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

 

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

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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.’

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Charles Cundall’s official painting of the Dunkirk evacuation

Eventually Edgar climbed aboard a destroyer to return to England.

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

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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