Bibafax 54. February 2001
By Cliff Connick
I have just returned from Dunkirk [June 2000] where I went for the 60th Anniversary of the evacuation in 1940.
There has been a Pilgrimage to Dunkirk for many years but this was the final occasion - and inevitably so after all, anyone who was evacuated from Dunkirk is now at least 80 years of age.
We paraded in the main square on Sunday morning and Prince Charles inspected the ranks and spent half an hour chatting to various members. Then we marched past a saluting base and Prince Charles took the salute. It really was an experience. We marched for about half a mile and the entire route was packed with thousands of people clapping and cheering all the way.
It made me proud to be British. - a state of affairs which I do not always feel these days.
In the afternoon, there was a service on the beaches. A lone Lancaster bomber circled overhead and the little ships anchored offshore. It was all a most moving and emotional visit.
I had a strange experience getting away from Dunkirk in 1940. I have told this tale before but at the risk of boring all concerned I will repeat some of the details. After spending some time on the beach I wandered into the harbour area and found that a vessel was just about to leave the port. I managed to scramble aboard by means of a rope ladder.
The ship was an ancient Norwegian steamer- the M/S Hird. It had been in Dunkirk port for two weeks under constant bombardment and was in a sorry state. It was packed with British troops, French troops, civilians and a number of wounded. About 3000 in all. Only one engine was working, there was only one serviceable lifeboat and the vessel could only make six knots.
We left port in the wake of a small French naval vessel. We had not gone far before the French boat struck a mine and sank. We stopped to pick up survivors. Then another ahead of us was sinking and we stopped again. Eventually the white cliffs hove into view and we actually anchored in Dover harbour. Then an astonishing event occurred because, without landing any troops at all, we upped anchor and sailed to Cherbourg. Seeing the white cliffs disappear in the distance was really most depressing and for sixty years I have looked upon that moment as the low spot in my life.
It was many years before I found out the reason for this shambles, it appears the vessel was under charter to the French and the senior French officers on board wanted their troops back in France to continue the fighting. They were afraid that if we landed, their troops would land as well and they would never see them again - and they were probably right! I could understand their reasons. What I could never understand was why we ever went to Dover in the first place.
To sail aimlessly round the around the English Channel at that stage was not very clever.
| don’t know how long I stayed in Cherbourg but eventually I got a ship back to Weymouth. Because of these circumstances, I must have been one of the last of the Allied troops back into the UK. By this time, Dunkirk had already fallen and certainly my family had given me up for lost. You can imagine the joyful reunion.
Subsequently, I was in the Western Desert with the 8th Army at the battle of El Alamein and the chase along the North African coast. Then I landed in Sicily on D-day and in Italy on D-day (actually in Italy I landed at M30 which was 30 minutes after Zero Hour). Then I slogged all the way through Italy from the very South to the very North, including 14 months on the Anzio beachhead under constant bombardment.
Although I was in the Royal Army Medical Corps, I always seemed to be in the thick of the action. I had a number of ‘near misses’ and I was lucky to come out of it alive.
Jeanne, my wife, didn’t come with me on my recent trip and, when I got home, it was to be greeted with the news that, while I was away, an intruder had broken in to our bungalow in the middle of the night and, amongst other things, had stolen Jeanne’s jewellery case from the dressing table whilst she was asleep in the bed alongside.
What a world we live in....