A tale of the Dunkirk evacuation

An Irishman’s Diary on a dog’s life in wartime

 1940: The last few soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force waiting for evacuation from Dunkirk.  Keystone/Getty Images

1940: The last few soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force waiting for evacuation from Dunkirk. Keystone/Getty Images

Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 01:00

Capt Tom gathered his men. They had been sheltering in the Dunkirk dunes from German bombers. A defeated army, they had been retreating for weeks. The German artillery was relentless and the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed them without mercy.

Where is the RAF, everyone grumbled. Nobody knew, but they had been ordered to leave the relative shelter of the dunes and assemble on the beach. They were going to be rescued.

Tom led his reluctant men down towards the water’s edge. He could sense their fear. The beach was so exposed. He was almost rigid with fear himself.

He could see the flotilla of small boats approaching. He organised his men to wade out in a line until the sea was chest high. The water was freezing. Trying to keep their weapons dry was almost impossible.

An ancient smack chugged towards them. The engine made strange croaking sounds. It was already crowded with bedraggled soldiers. The crew hauled more troops on board. Tom was pleased when all his unit had clambered aboard but wondered how they were ever going to get to Dover.

There was a sudden explosion as a Royal Navy destroyer blew up nearby after being hit by a bomb. The air was full of smoke and debris.

Tom and his men were glad when the fishing boat skipper finally shouted that they could take no more passengers and the boat turned in a broad sweep and headed out to sea.

A shell whistled overhead. Everybody instinctively ducked as it landed terrifyingly close by. They were drenched by the resulting water spout. The fishing smack chugged out to sea and Tom could feel the relief as they moved away from the mayhem on the beach.

They must have been about 300 yards out when they came across the dog. He was swimming out to sea and looked terrified as the overladen fishing boat chugged past him.

About 50 yards past the dog the skipper gave an order and the boat, unable to reverse, turned in a wide arc and headed back towards the dog. There was tension in the boat.

Heading back towards Dunkirk for a bloody dog! Nobody said a word. It must be true, Tom thought. The English really love our animals.

The dog was hauled aboard. He looked like a sort of German Shepherd and collapsed, exhausted, on the deck. The soldiers crowded around. He seemed to enjoy the attention and even managed to wag his tail. Someone fetched an old piece of sacking and placed it around the animal.

Tom felt the presence of the dog reminded the men of home and safety. It meant everyone was even more conscious of the terror around them.

He saw dive bombers approaching and ordered the men to take shelter. The trouble was that there was no shelter. Men just crouched and relied on their helmets for protection.

The Stukas screamed down on the flotilla of boats and launched their bombs. The noise was tremendous as the escorting Royal Navy destroyers tried to drive the Stukas off with concentrated anti-aircraft fire.

One near-miss caused the fishing boat to rock violently and a lot of the men thought they were going to sink. Tom could sense the men relax as the fishing boat made steady progress towards Dover.

Even the dog seemed to perk up. He lapped water from a tin hat and chewed on a crust of bread someone found.

They finally reached Dover harbour. In the organised confusion all the men were happy. They had made it. Some of the wounded were in a bad way but at least they would get hospital care now.

Tom made sure his men were safely ashore. Then, as he stepped off the gangway, he felt something brush past him. It was the dog, which fled without a backward glance and disappeared into the crowds along the quayside. Tom’s instinct was to call him, but realised he did not know the dog’s name. He never saw the animal again.

Some of his men were badly wounded and his priority was to bring them to first aid stations.

Tom survived the war and was a very good rugby player with Bristol for years afterwards. He became its popular club president and was later awarded an MBE for services to rugby. He never told his family about the rescue of the dog but strangely told me the tale. I was related to him by marriage and this story of kindness in the midst of war delighted me.

At his funeral in Bristol his Timothy proudly displayed his father’s Dunkirk medal. He found it under Tom’s bed. For his own reasons Tom had never worn it in public.

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