Laurence Rees: In May 1940, when the Germans launched their invasion of the Low Countries and France, Edward Oates was a young soldier serving with the British Royal Engineers. He was based near Armentieres in France, near the border with Belgium.
Words of Edward Oates: We’d got no experience, you see, we weren’t really afraid, we’d got nothing to go on. When Holland gave up, that made it a bit serious. And a lot of people were leaving the place, I suppose they remembered what happened in the first war and they were getting out. Everybody was moving, the roads were clogged, I remember the roads being clogged, and we didn’t do any work in Armentieres but just look after, really, the civilian population. I can remember us binding up people’s feet and treating their blisters and things like that. And, and shooting the dogs. The dogs were just roaming about, there was nobody there and, and they were getting dangerous, you see, they were getting hungry and snapping a bit. The roads were just packed and there were one or two dead bodies we saw on the side, the civilians that had been hit, and we couldn’t move troops really because the roads were just packed.
Laurence Rees: It soon became clear that in the face of the Germans’ swift success, the British had to fall back on the channel port of Dunkirk.
Words of Edward Oates: Some of the officers went into Dunkirk and they found out what was happening and had to come back and tell the Colonel what was happening, and he got orders. Then he had to pack everything up, get as near as he could and smash everything, except the lorries just to carry us as far as we wanted to go, and make for Dunkirk. We drained all the oil out, smashed all the radiators, punctured the petrol tanks, punctured the tyres, ran the engines dry, raced them away until they just packed in so the Germans couldn’t use them. Then smashed up any of the machinery in the back of them, ‘cause a lot of them had got lathes and all sorts of things like that in the machinery lorries.
Laurence Rees: Edward and his comrades then made for the beaches near Dunkirk.
Words of Edward Oates: We were trying to get into queues and trying to get onto boats and nobody knew us, nobody wanted us. There was a lot of horses as well kicking about on the beach. And I can remember some Belgians, they’d got brass helmets and there was quite a few of them, and they said, you know, ‘We want an officer. If we can have an officer we’ll fight, but we don’t know what to do.’ Of course, the Germans kept coming over, planes, we had to keep dashing up to the dunes to stop being hit. We got one hit by shrapnel, and I can’t remember who it was, but I can remember he was laying down there shouting out, ‘My back, my back.’
We’d sat up by these dunes, the planes were coming that way, and you could hear the bullets thud, thud, thud, thud into the side of the dunes. The senior NCOs, they had a conference and decided we’ll go into Dunkirk because we’d heard that things were getting off there, boats were getting in. The officer, he was only a young fellow, he didn’t take part in it and we just said to him that we are going into Dunkirk and are you coming, and he did, he just came with us and we walked into Dunkirk. Didn’t realise how far it was until we went back later in the 1990s. We walked quite a long way.
Well, when we got into Dunkirk the big oil tanks were all burning, smoke, black smoke, and we got towards the Mole and there was quite a big patch of ground with a few broken down lorries on it. And there was a Sergeant Major or somebody like that on the other side and he was shouting, ‘Stay where you are when the shells come over!’ ‘cause it was being shelled. ‘Let them go and then you start.’ And I can remember I got halfway across and shells started getting near and then I went underneath a lorry of some sort there until they’d passed over, like he said, and we carried on. And we got over this beach and at the top of it there was quite a row of dead bodies of soldiers laid on there and face down on the top and that, quite neat, and I can remember seeing them there.
And I got across and on the Mole there was an officer there with a hospital ship just come in and he’d got casualties and he said, ‘I want volunteers to take people onto the stretchers onto this hospital ship.’ So Harold and I, of course, we volunteered and two others, I don’t know who the others were, it took four men to carry a stretcher, we weren’t very strong. And we carried this lad across the Mole and then took him on to the hospital ship, came back, picked up our rifles then went down the Mole to the end where this destroyer was and we could get on it. So we all got on it, and when it got to me I was walking across it and they said, ‘It’s full, over the side into that boat down there.’ So me and about six of our unit – there were quite a lot of other people, I didn’t know who they were – six of our unit, we got down on this little boat and it was a boat which was bringing rations over. And it had got no deck. I remember it got no decks, I can’t remember its name, but it had got a nice place in the middle where the smoke stack was and the engines and it was really hot, and somebody said to me, ‘Look, put your overcoat on there, on this grid and it’ll dry,’ ‘cause it was all wet, and so I did. And then sat down, and the chap, I presume he was the captain or other, and he said, ‘Help yourselves, I’m not unloading.’ So I can remember throwing up tins of cigarettes and tins of beef and tins of fruit and all that up to the destroyer to the lads up there, and I had one myself and then I didn’t feel very well after that. But planes came over, of course, and started rat-tat-tatting and the chap on the front said, ‘I’ve got a Lewis Gun, has anybody got any ammunition?’ And I just remembered I’d got ten rounds in my pocket and me overcoat was boiling hot, so I dashed up there and rescued them, they were really hot, and I’ll bet they went through that gun like mad.
I can remember we got to Folkestone and I’d still got my rifle, that’s about all I had got, and I remember we got on a train and there were crowds of people there with, like, I suppose Women’s Institute and that with telegrams and postcards and cigarettes and cakes and all sorts, and cups of tea and all that. Yeah, and then at every station we stopped at there was somebody there giving us food, because we hadn’t had any for a long time.
Laurence Rees: Looking back, Edward Oates reflects in an uncomplicated fashion on the epic events of Dunkirk and the battle for France.
Words of Edward Oates: I was a bit surprised, I suppose, that the French army gave up so easily, but I hadn’t even thought about it. We were just ordinary soldiers and we did what we were told. We hadn’t got any strategy or thoughts about where you fought battles or anything, we were just there.