Stench made more rotten in the early summer morning’s heat is only tempered by the brief projections of ocean spray that occasionally shoot up from the sea side of this downtrodden troop-packed jetty. Our last piece of Allied-controlled northern France is a man-made concrete and wood projection meant to break the water to protect the harbor inside. Instead of its intended purpose, this jetty serves as a refuge for those broken by the defeat we suffered at the hands of the Germans. Unlike in World War I, when our nation was able to stem the tide of the Hun, French soldiers, marines, and what remains of our British and Belgian allies now stand crowded with broken, bloody, exhausted, and defeated compatriots on this last piece of real estate connecting us to our conquered homeland.
Rather than protection from the sea, this jetty is a glaring signal of our national failure. Wretched men sit, stand, bake under the summer sun, and die upon this construct of man, not real earth, as we wait for deliverance into the hands of our enemy. Capture appears to be the only option because the hope of deliverance by sea faded as the last ship carrying men off the continent of Europe disappeared over the horizon six hours ago.
My job as a Naval doctor is to care for men enduring the grim realities of war. Staring out across the jetty toward the beach, I am confronted by the human element of military destruction caused by this war. I can see hopelessness in the remaining eyes of every man in sight. We contemplate the fate of our limbs, wives, girlfriends, families, homes, farms, buddies, and the practically certain future of either death or internment that awaits us.
I left home in September at the start of the war, called up for the reserves from my private practice in Saint-Nazaire. If the Germans had not invaded Poland, I would still be there now, with Elise and the kids, likely heading to the beach to enjoy this early summer day.
I cannot imagine the Germans have made it that far yet. If only I could send word to Elise and the kids that, I am still alive. Would I tell them to evacuate? Where should they go? Where will the Germans stop? What is there left to stop them? Only the Pyrenees and Franco are standing at the end of the German advance. He will probably hug the first German he sees march across the mountains.
We are the last of France’s best. Our army was to march into Belgium, hand the Germans a nasty defensive blow, and stop them in their tracks. Now, we are cut off from the rest of France because the Germans, just as they did in World War I, attacked through the Ardennes instead of along the coast. Most of our British Allies have forsaken us. They evacuated, pulling up their rear guard headquarters at 2a.m. this morning. There is no longer a defense. We are at the mercy of the German desire to take us. We stand under this hot sun in the late morning hours knowing full well that we have lost this war.
A loud roar echoes from the land side of the Jetty.
Is it men fighting for a place in a line that comes to an end at the sea? A line that is not moving. Or have the Germans finally arrived?
Either way, we either will all die or be captured out here.
Machine gun fire erupts at land’s end.
It must be the Germans.
Most of our boys ran out of ammunition days ago and dropped their guns.
We stand defenseless. Please deliver us from this place, even if to a POW camp. Just end this awaiting of death.
“Sir,” Corporal Puilion, yells through gritty teeth on a dirt-encrusted bearded face. “This is the end!”
Snapped out of my head where the world is simply thoughts rather than grim realities, I can see the commotion heightening at the base of the jetty. The Germans have arrived. They are beginning to take our destitute soldiers away from this place.
What slow work their removal will be, with the thousands of unarmed, weak, and broken men fully occupying this finger to the sea.
Hope has already forsaken us, clustered as we are on this mole.
The strafing dive-bombers and fighters broke our morale after it was crushed by the announcement that the Germans had broken through. Our rapidly shrinking enclave on the edge of France became a through-point for the greatest evacuation in the history of man, an evacuation that the men left standing on this jetty appear to have missed.
The sunken hulk of a ship whose name I cannot see lies submerged in front of me. This ship probably lit the hearts of an earlier group of soldiers standing on this mole who saw it pull up to offer deliverance from hell. As men ascended her sides, they must have dreamed of salvation, sleep, and a possible future.
German bombs tore the guts out of those men and the ship they thought they were lucky enough to be upon. Countless times over the last week, men have scurried aboard floating platforms from rafts to destroyers and hospital ships only to be thrown back into the sea by violent and bloody assaults from the air.
This sunken ship with pieces of dead men strewn about its carcass teases us with its lifeboats still bobbing in the water, lifeboats that if entered offer only the vaguest hope of escape.
Hope of life. Why is there hope here? To tease us? To tempt us? To deliver us? It is hope, all the same.
“Puilion, help me pull in that lifeboat,” I command.
“Who here wants to try to get out?” I yell to the crowd of soldiers around me.
Men I have never before met wake up from the sullen stupor in which the mass appears to be accepting its fate. Arms begin pulling at the line as soldiers and sailors jump into the fetid water to pull the boat to the quay. Others begin leaping into the boat and pulling the men from the water into its shallow draft bottom.
The lifeboat is not much to look at, but I don’t care. I jump in, pulling Puilion with me.
The rows quickly fill with men eager to test themselves against fate.
What do we have to lose? The war for us is already lost.
The Germans are moving men off the jetty quicker now. A cadence of men walking away is developing. Several soldiers stand, not responding to the German order to move, so that they may watch to see what happens to our little group fleeing to who knows where by the power of our legs. As a Tour de France team working in unison, we drive the pedal-operated propeller on the lifeboat faster than any group of humans ever thought they could.
The last time I projected a boat by pedaling I was courting Elise on a dove boat at Lac Interieur near the Chalet des Iles in Paris in 1932. That world is so far away now. Elise is so far away now.
We begin picking up speed as the Germans approach the end of the jetty. The soldiers left behind still have not moved. The Germans bark a command to us, but we cannot hear them. We have to be at least 30meters away by now.
Bullets crack in the water near us. Each man lies back as much as he can to reduce his profile to the firing from the quay.
“If we stop pedaling, we die,” one of the men yells out.
Despite war torn and famished bodies, the rate of pedaling increases.
My legs are burning after just a few short minutes of pedaling. Can I keep up this pace? I must not let up. Not now! Not after compelling everyone into the boat.
Bullets are coming closer. German barks from the shore are almost inaudible.
Looking back over the stern of the boat, my eye just above the rail, I can see that the men have been moved from the mole. All that remains is a German machine gun squad setting up to fire on us.
Please, either hit me with a bullet or allow me to stop pedaling; I cannot keep going!
We’re about 60 meters out now. Gentle waves carry us out with the morning tide. I can tell that others are suffering from sore muscles too because the speed at which the pedals are moving begins to slow.
“Keep going, Keep going!” another man yells.
We’re all pushing as hard as we can.
The burn is worse than spilling acid on my thighs. When can it end?
Bullets crack into the side of the boat.
“Aaaarrrgggg. . ..hhhuuuughh” the man closest to the bullet hits screams.
“Are you hit?” I project.
Spitting, because talking while pedaling so hard is difficult, the man barks back “Splinters!”
We have to be about 80 meters now.
I cannot go on pedaling.
Bullets rake an area behind the boat.
I look back. The machinegun team is far away now, but still firing.
My legs no longer burn. Instead, feeling is disappearing from them completely. My nerves are shutting down from the pain. Pedaling is now simply an action they are taking on their own, in cadence with the pedals’ movement from the power applied by the other men. I am no longer contributing to our escape.
Bullets spray farther behind the boat.
We all pedal for a few more rotations until other men’s legs begin giving out.
First, the man second from the bow stops, then third from the right, then the break in the pedaling proceeds down the line as each man’s flight adrenaline rush diminishes and the reality of our plight re-imposes itself upon us.
My legs are dead. There is no feeling in them. My body is dead. I have no feeling anywhere. My mind is racing at a million kilometers a second.
I have not heard bullets off the stern for several seconds. Could we have gone beyond the range of the machine gun? Could the Germans just have figured we’re not worth it? Could they have called in a dive-bomber to attack us?
All thirteen of the men in the boat lie exhausted against each other.
We are in this together, for better or worse.
Heavy breathing fills the open air.
We are all beat, but we were not defeated.
The tide is carrying us out to sea. God may not have wanted France to survive this war, but we are being helped.
Without adding rank, the man in the seat in front of me suffers out the words “I’m Louis Fraimaitron”
I present myself as “Dr.Charles Tromar.” And add, “May I look at those splinters?”
Others in the boat begin introducing themselves to their bench mates and the men around them. Some seem to know each other already. Most, like me, just know one other guy on the boat.
We are drifting at sea, alone on the tide, having worked together as a team to escape the immediate German threat.
But to what end? Where to now? And how?
One of the men, whose name I did not catch, suggests that we use the blanket he brought as a sail. We find an oar in the bottom of the boat and tie the blanket’s corners to it. The slight northeasterly breeze fills the blanket, pulling us out to sea with the tide. We have to hold the oar until another man figures out a way to tie it to the bow so that the blanket catches and holds the wind.
We must break free of the tide before it switches direction.
The sky is clear of planes. The breeze is refreshing. The sea is calm. If only we had food and water this would not be so bad. I can feel my legs again. The pain is bearable.
We begin taking turns napping upon each other. There is no room in the boat to lie down, but the fatigue we all suffer is so compelling that everyone is able to fall asleep sitting up without any problem.
About an hour and a half out, with thirst overcoming each man, Lorit points north and yells, “I see a ship!”
In the distance, off the port bow, a small craft appears to be heading North East, having crossed our beam.
Without a clue of who it is, we begin waving.
We cannot make it to land on our own. Whoever this is does not matter; we need water. If they are Germans, we will die or be captured.
We wave anyway.
Hope compels us to wave. We cannot survive at sea for long on our own.
Yelling, whooping, waving, hollering, and whistling go out as if we are holding a carnival on our little escape vessel.
Yes, we escaped the German infantry, but that is no reason to celebrate. Nonetheless, here we are, as if it is bacchanalia.
As we approach the small ship, we can make out a British flag flying from its stern. Beyond elation erupts on the lifeboat.
The British vessel pulls alongside us. Someone on deck yells, “Care for a ride to Blighty, chaps?”
Almost in unison, the thirteen of us reply, “Oui!”
A line is thrown down to our little lifeboat. We each scramble up in our own time, with little strength, but great resolve.
As I ascend the deck of the vessel, one of the British men says to no one in particular “We were on our way back to the beach when we were told to turn around. Glad we will not return empty handed.”
I stare at him.
What does he mean empty-handed. There are still thousands of men back there waiting to be evacuated.
“You are heading back without anyone else?” I ask.
“We’ll try a smaller beach tonight, but you chaps are the last out of Dunkirk.”
Using every size craft imaginable, the British were able to evacuate more than300,000 British, French, and Belgian soldiers out of the Dunkirk pocket. These men were the remnants of the British and French Armies sent into Belgium to blunt the German attack in May 1940.The Germans paused before eliminating the pocket, figuring that the British would ask for peace rather than lose their army. Instead, the British, now led by Winston Churchill, chose to evacuate the men and fight on. Powered craft from across the British Islands were sent in to pick up men from the shoreline; many of them crewed by civilians who volunteered. The Germans destroyed hundreds of these craft, even after picking up soldiers who had discarded all of their gear, and sometimes even their uniforms. The evacuation was a shock to the world, a surprise for Hitler, and a morale booster for the British. Despite the defeat, it meant the British Army, which had lost all of its equipment in Belgium, might be able to fight another day. It could be rebuilt, reformed, retooled, and eventually return to liberate the continent of Europe, alongside its allies. The last men to be picked up from Dunkirk were a self-powered lifeboat, manned by, among others, a French naval doctor who spoke English.