In 2019, Dunkirk veteran John Hamilton was invited to the Chalke Valley History Festival to talk about his experiences. Chalke Valley holds the largest annual history festival in the world, a week of talks, events and living historians set in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside. Veterans are often invited to speak about their experiences providing a unique and immediate way of learning about the past.
John Hamilton was one of the speakers at the 2019 Chalke Valley History Festival and astonishingly, it was his debut as a public speaker. Why had no one found him before? At 101 years old, totally sound in mind and body, he was an inspiring and engaging speaker.
Andrew Cumming, who introduced us to this amazing man, told us he had met John in the gym, where John works out for two hours for five days a week. John added that exercise was indeed the key to his good health: he had given up golf at 88 and reluctantly, squash, on the advice of his doctor – who happened to be his opponent in the game.
His early life seems horrific to contemporary eyes. With parents working abroad he was sent to live with a stranger in Weston-super-Mare at the age of 4, on to board at a prep school, and subsequently to Clifton where he suffered fagging and bullying. A friend of the family found him a job as a junior clerk in a London shipbroker’s office: work he clearly found tedious and unfulfilling. Acutely aware of events in Germany, he joined a TA Anti-Aircraft regiment, and twelve days after the outbreak of war, found himself sleeping on a palliasse in a farmhouse in northern France.
He then proceeded to tell us of his experience of Dunkirk with the pragmatism, modesty and composure which seems common to so many veterans of the wars and continues to impress and move those of us who were not there, and could not know the extent of the horror they experienced.
From October 1939 to May 1940 there was “nothing to do” as they sat idly but with apprehension through the Phoney War period. On 10 May 1940 the Germans threw the full force of Blitzkrieg at the French attacking through the Ardennes. As the French army fell back, Lord Gort, commander of the BEF, made the decision to evacuate the troops. “Calais had fallen to the Jerries,” John said, “the only place left was Dunkirk.”
His unit was ordered to Dunkirk. The roads were so crowded with fleeing civilians, troops on the move and abandoned equipment that it took two days to reach the sand dunes near Dunkirk. (In this context he poured scorn on the recent 2017 film Dunkirk which showed the town to have intact streets and standing houses when he knew personally that Dunkirk was utterly devastated by the time the BEF arrived. He recommends the 1958 film instead which he said was much closer to the truth).
When they got there, they set up their guns. Attacked by Stukas, which he described as a terrifying gun plane which dives from 5000 feet at 370mph, with the only chance to hit it is when it finally flattens out. In the chaos that followed John was proud to say that his unit were able to shoot down three Stukas, but he knew they were helpless against such overwhelming force.
The queue to get to the water's edge was half a mile long and he recalled watching the panic and struggle as men on the beach fought to get on a mere handful of lifeboats dispatched from a ship, many of them drowning in the attempt. Later arrivals who tried to jump the queue were forced back by an officer who drew his revolver and threatened to shoot. The sand dunes, he explained, were a safer place to be than on the open beaches.
To enable the evacuation, a perimeter had been established, 25 miles long and 8 miles deep. “My God,” he said, “they sacrificed everything.” Although the evacuating troops had to contend with bombers, they did not have to worry about short range weapons, thanks to this fighting perimeter.
He remembered a padre coming to his unit as they sat waiting fearfully. “Would you boys like a service?” he asked them. So they prayed fervently for all those defending the perimeter, saving the lives of those on the dunes and beaches by enabling the evacuation to take place, men who in the end suffered the most – some through being taken prisoner but most through their deaths. Together they sang ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’. In a loud clear voice, John recited verbatim the first verse of this hymn for us, words that so evidently resonated with him 79 years after he sang it on the beaches of Dunkirk.
At the water’s edge he volunteered to carry wounded men on stretchers to the breakwater. He recreated for us the terror of the Stukas with their 250lb bomb load screeching down at them at 370mph. “God, it was frightening”, he said, wiping his hand across his face as if an attempt to, even now, to erase the memory. He narrowly avoided the fate of others who were buried in sand nearby as a bomb hit, and was able to board a trawler which took them out to HMS Whitehall waiting at sea. This destroyer took them to Dover from where they boarded a train for Aberystwyth. Ten days rest was all that was allowed after this traumatic experience before he found himself recalled to duty.
He seemed quite startled as the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation. But it was a fitting tribute to him, and to those who both lived and died in one of the most remarkable events of British history.