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Saturday, 27 May, 2000, 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK
One boy's terrifying mission
Albert Barnes
Albert Barnes says the rescue mission was terrifying
The mission - officially known as Operation Dynamo - was far more than just a military operation. Civilian men and women responded in great numbers to help the men stranded at Dunkirk.

Albert Barnes, then aged just 14, is thought to have been the youngest civilian caught up in the rescue.

Now aged 74, he is a decade or so younger than the average Dunkirk veteran.

In 1939, he left school to work as a galley boy on the docking tugboat Sun XII, and as he turned up for work on the morning of 2 June, the first mate told him they were off to France.

The tugboat Sun XII
Albert was a general dogsbody on the Sun XII
Sun XII set off for Dunkirk with two sailing barges in tow, one laden with ammunition, the other with fresh drinking-water.

When he reached Dunkirk, the evacuation was already well underway.

"There were sunken vessels everywhere", he says.

"Bodies floating, bombs and shells going off. And the noise - it was absolutely horrific. Till then the loudest bangs I'd heard had been on Bonfire Night."

'We saw some pretty bad sights'

Mr Barnes recalls the thousands of soldiers trapped on the beach. "And I remember the dead ones too because they were floating everywhere.


I was very frightened, terrified in fact, because there were German dive-bombers all around us

Albert Barnes
"Being rescue tugs we saw some pretty bad sights, especially seeing tankers go up.

"That's something I'll never forget - watching a tanker go from a ship to a mass of flames," he says.

"I was very frightened, terrified in fact, because there were German dive-bombers all around us. But we just got on with the job."

No time to tell parents

Injured soldiers
Many men were killed and injured by the German bombs
Back in England, his parents had no idea where he was for 14 days.

"I didn't even have time to tell my mum and dad I was going," he says.

When Albert's parents telephoned his employers, they were told only that he was off "on government business".

A fortnight later, Albert knocked on the door of the family home.

"'Where the hell have you been?' my mother asked. I said 'I've been to France' because Dunkirk wasn't well known in those days.

"She looked amazed and said 'You've never been to Dunkirk?' and I said, 'Oh that's it, that's the place.' 'Oh my God' she said.

Back to work

Albert Barnes
He is standard bearer for the Dunkirk Veterans Association
"They must have been worried sick and they made a bit of a fuss of me, I suppose. Me, I think I was too young to take it all in. I was all flaked out. I had a bath and went to bed and slept for 24 hours.

"Then it was back to work as usual, scrubbing and cleaning and brewing up tea," he says.

One particular memory still rankles though.

"The tugboat's owner, Mr Alexander, inspected it and grumbled that the paintwork was dirty."

The galley boy stayed on the Sun XII until 1943, when he volunteered for Her Majesty's Rescue Tugs and went on to take part in the D-Day operation.

In 1947 he left the Navy and became a bus driver in central London - a job he held for the next 43 years.

'A fine bunch of blokes'

Thousands of men were stranded on the beaches
Albert has also been the standard bearer for the Dunkirk Veterans Association for 22 years, and is saddened at the prospect of the group disbanding.

"It's very sad the association will no longer exist," he says.

"A finer bunch of blokes you could never wish to meet."

But he admits: "It is getting difficult as we are all getting on a bit. I'm a youngster compared to some, but believe me, we can still sink 'em in the evening."


With special thanks to historian Nigel Lewis and the BBC History magazine


What was it like to be stranded on the beaches under enemy fire? Are there any questions you would like to ask Dunkirk veterans about their experiences? To take part in our forum click here.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Susanna Reid in Dover
"Around 80 veteran small ships will recreate the trip"
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15 May 00 | UK
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