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Whitstable at War - World War II

 Five Days at Dunkirk
by Sam Perks

Introduced by Richard Perks

Introduction by Richard Perks....


This is Sam Perks, my dad’s, account of his experiences at the Dunkirk Evacuation in May 1940.  He didn’t talk about this until June 2004 and, sadly, he died in October that year at the age of 78. 


  Sam - "75 years young" in 2001


His story must be typical of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians who were at Dunkirk but it is maybe more unusual because. in May 1940, he was just 14 years old. 

As a young teenager, he worked on Thames sailing barges during his holidays and the harbour was his second home.  He told me that he had heard there was a call for people to take small boats across the channel so informed his mother that he was going away (camping I think) for a few days. When he returned, the first thing she asked was “did you have a nice time dear”

During and after the Battle of Britain, dad worked all over East Kent as an apprentice gas fitter with the Whitstable Gas Company - spending some of his time repairing bomb damage. In 1942 he was wounded and hospitalised by shelling from Calais whilst working on Dover harbour.

To do “his bit” as a civilian, he joined the Royal Observer Corps and served for over 25 years.

During the 1950’s, he was a fisherman in Whitstable. However, he may well be remembered by some as the Manager of the Curry’s electrical store in the High Street where he worked from its opening in 1963 until he retired in 1983.

The account below is in his words, it has merely been transcribed from his original handwriting….

Richard Perks 
August 2006


Evacuation from Dunkirk 
Account by Sam Perks


Tuesday May 28th 1940
I hitched a ride from Whitstable to Margate on a small trip boat and the Skipper dropped me off at the end of Margate harbour pier.  I walked along the pier a short way and heard a big argument going on between a civilian and a Naval Officer.  The Navy had promised a crewmember to the civilian, but the Officer said he was "doing his best to get hold of someone, but it would be some time before any ratings arrived.” 

So, after he left, I waited about 20 minutes and walked along to a cruiser, where the man who was having the argument with the officer was standing by the wheelhouse door. I called out and said “I have been sent by the naval officer to join your boat as crew.”  He said, “come aboard then and we can get started for Dunkirk.” And that’s how I got on the Dunkirk evacuation.

The owner skipper’s name was Eric. He seemed to be a nice sort, but I thought he was a little too old for the job. 

We left Margate at 4.30pm about an hour before high water and arrived off the beaches at Dunkirk at 9.45pm.  It was getting dark by this time, but Eric said we should try and get along side the Old Mole, which we did.  Not a lot of shelling etc. yet so we took off 40 troops and headed off shore about 2 miles and off loaded them onto a steam ship. 

We then steamed about a mile towards the shore and stopped the engine. The Skipper said we should have a bite to eat and a drink.  We had sandwiches and a drink then decided to hang about until dawn. Little did I know that would be the last eats or hot drink I would have for 48 hours       

Wednesday May 29th 

Eric showed me all the controls on the boat; fuel valves, filters etc.  We decided it was time to make for the Harbour or outer pier to pick up more troops but thought that Jerry was slinging too much shit about in that direction.  There were already several Naval ships sunk around the Mole and Quays.

Eric thought we would pick up off the beaches, but we would need to be a bit careful as we drew 3ft 6ins, so with 40 troops aboard we needed 5ft of water, so as not to draw and touch bottom.  Troops were picked up and off loaded to a deep-sea trawler, we then started back for La Panne. We had been underway about 25 minutes when out of the blue came two Me109s and JU88s strafing the small boats. I had the wheel and Eric  (I never did know his surname) was aft fitting up a small ladder over the stern. The planes spread out and opened up.  The wheelhouse took a bit of a belting. I am standing at the wheel while around me the wheelhouse is being blown apart, plus the rail and part of the deck.  This attack only lasted about one to one and a half minutes. It was obvious that the compass and charts were damaged beyond repair.

I looked around for Eric but could not see him, eased the throttle right down and went aft to see if he had gone down the aft companion way. He was head down on the companionway stairs. He was beyond any help; most of his chest had been blown away. I covered him with a blanket until I could get help to bring him up on deck. I felt a bit low and thought I would make a cup of tea, went down to the galley… no teapot, kettle, tea or milk. They were all full of holes and useless. It was at this point I wondered what I had let myself in for.

I headed out for one of the bigger ships; I got alongside a destroyer and explained what had happened. Could they give me a hand with the skipper and had they any spare charts and a compass? No charts but they came up with a hand-held compass. They arranged for the skipper’s body to be taken off and said they would bury him at sea later that day.

I made some more runs to the beaches, things were hotting up compared with the previous day, a lot more bombing and shelling and we seemed to be losing a lot of small boats. I took off 40 troops, some wounded quite badly. With hindsight they would probably have been better off staying with the French medical people, the lifting and pulling to get them aboard proved too much for some. I made my way back out to a Merchant ship, unloaded the troops onto it.   It took quite a bit longer than normal because of the wounded men.   I made one more run back to the shore, and stayed off a little further than before (so much debris was in the water and quite a lot of bodies).  I only took off 30 men so the boat came off the beach much more easily. I off loaded them onto a naval ship.

I saw a few fishing boats hove-to about a mile to the west. I steamed over and went alongside. They were just having a break and I asked if I might stay to get an hour or two’s sleep? One of the fishermen had a sense of humour. He said to me “you ought to be home with your mummy tucking you up in bed for the night!” I did manage three hours sleep, and then it was time to start again.

Thursday May 30th 

Back to the beaches, all I could see on the beaches were lines and lines of troops, out in the water right up to their chests being bombed and machine-gunned from the air. On this trip, I had a bit of luck, a Sergeant of a Guards regiment (a peace –time sailor) asked if I would like him to stay aboard and help? It made such a difference having an extra hand with me. On the way out a mine-sweeper hailed us and said the Germans had dropped a lot of small floating mines about the size of a football “so keep your eyes open, they blow up on contact”. Sergeant put 3 men forward to keep watch for these mines. We saw a small ship blow up about 800 to 900 yards inside us, which made everyone on board keep a lookout. I off loaded again to a Merchant ship.

We made three more runs to the beaches, each trip was taking longer as there was so much debris in the water and also a lot more bodies. Shelling had started on a much more regular basis.

Friday May 31st 

A lot more little ships, Royal Navy and Merchant ships are being lost.  Some of the wrecks are causing trouble; the small wrecks can be seen at low water but are covered at high water. Some of the smaller ships are hitting these wrecks and are dong themselves a lot of damage.

We made more trips to the beaches each one getting harder, as what was happening began to sink in and by now the Sergeant and I were getting hungry. The last trip of the day done, I made our way west to Dunkirk Roads to lay up for 2 or 3 hours (hopefully). After about 20 minutes, I saw a boat laying-to and steamed over to it.

She was empty (no crew).  The Sergeant went aboard and came back with tea, tinned milk, 2 mugs and a kettle. He went back below and came up with 2 tins of corned beef and biscuits, also a compass and chart. I moved off from alongside as Sergeant said the boat was making water. So we each had a meal of one tin of corned beef and biscuits, with tea to drink. That was the first food for over 60 hours; we also had a couple of hours rest.

Saturday June 1st 

Checked fuel and oil etc. and topped up the fuel tank with the last 12 gallons. We started off for the beach, and it seemed to me that the lines of men in the water were just as many as when I first started. It was beginning to catch up with me, lack of food and sleep plus so many dead in the sea and on the beaches.

The second trip back from the beaches we unloaded 34 troops and the Sergeant went aboard and was ordered to stay. I made two more runs the beach and unloaded to two Royal Navy trawlers. 

On the way back to pick up more troops I ran into a group of bodies, mostly just under the surface. I stopped engine so as not to damage the props or rudder.

Going through this finished me for the day, once clear I made my way out to the Roads to try and have a nap, but to no avail. So I checked the filters, grease cups and oil ready for the run home tomorrow June 2nd.

Sunday June 2nd 

I must have dropped off to sleep for a couple of hours, as I had drifted west for about two miles. I made my way back to La Panne, on the way three  Me109`s strafed the boats while three JU 88`s hit the beaches. I was lucky not to be hit.  Picked up more troops to take out to the Merchant Navy ship, this time we were not so lucky. We got shot up and 5 troops were wounded (I must say I was shit-scared!) The troops were off loaded taking longer than usual because of the wounded.   I then went to the eastern end of the beaches and picked up 33 troops, a lower number as this was the last pick-up and the boat was bouncing on the bottom. If any more came aboard she may have got stuck.  I got off O.K. and told them we were going home (to Ramsgate) if I could find the way!

There was one incident on the way back to Ramsgate. I had been underway 4 hours, when about 1 ½ miles ahead there was a big explosion and as I got nearer some one called out “Its a troop ship!”  It was loaded with guys who had been picked up from the beaches.        

The ship must have hit a mine; she was already listing badly, troops and Merchant Navy men were jumping into the sea.  She gave a sudden lurch to port and sank in less than a couple of minutes.  No way could I get close enough to pick anyone up (too much wreckage and bodies around). A Naval ship came up (a destroyer, I think) to try for survivors. I was told to carry on; which I did.  Two hours later we were hailed by a Naval motor launch, which had 4 or 5 little ships with it.  He said he was to escort us all home.  We made Ramsgate after 8 hours and 30 minutes of leaving Dunkirk. I was told to lay along the inner (North) harbour wall and to offload the troops.  Then go along the quay where I could have a meal and tea, it was the best meal I had had for a long time! Afterwards I went along to a shower room, showered and went back on board the boat and slept for approximately 10 hours. Then I was given a free rail pass and went home to Whitstable.

And that was my trip to Dunkirk; there were a lot of times during the five days when I wondered why the hell I did it?  Or, should I say, how I managed to do it.

In total I think I picked up 324 men.


Sam Perks
July 2004          



We would like to express our thanks to Richard for sharing this very special piece of family history with the readers of Simply Whitstable. On behalf of the SW community, we would also like to express our condolences at the sad passing of Sam in October 2004. 

Sam was one of Whitstable's true characters and he will be remembered by so many Whitstable residents for his local maritime connections and the friendliness he showed to local people at Curry's shop in the High Street for over two decades. Now, we will have even more reason to remember a very special Native for something that, hitherto, we never knew.


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