Monday, February 13, 2012

June 1-6, 1940

‘Thousands of British Troops Landing in England – Bitter Fighting Around Dunkirk’ were the headlines on Friday May 31 as allied troops maintained their positions along a wide front, despite the progress of German armoured units reinforced by an additional one million men.

Dunkirk was one of the most critical events of the Second World War and day by day the Advertiser reported the proceedings as they happened.

Following more than three weeks of fierce fighting, British, French and Belgian troops were evacuated in a mass exodus from Northern France.

Rescued men told how the German Luftwaffe attacked the flotilla of rescue ships in waves every 10 to 15 minutes, raining down salvos of bombs on troops assembled on the quayside.
“The German planes machine gunned us as we were getting into the boats, bullets splashing all around,” one survivor was quoted as saying.

“I never expected to get back to England alive,” said another.

All night long, under cover of darkness, the Navy carried on its brilliant work of rescue and today the procession of warships, transports and craft of all kinds, went on to and fro across the Channel,” the Advertiser reported on Saturday June 1 as an estimated 100,000 men were evacuated.

“The spirit of the troops was an inspiration to the nation. They had come out of an inferno with their morale unbroken and their faith in their cause undimmed,” the report continued.

But by Wednesday June 5 the situation in France had become even more desperate. A new German offensive extended along a 120 mile front from the sea to within 65 miles north east of Paris.
Enemy bombers launched an air attack on French lines at 4 am followed immediately by an advance of massed numbers of German infantry, it was reported.

Although Hitler had Paris firmly in his sights, it appeared things were not going entirely according to plan.

“It can be stated definitely that Hitler wrote to Mussolini telling him he expected to have crushed all French and British resistance within a fortnight after capturing Holland and Belgium,” said a member of the Dutch legation in Berlin who had recently arrived in London.

“Holland should have fallen within 24 hours and France and Britain should have capitulated not later than 24 May.”


Arriving at towns on the south coast, the soldiers, most of whom had scarcely slept for a fortnight, were exhausted and hungry. Local bakers worked overtime to supply canteens, where women volunteers cut mountains of sandwiches and served countless cups of tea.

Train loads of returning Tommies were cheered as they passed through the countryside where well wishers gathered at wayside crossings to fling chocolates and cigarettes at the soldiers.
Undeterred by their experience the men still had plenty of fight left in them. ‘Back to Blighty – but not for long,’ and ‘Look out Hitler, we haven’t started on you yet,’ were just some of the messages scrawled on railway carriage doors.

In Swindon members of the Women’s Auxiliary section of the YMCA were congratulated on their sterling work.

“Since the evacuation began, 35,000 men, including French and Belgian soldiers, have been given tea, pies, cakes, chocolate and cigarettes, when they stopped at Swindon station for 15 minutes on their way to other towns,” reported the Advertiser.


Pilot Officer Stanley William Ashton aged 28,(pictured right) son of Mr & Mrs W. Ashton of Draycott Road, Chiseldon, was reported killed in an aircraft accident. No indication was given as to how or where the accident had occurred. Pilot Officer Ashton had been in the RAF for just a year and had married Miss Josephine Loveday in December 1939.

Another local serviceman, Able Seaman William Ernest Toombs (pictured right) was also reported missing following the loss of his vessel the tug St Fagan during the Dunkirk evacuation.

“I can’t keep missing it like I have been, you must bear up mother, if I don’t come back,” twenty year old Toombs had told his mother when last home on leave.

A former Clifton Street School pupil, William Toombs left for naval school at Penarth when he was just thirteen years old. Earlier in the war he took part in an engagement in the Baltic. He had recently passed his examination as gun layer.

And two members of the British Expeditionary Force recently evacuated from France were engaged in a dramatic rescue at Coate Water.

Gunner W. Mears of the RA and Private W. Harris of the Northants Regiment dived fully clothed into the reservoir at Coate when teenager Charles Shirley of West End Road, Stratton got into difficulties while bathing.

Mr Lusher, superintendant at Coate, with boatman Mr H.J. Blackman and Mr W. Titcombe at once applied artificial respiration with speedy success.

Private Harris told an Evening Advertiser reported that he had lost 15s from his pocket and that both men had their cigarettes spoiled.

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