The story of my father’s evacuation from Dunkirk
Family Fortunes: That wasn’t the end of my father’s war, he had 6 years to serve, ending as an officer in the Indian army
Ships carrying members of the BEF leaving Dunkirk during the evacuation of British troops. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
The story of Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of nearly 350,000 allied troops from the French port of Dunkirk in late May and early June of 1940 – is well known.
At 99, John Whyte, my father, must be one of the last survivors of that momentous week. Because it differs from the familiar images of soldiers huddled on the beaches awaiting rescue, his story deserves to be told.
In 1939, at the age of 20, my father was one of the first age groups to be conscripted into the expanding army. Born in Ireland, but moving with his family to Glasgow in the 1930s, he was working in civil engineering projects when he was called up. In a few years he had learned to drive and operate a wide range of machines. Exceptionally, the War Office managed to recognise his skills, and he was attached to an engineering unit. As part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), they were moved to northern France in late 1939 and spent a fairly comfortable winter in the period known as “the phoney war”.
In May 1940, with the invasion, firstly of Denmark and Norway, and then of the Low Countries and France, all of the assumptions about the shape of the new war were overturned. The initial German advance into Belgium and the Netherlands drew the allies north but then the main German armoured force broke through the Ardennes and moved with unheard of speed to the Channel cutting off the BEF and the northern French and Belgian armies. The situation was desperate.
On Sunday, May 26th, my father was ordered to drive a young lieutenant on a forward reconnaissance mission to establish the extent of the Germans advance. As they entered the Belgian town of Cassel their way was blocked by the imposing figure of a Provost Marshal in Seaforth trews. Having explained their mission they were told: “You’ve found them! They’ll be here in 10 minutes. Get to Dunkirk – there’s an evacuation.” He pointed to plumes of black smoke from burning oil storage tanks on the coast.
That was enough: they set off and drove on empty roads, only stopping for a downed RAF pilot. Because it was the first day of the evacuation, Dunkirk was not crowded. They joined a column of marching sailors and fell in behind them and boarded a destroyer – HMS Wakeful – crowded on to the forward deck along with around 700 other troops. The Wakeful soon headed, at full speed, for Dover – only an hour away.
That wasn’t the end of my father’s war: he had over 6 years to serve – ending as an officer in the Indian army.
He survived the war, but the Wakeful wasn’t so lucky. On Wednesday, May 29th, she was torpedoed by an E-boat on her return trip to Dover. All but one of her evacuated troops and most of her crew were lost.