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Dunkirk evacuation paintingFrom Dunkirk to Farnworth

Words and original painting by Ernie Holden


In 1939, due to the threat of war with Germany, the government decided to conscript all the men from the age of 20 for military training. Everyone had to register, no matter what occupation they were in. At this time I was employed underground at Mossley Common Colliery, and I was 20 years old. I duly registered at the unemployment Exchange in King Street, Farnworth in May 1939.

War is declared

I was conscripted in June 1939 into the Royal Artillery at Hadrian's Camp, Carlisle and in August had finished my training. On September 3rd 1939 war was declared against Germany and my Battery was sent to Aldershot to prepare to go to France. We sailed from Southampton to Cherbourg in late September, and then travelled to Brittany in cattle trucks, 20 men to each truck with a bale of straw to lie down on. It was very uncomfortable with no washing or toilet facilities, apart from the railway stations we stopped at.


We eventually arrived at a large tented camp near the sea at Pornichet, Brittany. It was a reinforcement camp for all the regular army units in France. After a few days we were told we were being transferred as stretcher-bearers to a medical field ambulance and once again we were packed off in cattle trucks to Northern France. The British army were all stationed on and near the France/Belgian border. Belgium wasn't at war with Germany, so all the defences were being dug along the Frontier.


About 30 of us were sent to a small village near Arras to join the 13th field Ambulance (R.A.M.C.). The village was called Biache-St-Vaast. All the Officers were billeted with French families and were better fed and looked after. It was a bitterly cold winter with snow on the ground for over a month. We had to make the best of our billets, which were small huts in the gardens of some of the houses. There wasn't much military activity apart from the occasional German recce plane trying to see what we were up to.

Ernie holdenFarm work

In early spring some of us were lent to the French farmers to work for them as the men workers had been called up. I came home on 7 days leave, and all the young men were last on the list, some of the old regulars were on their second leave. We were very friendly with the French people in the village. It was an industrial area similar to Northern England. One morning in early may we were wakened by the sound of explosions. All the French families came out of their houses as some of the older members remembered the sound of shelling in the 1914 - 1918 war. We saw all the German aircraft bombing Arras and Douai.


Word came through that the Germans had invaded Holland and Belgium and we had to pack, and advance into Belgium to try and force them back. The French civilians were sorry to see us leave and I remembered being given a flask of rum as we climbed into the lorries. I didn't know that the next time I would see them would be in 1944 when we liberated them from the German occupation. It was a funny feeling not knowing what to expect. All my mates were very quiet as we sat amongst our kit in the lorries. We spent the next day in a small farm near the frontier at Orchies. In the evening we went into the town and I managed to get my hair cut by an old lady who had a hairdressing shop.

Bombed and machine gunned

On the way back out of the town German bombers came over very low and we had to crawl into the ditches on the roadside as they were machine-gunning the roads. I was on guard duty during the night (12:00 pm to 2:00 am) and as I stood by a haystack I watched German aircraft drop flares and bomb the town. I didn't waken the rest of the unit, as they were sound asleep. We were attached to the Manchester Regiment of machine gunners and as we moved into Belgium, there were crowds of people waving us on through the towns and villages.

Collecting the wounded

We set up a dressing station near a place called Ath in Belgium and we were soon collecting the wounded, both soldiers and civilians. There was no fixed battle line, as the Germans were very mobile with their Panzer Divisions. We rarely stayed in one place more than 2 days and we had some narrow escapes just leaving empty villages before German Tanks arrived. The main roads were jammed with civilians trying to get away from the German advance.

Deserted villages

Whole villages were deserted, and there were empty houses with half eaten meals left on the tables. Dogs were running wild through the streets and we had to shoot them. In the farms cattle were swollen waiting to be milked and some of the troops relieved them. Our company cook killed a suckling pig and put it in a Dixie full of water until we had the opportunity to roast it. Every time he tried we were ordered to move. We stopped in a quiet country road one day and we said now is the chance to roast the pig, but suddenly tracer bullets started flying across the fields towards us. We hurriedly jumped into our lorries and drove away leaving the pig behind. Perhaps the Germans ate it after all our trouble.

Retreat to France

We retreated towards the French border and there were no cheering crowds on the way back. All the towns had been heavily bombed and we tried to keep clear of the main roads as the German planes machine gunned soldiers and civilians.

I remember taking 4 seriously wounded soldiers to a Casualty Clearing Station which we had difficulty finding. Just after we left the Germans bombed it, and then captured everyone there. It was in a church. After nearly two weeks of action we arrived at a small farm in Proven, Belgium. The weather throughout this period had been perfect especially for the German air force. They had hundreds of planes, and every one of ours was shot down. Our other two companies were a few miles from us, and one of our Officers was awarded the O.B.E. for operating during a bombing raid on the dressing station. The German spotter planes came over in the early morning left a smoke trail circle in the sky and soon everything in that circle was bombed.

We bury two of our men

We were attacked in the farm and I remember being blown in the air by a stick of bombs from a dive-bomber. We then scattered out of the farm area, some of my mates even lay in a duck pond. When things quietened down we assembled back and found two of our men, Smith and Butcher lying dead in the straw. Up to this time we had been all right but now we were shocked. A few of the men had shrapnel wounds but not serious, and they were sent back to the C.C.S on foot, as the road to farm was pitted with bomb holes and the lorry couldn't go back until they were filled in. We buried Smith and Butcher together in a corner of a field with their names sealed in a bottle.

Road mending

The four of us were sent to fill the bomb holes up on the road. There was a lot of military traffic going along the main road and we thought they were advancing against the Germans. The soldiers in one of the passing trucks threw some packets of cigarettes to us as we were filling the holes in. Only one of my mates saw them and he dropped his spade and ran to pick them up. The rest of us were so keyed up we scattered and dived into the ditches thinking the dive-bombers were coming over again.

Important news

When we had completed our work a dispatch rider came up to the farm. After he had left, the Major called us all together and said that the British Forces were retreating back to a port in France called Dunkirk. He said that we would travel in the truck and then set fire to all the equipment so the Germans couldn't use it. Later, we had to make our way on foot and it was every man for himself. I was concerned about being fed if we were going to be on our own so I stuffed some sugar lumps in the pocket of my gas cape. While all this was happening there were lots of Belgian troops throwing down their rifles in the fields. The King of the Belgians had asked for an armistice with the Germans so they were no longer fighting. We were ordered to collect these rifles and throw them into the duck pond, I remember them sticking out of the water because we hadn't taken the bayonets off.


The Major had planned a route towards Dunkirk off the main roads and because of the German aircraft we had a lookout on duty at all times. "A" Company ran into an ambush of Germans and some of them were shot as they jumped out of the trucks.


Eventually, we arrived outside Bergues, which is a small town with canals and a moat round the walls. We smashed our trucks up amongst hundreds of other vehicles. We then walked towards a small bridge across the moat, through an archway. The archway was partially blocked with a French tank and we had to ease ourselves along the side of it. There was a dead soldier draped over the front of the tank. As we looked back over the fields we could see the Germans grouping for an attack. Our Infantry were lining the walls to form a rearguard. Suddenly there was a mighty explosion and we all scattered for cover, including some German prisoners guarded by some military Police (as some of the infantry wanted to shoot them). The explosion was one of the bridges being destroyed.

The Road to Dunkirk

I was with a few of my unit when a lorry drove round a corner with the tail board down and we all managed to scramble on to it, but I was just too late as it picked up speed. Now I was left on my own in a strange place. I made my way to the other side of the town with the shells making a fluttering noise in the air. I came across a straight road with a canal running alongside and I realised it was the road to Dunkirk which I could see in the distance covered by a pall of black smoke. The road war nearly deserted of traffic except for a few carts with French horse drawn artillery. The weather deteriorated and it started to rain. I was glad about this as the clouds hid everything from the German bombers. The rain freshened me up and I sucked my sugar lumps and drank water out of my water bottle. The shells were still fluttering over both ways. Our navy off shore was firing back at the Germans. About 2 miles from Dunkirk, I heard the sound of an engine, an ambulance, which slowed down so I could climb in. I could hardly put my feet on the floor, because it was full of cans of cigarettes. I told the driver I was a non-smoker when he said help yourself. I think the driver was relieved to talk to someone as there were four badly wounded men in the back of the ambulance and he was worried he was supposed to leave them in Dunkirk.

Dunkirk in flames

The town was a shambles as we threaded our way through the bombed streets. Flames licked out of the pavements as the gas mains had ignited and there were dead bodies lying around. We eventually found our way to the dockside. The warehouses had been bombed and all the wounded lay on stretchers in the open with no protection and no sign of a hospital ship. An ambulance drove into the dock, as the driver lost control and it was full of wounded.

We make our way to the beaches

I could see no reason to stay at the docks so I wandered back into the town. The shells were still falling onto the buildings. I went down into the cellar of a large building and found it full of drunken soldiers, but I soon came out when I realised we would be buried alive if a shell had fallen on the building above. When I came out I met a mate of mine from our company. He seemed in a daze and he didn't seem to recognise me. I told him to follow me and try to find a way to the beach and look for a boat. Suddenly an officer on a white horse appeared out of the smoke and fire and rallied a lot of men together to show the way to beaches. We shambled along until the sand dunes came in sight. I was shocked to see so many men waiting in queues to the waters edge, with no boats in sight only gutted destroyers beached on the sand. My mate had vanished somewhere so I was alone once again, It all seemed like a dream but at the back of my mind was the thought of a good spell of leave if I got back home to England. There seemed to be more cover amongst the sand dunes so I scooped a hole in the sand and sat down in it, at least I would have some protection when the dive-bombers came.

Dirty and tired

I felt dirty and tired having not had a proper sleep for days. My clothes were saturated with sweat possibly through fear. Realising there was little chance of getting a boat from the beach I decided to make for a mole that stretched out to the sea from near the dock area. I wandered along the front picking my way through the wreckage. By this time it was getting dark and there was a lot of shooting and shelling.

Waiting for rescue

Near the mole I came to the tail end of a queue of troops. There was a lot of tension amongst the men, if anyone attempted to strike a match they were shot at. Royal Marines were patrolling the queue to stop men sneaking ahead and causing a panic. In fact I had a narrow escape. I had spotted one of my mates a few yards ahead of me and as I stepped out of the line to have a word I felt a bayonet prodding my back. I tried to explain that I only wanted a word with my mate just in front, but I had to get back in line smartly. Some Officers had the trick of moving along the queue asking the men if they were all right, but were really making their way to the front of the line. We eventually shuffled to where the mole had been bombed and some planks thrown across the gap. Military Police were telling them to run along the mole to find a ship tied up alongside and see if there was enough room for them. These ships had been bombed while waiting to be loaded.

On board the Canterbury

My turn to walk the plank came and when I got over I ran along with a few more men until I came to a large ship on the left. A group of men stood near a small gangway on top of the rails. It must have been high tide because the ship was level with the mole rails. Suddenly I heard a voice shout "13 Field Ambulance" which was my unit. It was one of our officers, and he was asking permission for us to come aboard. It seems this ship had been converted to a hospital carrier. It was named Canterbury, and it had already done several trips back and forth. We had to get rid of any weapons we had as the ship was classed as a hospital ship. I slung away my bayonet that I had carried with me and then crawled along the gangway onto the deck. We must have looked in a bad way as we were immediately taken down below and shown a bunk to lie down on. The nursing sisters seemed very concerned but all we wanted to do was sleep. The sudden quietness was very strange after all the noise we had lived with in the last weeks. I was told I would have to give up my bunk if any seriously injured soldiers came aboard and the ship became over-crowded. I must have been in a coma but was wakened by a nursing sister who said we were about to sail. Bombs had been dropped all around the mole but the ship had only received minor damage. I hadn't heard a thing!

Ernie in the Desert - some years later!Peeling potatoes

When I looked at myself in a mirror I looked like an old man with weary eyes and needing a good bath and shave. I tried to make myself presentable and then went on deck. We were out at sea with the pall of smoke of Dunkirk behind us. We had to be on the alert for dive-bombing attacks. Also on board the ship was a mate of mine from the same unit named Len Brooks and he lived in Kent Street, Farnworth. We stuck together and when the crew asked for volunteers to peel the potatoes, we sat on the deck with a pile spuds thankful to be doing something normal.

Arrival at Newhaven

Thankfully we arrived at Newhaven and after W.V.S. refreshments we were taken by bus to a camp somewhere in Southern England for the night.

We were all very scruffy with no headdress only steel helmets and we boarded a train to Beckett's Park Leeds, to assemble our unit, which was coming back in dribs and drabs. The people were very friendly. They were unable to accommodate us at Beckett's Park so we were marched round to private houses asking if they could take us in.

Finding a bed

I remember that Len Brooks and I were the last on the Billeting Officers list; we went to this semi- detached house in Headingley and asked if they had any room for us. Looking at us I was not surprised that they refused our plea.

The billeting officer was scratching his head, when we reached the gate wondering how he could find us a billet, when the people came to the door and called us back. They said that they had a bed but Len and I would have to share. We readily agreed and we sat down to a grand meal, even though they had used their own rations.

Safely back in Farnworth

After a few weeks Len and I got 48 hours leave and what a reception we got in Kent Street, Farnworth, which I quietly dodged to get home to my wife and son in Harrowby Street Farnworth.

In August we sailed to Africa, but that's another story!