VE Day 75 years on: Memories of Dunkirk
How a national effort to save lives remains relevant in today’s crises
The 2017 film ‘Dunkirk’ was undoubtedly a box-office hit. It received laudable recognition come awards season picking up 3 Oscars, a BAFTA, and a host of other awards. More importantly, it dramatised for a modern generation one of the most daring and ambitious operations of the Second World War (WW2): Operation Dynamo, in which Military personnel worked together with a host of Civilian volunteers to save lives and return our people home safely.
Dunkirk was only a turning point in the war, and it wasn’t until almost 5 years later in 1945 that Britain and her allies celebrated Victory in Europe (VE) Day. This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day. In reflecting on what it must have meant for the people involved in Operation Dynamo five years prior, when things must have seemed at their darkest for many in Europe, to then be cheering in the streets for victory; it’s hard to imagine the sense of relief, the sense of joy, but also the sense of sadness for the sacrifices that were made to achieve that victory.
The film ‘Dunkirk’ certainly helped bring an increased awareness of Operation Dynamo to an audience who probably knew very little about the subject almost 3 generations removed from the events. That said, as a film it cannot help people to understand the true reality of what it was like for people who took part. That can only be gained from the personal account of the people who were there, and who shared their stories with us, so that we could better understand their struggle.
In recognition of the 75th anniversary of VE Day we asked personnel across Strategic Command (UKStratCom) to share with us stories which had a personal connection to them. People in their lives who were involved in WW2 and who undoubtedly celebrated on that first VE day 75 years ago.
One person willing to share his story was Warrant Officer 1 Frankie Muir, who currently works with UKStratCom in Defence Intelligence (DI), based at Royal Air Force Wyton. WO1 Muir shared the story of his grandfather Petty Officer Robert Muir, who served aboard HMS Nautilus and was involved in Operation Dynamo. WO Muir stated: “My Grandfather never really spoke about the war to the family; I suppose it was not the done thing… I was far too young to comprehend what he had achieved before he passed so, on entering the RN myself 28 years ago, one of the first things my Grandmother did was give me a copy of the book in which he had shared some of his War anecdotes “Trawlers go to War”.
Petty Officer Muir’s recollections are captured in the 1971 book “Trawlers go to war” by Paul Lund & Harry Ludlam, and it is from this account that we get a better idea of what life was like for someone directly involved in Operation Dynamo. In the extract, the Nautilus received orders to make for Dunkirk with her sister ship, the drifter Comfort. But they were only halfway across when they ran into trouble. He recalls:
“‘It was a pitch-black night and suddenly an Eboat loomed out of the darkness. We had the sauce to engage it with our full armament, one Lewis gun. I suppose it thought we weren’t worth bothering with, for it pushed off at full speed. Our skipper was rather pleased with our performance, but shortly afterwards there was a terrific explosion and next moment there were men in the water screaming for help… They were survivors from the destroyer HMS Wakeful; the same Eboat we had brushed with had put a couple of torpedoes into her.”
The Nautilus pushed on to Dunkirk, her orders to rendezvous with HMS Calcutta and deposit the survivors from the Wakeful:
“‘We located the Calcutta and went alongside her to discharge our survivors. We hadn’t been alongside for many minutes when she decided to fire an eight-inch broadside inland. I was down in the mess having breakfast when she fired the first rounds. We were lying right below her after turret, the mess deck hatch open, and the flashback seemed to come right down the hatch. I was up on deck in two seconds flat and after that went down again and changed myself.
We pushed off inshore Nautilus had a very small draught and anchored off the beach. Stukas were dive bombing and machine gunning everything in sight. We were lying close to the destroyer Greyhound and her captain decided to go ashore to try to get things organised so my mate and I were detailed to take our small boat and ferry him to the beach … We arrived at the beach, put the captain ashore and never saw him again. We picked up four soldiers, all we could manage in the boat…and then made for Nautilus. But we arrived to find her ablaze from stem to stem, with ammunition shooting off all over the place. Apparently, she was hit by a bomb in the engine room and had begun to sink, so the skipper set fire to the ship’s papers down in the wardroom and the ship. being all wood, caught blaze.”
With his ship lost, Petty Officer Muir had little option but to make for the beach again to try and find a craft better than their small boat:
“We made the beach and found an abandoned lifeboat fitted with Robinson’s gear its propeller worked by hand power on the handles. We got this afloat…picked up eight soldiers, set them to work on the handles turning the propeller, and got them across to the paddlesweeper with the others. We then turned the boat to go back for more, but were unlucky again, for as we neared the beach there was another raid and bang! two holes in the boat and down we went. Once more we had to swim ashore.
We decided to…look for something else that would float, but there was nothing. Then a small naval landing craft came in to the beach to pick up troops, and we asked its commander to take us as crew. We were lucky, he needed extra hands and we were detailed to drop the kedge anchor aft so that the boat could pull itself off again after loading up.
Conditions on the beach were getting worse; we saw soldiers go mad and threaten to stab their pals. Eventually our landing craft was almost out of fuel and had to cease operations. The commander had no room for us on the return crossing but offered to put us on board the paddlesweeper Gracie Fields to take us back to Dover. We said we’d rather go on another paddler, the Sandown, as she was due to sail about midnight, so he took us to her on his last trip. It was the best decision we ever made. We knew some of Sandown’s crew and they bedded us down in their quarters with a bottle and a couple of sandwiches. I didn’t remember anything else until we arrived in Ramsgate and they told us that the Gracie Fields had been sunk on the crossing.”
We asked WO1 Muir to reflect on what this account meant to him, and he stated: “On reflection, and being a mariner myself, it looks like he was very lucky to get through it!”. Lucky might just be a soldier’s understatement. This account gives us an insight into the danger, the chaos, and the incredible bravery of each and every person involved in Operation Dynamo. Petty Officer Muir escaped death on many occasions during that operation and returned home safely. Many others were not so lucky. WO Muir stated: “I feel proud about the story about my Grandfather at Dunkirk, it portrays the bravery, fortitude and determined British spirit we heard so much about during WWII”.
For Petty Officer Muir, and countless others, the strength of feeling they experienced on that day in 1945 where we could finally say, “we won” must have been immense. The life-threatening situations survived, the friends and family lost, it was worth it because we had achieved victory. It is important to note that that victory was achieved by everyone in the nation. Just as Petty Officer Muir and the crew of HMS Nautilus bravely sailed to Dunkirk to rescue countless lives, so too did a multitude of civilian ships, volunteers eager to help the war effort in any way they could.
2020 now sees the nation facing another crisis. One too that requires a concerted effort from the entire nation to combat a potential healthcare disaster. As then, in this crisis lives will be lost, and people will bravely fight to save as many as possible. More people will do their part too, helping to ensure that those that are doing the fighting can continue to do so, knowing that an entire nation is behind them. If we show equal bravery to those who fought a very different conflict all those years ago, perhaps we too can reflect on our own victory this VE day, having a better understanding of the sacrifice and bravery of those who fought to achieve it 75 years ago.