Dunkirk: The Memories Of Veterans Who Were There

We remember the stories of veterans with different experiences of the evacuation, 80 years on.

In May 1940, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops found themselves trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk on the northwest French coast after the German Army, who had invaded France only two weeks earlier, encircled them.

Most were British soldiers, many conscripted, who had been sent over during the previous months to help protect their ally against an impending German invasion.

But they were no match for the German's ferocious assault and were soon forced to retreat.

Now, stranded on the beaches, they faced complete humiliation and capture.

Despite facing overwhelming odds, the Royal Navy and a flotilla of civilian small ships executed an audacious rescue and evacuated them back to Britain.

The 'Dunkirk Spirit', determination in the face of adversity, has become part of our national psyche.

Today, this enduring story is still being called upon for inspiration and to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the evacuation, Forces TV will broadcast a series of features and interviews including first hand accounts from veterans who were there.

For the last few years, as a producer with 'Forces World', our weekly magazine television show about the British military, past and present, I have had the privilege of interviewing Second World War veterans.

From a Lancaster pilot who was forced to barrel roll his aircraft, to an Armoured Corps officer who liberated a Dutch village on a bicycle, these admirable men and women tell their stories with humility and compassion - and all insist they were doing nothing remarkable.

For our Dunkirk coverage, I was able to interview two soldiers with very different stories to tell about those dark days.

Alfred Smith escaped off the beach, while Norman Lewis was captured and endured five years in captivity.

Watch: What events led to the Dunkirk evacuation?

Alfred Smith

Alfred was the first veteran I filmed for 'Forces World' and he was delightful.

The interview had been arranged through the Southend and Rochford branch of SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity, who helped and supported Alfred as well as other local veterans.

Although he was one of the few to return to France, landing at Normandy several days after D-Day, he was being feted by the media following the release of Christopher Nolan's film, 'Dunkirk', in 2017.

I think he enjoyed the moment enormously, meeting Prince Harry at Kensington Palace and attending a red carpet premiere in London's Leicester Square.

But despite the fuss, he had an important story he wanted to tell - of Dunkirk, and the friends he lost.

His story had begun shortly after Britain had declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, following the Nazi invasion of Poland.

To defend its ally France against an attack by the Germans, the British quickly despatched an army who would position itself along the Belgian border, near the same battlefields where it had fought only 20 years before during the First World War.

Alfred was a lorry driver with the Royal Army Service Corps and was just 20 years old when on Christmas Day 1939 he set sail for France.

By the spring of 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) numbered almost 400,000 men.

On 10 May, two German Panzer tank armies attacked.

The smaller one advanced through the Netherlands and Belgium, while the main force, outflanking the southerly Allied defences, swept through the forests of the Ardennes and across northern France to the coast.

The British were hopelessly ill-prepared for Blitzkrieg' - the enemy's devastating combination of fast moving tanks and ground-attack aircraft.

Alfred Smith
Alfred Smith (Picture: Courtesy of Alfred Smith).

By 25 May, when the Germans reached the English Channel, the BEF found itself trapped in a diminishing pocket.

For the British soldiers and the remnants of the French and Belgian armies, there was now only one port from where they could escape to Britain: Dunkirk.

During the battle for France, Alfred had a number of close escapes.

On his 21st birthday his lorry was strafed by a German fighter-aircraft.

As the British were forced back, he eventually made his way to Dunkirk.

For Alfred, this part of the war held the worse memories for him.

He spent 48 hours helplessly exposed on a flat beach and at the mercy of Stuka dive-bombers.

He told me how a good friend of his, a lance corporal, was sitting next to him when he was suddenly hit by shrapnel and horrifically injured.

His friend died almost instantly.

As he quietly spoke, I could sense the moment passing in front of his eyes.

The memory was still vivid and he recalled how his situation seemed hopeless.

But help was on the way.

Between 26 May and 4 June, the Royal Navy organised the largest military evacuation in history.

Codenamed 'Operation Dynamo', it was a daring rescue mission by a flotilla of navy ships and small civilian boats manned by volunteers.

It saved an estimated 338,000 Allied troops and the new wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, called it the "miracle of deliverance".

It was to prove the key event in helping Britain to carry on and win the war.

Alfred Smith in uniform
Alfred in his uniform (Picture: Courtesy of Alfred Smith).

Alfred was one of the lucky ones.

After two days, he and his best friend, Ginger, decided to take their chances and swim out to the nearest ship.

Alfred made it to a paddle-steamer, grabbed a rope and was hauled up on board.

In all the confusion, he had lost contact with his buddy and had no idea if he was safe.

Soon after, down in the decks, Alfred passed out.

By the time he woke up, he was in Harwich.

Of the 107 personnel from his unit who went out to France, only 31 returned.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, Alfred was stationed in a camp in Worcestershire when he had an unexpected reunion.

His best friend Ginger had managed to catch another boat home.

They later took part in the Normandy landings together.

In 2015, Alfred was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honour, for helping to liberate the country in 1944.

After the war, he became a driving instructor and taught ballroom dancing.

At the age of 99 in November 2018, Alfred Smith passed away.

Alfred Smith looking out of a vehicle window
Alfred behind the wheel of a vehicle (Picture: Courtesy of Alfred Smith).

Norman Lewis

Not every British soldier in the BEF was on the beaches of Dunkirk at this time.

Part of the force was outside the pocket, fighting the Germans further south.

Among them was Norman Lewis, a Royal Engineer, who had arrived in France several months earlier during the so-called 'Phoney War', the quiet period before the storm.

It was now anything but.

His small troop had been ordered to advance and blow a bridge to halt the advancing German Panzers.

It was to be his first taste of war.

I met Norman at the Veteran Support Centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

A charity run by veterans supporting veterans, they had set up the interview fully confident he would give a fascinating interview, and they were not wrong.

Norman spoke proudly, yet humbly, about his experience during the Battle for France as well as his incarceration for five years in a prisoner-of-war camp and his subsequent journey home.

Recalling events from 80 years ago with impressive detail, 100-year-old Norman held the film crew's attention throughout.

In its sweeping manoeuvre, the Germany Army advanced behind the BEF and quickly trapped the British along with thousands of French and Belgian troops.

Despite an increasingly hopeless situation, Allied soldiers outside the pocket fought a heroically rearguard action.

Many were completely unaware of what was happening on the beaches at Dunkirk or the Royal Navy mission to rescue them.

In fact, by the time Norman went into action on 7 June 1940, the evacuation was over.

But along with the rest of the fragmented BEF, and despite facing overwhelming odds against perhaps the best trained and equipped army in Europe, they were determined to hold their ground.

Norman Lewis CREDIT COURTESY Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis during his service days (Picture: Courtesy of Norman Lewis).

Norman and his fellow sappers arrived at the bridge they were ordered to below.

Charges were already laid and their job was to blow it before the Germans could cross.

But to his frustration, a British officer kept postponing the detonation, suspiciously in Norman's view.

Eventually, the enemy's tanks appeared.

Unaware of the sappers taking cover, a German commander took the opportunity to step from his armoured vehicle to smoke a cigarette and assess the situation.

When he got back in, Norman remembered, all hell broke loose.

In the ensuing battle, the bridge was finally blown before the tanks could cross.

As his troop pulled back, Norman found himself caught in a trap.

Somewhere in the distance, a voice shouted out: "Over here, Tommy!" but when Norman approached, he discovered it was a German.

British troops being assisted by the Royal Navy upon returning to England in June 1940, after being evacuated from Dunkirk
British troops being assisted by the Royal Navy upon their return to England from Dunkirk, in June 1940 (Picture: PA).

Outnumbered and outgunned, his troop were quickly captured.

With a gun placed into the back of his neck, he heard the immortal words made famous in dozens of Second World War films since: "For you, the war is over."

But it was his life that was almost over.

Soon after, he and his fellow captives, were lined up in a ditch, certain they were about to be shot.

A German officer stepped in and stopped the execution.

Later, to his surprise, an SS officer asked him to tuck into a banquet of food that had been discovered.

After scoffing down as much as could, the officer abruptly stopped Norman from eating anything more.

He was annoyed to realise the food wasn't, as he suspected, a poisoned trap.

Norman was to spend five years in captivity, mostly in a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland.

But he later learned about the evacuation of Dunkirk and was delighted so many got away.

In 1945, he was liberated by Poles and Russians, and then, in an epic 10,000-mile journey that took him from Warsaw to Odessa, from Istanbul to Port Said and eventually Gibraltar, he arrived home to his parents' house in Meir, Stoke-on-Trent.

On opening the door, his father broke down crying.

It was something Norman had never seen before.

Shortly after arriving home, Norman caught sight of a beautiful girl riding a bicycle and was smitten.

It was Dorothy, his neighbour's sister, and he took her out on a date that very night. And the night after that.

They soon married and were together for 70 years, having three children and 17 grandchildren.

To his surprise, he discovered he was eligible to join the Dunkirk Veterans Association – he assumed it was only for those who got off the beaches – and was an active and proud member for many years.

To paraphrase the tagline of a famous movie, there are 400,000 stories about Dunkirk and this has been only two of them, but they are remarkable nonetheless and give us different perspectives about this iconic moment in British history.

Norman Lewis (front row second from left) with fellow soldiers
Norman Lewis (front row, second from left) with his fellow servicemen (Picture: Courtesy of Norman Lewis).

Also included in this special feature on Dunkirk is my colleague Geoff Meade’s interview from 2016 with the late Eric Presland, a Grenadier Guard, who recalled his time on the beaches.

Thanks to the Presland family for granting us permission to share his memories again.

At one stage, thinking he had at last got away, the ship Eric had boarded promptly turned around and sailed back into Dunkirk harbour and docked for several hours.

Finally, with more troops on board, it eventually set sail and he made it home.

The story of Dunkirk, a courageous rescue against all odds, has passed into British folklore and the 'Dunkirk Spirit' is still spoken of today.

Dr Daniel Todman, a historian and author of two recent and highly-regarded books on the war, brings a fresh historical overview and perspective on this decisive battle and its consequences.

Politicians, scientists and commentators are summoning the attitude of the 'Dunkirk Spirit', as we battle the coronavirus pandemic.

With it, we're told, we can overcome until we meet again.

For others, it harks back to a different time, and to a real war, and may be inappropriate.

But what is certain is the thousands of individual acts of bravery, fortitude, sacrifice and humility that took place during those ominous days in May and June of 1940.

With the 80th anniversary of the Battle for France and the evacuation from Dunkirk, we remember that time through the words and stories of Alfred, Norman and Eric.

When, during a dire situation, thousands fought side by side, helped each other and survived.

And with it helped bring about the eventual end of tyranny.

Cover image: Alfred Smith (left) and Norman Lewis (Pictures: Courtesy of Alfred Smith and Norman Lewis).