100 years since the end of the Great War – Armistice Day. It was mean to be the war that ended all wars – but it didn’t.
My family knew the story of Dunkirk well before Kenneth Brannagh dramatised it for the silver screen. My Grandfather lived through it and told us tales of being on the beach. We are a close family. Cousins are more like siblings and we still regularly holiday, camp and celebrate together. We talk to each other almost daily from which ever corner of the earth we habit. Until granddad passed a couple of years ago, we would get together on his birthday where tales of his life, which included serving in WWII were told. This particular story lives on in everyone of his children, grand children and great grandchildren.
My grandfather was a professional soldier. He left his native Scotland and signed up in 1932 and had been serving for over 6 years before War was declared. Within three weeks he was in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, 22nd Field regiment, Royal Artillery.
On the retreat to Dunkirk, he was part of a group of about 20 men who were ordered to stay behind in Belgium to hold the line on Newport Beach. They were ordered to remain there until they had used up all of their ammunition. They were left with two guns and a lorry. Once the ammunition was used they destroyed the guns and my grandfather drove the lorry heading for Dunkirk. They didn’t get very far as the roads were destroyed or full of abandoned vehicles so they walked through the night until they reached the sand dunes.
When daylight broke on 31st May the magnitude of the beach retreat was revealed. There aren’t words to describe a beach full of soldiers, cold, tired and hungry, desperate to get home. He and ‘Young Berryman’ had become separated from their rest of the group and were alone. They could see that everyone was forming queues, so he and Berryman joined one. A Regimental Sergeant Major, inspecting the line, asked them “who the bloody hell are you?”, Granddad replied with his regimental details and depending on who’s version of the story you listen too the RSM said “you’re not one of my men – Fall Out.” or “Bugger Off”. And they did – without question – ever the professional soldier.
He and Berryman remained on the beach and like all the other soldiers they were constantly under enemy fire from the land and the air. They considered making their own way out to the boats but Berryman couldn’t swim and granddad would not leave the young lad that had signed up when war broke out. He finally persuaded Berryman to wade out into the sea up to their necks and waited, at night, in the dark. A small motor boat towing three rowing boats passed them full of soldiers. Granddad shouted to them, “Any chance mate?”. The answer was immediate “No!”. He shouted again “I’m alright but my friend can’t swim”. The answer was “Catch the last of the the rowboats and we will tow you out”. And that is how my granddad escaped Dunkirk Beach, towed through the water, hanging onto a boat with one arm and Berryman with the other.
Granddad spent the remainder of the WWII in the Far East and Africa. We have all been soothed to sleep by a lullaby in Swahili. Whoever the youngest grandchild was at the time got the spot on granddads lap. He went on to live a wonderful life until he was nearly 102 years old. He left a huge hole in our lives when he passed. It all could have been so different as he nearly lost his life on the beaches of Dunkirk because he could swim but was determined to look after a young frightened soldier that couldn’t. To this day none of us know the young soldier’s first name. To us he will always be ‘Young Berryman’.
Just before my granddad passed he was interviewed and asked his tip for staying young. He replied “Sheer will power and dogged determination. But I’ve always kept peace of mind – definitely peace of mind” All of that showed to be true on his days on the beaches waiting to go home.
Author: Seabirds Kath (with help from parents, siblings, aunts, cousins…)