VETERAN OF DUNKIRK
In 1916, during the First World War, Gertie Slugget was working in a jewellers in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, when she met RFC engineer Ernest Oates, who was based at the Air Force base Halton (now RAF Halton). He had suffered a bad injury to his knee from a plane propellor and was convalescing.
Gertie and Ernie got married during the war.
After the war they briefly moved to Hampstead, London, where both their boys were born and then went to Ernie’s hometown of Huddersfield in Yorkshire. Their second son was named Edward (but always known as ‘Ted’).
He grew up a true Yorkshire boy and loved playing in the hills surrounding the town. He went to Huddersfield Grammar School where he became very friendly with one Harold Wilson (the future Prime Minister). They were once standing next to each other on a school photograph.
In his holidays, Ted would go and stay with his maternal grandparents in Wendover, Buckinghamshire. He made many friends there with the local boys.
After leaving school, he went to work in the offices at Hopkinson’s Engineering Company in Huddersfield.
After the Munich Conference of 1938, Ted decided to volunteer for the ARP (Air Raid Patrol) in case war broke out. But the director of the firm was a colonel in the TA (Territorial Army), and persuaded all the young men in the factory, Ted included, to join them. Ted and his brother signed up to the TA – known locally as ‘Hopkinson’s Army’.
At the start of the war Ted was promoted to Lance Corporal. His job was to deliver all the call-up papers in the local area – including his own.
He was drafted into the Royal Army Ordinance Corps.
They were billeted in Huddersfield’s Albany Hall. It had no kitchen, so the draftees were marched three times a day to the local Co-op for their meals. The roads were narrow, so they went single file and were not allowed to march on the pavement.
They quickly learned from the ‘old sweats’. They had only one plate for both main meal and desert. They were taught to use one side of the plate for the first course, and the other side for the next. Soup and tea came in the same basin.
As he was being trained as a Quartermaster, an old soldier taught Ted some of the tricks of the trade such as how to ensure he had a decent uniform and how to get a car for his weekend leave (take an army vehicle on a Friday evening that had been just brought in for a service next week).
This little ploy was halted when a colleague took a Captain’s car. The captain suddenly realised he needed it over the weekend – and it wasn’t there. It was found abandoned – minus the clock and tool kit.
All the men were put on parade. They were told the stolen items had to be back on the parade ground within the next 24 hours and no further questions would be asked. They reappeared – but there was no further ‘borrowing’ of vehicles.
Ted’s job was to drive around the area in a hired van, getting rations for the men.
In January 1940, they were told they were off to France. Just before they went, Ted slashed his thumb on his left hand on a tin can. He didn’t let the officer know and stitched it himself – but it never worked properly again.
They travelled from Southampton to Le Havre in freezing conditions. They were fed McConochies stew, a staple from the First World War. Nobody fancied it – so Ted ate everybody else’s portions.
When they arrived in France they were based in St. Pol and were set to digging trenches in incessant rain.
Ted was given leave at the end of April 1940
When he returned from leave, his unit were up in Belgium – just as the Nazis invaded. Everybody was fleeing south as he was going north.
He rejoined his unit just as they were given orders to retreat. They had to destroy everything they couldn’t use or carry – vehicles, stores, equipment. Then the retreat began. Orders were to rendezvous at Bray Dunes near Dunkirk.
The journey south was a nightmare. Ted and his friend Harold Dugdale, joined up with Sergeant Quartermaster Richardson, a veteran of the First World War.
Despite the haste and the surrounding chaos, Sgt. Richardson insisted on a detour to Ypres and Poperinghe, where he had been based in the previous campaign.
He bought Ted and Harold an ice cream under the Menin Gate, but before Richardson could pay, the ice cream cart shot off after an explosion. The Germans had started bombing the town.
Ted saw a large crater by Ypres Cathedral and took a sliver from a bomb as a souvenir.
But they got separated from Sgt. Richardson. He was killed in the retreat and his body never recovered. He is commemorated on the Dunkirk Memorial.
Ted and Harold got a lift on the last serviceable lorry out of Ypres. The roads were crowded with refugees. They headed for Armentieres and south from there.
They got to a canal where all the bridges had been blown up. They crossed it by stepping on the roofs of submerged vehicles.
Ted had been told to carry a stone jar full of rum. It was too heavy, so he ditched it – but filled his water bottle with rum first. They had one tin of peas between them but shared their ‘water-bottle’ with other men in retreat.
They were guided towards Dunkirk by the glow in the night sky from burning oil tanks.
And it was chaos on Dunkirk beach. Men were queuing right into the sea. They were being dive bombed and machine gunned by the Germans. The dead and wounded lay all around them.
Ted and Harold were told they were not on any list for evacuation so they would have to stay. They tried to restore a boat that had sunk – without success.
Then Ted had a great idea. He volunteered them to be stretcher bearers carrying the wounded onto HMS Dundalk. They had to carry their rifles under their arm as well as the stretcher. The Dundalk had travelled out loaded with rations.
In the small boat waiting to embark, the captain threw the rations – food and cigarettes down to them, which they delivered to the beach.
When they finally got aboard Ted was soaked to the skin. He ate a tin of pears.
And he was extremely seasick on the journey back to Britain.
On the way, the ship was attacked by a German plane. The ship’s gunner shouted he had run out of ammunition to fire back. Ever the Quartermaster, Ted was carrying some machine gun clips in his greatcoat. He handed them over – and the plane was successfully chased off.
They disembarked at Folkstone in Kent. He remembered on the train up to London, at each station people were waiting with food, sweets, cigarettes and telegram forms. He was blown away by people’s generosity.
And when they got to London they were given a proper meal and a bath.
The following day was a Sunday and they went to the pub. The landlord told them he hadn’t got a licence to sell beer on a Sunday – so he gave it to them for free.
They were refused leave, so Ted wangled blank leave passes – and they set off for Yorkshire.
They got to Sheffield but ran out of money and couldn’t get to Huddersfield. The bus driver told them to get off, but an old lady was so impressed by their bravery that she paid their fare.
In Huddersfield, they met two girls in the park and shared their sandwiches. They arranged to meet the girls for a picnic the following week, but then received a message ordering them back to London. They never made the assignation – or saw the girls again. Ted often wondered what might have been.
Ted was immediately transferred to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He was sent to North Africa, where he spent the rest of the war.
He arrived in Cairo in November 1945 and was repatriated in January 1946.
But he didn’t go back to Huddersfield, choosing Wendover instead, so he could meet up with his close friend, farmer’s son Alan Brown.
The real reason was he had taken a fancy to Alan’s sister Nora, whom he eventually married (and had a son and daughter with).
Ted became a tax collector and lived in Wendover for the rest of his life. He worked in Aylesbury, then Hitchin and then London and had to commute every day.
In retirement he was a keen woodworker and clock repairer. He was a very keen astronomer, building his own telescopes and being a member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
He was thrilled to be invited, with Nora, to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s Golden Wedding celebrations in 1997.
He was Secretary of the Henley-on-Thames Dunkirk Veterans Society.
In 2011, Josh Levine wrote a book about the soldier’s experience at Dunkirk. Ted was one of the men he interviewed and his reminisces were a key part of the book. Ted was invited to a book signing in Milton Keynes and was very proud.
The book was read by film director Christopher Nolan, who decided to turn it into a film – ‘Dunkirk’ (2017). Ted’s experiences were the main part of the film. He was invited to the film’s premier, got the red-carpet treatment and chatted at length to Prince Harry.
From then on, he became a television star, appearing in documentaries about the war and Dunkirk in particular.
Ted was once invited to read the exhortation at the Menin Gate in Ypres.
He loved the annual reunions of the ‘Little Ships’. He also played a significant role in the Remembrance Day services in Wendover, even when in his wheelchair, but always insisted in repairing to The White Swan, his local pub, afterwards.
Nora predeceased him.
RIP – Retreat Inspires Picture