Sergeant Noel Matthews, 1/5th Battalion, the Queen's Royal Regiment, remembers the chaos of the Dunkirk evacuation, 1940.
Norman Matthews
Sergeant Noel Matthews

Anyhow they got the rest of the battalion out, as I read, but from my point of view , it was a question of how does one make for Dunkirk? Well, you could see Dunkirk because of the smoke and all the rest of it and it was about 25 miles away because when we have been out with the Dunkirk veterans and we stayed at De Panne the chap in charge of the hotel worked it out for me one day. Well it was alright when you first started but after a while it was impossible because it was one mass of lorries, cars, you name it, whatever there was, civilian or army, and all the rest of it and all you could do was walk across fields, make that line. And there was one village, I don’t know what had happened there, must have been a load of ammunition going up and all this sort of thing, and the other places where the engineers were waiting to blow the bridge, "Come on get across this ruddy bridge!" and all this sort of business. Anyway we got to Dunkirk in the evening of the Wednesday. We had not had food for 2 days then, had we. The biggest shock as we walked on to the front of De Panne, it was only a little old seaside place then, and I can see the name and the place as it was then and there were a mass of chaps firing away at the aeroplanes up in the air, absolutely black with chaps on the beach there. I was with another 2 chaps, don’t know who they were. There was ambulance somewhere on the beach and there was no one in it funnily enough so we got inside and we kipped down for the night. We woke up in the morning and there were about another 8 blokes inside. Anyhow it was a question of what are you going to do. Are you going to swim out there or not. I said "Christ, no, when I see them coming over the top I'll start swimming" because it did not seem possible. Somebody came running along the beach saying "Are there any Queen's fellows" so, "OK, we will try and make a group up and the CO's there and he is going to get you a boat" so we went along and I imagine there was about twenty, twenty five of us all together. CO was Palmer, he went off and we never saw him again and we had some reservists, Fusiliers, with us who were in the Queen's then and what they weren't going to do with Palmer when they got hold of him was nobody's business. Nothing to do with Palmer, he probably got told to do so and so and that was it. The trouble was then they started shelling the beaches. It was not the planes, because the planes were after all the boats, it was shelling from the beaches and we moved along out of it towards Dunkirk in actual fact and I don’t recall anything other than sitting up in the dunes and all the rest of it. The rest of that I don’t know what happened but anyhow. The only other thing I recall, on the Friday morning we hadn’t had anything, we must have had some water in our water bottles, anyway, hadn’t had any food. All we had were emergency rations. I don’t know what they get now. It was a small tin about 6 x 3 and it was a lump of chocolate and you couldn’t even get your ruddy teeth into it. You just nibbled little bits off the side of it. That was your emergency ration and at that time there was a big convalescence home, it is still there, well, it was the last time I went with the Dunkirk veterans, and I went around the back of that and I spoke to a French orderly. He gave me his breakfast, filled up my mess tin with wine and a piece of bread and I gave him some cigarettes and that was my lot then. By the Friday evening the beaches were so deserted I don’t know what I thought I was going to do but I think I was on my Jack Jones by then. They were running 1500 weights along the beaches picking up stragglers. I jumped on one of these and they ran me down to the quay. We had to run along the quay. Always remember there was a German airman down the bottom and he looked scared out of his wits. I am surprised no one had shot him by then. He had a spade and was digging at the bottom of this jetty place which had been shelled in any case and there were planks across where the shells had hit. Ran along and we jumped onto the destroyer and we went down below and to the best of my knowledge or my memory of it, we were told to lie down with our heads inwards. Well I have got a letter in my bureau to prove that we were dive bombed three times coming home. We got to Dover and we got off the boat there and I went up to the barrier, the railway thing, and it was closed. There was a chap, I assumed he was Tank Corps because he had a black beret on, said to the bloke "Where are you taking us to?" and the chap said "Redhill". I said "Christ, Redhill, Surrey?" and he said "Yes, Redhill, Surrey". I said "I live there". I was almost under the gate. Anyway, we went to the station and I had a pie and a cup of tea. We got in the train and I ate that up. Went sound asleep. When I woke up I am in with a load of foreigners. Blokes chatting away in khaki and I did not understand a word they were saying. All ruddy Scotsmen weren't they. We were north of London, never saw Redhill. Anyway, I ended up in Lichfield in the North and South Staffs barracks there and - I've got this letter I wrote home - I went out and had fish and chips which was the first proper meal we had for almost a week sort of thing.