Saving Lives under Fire: the RAMC at Dunkirk

For RAMC personnel attached to fighting units who had made the perilous retreat to the Dunkirk beaches a maelstrom of carnage awaited them.

Cundall Dunkirk
War Artist Charles Cundall captured the scene which greeted RAMC personnel in which they had to strive to save the lives of those who could be evacuated from Dunkirk.

Corporal Montague of No. 6 Field Ambulance took a wounded sergeant to a French hospital, where every corner and passageway was filled with the wounded and dying. Outside, the roads were blocked with abandoned and destroyed vehicles. Looking out to sea, Montague noted a Royal Naval destroyer with a broken back. On the sand, rows of men waited their turn for evacuation, vulnerable to wave upon wave of Stuka attacks. Montague set to work burying the dead, digging graves in the sand with his bare hands. `We stuck each man’s rifle into the sand at his head and tied his identity disc to the trigger guard.’
Sergeant Reg Gill, who had been serving as a radiographer at No.18 General Hospital at Étaples, experienced some difficulty in loading some of the French casualties who were evacuated from Dunkirk:
We loaded the stretchers and put the French and British walking wounded aboard. Many of the French didn’t want to go. When they were told we were going to ‘Angleterre’ they didn’t want to know. Some wanted to go back down the coast and join in the fighting again but most seemed to acquiesce and go reasonably well.
Just up the coast from Dunkirk, at La Panne, a large number of RAMC units had gathered and set up dressing and clearance stations in the remains of the hotels. Colonel C.M. Finny, the Assistant Director of Medical Services of 50th Division was present on 30st May and recalled:
The sea front at La Panne is a sort of military Harley Street. Nearly everyone seems to be in the R.A.M.C. In addition to my three field ambulances, Nos -, -, and – C.C.S. and – Field Ambulance are located in hotels by the sea. No. – C.C.S. is at Rosendael near Dunkirk and, I understand, is holding casualties prior to embarkation.

Hospital ships were anchored offshore and stretcher bearers struggled through the water to load men on to smaller transfer boats. Corporal Michael Adams of No. 11 Casualty Clearing Station was one of those at La Panne. As the doctors were working round the clock performing heroic stints of endurance with their surgical skills, orderlies like Adams were left to administer post-operative care. He recalled the delirium of one soldier, calling for his wife; to sooth the man’s distress Adams pretended to answer as his spouse. The pressure of the situation led him to wish the mortally wounded would die quickly, to provide relief from their mental and physical torment, and to free up space for those waiting for treatment.
Captain Richard Doll, whose research would later conclusively establish the link between tobacco smoking and cancer, was one of the later evacuees. Having been given the order to make a last withdrawal at 2200 hrs on 1st June, he headed for the mole at Malo-les-Bains before returning to report its location to the rest of his battalion. Not being able to find them in the confusion, he returned to the beach with the small party which was accompanying him, where they dug themselves a shallow shelter in the sand. An officer then walked past asking for a doctor, as there were reports of badly wounded men the other side of the mole. Doll went to investigate but could not locate any casualties, although on his return trip he found a man with a badly broken leg. All he was able to provide was a dose of morphine, and the advice to the man’s comrades to have him embark as soon as possible.

Richard Doll
Dr Richard Doll in later years

Realising that there was a chance that his party might not be evacuated before the Germans either overran the beach or caused much greater damage by shelling, Doll walked a short distance along the coast and found a line of men in the water, waiting their turn to board couple of small rowing boats transporting men onto larger boats.
We lined up in the water and, as the empty rowing boats returned to the shore, parties of us waded out to them…the water came up to my breast before I reached the boat…To the accompaniment of much swearing on the part of the two seamen, the boat gradually filled and was then pulled out to a paddle steamer lying a couple of hundred yards further on by a small motorboat.

Upon boarding the paddle steamer, Doll’s Dunkirk duties were not finished. He responded to the request of a naval medical orderly to assist with binding and splinting of wounds of some nine or ten men; `Some were terribly badly wounded, and I cannot understand how they got on board.’ One man, who had six separate fractures on both legs, died before the boat returned to the safety of England. By this stage Doll was utterly exhausted, but was sustained by traditional British fare, `I must have looked terribly done up, for the orderly looked after me like a child, continually giving me steaming cups of tea, and Oxo and pieces of bread and butter.’ He was then asked to treat some more wounded on deck, before being granted some much-needed rest. When he awoke he was in Ramsgate harbour. The only possessions remaining were a small haversack and a small kitten which had been his companion since he had found it lost and forlorn in Les Bergeurs.

Further accounts of members of the RAMC who were involved in the Battle of France and evacuations from Dunkirk and St Nazaire can be found in my recently published book, Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity

 

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