Dunkirk: To the Ones Left Behind
Have you ever been left behind? I was once. It’s quite comical, actually. My dad used to bring the whole family to the Oshksoh Airventure show in Wisconsin every summer. One year, when I was very little, I somehow got left behind at the bus stop while the whole rest of the family went on ahead to the flight line. I was a bit spacey as a child, running away with my imagination, off in my own little dream world. So I actually didn’t even notice that anything was amiss. I just played happily in a sand pile until I looked up and saw my father bounding off a bus and flying toward me in a panic. I remember him scooping me up and hugging me. It was only then that I figured out I’d been left behind.
And we get left behind in other ways too –left behind in school, at work, and in an ever changing and volatile political landscape. But let’s face it. No matter how painful it is to be left behind, we can always be grateful that it wasn’t at Dunkirk beach in 1940. Dunkirk, one of the British Army’s worst defeats but by the grace of God and Operation Dynamo, it turned into one of their finest hours.
Today, everyone knows the story of the over 300,000 troops rescued from their perilous situation at Dunkirk, thanks to the help of the British Navy. And the many brave and courageous British citizens who skippered everything that could float and hastened pace, sometimes under fire, towards the French beaches. And who can forget Churchill’s speech? We will fight them on the beaches. We will fight them in the streets. We will never surrender. My God. It’s the stuff that legends (and excellent Hollywood films) are made of.
But there’s a darker side of the story. A painful story inside the big story that gets… well, left behind sometimes. And that story is this: As the British Army languished on those rough, windy beaches and awaited either extermination or rescue, tens of thousands of soldiers, facing certain capture and quite likely death, fought grisly rearguard actions to help their brothers in arms get away safely. To keep hope alive for Britain and consequently, for the rest of the world. Despite being overlooked in many accounts of Dynamo, these people made the famous rescue possible.
People like the very unlucky members of the Royal Sussex Regiment – positioned around the French town of Caestre to hold off the Germans while the entire Allied front dissolved to pieces all around them. With their comrades beginning a chaotic retreat towards Dunkirk, these boys shot it out with a very aggressive enemy all through the last days of May. They endured heavy artillery fire, constant threats from the Luftwaffe, and combat that saw unprecedented death and destruction.
Sid Seal, a soldier of this unfortunate rearguard action wrote: “…It was pretty terrible. You were seeing chaps alongside you getting killed and you just thought, God, is it my turn next? It was a horrible thing to see chaps you’d known all your life get shot and killed or blown to pieces…” Bill Holmes, another member of the Royal Sussex, had his own terrible tales to tell: “We were tired from marching… We were in dugouts – two per trench. The time came to get our food. My mate asked me should he go or would I? You had to run, crawl and jump to reach the food. So I went. When I got back to the trench he [his mate] was dead, hit by a shell.”
By May 29th, the Royal Sussex had taken as much of a beating as they could handle, and they were ordered to withdrawal to Mont des Cats. But since this position was an exposed hilltop vulnerable to every kind of enemy fire, only more horror awaited them. As one officer put it – “There was very little chance of any cover and the situation was most unpleasant as the whole of the Mont des Cats was covered with troops.”
It’s a very polite way of saying that the situation was ripe for assault, and that came pretty quickly. Enemy artillery poured into the British positions, and then came a thirty minute air bombardment, followed in short order by mortar and tank fire. Soldiers scrambled for whatever cover they could while the guns tore them to shreds. After hours of onslaught, the regiment finally abandoned the hilltop, ordered to make their way to Dunkirk for evacuation, every man for himself. However, rescue efforts had been underway for days at the beaches, and ship space was growing scarce. Thousands of men from this regiment wouldn’t make it in time.
And they wouldn’t be the only ones. Rearguard regiments around the town of Wormhout, facing the wrath of the German SS divisions, also got left in a very perilous position. “We were the ones that stopped them from breaking through,” recalls Bert Evans, one survivor of the Wormhout fight. “And we suffered for it… We’d heard about the SS and we knew they didn’t take prisoners.” A reality that set the stage for a terrible battle, with an equally terrible conclusion. After the evacuation, and once the British divisions finally surrendered, vengeful SS guards rounded up the survivors of Evans’ division, part of the Warwickshire Regiment, and herded them into an open barn. While the roughly 80 soldiers jockeyed for position inside, the SS guards tossed in grenades. Then they opened fire in a total and complete massacre. Less than twenty men walked out of the melee with their lives.
Rearguard divisions who weren’t murdered outright by the Nazi armies had the terrible trials of capture and imprisonment to look forward to – some for a grueling five years until the war’s end. Like the Highlander Division, caught up in rearguard fighting in a tiny fishing village near Dieppe. As the German army lobbed shells at them and the entire town went up in flames, they got trapped among the detritus of war with the final ships of the evacuation unable to reach them. Standing there among the bodies of their comrades who died fighting, or trying to climb down the cliffs to the beaches, their only chance at survival was surrender. So they laid down their arms.
Prisoners like the Highlander Division, and the roughly 40,000 other soldiers of the BEF who faced capture, first had to endure the dreaded forced march, often times with minimal food or water, and after already being on their feet for days. Then German guards stuffed them into overcrowded cattle cars, in the most filthy conditions, for transport to camps in either Poland or Germany. Many did not survive the five year ordeal that lay ahead, and the ones that did certainly don’t recall it fondly. They were pressed into forced labor, under the abusive hands and pistols of their captors, and fed on starvation rations. They languished in these forsaken prison camps, exposed to the bitter elements, forgotten and alone, while their evacuated comrades were lauded as heroes back in Britain. A pill I imagine must have been a bitter one to swallow. By the time these soldiers, imprisoned for half a decade, finally tasted freedom, they were emaciated and demoralized. Many of them scarred for life.
And as awful as their trials proved to be, the rearguard divisions weren’t the only ones to miss the boats at Dunkirk. Whether it was a sheer act of bravery, a superhuman devotion to duty, or the dumb luck of drawing the short straw in at least one person’s case, countless medical personnel also stayed behind in Dunkirk to tend to the myriads of wounded – soldier and civilian alike.
And the wounded had certainly piled up. As the BEF marched towards Dunkirk and their uncertain fates, they faced all the perils of hell on the rapidly deteriorating roads of France. Some divisions spent multiple days in a row slugging it out with Germans, only to turn around and march for days on end, sometimes for more than twenty-four hours at a time. Roads became littered with the horrible debris of an army in shambles -burning tanks, destroyed vehicles, blasted up ammunition, dead horses, pillars of black smoke, and the bodies. So many bodies. Some alive, some not. Men dropped out of the ranks and collapsed on the road sides, simply unable to march on. Others took random shots from snipers. Others got blasted with stray artillery shells. And there were still German fighter planes flying around. Dangers stalked the retreating army at every turn, and men began to succumb to them one by one.
It created quite a backlog at mobile casualty clearing stations, like the one manned by Corporal Adams, who gives a stunning account of the mobile hospital units in the book “Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man” (see “sources” below). Adams was stationed with the 11th Casualty Clearing Station as it moved about France, and when Dunkirk fell, his circumstances went from stressful to impossible. There were no beds and no sheets for the piles of wounded. Many of them wound up laying on the ground or under a leaky tent outdoors. Some were stuck in their ambulances for hours, if not longer. Operations were carried out in dark cellars with barely any light, while loose bombs and artillery shells rocked the foundations. Water supplies gave out in the middle of the ordeal. The only real tool medics had to ease the suffering was morphine shots, and even those had to be strictly rationed.
While the medical teams received evacuation orders along with the rest of the army (Adams would make it in time), not everyone would be able to go along. Every medical station had to leave behind a skeleton crew to tend to the wounded who were unable to make it to the boats. One medical orderly caught up in that decision was surgeon Philip Newman, working with the 12th Casualty Clearing Station. “New orders had arrived,” he recalled years later. “We were to pull out, but one medical officer and ten men were to stay behind for every 100 wounded… we gathered in the mess for the ballot. Of the 17 officers, three only were to stay, so my chances seemed quite rosy… The last four [names] were Herbert, Hewer, Williamson… and Newman [me]. I was 17th [the last name called].”
What luck. Despite how devastating it must have felt, knowing what certainly lay in store for him, Newman kept at his work until the eleventh hour, doing his best to stay upbeat about it. “I shall never forget those five hours before they went: trying to look efficient and ‘don’t carish,’ and everyone dreading to speak to me…. Eventually they went, and I was very glad to see them go.”
A heroic attitude shared by many, including the several female auxiliaries who also got left behind at Dunkirk. Brave women from all walks of life who found themselves stuck in France, nursing the wounded with either the elite nursing corps or the Voluntary Aid Detachments, shuttling people back and forth in the ambulance service, or keeping desperately needed communication lines open with the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Some of these women were evacuated days later via Cherbourg or other various Mediterranian ports they staggered towards with limited resources, often times under German fire. And some of these women stayed behind until the bitter fall of Paris all the way in mid-June, just barely making the last transports out of the country.
I can’t imagine the courage it must have taken to stay behind in a place like Dunkirk – whether voluntarily or not. To get up and keep going every day under such perils, when you could have gotten out if things shook out just a little bit different. I don’t know how any of those soldiers, men or women, had the fortitude to face such circumstances.
They deserve to be remembered, and perhaps we can honor their legacy by giving a thought to the people who are still being left behind today. Maybe not at Dunkirk with the beaches burning and the Nazis lurking about. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the system isn’t set up for everyone. Many people are slipping through the cracks. Left out and left behind, with few people willing to reach a hand out and help them. Or perhaps the opposite is true. A lot of people want to help, but they get lost in the fury of political back and forth and are therefore unable to.
Either way, people are being left behind to suffer, and we simply cannot sit back and watch any longer. Instead, we can all skipper anything that floats and hasten pace to their rescue. Just like taking 300,000 soldiers off a beach in France must haves seemed insurmountable, I know today’s problems do as well. But we can chip away at them piece by piece. One by one. We can donate more. Volunteer once in a while. We can educate ourselves. Or we can even do something as simple as spreading more kindness and compassion.
I think we live in a time when a lot of people are hurting. I don’t think anyone has really been spared the pain of a pandemic and the subsequent ripple effects through society, not to mention everything else going on. It is becoming more and more important to listen more and yell less. To heal and not divide. Even if your boat can only hold one or two people, it makes a difference. Especially if we gather a big enough armada. So grab your oars, ladies and gentlemen. It’s time to head to the beaches. And this time, no one stays behind.
Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man – H. Sebag-Montefiore
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory – Maj. Gen. J. Thompson
Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind – S. Longden
“The Men Left Behind After Dunkirk” – BBC
“Dunkirk True Story: What Happened to the WWII Troops Left Behind” – TIME Magazine
All photos by M.B. Henry, taken in and around Dunkirk. For more from Europe, click here.
If you’re in Traverse City, MI on Oct 8, come see me at Horizon Books! I’ll be there signing and selling starting at 1pm! To learn more about my D-Day debut novel, click here.