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  • Peter Fyles

Dunkirk, Fight to the Last Man’, The unpredictable and chaotic nature of war.

Dunkirk May 1940

There are naturally many subjects one could choose to look at when it comes to the fascinating story of Dunkirk; Churchill’s speeches, the Hitler/German High Command to halt, which may have been an extraordinary stroke of luck for the allies, the small ships launch and much more. However, I chose three interrelated but separate topics: The involvement of Lancashire soldiers, the sinking of the aptly named ‘HMT Lancastria’ and what Hugh Sebag-Montefiore outlined explicitly in his book, ‘Dunkirk, Fight to the Last Man’, the unpredictable and chaotic nature of war. Let’s take each topic one by one

Firstly, Lancashire soldiers involvement at and around Dunkirk is a given reality. We know from archives and personal accounts that Lancashire Fusiliers were at Dunkirk from 1/5th, !/6th and 1/8th brigades and that the 125th brigade of the 42 East Lancs Regiment were also involved in the melee. Captain Westman of 1/5th Lancs Fusiliers summed up the encroaching foreboding on the retreat to the sea. “The previous few days had seemed like weeks, the next four days seemed like so many months. It was when we moved from St Andre, just north of Lille, that something of the seriousness of the situation began to be appreciated”.


The HMT Lancastria, was requisitioned into troop carrying service at the start of the war. She was sunk on 17 June 1940, just a few days after Dunkirk, during Operation Aerial. Having begun the war as a cruise ship in the Bahamas, Lancastria was to end her life in a most untimely and sad manner. Having received an emergency order to evacuate British nationals and troops from France the ship was loaded well in excess of its capacity of 1,300 passengers. Captain Sharp had an opportunity to leave the coast earlier that day but declined, preferring to escape with Royal Navy protection later, alas this was a fatal error. Later that day Junkers JU 88’s attacked and within 20 minutes the Lancastria was gone. Modern estimates suggest that between 4,000 and 7,000 people died during the sinking — the largest single-ship loss of life in British maritime history. Interestingly and alarmingly, Churchill issued a D-Notice on the event, silencing news of the sinking so as not to adversely affect public moral.


Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s book and our own brief research remind us of the large part chance and terror play in wars. These following extracts from eye-witness accounts at Dunkirk reveal this unpredictable nature of conflict:

“The siren of the dive-bombers bores into one’s ears and outs one’s nerves on edge. My cipher kept irritatingly saying, ‘this one’s going to land on us’.”

“We were all eating breakfast, when suddenly there were explosions all around us. I remember seeing the Company Runner, Guardsman Brind, showered with earth and thought ‘well that’s just ruined his breakfast’.”

“There I saw one of the stokers I knew who was just sitting there with his seaman’s cap on and everything. I said something to him, but then I noticed his ribs were sticking out through his chest. He was dead.”

Norman Prior, a soldier from the 1/5 brigade Lancs Fusiliers, endured all of the British Expeditionary Force turmoil and escaped from Dunkirk, only to be bitten by an adder in Colchester and die just a few weeks after Dunkirk.

The evacuation from Dunkirk has become folklore. From our Lancastrian perspective it reminds us of our involvement in history and how the mundane, the frightening and the chaotic are all part of the greater story at war.

Norman Prior on the left







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