For the next week or so readers might like to reflect on what was happening across the English Channel in northern France exactly eighty years ago. I refer of course to the Dunkirk evacuation from May 26 to June 4, 1940.

Code-named Operation Dynamo this was the evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk.

The operation commenced after large numbers of Belgian, British, and French troops were cut off and surrounded by German troops during the six-week Battle of France.

They had retreated amid chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles blocking the roads and a flood of refugees heading in the opposite direction.

From the beaches over the ten day period some 336,000 soldiers were rescued by a flotilla of 850 small boats from the south coast of England.

In a speech to the House of Commons, the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill called this “a colossal military disaster”, saying “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured.

The men had been rescued, but without their heavy military equipment.

The event has been recounted many times in books and films, but what better way at this time of remembering these soldiers than by telling the stories of some of the local men who were involved.

Eric Garside

Eric Garside, from Abbots Well, Wendover Rd, Well End, near Bourne End, was a Sub Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, having joined in January 1937. He was called up in early 1940 when halfway through his officer training course at H.M.S. King Alfred College, Hove, Sussex, and given orders to proceed immediately to Sheerness Basin.

At Sheerness he was appointed to command the Elizabeth Green, a 43ft 6ins motor cruiser. This had been built by H. Milland of Twickenham in 1935 and was one of the first of the privately-owned rescue vessels to help in the evacuation of Dunkirk and on her second trip was one of the last to leave. Her role is exceptionally well documented in the log kept by Sub Lieutenant Eric Garside. Not many of the young skippers hastily detailed to command these unfamiliar and unarmed civilian vessels, kept a detailed log. But Sub-Lieutenant E. T. Garside R.N.V.R. compiled an hour by hour account of his first nine days of active service. Not that he was ever likely to forget it.

At 18.05 on May 28 1940 he left Sheerness Basin with a crew of one seaman and two stokers, towing a whaler and bound for Dover. He lost touch with his convoy when one engine failed but they were able to repair it. Next morning the Elizabeth Green refuelled and left for Dunkirk, arriving at 15.30 amid heavy enemy bombardment. They were sent on to La Panne beach where they began towing whalers full of troops to the minesweeper H.M.S.Lydd. At 16.00 they saw the paddle steamer Crested Eagle go down. At 18.00 the Viewfinder was dragged ashore by Belgian troops and she was never refloated. At 19.00 the Hanoura fouled her propeller and was abandoned. Finally at 21.20 they left La Panne with a full load of troops in company with the motor yacht Advance. They encountered thick fog on the way and anchored in Pegwell Bay before entering Ramsgate at 06.50, having spent thirty-six hours at sea and off the beaches without rest.

Sub-Lieutant Garside then made another journey to Dunkirk in the Royal Naval Air Service launch Andorra II for similar operations. At 12.00 on June 1 he left Ramsgate with a crew of five, by 16.30 they were off the beach at La Panne, then manned a whaler to ferry French troops from the beach to a trawler while being bombed from a high altitude. At 17.45 he set course for home with 23 French troops aboard, arriving at Ramsgate on June 2 at 12.10 to disembark the troops.

On June 4 he was again assigned to the Elizabeth Green. At 16.00 he left Ramsgate with a crew of four seamen and an interpreter, sent to rescue some of the remaining French soldiers marooned at the end of the Dunkirk jetty. The tug Rania towed Elizabeth Green together with the Clacton lifeboat, but by 21.50 the tow rope had parted and they proceeded under their own power.

This was the last night of the evacuation and conditions were appalling. Officers and men on the ships not only had the hazards of constant air attack, shelling and mines to contend with, but they went for days without sleep and proper food. Near the French coast the water was full of debris, stranded and sinking ships, and bodies. Vessels of all sizes, some of them with their steering disabled, were coming and going, manoeuvring dangerously to evade attacks from the air and from German E-boats. Collisions were frequent and were followed by a frantic scramble to pick up survivors.

Elizabeth Green got through to the Quai Jules Faure in Dunkirk harbour. She carried with her from England a 30-rung ladder which they placed from their deck to the sea wall to help twenty or so Frenchmen to climb down to them. On the way home one engine seized but they succeeded in restarting it. But their troubles were not yet over. Within an hour their engine died again off Broadstairs. Again they repaired it and finally arrived at Sheerness at 15.30. This was twenty four hours after they set out for Dunkirk, having had virtually no food or sleep.

Sub-Lieutenant Garside, whose third trip this was, ‘behaved with exemplary courage and coolness’ and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

I am grateful to Neil Garside, the son of Sub-Lieutenant Garside, for permission to publish this account. Neil writes “My father kept detailed logs of the two vessels he commanded during Operation Dynamo. He went on to have a distinguished career in the RNVR commanding minesweepers. He was demobilised in 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and returned to his pre-war employment with Chase National Bank in London.”

Arthur George Elkins

Arthur George Elkins, was the son of George and Alice Elkins, who lived in Gregory Rd, in the village of Hedgerley, near Beaconsfield. He was a true Hedgerley boy, who attended school at what is now The Old School Cottage in Village Lane.

Arthur was just a boy of 19 when he volunteered to join the Territorials. He was posted to Shrewsbury as a Private in the Worcestershire Regiment, only to find himself being shipped off to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

After the retreat to Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation he was reported missing, believed killed, the date of his death being uncertain but sometime late in May 1940. The Royal British Legion carried on searching the records for some years afterwards, thinking that he may have been a survivor suffering from a loss of memory.

It was not until many years later that his sister Iris, who was seventeen years younger, met a war veteran who said that he saw Private Elkins in the sea about to board one of the rescue ships at Dunkirk. Arthur gave a “thumbs-up” to indicate that he was okay, but sadly he did not arrive back home in England.

When a new housing estate was later built in Hedgerley, the local councillors decided to give the road the name of Elkins as a token of gratitude for Arthur’s bravery. There is also a lectern in St Mary’s Church, with wording on the front commemorating Arthur. It was bought with money left over after the war in a fund for parcels to be sent out at Christmas to men and women in the Services.

I am grateful to Arthur’s sister Iris who supplied this information.