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Father was at Dunkirk – but those horrors were rarely spoken about

By KentOnline reporter

After the Second World War adults were determined upon a completely new start.

Throughout my own childhood in the 1950s the recent war was never mentioned. Toy guns were banned, war films were discouraged and even the tin helmets we swapped for jam jars with the rag and bone man were swiftly confiscated.

Fathers rarely spoke in front of children about their wartime experiences. They were firmly relegated to the past. Any information I learned myself, I gathered years later, piece by piece, as a school teacher.

The Dunkirk Medal
The Dunkirk Medal

I realised then, for instance, the castle we scaled for mock battles at the North End was, in fact, Sea Girt, a fortified house we watched slip slowly into the sea...

The fleet of fishing boats beached on the seafront around which we played – Gypsy King, Golden Spray, Lady Haig – were all involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk, details I read about later in history books.

Gradually, a more complete picture of the war emerged.

How, after the Fall of France and Belgium the British Expeditionary Force was compelled to retreat to the French beaches. Ships steamed across the Channel to bring hundreds of thousands of our allied troops safely back to Britain.

The Admiralty made an appeal over the wireless on May 29, 1940 for owners of motor boats and pleasure yachts experienced in coastal navigation to report to the Royal Naval Reserve.

Sydney Holyoake
Sydney Holyoake

The purpose of these hastily recruited lighter coastal vessels was to ferry stranded troops from the shallow waters of the beaches to the ships stationed in deep water further out to sea.

Deal folk guessed from the black pall of smoke that rose on the horizon 40 miles distant that their purpose was one of rescue and that their destination was Dunkirk.

It was when I was in my mid 40s that I received a shock. A favourite cousin, Lee, came to stay for a brief holiday by the sea. To fill a gap in the conversation my father, Sydney, produced his wartime medals.

Among them was the Dunkirk medal.

Newlyweds Sydney and Hilda Holyoake on Deal seafront
Newlyweds Sydney and Hilda Holyoake on Deal seafront

My reaction was jealousy –an emotion alien to me. Why would my father show this prized medal to his nephew but never to me?

After the war there was rivalry between ex-servicemen whenever they attended military parades. My father related how the Commandant of the Royal Marines could not identify his medal when he stood with the Burma Star Association at Walmer Barracks.

Father further claimed he was the last soldier in Deal to wear the Dunkirk medal.

The patinated bronze medal features a lamp with flame rising above the single word DUNKERQUE 1940 encircled by a laurel wreath. Above are two crossed Gallic daggers.

On the obverse is an anchor and the arms of Dunkirk. It is suspended on an orange and red striped ribbon.

My father Sydney Holyoake was from a large family of three boys and five sisters who lived in an interminable terrace in the centre of Derby. When war broke out in September 1939, he enlisted along with his companions.

After nine weeks basic training at an Army camp in Leicester, he was despatched with the Royal Regiment of Artillery across the English Channel to fight with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium.

He spent his 21st birthday fighting for our country.

The film Dunkirk stars James D'Arcy and Kenneth Branagh
The film Dunkirk stars James D'Arcy and Kenneth Branagh

All this I knew, but then I chanced upon a brief article father wrote for an early magazine of the Deal Citadel of the Salvation Army. Father, hardly a religious man, greatly admired the Sally Army, as do all servicemen today.

It was once explained to me that while most religious groups offered assistance during hostilities, the Salvation Army was unique in that it ministered to troops while under fire.

Father’s article, which I read aloud at his recent funeral, gives a personal insight into Operation Dynamo in May and June 1940.

During the intense fighting, France, then our allies, reluctantly capitulated to the enemy forces. Father’s regiment was forced to fight its way back through German-occupied Belgium and France. The object of their strategic withdrawal was to reach Dunkirk.

“Casualties were very heavy,” revealed father. “Our complement was withered down to a handful of men. I was one of the lucky ones to return to tell the story.

“Before any attempt was made to leave foreign soil, we had to destroy everything – guns, ammunition, lorries – that could be of possible use to German forces.

“Only then were we allowed to retreat to the wide, open beach of Dunkirk, where there were boats of all types and sizes waiting to pick us up.

“Making our way through the gunfire we rushed across the beach where fortune was on our side. We were rescued and taken to a larger boat further out to sea, from whence the crossing back to Dover began...”

He does not mention the carnage all around him with German fighter planes dive- bombing the British ships, little boats and lines of troops struggling, rifles held aloft, through the rough waves.

Nor the fear of reprisals from townsfolk as the starving, weary troops returned home. In the event, they were overwhelmed to find that the entire population of the town had turned out to cheer them as they landed at Admiralty Pier.

“Arriving in Dover, we regrouped, managing to grab a short spell of rest. But with nowhere to go we propped ourselves up against the side of houses and fell asleep, totally exhausted and demoralised by our defeat.

“Civilians were engaged to search the town for billets so that we could rest for a couple of days, giving us a chance to regain our strength. Fed well, and rested, we were allowed seven days leave. This was more than welcome.

“Leave up, I reported back to HQ in Leicester.

George and Sydney Holyoake
George and Sydney Holyoake

“There I was fitted out once more with a new uniform, checked over by the doctor and dentist, and given the all clear to be returned to active service.”

He was transported with his reformed regiment by train to a destination unknown. It proved to be Deal.

He was allocated to a unit in charge of a cross-Channel gun stationed on Kingsdown cliffs. This was for the protection of the coast in preparation for an expected invasion by the Germans from occupied France.

At Deal, father met an attractive corporal, Hilda, in the WAAFS. Their lightning romance led to marriage after father had been invalided out from his subsequent service fighting the Japanese in India and Burma.

I was their sole contribution to the postwar baby boom. Father was never an easy man to live with. He did his duty to his family and ran our home with military precision.

But there was never any trace of affection towards his only child.

If only he had explained his experience in Dunkirk. I felt I could have been proud of him.

Father reflected: “It often goes through my mind, and I wonder what it was all for, and why should it have happened, with all my comrades, and thousands of young men being killed, not being given the chance to see life.”

But then he added: “I am grateful, though, I came through safely and found my way back to Deal, which had a sort of attraction for me.”

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