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Retreat to Dunkirk

Editor's note: Pat Kirwan (1906-1994) was born in India and entered the School in 1916, a year after his father was killed in the Battle of Ypres. He was in E Company, later renamed Wolseley House, and played the flute. He became a prefect and left the school in 1924 to enlist in the Army.. In those days, there were 21 prefects in the school under a head prefect. They lived in the 'prefects house', which was located near to the school chapel. Each prefect had his own room. Pat was at the school when his younger brother Dan arrived in 1923 and is the same Dan referred to at the end of this letter. Dan emigrated to the United States when he was taken in by relatives. His story is recorded elsewhere on this site. Dan Kirwan enlisted in the U. S. Army.

Pat was a captain in the RAEC at the time of the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. He commanded a convoy of trucks during the retreat and provides an interesting account with graphic detail. His description is an important addition to our school history. This is especially so because there is no longer a school chronicle or other journal in which the experiences of Dukies from the past are recorded. Chad Stather's unofficial web site makes some provision for personal accounts although available space is probably limited. Pat spent the rest of the war in military intelligence in the decoding message intercepts. See also 'The Sinking of the Marnix', written by Major Joe Kirwan, one of the Kirwan brothers.

5 August 1940

Dear Kitty,

Thanks very much for your last letter. Do you realize that it took just a month to reach Nora? But I suppose that that is not bad going, considering the circumstances. Now I suppose that you want to know just how we are going on, and how we are standing up to the Big Bad Wolf.

Honestly, nobody seems to bother much. Occasionally the talk veers round to what might happen but in the main folk seem to think that if Hitler invades he's going to get a smack in the eye and if he doesn't why worry? Of course there are precautions and rather more uniforms to be seen than in peace, but on the surface life goes on just the same. In fact, out chief worry in the last three weeks has been to get a hours (you'll have noticed that we have again changed our address). You see, when I came back from Dunkirk I was posted to Durham and Nora immediately decided that she was coming too. That suited me, for the North is rather more healthy than the South at the moment, so up she came. Unfortunately I had counted on getting a house at once, but was disappointed and we had to scour the city for three weeks before we managed to get a suitable place. We moved in yesterday and to-day I've been very busy getting the place to rights. It's nearly finished now, there remain only the light stuff which Nora can handle herself at off times when I'm out on the job.

And now I suppose you want to know what happened in France and Belgium in May. I'll tell you what I saw of it, and, as the story has been told officially, I think it will pass the Censor. So if there are chunks missing you'll know that I've been indiscreet.

As you know, Kitty, Jerry moved on the 10th May. I was at Lille at the time and we were wakened in the early hours of the morning by a devil of a row. Every gun in miles, it appears, was loosing off at enemy planes and they were chucking down filth, though at some distance from us. I lay awake listening and debating whether I should get up and go to see what was happening and risk catching cold or stay where I was and go back to sleep again, for I was on duty at eight thirty. When I did get up the whole show as over so I got cold for nothing. We heard that Jerry had crossed into Belgium and Holland just before breakfast and knew then that we were in for some hectic days but how hectic we had no idea.

The Division was in reserve and so we didn't move forward for four days after the 10th. When we did move we moved with speed, straight to Brussels in one hop. There were crowds of refugees on the road but at that time they were fairly cheerful. Many of them had done the trip before in '14 and they were extremely bitter against a nation that had turned them on the road twice in one lifetime. But in the main they were fairly confident that we could deal with the enemy, though, frankly, we were not impressed with the Belgium troops. They were brae enough, heaven only knows, and fought well from what I saw, but their equipment was awful. It looked to me as though they were trying to fight with the equipment of 1914. Later their horse drawn transport and guns were to give us a lot of trouble. We passed streams of cyclists, newly equipped, making their way through Alost to what I took to be Bruges. I may be wrong but certainly they were moving as fast as their cycles could take them towards the North West coast. We passed streams of cycles. We, as I say, moved up to Brussels, where we stayed for four days. Only once in that time did Jerry worry us, and that was by bombing. He missed by half a mile and blew immense holes in a field. Out brigades were in contact and easily held their own. We were still confident and got rather a nasty shock when we were told to retire. From then on things began to move and I rather lost count of days, for I started to lose sleep and never really caught up until I was back in England a fortnight later. It was only a fortnight but to me, at the time, it seemed more like months, for it was a case of fight and go, fight and go until I began to wonder what would happen when I took my boots off. Fortunately I had a lorry to travel in but even so, when one moves all night and in on duty all day and then moves again it begins to get monotonous. We came back by series of jumps and whenever we came into contact with the enemy he got a licking, In fact, in all the retreat we were never really tested until the end. Now, of course, we know why. We were in danger of being surrounding completely and in danger of being cut off from the coast. We had to have some point at which we could draw our supplies and that meant having to have our backs to the sea. We first got an inkling as to why. We were going back when we were brought down to half rations. We knew then that somewhere the line had been broken and Jerry was astride our lines of communications. Where he was or how it was done didn't concern us, but we rather hoped that it would soon be cleared up and give us a chance to halt awhile and then get going Northwards instead of forever going South.

Our real test came when the greater part of the Div. H.Q. were ordered to the coast. We took it that we were going to assist the Belgium's and started off blithely enough. That was on the 28th May. We travelled in the usual manner – no lights and as the night was intensely dark we could only manage a slow crawl. How on earth the drivers held the road beats me, for I had all my work cut out to see the following vehicle in order that touch should not be lost and the column split. We had orders to abandon any vehicles which might break down and distribute the load among the others. But we had a good crowd of drivers and none of the vehicles did break down.

Towards dawn I began to get interested in the situation of other guns. All night they had been rumbling but I hadn't taken much notice. I was too tired and anyway, all my attention was on the falling vehicle. As it got lighter I was able to stop watching it and look around. Then I noticed that the gun-fire sounded both to the North and the South of us. I knew we weren't running between our guns and the Infantry (unless someone had blundered). We were fighting two ways. Only that day I had seen two anti-tank guns facing our rear just outside our H. Q.

You can guess that I wasn't particularly happy about it all, but there was nothing I could do about it. My job was to see my section through to the coast and that was all I could manage, because just then, just as dawn was breaking, we ran smack into a mixed column of all arms on a narrow road with no vestige of cover. This was near Poperinghe, on ground which had been fought over in the last spot of unpleasantness. In a short time, other columns following us had closed up and, before I could think, we were inextricably jammed, nose to tailboard, in a block extending for five miles. The drivers seized the opportunity to sleep, our driver just collapsed over his wheel and was asleep almost as soon as he had put on the brakes. The rest of us got out to stretch our legs and we stood by the side of the road idly watching shell bursts along a range of heights some three miles from us. It was only later that we realized that that was our road that Jerry was ranging on, though we were fortunate when we came to run along it, for he had evidently packed in for breakfast and we got through, the whole column as far as I could see, without loss.

It was while we were stuck fast at this point that we were caught by Jerry's dawn Patrol. One of his places circled us deliberately, evidently making notes. There was nothing we could do about it. There we were, hammed tight, ditches on each side and no other cover for miles. We simply had to stand and wait for the strafe, which, for some reason, never came. Perhaps one of our chats got him on his way home. At any rate, he never came back. Soon after this, at about seven o'clock, the jam eased and we were able to get going again, through Poperinshe and along the shelled road.

Pop was looking a mess as we came through and must now be completely in ruins, for the read-guard fought through it late on. But, as I said, Jerry had evidently packed in for breakfast, for we got through with no trouble at all. After that we had a fairly straightforward run until about mid-day. Then we got caught in another jam and this time weren't so lucky. We were attacked by a bomber which was intercepted by one of our fighters before he had time to do his dirty work. The scrap was very short and down he came, out of control. But even as he passed over us, fortunately broadside, his rear gunner go going, fortunately without hitting anything. I dived for the ditch at the first sound of guns and landed next to a driver. Afterwards he rolled over and said, reflectively, "I'm glad he didn't hit after all. I've a hundred pounder in my bus." I was please, you can guess I took the first opportunity of getting away from him and his load and my driver was as anxious as I was. It was fortunate that we did, for we had just gotten clear of the column when three dive bombers hit it. We watches the attack from a distance, waiting for an ammunition lorry to burn itself out. The thing was exploding like a gigantic fire cracker but as soon as we had collected the rest of our column together we decided to chance it and get out while the going was good. That particular (spot) seemed to be unhealthy.

Once past the wagon we sat back and congratulated ourselves a trifle previously but we weren't to know that. As far as Furnes we had a clear run but it was evident from the wrecked lorries along the road that somebody had been getting it in the neck. We weren't molested thought, and we stopped (at) Furnes beside the Dunkirk Canal to wait for orders and to snatch the chance for a sleep and some food. We'd had nothing for nearly twenty-four hours and I'd had no sleep for nearly seven-two hours. But we weren't to get much chance even then, for, an hour after we stopped, at about two o'clock in the afternoon, the Section was told to destroy all secret and confidential stuff we had. Things were getting serious but we still thought we had time to do the job properly and so we set to work. This job took us nearly two hours and we had no sooner finished than we were ordered to enbus and make our way to Dunkirk. Actually the officer commanding simply gave me the order "Follow me" and drove off. Almost as soon as we were on the road we were spotted and machine gunned. I say the plane coming down the road and the French troops rushing for cover, I shouted to the driver "Stop, and into the ditch". The thought I said "Step in the ditch" and immediately swung his wheel hard and jammed on the brakes. The front wheels overhung a six foot drop and almost scared the life out of me. I shoved him out and shouted to the other to jump for it, just in time. The first plane missed us – swerve took us just out of the line of fire and the second plane merely punctured holes in the roof of the lorry. Then came the problem of getting the lorry back on the road. I never knew that twenty men could practically lift and throw back a two ton lorry. We did it, assisted, I must admit, by the engine in reverse. But I'll swear that lorry was already half way on the road before the brakes came off.

By this time I had lost the officer and found that I was the senior with forty men looking for orders from me – and I hadn't the foggiest idea what it was all about save that we had to go to Dunkirk. So off to Dunkirk we went. The French were ditching their lorries and tanks as we went down the road and I began to realise that I was in the middle of a darned big retreat and I didn't feel very happy about it. Those forty men behind me worried me for I had the job of getting them safety wherever they were going, and I didn't know where we were going.

In Dunkirk I pulled up and asked a Colonel for orders of some kind. He knew no more than I did, but he did know that evacuation was going on and advised me to try the docks. So off to the docks I went, the rest trailing behind me. Once there I found that it was impossible to take the lorries any further, so I gave the order to debus and destroy the lorries. Before we could do that we were raided and dashed for shelter. That was the first time that I had bombs dropped near me and it's decidedly unpleasant. As soon as the planes had gone a routed out the drivers and set them to work destroying their vehicles and set off for the docks. It was impossible to get anywhere near them for the whole place was ablaze. I penetrated as far as I could but realised that it would be impossible to take a party of forty men down that way and hope to get them through. I ran across another Officer, also looking for a way for his party and we talked it over. He had been in the town in peace and suggested that the best place would be in the dunes. Then we could see what could be done at night. So back I went, only to run smack into another raid. The lorries were blazing fiercely when I went to cover but they had disappeared when I came out again. They must have had a direct hit. But what worried me most was that I could collect only a few men. The rest had disappeared. I hung on as long as I could, hoped that they would show up but finally I had to lead off in the direction of the dunes. On the way I collected the flotsam and jetsam of the battle 0 all the waifs and strays and masterless men that float around trying to get orders from someone. These I led out with my own folk onto the dunes. No sooner had we arrived than down cam Jerry again, this time in a flight nine strong, machine gunning and bombing. With three others I threw myself behind a slight rise in the sand, face down, and tried to make myself as small as I could. One bomb landed twenty yards in front of us and another twenty yards behind us. The bloke beside me our orderly, started to curse frenziedly. I rolled him over to get at his wound when he pointed to his helmet. There was a slight graze which barely took off the paint but he was annoyed as if it had been an heirloom. In passing, the piece must have just missed me. Had I been further up the slope I'd have had the full benefit of it.

Needless to say, I lost my party again, so, with the three left to me I decided to seek better cover and wait for night. Besides, I was dead tired and wanted to sleep. But Jerry wouldn't give us a chance. I found a dug-out and we sat in there for a short time, but the rest of the party worried me, so I left the dugout in what I thought was a quiet spell to see if I could locate them. I wondered around but could seen signs of them and then went back to the dugout I was about thirty yards off when I saw more planes and started to run. I must have beaten all records but even so, as I slid down the steps, a bomb landed on the entrance. The black caught me squarely. My pack was jerked round and my helmet torn off. The sides of the dub-out caved in somewhat and rocked to explosion after explosion. The everything had died down I collected my three and we decided to go to a better 'ole – if we could find one. Once out, I came upon two more of my lads, with news of a cellar they had found. They'd been in the open in the last strafe and I didn't envy them at all. My left ear was ringing and I was dizzy. My ear hasn't been right since, but I'm not cribbing. I was darned lucky to get away with only that.

The cellar was all once could ask for, so we stayed there. Believe me, I wanted no more of being caught in the open. Had I a decent weapon it might have been different, but all I had was a revolver and twelve round of ammunition, and they're no good against planes. About seven in the evening naval people came round with order for everybody to make their way to the beaches. That meant more trekking, and by this time I was wondering whether I was in the feet or my ankles. However, it was go or stay and I elected to go. Twice on the way down Jerry came over. How he missed us I don't know, but he did. He threw everything and wound another. There were the only casualties I saw in nearly three hours on the dunes. I saw non in my vicinity on the beach, though I believe that somebody was hit further up.

Once on the beach – by this time I was alone, having lost the remainder of my chaps in the last raid I found the divisional postman complete with cash box. He's lost all his chaps, so I joined up with him and lent him a hand. We staggered with this confounded box (and it was heavy) as far as the promenade and there we took cover and waited as patiently as we could for the boat to come in and take us off. At dusk awe went down to the waters edge to see what was doing, but the mill there was so great that we decided to let the crowd go before trying for a boat ourselves. Accordingly we made our way back to the promenade and lay down. A bombardier fell over me and immediately wanted to know where his battery was. I could only refer him to our right where I knew some Gunners were waiting. I sat up to watch him go and almost I landed in my dinner pail right there. The Casino was ablaze behind us, casting a glare on the beach. A sentry had seen a figure moving up the beach in short rushes and, being, I suppose, somewhat nervous, had challenged and fired almost in one. His first bullet zipped past my head, but I didn't hear his second. I was flat and cursing. So was the moving bloke, who happened to be the Major commanding the remnants of the battery on our right. After that episode, I stayed down and must have dropped off to sleep, for I remember crouching lower when I heard the whine of a bomber coming our way, but it was an hour later when I heard the explosion. I must have gone to sleep in one raid and wakened by another. I felt better for the rest, though, and proposed to the postman to try for a boat.

There was still a crown on the beach, waiting patiently for their turns. The beach commander, a stout hearted fellow who seemed to thrive on nightly strolls along the beach when we were heartily fed up with one night there, informed us that destroyers would attempt to take off men from the breakwater. He warned us that it would be dangerous, but I thought I saw a change of getting off dry-shod, so off we went, with another crowd. Half way along the beach we were spotted by a low flyer who let two salvos go – one landed short of us and the rest fell into the sea. Then he got involved with a petrol tank explosion as he wheeled to attack again and that finished him. We lay among the rocks for an hour waiting for the destroyers to come in. When we did get the order to move I had to slip and wrench my ankle trying to hoist the confounded cashbox over a biggish rock. That Postman was determined to get his box home and I had to be a mug and help him do it. Once on the breakwater it was a case of run and drop, run and drop step by step until we reached the destroyer. Discipline was excellent, for not one man attempted to take another's place, but retained single file all the way. Intervals of yen yards between every twenty men were rigorously kept, and not once had I to check any closing up in my section of the line. The last run nearly creased me though. My ankle was paining and I had no sleep – I was more tired than I though I could possible be and still keep moving. A sailor hauled me over side by the braced of my equipment an undignified but effective method - and left me to stagger below decks. I grabbed a lifebelt, wrapped it round myself, flopped in the corner and fell asleep. I woke up again as we were running into Dover.

From there I went to be re-equipped, for I'd lost everything by my fighting equipment and my valise and rubber mattress. I hung on to that on the principle that I had to campaign some more and I might as well be comfortable about it. Since then I've moved around a little and now I'm at Durham and Nora has come up to settle for the duration. So, for a time I'm in clover.

I don't know what is to happen next. (If I did I couldn't tell you) But I do know that Hitler is going to have his work cut out to lick us, if he does. Why, a couple of days ago I spoke to a young girl who is getting her future home ready. She is going to marry this month. She was looking out of the window and suddenly and quite seriously, she said, "When are they going to give us women arms to defend our own homes?" Hitler will never defeat a spirit like that, Kitty.

Nora is busy writing now and I expect you'll get her letter with this. As for the news of the remainder, Joe has got a commission in the Welch Regiment, though you probably know that. I went to see him but missed him by two days. Now he's in the xxxxxx (sorry, that mustn't go). Anyway, we're miles apart. He got married to an Oxford girl, Eileen, on June 1st. I had a letter from Alice and her husband today. They are still at Singapore and write that the climate is worrying them though the baby seems to thrive on it. They have both had attacks of dengue fever, but have now recovered after a health trip to the high land of the interior.

I think that's the lot, so I'll finish. Write more often, will you please, and I, for my part promise to do the same. Letters take so long these days that the old game of writing and then waiting for an answer will mean a letter every two months or so. Give my regards to all and tell that lazy blight, Dan, to try to write at least once a year.

Yours, Pat

P.S. I've accounted for all my party but two, and I believe that they are somewhere in England. That makes me feel a lot better.

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