Veterans share remarkable tales of survival to mark 80th anniversary of Dunkirk

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Veterans who found themselves trapped on the beaches of northern France during the epic rescue efforts at Dunkirk have recalled their fight for survival 80 years on.

Raymond Whitwell, from Malton, North Yorkshire, was 20 years old when he joined the army in September 1939 before being sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and later to Belgium when the German advance began.

Arnhem anniversary
Raymond Whitwell, from Malton, North Yorkshire, was called up to the army in September 1939 at the age of 20 (Steve Parsons/PA Archive)

Code-named Operation Dynamo, the evacuation commenced after large numbers of Belgian, British and French troops were cut off and surrounded by German soldiers during the six-week Battle of France.

World War Two – British Empire – Operation Dynamo – 1940
British soldiers on their return to England after being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk (PA Archive)

“I looked out and thought ‘this is not for me, I’m not going to get away’,” he said. “We were told it was every man for himself.

“We were waiting to be safely brought back to England but nobody knew what was happening.”

In a bold move for survival, Mr Whitwell decided to travel to Lille, where he met with another British officer and around 18 English nurses who were also desperately trying to get home.

They made a “long and slow” train journey to Cherbourg in north-western France, some 300 miles away, where the group found a Dutch fishing boat on the harbour that was making its way to Southampton.

Mr Whitwell managed to escape France around mid-June, nearly three weeks after the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Mr Whitwell, who also fought in North Africa and then the Battle of Arnhem, said he has visited Dunkirk numerous times since.

Arnhem anniversary
101-year-old veteran Raymond Whitwell, from Malton, North Yorkshire (Steve Parsons/PA Archive)

“What we saw was so vivid in those days that you don’t forget.

“We were totally in the dark and we didn’t know what was happening, but I knew I was always going to survive, I had that in mind.”

Jeff Haward, 100, from the Isle of Grain, in Kent, fought from Dunkirk in 1940 to D-Day in 1944 with the 1/7th Middlesex Regiment.

Mr Haward said his machine gun battalion was positioned along the Comines Canal, where they stopped the Germans from advancing into Dunkirk while British troops were getting away.

He made his way into Dunkirk after attempts to be rescued at the beaches proved fruitless, all while the Germans heavily shelled the area.

Mr Haward managed to escape after spotting a coaster – a shallow-hulled ship used for trade – lying on its side on the beach.

“The crew were burning oily rags to give the Luftwaffe the impression that it had been hit,” he said.

“When I got on I was so tired I immediately fell asleep – the next thing I know someone was shaking my shoulder saying we are coming into Folkestone.

“I remember there were lovely ladies waiting on the shore with bread and jam.”

Describing the emotions he felt at Dunkirk, Mr Haward said: “I was frightened, my mind went all blank.

“I tried to imagine that it wasn’t happening, like it was a bad dream.”

Eric Taylor, 99, from Helston in Cornwall, was in the 7th Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment, who were part of the 51st Highland Division, dubbed ‘the forgotten heroes’.

Eric Taylor
Eric Taylor, 99, from Helston in Cornwall, was in the 7th Batt Royal Norfolk Regiment (Christina Bowden)

“Our orders were to defend and not surrender,” he said.

Mr Taylor, was among thousands of men who were captured at St Valery en Caux in France as prisoners of war (PoW) and forced to march to Germany where they were dispersed into camps.

Mr Taylor was a PoW for five years, and watched as many other captured men died on the Long March, in which allied PoWs were marched across northern Germany away from the advancing Soviet army from January 1945.

“We lost several men to frostbite, we had a severe winter,” he said. “We buried them but we don’t know where.

“It was a very sad time, nobody knew where we were going, everything was in chaos.”

The veterans make regular trips to historic sites from the Second World War to pay their respects to their comrades who did not come home.

But planned trips this year, organised by the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, have been cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Dick Goodwin, vice president of the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, said: “Centenarian’s Jeff, Ray and Eric are fabulous examples of the bravery shown by our armed forces during the Second World War.”

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