The British Expeditionary Force was retreating, defeated and harassed by the German army and pounded by the German air force all the way from the plains of France to the beaches of Dunkirk. British, French and Belgian soldiers were gathering in their thousands for what was to become known in war history as ‘the great escape’ or ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’.
Ritchie Cassar, only son of a Maltese immigrant, Londoner from the East End, 24 years old and Jimmy McLean, Glasgow boy from the Gorbals but now living in Clapham, 25 years old – both survivors of the 20th Battalion of the London Regiment which was decimated by the enemy – had been on the run for three whole days. Cold and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, they run, hid and ravaged for morsels of food. Their uniforms were splattered and torn from diving into ditches or under hedges whenever Stukas came hurtling overhead.
Ritchie patted the pocket where Betty’s last letter was secured and allowed hurriedly to wonder whether he would ever see her again. The tiff they had on his last leave weighed heavily on his mind. She wanted to start a family but he wanted to await the end of the war. She did not want to wait forever but he did not want her to be burdened with a baby in case he failed to return home. But both loved each other dearly and fiercely.
Suddenly he was pushed sharply from the back and sent sprawling face down into the ditch as Stukas came screaming overhead peppering the road with bullets. When the enemy planes passed, he struggled back to his feet muttering “Thanks Jim that was very close indeed!” “Where the hell were you mate? Did you not hear them coming?” said his friend. “Thinking of your wife, I suppose. Be careful mate or you’ll never see her again” he continued.
They looked out towards the beach below. The scene they saw was unbelievable, like seeing an epic film at the cinema. Thousands of battle-weary soldiers were spread exhausted on the sand. There were boats of all types as far as the eye could see – warships and fishing boats, yachts and paddle steamers, lifeboats and tugboats and other kinds of sea craft imaginable. And all around them was the constant screaming of enemy planes flying low and causing havoc on these men waiting their chance to escape and save their lives.
Jimmy put his hand in his back pocket and retrieved a crumpled packet of cigarettes giving one to Ritchie. As Ritchie lighted his cigarette, he watched the eerie spectacle below – small boats, heavily laden with men that they lay low in the water while other men were clinging to the boats’ sides not to drown. All of a sudden, the deadly Stukas came diving down and mercilessly machine gunned the helpless soldiers. Ritchie flung himself flat on the sand besides Jimmy, his heart pounding fast as the beach around them was sprayed with bullets. There were so many dead and dying that he was crying openly.
In the lull that followed, Jimmy told him “When this war is finished and we’re back in London, we’ll get our girls together and have a good night out. You’ll love my Susie, she’s a gem!” “It’s a promise”, retorted Ritchie, “And you’ll love my Betty too, she’s a diamond!” “My God, how I miss my little Rosie, she’s three now”, said again Jimmy. They had known each other since their recruitment, stayed together and became close pals looking after each other during their fighting across France.
They rested a bit, letting their minds roam on many things but mostly on the dear ones they had left behind. Then the Stukas came again, diving, screaming, pounding them with bombs and firing with machine guns at the helpless mass of tired soldiers who were waiting their turn to board boats and try to make it back to England.
“When the Stukas go back for more ammunition, shall we dash in the water to reach one of the little boats?” asked Ritchie. He looked besides him. Jimmy had fallen over on his back, his face contorted with pain. Ritchie crouched over him, listening, but there was no beats from his heart and no breath on his hand when he held it close to Jimmy’s mouth. Then he saw the gaping wound on his friend’s chest from which blood was oozing out. His friend was lifeless.
They had been together from the beginning, him and Jimmy. His friend had come back from his last leave proudly showing around photos of his new-born daughter. Susie, his wife, would only have that baby to comfort her now and to remind her of her Jimmy. Ritchie, his eyes misty and with a painful lump in his throat, beat the sand with his fist shouting angrily – “Damn this war. Damn those German bastards!”
He remained with his friend until late evening. As darkness fell and fires lit the desolate scene, Ritchie took Jimmy’s papers from his pocket, including the precious photos of his wife and daughter, and then walked towards the remaining members of his unit. Light-headed with the trauma of seeing his best mate die besides him, Ritchie lay there with his thoughts. Jimmy was just one of the many casualities that littered the beach, and who knew who would be next?
His thoughts went to his father. He had promised them that when the war is over, he would take them all to his little island in the Mediterranean for a holiday, see his few remaining relatives there, show them the beautiful places where he grew up, the whole city built by the Knights of St. John, the bastions and fortifications, the churches, the blue sea. But will he make it safely home?
He joined the long queue of men stretching far into the water waiting their turn to board any vessel. It took him another twelve hours before he was dragged on a small boat bound for home. He had grown weaker and weaker with lack of food, water and sleep. As the boat sped away from the beach, he saw plumes of smoke rising from the receding shore and thought of those left behind and who would probably never make it back. He felt sick at heart.
When some minute later, he looked once more back towards the devastation, he saw a ship going down stern first, the water around it swarming with servicemen, struggling to keep afloat. A few small boats were making their way towards the fast disappearing ship. He prayed the good Lord for their safety.
By the time the white cliffs of Dover came in sight, he had sunk to his knees from sheer exhaustion. He struggled to his feet as the men began slowly to make a file and walk down towards land. Once on the train, the men – haggard, dirty, unshaven but thankful – were given biscuits, cakes, cigarettes and drinks by voluntary workers who came out to help. Ritchie closed his eyes and thought longingly of his Betty before falling into a troubled sleep.
Betty, knowing of the defeated servicemen’s homecoming, waited anxiously for him at Victoria train station. Trains were coming in overloaded with all kinds of servicemen including injured ones helped by their colleagues. She waited for four whole hours, then – when hope seemed to ebb – she saw him coming down the steps of the train – tired, haggard, and unshaven. He spotted her when she shouted his name and they run furiously towards each other until they met and hugged tightly together for a long long time, cementing a love that a long and cruel war could not destroy.
The retreat from Dunkirk cost the lives of 68,000 fighting men but 350,000 others were saved to fight another day; Ritchie returned Jimmy’s papers and photos to his mate’s wife Susie telling her that her husband’s last words were that “my Susie is a gem”; his father was killed during an air raid on the munitions factories of the East End, his promise to return to Malta with his family remaining unfulfilled; Ritchie survived the war despite serving in fighting campaigns in Italy and the Middle East; he and Betty had a son, Andrew, fulfilling their dream of a family despite the uncertainties of a cruel war that dragged on for almost six years.