Letter dated 7 June 1940 by Cpl. Alan Tillotson to brother John
I feel I would like to put into writing the events of the last few weeks
so that I may read of them afterwards, and I can think of no better way
than to describe them in a letter to my eldest and very Dear Brother.
On Sunday, 26th of May, at about 6 o/clock at night, we were
billeted in a farm house at La Marguerite, a small village close to
Armentieres. I was named for guard and mounted at about 9 p.m.
when the light was beginning to go.
At I a.m. I was told by the orderly officer to waken the section and
get them lined up ready to move off.
The lorries I was in charge of lay in the rear of the column and when
we came to move off one of my lorries had engine trouble and I had to
stay behind to see that its load of ammunition was transferred into
another lorry and the engine was put hors de combat so as to be of no
use to Jerry. Having transferred the load into my friend's lorry, which
I was riding in, we dashed away after the column, having no idea
where to make for, but expecting to ﬁnd a dispatch rider posted to
show me the way. There were no dispatch riders, so we simply followed
the stream of lorries and hoped they were going to the same place.
At perhaps 5 a.m. I joined up with a corporal and 13 lorries of “B
Section”. This corporal, although separated from the rest of the
Company before starting off, managed to learn from an officer that we
were going to Ostende, and so we studied a map together and made
out a route — Ypres, Dixmude, Ostende.
It was along the main Ypres road that we ﬁrst came under ﬁre. Jerry
was putting up a barrage on it and bombing it from the air as well as
with guns. We stopped several times to shelter from enemy aircraft.
It was, however, unwise to dally as he would soon get the correct
range of the road and we would be hopelessly lost, and so we gave the
word to go full steam ahead and not to stop. I was fortunately in a
fairly new model and we did 60 m.p.h. most of the way, past wrecked
farmsteads and dead cows and craters in the ﬁeld and on the side of the
road big enough to put a steam roller in.
When we got to the entrance to Ypres, we were stopped by an
Infantry unit, who asked us to give them a lift into the City as they had
already lost 20 men that morning through snipers. They lay ﬂat in the
back of the lorry and we shot past the place, where we were in range
of the snipers.
When we entered Ypres, it was deserted but still fairly whole and I,
who was riding in the leading lorry, past the Cathedral, was delighted
to see it still standing intact. I had hardly gone another hundred yards
when the bombs began to drop. We stepped on it and shot through the
town onto the road to Dixmude. When I pulled up outside the city, to
see if all the lorries had got through alright, I said to the last lorry driver
how glad I was to see the Cathedral still standing. He told me it was in
ruins when he came past.
We entered Dixmude just after they had had an Air Raid and after
the civilian population had been machine gunned by the planes. What
a horrible sight! I cannot describe it. We had to drive over dead bodies
and turn deaf ears to the wounded and dying who hoped we were
ambulances. There was a mass of dead people outside a baker's shop
where they had been forming a queue. I am sure, Frere, if these pilots
could only have seen what carnage they left behind them, they would
never do such things.
We arrived at Ostende about tea-time, having had nothing to eat
since the night before. I parked the lorries along a shady road and went
into the town in search of food. The whole town was one big hospital,
every house marked with a red cross, yet the Belgian Colonel, whom
I went to for food, said that the night before they had had 40 air raids.
After we had fed off our Belgian bully beef and biscuits, I went down
into Ostende to see if I could ﬁnd out where the division was. I came
across a Colonel of the Welsh Guards, who told me that I could not
stay in a hospital town with ammunition lorries and in any case, I could
not remain in the Belgian sector, I must return at once to the British
behind Dixmude. Very much against my will and feeling I was going
straight back into the lion's cage, we set off at 6.30.
We spent that night (Monday) parked off a road near Dixmude, off
the Ypres main highway. When we awoke the next moming, we
found that the Belgium Army was in full retreat towards Ostende, and
on inquiring from a Belgian Officer what was on, he told me of the
treachery of Leopold and I decided to move off at once for Ostende and
the coast, before the main Belgian Army came past and made the road
impassable. We parked on the out-skirts of Ostende and sent a dispatch
rider of to the harbour to find out if there were any Destroyers there
to take us off. He came back with the word that there were none. The
best plan seemed to be to motor down the coast towards Dunkirk and
hope to ﬁnd a boat at one of the Harbours. This was done under con-
tinual bombardment, as they were trying to blow up the bridges and
roads, so as to hamper our withdrawal.
When we arrived in Nieuport, there were only ﬁve left from the
original 65, the others having got lost when taking cover from bombs
or else taken the wrong turning.
We had just managed to cross the bridge into Nieuport when three
Heinkels came over very low and started to bomb the town and par-
ticularly the bridge. The ﬁrst bomb fell only short distance from the
lorry I was riding in, and we at once leapt out, and with my friend Dick
behind me, dived into the hole that the bomb had made. The next
bomb, or it might have been the one after, hit the lorry and it went up
with all my equipment and two chickens already plucked and ready for
the pot. We crouched into that shell hole for what seemed ages, with
explosions going on all around. We knelt there and talked of anything
that came into our heads, and it was not until it was all over that I came
out and saw the dead bodies, burning buildings and wrecked cars that
I had an urgent feeling to be sick.
With the loss of our lorry and a few others, we decided to make a
dash for it in a ﬁshing boat that was lying in the harbour. We got on
board — six of us, with a map of Europe and a compass, some blankets
and a bit of food, also three Belgian officers and two French soldiers.
We pushed off the shore, hoisted the sail and set off. My heart was in
my mouth. I began to remember all the stories I had read of Jerry
machine-gunning small ﬁshing boats, and with our sails glinting we
were a perfect target. We hadn’t gone more than two hundred yards
when we got stuck on a sand bank and as we were pushing off, we saw
another wave of bombers coming over. I said “Pull: for the shore", and
we pulled and pushed for all we were worth. As I was shinning up the
sides of the dock walls, I saw an Army lorry go by and hailed it, and
called to Dick to drop everything and follow me. We dashed towards
the slowly moving lorry, which was just on the far side of another
small bridge, and an Officer of the R.E.’s called to me “Hurry up son,
she is due to go up any minute now”.
I panted over the bridge with Dick puffing behind me, sprawled into
the lorry and off we went towards Dunkirk. Fortunately, it was one of
a convoy of ﬁve of our own lorries, and in the leading car was my own
We entered La Panne, which is to Dunkirk as Lytham is to St. Annes,
during a tremendous bombardment and we had to take cover on the
sand dunes. As I lay on my sand dune, I saw for the ﬁrst time the bombs
leave the plane, two from each side, and watched hypnotized as they
roared towards the earth and waited anxiously for the ear-splitting crash.
As we were returning to the lorries, six ﬁghters swooped down on us
and opened up with their machine guns, using I/2in. tracer bullets. ]ust a
few yards from me was a hole where an A.A. gun had been and this I
dived into. It was just sufﬁciently deep to cover me when I was lying
flat. The only trouble was that there was the entrance where my feet
were and so I was in line of ﬁre if Jerry was to come from that direction.
Fortunately, he came from every direction except that. I could hear the
bullets crackling and see them leave the ’plane like forked lightning.
When I emerged from my hole, I found about a dozen of our
lads, including Dick, and told them to wait in a cellar until I came back.
I went back to the lorries and a ’plane had been down the line and put a
bullet in each oil tank and in the front tyres. In one staff car was a young
lieutenant, who had not had time to get out; he was riddled with
I searched the town and could ﬁnd no one else in authority from the
Company, but on returning to the cellar, I met an Officer of the C.M.P.
and he told me to take the lads up to a wood behind the town and form
up with another company when I got there. I went back, told them all
where to go, and it was raining “bergere”. I went to the lorries with
Dick to ﬁnd a discarded gas cape and some blankets. Armed with these,
we set off back to ﬁnd that they had all gone and I never saw them again.
On arriving at the wood, Dick and I crept into a lorry which was
there, and, content to be out of the driving rain, went to sleep and slept
’till dusk when we were told we could move.
At perhaps 8 o’clock we moved down on to the sand dunes and
waited to be evacuated with a company of Ordnance. We lay there all
night in the cold and the damp, with the fear of ]erry ’planes constantly
with us. The only thing that kept me going, Frere, was your ﬂask which
I had managed to ﬁll with brandy on the way up to the wood.
The enemy came over that night. We heard that King Leopold had
bargained that we should be left in peace till 2. 30 next afternoon, strange
to say, and if that is true he kept to his word. Why, I can't think.
When morning came, Dick and I made a few attempts to join up
with some of the lads who were lining up on the shore and getting into
boats in I2.’s — marvellous to say, fairly orderly. We were, however,
thrown out as outcasts.
At mid-day the beach started to get a bit more riotous; fellows started
wading out to meet the boats. At 2.15 we decided we had been there
long enough. We threw all our overcoats, gas capes and masks off, tied
our boots around our neck and started to wade and ﬁnally swim out to
H.M.S. Greyhound, the destroyer nearest to us. We were picked up
and got on board, wet but triumphant.
Once on Board we stripped, wrapped ourselves in blankets and got
down to tea with rum in it and ship’s biscuits.
At 3 o'clock Jerry came, 54 of them; the sky was thick with them.
He started to bomb and machine gun our ship as we were the biggest
there. One of the bombs hit the ship, killing I 5 and wounding 20.
A boat load just climbing on board was almost wiped out to a man.
I sat below decks, hearing the bombs splashing in the water all around
us, and the bullets rattling on the deck above. Every time the ship's 4.7
gun went off, the whole boat rocked. Six attacks they made on us,
wiping out ﬁve naval gun crews, so they had to come down and ask
the R.A. to come and man the guns. I helped pass the cordite up from
the hold to the emplacements. There it was I saw shell-shock for the
ﬁrst time. Two fellows who had been on deck at the time of the ﬁrst
bomb and had seen men blown to pieces before their eyes, were brought
below decks and sat in the room I as in, gibbering and cowering
every time the guns went off. Pitiable to see, yet gruesome.
The Captain, true to his naval traditions, refused to sail until he had
his full complement of evacuees. We ﬁnally sailed at 4 o'clock with one
out of three engines going, leaking badly and with no hope of surviving
another raid, as the concussion of our own guns was enough to make
the ship take in more water than we were able to pump out. It was then
we met up with a Polish destroyer which took us in tow, and later on
we were joined by two French destroyers and some ’planes. We took
12 hours to go from Dunkirk to Dover and I slept that night in a basin
in the cloakroom, the most agreeable place, since the living rooms were
too hot and crowded and the deck too bloody.
When we arrived at Dover, we got into a train and dashed away,
having no idea where we were going. It turned out, as you know, to be