The Miracle of Dunkirk: Tommy Taylor reflects on his evacuation from France

Posted: 09/11/2017 | Scottish War Blinded

As a soldier in the Royal Engineers during the Second World War, Tommy Taylor found himself among the nearly one million soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force trapped in Belgium and Northern France in 1940.

Tommy Taylor is pictured meeting Commander Felicity Campell of the Royal Navy at the recent Members’ Gathering in Stirling. Now Tommy, who is a Scottish War Blinded member and regular attendee of the Hawkhead Centre, has shared his memories of the Dunkirk Evacuation, during which an estimated 338,226 soldiers were rescued.

Tommy served in the Royal Engineers between 1939 – 1946. He will share with us his experiences over 7 days in late May and early June of 1940 when the British army was cut off along the northern coast of France.

Ships carry soldiers during the Dunkirk EvacuationThose who actually lived through Dunkirk are now diminishing in number each year. And the time is approaching when their living memories will pass into history.

Tommy was born in 1915, the same year Scottish War Blinded was established. At the age of 102, he has begun to regularly attend the Hawkhead Centre.

Tommy found himself amongst almost one million soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, French, and Belgian armies trapped in Belgium and northern France.

On May 10, Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, which triggered a rush into Belgium by the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army, playing straight into the enemy’s hands.

Tommy was stationed at “the mayor’s house in a town 6 miles from Arras with 2 British Army Captains, a French officer and a fellow sapper. I was in charge of cooking for the officers, which suited me, as it meant I got to eat the best cuts of meat when they’d had their fill.”

Whilst he was there, the German tanks began advancing again, and General Brooke, the British Corps Commander, wrote in his diary: ‘Nothing but a miracle can save us now.’

The Luftwaffe thought the same, judging by the leaflets that it began dropping. ‘British soldiers! Look at the map: it gives your true situation! Your troops are entirely surrounded. Stop fighting! Put down your arms!’

Only one way was open for withdrawal, north to Dunkirk. Tommy and fellow troops had their backs to the sea.

Tommy recalls a long march from Arras to Dunkirk, filled with confusion and mixed messages.

Tommy recalls arriving into Dunkirk and seeing columns of fire and dirty black smoke coming from the town.

“Our officer led us down to the beach through sand dunes where we got our first sight of what retreat really meant,” he said.

“Trapped would have been a better way of describing it.

“There were lines and lines of men as far as you could see waiting for evacuation by boat.”

As aerial photographs have shown, the discipline there, amid constant bombing and shelling, was remarkably good.

Tommy recalls how he and fellow soldiers got through several days waiting it out, without food or water.

“We were so weary from lack of food and lack of sleep. And yet we waited. We had reached the coast, as we had been ordered. Now what?

“It seemed to be first come first served for getting on a boat out, and so morale was very low.

“From what we could see there was very little evacuation activity. The only activity I could see was from German Stukas flying along the beach, dropping bombs on our troops.

“Several days into our time on the beach, our officer voiced what we were all thinking - that we stood little chance whilst all together and finished off by ordering us to split up into small groups. It was basically every man for himself at this point. I was with a mate and we decided to stick together.”

Meanwhile, Admiral Ramsey, Flag Officer, Dover, had been assembling a fleet of over 600 assorted civilian ‘little ships’ which he sent to assist the Royal Navy in the evacuation.

These unarmed vessels, manned by Royal Navy personnel and often by their owners, carried thousands of men back to England, often returning to pick up more, as well as ferrying from the beaches to the bigger ships; but the great bulk of the evacuated were carried in Royal Navy ships

Tommy recalls the decision to take his chances of getting back to Dover.

“I wadded into the water, soon I was then up to my neck! I couldn’t swim and I could fill myself being dragged down by heavy clothing. We’d misjudged the distance between us and the ships, I felt myself giving up.

“Somehow we were pulled onto a little vessel, which ferried us to a bigger ship. I don’t remember much of the crossing, except pure exhaustion.

“At Dover, we landed and were put on trains. I was given an apple, the first bite to eat I’d had in 4 or 5 days!”

As Tommy and fellow troops recovered, Winston Churchill’s delivered his rousing June 40 ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech which united and galvanized people into action. The deliverance at Dunkirk had brought the troops home but it was, of course, a brilliant German victory and an appalling Allied defeat.

The fighting had been very heavy, and the British army losses over 68,000 killed, wounded and taken prisoner; The Royal Navy lost six destroyers and many smaller ships, and many of the ‘little ships’ never returned. The RAF had shot down over 280 German planes against their own loss of 87.

Nevertheless, in the nine desperate days of Operation Dynamo, 338,226 men were rescued including Tommy. The former Royal Engineer is now 102 years old and is regularly attending the Hawkhead Centre and has been taking part in music sessions and meeting fellow members of Scottish War Blinded to share stories and experiences. 

Tommy Taylor is pictured meeting Commander Felicity Campell of the Royal Navy at the recent Members’ Gathering in Stirling.