At least 8 Malvern men were among those who tragically did not make the return to Britain. Malvern also hosted hundreds of Dunkirk survivors for a few days in June 1940 on their way back to their loved ones or army bases. Two of the highest serving officers supervising the evacuation from the beaches had Malvern connections. Curious? Then read on!
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!” Winston Churchill, 4th June 1940
As people in the UK recently celebrated the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, 8th May, 1945, it’s worth remembering that the situation did not seem so positive in May 1940, and winning the war was a distant hope. Until 26th May 1940, approximately 338,000 British and other Allied troops were trapped in a pocket of land next to the small coastal town of Dunkirk in France. They were surrounded by German forces that had closed in around them in the push to reach the Channel coast.
A desperate operation, code named Operation Dynamo, was planned to rescue them, taking place from 26th May to 4th June, 1940. Hundreds of naval and small civilian vessels braved German bombing and shelling to transport the troops back to England. The harbour had been destroyed, so the troops had to be taken off the beaches in larger ships from breakwaters that were themselves under fire, or by ‘little ships’ that were shallow enough to pull on to the beach. Without this rescue, the British Army would have been destroyed and an invasion of mainland UK more than possible.
Malvern men who did not escape
Local men took part in the evacuation, and several lost their lives. Some died as they mounted a rear-guard action to buy time for the troops to be evacuated. On the 27th May, Private William Gibbs, The Royal Berkshire Regiment, died just south of Le Mans, France. He was a married man from Barnards Green with 2 young children. Two days later, 29th May, Private Arthur Langfield, 1st Bn, Worcestershire Regiment, a father of 4 children from West Malvern, and Lance Corporal William Richards of Malvern Link serving with the 8th Bn, Worcestershire Regiment, were killed at Bambecque, France. A large number of German tanks were reported as massing little more than a mile away. The tanks were only held back by a road-block of farm carts and tractors, but the Worcesters fought until their ammunition was exhausted. Losses were heavy.
The Cartland Brothers
Tragically, brothers, such as the Cartlands, were also caught up in the retreat. Their father, Major James Cartland, had been killed in France in May 1918, 22 years before, and their mother and sister, Barbara Cartland the romantic novelist, lived in Poolbrook, Malvern. The brothers were killed in action 20 miles or so from Dunkirk. Captain James Cartland, Lincolnshire Regiment, lost his life while defending his troops in a rear-guard trench on 29th May. Major John Cartland, serving with the 53 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, was killed fighting alongside French troops the next day. John Cartland was an MP and thought to have the potential to be a future Prime Minister. Just before war was declared he had stated in the House of Commons, ‘Within a month we may be going to fight – we may be going to die.’ and on learning of his death, tributes were paid to him in The House from all sides of the political spectrum.
The retreat from Dunkirk also involved casualties at sea. On 1st June, 1940, Able Seaman Hubert Dutson, born in Malvern 1919, was on HMS Ivanhoe transporting troops back to England from Dunkirk. As the ship left the harbour she was bombed and machine gunned by German aircraft. 21 of her crew, including Hubert Dutson, and 5 soldiers were killed. One boiler room remained in service providing the ship with enough power to make it back to the dockyards at Sheerness.
The same day, Gunner Clarence Thompson, from Malvern Link, and brothers Lance Sergeant William McCarey, of Pickersleigh Road, Malvern, and John McCarey, all serving in the 67 Field Regiment, almost reached safety. Together with men from Worcester and Malvern, they headed for HMS Worcester, which was on its 6th and last journey across the channel on 1st June. She’d carried over 5,000 men to safety, but on this last trip she suffered 350 dead and 400 wounded, as German Stuka and Dorniers bombed the ship. William, already injured, was hit by shrapnel, as he lay on the deck and died. John survived.
Dunkirk Survivors arrive in Malvern June 1940
The majority of Britain’s professional army returned to British soil and was able to regroup. Here in Malvern many inhabitants witnessed the sombre sight of hundreds of weary Dunkirk survivors leaving the train station at Malvern Link to take a few days break before resuming their journey to their army bases. They made their way to the Morgan factory which had been converted into a holding area for them to be reorganised before being sent on. Some were given temporary accommodation around Link Common, either under canvas or in commandeered coaches, and others were billeted with families.
Dr Jessiman tended the wounded
Many were suffering from bruised and bloodied feet after their hasty retreat on foot to Dunkirk. Dr Jessiman, who had his surgery on Worcester Road (where Francis bedroom furniture shop is today), readily offered his services to these men. Images show the men in the doctor’s garden being tended by Dr Jessiman and a nurse. At last able to relax, many have cigarettes and others are eating as they soak their feet in enamel bowls filled with water.
Lord Gort, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force 1939 – 1940
John Vereker, the 6th Viscount Gort was born in 1886 and took the family title in 1902. His family were based in County Durham and the Isle of Wight but John spent his schooldays here at Malvern Link Preparatory School (since demolished). The Link School as it was known, occupied the building originally erected to serve as the railway hotel for Malvern Link station. The headteacher during John Vereker’s time was William Douglas. The school was demolished in 1968 but had provided a sound education for hundreds of boys, many of whom were destined to serve their country in both World Wars.
Lord Gort entered the Grenadier Guards and rose through the ranks during the Great War when he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Later he was promoted again and became a General.
General Gort commanded the British Expeditionary Force from 1939-40 and oversaw the evacuation of troops at Dunkirk. He fully understood how grave the situation was as German tanks and soldiers stormed through towards the French coast. Gort recommended evacuating the Allied troops but was met with opposition from the War Office in London. History now shows that his was the correct solution: 338,000 British troops survived to continue the fight, along with 140,000 French, Belgian and Polish soldiers, because of his wise decision. He worked closely with Captain Tennant and one wonders whether they ever exchanged stories about the Malvern area?
Admiral William Tennant (‘Dunkirk Joe’)
William Tennant came from nearby Upton upon Severn and was a professional sailor with a long naval career. In May 1940, Captain Tennant was sent to Dunkirk with a party of naval officers, to supervise the evacuation of troops codenamed Operation Dynamo. He was nominated Beachmaster and was responsible for organising more than 300,000 exhausted Allied troops to board the ships lying off Dunkirk harbour.
He patrolled the length of the beach calling through a megaphone, “Are there any British soldiers still ashore?” until the last moment. Many credited the success of the biggest wartime evacuation to his remarkably efficient organisational skills.
Later in the war Captain Tennant survived when his ship, HMS Repulse, was sunk by Japanese torpedoes while defending Singapore in 1942. Two years later William Tennant took a key role immediately after the D-Day events when he organised massive artificial Mulberry Harbours to be towed into place near the beaches. Rail and road tracks were constructed on top of them to allow movement of equipment, supplies and transport from sea to land.
Tennant was knighted in 1945 and returned to Upton, becoming Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire in 1950. He had taken part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and was 50 when the Dunkirk evacuation took place. Throughout it all, he remained an Upton man and highly esteemed. He became an Admiral and a handsome sculpture was erected to him in the gardens near the Pepperpot in Upton after his death.