‘The awful truth that we were surrounded by Germans...’

Sgt Joseph Bernard Kenyon, proudly wearing the cap badge of the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, December 1940.
Sgt Joseph Bernard Kenyon, proudly wearing the cap badge of the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, December 1940.

In the second of three parts detailing the life of his ancestor Bernard Kenyon, Wray historian David Kenyon reveals a vividly 
descriptive letter which Bernard wrote from his hospital bed after being injured in 1940 during World War Two.

3712552 Captain J.B. Kenyon,

Ward M1,

Park Prewett Hospital,



June 3rd evening 1940

Dear all at home,

I cannot make my mind up to address this letter to any particular one of you so I hope it will serve for all of you to read. I am writing in bed so you will see I am under some disadvantage.

To begin with no doubt the hospital authorities informed you that I have been wounded in 10 places in the front of the left leg, about nine inches and 12 inches from the floor, the femur seems to have the shrapnel still in and the latter it has grazed a groove across the front of my leg. I do not think there is any cause for anxiety. I have not such a big lot of pain now. Well so much for the present, now I will go backwards and forward again. There is no censor so I will write much more freely.

No doubt the cutting off of the 42nd Division from communication with England for about the last month caused you some anxiety. It is a very long story which I must cut down very much and which perhaps I must not relate in detail. The war for us became really hot on Friday May 10th at dawn. Simultaneously Hitler had attacked the Netherlands, a fierce air raid was carried out over our station which was just on the French side of the Belgian frontier. The Belgians were a very nice people and it is very sad to see how they have been driven from their land and it has been completely destroyed. Do you remember reading about the Battle of Tournai, well we were there. We advanced into Belgium and had just stayed about half an hour at a village above the lovely town of Tournai, it was then that we witnessed its reduction to a burning mass by about 40 Nazi bombers, it was cruel and heartbreaking, many civilians were mercilessly killed and wounded. What an enraging scene it was, the streams of thousands of refugees were pitiful, young people, old people, and many lovely girls. It was so sad to see the white haired fleeing from Nazism. The rich used their cars, the poor walked, there were many cyclists. Such an exodus of one nation into France blocking most roads, they all carried a few cherished belongings and blankets. The homes of the Belgium as we saw them left empty were spotless and some of the loveliest I have ever seen, all to be destroyed by the invader, the furnishings etc were just lovely. Well Hitler advanced relentlessly, we met him before Tournai then we were moved back to the French border again, although working at the base we had quite a hot time when Hitler reputedly tried to come and shell us.

At last the awful truth that we were surrounded by the Germans was known. All communications were cut off, rations dwindled and no bread could be obtained. All we had was bully beef and hard biscuits for some time. Actually we made up our rations with the consumption of farm milk, eggs, choice meat etc from evacuated farms. The cows bawling to be milked was pitiful, needless to say I did quite a bit of milking. The farmers lft last, they took their cumbersome carts with their families in them. The carts were drawn by two horses which were skilfully driven with the reins above, some of them tethered a cow on behind.

As the great retreat was on we were shelled and bombed and machine gunned. It was terrible, we had all to take up the sword to defend ourselves. Thousands of our vehicles had to be destroyed and left and so we took to the march. We had a narrow path which was constantly working to a closing up the closer we got to Dunkirk. A vast area around Dunkirk was partially flooded to stop the advance of the German mechanised units. We had to allay their advance to let other troops pass out. All the while we were being shelled and bombed constantly, I saw four parachutists come down, I have seen many many aircraft brought to the ground in flames.

About 20 of us were sent to hold a forward position in a farmhouse cellar. On June 1st I saw the Germans and reported it. We took them by surprise, but after holding the position for about one hour we had to get out quick, we were being cut off.

The officer Mr Preston, a relation of Tomlinsons the confectioners that used to be, was very brave, he was wounded in the hand. We retreated crawling through a flooded cornfield with the Germans gaining on us every step. They were about one hundred yards behind us with their bullets whistling past our ears, when we found a dyke we found that we could half walk half swim along its length with just our heads above water. We did this with much difficulty but great speed for about three quarters of a mile. That dyke was a heaven sent answer to our prayers. It looked to be all up but after a little running and dodging we found ourselves fatigued but in the wonderful security of the British front line. What a narrow escape and wonderful deliverance it was.

We then set out for Dunkirk where the rest of the battalion were gathered. Terrible air battles were raging above us, a drink of water from a French lady revived me, I was still wet and tired when a French woman driving an English truck kindly gave many of us a lift about eight miles along the road to Dunkirk.

All the road was strewn with heaps of debris and wreckage. We then began walking into the ruined town down to the docks. We searched in evacuated houses and mansions for clean clothes, I got a pair of girls blue linen pyjamas and some yellow socks, the house was very little damaged and was quite luxuriant. I went to one of the hundreds of derelict villages to change, suddenly the truck came under shell fire. I clung to the sides of the van but shrapnel riddled it and I was hit on my left leg. I was taken to a Red Cross hospital in a French ambulance No 2 driven by a French woman. I was placed on a stretcher in a crowded hospital, I was in extreme pain.

At 11.15am when swimming away from the Germans my watch stopped. At about 2pm I was in the Dunkirk hospital, there was very little food and attention for us, but the staff were just wonderful with us. At about 8pm the commander came in and told us that on Monday 2nd the Germans would take over and we would be prisoners of war, he consoled us and told us not to fear, so we felt like rats in a trap, the brave staff were holding on just to be taken over by the Germans.

All Monday 2nd we clung to the ground and our stretchers as shells and bombs vibrated all around the hospital, but giving them their due the Germans do respect hospitals. He was battering a military objective placed too near the hospital by the allies. The bombers dived and whistled down shaking the ground, only a few stray shells hit the hospital, we prayed that we would be taken over. According to the authorities no hospital ship could put in, the last boat was gone, and we were as good as done. It was wonderful how hoping against the inevitable the town was bravely held all day. At night they offered to take the walking wounded over, I made myself walk with crutches, the hand of God was most evident, I got the last seat in a car going to the docks, then a kindly Mayor and two lads saved my life by carrying and shoving me on a bike about three quarters of a mile to a destroyer. Dunkirk was in flames and ruins but still holding out. It was wonderful to be carried on a stretcher to the hospital train this morning at 3am. A way seems to have been made just for me and I am thankful, my clothes had now practically dried on me, I was in a terrible state, dirty and smelling awful with quite a beard. I settled back and slept in the comfortable beds of the train.

I was wakened at about 7am just through London. It was overpowering for a time, peaceful pleasant good mornings, kind nurses and men giving us tea, then the beautiful gardens of England rhododendrons and lupins, waking to the morning sun, no bombs, no shells, no machine guns – peace, it was overpowering. At last we wounded were back again, lovely food and refreshing drink were given us by the kind people. We were taken to the warm beds of this lovely hospital at Basingstoke, our wounds were dressed, we were cleaned up and shaved.

here I am with little kit left but filled with gratitude to God who has done it all for me. I can hardly walk or hobble any more now, instead of jumping on a haystack or in a wood here I was in a lovely warm bed eating the first bread I have had for weeks. I heard the one o’clock news which was all so vivid to me because I was there, it was all perfectly true. Then an organ recitalbegan and I found myself sinking into a wonderful peaceful sleep, it seemed to be to the tune of far more wonderful and majestic music.

With love to you all from Bernard xxxxx

PS I hope you will get some scrapbook or pictorial of the war. Looking forward to coming home when i am better, for a sick leave. Do not put any of yourselves out to come all this way to see me.