Dunkirk Letter


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.

Very peur-making.

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


Best love,