Dunkirk: my journey in their footsteps

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Seventy-eight years ago men of the British Expeditionary Force were slowly starting to re-group after being scattered far and wide across Britain. They were however just thankful to be home after surviving the miracle of Dunkirk – my great-grandfather, William Evans, being one of them.

  British troops crowd the deck of a Royal Navy destroyer at Dover, 31 May 1940 © IWM (H 1662)

British troops crowd the deck of a Royal Navy destroyer at Dover, 31 May 1940 © IWM (H 1662)

A simple diary entry from the 8th Anti-Tank Battery at the time reads: “4th June – ENGLAND, HALIFAX – The battery scattered all over the North and West of England.”

Thousands had ‘been left behind’ with a high number having been taken prisoner while others made for ports yet under German control. Then there were those, more than 10,000, that made the ultimate sacrifice – and are still commemorated near to where they fell almost 80 years ago.

Due to my great-grandad, Dunkirk has always meant something to me and as such after months of planning and research we returned as a family in September 2013, before I’d joined the Commission, to follow in the footsteps that he had taken some 73 years earlier.

Taking the journey from their jumping off point at Landas, and home for eight months as they waited for the Phoney War to come to an end, it was fascinating to be able to retrace the majority of the route that the battery had taken up to the outskirts of Waterloo in May 1940 – before having to make a hasty retreat.

You can’t really imagine what those men would’ve been thinking, or have an understanding of what the situation was as they suddenly moved backwards over land that they had moved into just days before. But at numerous times we found ourselves moving in circles – with the confusion at the time seemingly evident.

As we made our way towards the coast there had also always been a plan to pay our respects to those members of the battery who didn’t make it home, with a corner of a foreign field forever being their final resting place.

Despite being targeted by enemy planes throughout, and spending time not far from the defensive perimeter set up around Dunkirk, the unit only suffered three fatal casualties.

The first being Gunner George Isles who is buried in the CWGC plot at Warhem Communal Cemetery – he was killed on 29 May 1940 as he tried to take a closer look at a sniper that had been troubling them.

After a short moment of reflection, and further stops at where the battery resided during those late days in May and early June, the final two casualties could both be found at Dunkirk Town Cemetery. Here Joseph Henry Pass lies while Robert William Britten’s name is recorded on the Dunkirk Memorial – with his body never found. Both were killed when their gun emplacement took a near direct hit on 1 June.

Less than 48 hours later the rest of the men, including my great-grandad, were on-board ships heading for home. A return that was still worthy of a photo though of course!

14th June – ENGLAND, HALIFAX – By the evening the battery strength had reached 3 officers and 11 men, out of a total strength of 3 officers and 120 men, which had marched into Belgium barely a month previously. Of the nine missing, Lt Sgt Britten, Gn Pass and Gn Isles had been killed, Bde Mason (wounded and admitted to hospital in France) and Gn Harrison (injured by the accident and admitted to hospital in France) have since been notified as prisoners of war, Lt Bde Worthington (wounded), Sgt Bracey (motorcycle accident), Gn Ansell (shell shock) and Gn Harding (burns at Dunkerque) were in hospital in England. So everyone was now accounted for, and a photo was taken.