Dunkirk veteran – 77 years on!

Story and photo by John Mellor

Dunkirk veteran Ernest Palmer.
Dunkirk veteran Ernest Palmer.

Two recently released films, “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour”, both tell the amazing story of the rescue of the British Army from what was thought to be impending disaster on the coast of France in May 1940. Burngreave resident, Ernest Palmer, was there!

Ernest told the Burngreave Messenger:

“In 1939, at the age of 19, I joined the Territorial Army in response to adverts on the radio which said, ‘Join the TA and avert a war’. However the war was not averted and I found myself in the regular army at the outbreak of war in September 1939 and on my way to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

“I was a despatch rider taking messages from Field Headquarters to the front line troops. At that time we faced a ruthless, determined and well equipped enemy which was quickly advancing towards us and our allies, the French and the Belgians, who were overwhelmed at an early stage in the war. This left us surrounded with no obvious way of escape.”

It was a desperate situation and on 27th May 1940. German High Command announced that the British Army is encircled and German troops were proceeding to its annihilation. Back in Britain, King George VI (the father of the present Queen) called people to a national day of prayer. Westminster Abbey was filled to capacity with crowds standing outside and churches across the land were full.

This was followed by a series of unexpected events:Hitler ordered his generals to halt their advance towards the French coast and a severe storm grounded the Luftwaffe, allowing the BEF to make their way to the coast at Dunkirk. A great calm followed with low cloud cover over the English Channel for several days. This allowed around 800 privately owned small ships and river boats to cross the Channel and ferry the stranded soldiers off the beaches.

The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, estimated that at most about 30,000 men might be rescued from the beaches. In a speech to Parliament he said, ‘The whole root and core and brain of the British Army seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into captivity’. But in fact more that 335,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk and other points on the French coast over a period of nine days. Churchill called it ‘a miracle of deliverance’.

Ernest himself was among one of the last groups to be rescued from Le Havre, but this was by no means the end of his war service. After a short period of well deserved home leave, he was sent to North Africa. He was taken prisoner but managed to escape after 36 hours.

In 1942 he could hear the guns in the battle of El Alamein, the first Allied victory in the war. In 1943 he was in Tunis and Sicily before being posted back to England in time to be sent off to the Normandy landings in 1944. He arrived at Arromanches shortly after D-Day on 18th June 1944, landing in 3 feet of water! He went on to Bayeux and finally reached Aachen in Germany after crossing the Rhine before being ‘demobbed’ in 1946.