Op Dynamo revisited.


Book Reviewer
Slightly different (but linked) perspective....


The last time Raymond Atkinson was here, he was nearly killed by a German dive-bomber while his unit almost finished off a certain Erwin Rommel and caused the enemy such jitters that they unnerved Hitler himself.

In the course of just one day, Raymond and his comrades were involved in a bloody, chaotic battle which is often overlooked because of the enormity of the event which followed it - Dunkirk.
But yesterday, the 94-year- old great-grandfather from Dewsbury, Yorkshire, was the toast not only of his old regiment but of the French city of Arras.

Back in 1940, Mr Atkinson was a trooper with an ammunition truck in the 7th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment.
He ended the war, after being taken prisoner in the North African desert, a corporal.

Yesterday, however, he found himself taking the salute alongside Major General Sir Laurence New as the Pipes, Drums and past and present members of the Royal Tank Regiment marched past him through historic Heroes' Square in Arras.

Inside the Gothic splendour of the city hall, Mr Atkinson was thanked by the acting Mayor of Arras, Thierry Spas, for his part in fighting for 'the values, liberty and defence of France'.

Earlier, at an open-air ceremony at Arras Abbey, the retired plastics supervisor heard how the 4th and 7th battalions of the RTR had fought a 'real David and Goliath' battle to stem the German advance to the Channel in May 1940. If they had not, the fall of France would have come sooner and the course of history would almost certainly have been different.

Today, there are there are just two survivors of that epic battle and Mr Atkinson was the only one able to make it to this weekend's events. 'I've never been back before. It's very nice but I'm not used to this sort of fuss,' he said yesterday, with the characteristic no-nonsense approach of his generation.

You won't find anyone else making light of the 1940 Battle of Arras. Fought over the same murderous terrain as some of the worst fighting of the First World War - in the countryside just south of Vimy Ridge - it cost many British lives.

Raymond vividly remembers the Stuka that dropped a bomb over his head at Vimy - 'I dived for cover but Quartermaster Sergeant Slater didn't and that were him gone' - and the desperate struggle to reach Dunkirk.

This week, we will mark the 70th anniversary of the evacuation from Dunkirk. Tomorrow, two Royal Navy warships and no less than 50 of those original ' little ships' will gather in Ramsgate. The following dawn, they will set sail for Dunkirk, replicating Operation Dynamo, one of the greatest escapes in history.

The spring of 1940 saw Hitler's forces sweep through the Low Countries, reaching France by mid-May. A third of a million Allied troops, more than 200,000 of them British, were pushed back to the beaches of Dunkirk where a miraculous combination of naval heroics, good weather and German hesitation allowed the withdrawal of an entire army. Britain now stood alone but able to fight another day.

And yet, without the two gallant tank battalions which went charging into the side of Rommel's 7th Panzer Division outside Arras on May 21 1940, the Dunkirk party would have been over rather sooner.

It was a wholly uneven match. Rommel had 218 tanks. Most of the 74 British tanks were slower (top speed: 8-15 mph) and poorly armed. They had no air or artillery support and their infantry support, two battalions of the Durham Light Infantry, arrived late and exhausted.

And yet they stopped Rommel in his tracks. Germany's Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt would later call it 'a critical moment'. Military Illustrated magazine has described it as 'Rommel's Bloody Nose'.

Indeed, one of our most eminent Second World War historians, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, would state: 'It may well be asked whether two battalions have ever had such a tremendous effect on history.'

Mark of respect: Mr Atkinson stands with soldiers from today's 1st Royal Tank Regiment

This weekend, Raymond and 146 members of the regimental family, including 50 serving officers and other ranks from today's 1st Royal Tank Regiment and relatives of those involved in the action, were taken on a tour of the battlefield.

At one point, the British were causing such problems on Rommel's right flank that many of his infantry and artillery fled. It was only when Rommel personally dashed between his tanks and guns - sometimes on foot - that German order was maintained. Rommel's own staff officer was shot dead a few feet from him.

By the end of the battle, the RTR had less than a dozen tanks in operation. The commanding officers of both battalions were dead, along with many men.

But the impact of the Arras counter-attack had been critical. Three days later Hitler ordered the advance on Dunkirk to halt. As Field Marshal von Rundstedt would later explain: 'A critical moment in the drive came just as my forces had reached the Channel. It was caused by a British counter-stroke southwards from Arras. For a short time, it was feared that the Panzer divisions would be cut off.'
That delay gave critical time to the men on the beaches and their saviours. It allowed countless thousands, including survivors of the battle themselves, to escape. This week, as the Royal Navy and the gallant 'little ships' of Dunkirk enjoy the richly deserved spotlight of this heroic anniversary, spare a thought for those chaps in those little tanks which helped to make it happen.

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