustion of all who passed by, as they made their way up the platform. I wondered if I looked as bad. Then my confused brain began wrestling with one question after another.

Where is all this calamity leading? Have we lost the war? Can we now defend ourselves? What are they making of it all at home?