Wit­ness to Dunkirk

Ex­actly 77 years ago to­day, an ar­mada – from de­stroy­ers to tiny fish­ing ves­sels – left Dover to res­cue hun­dreds of thou­sands of Bri­tish and Al­lied troops stranded in Dunkirk. One man – Richard Sheen, now 98 – had a bird’s-eye view of Op­er­a­tion Dy­namo. Nig

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - LIFE AND TIMES -

When the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion be­gan, 77 years ago to­day, Sig­nal­man Richard Sheen saw it all from his post­ing at Dover Cas­tle. Nigel Richard­son meets him, and ex­plores the tun­nels in which he worked

INDover Cas­tle there’s an old pho­to­graph that still has the power to dis­turb. It shows the Nazi top brass, in­clud­ing Her­mann Göring, gaz­ing across the Chan­nel from France at the white cliffs of Dover. The pho­to­graph was taken on 1 July, 1940, a cru­cial mo­ment in the his­tory of these is­lands. The Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion had taken place a month ear­lier. The Bat­tle of Bri­tain was about to start. These vulpine fig­ures in trench coats be­lieved it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore they strut­ted on English soil. Among the peo­ple who stood in their way was a young man who, at the very mo­ment the shut­ter clicked, may well have been star­ing back at them.

Be­tween 1939 and 1942, Richard Sheen – Dick to his friends – spent a lot of time look­ing at the French coast. He was an army sig­naller, bil­leted in Dover Cas­tle, and from the win­dow near­est his bunk he had ‘a com­plete bird’s-eye view’, not just of the har­bour, the Strait of Dover and the French coast, but of raw his­tory. From the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion through the Bat­tle of Bri­tain to the critical weeks when the lit­tle port of Dover it­self was on the front line against Nazism, ‘I saw ev­ery­thing that was go­ing on.’

Richard Sheen, now 98 years old, is one of the last liv­ing links to a pe­riod and place in which the fate of Bri­tain – and of free­dom it­self – hung by a thread. In the Sec­ond World War, atop Dover’s fa­mous chalk cliffs, the me­dieval cas­tle was the tip of the sword with which the coun­try kept Nazi Ger­many at bay. For hid­den in the bomb-proof tun­nels be­neath the ram­parts was the con­trol cen­tre of de­fen­sive oper­a­tions in the English Chan­nel. From here was mas­ter­minded the evac­u­a­tion of the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force from Dunkirk in May and June 1940. From here, dur­ing the aerial bat­tles that en­sued over south-eastern Eng­land, Sig­nal­man She en of the Royal Corps of Sig­nals used in­for­ma­tion supplied by the pre­cious new tech­nol­ogy of radar top lot en­emy air­craft cross­ing the Chan­nel, and com­mu­ni­cated that in­for­ma­tion to anti-air­craft bat­ter­ies along the coast.

‘You’ve got this ex­tra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tion in which peo­ple are stuck in tun­nels in the ground, or­gan­is­ing what is go­ing on above ground. They’ re not in the mid­dle of the ac­tion but they’re part of the ac­tion,’ says Rowena Wil­lard-wright, a se­nior cu­ra­tor at English Her­itage, which owns Dover Cas­tle. The old tun­nels have been turned into a mu­seum and vis­i­tor at­trac­tion, and this bank-hol­i­day week­end the cas­tle is hold­ing a WWII Week­end that prom­ises‘ afull-on1940s ex­pe­ri­ence’ in com­mem­o­ra­tion of its critical wartime role. The cas­tle also fea­tures in Dunkirk, di­rected by Christo­pher Nolan, with an all-star cast that in­cludes Tom Hardy, Mark Ry­lance, Ken­neth Branagh and Harry Styles, re­leased in July. The film is an epic retelling of a story that has be­come deeply etched in the na­tional psy­che, though Wil­lard-wright ac­knowl­edges that, 77 years on, the events of 1940 are an­cient his­tory for many peo­ple.

The first-hand tes­ti­mony of vet­er­ans such as Sheen is thus all the more pre­cious. A Lon­doner by birth, he has lived for the past half-cen­tury in West Wales with his wife Joy, whom he met and mar­ried dur­ing the war. When I visit them at their home, there is a row of cards on the din­ing-room man­tel­piece cel­e­brat­ing their re­cent wed­ding an­niver­sary–the 72 nd. Sheen ran a suc­cess­ful print­ing busi­ness, is a pil­lar of the lo­cal Ro­tary Club and has three chil­dren, seven grand­chil­dren and four great-grand­chil­dren. An en­vi­ably rich life, but his memories of war re­main vivid, and he has re­cently pub­lished a mem­oir en­ti­tled Fad­ing Foot­prints. De­scrib­ing the first he knew of the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion, he says, ‘Quite early one morn­ing I could hear all this noise and I looked out and the whole har­bour seemed to be full of lit­tle boats, with de­stroy­ers mov­ing about, giv­ing in­struc­tions. And shortly af­ter­wards they were off. It was an amaz­ing sight.’

Deep in the tun­nels – which date from the Napoleonic era – 21- year-old She en was work­ing eight-hour shift sin the An­ti­Air­craft Gun Con­trol Room( and carv­ing his ini­tials, DS, on the tun­nel walls, next to scores of oth­ers dat­ing back to the early 19th cen­tury). Dunkirk’s Op­er­a­tion Dy­namo was co­or­di­nated from an­other sec­tion of the tun­nels by one of the war’s heroes, Ad­mi­ral Sir Ber­tram Ram­say, who also mas­ter­minded the naval land­ings on D-day (he was killed in a plane crash in early 1945). ‘We only had a glimpse of him at odd times,’ says Sheen. ‘We were mostly stuck in the Gun Con­trol Room and as soon as we were fin­ished we were up.’ By ‘up’ he means in the bar­racks, called Cliff Block, where he slept and kept a look­out on his­tory in the com­pany of young men from all over Bri­tain. On the door of the block some wag had hung a sign that said ‘Al­ca­traz’, be­cause Dover Cas­tle was a pun­ish­ment post­ing –

‘Early one morn­ing I looked out and the whole har­bour seemed to be full of lit­tle boats. Shortly af­ter­wards they were off. It was an amaz­ing sight’

Richard Sheen ended up there af­ter a for­bid­den (though in­no­cent) frater­ni­sa­tion with a young woman in the ATS.

Cliff Block was knocked down a long time ago. In its place is a statue of Ad­mi­ral Ram­say, and if you stand next to him and look out to sea you get an idea of the view that Sheen had from his win­dow: the har­bour di­rectly be­low, France on the hori­zon 20 miles away. When the ships came back from Dunkirk he spent his off-duty hours down at the har­bour help­ing the ‘di­shev­elled’, ri­fle-less troops ashore and on to rail­way carr iage s at Dover P r ior y s t at ion. ‘ I hea rd a f ter wards t hat Churchill was afraid that if the Ger­mans didn’t get them at Dunkirk they’d get them in Dover. So as soon as they were off the boats they were on the train and away,’ he says.

How­ever, the Dunkirk cri­sis was simply to mu­tate into the Bat t le of Br it a in. Bet ween July a nd mid-septem­ber 1940, Sheen chan­nelled ever more critical in­tel­li­gence in the musty con­fines of the Gun Con­trol Room, and when ‘up top’ he wit­nessed t he bat­tles for real: t he dog­fights in which shot-up planes spi­ralled into the sea, the at­tacks on the sub­ma­rine base in t he har­bour. ‘One morn­ing t he dive bombers, t he Stukas, lit­er­ally went past our win­dow. They looked so large.’

Over t he nex t four yea rs, Dover and its St raits be­came known as Hell­fire Corner. The port was a con­stant tar­get for Ger­man planes and heavy ar­tillery sta­tioned at Cap Gris Nez to the south-west of Calais. Shelling, says Wil­lard-wright, was far worse than bomb­ing: ‘There was no warn­ing. Dover it­self was ab­so­lutely dev­as­tated.’ Sheen would watch puffs of smoke go up on the French coast, count to 80 and look down to watch the shells land­ing in the har­bour ‘like some­one throw­ing peb­bles into a pond’.

There were odd mo­ments of lev­ity amid the may­hem, such as the strange sport be­tween the bar­rage bal­loons – put up to dis­rupt en­emy air­craft – and the Messer­schmitt Bf 109s. As fast as the RAF hoisted the bal­loons, the Ger­man fight­ers would come over and use them for tar­get prac­tice. Sheen watched one plane shoot­ing down the last re­main­ing bal­loon then pre­tend­ing he’d been hit by all the ack-ack go­ing up. ‘He did a “fall­ing leaf ”, al­most down to sea level,’ says Sheen. ‘Then, the saucy devil, he flat­tened out and shot back to France.’

Leave pro­vided lit­tle respite. While vis­it­ing his mother in Lon­don, Sheen dou­bled as an ARP war­den in the Blitz (‘My brother-in-law said to me, “They’re look­ing for peo­ple with steel hel­mets”’), then en­dured a hellish bus jour­ney back to Dover. ‘And when I got back the dou­ble siren went, which meant shelling. But I was still glad to be back. Prefer­able to the Blitz. The dron­ing all night they had to put up with. It was quite eerie.’

It was an­other jour­ney back to Dover – this time by train – t hat gave Sheen his most biza r re war t ime ex per ience. At Char­ing Cross he was joined in his car­riage by a ‘lady with a put-on, posh ac­cent’ and a large suit­case, who trav­elled all the way to Dover Pri­ory with him. ‘“Ex­cuse me,” she said when we ar­rived, “is there go­ing to be a taxi?” Well, we hadn’t seen a taxi in Dover for a cou­ple of years, so I asked where she was go­ing. “The Dover Hip­po­drome,” she replied.

‘So I picked up the case and on the way there I thought I could feel some­thing mov­ing around in it but I didn’t think any­thing more of it at the time.’

The woman sa id she was ‘a n act ress’ a nd when t hey reached the Hip­po­drome she gave him a ticket to her show. She turned out to be the snake dancer Ari­mand Banu, whose stage show fea­tured her naked save for two st rateg ically draped pythons. ‘She was very clever with them, I must say,’ says Sheen.

In Fe­bru­ary 1942 Sheen wit­nessed the so-called Chan­nel Da s h, when t he Ger ma n b at t le s h ip s S char nhorst a nd

Gneise­nau made a dar­ing break from Brest in Brit­tany to Ger­man por ts on t he Nor t h Sea. As t he ships ap­proached t he Dover Strait, with fighter cover above, six Fairey Sword­fish were scram­bled from RAF Manston in Kent – a de­ci­sion that left Sheen and his col­leagues in the Gun Con­trol Room ‘com­pletely st unned’ as t hey k new t hese slow a nd un­wieldy bi­planes stood no chance against the Bf 109s. Sheen plot­ted the progress of the Sword­fish – un­til the planes dis­ap­peared off the screen. All six planes were shot down with­out lay­ing a fin­ger on the ships. Their leader, Lt-cdr Eu­gene Es­monde, was awarded a post­hu­mous Vic­to­ria Cross.

Shor tly af ter this episode, Sheen was posted away from Dover, first to the Mid­lands and then to Chel­tenham. But cosy desk jobs were not for him. On 12 June, 1944, six days af ter D-day, he landed in Nor­mandy (on Juno Beach) with his sig­nals reg iment, and did not com­plete his war ser vice un­til March 1946, hav­ing taken par t in the Al­lied push through north­ern Europe and across the Rhine into Ger­many. In that time he made just one visit home, in April 1945, to marry Joy.

They had met at a hop in 1943, in Joy ’s home vil­lage in Hert­ford­shire. ‘I was quite taken,’ ad­mits Joy.

‘And af ter how many weeks did we get en­gaged?’ says Sheen, as if he could for­get. ‘Six,’ she says un­err­ingly. In all the mo­ments of un­cer­tainty that pre­ceded their wed­ding, when Sheen was on that Dover front line, there was only one oc­ca­sion when he thought his num­ber was up. Dur­ing the Bat­tle of Bri­tain he was off-duty up in Cliff Block when the tele­phone rang – an of­fi­cer in the Gun Con­trol Room ut­tered a word that sent him scur­ry­ing down the spi­ral stair­case into the tun­nels: ‘Cromwell’.

This was the code word that sig­ni­fied an in­va­sion was im­mi­nent. Dover Cas­tle had been des­ig­nated as a for­ti­fi­ca­tion ‘to be de­fended to the last’ and supplied with pro­vi­sions to with­stand a six-week siege – af­ter which, if nec­es­sary, its de­fend­ers would blow it up. ‘Cromwell’ turned out to be a false alarm but it was not re­scinded un­til the man now ap­proach­ing his 100th bir th­day had had time to be­lieve he had no fu­ture. ‘I re­ally thought it was hap­pen­ing. A chill went up my spine. I thought, what chance have we got?’ WWII Week­end at Dover Cas­tle is on to­day, to­mor­row and Mon­day, 9.30am-5pm; english-her­itage.org.uk

Far left Top-rank­ing Nazis, in­clud­ing Her­mann Göring, look across the Chan­nel to the white cliffs of Dover, 1 July, 1940. Left Churchill views ac­tiv­i­ties in the Chan­nel from an ob­ser­va­tion post at Dover Cas­tle, Au­gust 1940

Left The tun­nels at Dover Cas­tle, some dat­ing back to the Napoleonic wars, housed mil­i­tary oper­a­tions units at this most strate­gic point for Bri­tain’s de­fence

Left The tele­phone re­peater sta­tion in the cas­tle’s tun­nels, now part of the vis­i­tors’ tour

Above Churchill in­spects a line of sol­diers as Lord War­den of the Cinque Ports, 1946. Right The Anti-air­craft Gun Con­trol Room at Dover Cas­tle

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