Dunkirk survivor and blind veteran, Richard Davies, tells us his story
02 August 2017 15:00
Richard Davies from Scunthorpe was just 14 when he left school to enter into employment six days a week. By the age of 17 a friend asked him to join the Territorial Army.
He went to camp for what he thought would only be a fortnight. However, on the last day their route march was cut short and they were taken back to the camp where they stood to attention as an Officer told them that war had been declared and they were no longer Territorial’s, but full Army men. They wouldn’t be going home that day.
Richard served in the Royal Army Service Corps from 1939 to 1946 in France and North Africa leaving as a Quartermaster Sergeant. Speaking about that time Richard recalls: “We did some training but not a lot and by November 1939 we were sailing for France.
"We were untrained territorial teenagers with no idea of the reality of war. We weren’t trained to do anything. We landed in France where we spent our first night sleeping on a dirt floor in one of the dockside buildings."
“One afternoon the Sergeant asked if anyone could ride a motorbike and I put my hand up before he finished talking. He told me to get on the bike. I’d never ridden one before, but I thought if I kept in the same gear he wouldn’t know. I became a dispatch rider. It was an awful winter in France with snow and ice everywhere and we were to move some 300 miles to Northern France. We travelled by day, sleeping enroute in various sheds at night, and it took us three days to get there. We eventually moved up to the Belgium border and started carrying troops further into Belgium to meet the Germans. We were stationed about 1½ miles from the forest next to the Maginot line. Our Government had decided that the Germans had no chance of coming through that forest, but of course they did. They came through the forest and they smashed the French and Belgium Armies. We were isolated with no cover at all.
"My first encounter with the war was travelling along a B Road when I thought there was something wrong ahead of us. I stopped the convoy and travelled up ahead where I found five blood soaked bodies lying in the road."
I avoided looking at their faces as I dragged the bodies of three women gently onto a grass verge. I picked two children up and I put them in the arms of the women. I got back on my motorbike to return to my convoy and I cried all the way back until I got to my destination.
“When the war did start for us our lads were faced with 300 or 400 tanks coming at them and dive bombers. Within a couple of days we all realised that the British Army in France faced the finest military force the world had ever seen.
"We were sent there with a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition. We didn’t have one tank, plane or artillery. How can you stop a few hundred tanks with a rifle? This is where we started our retreat. I don’t think anyone in the country knew why we retreated. It’s impossible for any Army to face the enemy with just a rifle. All we could do was go back, back, back."
“That is what we were doing all the time. There were tanks everywhere. You could hardly move a mile before you ran into them. It wasn’t very pleasant I suppose, but we did what we could to get by but it was very difficult with the tanks and the planes.
"We didn’t stand a cat in hells chance as we were battered day in and day out. It was a case of trying to live and save our lives rather than attack an enemy, which we couldn’t do as we didn’t have the equipment."
“One afternoon as we sat on a grass verge the Sergeant came out to us and said ‘I’m going to tell you something which you may not understand. If any man here wants to leave this unit and go wherever he wants to go he’s at liberty to do so. There will be no punishment you can go where you want and do what you want. There were 35 or 40 of us and no-one moved, we all stayed where we were. He left and came back 10 minutes later and said ‘I’m going to tell you something else which you will understand. It’s every man for himself. You are no longer in the British Army. You are now civilians and you can go where you want, do what you want and say what you want. You are civilians no longer in the British Army. If you go to the main road, that main road will take you to Dunkirk where there will be ships to take you back to England’.
We didn’t know what to say or what to do. We were in a foreign country that the Army had taken us to and if we aren’t in the Army anymore where the hell do we go and what do we do? We all ambled off in groups of two and three towards where we thought the main road could be. We found it and we also found that the road was completely blocked with traffic. Anyone who took a vehicle on to the Dunkirk road was to smash it so that the Germans couldn’t use it. The signpost told us Dunkirk was seven miles away and all we could see was the smashed vehicles all the way to Dunkirk.
"It took us a long, long, long time and most had trouble getting through that road, but we did eventually reach Dunkirk. When we did it was on fire. There were flames everywhere."
We managed to get through at least half of the city onto a big square. I was with two of my mates when we spotted a jeep further down the square that had tin cans on the floor. I went to investigate as we had no food, there was nothing to eat. They were small tins of mixed fruit. We stayed in the square for some time before we eventually managed to get through Dunkirk and on to the beach.
"The beach was stacked with hundreds of soldiers. Soldier stacked under a soldier, under a soldier, under a soldier all along the length of the beach and under all this, stacks of hundreds of soldiers standing."
“My first thought was I’m not going up there, it’s right in the middle, it’s wide open and there’s no defence of any sort. The Captain called us and said ‘Fall in here lads.’ I said no thanks we’ll find our own place. We went further up the sand towards the road. On the sand side of the road there were no houses. The other side of the road was lined with hotels and they were all on fire. We settled down in the sand and we built three short trenches to give us some cover and we buried our tins of fruit in the sand and we stayed there.
The Pier at Dunkirk was very long and by the bridge was an ambulance and a destroyer. We heard an Officer shout ‘The next man to stand on this boat I will shoot!’ They eventually pulled off the pier around mid afternoon and as they started to move out to sea, the Germans decided to blow them to pieces.
"All we could see was two ships going down, 500 or 600 men going down with the ships. We didn’t turn back. All we thought was why didn’t the silly buggers wait until it was dark. Nothing to do with the 600 soldiers who had gone, that’s how hardened we were."
Day after day we lay in our trenches listening to the screams of soldiers being hit by bullets, the screams of the soldiers as they were blown to pieces. The Luftwaffe was over those beaches every minute of the day firing and bombing. There were no ships there of any sort to take us to England.
"After a period of seven or eight days I decided quite coolly, quite calmly that I would commit suicide. I didn’t want to stay in this awful space and listen to the screaming day after day. There was no way. We were either going to get blown to pieces, shot to pieces or taken prisoner of war. I didn’t want any of that."
“I decided quite calmly to take my own life at 18½ years old. I told my two mates my intention and that I was quite serious about it as I couldn’t stand to be there anymore, it’s as much as I can stand listening to these screams.
The following morning as I sat and smoked a fag I saw a small sail come round the end of the pier. It pulled away from the pier for a distance and it stopped. I watched it for a quarter of an hour and as I knew a little about ships from my home town of Swansea I decided he was shell fishing and that he’d be there for a couple of hours. I decided to swim out to that boat and if I didn’t reach it I would sink and that was my way out. I told my two mates, I said I’m going to swim for that ship. I don’t want you to come with me, you can please yourself what you do.
“I decided to commit suicide because it was shattering sitting on the beach for eight days listening to the thud of bullets entering bodies and then the screams after the thuds of the bullets. And there was nothing we could do about it. That was what was getting to me and that’s when I decided to swim out.
"I took off my boots and put them around my neck and entered the water and started to swim. I swam for a while and then I floated and looked back for my two mates who were both in the water swimming behind me."
I had a bit of a smile to myself. I was a strong swimmer as I lived only 10 minutes from the beaches in Swansea and I swam a lot, but never for any distance, it was always just mucking about in the sea. I turned back and started swimming again and each time I looked back they seemed to get further and further away.
"As I watched them swim a dive bomber came over and blew them to pieces with machine gun fire and that was the end of my two mates."
“It didn’t bother me, it was tough luck. I turned and resumed swimming. And eventually I gott to that little boat and I grabbed it. There were two Frenchmen on it, that was all, and they pulled me in to the boat and dragged me on to the deck. I lay there gasping for breath. I heard them shouting loud and I lifted my head up as there was a Destroyer coming towards us. I got the two Frenchmen to understand that I wanted to stand up to let the personnel in the Destroyer see my uniform.
"It stopped, dropped a rope ladder over the side and I climbed my way up to be given a cup of tea. We sailed home to England."
“I want to say about our lads who retreated in France don’t take any notice of what you see in the films or on television. The true story of our retreat is that we were unarmed soldiers fighting the finest military force the world had ever seen. I’ve never had the courage to go back to Dunkirk.”
Richard served in the Royal Army Service Corps from 1939 to 1946 in France and North Africa leaving as a Quartermaster Sergeant. He died in November 2015 and this account of his time serving with the British Expeditionary Force is published for Richard and with the agreement of his daughter Glynnis.
During his time as a blind veteran Richard enjoyed many stays at our Llandudno centre. There, he always found something to laugh about, although he was always plagued with his memories of the brutality of war.