The evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk and the nearby beaches in 1940 was viewed by some in the British government as a major achievement. This was not totally shared by Winston Churchill who made the comment that wars were not won when forces retreat. However, those at the sharp end of ‘Operation Dynamo’ – the men on the beaches and the ‘little boats’ that came to rescue them – went through an experience that no one there would forget. The following comes from Sergeant Reginald King, RA. The then Private King was part of the rearguard at Dunkirk and he spent his last hours on the European mainland in a water tower outside De Panne in Belgium. On May 31st he was ordered to destroy all equipment and to make his way to Dunkirk.
“After waiting for a boat to pick us up one eventually turned up – and were we pleased! We went up the mole to get aboard the boat and to our surprise found out that the boat was ‘HMS Worcester’. With so many of us boarding being part of the Worcester RA and Midland Infantry, it seemed like a sign. The sign did not last long as, at gunpoint, we were volunteered over the side because of overcrowding, and had to climb down to take our place on a tiny boat. We were constantly under attack at this point and it was with relief that we reached the little boat and managed to secure some spaces. It was not long however, before we ourselves were being stacked liked sardines - one on top of the other – as they crammed as many men in as possible. With planes strafing us it was with relief that we heard someone call out that the boat had as many as it could carry. As soon as the last man boarded our little boat, the ‘Worcester’ steamed off, still heaving to the gills. The only reason we noticed this, however, was because the Germans had come in and attacked us three times but then spotted the ‘Worcester’ and decided to leave us for a bigger target. We suddenly realised that getting off the ‘Worcester’ was perhaps a blessing in disguise, not the death sentence that we thought had been handed down. They gave the ‘Worcester’ a hammering, almost sinking her, and it was only later that we heard she had managed to limp back to port. As for us, when we began to feel a little safer, we began to look around – as much as we could – and it was then that the bloke next to me saw that a Jerry bullet had gone right through his pack. I then noticed that a piece of the heel on one of my boots had been shot off.
It was only years later that I was informed that the boat I came back on was the ‘Sundowner’ and that she only ever carried a maximum of 21 passengers. I was one of 130 men that she brought back that day. Also on board, amazingly in the Hell that was Dunkirk, was my best mate Sgt Major Jack Hunt, Gunner Sampson and Gunner Cambridge, all of us from Malvern in Worcestershire. The journey took 11 hours and the boat appeared to be swerving this way and that and most of us men were being sick. As we were on top of the other, you can imagine the mess.
We landed on the evening of Saturday June 1st in Ramsgate harbour. We were marched from the ‘Sundowner’ to a train waiting at Ramsgate Station. It was there that we were told to get some sleep, that the train was not going anywhere, as we were likely to be sent back to Calais the nest day. We were only told early in the morning that this idea had been abandoned.
It was very emotional for me years later to be able to visit the ‘Sundowner’ in Ramsgate harbour and marvel at the size of her, and to wonder how on Earth she managed to cram so many of us into so small a space.”