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Except for one thing that noise was like thunder. It never ceased. For hours and hours, day after day, the whole family had been hearing it, vague and indistinct at first, then louder.
Penelope was fourteen; she understood the meaning of the noise from across the water. The twins, Richard and Ronald, fifteen, also knew perfectly well. Candy, the big Airedale, who was thirteen, old and wise with the peculiar wisdom of a dog, sat anxiously glancing from one of them to another as they ate their breakfast around the table in the kitchen. She knew that something was going wrong and shared their worry without appreciating what it was.
This was the third week of May, 1940, and Mrs. Williams, who ran a boardinghouse for commercial travelers on the Folkestone Road in Dover, England, had every reason to listen to the sound of the guns across the water. Her husband, Sergeant Williams of the Second Battalion, the Wiltshire Regiment of the Fifth Division of the British Expeditionary Force, was in France where those guns were pounding. For eight months of the war nothing had happened. Then, early one morning came the Battle of France.
Letters stopped, no word came from France, and the only news the Williams family had was in the papers, which wasn't a lot. Now, a fortnight later, they could hear with their own ears the rumble and roar of gunfire across the Channel. The British Expeditionary Force, Sergeant Williams among the others, was being pushed back to the sea.
Nobody said much that morning in the three-story brick house opposite the Dover Priory Station, which looked out inland across the South Downs.
Directly after breakfast the boys jumped. So did Candy, the big Airedale, waving her stubby tail. The Williams house was tucked away under the base of the Shakespeare Cliff, a great rocky hill that towered over Dover Harbor, the town itself, and the waters of the Channel. On a clear morning you could see miles and miles of the French coastline from its top.
For some weeks, usually after breakfast and before school, the twins climbed the cliff to visit their friends, men of a coast artillery battery, stationed on the crest of the hill. So they raced out back. But when the door banged and Penny ran to follow them, they stopped short immediately.
"No, you can't come, Penny. You can't. You know very well you can't. Girls aren't allowed on the cliff. Go back."
In fact, nobody save troops was permitted on top. But the soldiers liked the twins and allowed them a daily visit. Penny, rejected, began to cry. Just in time she realized she was the daughter of a soldier and turned silently away to the house.
The Airedale, uncertain, stood for a moment looking from one to the other, from Penny disconsolate near the back door to the twins racing up the slope. Then she put her head down, barked twice, and ran after them.
The twins climbed up the steep, chalky hillside along a narrow path they had worn over the past months. It was necessary to edge around some clumps of barbed wire as they neared the top and went past the little huts the battery had dug into the slope of the hill. Nobody was there. When they reached the summit and looked around they understood the reason.
The entire group was standing on the brow of the hill, peering in silence across the Channel. Nobody paid any attention to the twins or their dog. A knot of officers in battle dress stood with field glasses trained across the water, where along the indistinct shore a thick cloud of black smoke rose high in the sky.
The men of the battery, usually friendly and joking, did not see them. Candy, trying vainly to get a greeting from old friends, sat on her haunches lifting her left paw, a favorite trick when she wished to attract someone's attention. The soldiers muttered something to each other, and the twins caught one word, "Dunkerque!"
Instantly they turned, slipped and slid down the steep path, the dog stumbling along behind. They ran through the vegetable garden at the rear, into the back door.
"Mother! Come quick. Come quickly, Mother!"
Wiping her hands, she came out as they turned back again. With Penelope at her side this time, she followed them up at a distance, for they were faster climbers. At last, panting, she reached the top and saw that ominous cloud of black smoke reaching to the heavens. Below them, the port was busy. Boats of all kinds were pulling away from the Admiralty Pier at their feet, and a destroyer slowly moved into the inner harbor, her rails packed with men in khaki. There was a jagged hole in her bow.
Although Mrs. Williams did not know it, nor yet did the troops watching from the top of the cliff, here was the start of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of 350,000 British and French troops from the shores of France.
This is not, however, the story of Operation Dynamo. It is not the story of the twins, but of their father, Sergeant Edward Henry George Williams of the Second Battalion, the Wiltshire Regiment, a prisoner of war in German hands.CHAPTER 2
AT 1:30 p.m. on the afternoon of May 9, 1940, a telephone jangled in the headquarters of Erwin Rommel, an unknown general commanding the Seventh Panzers of the Nineteenth German Army Corps in the city of Trier, east of the river Rhine. It was the order to attack. The big game was about to start. The invasion had begun.
That word, "invasion," had a terrible sound for the French, young and old. Children had heard their grandfathers, veterans of the Marne and the Somme, discuss the battles of 1914, and their grandmothers tell what it was like to live, frozen and half starved, under German occupation for over four years. The mere mention, the mere thought of the word filled all loyal French hearts with fear.
This was the thing they had dreaded for twenty years. It was a word uttered by millions of French men and women the country over. Many nations in Europe knew war. Only the French and Belgians realized the full meaning of the word "invasion," and the suffering it brought in its wake.
The test had come. At Rommel's headquarters in Trier, soldiers ran off at the double. Officers took their barrack stairs two at a time. Speed was the word, speed; fast, faster, faster. The tanks, the trucks, the armored supply vehicles, the motorcyclists, the dispatch riders, General Rommel's personal command unit, the auxiliaries, and the rest of the outfits, fell rapidly and precisely into line. It was the largest, the most efficient, the best trained, as well as the most mechanized army the world had ever seen.
This was the big moment, the moment they had been training, working, and practicing for ever since the previous autumn when war had been declared by Germany. In the late afternoon the mightiest concentration of armor one nation had ever assembled, seven Panzer divisions with 132,000 men and hundreds of vehicles of all kinds, plus immense artillery contingents, the whole supported by a tested air force, were on the march toward the frontiers of Luxembourg, a tiny nation between France and Germany. The battle line began fifty miles west of the Rhine and the columns stretched one hundred miles east into Germany.
The people of Luxembourg were awakened by the sounds and rumble of the armor. The weather was clear and cool, the night ideal. At 5:35 A.M. on May 10, 1940, the first German scout cars were crossing the frontier.
A few road blocks were removed. Lights on, heedless of possible attacks from French and British aviation, the tanks roared ahead. The orders were to get there, anyhow, somehow, but get there quickly. Time counted. Without surprise, the attack could fail. If a tank broke down, shove it off the road for the repair truck following. If a truck blew a tire, push it to one side and make the next ones carry the crew.
With no opposition, the advance was merely a problem in traffic control. It was thirty miles to the Belgian border across the little state of Luxembourg, and the German forward units made it about nine that morning. Around the tortuous and twisting roads of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg crashed and pounded the Panzer columns. In a few places mine fields had to be removed, a strong point battered down, a bridge quickly repaired. The surge ahead continued. By nightfall the Panzers were within Belgian territory and approaching the French frontier. Some hours later the first German units crossed the border, and the third German invasion of France in seventy years had begun.CHAPTER 3
Like so many lonely men in the British Expeditionary Force that night, Sergeant Williams was thinking about the family he had not seen for nearly five months. Had the flow of commercial travelers stopped; was his wife managing the little boardinghouse all right alone? Were the twins doing their lessons or ranging the town at night; was Penny helping her mother about the home as she had promised? For a second he was standing on the front steps watching, as he so often had, his daughter skipping up the Folkestone Road, her blond hair flapping, with Candy, the big Airedale, racing along joyously beside her.
The Sergeant had come over with one of the first British contingents to land in France in September the previous year, and save for a few days at Christmas, had had no leave. Now at last leave was coming up within a week. Yet as he lay sleeplessly on his cot in the orderly room, he knew any leave was most unlikely. Too many signs pointed to trouble ahead, and soon.
Actually the warnings sounded early that spring morning of the tenth of May along the British front in France. As flights of Messerschmitts and Heinkels droned overhead, the code flashed from brigade to battalion, from battalion to battery, from wing to squadron. Even so, it was too late in many places. German attacking planes swooped down unexpectedly from the night skies, bombing every British aerodrome in France. Many machines were set afire and destroyed on the ground.
Sergeant Williams knew immediately what was happening. He sat up at the first sound. Not too far away, bombs were falling. That would be their flying field at Lustrem, a few miles distant, taking a pasting.
His first thought was about his family. No leave for sergeants now. Then he leaned over and turned on the small radio on the table beside his cot.
A horrible noise, a voice harsh, guttural, Teutonic, filled the small room. He recalled he had tuned in Radio Stuttgart in Germany just before going off to sleep.
"Achtung! Achtung! Hier ist der grosse deutsche Rundfunk.... This morning at 5:30 our soldiers crossed the Luxembourg frontier...."
By now he was awake. He rose, rubbing his eyes and reaching for his clothes. The telephone jangled. Hundreds of planes were roaring overhead as he picked up the receiver.
The orders were short. Destroy everything. Burn all unnecessary papers. Get moving. A glance at his watch showed ten to six. The Battle of France had begun.
Once roused and awake, the men were eager and ready. This was the end of eight winter months of cold, boredom, and inaction, of digging trenches, of making concrete shelters and gun emplacements, of nights broken by marches and training exercises in icy rain. They were happy to be leaving their billets at last and seeing action.
By noon the whole battalion was packed and ready. The forward movement north into Belgium had started; the motorcyclists and dispatch riders first, then the low reconnaissance cars, finally the long lines of vehicles with troops, the antiaircraft batteries, the field kitchens, the ammunition trains, the engineers with pontoon bridges on lorries, the Signal Corps with their field equipment. At two o'clock the Wilts crossed the frontier.
The start was peaceful. The sun shone from the clear May sky. Belgian villagers thronged the streets of the red-brick towns to welcome them, stuck lilacs in their flat helmets, handed up bread, cheese, and beer to the troops. Then, gradually, the columns slowed down. Traffic became greater from the opposite direction. Sergeant Williams in the front seat of a lead lorry watched it increase; first, a few luxury cars, Panhards and Talbots and Isottas; then smaller ones, Peugeots and Citroëns. Soon all cars passing had mattresses tied on top, all were packed with families—children, boys and girls of every age, sitting on each other's laps or holding pets—dogs, cats, birds in cages. Many cars now began to show bullet holes in them.
This was the first tiny touching of war. The British soldiers ceased their jokes and became serious. Beside the Sergeant on the seat of the lorry, the driver shook his head, remarking as their forward speed decreased and the halts became more serious, "If those dive bombers, those Dorniers' came along now, we'd be in for it sure enough."
Things got worse when they stopped at five for tea. The luxury cars were a thing of the past; now the automobiles were smaller, less luxurious, older. Many were the trucks of tradesmen with their names and addresses painted on the sides.
M. Barrau, Boucher á Bruges, Flandre occidentale. André Frères, Boulangers á Malines. Etablis. Citroën, rue Roi Albert, Gand, Anvers.
The Sergeant realized they were little shopkeepers, small businessmen caught up in the maelstrom, each vehicle packed with people, bags, furniture, and the useless things one snatches up when bombers roar overhead.
"Keep to the right ... keep to the right ... gardez le droit," shouted the white-gloved British military policemen, acting as traffic cops to the panic-stricken hordes of civilians pouring south.
"How on earth d'you imagine they'll ever get ammo and supplies up front in this mix-up?" asked the young soldier beside the Sergeant.
He shook his head and said nothing. For he was thinking precisely the same thing.
Soon the procession became an endless serpent, a long trail of cars, lorries, bikes, motor bikes, carts, fire engines, swill carriers, men and women on foot, some even pushing loaded baby carriages. The procession moved at a slow walk, starting, stopping, starting again, the radiators of the hundreds of cars and trucks boiling. These refugees appeared to have left their Flemish villages for the first time. The women wore aprons; many shuffled along beside the farm carts in slippers and house dresses. They looked dazed and bewildered.
As they moved into a small village, an enormous roar greeted them. It was a steam roller.
Attached behind were two farm carts packed with families, the old men in black, women in their Sunday best, all sitting on great bundles of household linen tied up in sheets.
The Englishmen in their lorry tried to wedge through the mass; it was difficult. Before them a small boy was begging bread for a small girl he held by the hand; a thirteen-year-old was at the wheel of an ancient Renault with his mother, grandmother, and several kids packed inside. Most pathetic were the huge farm carts drawn by thick-necked horses, heads down, panting.
Coming toward the Sergeant's lorry was an ancient crone, perched unsteadily on a pile of burlap sacks across the handlebars of a bike pushed by a youth, obviously her grandson. That tiny old woman had been a young, pretty girl when her father dragged her along these roads in 1870; she was a mother watching her three sons leave for the front in 1914; now she had lost her family and only her grandson remained. Always it was the invaders from the north. Only their headgear changed.
Then there was a loud noise, confusion, and shouting ahead. A huge French Bayard tank lumbered past, teetering on the left edge of the packed highway, overturning cars, ripping fenders off others. A red-faced French officer in blue, angry to the point of insanity, stuck a helmeted visage from the tank's turret, screaming that he was going ahead and would run over anyone in his path.
"Attention ..." he yelled, shouting in a voice that penetrated the surrounding din. "Attention ... attention ... attention ...."CHAPTER 4
There were three of them squeezed in on the front seat of the lorry—Three Fingers Brown, a former London bus driver, who was the best driver in the battalion, a young Scotch boy named MacPherson, and the Sergeant. For two days and nights they moved north with the columns of fighting men, gradually getting nearer the conflict yet never actually seeing action. All the time that horrible pageant moved past going south, the long lines of refugees and their vehicles blocking one side of the road. On the third day they came under fire for the first time.
Excerpted from Silence Over Dunkerque by John R. Tunis. Copyright © 1968 Lucy R. Tunis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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