The map of the battlefield.
With the recent film creating huge interest in the greatest disaster in British Military History, it is time to tell one man’s quest for survival.
Sidney Frank Haynes, nicknamed Tank, was born on the 16th September 1912. My father never spoke about his parents, so I assume that he was born out of wedlock. He roamed the streets of London, searching for food to survive. He was smaller than many of his age, and walked in bare feet until his twelfth birthday. Jumping over a high wall with sharp spikes for a dare, endeared him to his mates, but the long stay in hospital to repair the deep gash in his thigh gave him the best food he had ever tasted. After his discharge he had a choice, starve or join the army. It was an easy decision for a fifteen year old and one that would change his life forever.
With his passion for horses, my father was readily accepted as new cannon fodder for the Royal Artillery, even though the army knew that he had lied about his age.
“I loved it,” dad said enthusiastically.
My dad, aged 17, seated in the middle, at the Royal Artillery barracks Folkestone.
Dad had found his vocation and relished the training.
“All the square bashing and countless orders were a small price to pay for three good meals a day.”
He learnt discipline, how to ride horses and loved every minute within barracks. Fully grown he was 5 foot 6 inches tall, and had broad shoulders. Unusually, for his size, he had massive fists. Being brought up in a harsh environment gave him the edge in boxing. He went on to win many bouts as a middleweight champion. All in all, he was fearless, perfect infantry material.
Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and World War 2 followed soon afterwards. In May 1940 Britain sent the British Expeditionary Force - BEF - to France. They were to assist in putting down the upstart from Germany, Adolf Hitler. Untried young men with rifles were thrown against the massed might of Hitler’s Panzer divisions. The battle lasted just three weeks and was doomed to failure from the beginning. Operation Dynamo was hastily launched by the British Government. The aim was to rescue as many troops as possible, no matter what it took. The evacuation would take nine long days of utter misery and death, yet the story would become the stuff of legends.
My father was in a trench with many of his comrades. On their left was a company of Belgian infantry, their job, to stand firm and repel the enemy. In the early hours of dawn the sound of gunshots broke the silence and sleeping men rushed to their defence positions.
“I grabbed my Lee-Enfield rifle and started firing.”
With all his training it was an automatic response, but fear and adrenalin rushed through his body. The Germans had somehow outflanked them and now they were in danger of being overrun.
He recalls sending a stream of insults at the Germans, and at the Belgians on their flank, as he continued to fire his rifle. He hated the former and couldn’t understand why their allies nearby were not returning fire. It transpired that the Belgians had orders to withdraw under cover of darkness and regroup to another position. Alas, no one had informed the British, and with the German forces moving so quickly the command structure had started to collapse. Like his mates, the dread of dying washed over him.
“I really thought I’d copped it. With so many Germans all around us, I didn’t think I’d see England, your mum and your sister again.”
He goes on. ‘I’ll never know how I escaped. The Germans were everywhere, and the constant gunfire deafening. I wanted to stay and fight but it would have made no difference, as we had so many casualties. We didn’t have the man-power or the fire-power to win. Yet, in the confusion and the drifting smoke, I somehow made it out of the trap along with a few of my mates. All I did was to run as fast as I could along the only route not being shelled. I was sure that we would regroup somewhere and take the fight to the enemy.’
Little did he know that the die of defeat had already been cast, and the long walk to the sandy beaches of Dunkirk had begun.
Static positions proved to be almost useless due to the ever changing battle ground. With communications breaking down, chaos ensued all across the field of battle. The self-assurance of those in command had quickly evaporated, their poise now one of survival mode. It wasn’t long before orders were issued to evacuate as many as possible. Winston Churchill believed that if 50,000, or even 40,000 men, could be saved, it would be a miracle.
Retreat to Dunkirk.
His rations soon ran out, and, like so many others dad scavenged whatever he could. It soon became clear that it was every man for himself, yet he had a few of his mates with him and all were determined to stay alive and get back to England.
“The march seemed endless, and full of constant noise. Enemy planes screamed overhead and artillery shells began to rain down on all of us trudging towards the coast. I could hear explosions ahead, so I dived into a ditch. I guessed that German bombers were pounding targets up the road and now they were coming too bloody close.”
With so many men trudging to the beaches, my father felt that they were all walking towards a disaster. He wasn’t wrong, yet he had no idea of the utter carnage that awaited him along the golden sands of Dunkirk.
Dad was drawn to the sound of a horse in great pain, and without hesitation walked into a field covered in bomb craters. ‘It didn’t take long for me to find the horse. Poor thing was lying on its side with a broken foreleg. A piece of metal, probably from a bomb blast, had caused the damage. There was nothing that could save the poor beast, so I gently stroked its head. I hesitated. I knew what I had to do, but I loved horses. My hands shook as I took hold of my rifle. I spoke softly to the horse, and pulled the trigger. At least it wouldn’t suffer anymore.”
A dead Belgian officer lay nearby. My father took, luckily for him, a full water bottle, his bayonet, and map case. (I still have them). The map of the area was superb. It showed all the latest positions as at the previous day, and where the Germans had cut a huge wedge between the BEF and their allies. Unfortunately, with such a fluid battlefield, it soon became clear to dad that the Germans had moved quickly and the map was now useless.
Soon after, my father and his mates were eating fresh, but only partially cooked, horse meat. “It was the first time I’d eaten anything in two days and I was starving. We couldn’t stay long as the Germans weren’t far behind us, so eating undercooked meat was a risk worth taking. When shells landed in the adjacent field we grabbed a few bits of meat and ran off.” He hoped that his next dinner wouldn’t be two days away. Alas, his fears proved to be true, as his next decent meal would be a long time coming.
Everything was left behind.
With enemy bombers overhead, and the Germans swarming forwards like a massive army of ants, he pushed on towards Dunkirk. “There was nowhere else to go. We passed allied tanks, lorries, and artillery pieces, all destroyed, burnt by our own side. Orders must have been given to leave nothing for the Germans. Bloody stupid orders they were. We were dead on our feet, so those trucks could have carried us all the way to the beaches.”
The roads were packed with troops all walking one way, yet their task was made so much harder due to the detritus of a broken army laying everywhere. Bodies were left to rot, flies covered them and a few brave crows pecked at the eyeballs. “I saw stacks of rifles, ammunition pouches and helmets along the roadside. Anything heavy, anything that would slow a man down was dumped, strewn across a road of endless rubbish. With so much wreckage the stench made me throw up, and the great pall of smoke from the destroyed oil tanks outside Dunkirk didn’t help. It took months before that smell left me.”
Eventually my father reached the never ending line of sand dunes.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. You couldn’t see the beach as so many soldiers were crammed in. Everywhere I looked was a mass of men, standing, sitting or lying down. Smoke was rising from too many fires to count, and the area was littered with the wreckage of bombed tanks, guns, and trucks. German planes were flying virtually unmolested overhead, bombing at will. The sea was full of boats. Larger ships, destroyers, were out in the channel, but small ones were bobbing up and down near the shore trying to steer clear of the mass of flotsam. Rubbish was everywhere. Whoosh! We all ducked. Another shell exploded near the harbour. The harbour was full of soldiers, all waiting in a line. I guessed they were ready to board the destroyer now edging her way alongside the Mole. Lucky sods.”
Dad told me how he longed to be on that Mole, to board that ship and come home.
“I looked back at the sands. It was organised chaos, not a pretty sight.’
Little space on the beach.
“I was told to go to the beaches east of the town and await further orders. So me and my mates grabbed some water and what little food we could, and trudged over sands and worn out men before reaching our allocated space in the dunes. The smoke, the constant bombing, you could go mad here. Some did, and I hated it”
He continued. “We stank, everyone stank, but fear was our worst friend.”
Stuka dive bombers.
According to my father the situation soon worsened. “Not long after we arrived all hell broke loose.” Whilst the bombers had previously flown over the retreating troops - only a few bombs had been dropped, along with some strafing by fighter planes - explosions were now constant. The German Air force, the Luftwaffe, had been ordered to concentrate their strength on the beaches and the ships now arriving to take the remnants of the BEF home.
“The Stuka dive bombers took turns with the ME 109’s to bomb and strafe all of us on the dunes. The screaming from the Stukas was bloodly terrifying. Sand gave little protection when the bullets and the bombs flew, yet any hole was better than none at all. Like so many others I dug with my bare hands to survive.”
The Dunkirk Mole that stretched out into the waters of the North Sea wasn’t made for ships but it was strengthened to allow the larger boats to dock. That single idea turned out to be a life saver for so many troops, as more men were rescued from the Mole than the beaches.
“Until the day I die, I’ll never forget the long lines of soldiers awaiting their turn to board a boat, any boat, all along the sands of Dunkirk.”
The long wait.
For hundreds of thousands of demoralised troops this would be their home for some days to come, yet many would never see their loved ones again.
The bombs dropped like confetti and the machine guns of the ME 109’s continually sang their song of death. Pieces of dead men lay all along the beaches. With very little medical supplies, dad saw men die in agony all around him, yet amazingly, he had escaped the carnage. That soon changed.
“I was hit. A lump of shrapnel tore into the middle finger of my left hand and pain shot through my whole body. Compared to others it was a nothing wound, but with no medical assistance I knew that I had to get off this bloody beach and quick, or I’d perish.”
Like every man at Dunkirk, he constantly prayed to go home.
“We’d tried many times to board boats but something always happened. We were either turned back by those in command, or the boat was already full. The one time I managed to get on board, others followed. With the extra weight it capsized in the shallows and when it refloated, I lost out.”
The bombs continued to drop from the skies, and the shelling increased as the German army moved in for the kill. Dad stayed on purgatory beach for a total of seven days before he was eventually taken aboard a ship. But even then the Luftwaffe was bombing everything, including medical ships, that floated and were heading away from Dunkirk.
By the time he reached hospital, his middle finger had turned gangrenous and had to be amputated to save his life. He was lucky; he could have lost a hand; he could have lost his life.
He wrote the following.
“People talk about entering hell when they die, but this was our hell on earth.”
A ship al last.
Miraculously, 366,131 allied troops were picked up and brought back to England. In small boats that held a dozen soldiers, to the fast destroyers that held hundreds, even thousands, sailors answered the call for help and sailed across the English Channel, risking all to save the men of the BEF and their allies.
Using the Dunkirk Mole for the bigger ships was a major factor in saving tens of thousands of men. The men of the BEF would live to fight again.
To the rescue.
A small victory had somehow been achieved from the jaws of a massive annihilation. Yet, within a week, the Battle of Britain would commence and the war in Europe would cross the English Channel. It would be five long years before the yoke of oppression could be lifted on VE day – Victory in Europe.
I salute all those that survived, or died, at that place of so much torment and suffering.
As any student of Dunkirk would realise, there are gaps in this story. In my defence, I would say this. I have recounted the tale that my father told me, relying on my memory and the few notes that he made at the time. However, I cannot recall whether he came home in a naval vessel from the mole - the most likely route - or was rescued by one of the small ships. Thus these details are absent, along with the names of his comrades and his homecoming across the then deadly English Channel.
I’m very proud of my dad and indeed all of those that stood with him against the evil of the Nazis. They fought for the freedom that we take for granted today.
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