Since the launch of Wartime News in 1995, its popularity grew at a rapid pace, with editions mailed to a wide readership around the UK and overseas. In each issue we attempted to highlight the major news story of the month in which the Newsletter was published. Usually we were successful and there were some harrowing accounts written by some very brave individuals that showed outstanding courage in the face of adversity. The picture here shows some of the happier faces of war, in this case, men lifted from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 when a mass evacuation took place to escape from the Germans.
One such hero was William Harding and we quote just an extract from his incredible account....
"On 10 May 1940, the Colonel paid us a visit with the Major and told us that the balloon had gone up, with the Hun attacking neutral Belgium and now everyone must be on their toes. Our persistent training now paid off, and we would be seeing plenty of action. I was a Bombardier with the Royal Artillery in France and we were told to stay by the guns at all times.
Activity by the Germans increased sharply and we were in action day and night not far away from Arras and Douai which had been receiving a hammering. By the 18th the situation began to look serious when refugees appeared on the road. Next day, we were informed that the battery was moving out and our rapid withdrawal brought us to a place called Sangatte, near Calais. Our gun site was set up with Command Post by the Scammells in a clearing of trees. Action stations was given for a test drill and I then saw how cleverly our position was, with surrounding trees sufficiently distant to give good observation from the guns. In the distance I occasionally heard bombs exploding.
During the night, whilst the guns were firing as fast as they could be loaded, my left ear drum went, a stab of pain as I lifted a shell, then in the darkness my gun changed direction of fire, and I was underneath the barrel as it fired....
Sometime before eleven on 22 May, a very hot day, Lt Long, with binoculars and field telephone, climbed a tree. The telephone was linked on the ground to TSM Crotty and we were soon receiving orders on fusing shells and laying the guns. When we opened fire in a ground role and on his directions, shell fuses would change accordingly, depending on the direction of fire. It was very hot and thirsty work, but occasionally we would break off to fire on some enemy planes passing overhead, then carry on under Lt Long again. During this time, a flight of RAF bombers flew over, then the sound of bombs exploding could be heard. I knew now that something must have gone terribly wrong for us as the Germans were so close. Enemy shells were now coming in, landing amongst the trees, well away, but it showed that they had our direction. Our four guns were firing fast now, making a deafening racket. Then, without warning, a French coastal battery, with guns turned inland, opened fire with a terrific bang and their projectiles passed over. There was a flurry of German shells, hitting one of the three turrets, which looked to me substantially built. I had a glimpse of soldiers or possibly marines running from the guns. The German shellfire was building up, with more coming our way, but off target. It was obvious that the Germans couldn’t see us, but they saw the French guns!....
A message received from Lt Long through another officer said, “Bombardier, take two men and go 200 yards forward of the gun position to set up a Bren gun. Take a spade and dig a slit trench and two boxes of ball ammunition, eight magazines in all, plus a spare barrel for the Bren, with your personal rifles. You will stay on sight and within range open fire to hold back any Germans to prevent penetration of the battery.” On completion I set up the Bren to range 100 yds, and waited. Roughly 15 minutes later, the Germans sent over a terrific barrage and the battery was firing at a cheeky German spotter plane when the barrage intensified, plastering shells all over the place, now having found their target. I knew our guns had been hit when they stopped firing and the Germans also shortened their range, resulting in our area becoming a mass of exploding shells, with deafening explosions and flying shrapnel. Jones, without warning leapt out of the trench and ran like a hare, dropping down as shells exploded near him, then he was gone! I shouted to him to come back, but I doubt if he heard or cared amid the shrieking and exploding shells. When the barrage eased off, Smith lay whimpering, I put two Bren magazines in my thigh pocket and the other five in my battledress blouse. Smith screamed again, so I made him carry the Bren. My idea was to weight him down with a couple of rifles as well, to prevent him doing what Jones had done, but fear gave him wings and he was out of the trench, Bren as well, and ran blindly through the barrage, screaming like a madman. Something inside me snapped and in a raging temper, now having two men off and no Bren I went after him and as the shells came close I threw myself down, then up after him. I now had murder in my heart, a blind rage to kill him. I reached the edge of a 10 ft drop to the beach, but I was puffed out, the weight of the magazines had told on me. I saw Smith on his knees, whimpering and with his hands had scooped a hollow in the sand and had placed the Bren in it, intending to bury it. I roared at him and made a dive to grab him, but on seeing me he screamed and ran off down the beach, being very lucky that my hands just missed him. Shells were dropping close by, some landing in the sea with a hissing noise of hot metal hitting cold water. I retrieved the Bren, but it was in a bad state where fine sand had stuck to the oily surface...."
This extract was taken from an article entitled "Defence of Calais" and clearly portrays the pressures inflicted by war. William Harding was an exceptionally brave man and made his way to the Citadel where, with others, put up a gallant fight in the centre of Calais before they finally had no option but to surrender to a much larger force.
Issue: Wartime News, May 2010, Vol 15
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