Some weeks ago I published a photo of soldiers at a railway station somewhere in the south of England. We discovered it was Margate, Kent, in 1941.
How do we know that? One of the men in the photo, Ron Brewer, is still with us and living at Hilsea, Portsmouth.
Ron, 95, tells me that in December 1940 he heard that a local company was being formed in Portsmouth. He went to the recruiting office near the Guildhall and the sergeant major told him he had to be at least 20. So Ron put his age back to the previous January and he was in.
He was made a driver as he had some experience and rode around in a 1928 Morgan. He was also a despatch rider and was given a motorbike too.
On March 5, 1941, the company – 698 General Construction Company Royal Engineers – was formed and they were sent to Margate for 10 days’ training.
They were then sent by troop train to Southampton and boarded a troop ship to Le Havre as part of the British Expeditionary Force. On arrival they boarded trucks that took them to a village near Arras.
‘A troop of Green Howards, proper soldiers, were on hand to look after us,’ Ron tells me. 698 Company were given rifles with just 15 rounds of ammunition and a Sten gun with no ammo at all. ‘It was a bit like Fred Karno’s army,’ says Ron.
On May 14, 1940, the German Army burst through the Ardennes and advanced toward the Sedan and then turned north to the English Channel planning to flank the Allied forces.
As the Germans approached where Ron and his mates were, the order came to make their way to Lille which had not yet been taken.
They boarded a lorry and set off only for the lorry to overturn injuring some of the men on board. A passing lorry picked them up and they later stopped at a farmhouse 10 miles from Dunkirk where Ron slept in a hay cart. The next morning they made their way through a flooded landscape. The roads were packed with men heading for Dunkirk and were often strafed by German planes.
At nightfall and still some miles from the beaches they settled down in a brickfield where they were bombed.
Eventually Ron and his mates made the beaches and were told by an officer to get into the sand dunes. Later an officer shouted out ‘Form queues. Form queues.’
Ron thought there were just a few soldiers in the dunes but when he stood up he saw there were thousands of them.
Ron lined up but was then told to fall out of the queue and return to Dunkirk town. ‘If you think you’re going home you have another think coming,’ the officer told Ron and his mates.
Back in the town they found a van loaded with corned beef which was immediately eaten by the company. It had been some time since they had eaten.
Ron never did find out why he had been sent back to Dunkirk town but eventually he made his way to the beaches which by then were being shelled as well as being strafed and bombed.
He adds: ‘The scenes of carnage on the beach were of an unspeakable nature when groups of men took a direct hit.’
Eventually he was picked up by the destroyer HMS Jaguar. She was lost in March 1942, with the loss of three officers and 190 ratings.
’The real heroes of the day were the men left behind who held the Germans at bay while we managed to escape. Many were taken prisoner and later shot out of hand,’ Ron tells me with great sadness.
Arriving back in England, Ron’s company was told to jump on any train available and they ended up near Petersfield. The following day another train took them to Tavistock, Devon, to guard airfields. There was no rest, they just had to continue as if nothing had happened.
Ron went right through the war and ended up as a staff sergeant in 1946, when he returned to Portsmouth.