Medway’s role in the miracle of Dunkirk

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.”

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4 Responses to Medway’s role in the miracle of Dunkirk

  1. Peter Millington says:

    I wanted to add that my mother told a story of her walking under Luton Arches when loads of letters and pieces of paper came floating down from a train that was passing over. She collected them and gave them to a policeman. They all said something like, “Please tell Mrs……. of such and such road that her son …..is OK.”

  2. Sue Baker says:

    My Uncle, Charles Kidd from Chatham, was a captain in the Army and returned from Dunkirk with his ‘lads’. I had a very dilapidated local newspaper cutting from the time reporting how courageous he was making sure his men were all safe.

  3. Rex Harvey says:

    When at my garage business inside HMS Pembroke in Chatham in the 1970s we became very friendly with one of the Department of the Environment painters, Albert Barnes, who was a lovely man nearing retirement who was based in the Naval Dockyard. He did a lot of painting for us at the garage during the times our building came up for maintenance and we looked after his Vauxhall HB Viva and later Ford Cortina Mk II for him.

    Albert was an unassuming hero of the Second World War, having served as a sergeant in the Army with the British Expeditionary Force. He had fought his way out of France with his unit to the evacuation beaches of Dunkirk and had led his men off the beach and swum miles out to sea, for which he had been decorated.

    They had spent nearly a day in the water before being picked up by a ship, which was already loaded to the gunwales with evacuees. As Albert and his men were in a pretty bad way, they were offered accommodation below in the warm, which Albert declined preferring to remain on deck. He had just stretched out, when a solitary Stuka dive bomber appeared overhead and lined up for a bombing run.

    Albert watched, fascinated, as the aircraft came down in a step dive and let its bomb go. This fell straight down the funnel and blew the bottom out of the ship, killing several of his men and many others who were below and very effectively sunk the ship.

    He, along with a lot of other servicemen and some of the crew, were to have another uncomfortable time in the water, before being rescued by some of the flotilla of small boats requisitioned by the War Department and was finally returned to Chatham.

    Albert’s unit were one of the first to land during the D-Day assault and he got another commendation for bravery, when attacking and overpowering a German shore battery with his men. At the end of the war in Europe he was one of the first to enter one of the concentration camps, when the allied forces overran Germany and he was very moved by the sights that had met him there.

    He and his wife were a lovely couple who lived quietly in the top end of Gillingham behind the Top Rank bowling alley.

    Another of the old boys of the DoE was a general labourer named Fred Wheeler. Old Fred was a dear old gentleman and another wartime hero, having served in both world wars and been mentioned in dispatches. He had received a medal for gallantry in the first war when a boy soldier and had lived all his life in the back streets near the dockyard gate in Lower Gillingham.

    He often walked or bicycled to and from work and passed our garage forecourt on his way home via the alleyway and the gate out to St Mary’s Road at East Camp. To this day I can see him arthritically shuffling home pushing his old bike and hear his call of “Goodnight Rex, Goodnight Steve”.

    It has been a great honour and privilege to meet, know and become friends with men such as Albert Barnes, Fred Wheeler and my late father in-law Frank Tubb who as an NCO ran a mobile army transport depot through Europe during the Second World War.

  4. Janice Goldsmith says:

    As a five-year-old year girl I remember with such clarity truck after truck going by my home. I lived on the Brook, Chatham, and within five minutes the women of the Brook were making sandwiches and tea for these so tired and mud-covered men. Remember, we were on rationing.

    We kids were handing out the food till none were left. I ran into my mum, and said: “There is no more food, Mum.” She said: “There is no more Janice, all I have now is this big apple, a cooking apple.”

    So I took that, and ran down to the lorry and held it up to a man who looked so tired, and said: “Would you like this, mister?” He nodded yes, so I threw it to him, and the truck moved on.

    I often wondered if that man remembered the little girl who threw him an apple. I’m 81 and I can still see his face.

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