171st Field Ambulance, R.A.M.C at Dunkirk

My father’s war was, by and large, a quiet war. A Territorial, he was called up in the summer of 1939, and demobbed in late 1944. Birmingham born and bred, my father had trained in Birmingham, and in the latter part of the 1930s he shared a general practice with his father in Edgbaston. Just short of 29 on the outbreak of war, his first posting was to 143rd Field Ambulance. He was in England during the Phoney War of late 1939 and early 1940,  in Northern Ireland from late 1940 until 1943, “somewhere on the South Coast” in the six months before D-Day, and then returned to civilian general practice in autumn of 1944.

But for seven days, 70 years ago, he was on active service at Dunkirk.

My father very rarely spoke about that week.  As a young boy, eager to know what my father had done in the war, I asked a great many questions – and got very little by way of reply, other than that he had been sent to Dunkirk early in the evacuation, as they were running short of medical officers, and thought he had been on one of the last boats out. Years later, his batman Perry, visiting my father in his retirement, told me that as they reached the beach, and notwithstanding air attacks, my father had sat on a folding chair and checked the stores ashore, asking Perry to empty two large stone jars of rum to prevent temptation.

That was it. No heroics, no stories of derring-do: all very understated and, even if a cliché, very English.

When my father died we found a canvas backed notebook among the papers in his desk, that he had intended to be “The Private Life of the Officers Mess of 171st Field Ambulance R.A.M.C.”. The first entry is 17 November 1939, when his Field Ambulance was formed, spun out of 143rd Field Ambulance; the last on 5 June 1940, when my father and the four other officers who had been at Dunkirk with him returned to “Castleman’s” at Hare Hatch for a celebration dinner in the Mess. The menu, signed by each of them, is still in the journal. Nothing else follows: it seems that that week changed for ever the way he looked at the war. And even 40 years later he was reluctant to talk about it.

In this week when Dunkirk is back in our minds, I looked out the journal, and re-read the entries for those seven days. The account is sparse and the language rather formal: written up immediately after my father’s return. But its very ordinariness makes it all the more powerful. This is my father’s record of that week: the only record I have.

May 25th

Bill, Charlie, Michael, George and Victor departed in full battle order complete with valises, ten N.O.s and a nasty feeling in the stomach bound for Dover and ultimately Dunkirk. On arrival at Dover we found that we were part of a collection of about 30 M.O.s who were to assist in the treatment of casualties during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Bill being the only captain present was put in charge of the whole under command of Colonel Blake and was responsible for the organisation and on successive days made five or six trips to and from and into Dunkirk itself.

May 26th

Charles, George, Michael and Victor sailed on the destroyer H.M.S. Verity and it being found impossible to land them in Dunkirk harbour owing to the excessive number of bombs falling in that area they were taken about two miles up the beach and landed from a flat-bottomed boat, having to wade the last 25 yards complete with full kit, stores, food etc.

The first dressing station of the 171st Field Ambulance under active service conditions was then opened in an abandoned ambulance just to the left of a Sanitorium.

May 27th

The four M.O.s moved up to Bray Dunes and placed themselves under the command of I Corps. During this move Michael returning to look for one of the N.O.s became separated from the other three and later in the day became attached to the 126th Field Ambulance remaining in the A.D.S. at Bray Dunes with only their commanding officer, finally leaving Dunkirk via the Mole on Saturday evening and arriving back in Dover on Sunday.

The other three moved about two miles inland where they established an A.D.S. under command of Lt. Babty in an estaminet on a cross roads. They remained there until the night of June 1st when having received orders to close the A.D.S. they drove by ambulance to the Mole from which they hoped to embark.

Having slowly progressed along the Mole during the early hours of June 2nd (Sunday) at day-break all troops on the Mole were told that no more could be taken off owing to the danger of attack from the air.

They then returned to the dock-basin and the whole party sticking together managed to obtain a rowing boat in which they proceeded to row out to sea.

Just as they got into the open sea they were picked up by a French Mine-layer, which to their horror returned to Dunkirk harbour; it remained there during the hours of daylight and finally at dusk slipped out of the harbour en route for Dover where they arrived on the morning of June 3rd.

June 5th

The five returned to Castleman’s where a special celebration was held, so much so that George gradually became quite inarticulate and finally retired gracefully to bed.”

I don’t know who Bill, Michael, George and Victor were. Charles/Charlie was my father. He and my mother were married on 18 May 1940, on his embarkation leave, and Bill, Michael and George were groomsmen. I have a photograph of them outside the marquee, all three in uniform, holding glasses of champagne and smoking cigarettes. The silver salver that the Field Ambulance gave my parents as a wedding present, engraved with all their signatures, was stolen 30 years ago.

H.M.S Verity survived the war. For much of the Battle of the Atlantic she was a convoy escort ship with the 18th Destroyer Flotilla. At Dunkirk, she came under fire from shore batteries near Calais and suffered casualties.

In the BBC -WW2 People’s War: An Archive of World War Two memories – written by the public, gathered by the BBC – the story told by my father in his journal is also told by John Larner, whom I have never met but who must have been one of the ten N.O.s with 171st Field Ambulance. His account is slightly fuller, the facts marginally different but I have no doubt he was in my father’s party. The differences may be because my father wrote his journal up in the week following the return from Dunkirk; John Larner told his story in 2004.

The BBC -WW2 People’s War archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar