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Operation Dynamo Revisited

April 12, 2010

The end of May this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. This immense logistical exercise rescued the great bulk of the retreating British Expeditionary Force which, after the collapse of the Maginot Line was funneled progressively back into a narrow corridor between Dunkirk and La Panne. With the fall of Belgium at the end of May, thousands of men (and a few  women, more later) were trapped,  but  thanks to the courage of the owners of ‘The Little Boats’ as well as the mobilisation of all available larger ships,well over 300,000 were evacuated back to England and safety. The event is being marked by English Heritage at Dover Castle, the nerve centre of this operation

In an event created and managed by Black Knight Historical, Castle will once again become the centre of events. Over the last three days of May there will be a variety of military personnel, vehicles and even weapons based at the castle, all designed to create the atmosphere of  70 years ago.

To my shame, six months ago I was only vaguely aware of the Queen Alexandra nurses (QAIMNS -Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service) which was founded in 1902 and which, after many changes is now QARANC (Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps). However, the invitation to join this prestigious event as one of these nurses was not one to pass up, even though it was obvious that a fair amount of research would be needed. In Brenda McBryde’s clear and unemotional account of their experiences during the Second World War they are referred to as ‘the Quiet Heroines’ and a truer description could not be found.

Research started at the Keogh Barracks at Ashvale in Aldershot. This is now the HQ of the RAMC – the army’s medical corps – and houses the little known but outstandingly helpful Army Medical Services Museum: This museum is officially open daily, but it is worth making an appointment as it is in a working barracks and security measures are in operation. There are display cases covering all aspects of both the medical and the army veterinary services, and an informative reading room. This visit sorted out all sorts of questions about uniform, rank, responsibilities, training and how patients were treated.

QARANC also operate a website which filled in more of the history. There are a number of excellent books available which chart every detail of the events of the evacuation, but the sheer numbers and factual details can be overwhelming. For me, it was small details which have brought this operation vividly to life: ambulances packed with helpless wounded men desperately hoping for a hospital ship. Some stayed on the quays for over 24 hours, experiencing constant fire and bombardment but helpless and unable to move. They had  no food, no water or shelter, and the nurses stayed with their patients until they were embarked and shared the hardship. Again and again, dehydration and exhaustion from lack of food are contributory factors noted in patients. One survivor noted (May 30th) that Dunkirk was a blazing inferno, and saw numbers of horses brought into the escape corridor by the retreating French who were galloping riderless and mad with thirst along the beaches. Even though the quays were collapsing under fire, the hospital ship H.S. Worthing tied up under fire and its crew calmly evacuated over 200 casualties in just over 20 minutes. The records state that it was intended that all the nursing sisters should be evacuated to safety, and many were most reluctant to leave their posts and their patients to certain capture, but the RAMC staff took over. Some sisters ended up walking to the beaches and eventual safety as they stayed until they were ordered to leave, and Sister Kathleen Smith (a Territorial Army Nurse), for example, remembered sitting in a railway carriage at Kings Cross unable even to buy a cup of tea as she  owned nothing but her dirty and blood stained uniform and the travel warrant which would get her home. The phoney war was over.

  1. Charles Otway permalink

    My mother Lillian Mary Gutteridge was a QA nursing sister at Dunkirk and had quite a time of it. She was even captured by the Waffen SS and stabbed in the thigh by the SS officer in charge after slapping him for throwing out her wounded from the field ambulances to use them for his troops advance. She and her field hospital were rescued by a platoon of the Black Watch. They commandeered a train and got off the quay and back to England. I have a cutting from the Daily Mirror 6th June 1940, with her picture and the heading is “lady with the Tin Hat” and her dented from aircraft fire tin hat. Her only recognition for her bravery was a very belated Dunkirk Medal presented to her in Dunkirk when I took her there for the anniversary parade in 1990. I would love to know more about the QA history at Dunkirk.
    Charles(Chas) Otway

    • LHT permalink

      I am delighted to hear from you. Your mother’s inspiring story of courage was one of the first I came across when researching these remarkable ladies. Although her bravery and determination may not have been recognised at the time, she is now known throughout the world as her Dunkirk experience is described on the Dunkirk page of the QARANC website (After the Second World War QAIMNS was incorporated into a new unit, and subsequently into the RAMC, or Royal Army Medical Corp which is its current name. In case you haven’t found it, try this link:
      I don’t know whereabouts in the country you are based, but if you can get to Aldershot then the AMS (Army Medical Services Museum ) have proven themselves very helpful and keen to hear from former members and their families. In their reference selection there are some ponderous tomes which hold the formal record of Dunkirk, though sadly few individual names. However, it is certainly the best place to try for more information, though you will need to make an appointment in advance, stating your area of research: For general information and a chapter on Dunkirk, the now out of print ‘Grey and Scarlet’ edited by Ada Harrison under the auspices of Dame Kathleen Jones, Principal Matron until 1944 is still available through Amazon. There are other history books, too, which chart the first centenary of the QAs. I’m sorry I have no further specific information regarding your mother’s experiences but wish you good luck in your research

  2. Julia Pansini-Murrell permalink

    My mother Kathleen Shouksmith, was evacuated from Dunkirk, now 98 she has never talked about the fighting and rarely about any of the patients either then or when re-posted in North Africa after a short break in the UK She tells of how they were forced to leave all their possessions behind. She also recounts that once on board there was standing room only. They were fed with a mug of tea and a piece of dry bread with powdered egg. However she was left with bread only when the wind blew the egg off.

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