Years ago when I was a journalism student I did a project about tunnels in Rochester. The helpful chap at Rochester reference library mentioned in passing about a tunnel that was said to pass from Chatham Dockyard to the naval hospital (now Medway Maritime).
I kept that lurking up in the grey matter for 30 years and then I asked: were soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 really brought ashore at Chatham and through this tunnel to spare our townsfolk seeing our gallant but bedraggled army in full retreat?
I was delighted to have received information from Mr Mick Goldsmith, from Hempstead. He was there, so he should know what happened.
But first, the background to a military action that nearly destroyed Britain. It was a terrible time. The Battle of France began on 10 May, 1940. German armour burst through the Ardennes region and advanced north at great speed. To the east the Germans invaded the Netherlands and advanced rapidly through Belgium.
The combined British, French and Belgian forces were split around Armentières. The German forces then swept north to capture Calais, trapping a large body of Allied soldiers against the coast on the border of France and Belgium.
The British Expeditionary Force was hemmed in – and faced the most ignominious defeat. Loss of this army would leave the British Isles exposed to Nazi invasion. Preparations for an evacuation — codenamed Operation Dynamo, commanded from Dover by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay — began on 22 May.
Using naval vessels and ships capable of carrying 1,000 men, it was intended to recover about 45,000 men over two days, but this was soon stretched to 120,000 men over five days. On 27 May, civilians were asked to provide shallow-draught vessels of 30ft to 100ft. Craft including fishing boats and recreational vessels — among them the Medway Queen — together with merchant marine and Royal Navy vessels, gathered at Sheerness and went to Dunkirk and surrounding beaches to recover troops.
Operations continued until 4 June, evacuating a total of 338,226 troops on about 700 different vessels. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it a miracle and exhortations to the “Dunkirk spirit” — triumphing in the face of adversity — are still (occasionally) heard in Britain today.
A bewildered soldier’s tale
But was it a miracle? Mr Goldsmith writes: “After four days at Bray-Dunes [a nearby seaside resort] and Dunkirk itself, I eventually came back on 30 May, 1940, on the destroyer Anthony and landed at Dover.
“Our train, bound for London, did not stop at Gillingham station, but at Chatham. I did not see wounded taken off but stretcher-bearers were waiting on the platform. I was tempted to get off and make my way home — Osprey Avenue in Gillingham. Most of the lads had given up their rifles at Dover. I still had mine, which would make me rather conspicuous, so I went first to Ticehurst Barracks in Reading and then to Yelverton in Devon where our unit was re-formed.
“We were then given a 72-hour BEF leave, but it took me 24 hours to get home. I don’t think there was ever any secret that we were evacuating, though it was not until we read the newspapers here that we realised it was the whole of the BEF.
“A great fuss was made of us — to our bewilderment, for we all knew that we were a defeated army and certainly not heroes as we were made out to be. It was, said Churchill, a miracle. But for Dunkirk we could not have had D-Day. Incidentally, I was then a turret gunner in a 40-ton Churchill tank and landed at 8pm on Juno beach — but that’s another story.”
It’s a story I hope Mr Goldsmith will tell us.
Where, however, were the secret tunnels? I appealed to Kent Underground Research Group. The group, which investigates tunnels of all sorts throughout the county, had just been at Fort Amherst, Chatham, and members were told that there had been a tunnel from the fort to the hospital but a bomb had destroyed the entrance. I await more information with alacrity.
A letter to post from the retreating heroes
Meanwhile, Mrs M Connolly, of West Street, Gillingham, responded with this delightful recollection:
“I saw a photograph of a troop training bringing our lads home from the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. Memories came flooding back to me. I was living in Ferndale Road, Gillingham, at the time and had to use the railway level crossing to reach the High Street.
“The gates were closed as I arrived. Three of us were waiting to cross … then, slowly, a troop train came through. The lads were very weary but when they saw us there was a scramble for windows and letters were thrown out for us to post to their loved ones.
“Some of the envelopes fell inside the gates, but every one of them was gathered up and posted by us. Needless to say, no letter carried a stamp, so we had to provide them. I was a young teenager then — but what the heck, I could go without stockings for another week.”