Memory: Veteran John’s war torn stories

BEFORE THE BATTLE: John Thurston in France.Picture: SUBMITTED

BEFORE THE BATTLE: John Thurston in France.Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

FOR any soldier, the order “Lay down your arms” followed by a command to disband must have put minds in turmoil. The next communication was one to instil dread into even the bravest: an officer declared: “It’s every man for himself!”

MAIN RESCUER: the steamer Petworth which came across soldier John Thurston and others in a small bo

MAIN RESCUER: the steamer Petworth which came across soldier John Thurston and others in a small boat in which they escaped from German-occupied France in 1940. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

This happened in France in 1940 as retreating British forces assembled in the hope of evacuation to escape the advancing Germans, and forms part of the memoirs of a Gorleston man who lived to tell the tale.

That author is John Thurston, now 95 and formerly resident on The Walk in Gorleston, who kept a detailed diary of his traumatic first year in the Royal Norfolk Regiment.

The day after the incredible Dunkirk evacuation, the Germans launched a major night assault, opened by a long barrage of shelling. “What with the explosions and flashes of gunfire, I thought, ‘What a 22nd birthday celebration I am having!’” wrote John.

“When it was light, I found myself in a large field with no cover, and bodies of dead British and French soldiers lying about me. As there was no cover, I crawled on my knees and elbows, using bodies as cover. The Germans attacked with tanks, infantry and motor-cycle units, plus frequent severe raids by dive bombers, cutting off our supplies of food and ammunition.”

All British guns and vehicles were destroyed in readiness for embarkation – but there were no boats. The division was ordered to lay down its arms and to disband.

John reached a village with steep cliffs down to a beach that appeared only at low tide. On the shore he joined 400-plus soldiers wading chest-deep to reach a ship grounded down the coast waiting to re-float at high water. He joined them, shedding his soaked clothing and, wrapped in a blanket, awaited the rising tide to float her off.

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Two hours later “there was a terrific explosion and a brilliant white flash where most of the men had gathered, and I heard the most awful screams from wounded and dying men. Tanks had positioned themselves at the top of the cliffs and one had fired a shell into the side of our ship.

“Someone shouted to abandon ship so I headed towards my clothes when another shell hit the ship with a brilliant white flash and the horrible screams of wounded and dying men. Those screams have remained with me for the rest of my life.”

John donned his wet clothes and made for the upper deck. “Water was entering the ship very fast and my mind went to the soldiers down below, laying there helpless with no-one to help them or dress their wounds, and I thought it might be best for them to die by drowning rather than have a lingering death through loss of blood.

“On deck I looked about me and saw soldiers in full uniform jumping over the side. There was no beach, the water lapping the bottom of the cliffs. Quite a number who jumped into the water were not reappearing, just jumping to their death.

“Some were swimming towards the cliffs and I noticed a naked man standing on some sort of raft. Then machine guns opened fire. The Germans were on the cliff-top firing at helpless men in the sea, and the man on the raft fell into the water.

“I am not a good swimmer and wondered what I could do to get to safety. I went to the other side the ship where our two company cooks in full uniform were lowering themselves down the side by rope – both laughing at their predicament although they were on the verge of dropping into the water and I knew they both must drown.

“Far away on the horizon I spotted a small rowing boat. I could never swim that far but I found a round lifebelt, put my arms and head through and jumped into the water, swimming towards the boat. It took ages to reach it, by which time I was completely exhausted and my chest and armpits were chafed and bleeding.

“I did not have the strength to pull myself on board, and what a surprise I had when hands appeared and helped me. When I was safely on board I was told to lay down and keep perfectly still. I did not move for a considerable time, till the bottom of the boat scraped on sand. We had drifted ashore on a beach with no-one in sight.”

Two of the seven in the boat jumped into the sea to push it off the sand. There was no tiller but there were oars and those like John who were able to do so took turns to row.

Spotting another small craft, they made for it, thinking it might be a French fishing boat, but it was a lifeboat with two British soldiers on board. As it was bigger and equipped with more oars, compass, tiller and distress flares, the seven clambered on board and the voyage continued, with six at the oars – “we rowed and rowed and rowed”.

The weather was kind, but they had no idea of their position, then saw a distant ship that altered course to head for them in response to their flare. Luckily it was not an enemy craft but the Petworth, of London, which took them on board, gave them clothing and bunks.

“When we were taken to the dining area (this part of my experience remains vivid in memory, for I had nothing to eat for days) I could see this very white tablecloth and in front of me was a clean white plate with five small new potatoes, very green peas and a dark brown piece of grilled steak.

“I was overcome and I just wept, for I knew at least that I had escaped from an almost certain death.”

The Petworth rescued them ten miles from the English coast and it was ascertained that they had rowed about 70 miles in three days.

Only 31 of his battalion of about 1000 escaped from France. John, deemed unfit for further active service, was demobbed in 1946 as a sergeant. He worked in the building trade and has been married to Monica for 71 years.