Last week we were looking at how in a letter home to his brother-in-law, local man Stanley Harvey vividly described his experiences in northern France after the German invasion had begun in May 1940. Stan was a Private in the 1st Bucks Battalion of the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry in the British Expeditionary Force. Today we conclude his story.

The Battalion was now retreating towards Dunkirk and they passed through a town that, as Stan described “was the first one I saw that had actually been bombed, what a mess it was in, there was just room to get through in places.

That was the last we saw of any of our planes until we got to Dunkirk over a week later. Jerry kept coming over in relays and seemed to be doing just what he liked, certainly the anti-aircraft fire never seemed to worry him, I never saw one brought down by them”.

Stan went on to describe his units’ retreat to Dunkirk in great detail. They usually had to sleep out in the open, in woods or fields. In one wood they were holed up for two days, when they were not bombed but attacked by what they termed Hitler’s Fifth Column, millions of mosquitoes.

Just after they left, the same wood was occupied by German tanks, which were attacked by Allied artillery. As Stan put it “our lads were giving them the works, so what with shells and the mosquitoes, these Jerry’s must have been having a wonderful time, I almost felt sorry for them! “

Their next stop was in a field “where we were parked as near a hedge as possible and covered the lorries with branches, I don’t think we were ever spotted, but there were two roads converging just a little in front of us and all day long Jerry was over, trying to blow them up. Some of them [bombs] dropped in the next field.

The first day we lay under our wagons, it was a most terrifying experience, listening to the roar of the engines as they dived, and then the scream of the bombs as they hurtled through the air. Then there would be a terrific blast of air when they hit the ground and the lorries would rock to and thro. It gave us a feeling of being trapped”.

They then found that there was a trench nearby so they spent the next day in that. However this was risky, Stan writing “we had to take a chance of shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells, but we felt much safer. By this time half of our section were nigh on nervous wrecks, the ones I thought would be the last to crack-up were the first. I was far from happy myself but I did not allow it to upset me, I began to think that I must be tough after all.” To worsen their situation even further it rained hard all day!

None of the bombs made a direct hit on the roads and the next night they were able to move off again. However, half the company made straight for Dunkirk but Stan’s half “worse luck. we were sent up the line. [that is they were ordered to move back into action to try to delay the German advance, so allowing more men to be evacuated] We heard we were advancing and were quite bucked up about it. When we are on convoy work we have to rely on our Officers to see us through.

We are given a route on a piece of paper which is generally pretty hopeless to follow at night, when we can’t see a signpost. As usual they were missing that night. I kept behind the man in front and eventually we stopped and found we were in Armentieres, miles out of our way! The whole city was in ruins, except for the cathedral, with fires still burning in places.”

Fortunately their Corporal could speak fluent French and got directions to take them to where they were supposed to be. But by now it was daylight and as Stan wrote “we were strung out along an open road, a lovely target for Jerry, every minute we expected them to attack us. I should think we stood there for 3 or 4 hours before our Officer said we were to turn straight back without unloading and make for Dunkirk”!

Quite quickly after that the Battalion must have fragmented, so that it almost became a case of every man for himself. It was a hair-raising journey to Dunkirk, through Ypres which was being bombed continually and they “just had to go through and trust to luck, and it was the same in every town we went through”.

Eight miles from Dunkirk they were held up by “Other convoys kept coming up the side of us on the end of our column and ditching their lorries, smashing the engines in”. After the road cleared they carried on to where many Allied vehicles had been parked, but everybody had left. Thinking that this some sort of assembly point “We then waited a couple of hours for instructions, but when nothing was forthcoming, our Corporal jumped on a bike and when he came back said that an M.P. [military policeman] said we were to leave everything and walk into Dunkirk.”

Stan’s unit, which by now consisted of only 6 men, set off, and had gone about 3 miiles when they met an officer who advised them to stay the night where they were as it was impossible to get away that day as the Germans were machine-gunning the troops waiting to go on-board the rescue vessels. So they bedded down for the night. Stan and two others set off at 3.30 the next morning, the other three would not leave, and were fortunate to get a lift with some Royal Engineers with a lorry and “drove right down to the ferry boat dock through all the burning ruins”.

They were told that all the troops had been taken off the dock the day before and it was not known if any more boats were coming. Also they did not know that there will still hundreds of troops waiting on the beach. So as Stan put it, they “hung around for a bit, diving down into a cellar when the bombers came over..... It was not long before we saw a destroyer making for the pier head, soon there were three of them and an armed merchantman. I’ll never forget what a welcome sight they were.”

Stan and his colleagues then had to walk in single file along the pier and got onto HMS Worcester. This then took about six hours to cross the Channel to Dover. Fortunately they were not bombed, but “once she dropped depth charges which nearly blew the boat out of the water.”

Stan finished the letter with “Thanks to the dear old Navy we got back alright and so have thousands more. You have got something to be proud of, even if we haven’t”.

I would like to thank Jeff Harvey, son of Stan, who brought the letter to my attention and has kindly allowed me to publish extracts from it.

Please note that there were two errors in last week’s article, my own mistakes I am sorry to say; Stan was a Private not a Corporal and he lived with his family in Micklefield Rd, not Desborough Ave.

HMS Worcester

On 24 May, HMS Worcester was assigned to Operation Dynamo, the code-name for the evacuation from Dunkirk. She made six trips to the Dunkirk beaches, transported a total of 4,350 troops to the United Kingdom, and suffered damage in a German air attack on 27 May 1940.

After repair during June 1940 she returned to active service. She served throughout the war, suffering serious damage on at least two further occasions, but was never sunk, being eventually sold for scrap.