Major Toby Taylor, 1st Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment, recalls the chaotic retreat to Dunkirk, 1940.
Toby Taylor
Major Toby Taylor

We were suddenly told that everything was going to plan. Nothing to worry about. When we got back from the Escaut, we had heavy fighting at the Escaut and a lot of casualties there when we got back to the next position we were slightly in reserve somewhere near Lille the message came through that the army was going to be evacuated and we all breathed a sigh of relief really. We didn’t quite know how it was going to happen but there again one was so worried where the next meal was coming from or I must change my socks, or I’m hungry, that you did not think about the war very much. You had to live. It was like I was saying to you just now, you still had to go to the lavatory, spend a penny, eat and sleep and smoke and all the other so the war didn’t really, that had to be fitted in around your existence. If you never undressed, never took your boots off, from Brussels to Dunkirk I never took my clothes off or my boots off, and that was for about 10 days, but we were very exhausted. We had to march of course and when we got back to outside Dunkirk, no, before you got to that, we had to march about 30 miles, absolutely dead beat by then, you stop every ten minutes as you know probably, whatever time you start marching, you stop at ten to the hour. So if you march for 5 minutes you stop, the whole army stops, you all stop at the same time. Once we stopped the whole of the soldiers flopped like that on the side of the pavement sound asleep and you went kicking them awake and by the time you got down the front they had gone to sleep again and we lost a few prisoners through shear exhaustion. No doubt about it. We marched and marched and eventually got to Dunkirk absolutely whacked out, a place called Coxyde Bains, the north end of the Dunkirk perimeter, full of surrendered Belgians, white flags everywhere. So we had to go into the houses and kick them out. Go on, take their white flags somewhere else so we could get in there but nothing much happened. The Germans weren’t doing anything and the French were defending as well. From my point of view at Dunkirk there was very little fighting. We had very few casualties at Dunkirk. All our casualties were before we got to Dunkirk and then once we knew we were going home, I think I told you I was walking wounded because I had got a wound in the shoulder. People who had lost their vehicles, drivers without trucks, carriers and people who had not got proper jobs because they had lost their equipment were formed into a kind of group under my command to go first home. They had a special name for us I can’t remember, not [lobe], no, I can’t remember. Anyway we went down, we were quite a way from Dunkirk but we had to march down and then we slept at night and then we marched down again and eventually got to Dunkirk where the mole runs out and the whole lines of vehicles going out into the sea, you have probably seen pictures of them. Troops, when the tide came in, troops using these as piers, these vehicles as piers and I with my little group of men. I wandered down to one and they said we are the Royal Fusiliers and I said can I join on and they said hello. So joined them. Then we found a lot of deckchairs and I made a circle of deckchairs and we all flopped into these deckchairs and I remember, and again I have written about this, that there was a funfair that had been abandoned and lots of the soldiers had pinched little dodgem cars and were driving up and down on these little pedal cars you know, all laughing and I was in a row of deckchairs and it was like it was like Brighton beach. Anyway it was all rather hectic, I am making rather light about it actually. There were dead bodies around and everything was burning vehicles and this and that and eventually a RAMC Officer came along asking for wounded and I was, arm in sling, was wounded and one or two others of my little group were, so I handed back to the senior officer whoever it was and said “You are in charge now, I am off to the hospital ship”. It was dark then, getting dark then and at the bottom of the mole at Dunkirk there were a lot of dead mules, why they were there, and dead Frenchmen, anyway right up the far end of the mole there was this hospital ship lit up beautiful. The Germans were marvellous, I won’t have anything against the Germans, you hear about the horrible SS and all which but they were most meticulous the Germans, this hospital ship was absolutely lovely lit up white, all other burning ships around about, the Germans wouldn’t touch to have a Red Cross on and just as I got up, running up this jetty thing, the thing was taking off. I could see it was juddering sideways like that. Anyway a sailor pulled me on board with one hand and this is where the sort of miracle thing, one talks about heaven and hell, forget that, in that hospital ship it was immaculate, beautiful English nurses with lovely starched cuffs right in the middle of Dunkirk there, beautiful smart girls and lovely lying on the bed with a lovely QA nurse looking at your wound. Anyway I fell asleep straightaway and I don’t think I really woke up for several days.