Now this is a ‘spin-off’ from my new novel, The Ides of Daisy March. The story, as I have said on this blog and in other places, was inspired by my mother’s unhappy early childhood. But those of you who have already read it will know there is another character who is inspired by my own history.
My father was one of the 40,000 men ordered to stay behind on the beaches to form the rearguard action at Dunkirk in 1940. Their task was both simple and horrendous. Hold back the enemy while the rest of our surviving troops were taken to safety across the channel. They performed this job magnificently. The bulk of our army, 330,000 men, was not only saved to fight another day, but managed to destroy most to their equipment before they left the beaches. This was crucial in order to stop it falling into Nazi hands and being used against us.
The rearguard knew from the start that their options would be death or capture. There would be no escape for them. Many made the ultimate sacrifice and died fighting, and for those that survived a grim fate awaited. 80 young men were forced into a barn and massacred by machine gun, and there were other mass executions. Those remaining were marched across France into Eastern Germany. Many died en route from starvation and exhaustion. Others who finally reached the Stalag camps were then used as slave labour down the mines or in the fields and factories.
Their captivity continued for five long years, and just when they might have hoped the end was in sight they were subjected to another horror as the Allies began to advance. The men were forced to march across Europe for hundreds of miles in freezing winter weather. With totally inadequate clothing and food, countless men collapsed and died in the snow while their companions were forced to march on.
These brave men had no idea that their action had stopped the massacre of our troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, and had enabled them to access the ships on the channel. And to live to fight another day, until our nation emerged victorious. Without them and their valour we might well have lost the war.
My father came home on a stretcher, riddled with tuberculosis. He died soon after. He and my mother had been married only a few months when he went to war, and she was expecting me. I never knew him. But I am hugely proud of what he, and all those soldiers did. And I would like more people to be aware of their history.
General Tim Cross said to me a few years ago that these men seemed to have been ‘airbrushed out of history’. And certainly there has been no official recognition or thanks for their sacrifice and achievement. It is surely time that there was.
The Dunkirk Rearguard Medal is a figment of my imagination at the minute. But could we make it happen? I know there are people out there in all walks of life with campaigning skills that I don’t have. If you are, or know someone who is, can you help me promote this vision?
I doubt there many rearguard survivors out there, but there are loads of descendants, like me, to whom it would mean so much. My father gave his life defending us. He wanted to see his daughter grow up in a free world. He, and his fellow soldiers, were heroes all. We should celebrate that. Can you help me achieve this? Sally