hartlepool history logo

At Dunkirk and Arnhem by Percy Fielding

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project war veteran Percy Fielding reminisced about his time serving in the Army. This is his story, in his own words:

I was born in Bury, Lancashire on the fifteenth of July 1920.

I was eighteen and I was in the Territorial Army, and I knew the war clouds was gathering and it was inevitable that we would go to war. And being eighteen I didn’t know if I was old enough to go to Dunkirk or not, which was our first campaign. So I kept pestering our CO and he said “by the time the war starts you will be that age so you can go”. So he was quite right, I was. I wanted to have a go you see. I was in an infantry regiment so I knew I would be involved face to face with the enemy, and I did my best to train up, especially in unarmed combat. 

Before Dunkirk started we went over to Cherbourg, and it was what you call the “phoney war”. I think there was about three or four months before we kicked off. The war started on 10th May 1940, and we went into Belgium to meet the German Army. I was a Bren carrier driver. The object was to transport a Bren from one place to another under armour, so they put it in a carrier with armour round it, and I was driving it. And we had a NCO on the left and he was in charge of the machine gun – the Bren – and he could fire it as we went along. And we had a loader at the back of me that used to feed him with ammunition. The war had been on a week or two and we hadn’t made much progress, but we got to this spot and they said “right, you stay here alive or dead – you’ll stay here for twelve hours from six o’clock now till six o’clock the following morning.” You had to speak in whispers, just in case the Germans got onto you, and everything was hush-hush waiting for the Germans attacking. About 2 o’clock in the morning a big mist had come down and we heard the tramp of marching feet. I heard them first, actually and I said “I don’t think it’s the Jerries because they wouldn’t march to let you know they were here.” Well it was all stand-to, and these marching feet were coming louder and louder, so at the finish I shouted “halt”. I knew it wasn’t the Jerries, it was our own men. The Lancashire Fusiliers. A battalion had got cut off and they’d had to fight their way through and what a state they were in.

Oh, their gas capes was round here when they should have been on their back and all their faces was black. They said “keep ‘em back, lads”. I said “don’t worry lads they won’t catch you up, we’re here while six in the morning.” They gave all goodbyes and off they went. So I say that’s one thing they got out of it, they’ve fought their way out.

About ten to six the following morning nothing had transpired, and one of the lads pointed way back down the road, and they would be about two mile away. We could see them all snaking down the road, tanks and armoured cars and all that in a column. I said “well, they’re here while six o’clock spot on. If they get us it’s just too bad, but I’ll have one or two of them before they do”. Anyway it didn’t come to that. When it got to six o’clock they would be about a mile away, and they must have been tanks, because wagons would have been a lot faster. And we pushed off.

Now I am coming to Dunkirk, you see. The carrier had run out of petrol and we were surrounded and you couldn’t get food in or anything. So we got to this village and we were with a rifle company and we went into this barn to try to sleep. We were there an hour when they said the Jerries were on top of us. So we got our gear, you know, just grab anything and put it on, and we were off. So we were going down this road and we were looking for a side road, but we had passed the spot. So the officer turned the company round. This Frenchman was coming up on a bike and he shouted “arretez”. Stop, you know. I could speak French, so I got talking to him and he said there’s an ambush waiting for us down the road at the crossroads. So we turned back and kept looking for the side track, and we found it well overgrown with weeds. Nobody knew where we were going. So we sees these guards, Grenadiers, I think they were, guarding a little bridge. They said “right, you’ve got two minutes flat to get over the bridge and if there’s anybody on it it’s just too bad it’s going up”. Well we didn’t walk, we flew over it, and that’s how I found out where we were – Dunkirk. We was told after the war there was 368 000 men taken off from Dunkirk by the navy and other little craft.

So we got sorted out into three ranks and our CO said “ right, there’s a destroyer or something there, and we’re aiming for that.” We got about halfway and this shell come over and it killed three of me mates, wounded me and then wounded another two. My mate said “ you’re bleeding like a stuck pig Perc” but I couldn’t do nowt about it. You see I’d made a bad mistake. We’d got attacked in a town with what you call Stukas. They were dive bombers, you know. This girl came to me after the planes had gone, and she was pointing to her neck and she was wounded. We had been told often “do not use your shell dressing on anyone else”, but I said “oh to hell with it”, you know. So I bandaged her up. So when I got wounded I had to go about three mile along the beach to try and get on this ship. In the meantime our CO had spotted me bleeding. Anyway, he got his own shell dressing out and he bandaged me up, and I said “now what if you get wounded?”  I can always remember his name, Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchinson, and he was a TA man.

And then we had to go into the bowels of the ship and the Jerries were trying to shell the ship, and it was going from side to side. But as luck would have it he didn’t hit the ship. I don’t even know yet what ship I came back on, but it was a navy ship. You’ll never find out, you see everything was confusion.

When I come back to England I was looked after by a surgeon. Took all the shrapnel out round the top of my shoulder. He said it was one inch off my jugular vein. “If it had got your jugular vein,” he said, “you would have had it.” I went from the Royal Victoria hospital in Folkestone to the Royal West Kent General in Maidstone, and then to Orpington Military Hospital. I was shunted from one to the other for about three months.

When I got patched up I went into the Parachute Regiment. I had to do all the rigmarole to pass for the Paras and I did it. It’s very tough, if you’ve got a weak spot they’ll find it. I was in the second battalion to be formed so I was one of the first, really. This guy that interviewed me said “haven’t you had enough?” I said “I’m still in uniform Sir. I’ve never had enough while I take this off.”

The major battle we had was Arnhem. We were the 6th Airborne and we had about eighteen stand-to and stand-down. Stand-to, that means you’re getting ready for battle. You’d put all your kit on, you sleep in it and everything. And when you stand-down, of course, you relax. And we got eighteen of them. We were all pig sick. At the finish they said “ right this is it” and we didn’t know where we were going but we found out when we were on the plane. And Arnhem to me was just another place. And then you know what happened at Arnhem. You had two German columns, we were about to be dropped straight on top of them. One of our lads was a Polish officer and he had an aerial photograph of Arnhem for the dropping zones, and he said “There’s armour here. You’re going to drop straight on top of it.” The officers pooh-poohed it. And we did didn’t we? We dropped straight on top of two German armoured columns – the Frundsberg and the Hohenstauften. They’d got mauled in France and had gone to Arnhem to refit.

We got dropped six miles approximately from the bridge, where we should have dropped near the bridge as possible, because paras are only lightly armed and you’ve got to be in and out. When we got three miles the Jerries were on top of us. We ran out of ammo, food and everything. You see we had moved from one place to another and where the planes thought we were they dropped all the gear, on top of the Jerries, so the Jerries got it all. 10000 people dropped and there was about 8000 got killed, wounded and taken prisoner. The Guards should have broke through and come to our rescue. We were supposed to hold the bridge for two days, and we held it for four. At the end of the second day the Guards should have come to relieve us. They were either the Coldstreams or the Grenadiers, I can’t remember now, and they didn’t get there. They were all stretched out on a single road, and they couldn’t manoeuvre round anywhere. They had to go along this road whether they were hit or not, and as soon as they got to a certain spot “woof” – the Jerries hit them and blew them apart. There was no way they could get to us. And then it was a case of every man for himself.  

We left a certain number of men to keep the Jerries back and keep them guessing to think we were still there while the main body moved up to the water to get away. It was chaos pure and simple. Night time it was, and it was shotting it down with rain and we all put stuff round our feet, you know, to muffle your feet. You daren’t speak or anything and you were holding on to the bloke in front of you because it was that dark with the rain and that. And then the Jerries found out what was happening and started sending the flares over so he could see where to land his shells. I couldn’t swim so I had to get in a boat. The lads were paddling with their rifles or whatever they had to get away to the opposite side. There was about 2000 men altogether, but there wasn’t 2000 got across.

Related items :