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To War With The Bays: 7 - France

...One night we were sleeping in a barn near a small town on the outskirts of Le Mans. At about 4 a.m. we heard banging and shouting: 'Get up, get up! Get your kit together and get in a wagon!'

In the dark I hastily stuffed some belongings into my kitbag, climbed aboard a truck, and then we were off, heading west all day. We finally stopped in some fields outside the port of Brest on the north-west coast in the early evening. It suddenly struck me that, far from winning the war, we must be losing. The Germans had us on the run...

In May, 1940, Jack Merewood was posted with the Queen's Bays to France, but he was not there for long. The mass evacuation of British troops was soon under way.

For earlier chapters of Jack's vivid account of his war years please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

However, we didn't stay in Wareham long enough to get attached to anybody. After about a fortnight we were sent home on a ten-day embarkation leave, which meant we would soon be going abroad, though we weren't told where we would be going and when.

The Colonel-in-Chief of the Queen's Bays was the then Queen, and when we were back from leave she came to see us. We had lined up the tanks and stood beside them. One tank had some wooden steps at the side of it and the Queen climbed up and looked inside. She walked along in front of us, and then we made an informal circle around her. She gave a friendly, encouraging speech, and wished us luck now we were going abroad.

We spent three more weeks at Wareham, before we were moved by train to Southampton, then across the Channel to Cherbourg, where we arrived on 20 May, 1940.

We new recruits were sent as spare crews, to replace anyone who might be killed or injured. At one time we met up with B Squadron, and I saw Ronnie. He had been made squadron office clerk, and was driving a small truck set up like an office. That particular night we spent in a wood, and soon found it was swarming with mosquitoes. Next morning after a miserable night everybody was covered with itchy lumps.

We spent our time bumping about in the back of a lorry, sleeping in woods or fields. We never saw the tanks. From Cherbourg we had made our way east and were in the area of Abbeville and Amiens, and the tanks were fighting somewhere along the River Somme. Once I got into Rouen and saw the cathedral. We only had trickles of news. We lost some tanks and men. Our Troop Leader, Lieutenant Aitken, who looked like a young boy, was killed. We thought we were advancing even winning maybe, but we were in for a rude awakening.

One night we were sleeping in a barn near a small town on the outskirts of Le Mans. At about 4 a.m. we heard banging and shouting: 'Get up, get up! Get your kit together and get in a wagon!'

In the dark I hastily stuffed some belongings into my kitbag, climbed aboard a truck, and then we were off, heading west all day. We finally stopped in some fields outside the port of Brest on the north-west coast in the early evening. It suddenly struck me that, far from winning the war, we must be losing. The Germans had us on the run.

We stayed in the fields until dark, then drove down to the docks in Brest, where several boats were moored. We climbed out of the lorries; then the drivers took them to the docks, smashed the engines with sledge-hammers, and pushed them into the harbour. We assembled with relative calm on the dockside, ready to board the boats. Without warning, German planes zoomed low over our heads, strafing the whole area. Tracer bullets were flying everywhere. Everybody dived for cover. Some were bound to have been hit, but I was all in one piece.

'Get on any boat you can,' shouted someone.

I ran across the dock and scrambled on to the nearest boat, the Lady of Mann. All was quiet, and in the pitch dark we sailed for England.

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