Europe

World War 2: Dunkirk evacuee’s diary unearthed ‒ ‘everything gone to the devil’

Imperial War Museum expert discusses small Dunkirk boat

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The Dunkirk evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo, saw Allied soldiers evacuated from the beaches and harbour of France’s northernmost town. In May 1940, the German invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and France took the Allies by surprise. Their troops had been pushed back towards the Channel coast during the six-week Battle of France.

The operation began after large numbers of Belgian, British and French soldiers were surrounded by the Germans in what was described as a “colossal military disaster” by Winston Churchill.

Just 7,669 Allied soldiers were evacuated on the first day, but this number had reached 338,226 by the eight day when the operation ended.

While many troops left via the harbour in British, Canadian and French navy destroyers, alongside a number of civilian merchant ships, others had a more difficult time.

The shallow waters around the Dunkirk beaches meant little boats had to collect them from beaches and carry them out to the deeper parts of the Channel where larger warships were moored.

These became known as the Little Ships of Dunkirk. Men had to wade out from the beaches, sometimes waiting for hours in shoulder-deep water simply to climb aboard these boats.

Just 150 of the roughly 7,500 boats involved still survive today.

A team of curators and historians at London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) looked through the museum’s archives to learn more about the people rescued.

The diary of a soldier called Frank was discovered. Frank was in Dunkirk in the last few days of the evacuation.

IWM curator Vikki Hawkins told the recent Channel 5 documentary ‘Secrets of the Imperial War Museum’ that she sought to “understand a little more about the evacuation, about that desperation looking across the water for those ships that were going to be rescuing them”.

Frank wrote in his diary: “Personally, I do not expect to leave until the last, and have a feeling that getting away will not be too easy.

“Everything has now gone completely to the devil and it is obvious to a seasoned soldier that France has lost. It is now so long since I had anything to eat or drink that I no longer feel hungry or thirsty. I do not think I shall ever go to sleep again.”

He recalled a relentless barrage of bombs and machine guns, writing “my rifle barrel is hot from firing at low flying planes”.

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Ms Hawkins said: “For somebody like Frank, who was waiting to be rescued, who was tired, who was exhausted, who was doing everything he could to avoid the shootings from the planes above him, it must have been such a relief to see Tamzine and other little boats coming to their rescue.”

Tamzine was one of the smallest boats used in the evacuation, and forms part of the IWM’s Dunkirk collection as one of the few surviving vessels.

Around 3,500 British soldiers were killed during the Battle of France and the aftermath, with a further 13,053 wounded.

Frank was one of the lucky ones, and escaped. He wrote: “It’s funny that myself, who matters to no one, should have been guided safely through all this carnage, while so many others have paid the extreme cost.”.

Ms Hawkins said: “Even just reading these short little extracts, it really brings home how important Tamzine is to be able to tell us the story of that rescue.”

Tamzine, Ms Hawkins estimates, would have held around six men at a time, but had such an important role regardless of her size.

Using powerful accounts such as Frank’s and artefacts such as Tamzine, the IWM can tell the remarkable story of the Dunkirk evacuations.

On the final day of the evacuations, Winston Churchill gave his famous ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech to the House of Commons.

The rallying cry stirred emotion across the country, as described by the author Vita Sackville-West.

The speech was not repeated as a live broadcast, instead extracts were read by the newsreader on the evening’s broadcast.

Ms Sackville-West wrote: “Even repeated by the announcer, it sent shivers (not of fear) down my spine.

“I think that one of the reasons why one is stirred by his Elizabethan phrases is that one feels the whole massive backing of power and resolve behind them, like a great fortress: they are never words for words’ sake.”

Secrets of the Imperial War Museum airs on Friday nights at 7pm on Channel 5. It is also available on My5.

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