Jim was a member of the ill fated British Expeditionary Force that had gone to France at the beginning of the Second World War. When hostilities began on 10th May 1940, the British forces were immediately driven back to the English channel. Jim had been with his unit at Dunkirk, but the invading army had closed in and they had been forced to move south to avoid capture.
“They went to Dieppe. A ship was meant to rescue them. It was commanded by the queen’s cousin. What do you call him? Mountbatten. Yes. He tried to get into Dieppe, but he hadn’t a chance. He had to sail on – he went to Malta.
“Anyway, Jim and his men went to Saint Nazaire, but he didn’t make it onto the troopship doing the evacuation, which was a good thing, because it was sunk. There was nothing they could do. They went out into the countryside. He spent the summer making hay with French farmers. Eventually, they got him onto a coalboat going out of Saint Nazaire – there were so many German submarines in the channel that the boat had to sail halfway to America before turning back and heading for England”.
Jim fared better than Jack, who saw no action, but suffered a far worse fate.
“Jack was over in England. He had gone over there for work and was in the air force police. Anyway, he heard a rumour that they were going to have to train for fighting and he said that he had joined up to be a policeman, not to be a soldier.
“He was home on leave and told the sergeant about this and the sergeant and the doctor would have had a pint in a snug. The sergeant told the doctor the story and they agreed a plan. If Jack was told that the rumour was true he was to write home in an ordinary way and put two dots over the letter “i” and the doctor would write a letter saying his mother was seriously ill and the sergeant would confirm the letter.
“Anyway, Jack came home, but, sure, there was nothing for him here, so he went back to England under his mother’s name and got work in an armaments factory. He was working there and there was verdigris on the copper and it got into his bloodstream through a cut on his hand. The poison went through him; they had to keep on removing ribs to do operations. Eventually, he came home, but he was never able to work again. He would have been better off doing the training.”
The story was told to me on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day. I had changed the names when I first retold the story and now do not remember the second name. I hope those who recognise the characters will correct me if the second name is not correct.
Although the stories of the escape through France match historical facts and verdigris can be a poisonous, the memories are unverifiable. Yet, even if they are not true in every detail, such tales sometimes hold deeper truths than the pages of history books.