During the afternoon of 27 May we were warned that a conference of all officers would be held at 6.30 that evening at which the colonel, who had just received instructions from the general, would unfold an important plan.
There was some speculation about it at tea, the more impetuous members of the mess thinking that we were going to attack to the south.
‘It’s the only way to save the situation,’ said the adjutant. ‘The Boche can’t hold if he’s not regularly supplied. If we can only attack south and join the French he’ll be stranded.’
The doctor had an ingenious plan to save Paris. ‘The thing to do,’ he said, ‘is to pretend that we are going to attack towards Belgium. Then at the last moment, when we are all facing east, to turn right round and beat up the other Boches behind.’
‘A nice idea,’ said Stimpson, ‘but you can hardly attack armoured units unless you are armoured yourself.’
Stimpson and Bèry between them favoured a sort of golden mean. They thought we would stay in our present positions fighting defensively in ever direction, so as to form a pocket of resistance.
‘And in the meantime,’ said Bèry, ‘the French armoured divisions will come up behind unawares, and give the Boche such an almighty kick in the pants.’
‘The French armoured divisions,’ said the doctor. ‘Where are they? How many are they?’
‘Ah,’ said Bèry mysteriously. ‘Who knows?’
The cellar in which we all congregated at 6.30 that evening had been specially strutted and shored to make it bomb-proof. In the flickering candlelight the long shadows cast by the pillars gave it the air of some old, ill-lit crypt; one almost expected the colonel, as he sat on a barrel, slightly raised at one end, to start intoning a Latin dirge. What he said was elegiac enough.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I have just returned from a conference with the general. What I am going to say will surprise you.’ He paused, at a loss how to begin. ‘You already know that the British and Belgian armies are almost surrounded. There remains, however, one small exit in the north. We are going to evacuate France.’
There was a stir among the attentive listeners. No one had really expected anything quite as bad as this.
‘Lord Gort has been ordered by Whitehall to withdraw the Army before it is too late,’ the colonel continued. ‘The French and Belgians may have let us down; we cannot be certain who is to blame for it. What is certain is that it is no fault of ours, and the general wishes me to convey to you his appreciation of the way the division has conducted itself throughout the fighting. The evacuation, gentlemen, is to take place from Calais and Dunkirk, the only two ports left in our hands.’
He gave time for the startling effect of this announcement to die down.
‘We are going to attempt something essentially British; I venture to say that only the British would dare to attempt such a harebrained scheme. Let us only hope that it will be as successful as it was when it was last practised – by Sir John Moore at Corunna.
‘I can’t tell you much about it,’ he continued, ‘because no plans have been made. We cannot even be certain that there will be boats at the coast to take us off. We have simply got to chance it. All I can tell you for certain is that we shall be fighting a hard rearguard action all the time. It is not yet even certain in what order the British divisions are approaching the coast. Divisional advance parties are to go ahead to prepare a reception for us in England’ – at this point he laughed – ‘if we ever get there.’
‘What’s happening about equipment?’ asked the adjutant.
‘All equipment is to be left behind after it has been properly destroyed. Men will only carry their respirators on to the boats. There won’t be room for anything else.’
He then went into technical details about the bridges we were to make on the retreat.
‘The Germans are certain to destroy existing bridges by bombardment when they realize that we are retreating,’ he said. ‘The main task of the engineers will be to erect substitutes.’
‘I knew it,’ said the doctor, as we went out together. ‘I had a feeling we were going back to England. What a scoop for any journalists on the spot,’ he said enviously.
Amid all the bustle and commotion that followed I found time to leave my books in a wardrobe. They were the result of eight months’ browsing in Parisian and Lillois backstreet libraries. It caused some heart-burning to think that a German or French soldier might use them to light fires. They included what I liked to suppose were some original Guys drawings, but these I decided to take with me, thinking that if the worst happened I could always stuff them down my trousers; but I had to leave the rest. I laid a polite note on the top written in French and German asking the new owner to treat them with care, saying how I hoped he would enjoy reading them; and finally, asking him to come and stay with me at my address in London after the war (bringing the books with him of course).
An hour later the RSM and I set out in a small truck for Armentières, where the colonel had said we would find the other units of the divisional advance party; he said we would form part of a convoy bound for Boulogne or Dunkirk.
We had a collision with a cyclist in Lille. It was dusk and I was speeding, having been told to report at Armentières at absurdly short notice. The Frenchman was unhurt but indignant.
‘Why don’t you look where you’re going?’ he said, remounting his bicycle. ‘Where do you think you’re going to in such a hurry anyway? Paris?’
We assured him that it was not Paris but, like many of his countrymen, he would probably have had a nasty shock if we had told the truth.
Extract from Sword of Bone, Chapter 20 © Anthony Rhodes 1942