Family histories: My grandad was rescued at Dunkirk
Stephen Wheatley is a Crew Member at Tower Lifeboat Station in London. His grandfather George Percival Dickinson was born in January 1905. George, from Lancashire but living in Coventry, joined the army in 1938, keen to support the war effort.
Stephen says: ‘He was a corporal in the Royal Army Medical Corps and he had the misfortune to find himself on the beach at Dunkirk at the end of May 1940 being shot at by Germans. He’d lost his weapon on the way and he could imagine the white cliffs of Dover just out of sight and thought: “How the bloody hell am I going to get home?”’
George survived – he was one of over 338,000 men who were rescued between 26 May and 4 June as part of Operation Dynamo.
He returned home from France but sadly his marriage didn't last and his three children, Milly, John and Betty (Stephen’s mother) lost contact with him.
Because of this family rift, Stephen – a long-serving RNLI volunteer at our busiest station – only found out last year that his grandfather, who died in 1985, was rescued at Dunkirk.
Due to this family connection, Stephen was one of three serving lifeboat crew who attended the world premiere of Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk in Leicester Square. Stephen took a photograph of George with him.
Talking after the premier, he said: 'A lot of these sorts of epic films have a cast of thousands, so you don't actually feel involved. What Christopher Nolan has done is very clever, as he focuses on three different perspectives of the same events - from the land, the sea and the air. They are representative of things that actually occurred and it enables you to put yourself in the place of those involved.
'You get a sense of what it might have been like for those who were there. And, of course, George was very much on my mind in the sections about the land; seeing the soldiers on the beaches and their sheer helplessness.'
Stephen, a married father of three from London, is a relatively late recruit to the RNLI, despite being a keen sailor. He says one of his earliest memories is being taken round a Cornish lifeboat station aged about 5, but it wasn’t until he turned 50 and was looking for a new challenge that he decided to volunteer as crew.
Now 62, he serves at Tower RNLI on the Thames, and was recently one of the crew involved in a dramatic last-gasp rescue where they pulled a man from the river just as he disappeared beneath the water with only his hand left above the surface.
Dover RNLI Second Coxswain Jon Miell also has a personal connection to the events of 1940.
His father Victor George Miell was sent to France in January 1940 as part of the British Expeditionary Force. He was not among those evacuated from Dunkirk and was still in France a few weeks later, heading south to St Nazaire with other British troops who had been left behind.
Jon explains: ‘There he boarded the HMT Lancastria, which was subsequently sunk by enemy aircraft while just offshore. He was below decks getting a drink when the bomb hit. He immediately made for the open deck, and had to shelter behind a breakwater from machine gun fire from the attackers. He stripped off and jumped into the water. He was a strong swimmer and was able to help others in trouble. He was later picked up by an English ship and repatriated.’
About 4,000 men, women and children lost their lives when the Lancastria sank 20 minutes after it was bombed by the Germans near St Nazaire on 17 June 1940. Fewer than 2,500 people survived.
The Lancastria was the largest loss of life from a single engagement for British forces in the Second World War and is also the largest loss of life in British maritime history - greater than the Titanic and Lusitania combined.
Jon’s father Victor later wrote down his memories of the disaster. Here he describes what happened after he jumped from the Lancastria into the water: ‘My last effort was to push another soldier, a non-swimmer, away from the oil and into clear water where we found a piece of floating debris. I advised him to hang on until a boat took him aboard.
‘At this time I was tiring and looking around for my own refuge, which I sought in the shape of a destroyer, hove to near the sinking Lancastria. Unfortunately I was some 20 feet away when another air raid developed. In consequence the destroyer gave a couple of toots and steamed off at speed. My need then was to reverse my course quickly to avoid any danger from the destroyer’s propellers.
‘Looking around I saw a ship – which I found to be HMS Cambridgeshire – so I made toward her. Taking a look toward the Lancastria I saw she was completely inverted with the keel uppermost. A number of service men were standing on the upturned vessel and, if my memory serves me, I remember them singing Roll out the Barrel.
‘I finally reached HMS Cambridgeshire a very tired swimmer and could only find the energy to hold onto an empty lifeboat moored at the vessel’s side. Fortunately a seaman saw me and jumped off the deck of the Cambridgeshire onto the lifeboat and hauled me aboard – my thanks to him whoever he was.’
Both Jon and Stephen know how much their families owe to those who answered the call during the war. And they are proud to be a part of the lifesaving family that is today’s RNLI.
Next story: See all 19 RNLI lifeboats that made the trip to Dunkirk in May 1940.