80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation

26 May 2020

As the country marks the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, we look back and honour those Wellingtonians who were involved and those who died in the operation. The evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of northern France in the face of invading German forces took place between 26 May and 4 June 1940. Over these eight days, a Herculean effort by ships large and small saw nearly 340,000 Allied troops rescued, an event which Winston Churchill described as a “miracle of deliverance.”

Nine Old Wellingtonians are known to have died during the action. They include 2nd Lt Robert ‘Roy’ Money (Hardinge 1932-37), who, during the retreat to the coast, heard that a friend from the Hardinge had been left behind seriously wounded. Against advice and orders, Roy set out to look for his friend, but never returned. Another OW, 2nd Lt John Watkin (Picton 1933-37) was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for his actions on 30 May. Ordered to hold a post with a Bren gun till 10 pm, he fought on after the post received a direct hit, delighted to have got his men out of it. Although badly wounded, he is recorded to have “fought very gallantly single-handed.” He is thought to have died from his wounds in an ambulance on the way to Dunkirk.

Perhaps most remarkable was Sub-Lt William Tower, Royal Navy (Hill 1932-36), who was in charge of a 20-ton motor yacht. On the nights of June 1st and 2nd he brought several loads of rescued men to the larger ships. On June 3rd all ships were ordered to return, but Tower had promised to pick up 34 French officers and men and he went to bring them back under his own power. By then Dunkirk Harbour was choked with sunken ships and the yacht seems to have entangled her propeller in a wire, breaking the propeller shaft. At dawn, foreseeing the coming of enemy planes, Tower swam against the tide to a small boat in which he meant to row back to Dunkirk and improvise a tug, but was not seen again.

Many more Wellingtonians were involved in the events at Dunkirk. Among those awarded the Military Cross for their actions there were Captain Anthony Wainwright (Murray 1931-36), who managed the steady and safe withdrawal, while still fighting, of two Royal Artillery sections and personally returned to round up stragglers, and 2nd Lt John Parker (Stanley 1932-36), also Royal Artillery, who maintained an observation post under heavy shelling and machine-gun fire even after being wounded in the face.

General Sir Evelyn Barker (Beresford 1907-11) was a veteran of the First World War, who at Dunkirk was Commander of the 10th Infantry Brigade. He led them through some of the hardest fighting of the campaign, and on one occasion used his penknife to amputate the arm of an injured British soldier on Dunkirk beach. The soldier later recovered. Meanwhile, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (Wellesley 1924-28) had already been shot down and taken prisoner while flying an operational patrol over Dunkirk shortly before the evacuation. This eventually led to his incarceration in Stalag Luft III where he masterminded “The Great Escape.”

Back at College, students and staff listened anxiously for news of the evacuation. The Head of the Talbot wrote in the House record book of the “unending stream of troop trains past Derby” carrying soldiers brought back from Dunkirk. An account written much later by another student confirms this: “One afternoon in June all cricket and games were suddenly cancelled and the whole school was ordered to line both sides of the railway line and cheer the trains carrying the troops rescued from Dunkirk. I remember how cheerful yet filthy and dirty they all looked. Some still wore their steel helmets, some their forage caps, others were bareheaded or wore white bandages round their heads… We cheered and waved and most of them waved back.”

Noting that the German offensive in France and Belgium had made effective use of parachute troops and troop-carrying aircraft, the College authorities ordered that a ditch should be dug across Derby Field to prevent such aircraft from landing, and the College’s Local Defence Volunteers (later Home Guard) were formed to patrol the grounds in search of parachutists. In July 1940 the Head of the Picton wrote “The war has entered upon its second stage, which… will affect the lives of every one of us… Things have gone against us more than anyone would have thought possible… We are beginning to feel that we are in the front line ourselves.” Soon, the College would experience the war at first hand.