Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind
were advancing towards Abbeville, the realization of how close they were was a tremendous shock:We looked out of the back of the farmhouse and saw tracer bullets being fired towards us. There were about twenty or thirty of the crack tank regiments of Hitler’s Panzers in front of us on the heath. We had a rifle and five rounds of ammunition each. We fired – not knowing who or what we were firing at, I think we probably never killed any Germans, we just fired blindly in the direction of the tanks. When you’d used those five rounds, you went back to Colour Sergeant Davey and asked, ‘Can I have five more rounds please?’ It was ridiculous. But I don’t remember being frightened. I just did what I was told.
    What Willats didn’t know was that these tanks were from the German 2nd Armoured Division, the spearhead of von Rundstedt’s Army Group A. This was the force that had punched through the Ardennes, crossed the River Meuse, then headed north to endanger the BEF from the rear. Such strategic considerations, and the implications for the BEF, were far from Willats’ mind as the battle for Abbeville continued: ‘The Sergeant Major sent me to help a chap manning a Boyes anti-tank rifle. I went out to fetch him because he’d been wounded. It was strange. The road was as quiet as a tomb. I found him. He was wandering about, very badly wounded. His eye was out hanging out on his cheek. So I led him back to the farm.’ Safely back, Willats continued to fire at the tanks but soon realized the situation was hopeless when they heard the sound of German vehicles entering the farmyard: About thirty Germans appeared, led by an SS man. We knew there was no hope so we came out. That was the end of my military career, it was all over in a flash.’
    Uncertain of their fate, Willats and his four comrades were marched away to a barbed-wire enclosure that had been hastily erected in a nearby field. What happened next was the natural reaction for men who had been on the move for days: ‘The first thing I did was to fall asleep. I’d been awake for two nights and sleep was the biggest enemy of the soldier. The body can only go so far without rest. I was completely exhausted. It was uncontrollable. I just went to sleep.’
    For the men within this enclosure, surrounded for the first time with barbed wire, there was a terrible feeling of emptiness. It was the same for all the men taken prisoner in the battles across France and Belgium. They were physically, and often mentally, exhausted. Many had not eaten for days, or washed and shaved – but it was not a time for NCOs to start berating men for being unshaven. Some had mates around them, others had seen their mates die and were left alone among unfamiliar faces. Each of them began to learn the skills that would help them survive through all the trials that lay ahead. Some tried desperately to find someone they knew. Others retreated into a state where the mind focused entirely on self-preservation. Fighting for a comfortable place to sleep became as much a part of their lives as showing discipline or defiance of the enemy. It was the beginning of the dog-eat-dog existence that would follow them through their lives within Germany’s prisoner of war camps.
    Those taken prisoner around Abbeville were marched from their makeshift enclosure. Their journey took them northwards, spending the first night in the grounds of a local gendarmerie. Once again they dropped to the cold, bare earth and slept where they lay. Those still with blankets blessed their good fortune. Those without were too exhausted to care, since there was hardly a man among them who would not have swapped a blanket for a hot meal.
    In the final days of May and the early days of June, groups of prisoners were collected all over the battlefields. The battered and bloodied survivors of the defeat and the rearguard actions were slowly herded together, ready to begin the long march into Germany. In twos and threes, men

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