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Escape from Dunkirk...and back again! by James Walker

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 James Walker reminisced about his time serving in the Army. This is his story, in his own words:

You will understand as the years roll by a lot of things fade away in our minds but one story always stays with me. On getting to Dunkirk I had one thing on my mind and that was to get out!

I was a gunner in an anti aircraft battery. We were mobile 3.7 guns. On reaching the beaches as all this turmoil was going on I got detached from my own unit and as you may know you can always find a mate in the Army. So there were about six of us teamed up together. I remember getting to the water’s edge not noticing to worry about the time, day or what have you. I don’t know if I was ordered to go out to this little boat or volunteered but I know I was dragged in the boat by someone remembering I could not swim! Anyway we set off and thinking of home sweet home, we had not gone very far when this other boat came alongside and as it was on its way to England we soon boarded her and she set off.

I recall it was a French drifter and we found out we were the only British on board and to make things worse nobody could speak French and the French could not speak English so we were kept in the dark whatever happened. Well wet and weary, chins up and all that we didn’t care because we knew it wouldn’t be long before we would get to England. I remember checking my pockets for items. I had my pay book, my Army bible, which I got from the soldiers home in Camberly before we went over to France and I had the map Jerry had dropped telling us to surrender. I still have it now, ageing like me.

Our fully laden little drifter chugged along and at last the white cliffs of Dover came into sight. Everyone was feeling good as we had made it. Anyway, after some time we laid off the port as there were ships everywhere. I don’t recall how long we laid off there than all of a sudden we were sailing again but alas not into the port. We thought “Ah, well with too many ships in Dover we were going to some other port”. But to our dismay we were going out to sea again! Horror and disappointment came quickly. What had we to do? We could get no understanding from anyone on board! Dumbfounded! Land! Yes we sailed into France again. Le Havre!

On land we were shunted around, some to other regiments. We finally came out of France at St. Nazaire so I did get back after all to England. But then we found out that we would still not be going home for some time, so we decided we must get some contact with home and each of us started off for our home towns. One fellow was from Scotland, some from the Midlands, London etc. I was up north. On the way I sloped off where I got a lift and a very good couple took me in their house. I had a shave and a good meal and they gave me 10/- (50p) to help get me home. God bless them. I never did see them good people again. Pity.

Now you will understand all Britain was in a turmoil. I bluffed my way from Kingston-on-Thames by lorry and train. I must say I was questioned a few times on the way and when I look back I must have been a bit crafty and to think I only had my battle dress on and a tin hat! I arrived in Darlington station, got a United bus to Billingham, not one penny in my pocket and “home”! My mother was in shock for three days. Unknown to me someone had come from Dunkirk and told her I was dead!

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