Veteran Stories:
John Bernard Churchill

Army

  • John Churchill sitting on his first British Army-issued motorcycle, Winchcombe, England, October 1939.

    John B. Churchill
  • British soldiers on rest and recreation leave from the North Africa campaign, Cyprus, 1942. John Churchill is sitting second from left.

    John B. Churchill
  • British electricians and dispatch riders on leave in Cyprus, 1942.

    John B. Churchill
  • British concert party in an unnamed Italian prisoner of war camp, 1943. The stage was made from Red Cross boxes, the instruments were donated by the Red Cross, and the orchestra pit was dug by the prisoners.

    John B. Churchill
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"And all of this of course led to Dunkirk. And it was absolute chaos."

Transcript

Long before war was actually declared, the general population was pretty sure there was going to be a war. And talk everywhere was about the military. My father had been in the First World War and his stories of being in the infantry were rather horrifying. And I was determined I didn’t want to be in the infantry. So the only way to do that was to join a unit in what was known as the Territorial Army [Britain’s volunteer reserve force]. And you could pretty well choose what you wanted to do. So I joined the Royal Corps of Signals in the town of Middlesbrough. Eventually, we were shipped over to France. We traveled around in different directions toward France until there was some sense of action. And we were in Belgium for a while. We traveled around a lot because we were one of the first, what were referred to in those days as motorized divisions. Well, there were a lot of skirmishes and I remember being in a couple of towns and I was a dispatch rider and that’s what I did, I provided communication between various outposts and units from the headquarters. And we were badly shelled in some places. We were in a town and I actually saw the spire of the church shot off, which was housing an observation post. And I was going back and forth to that area on regular runs. We took shelter in a wine cellar one time and spent a reasonably pleasant half hour waiting for the shelling to stop. But it got more intense and very quickly, we appeared not to know what we were doing. We were chased around and then we would do a little chasing and one night with the unit completely disorganized, we came to a crossroads and the commanding officer didn’t appear to know which direction he should go to find support. We were a fairly small unit at the time. And he sent me off in one direction and two other men in another direction and the whole column went in the fourth direction, at the crossroads area. And I remember riding into a little village, it was very dark, there was no moon and a lot of wooded areas. And the sound of the bike echoed off the trees and you couldn’t hear anything else. And eventually, I came to a little village and I saw some lights so I cut my engine and went to what looked like an observation post, a dugout at the entrance to the village and I thought I had found a British unit and I got close enough to hear them talking and it was a German outpost. So I hurriedly got back on the bike and went back to look for the unit and they’d disappeared. So I had to decide for myself what direction to go but fortunately, I found the same one that they did and eventually caught up with them. And all of this of course led to Dunkirk [in May, 1940 a German spearhead advanced rapidly through the Netherlands and Belgium, reaching the French coast and cutting off the British Expeditionary Force from French and Belgian Allies and forcing the hasty retreat and evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk]. And it was absolute chaos. I was assigned to the military police, to guide the traffic, the large columns of transport and marching men. And there were dumps of army equipment all over the place, most of which were rendered useless through explosives. And eventually, nearly everybody ended up on the sands at Dunkirk. I was one of the last to get into the area because I had been policing the traffic. And we were bombed heavily by the German Stuka dive bombers but I guess fortunately, because of the sand, a lot of the bombs were semi-buried before they exploded. And we spent some days there and there was almost nothing to eat. And then the little ships arrived from England and the trucks were driven out into the ocean to form a sort of dock pier and people would scramble over the backs of the trucks to get onto the boats. I was still supposed to be doing some policing of this activity and eventually, the little boats stopped coming and I and two other men had no way of getting away. So we decided to take our chances and we walked to [Dunkirk – Mr. Churchill had arrived in France via Cherbourg, but left from Dunkirk], the port of [Dunkirk], which was a little distance away, a few miles. And we managed to get on the last destroyer leaving there. And ended up back in England. This was the last destroyer that left [Dunkirk] harbour and it was actually moving away from the dock when we jumped onto it. And there were a lot of troops left behind of course, holding the rear guard action outside [Dunkirk].
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