Francis Beckett

I boarded a Norfolk Line ferry for Dunkirk to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the evacuation.  Spitfires flew low alongside us and looped the loop, a great fleet of the original small boats which scooped the men off the beeches escorted us into the harbour, the bagpipes played the Last Post, and the band of the Parachute Regiment played Tipperary, and Run Rabbit Run, and We’ll Meet Again, and The White Cliffs of Dover, and all the other songs you’d expect.

And I joined the rest of the media pack, selecting for interview the best of the Dunkirk veterans lined up for our inspection, recognisable at once by their age, their crisp and clean suits, and their chestfuls of medals.  And I ended the day only with questions.

Question one.  Why were these brave old men, who had lived through times far more terrible than my post war generation has seen, so polite and modest with the vulgar, jostling media pack?  “Get all the vets to line up against the rail together” the Sun photographer told the PR.  “That way the picture might just make.”  Not if an actor in a soap has slept with someone, it won’t.

Question two.  What statement is being made by a cameraman who turns up to such an event wearing long, loose, shorts, yellow with a purple flower pattern, complemented by trainers and a grubby flowered top? Is it (a) “I am not really here” or (b) “I am young and trendy and have nothing to do with these oldies in their suits” or (c) “I did not sleep in my own bed last night.”

Question three.  How can we still talk of political spin as something invented by people of our generation, when Churchill sold Dunkirk as a heroic achievement and managed to convince the country that defeat was not staring it in the face, when it self-evidently was?

One man even Churchill couldn’t convince is Harry Malpass, who did four and a half years forced labour after being captured at Dunkirk.  And Harry leads me to question five.  Why did New Labour think it knew more about the second world war than the men who fought it?

To understand that question, you have to know Harry’s story, and as we pulled into Dunkirk, this tall, well-built man of 89 told it to me.

Brought up in an orphanage, he ran away and joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  At Dunkirk, a sergeant rounded up Harry and a couple of others and told them to get off the beach and man a gun emplacement.  The moment he heard the order, Harry knew he wasn’t getting off the beach.  And he didn’t.

The other two were killed. Harry’s left knee was blown up, and the Germans took him to a field hospital, then put him on a cattle truck, with 50 or 60 prisoners in each carriage. You couldn’t sit down.  If you wanted to relieve yourself, you did it where you stood.

They travelled for three weeks like that, while the train shunted backwards and forwards, ending up in Marienberg, a big holding camp with mainly British and French soldiers in it. About 100 men slept in one Nissan hut - the bunks were three deep – and they were given one meal a day, of barley soup.

They were put to work building roads.  Harry and a couple of others were recalcitrant, and were thrown into small cells and eventually transferred to coal mines in Poland.  He was there for 4 ½ years, working 12 hour shifts every day, until January 1945, when they were given one hour’s notice that they were getting out. 

They were, in effect, fleeing from the Red Army into Germany from January to May. They were given no food – they had to scavenge or steal or kill to survive. Harry was on one of the notorious Death Marches.

They got to Regensburg and were bombed by the Russians and Americans (who were aiming at a bridge.)  Many of the men were killed.  Harry’s closest friend, Ronald Midgeley, lost his leg, and Harry got a piece of shrapnel right through his foot.

They were liberated by General Patten’s regiment, taken to a field hospital, and de-loused by American women, which Harry found a little embarrassing.  They were given food on a huge tray “breakfast, lunch and dinner in one” says Harry, and “I thought the bread was cake.”

Forty eight men were put on a plane to Paris, where the walking wounded were given a little money and disappeared into the town. Harry and Ronald, unable to walk, could not go.  The next day they were due to fly to London. Of the 48 who had come to Paris, only 12 got on the plane to London. 

You won’t convince Harry that Dunkirk was a victory.  You won’t convince him that British prisoners of war were not used as slave labour during the war, either.  When there was a compensation package agreed for those who were used as forced labour, the New Labour minister at the time, Keith Vaz, ruled that Harry wasn’t eligible because he wasn’t forced to work.