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Dunkirk. No Ships Left. What Would You Do?

Stew’s Introduction

Denis Caron
Denis Caron on Dunkirk beach holding his book, ‘Dash for Dunkirk.’ Photo by Janet O’Rourke (November 2017).

I’m very excited to have Denis Caron as our guest blogger today. Denis is an accomplished historical fiction author specializing in military history and World War II (more on that later). His blog describes how a British soldier gave up his seat for a wounded comrade on one of the Dunkirk boats and was unable to catch another ride back to England. Traveling on foot, he ultimately outwitted the Germans and provides an uplifting story about perseverance, fortitude, and resourcefulness.


Did You Know?

Denis mentions how 80,000 British and French soldiers were left behind in Dunkirk. What many people don’t know is how many French soldiers were captured by the Germans during the Battle of France. During May and June 1940 as the Nazis swept into France, approximately 2.0 million French soldiers were taken prisoner. This represented around ten percent of the total adult male population of France at the time. Despite Vichy’s attempt to gain their release (e.g., the relève program), the majority of these men spent the war as POWs in either Oflags (Officers’ Camp) or Stalags (all others). Most of the prisoners were used for manual labor on farms with their wages confiscated by the Germans. After the Liberation, the men came home to a rather hostile environment. Based on prior Vichy propaganda, it was thought the prisoners lived in better conditions than the general French population under the Occupation. The men were held responsible for the French defeat at the hands of the Nazis and considered cowards who surrendered rather than fighting. Members of the French Resistance and Free French Forces were held in higher esteem. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the former prisoners were granted the rights and benefits of being considered recognized veterans.


British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation. Photo by anonymous (c. May 1940). American Embassy Second World War Photograph Library-Classified Print Collection. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation. Photo by anonymous (c. May 1940). American Embassy Second World War Photograph Library-Classified Print Collection. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.

From 27 May to 4 June 1940, 338,226 men escaped from the beach at Dunkirk. Many of you know how British citizens answered the call with their little ships, putting themselves in the line of fire to rescue people thus increasing the number of lives saved. Prime Minister Churchill called this a ‘miracle’, later using the term ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ to refer to the solidarity of the British people.

The British Army in the UK – Evacuation from Dunkirk. French and British troops on board ships berthing at Dover. Photo by War Office official photographer (31 May 1940). Imperial War Museums. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
The British Army in the UK – Evacuation from Dunkirk. French and British troops on board ships berthing at Dover. Photo by War Office official photographer (31 May 1940). Imperial War Museums. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
German forces move into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was completed. Photo by Weper Hermann, 13 German Mobile Assault Unit (4 June 1940). Imperial War Museums. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
German forces move into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was completed. Photo by Weper Hermann, 13 German Mobile Assault Unit (4 June 1940). Imperial War Museums. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.

What most of you do not know is the fact that 80,000 British and French soldiers in the Dunkirk vicinity were left behind. Many were captured, others died fighting, and a smaller number attempted to escape to the woods. There simply wasn’t enough time or boats to rescue everyone. If you’re a daydreamer like me, I know you are already picturing this exact scenario in your head.

Bill Lacey - Retired. Photo by SM (date unknown). Daily Mirror UK.
Bill Lacey – Retired. Photo by SM (date unknown). Daily Mirror UK.

Here is the story of Bill Lacey who found himself in just this precarious situation.

‘I watched the last of the little ships sailing away without me, and I knew there was no hope that there would be any more coming back,’ Bill told The Telegraph in a 2010 interview. “I had climbed on to a boat. Then a wounded-casualty had to be taken on board, so I got off to make room for him. When I turned round the boat was going. I was stranded’ he remembered. ‘The gunfire was getting nearer and the Nazis were rounding up the stragglers.’

Three of the armada of “little ships” which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk. Photo by Press Agency photographer (c. May 1940). Ministry of Information Second World War Press Agency Print Collection. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.
Three of the armada of “little ships” which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk. Photo by Press Agency photographer (c. May 1940). Ministry of Information Second World War Press Agency Print Collection. PD-United Kingdom Government. Wikimedia Commons.

This was the deciding moment; either he surrenders to the Germans, or he runs and hides in the countryside. Bill, at the time aged 20, made the critical decision to do the latter.

‘Men were still standing in line on the landing jetty, half-expecting that another boat would arrive in time, but I knew it was pointless. We had fought hard, but we couldn’t fight any more. We were overwhelmed. I could see German troops pouring on to the beach, so I ran in the opposite direction, towards the road, then crossed into a patch of woodland.’

Gradually, as he ran farther and farther into the woods, the sound of fighting on the beach began to fade. Having successfully evaded the German patrols, his plan was to head south in the hope of finding other British troops.

He threw away his weapon and dumped his uniform, he was alone and lost in hostile territory. If found, he would surely be shot on sight.

‘I had to get rid of my uniform, so the first trick I learned was how to steal clothes,’ Bill explains: ‘I raided washing lines in farmyards. Or even easier, farm workers often hung their shirts and jackets across bushes, to dry.’

Days turned into months. ‘I had to learn to stay alive the same way a wild animal would, my only thought was to survive from one day to the next.’

He would go days without food, his weight eventually started to drop till it reached only seven stone (98 lbs).

‘I had to take food where I could find it. I stole from fields and I drank from streams. Then I discovered that in the countryside no one had locks on their kitchen doors. You just needed to be extremely careful, because the heavy latches that the French used made a terrible clunk as they opened. I would have to freeze in the dark, waiting to hear if I had woken anyone. Then I would grab what I could – bread, cheese, milk, anything baking in the oven – and run for it.’

His routine was to sleep during the day and move at night. He had close calls with German patrols once, which forced him to hide under a pile of dry leaves and narrowly escaping a sniffer dog.

After months of evading the enemy, with worn out army boots, he realized he had been walking in a big circle. ‘I started to lose my spirit’ he admitted. Freezing and hungry, reaching an all-time low, he decided to give himself up.

‘If they shot me, I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted this to end. I turned in the direction of Dunkirk, intending to find a patrol and turn myself in. I couldn’t carry on, I hope people realize why.’

Amazingly, as he walked along the coast, he spotted a fishing boat tied to a small pier; a chance for an escape finally came his way. Waiting until dark he sails off for home.

Four months after giving up his spot in a boat to an injured comrade, Bill Lacey finally reached the shores near Devon, England. He was exhausted, dressed in stolen rags, weak from hunger, hair overgrown. His story, mostly unknown, was brought to light by a television documentary in 2000. He then became credited as the last man home from Dunkirk.

Not in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined spending four months evading capture in the manner that Bill Lacey did. His resilience is incredible and awe-inspiring.

Bill went on the make a full recovery. His resourcefulness was noticed which eventually earned him a position in the special forces, taking part in a number of commando missions including one to capture a German General in Jersey which ended with him being shot and wounded.

He retired as a sergeant in 1964 before taking up a job as a postman.

Bill Lacey passed away on June 10, 2011, aged 91.

The Forgotten Heroes of Dunkirk

Watch the documentary Dunkirk: The Forgotten Heroes.

Denis tells me the film Dunkirk is relatively historically correct. You see, I rarely watch movies based on historical events that interest me. Why? Because they are basically historical fiction with the writers taking great liberties with the actual facts (I guess it’s mandatory to have that car chase and explosion in 14th-century England—though they probably do get the sex right).

Meet Denis Caron

Denis Caron was born in Trenton, Ontario and grew up in England. He returned to his native Canada where he now lives in Kitchener, Ontario. Denis received his college diploma in survey engineering and went on to serve in the Canadian Army and the Air Force. He now works for the emergency services.

Denis has long been interested in the military and in particular, World War II. This was the catalyst for Denis to write his first historical fiction book Dash for Dunkirk (along with Fran Connor). Denis is currently working on his next book which he tells me is about thirty percent completed. He anticipates finishing it by the end of this summer.

During his off-time, Denis enjoys sampling beers, travelling around Europe, and adding to his growing collection of World War II memorabilia. He enjoys relaxing and watching a good movie like Dunkirk.

Denis Caron (left) and his father next to Dunkirk monument. Photo by Janet O’Rourke (November 2017).
Denis Caron (left) and his father next to Dunkirk monument. Photo by Janet O’Rourke (November 2017).

You can find Denis’s book Dash for Dunkirk at Amazon in both paperback and Kindle format.

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Recommended Reading and Viewing

Caron, Denis and Fran Connor. Dash for Dunkirk. Kitchner, Ontario: Productivolgy, 2017.

Franklin, Sidney (producer). Mrs. Miniver. Starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. Based on the novel by Jan Struther. 1942.

Nolan, Christopher and Emma Thomas (producers). Dunkirk. Starring Fionn Whitehead and Tom Glynn-Carney. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2017.

What’s New With Sandy and Stew?

We just received our first shipment of the newly published Volume Two of Where Did They Burn the Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar? It’s always very exciting to have the physical book in one’s hands. This is the fourth book in what I hope to be a series on historical periods of Paris. The next two will be on the German Occupation followed by the seventh book Where Did They Bury Jim Morrison, the Lizard King? A Walking Tour of Curious Paris Cemeteries. We thought about moving on to London after that book but I’m thinking of staying in Paris for one or two more books: perhaps “The Lost Generation” and/or “Montmartre Artists.”

What do you think? You like those possibilities or do you have any suggestions that sound fun? Let us know.

Someone is Commenting On Our Blogs

I had my head buried in the computer the other day trying to make some headway into the next book Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters? when Sandy brought over a couple of reviews that were posted on Amazon for several of the earlier books.

After I read them I was so jazzed. The comments lifted my spirits and confirmed what I said five years ago when I started this little project. If you assemble the right team, don’t compromise on quality, and produce a fun book with a purpose, readers will appreciate it. All we have to do now is get the distributors and book stores to agree with us. Yeah, like that’ll be happening any time soon.

If there is a topic you’d like to see a blog written about, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I love hearing from you so keep those comments coming.

Why Would You Want To Buy Our “Walks Through History” Books?

Simple.

You like to travel and experience history and historical events. You like to see original buildings that had a significant impact on the people and events of the history you’re engaged with. You want to know the stories behind the brick and mortar in front of you.

The walking tour books are meticulously researched so you can go directly to those sites and learn about the building’s history as well as an introduction to some of the more interesting people associated with it.

Thank You

Sandy and I appreciate you visiting with us. We have some exciting things on the horizon and we’ll keep you updated as we go along.

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Adrienne de Noailles: Wife of Lafayette

Stew’s Introduction

I’m very excited to have Geri Walton as our guest blogger today. Geri is an accomplished history author specializing in an era that corresponds to the English Georgian Era (more on that later). Her blog title concerns a woman who led an extraordinary life and was witness to some of the world’s leading events. It is also about a woman whose passion for her husband likely resulted in her untimely demise. Her subject, the surrounding events, and Picpus Cemetery occupied several pages of my two-volume series on the French Revolution (Where Did They Put the Guillotine? A Walking Tour of Revolutionary Paris). Lafayette lived a long life and frankly, I’m amazed he never lost his head during the Revolution. Neither side (monarchy or revolutionaries) really liked him. Geri mentions Picpus Cemetery in her opening paragraph. It is my favorite Paris cemetery and only one of two privately owned cemeteries located in the city.

Meet Adrienne de Noailles and Her Family

Presumed portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette. Oil painting by anonymous (c. 1790). National Museum of Women in the Arts. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.
Presumed portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette. Oil painting by anonymous (c. 1790). National Museum of Women in the Arts. PD-100+ Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most interesting people buried at France’s Picpus Cemetery is Adrienne de Noailles (1759–1807), wife of the famous American Revolutionary War hero known simply as Lafayette (1757–1834). Adrienne was 14 years old when she married him. She was introduced to Lafayette through her father, a French nobleman named Jean de Noailles, Duke of Ayen.

Adrienne’s mother was Henriette Anne Louise d’Aguesseau. Henriette’s father sent her to a convent to be educated because her mother died shortly after she was born. At the convent, Henriette enjoyed reading and gardening and acquired superb mothering skills that resulted in her devoting her life to the betterment of Adrienne and her other children.

When Adrienne was not under the care of her loving mother, she and her older sister, Anne Jeanne Baptiste Louise (known as Louise), were instructed by a governess named Mademoiselle Marin. They studied geography, grammar, history and learned the “Catéchisme de Montpellier” by rote. Marin was “a little person, dry, thin, blond, pinched, susceptible, devoted to her duties and fulfilling them admirably” and doing so despite Louise and Adrienne’s constant teasing. Read More Adrienne de Noailles: Wife of Lafayette