Recounts how my dad, Edmund “Ted” Shreeve (1913-2007), was marooned in France with his men after the British Expeditionary Force pulled out of the country using whatever boats they could find. The story is told by me from memory and recounts how Ted and his platoon had to hide out to evade German soldiers – along with how he brazenly went into an occupied town to buy beer and cigarettes to boost the moral of his men.
At the beginning of World War II, I went over to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. I was in command of a platoon in the Suffolk Regiment. I’d joined the army back in 1932. Although I’d grown up in Norwich, in the east of England, I opted for the Suffolk Regiment for something different. But I’d travelled a lot since leaving Norwich for London at seventeen. So I didn’t particularly have any regional ties.
The British forces had pushed through France, but in the end the Germans got the better of us and we were forced to retreat. The evacuation began at the end of May 1940.
I led my men to the beaches at Dunkirk. It was terrible. German Stukka planes were dive-bombing us, swooping down with terrifying, ear-piecing whines and spraying the ground with heavy machine gun fire.
You’d hit the deck and hope that none of the bullets had your name on them.
On the beaches
The beaches were in chaos. Thousands of men desperate to get on one of the Navy or military boats waiting in the sea to pick up our soldiers. All the time being dive bombed and shot at.
We’d return fire. But there was little hope of taking planes out of the sky with our Royal Enfield rifles. There was machine gun posts opening up at the skies, along with anti-aircraft fire; only these were few and far between. But the fact was a lot of our men were losing their lives. My platoon helped to pull in the wounded and get them shipped out. But there were a lot of dead strewn across the beaches. In total we lost around 30,000 men, with over 40,000 wounded.
It was a living hell; bombs and artillery shells exploding everywhere, along with the constant machine gun fire. You’d run from one bunker to the next, trying to avoid being hit.
In the end, there wasn’t enough vessels to get everyone out. Fishing boats and other small craft were deployed. But not everyone got a boat out, including us.
In the fog of war, my platoon got left behind. The last of the boats had gone. So we had no choice but to move in land to escape enemy fire and the ever-present possibility of being captured.
I said, “Come on, let’s find a nice, quiet woods away from the gunfire.” After walking many miles, we holed up in a copse, a good way from the nearest town or village.
I posted a couple of sentries and we got some much-needed sleep, swapping guard duties every three hours.
The next morning, we had to work out what to do – formulate a plan to get ourselves home.
My pal Jim, a corporal – my second-in-command – suggested we move west, skirt the coast and look out for a boat. He thought there was less chance of us running into enemy soldiers.
My instincts, however, were telling me we should head northeast, towards Belgium. Even though this was occupied territory, I figured the Germans would be busy taking control of France. Most of their resources would be deployed that way.
So that’s what we did. We moved by dead of night, sleeping during the day, sometimes in woods, other times in hay barns.
“We’ll get out of here, I promise you…”
One night, one of the men broke down in tears. It was all getting too much for him. “I want to go home, we’re all going to die,” he wailed. He was only eighteen. His despair was understandable. We were in a hell of a situation. But I firmly believed we could make it, that we could find a boat and get back to Britain.
But he kept breaking down. In the end, I had no choice. I put a gun to his head and said, “You’re going to pull yourself together and we’ll get out of here, I promise you.”
He burst into tears again. “I want to see my mum, my dad and my sister.”
I pushed the pistol hard against his head. “I’m only going to tell you once more,” I said quietly, but firmly. “Pull yourself together or I pull the trigger.”
The rest of the men looked on. I could feel their eyes on me. But everyone knew there was no choice. One weak member of our group could have meant the death of us all. There was no time to cry. We had to be strong and determined if we were going to get out alive.
Luckily, I didn’t have to pull the trigger. The kid pulled himself together.
I put my pistol away, then said to everyone, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll go into the nearest town tomorrow and get us all a beer. That’ll cheer us up.”
They couldn’t believe it. They thought I’d gone mad.
“What?!” said Jim. “You’re going into an occupied town, crawling with Krauts?! You’re asking to get shot or captured.”
“Well, we all need a beer,” I said. “So I’m going in.”
It’s true. It was a crazy thing to do. And I don’t even know why I did it. But I walked into the town in full uniform, found a shop and bought some bottles of beer, then headed back to my men. German soldiers were marching up and down the streets, but I never once got stopped or questioned. To this day, I can’t imagine why someone didn’t pull me up. But they didn’t.
You should have seen the look on my men’s faces when I handed them each of them a beer.
“I don’t think beer will ever taste this good again,” said Jim.
The kid who had been crying came over and thanked me, then said, “We will get home, won’t we?”
“You can bet on it,” I replied.
We travelled another couple of nights. But then ran into a small German armoured unit – around ten foot-soldiers and a light tank, probably a T-1A. They spotted us and opened fire. We ran for cover, throwing ourselves into a ditch and started firing back.
I quickly assessed the situation and realised we had to take out the tank, otherwise they’d likely get us. So I said to Jim, “Come on, mate, let’s get behind the tank and drop a couple of grenades into the tub – give them a present.”
I instructed the rest of the men to give us covering fire, while Jim and I circled wide, so we could come up on the tank from behind. As soon as we made a dash from the ditch, the Germans opened up on us with their MP40s – Schmeisser such machine guns – nearly peppering us with bullets. Lucky for us, those Schmeissers were poor quality weapons, neither accurate, nor reliable.
The tank fired some shells at the men covering us. Luckily these went wide too.
Seconds later, Jim and I came up on the tank. We leaped up behind the turret and dropped a grenade each into the driver’s hatch. We then jumped off and made a dash for cover, throwing ourselves flat when the tank went up in flames.
At that moment, the rest of the men jumped out of the ditch and finished the rest of the Germans off. A couple tried to surrender, but we couldn’t take prisoners or leave anyone alive to tell the tale.
Looking back, it’s hard to deny how terrible war is. The powers that be decree that we should take up arms against another nation. All that happens is, ordinary people on both sides end up killing each other. We had no choice but to take out decent men – with families – just because they were Germans.
Anyway, after the firefight, we pushed on for a couple more days. Finally, we arrived at a small port close to the French-Belgium border, where we gained passage back to Britain on a fishing boat.
As you can imagine we were totally exhausted. We had hardly eaten. And yet, all of us felt fitter and more alive than we had ever done.
Once back in Britain, we traveled back to our barracks and were given much-needed leave.
I headed back home to Norwich – to my wife Dorothy. We’d married shortly before and were living in a bungalow on Gordon Avenue in Thorpe, east Norwich.
Like a lot of men who had been under fire for prolonged periods, I suffered from shell-shock for a while. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, after vivid nightmares of being dive-bombed by Stukkas.
During the day, if a car backfired I’d hit the deck. It takes a while to get over that.
If the bullet’s got your name on it…
While on leave I wore civilian clothes. I’d had enough of uniform. Because of this, a woman came up to me and presented me with a white feather – the mark of a coward. As I was in civvies, she presumed I was a conscientious objector, someone who refused to fight on moral or religious grounds.
I didn’t say a word.
Later I was awarded a string of medals for bravery. But it’s hard to be proud of this when so many lives were lost.
The funny thing is, though, I never once thought about the possibility of being killed – even though I was involved in many hairy campaigns during World War II, including the desert war in Africa.
The way I saw it was, if the bullet’s got your name on it, that’s it…