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


The Retreat to Dunkirk: Stanley Cross, George Mussared and 150 Field Ambulance

Men from the Yorkshire city of Kingston-Upon-Hull formed the backbone of 150 Field Ambulance, a territorial unit which had been formed in 1939. Based in Wenlock Barracks in the west of the city, this RAMC unit formed part of 50th (Northumbrian) Division. Nineteen of its cohort would lose their lives in the war, predominantly during the retreat from France in 1940 and the Battle of Gazala in 1942.

One of those killed was 19-year-old George Mussared. A former pupil of Kingston
School on Hull’s Boulevard, George had a posthumous school prize named in
his honour. During the Battle of Arras in May 1940, George was badly injured and was carried by his RAMC comrades, including Private Stanley Cross, as the unit dispiritedly made its way towards Dunkirk. However a German strafing attack pierced the side of the ambulance lorry in which young George was being carried, and he was killed on 22 May 1940.

George Mussared

Private George Mussared RAMC

Stanley Cross always remembered young George, as did many people in the tightly-knit community of West Hull.

PicZ Stanley Cross

Private Stanley Cross RAMC

For decades after his death, on the anniversary of his birth, 1 January, family members and friends would insert memorials in the Hull Daily Mail. Devout Christians, who attended the Boulevard Methodist Church The family also sought to understand their loss through their faith. For George’s gravestone, situated near Outtersteene on the Franco-Belgian border, they chose the epitaph


An RAMC comrade named ‘Cyril’ inserted a tribute in the Hull Daily Mail reinforcing George’s faith: ‘He died as Christ would have him die.’ ‘Charlie’ of the RASC wrote, ‘So we part sadly to meet in sweet Jerusalem’, and George’s sweetheart, ‘Emmie’, recorded that she felt he was ‘Safe in God’s haven of peace’.

A decade later, his cousin Tom would recall ‘The wonderful memory of his smiling face and loving disposition’ which ‘will ever be an inspiration to those who loved him’.

George’s parents, who like so many hundreds of thousands, had to carry the memory of their son’s life cut cruelly short, beseeched God to ‘Hold him, O Father, in Thine arms and let him for ever be a messenger of love between our aching hearts and Thee’.

Stanley Cross managed to make it to Dunkirk, from where he was able to board a converted coal carrier. The combination of the water he had swallowed during his embarkation and the sooty conditions on the vessel meant that his medical category was downgraded upon his return, and Stanley saw out the remainder of the war as a nursing orderly at Edinburgh Castle, which had been converted into a PoW camp for
injured enemy servicemen.

Although Stanley was able to continue with a relatively normal post-war life, the young comrade who had been killed beside him in May 1940, Private George Mussared, left an enormous hole in the life of his devoutly Methodist family and friends.

One of George’s boyhood friends, John Hunter, forever felt deep anguish over the loss of his chum. Even 56 years later, on his birthday, he bemoaned the fact that he had had over half a century of life, an experience denied to George. One memory John would relive was a day spent on the River Humber in 1938, when a lifetime of promise awaited them. One of them would live to old age, whilst the other would never fulfil his ambitions, leaving decades of grief for the many who loved him.

John Hunter and George Mussared 1938 Humber (1)

John Hunter and George Mussared enjoying life on the River Humber, 1938
(Courtesy of John’s family)

George Mussared and Stanley Cross are just two of the many members of the Royal Army Medical Corps who feature in my book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity



Up from the Gates: A Story of Divine Dealing at Dunkirk

One of the most intense testimonies I have come across from the Second World War was written by Captain Edgar Beresford-Mash of the Army Dental Corps and first published in 1941.

In it he describes the events surrounding his rescue from DunkirkUp from the Gates


Edgar was a dentist operating a practice in the south-western suburbs of London, and serving as a leading member of the Mission of Hope, a charity set up to assist unmarried mothers and their children.

In addition or some years Edgar had held a commission in the Territorial Army Reserve, and on being called up on 3rd September 1939, `I found it an intense mental and spiritual struggle to adapt myself to a new life, a military life.’

Edgar had a book of daily devotional readings called the Daily Light, and during this period two readings struck him powerfully, and he felt God was speaking to him directly:

Chronicles 20:17, `Ye shall not need to fight in this battle, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord…for the Lord will be with you.’

Genesis 28:15, `Behold I am with thee and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest and will leave thee until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.’

He embarked for France in April 1940, landing at Le Havre and spent a few weeks in Bethune prior the the German invasion of the Lowlands.  When the attack began a fierce air attack left him temporarily deafened. He moved across to Dixmuide in Belgium, treating hundreds of battle casualties at a Casualty Clearing Station, including a German pilot who had been shot down.

By 29 May 1940 the CCS had moved along the coast to La Panne, operating from a casino. After two days orders were received to evacuate.  They were told to march to Bray Dunes to await evacuation at 4.30pm on 31st May.  Edgar was one of the last men in the rear party.  However the party was broken up by German aerial bombardment. He and his few remaining comrades marched on with little food and water to the Dunkirk Mole.

Avoiding screaming shells, they walked past dead bodies:

Life slipped quickly away, but the full story of the Dunkirk beaches reveals that Life came to Dunkirk as well as Death – spiritual Life.  There were men who were definitely converted where they stood or lay on those beachers. The testimony of not a few of them is that even in that unlikely place and amid all the confusion of warfare they heard the voice of Christ appealing for their personal surrender to Him; they are with us today and bear the testimony gladly.’


Charles Cundall’s official painting of the Dunkirk evacuation

Eventually Edgar climbed aboard a destroyer to return to England.


Desperately trying to hold off aerial bombardment as men try to board the rescue destroyers


The scamble for safety

Another bombardment hit the ship, three bombs scoring a direct hit. A roar of flame spread through the sick bay, burning Edgar’s neck and head. He thought he had been killed, and for one moment he thought that God had failed to keep his promise from September 1939.

Edgar found himself in the flaming water, but then experienced what was, for him, the `utter nearness’ of God.

Events were to take a surprising turn.  Edgar’s full story, illuminated by reminiscences from family members, is told in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War

Fight the Good Fight2




Winston Churchill and Christianity

John Broom, author of Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War and Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War, examines below Winston Churchill’s complex relationship with the Christian faith.

Fight the Good Fight

Fight the Good Fight2









Historians have argued for many years about the nature, if any, of Winston Churchill’s religious belief, with Paul Reid’s recent biography The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, arguing that he was an atheist, or at most an agnostic.  Whilst it would be reasonable to say that he was not an active Christian, there is much in Churchill’s actions and speeches which indicated that the pre-eminent Briton of the twentieth century had a deep appreciation of, and respect for the traditions of the Church of England.


When a young man reporting on the Boer War (1899-1902) Churchill admitted to praying often during the heat of battle, but he thought at this point it was an unreasonable thing to do. He said:

The practice [of prayer] was comforting and the reasoning led nowhere. I therefore acted in accordance with my feelings without troubling to square such conduct with the conclusions of thought.

Later he described his outlook as a generalised `Religion of Healthy-Mindedness’:

If you tried your best to live an honourable life and did your duty and were faithful to friends and not unkind to the weak and poor, it did not matter much what you believed or disbelieved.

However as Churchill was a man of deep contradictions, the Tory, turned Liberal, turned Tory, turned outcast, turned leader of a National Government, turned Tory, it is not surprising that there is plenty of evidence to suggest the importance of Christianity in Churchill’s actions.

In 1932, eight years before his accession to the Premiership he wrote an essay `Moses: The Leader of a People’ in which he had moved towards a more literal interpretation of the Bible.

We reject, however, with scorn all those learned and laboured myths that Moses was but a legendary figure upon whom the priesthood and the people hung their essential social, moral, and religious ordinances. We believe that the most scientific view, the most up-to-date and rationalistic conception, will find its fullest satisfaction in taking the Bible story literally, and in identifying one of the greatest of human beings with the most decisive leap forward ever discernible in the human story. We remain unmoved by the tomes of Professor Gradgrind and Dr. Dryasdust. We may be sure that all these things happened just as they are set out according to Holy Writ. We may believe that they happened to people not so very different from ourselves, and that the impressions those people received were faithfully recorded and have been transmitted across the centuries with far more accuracy thanmany of the telegraphed accounts we read of the goings-on of today. In the words of a forgotten work of Mr. Gladstone, we rest with assurance upon ‘The impregnable rock of Holy Scripture.

Many Centuries were to pass before the God that spake in the Burning Bush was to manifest Himself in a new revelation, which nevertheless was the oldest of all the inspirations of the Hebrew people—as the God not only of Israel, but of all mankind who wished to serve Him; a God not only of justice, but of mercy; a God not only of self-preservation and survival, but of pity, self-sacrifice, and ineffable love.

In his first speech to the Commons as Prime Minister on 13 May 1940, Churchill offered `blood, toil, tears, and sweat and announced the policy `to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.’

On May 19 1940 he gave his major radio address, Be Ye Men of Valour. He closed  with the words, `As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.’

Later, in his `Dunkirk’ speech to the House on 4 June, Churchill’s final sentence stated that the New World could rescue and liberate the Old `in God’s good time.’  This theme continued into his famous  `Finest Hour’ speech to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940. `Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation’.

In his speech on 11 September 1940 at the start of the Blitz, he said, `It is with devout but sure confidence that I say: Let God defend the right’

In the `Put Your Confidence in Us’ radio talk dated 9 February 1941, the Churchill’s closing lines appealed to President Roosevelt of the USA in religious terminology, `Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well.’

On a personal note, this particular speech impressed my father, a very devout Christian.  He wrote to his mother:

Thanks so much for writing in detail Corry’s extract from Churchill’s speech on the Bible. He certainly knows divine truth. I didn’t hear Geoffrey King’s broadcast. We tuned in at 9pm for the news (at Franklands) & heard Churchill’s speech. We thought it awfully good..

Churchill Prince of Wales 1941

Churchill and Roosevelt singing Onward Christian Soldiers, 1941

In August 1941 he met with President Roosevelt  on the battleship Prince of Wales. Churchill had organised a Christian service and chosen the hymns to be sung. He wrote about the event later:

On Sunday morning, August 10, Mr. Roosevelt came aboard H.M.S. Prince of Wales and, with his Staff officers and several hundred representatives of all ranks of the United States Navy and Marines, attended Divine Service on the quarterdeck. This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples, and none who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck – the symbolism of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit; the American and British chaplains sharing in the reading of the prayers; the highest naval, military, and air officers of Britain and the United States grouped in one body behind the President and me; the close-packed ranks of British and American sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently together in the prayers and hymns familiar to both. I chose the hymns myself – “For Those in Peril on the Sea” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” We ended with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” which Macaulay reminds us the Ironsides had chanted as they bore John Hampden’s body to the grave. Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live. Nearly half those who sang were soon to die.

A clip of the meeting, including Churchill lustily singing Onward Christian Soldiers, can be seen here:-

On 24 August 1941 Churchill spoke about the hymn, O God Our Help in Ages Past `in which the brief, precarious span of human life is contrasted with the immutability of Him to whom a thousand ages are but as yesterday’.
8 May 1945, VE Day, Churchill addressed the House of Commons and ended with, `this House do now attend at the Church of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, to give humble and reverential thanks to Almighty God for our deliverance from the threat of German domination,’

Churchill wrote that the Commons, `did not feel inclined for debate or business, but desired to offer thanks to Almighty God, to the Great Power which seems to shape and design the fortunes of nations and the destiny of man….’

In 1949  he delivered a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, The 20th century – Its Promise and Its Realization

Here I speak not only to those who enjoy the blessings and consolation of revealed religion but also to those who face the mysteries of human destiny alone. The flame of Christian ethics is still our highest guide. To guard and cherish it is our first interest, both spiritually and materially. The fulfilment of Spiritual duty in our daily life is vital to our survival. Only by bringing it into perfect application can we hope to solve for ourselves the problems of this world and not of this world alone.

United we stand secure. Let us then move forward together in discharge of our mission and our duty, fearing God and nothing else.’

The week of the publishing of this post sees the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death on 24 January 1965.  His funeral, sometimes seen as symoblic of the passing of the era of Britain as a global power, was laced with Christian overtones planned by Churchill himself. He promised some `lively hymns’ and the worldwide audience of 350 million heard  The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a reference to his Anglo-American parentage, while his  personal and political courage were recalled by Who Would True Valour See and Fight The Good Fight With All Thy Might.  The coffin was carried out of St Paul’s Cathedral to, O God, Our Help in Ages Past.

Churchill funeral

Churchill’s funeral, St. Paul’s Cathedral

It is not the task of an historian to look into the soul of people of previous times.  Nor is it their task to judge their religious beliefs in a binary `Yes/No’ construct. I prefer the idea of a spectrum model, whereby the depth of faith shown by an individual can vary across time and place, and have different modes of expression.  Whatever Churchill’s personal relationship with God was is no concern of mine.  However what cannot be in doubt is the existence of a positive relationship between Winston Churchill and the Christian faith, expressed through his speeches and writings during a time in which he had to draw on the innermost depths of his soul, and of the soul of the British people.  To me, as an historian of war and religion, it is hugely significant that he chose to frame the struggle in such Biblical terms in what has for too long been seen an era of secularisation.

Perhaps the last word comes, not surprisingly, from the great man himself. When described as a pillar of the church, he interjected, `No, no, not a pillar, but a buttress, supporting it from the outside’.

John Broom is the author of Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War, published by Pen and Sword.

Fight the Good Fight