FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Thoughts about Dunkirk

Posted in Dunkirk, France by folkestonejack on August 3, 2017

I made a trip to the IMAX theatre at the Science Museum (an impressive 16.8m tall screen that is the height of four double-decker buses) last week to see Christopher Nolan’s new film about Dunkirk and have been reflecting on it a little since then.

First up, I have to say that watching the 15/70mm film format version on such a gigantic screen places you in the action in a way that I have never experienced at a cinema before. This ‘immersive’ experience is undoubtedly assisted by the absence of back stories and somewhat spartan dialogue which focuses your attention all the more on the individual battle to survive. The story of the evacuation that follows is never less than riveting, from the terror of the opening moments to the beautiful cinematography of the final spitfire sequence. The evocation of the green and pleasant land that the survivors return to in early Summer 1940 is quite wonderfully realised.

The film has picked up criticism from some quarters as an assault on the senses and for various historical inaccuracies, some of which were acknowledged up front as necessary adjustments to help the audience. I think I managed to suspend disbelief for the most part, though I was pulled up rather sharply by the 1970s refurbished carriage interiors that haven’t long disappeared from today’s railways! Overall, I thought it was an astonishing creation and if it gives us a fraction of the sense of what that experience was like then it is massive achievement.

I have very little idea what my grandfathers, Alf and Pete, went through at Dunkirk so anything that helps me get a feel for that I greatly appreciate. I’ve been through the war diaries, regimental histories and a fair few books over the years but I still can’t begin to imagine how traumatised the men were by the time they reached Dunkirk, let alone what they experienced on the beaches and in the water. The little I know makes me wish I had a better understanding of the sacrifices made by my grandparents whilst they were alive.

In reality no film could match up to horrors so great that men could not bring themselves to speak of for the rest of their lives. The same holds true of the 1958 film. My grandfather, Alf, was worried that the 1958 film would show the terrible sights that he had seen and would not let anyone see it until he had been to the cinema to check it out. In the end he was quite relieved that it didn’t come anywhere close.

It’s definitely worth catching at the cinema as it won’t be anywhere near as effective on the small screen. If you can find it at an IMAX screen so much the better.

Dunkirk 75: Pete’s road to Dunkirk

Posted in Dunkirk, France by folkestonejack on June 1, 2015

Today marks the 75th anniversary of my grandfather Pete’s return to the UK after the Dunkirk evacuation.

My grandfather, Pete, enlisted with the army at Canterbury on 3rd May 1928 at the age of 18 and was serving with the Royal Artillery when war broke out.

Pete had originally intended to join up with a mate from home (Folkestone) but things didn’t go entirely to plan. His mate was turned away and Pete said “I suppose we’ll go home now” at which point the recruiting officer said “No, you’re in now!” Pete initially signed for 12 years but later re-engaged for 21 years on 16th February 1939.

Pete (second from left)

Pete (second from left)

Initially Pete was appointed as a driver, working as part of a team riding horses to haul the 20 pound guns of the field artillery. However, the process of mechanisation saw Pete move from horses to motorised vehicles in Summer 1939. On 26th September 1939 he was posted to France with the 22nd Field Regiment Royal Artillery.

The regiment marched to Belgium on 9th May 1940 and were soon involved in the battles around the Escaut and areas that are today better remembered as the terrain of the First World War. Orders to withdraw and go in to action at Oost Dunkerque were received on 29th May and the regiment remained until 31st May before a further withdrawal to La Panne and the gradual destruction of the guns.

The war diary records that the regiment took refuge in the sand dunes as dawn broke on 1st June 1940, owing to the continuing danger of dive bombers. In later years Pete made brief reference to the safety of the sand dunes and talked about spending time on the beach, possibly in the company of an RAF man, and wading through the water (even though he couldn’t swim).

Some of the men made it off the beaches in small boats later that morning, between intermittent dive bombing, but the main body of the regiment marched on to Dunkirk and embarked from the pier with the last party going on board at 18:30 hours. Pete’s service record shows that he was home on 1st June 1940.

On their return to England the men were put on a train but Pete didn’t know where he was until he saw Warren Halt (Folkestone Warren). Everyone was throwing cards out and he took a field service card and wrote out a quick message to his father in Folkestone telling him that he was home safe, and threw the card out of the window, hoping that it would be delivered. It was and we still have the card today.

Pete went back to Dunkirk on a coach tour with my grandmother many years later. She recalled that the bloke opposite was telling his wife ‘All the trees were burning [to] ash’. On asking him about this my grandfather replied ‘Of course I saw it’ but that was it – he just didn’t like to talk about it.

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Dunkirk 75: Alf’s road to Dunkirk

Posted in Dunkirk, France by folkestonejack on May 30, 2015

Today marks the 75th anniversary of my grandfather Alf’s return to the UK after the Dunkirk evacuation.

My grandfather, Alf, enlisted with the army at Canterbury on 12th June 1925 at the age of 19 and was serving with the 2nd Battalion Buffs at Pembroke Dock when war was declared. By this time Alf had already seen service overseas once, having spent three months in Palestine in 1936.

Alf (standing)

Alf (standing)

The battalion headed by train to Southampton where they embarked on the ‘Maid of Orleans’, setting sail in the early hours of 17th September 1939. After a smooth crossing in a convoy of five ships, escorted by two destroyers, they arrived in Cherbourg later that morning.

Once they had landed in France the battalion made their way south east, rather than towards the Belgian border. Their destination, Blain, was a small town in the Loire-Atlantique department, just half an hour’s drive from Nantes. Amongst my late grandfather’s possessions is a small photograph of a French family of whom we know nothing, but perhaps that was taken here.

At dawn on 10th May 1940 Germany invaded the low countries, moving forward with frightening speed. The 2nd Battalion Buffs had reached Menin in Belgium by 6pm the same day and engaged the enemy in battle at Petegem ten days later. After three days the men were hungry, tired and weak. The order to withdraw was received on the evening of 21st May.

On the way to Dunkirk the men suffered terribly, particularly in the intense bombing of Mont des Cats. By 11am on 29th May 1940 all of the battalion had set out for the beaches of Dunkirk, from where the men were rescued. My grandfather couldn’t swim, but we know that he spent time wading through the water and seeing those incredible photographs of men queuing into the waters makes me wonder what he went through.

Alf’s service records show that he served with the 2nd Battalion Buffs (BEF) until 29th May 1940 and was ‘Home’ on 30th May 1940. I don’t know whether that is an accurate reflection of the date he came back or just a generalized date for the battalion.

It is hard for anyone of my generation to imagine the horrors of war from this distance in time, but they were all too real enough for my grandfather and clearly never forgotten. Alf was worried that the film ‘Dunkirk’ (1958) would show the terrible sights that he had seen and would not let anyone see the film until he had been to the cinema to check it out. In the end he was quite relieved that it didn’t come anywhere close.

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