John Dibblee's account of the Dunkirk evacuation, 1940

This account was told to Robin Dibblee and Joanna Edkins by their father John in December 2011. They wrote it down, and then John Dibblee checked it through, making a lot of alterations. Finally he agreed this end result.

I was a second lieutenant of the Royal Artillery, commanding B Troop of one of the batteries of the 30th regiment. The details are a bit vague as everything got reorganised after we returned from Dunkirk, but I think there were four 25 pounders, assorted support vehicles and about 70 men in B Troop. We had been protecting the left (Belgian) flank of our troops, which when Belgium surrendered on 27th May, left us fatally exposed to the combined might of the German army. On the evening of 30th May I was OP (observation post) behind the regiment, up an imitation windmill (built as a restaurant). It was thought that this would make a good OP post, but I couldn't see anything as the ground was so flat, and it gave the forward German gunners ample opportunity for target practice. This raised a lot of dust which made everything worse! I stayed there until all Ops were withdrawn. I therefore rejoined the regiment. Orders had been given to destroy guns and equipment and repair to Dunkirk. Destruction of the guns was an easy matter, firing each with a round reversed down the muzzle but we had no time to set fire to the support vehicles. I tried to burst the tyres by shooting at them with my revolver, which merely ricocheted off, in a dangerous manner!

Map accompaning John Dibblee's account of the Dunkirk evacuation

We were ordered to go to Dunkirk itself, so the whole regiment marched along the beach below the high tide mark (as the sand was firmer there). It was completely dark, and the regiment started to get split up as we couldn't see each other. I set people to calling "B Troop" to keep my troop together, at least. As luck would have it, there was a large open boat complete with crew stranded up the beach, as it was low tide. I asked them when they proposed to depart. They said first light, as long as they had assistance refloating the boat. I said I could fill it with my Troop and duly booked our passage. At first light I surveyed my Troop noticing with some dismay that we now tripled in size to around 200 men, our shouts of "B Troop" having attracted waifs and strays from other units.

I separated out our legitimate Troop and led them to the beach. We managed to get the boat afloat and were picked up by a minesweeper, HMS Skipjack. My men were ordered to the hold and I wanted to join them but was told that naval etiquette demanded that officers remain on deck in the ward room. In the ward room, there were officers from the DCLI (Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry), and I also found a good friend of mine, Ronald Temple who was in my regiment. My own regulation boots having disintegrated some time ago with so much marching, I had acquired some excellent rubber boots when retreating to France which opened at the side, very serviceable in field conditions but I sweated so much in the ward room that they were half full of water, so I took them off. Ronald kept his boots on, which was correct but his undoing. We soon came under fire in a concerted aerial attack which was described in John Masefield's book "The Nine Days Wonder" [see below]. In the ward room we could see little of what was going on, until a bomb from a Junckers 88 dropped through the wardroom roof between us straight through the floor and detonating in the hold, killing all the men of my Troop and blowing a hole in the bottom. The Skipjack turned turtle, with Ronald and I managing to escape through the hole in the roof (caused by the bomb) but without life jackets. We were hours in the water and a rough sea had got up. With unshod feet, I managed to keep afloat, but Ronald with his boots on, could not. One minute I saw him above the waves and the next minute he was gone. I was eventually picked up by a commercial vessel, in an exhausted state. The first person I saw as on the deck was my batman, Private Nash. "Your baccy and pipe, sir". I had given him all my personal kit the previous day for his own use, an investment which paid dividends. We kept in touch. Nash came from Port Talbot and set up a successful chain of grocer's shops after the war. I always was fond of South Waleians and after his death his wife came to stay with us, near Leamington.

From "The Nine Day’s Wonder" by John Masefield, published March 1941

During the afternoon (Friday May 31st), H.M.S. Skipjack, when filled with troops and towing a motor-boat, was attacked by dive-bombers. She shot down three aircraft, but five bombs from one plane struck her. She turned over and sank. The survivors were picked up by a neighbouring destroyer and reached Dover.