The Kent countryside was at its most beautiful. It was 22 May 1940, the orchards were a sea of pink and white blossoms, the hedgerows were in full leaf and the village gardens flush with early summer flowers. The weather was perfect – warm sunshine and a cloudless blue sky attracting the skylarks. Already at mid-morning, the temperature had persuaded the ladies to don their summer frocks and the men to discard their jackets. All were going about their business, carefree and cheerfully, with a confidence born from the certainty of age-old continuity in this quintessential corner of England, this paradise on earth.
Unfortunately, though, a couple of dozen miles away over the calm, blue water of the English Channel, all hell was let loose and the menace of the dark ages was about to engulf Europe. Like grey rats, evil forces were swarming through Holland, Belgium and France with the object of extinguishing freedom and civilisation as we knew it.
We were in convoy, en-route to join our regiment, the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, temporarily encamped on a common in Tunbridge Wells. A week earlier we had left to test-fire our new anti-tank guns on Lydd ranges.
Somewhere between Tenterden and Goudhurst, the convoy was halted by a despatch rider who handed an envelope to our commander, Lieutenant A.R. Eardley-Wilmott. The message instructed us to retrace our steps, and proceed to Dover for embarkation to France as part of the 20 Guards Brigade.
The past two weeks had been hectic. A fortnight or so ago, I was at home on leave with my parents and my sister, Dorothy, in Cheshire. It was a warm Whitsun weekend, but over the radio we were all startled to hear the ‘phoney war’ was over. The German armies had started to invade France and the Low Countries. In a matter of hours, a telegram had arrived informing me that all leave had been cancelled and to rejoin the Battalion immediately. Dorothy had accompanied me to the bus stop and we waved goodbye. Hitler did not know it, but Arthur was on his way! There was dramatic news when I reached the camp. During the Whitsun weekend, the Battalion had been rushed to the Hook of Holland to escort the Dutch Royal Family, government ministers and the country’s gold bullion to the UK. With the loss of 11 killed, they accomplished their task and were now back with many hair-raising stories.
The Battalion had been given two weeks to reorganise and regroup. To take advantage of this interval, the anti-tank platoon, which I jointly commanded, was sent to Lydd ranges for target practice. We were billeted at St Mary’s Bay Holiday Camp. The first anti-tank gun had reached us in March and the officer and I took it to the School of Artillery at Netheravon in Wiltshire to devise operational instructions. It was a Hotchkis and new to the British Army, so the object of the exercise was to subject the weapon to meticulous inspection and draft a manual of instruction for other users. We spent an interesting and pleasant few days with a warrant officer gunner who was also seeing this type of weapon for the first time.
The British Army, however, lived up to his reputation. We had been back with the Battalion only a few days when the full complement of four guns arrived. Unfortunately, they were not Hotchkis, but Peugeot 37 mm!
So back to Netheravon, to be met by our amused and bemused warrant officer. The drill, as before, was repeated. Still in my memory is a pleasant Sunday evening in Salisbury, where I enjoyed a crab salad in an olde worlde restaurant, close by the cathedral. But having now familiarised ourselves with our new weapons on the Llydd ranges, we rolled along the A259 – four 15-cwt trucks each towing a gun and carrying its crew, and two 2-ton trucks with our kit and other supplies.
I was driving the leading truck, with the Lieutenant beside me. Just outside Folkestone, we called in at a roadside cafe to replenish ourselves. I didn’t know it then, but that was the last good meal I would eat for several years. We reached Dover by late afternoon and joined other lines of transport that was heading towards the docks.
We were cheered on our way and regaled with cups of tea by the people of Dover. I handed a letter that I’d managed to write to a little girl, putting my family in the picture, and asked her to post it for me. She did…I believe her name was Sheila. And that was the last my parents heard from me for some months.
With the 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards, we formed the 20 Guards Brigade and by midnight we were loaded on two cross channel ferries. The Irish were on the Queen of the Channel . I was responsible for seeing that our trucks and guns were safely loaded so was among the last to board and found the only space left in which to relax was the broad stairway leading down to the saloon.
Approaching Boulogne at dawn, it was startingly obvious that the Stukas had had a field day. The docks, warehouses and buildings surrounding the harbour were in ruins and still smoking. CSM McGarrity, in whose company I’d served in Cairo before the war, turned to me with a foreboding expression and said: “We will never get out of here.”