The Border Regiment at Dunkirk 1940
Operation Dynamo – the Evacuation of Dunkirk
The Telegraph on-line review of Christopher Nolan’s new film says it’s ‘a retelling of the Allied evacuation of occupied France in 1940, is a work of heart-hammering intensity and grandeur that demands to be seen on the best and biggest screen within reach.’
Nolan’s war film has generated a lot of public interest. It gives an overview of the events of May/June 1940, events which three battalions of the Border Regiment were part of. The Regimental history records the actions of the 1st, 4th and 5th Battalions in Northern France during this period. Events which included men like Bandsman Alex Turner from the 1st Battalion, who recalls being told ‘to make for the black smoke on the skyline, which we later found to be the blazing oil tanks at the docks at Dunkirk.’
The three battalions had slightly differing experiences but all experienced the organised chaos of constant enemy attacks, the confusion of moving thousands of troops along French roads, disposal of equipment, poor communication and subsequent evacuation. For the 1st Battalion, it meant men from various companies becoming separated despite Sergeant Joe Hardy riding up and down the convoy on his motor-cycle trying to keep the column together. On the 28th May, the 5th Battalion picked up about 80 of these ‘separated’ soldiers and continued to march along roads congested with vehicles, guns and refugees. Receiving orders to withdraw to the Dunkirk perimeter, the battalion were requested to put out of action all transport and abandon all kit except that which could be carried on the men themselves. To quote the Regimental history ‘It was a depressing march. Lorries, guns, equipment and stores of all sorts were strewn all over the country, abandoned and burning.’
The 1st Battalion, too, were making their way towards Dunkirk. Bandsman Turner recollects ‘we were told to make for Dunkirk. We got the walking wounded away and made our serious casualties comfortable marking the letter ‘M’ on their foreheads so that the Germans would know that they had been given morphia.’ By late May, both the 1st Battalion and the 5th Battalion had reached the beaches. Despite enemy shelling, many aerial attacks and heavy artillery bombardment, the 5th Battalion repulsed an enemy attack on the 31st May. Private L. Wilson, a stretcher bearer with C Company, along with three other stretcher bearers, went out in the face of the heavy fire to collect the wounded. The three stretcher bearers were all shot, but Pte Wilson continued alone bringing eight wounded men back to safety, carrying them in his arms.
Although there were numerous queues awaiting embarkation, many 5th Battalion soldiers were taken off the beaches on the 1st June with the last remaining heading for home late on the 2nd. Meanwhile many soldiers of the 1st Battalion were evacuated on 30th May but not Sergeant Joe Hardy. He remembered that his ‘…only option…was to join one of the queues and take my turn at getting away in one of the small boats. It all seemed very hopeless. After many hours standing chest deep in the water I reached the head of the queue, only to find that there was a very young and extremely gallant officer organising the loading of the boats. He could not remember how long he had been there, but it was very obvious that if he stayed there any longer he would go under. I told him he was unfit to do the job any longer and insisted that he be the first man into the next boat and that I would take his place organising at the head of the queue…’ Sgt Hardy eventually boarded a steamer that took him and his group to a destroyer, which landed them at Margate.
The 4th Battalion’s experiences differed from the other two battalions. Ordered to move from Brittany, they were ordered to attack the three bridges over the Somme, with the support of one regiment of tanks, in the early hours of the 24th May. Eventually after heavy fire, the battalion withdrew to the Foret d’Eu and discovered that the Germans had captured Boulogne and the BEF had been evacuated from Dunkirk. The battalion were involved in securing the village of Incheville, clearing the local Forest of the enemy but were eventually ordered to withdraw. A long march saw them first in Dieppe, then on to Le Havre where a ship lay waiting with orders to destroy all transport before marching to the quayside. On the 14th June their ship set out to sea but then entered Cherbourg Harbour where they boarded a train to Brest, then embarked on the ship ‘Yorktown’ to arrive in Southampton on the 18th June.
Watch Nolan’s film and appreciate what the soldiers of the Border Regiment and other British, French and Belgian Regiments coped with during the months of May and June 1940. The massive evacuation of thousands of soldiers is the basis of his film ‘Dunkirk’, but Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, based in Carlisle Castle, reflects on Dunkirk from a soldier’s viewpoint, highlighting our Regiment’s connection with this momentous period in history.
The Story of the Border Regiment 1939-1945; Philip J. Shears; 1948
When Dragons Flew – An Illustrated History of the 1st Battalion The Border Regiment 1939-45 Eastwood, Grey & Green; 2009
http://www.telegraph.co.uk – Review of the film ‘Dunkirk’ – 21 July 2017