Sappers at Dunkirk

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by Psypher, Jun 10, 2010.

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  1. Seems like an approriate time to post this section from my grandfather's war memories:

    The 225 Field Company RE at Dunkirk
    by Thomas J Garrett and A Gibbs

    ...The 225 were continually on the move during the following days and on May 27th [1940] were ordered with the 2 sister RE units in the 4th Division, 59 & 7 Field Coys to act as Infantry Regiments and hold a defensive position on the River Lys which the Germans were approaching, having broken through an Infantry unit. 225 had to defend Comines and on their right 59 to defend Warneton and the 7th, the bridge over the river approaching Warneton. These positions were held until the RE’s were relieved by the Infantry of the 12th Brigade later in the day.

    Another move was made and rumours spread that we would be home in England shortly. Arriving at Nieuport near the coast on May 28th 225 prepared a bridge for demolition at Furnes. The 7th and 59th Field Companies arrived in this area at this time and were also kept very busy preparing other bridges for demolition. The 3 Engineer Companies were then ordered to La Panne on the coast, 8 miles from Dunkirk. Everyone was very tired and food was in short supply due to disorganisation of the usual supply chain, this was alleviated somewhat as far as the 225 were concerned by the initiative and skills of Dvr’s Tranter, Rowberry and Walton who in civilian life worked as butchers in their respective family businesses, for when the Company pulled into a deserted farmhouse a bull was found roaming around. One shot in the head from a .303 rifle brought the animal to the ground and the 3 drivers swiftly set to work; later in the day everyone enjoyed a meal of roast beef.

    The BEF were slowly withdrawing to an area on the coast between Calais and Nieuport and plans had been made to evacuate troops in ships. Numerous ships and boats of all descriptions were commandeered by the Navy under the command of Admiral Ramsey based at Dover. Dunkirk was to be the port from which the evacuation took place and the Navy did a magnificent job despite repeated attacks by dive-bombers. As the military situation deteriorated thousands of soldiers were on the beaches exposed to dive bombing and shelling. A decision was made to evacuate troops from the beaches but the larger boats could not get close enough to pick up the troops because of the danger of running aground. To overcome this all types of vehicles were driven on to the beaches at La Panne and placed nose to tail in the sea. All Royal Engineers Units were given the job of making improvised piers by bridging across the top of the vehicles using materials used in bridge building, in this way men could walk out to sea and board the ships and boats at the end of the piers. The Commander-in-Chief of the BEF General Gort left for England from the pier built by 225.

    The 225 CSM called for volunteer drivers to carry picks and shovels to the troops defending the withdrawal perimeter, among the volunteers were Driver’s Groom and Lucas. In this operation Driver Groom was killed by shellfire and Driver Lucas was taken prisoner and remained so until the end of the war. The following card sent by Driver Lucas whilst POW to his friend Bob Thurman is reproduced with permission. A Cabin Cruiser was found by several Sprs. of 225 lying high and dry on the beach and it was decided that it could be used in the evacuation when the tide came in. It was found that the magneto of the engine was very damp and would not produce a spark, this was quickly removed and taken to the Company Cookhouse and given a quick bake, cleaned and wiped and made to spark and then refitted to the engine. When the tide came up and around the boat it began to fill with water, investigation found a hole which previously had not been visible due to the boat lying on its side in the sand. There was still not enough small boats to carry troops out to the larger ships some way off shore. Part of the Engineers equipment were small folding boats used in bridging and these were put into use to ferry troops. These boats folded flat and to be made operational each side was pulled into a vertical position and secured by a stanchion which was telescopic and secured at one end to the base of the boat and to the side at the other end thus giving rigidity and stability, it was rowed by 4 men from a standing position and great care was needed to control them. Many of the sappers crewed these boats and others by infantrymen. They were never meant to be used except in river conditions and unfortunately many soldiers were drowned due to the boats capsizing and broaching.

    The bombing of the beaches was infrequent but shelling became more accurate as the Germans adjusted ranges. Cpl Yeardly was killed in one shelling attack. One young soldier [my grandfather] was grabbed and pulled under cover by one of the regular soldiers in the 225 L/Cpl Stubly by name, he never returned to the 225 after Dunkirk and no record found of his subsequent service but he would have been an asset to any Royal Engineers Unit with his experience.

    During the evening of the 31st May some of the 225 sappers were taken aboard a minesweeper, HMS Saltash, and given a mug of hot cocoa and a thick slice of bread and dripping and then they dropped off into sleep and oblivion. At 5.00 am the next morning the ship arrived at Margate and the troops put onto a train, each man being handed a card to post to Parents or relatives to advise of his arrival in England. Members of the 225 were sent to areas as far apart as Rhyl, Prestatyn and Mansfield sapper A. Gibbs wrote of his experiences in “Through the Eyes of a sapper” and is reproduced with his permission.

    More will be read of this man in a later chapter, in a different country, in a different role in the War against Germany. As far is known 225 casualties on the beaches were 4 killed, 6 wounded, 7 wounded and missing, 8 missing. Sgt Shotton was awarded the Military Medal, Major Windle the MC, Sgt Faizey, Corporal Turley, Spr Cox and Driver Tranter were mentioned in despatches.


    We, the 225th Field Company, Royal Engineers, 4th British Division, arrived at La Panne early in the morning of late May 1940, after travelling throughout the night from Brussels, where the last aggressive act against the Germans by the Company had been to blow a bridge in Brussels.

    At the time we arrived at La Panne things appeared to be quiet. Looking along the beach towards Dunkirk a great pall of dense smoke could be seen hanging over the docks. These could be seen quite clearly and I was thankful that we were not in Dunkirk. It did appear to be quieter here. We disembarked from our vehicles sparing a thought for the men that were making their way here foot-slogging.

    Everything appeared calm, the beach looked so inviting and made one think of seaside place one was familiar with back home. Thoughts ended as planes were heard overhead. Some sort of shelter was sought wherever it could be found, mostly in the sand-dunes, but it appeared we were not their targets. Dunkirk was due for another pounding. You could almost hear the sigh of relief from the masses of soldiers that lined the beach as far as you could see.

    A meal was prepared for us by our cooks, lucky us! I think we were looking for familiar faces, discussions took place, where, when, why, how long before boats came to take us off. None were in sight. We could go no further unless it was up or down the beach. Between us and Blighty was this great stretch, but to us it seemed like the other side of the world.

    Along the beach being lapped and rolled about by the tide were hundreds of bodies, some of them still with their packs on. One could not see how they died. I presume a lot had tried to wade or swim out to the crafts that had been lying off shore, and had been drowned in the attempt.

    We then realised that because of the shallow water the boats could not come in very close. Once the problem was created, a solution was soon forthcoming. I do not know whose idea it was to construct a rough temporary pier with the vehicles that were available. All trucks, lorries with superstructure were to be used, another Field Company was to construct another pier farther up the beach.

    Starting above the tidemark the lorries were packed nose to tail as close as possible out towards the sea. When the water was reached as the tide went out so more vehicles were added. While this was being carried out others collected tailboards, planks or anything else that could be used for a catwalk. This was then lashed down to the top of the superstructure of the vehicles thus completing with the other one 2 temporary piers out into the deeper water. These 2 piers cut down the distance between the shore and the boats, which we expected to appear soon. It was surprising how firm and solid they were, a job well done!

    Of course this did not solve the problem entirely, so the folding boats used by us engineers for light river bridge construction, were bought into use and very lucky that this equipment was available.

    6 o’ clock, we were making our way down to the pier. The other pier was about 3 hundred yards further up the beach. As we reached the pier, over they came! Stuka’s! What a panic! We all turned tail and started to run up the beach towards the dunes. I ran, I prayed, I ran, I prayed, then dived flat. The bombs came down, I do not know how many planes. The noise was enough to keep me as deep in that sand as I could get. When it was all over, there were dead and dying everywhere, a light anti-aircraft gun had been knocked out. I looked down towards the pier, it was intact, the other pier had been hit. The damage had been done where the water was deeper and it appeared to be unusable.

    Embarking time came. Down we went, 2 crew to each boat. I could see the large boats anchored off shore, about 3 hundred yards from the shore. We rowed to the end of the pier, where an officer stood marshalling the troops, controlling them when they were getting aboard our boats. There was no panic. If there had of been he looked well equipped to deal with it. We got our passengers aboard and started to row. I had looked to see which was the nearest ship and thought what a long way it seemed, the sea was calm. Eventually we reached the side of the ship. Myself and the other crew member held onto some ropes hung from the side of the ship and pulled our boat side on so that the passengers could clamber up the ladders and other means that were hanging there. One of them could not get up quick enough and caught me with the butt of his rifle. Did I see stars! I almost let go, but my head quickly cleared, and off we went to pick up some more. We passed a lot more boats bringing out more troops. I think watching the small boats going out and coming back must have looked a great sight to the troops standing on the pier. Each boat brought their turn nearer.

    I cannot remember how long and how many trips we made, but I do remember coming back which was to be the last time, we both said we did not think we had the strength to do another trip. This must have been obvious to the officer on the pier, because he said he had more crews lined up, and that we could stay on as passengers. What an organiser! When we got aboard it was the minesweeper HMS Havant.

    I went down below deck. A sailor brought us a large mug of tea and 2 thick slices of bread and butter. Some time later two sappers from my own unit came and sat down. We chatted, one I knew very well right back to schooldays. After a short time they tried to persuade me to go up on deck, but I felt too tired so they went alone. Apparently just as they got on deck a plane dropped a bomb which killed both of them and blocked the way up onto the deck. For a short time there was panic, thinking we were sinking, but a voice shouting down the ventilator shaft assured us this was not so and to remain cool. I remember a sapper, Cliff Wolfe, from my own unit playing his harmonica and peace prevailed. In turn we were hauled up onto the deck one at a time, where another ship the HMS Speedwell was taking us aboard. It was a little crowded, but what did that matter? I finished up in a crowded bathroom. I got into the bath, fell asleep and woke up just outside Dover. What a welcome sight.
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  2. Excellent write up.
    My Dad came off at Dunkirk, nice to here an account of conditions there.

  3. Thanks John.

    Some kindly fellows on another forum (WW2Talk) are trying to find more details re the MM, MCs.

    I believe this is the gazette entry for Shotton's MM:

    Can't find anything on Windle at present.
  4. A close relation Gordon Pettitt Vane served with the RE at Dunkirk and was awarded an MM whilst on board one of the paddle steamers 'Royal ? '.

    I cannot find his citation or a description of his act of gallantry, can any one help please?
  5. G P Vane (RA, formerly RE) MM Gazette here:

    Promotion here:

    Awarded efficiency medal in 1982: