Local heroes who witnessed Dunkirk drama

British troops at Dunkirk
British troops at Dunkirk

Today local historian Dorothy Ramser continues her account of the role played by South Tyneside men in that most dramatic of military operations – Dunkirk.

Here Dorothy tells how a Royal Artillery gunner described the scene on the beaches as he and his fellow servicemen waited to be evacuated from France.

“As men lined the quay and marched calmly under shell fire on to the waiting craft, the devastated town was silhouetted by the fires raging everywhere.

“It was an eerie and really awful scene but there was no sign of panic. Shells screamed over and exploded but the men waited. We may have been a ragged looking army for nearly every one of us needed a bath and a shave, but fellows still cracked jokes and talked about things which had no place really under such appalling circumstances.

“While we waited, Jerry came over with 50 to 60 bombers at a time and carried out his hellish work. Long range German guns shelled the port during the night, but in the words of one man – it was almost peaceful after all the bombing we had had.”

The gunner reported seeing “little fishing boats and an odd assortment of civilian-manned pleasure craft running onto the sands and taking off as many men as could possibly be crowded on them.

“Although being machine gunned, bombed and shelled, working parties buried their dead at Dunkirk.”

Dorothy says local newspaper reports told how crew members of a British Transport ship, sent to help with the evacuation, faced bombs and a hail of bullets.

“The German Luftwaffe attacked relentlessly in waves every 10 or 15 minutes, with bombs cascading down on ships and defenceless soldiers assembling on the quayside.

“On the last stage of the voyage, bombs were dropped all around the ship, sending up great fountains of foaming sea. At the same time machine gun bullets spattered the deck.

“The German planes machine gunned us, bullets splashing in the water all around us.

“One of the planes was just banking to swoop back on us when a terrific burst of anti-aircraft fire forced him to think better of it.

“The sky was black with German bombers with an almost incessant battle raging overhead as our RAF fighters fought back the raiders, but they still kept coming and coming.

“The fun begins about six miles off the coast, with bombers trying to stop ships reaching the harbour and they are pursued right to the beach and have to run the gauntlet under bombs and a torrent of bullets.

“I never expected to get back to England alive.”

H.M.S. Snaefell, a paddle steamer based on the Tyne, along with her sister ship, the Glenmore, were also sent to Dunkirk to take part in the rescue.

After provisioning with great speed, and stowing away extra Bully-Beef, bread and butter, and filling up to capacity with water for the thirsty and hungry soldiers, thwy set sail at 1.15pm on May 30.

“After picking up the desperate men from the beach,” explains Dorothy, “the Glenmore ran aground, and was a perfect target for the enemy. But seeing her plight, the Lieutenant in Command of the Snaefell F. Brett succeeded in towing her into deep water.

“Both ships got back to England, the Snaefell with 1,000 soldiers on board was one of the last of the evacuation armada to leave. She was sunk off the coast of Sunderland on July 5, 1941.

“The wreck (now designated a war grave) was discovered in 2010, and the divers found the Snaefell had gone down fighting – empty shell cases from its guns were scattered all around.

“Spare a thought for the brave men from South Shields who were left behind forever and have no known grave,” adds Dorothy.

“They are listed on The Dunkirk Memorial in Dunkirk.

“Special mention must be made to the courageous Royal Engineers who feature heavily in the missing after fighting a daring rearguard action, blowing bridges and acting as infantry in extremis and who paid the ultimate price.”

They are: –

1. Lance Sergeant John Forsyth Barron 30yr – Seaforth Highlanders

2 .Sapper Stanley Pearson Thompson 24yr – Royal Engineers

3. Sapper John Henry Rae 40yr – Royal Engineers

4. Lance Corporal Edward Ashly 24yr – Royal Engineers

5. Sapper James Thomas Middlemiss 24yr – Royal Engineers

6. Private George Evans Leggett 19yr – Royal Army Medical Corps

7. Private Peter Charles Cookman 31yr – Seaforth Highlanders

8. Private John Campbell 35yr – The Border Regiment

9. Sapper Joseph Victor Robinson 27yr – Royal Engineers

10. Corporal Joseph Warkcup 37yr – Royal Engineers

11. Sapper Robert Hogg 36yr – Royal Engineers

12. Gunner John Travers Gray 24yr – 74 Field Regt R.A.

13. Gunner Joseph Ridley 32yr – 74 Field Regt R.A. – Grave – Dunkirk Town Cemetery

14. Private James William Thompson 23yr – The Black Watch

15. Sapper Edward Dickinson 25yr – Royal Engineers

16. Corporal William Shepherd 31yr – Gordon Highlanders – Grave Quesnoy-Le- Montant

17. Sapper Thomas Arthur Smallthwaite 28yr – Royal Engineers

18. Private Malcolm Prior – 20yr – Black Watch – Grave Bucquoy Road

19. Lance Corporal Augustine Edmund McGrory 21yr - Black Watch – Grave Bucquoy Road

20. Private Raymond Drynan 21yr – Border Regt – Grave Warhem Communal Cemetery