Ahead of the Oscars where Dunkirk won three awards, Spear’s tracked down 98-year-old Alfred Smith to ask him to relive his own dramatic experiences on the beaches of Normandy in May 1940
For Alfred Smith, surprisingly spry at the age of 98, the memories of the three days he spent in Dunkirk in May 1940 will never fade. He was among 340,000 British servicemen at the time, but today stands as one of the few survivors of the British Expeditionary Force who were sent to France. He was called up in September 1939, joining the Royal Army Service Corps as a lorry driver – a mundane job if he wasn’t an easy target for German warplanes.
His first experience of combat came on a beautiful day – blue skies and little white clouds, like any other – but it has remained with him ever since. ‘I walked across the square, lorries were parked under trees for camouflage, and a German plane machine gunned me as I walked across the square. It was my 21st birthday,’ he says. Fortunately, Alfred was unharmed (‘he was a bad shot’).
On his way to a village in France to drop off supplies, just a few days later, the 21-year old soldier encountered a demolished bridge and a British Army officer – one he initially mistook for a German soldier. ‘I saw somebody come up from the grass verge with a revolver in his hand. I grabbed my rifle, but realised it was a British officer.’ The officer enquired as to his destination before quickly warning him of the little village a couple of miles up the road. ‘Luckily for you, the bridge is down and the road blocked – the Germans are still in charge of that village… You’re encircled, in case you don’t know,’ the officer warned grimly. ‘I would have driven straight into them.’
Alfred recalls the story without hesitation, reliving each moment as if he was still there. The officer had more important news – news unbeknownst to Alfred: ‘“There’s an evacuation on, so make for the beach,” he said. So I drove back to where my company was, but they’d gone – they’d moved on.’
Alfred was on his own (convoys were far too easy for the Stukas to hit, after all), a long way from home, with a long dash to safety still ahead of him. A German unit could be lying around any corner.
He tells me how he had been encouraged by a passer-by to take supplies from nearby stores, while his co-driver – a Scotsman fond of his whisky – disappeared into the back of their lorry with a bottle, his nerves shattered, only to re-emerge when they had both made it back to England. Terrified, but forced to remain calm, Alfred drove, and he drove ‘non-stop, falling asleep at the wheel, hitting the curb, waking myself up.’ 48 hours later, he finally reached Dunkirk beach to the sight of Allied lorries being destroyed (‘so that the enemy couldn’t use them’).
Terror on the beach
The next 48 hours would be even more terrifying than the last. He sat on the beach, waiting: ‘We were bombarded constantly by German fighter planes – ships were coming in to evacuate the troops; a lot of them were getting bombed and hit and sinking.’
Many veterans have described the horror of the beaches, the lack of air support and the sustained bombardment inflicted by the Luftwaffe. They defended their perimeter bravely and held back the German ground offensive, but paid a heavy price to save the British Expeditionary Force from annihilation.
Albert was finally evacuated on HMS Skiddaw – one of only 30 to successfully regroup and survive the day and the war from his 107-strong company.
I couldn’t help but ask him to paint a picture of the scene: ‘Thinking of all the soldiers hit around you, it was just amazing that you were missed.’
He describes the awful fate of a good friend – a lance corporal (‘such a charming chap, everyone used to say, he should never be a corporal, he’s too kind to people’): ‘He was quite near me, sitting on the beach… This is terrible what I’m going to tell you now,’ he says before a long pause. ‘He got hit in the back of the head, with shrapnel from a German shell. It blew both of his eyes clean out of his head.’
The lance corporal had died ‘almost instantly’, of course, ‘which was a good thing for him, but it was a terrible thing to see’.
Pausing again, he speaks slowly: ‘I mean there were so many terrible things you saw. At the time, as I say, you were just numb – you couldn’t see beyond the next day.’
Britain’s heroic efforts – the little boats and steamers, the merchant navy (one in four of the latter were South Asian or East African – a fact seemingly overlooked in Christopher Nolan’s recent take) all combined to rescue 338,226 men, including French, Belgian and Polish soldiers. This was Britain’s ‘finest hour’ although it could well have been its darkest; it could have been the end of Britain as we knew it as there would be no defending Britain with an air force alone.
One of the worst losses in maritime history was inflicted off St Nazaire – the sinking of the HMT Lancastria, costing an estimated 4,000 to 9,000 lives (the exact figure is unknown). Tight media restrictions during the war meant the figure was supressed, in order to maintain morale, and the story of defeat was weaved into a tale of survival and heroism. But for the men who had to endure the bombardment on the beaches, the story was far darker and bloodier than any film could possibly capture.
Alfred clears his throat, and continues: ‘So you sat on the beach, hoping there was a boat you could find, that you could get onto. A lot of my friends were getting killed all round me, there was nowhere you could go, nowhere to hide – you just sat on the beach and waited and hoped.’
Thirsty and starving, he eventually saw a boat he could reach, and went for it. He waded out up to his neck in water: ‘It turns out it was a paddle steamer. They had ropes hanging down from the deck, so I got hold of a rope and was pulled on board. And that was the last thing I remember, I just faded, went unconscious.’
He came to downstairs where he had been carried and laid near the boilers ‘in my uniform, drying out’.
I ask Alfred if he can recall happier memories – surely seeing his co-driver again made him smile? Alfred laughs warmly. ‘When we got back to England, he was telling everybody that I saved his life because I got him to Dunkirk. In a way, I suppose I did.’
Of course I wonder if he has seen the Oscar-nominated recreation of his fateful days on the beach – and he has, in rather special company: he was a guest of honour at a screening with the film’s director, Christopher Nolan and star Kenneth Branagh (he also recently met Prince Harry at Kensington Palace – a day which he described as ‘wonderful’).He says he is a fan of the film – tough as it must have been to watch. But the reality on the beach was far less organised than that depicted on screen, the veteran notes. Alfred, who attended the premiere in London with a party supported by the SSAFA – the Armed Forces charity, does not recall lines of soldiers or officers co-ordinating the evacuation. ‘It was every man for himself,’ says Alfred.
To find out more or to support the SSAFA, which provides lifelong support to our Armed Forces, veterans and their families in times of need, visit www.ssafa.org.uk
Interview by Cormac Rae, a writer at Spear’s