Veteran's Memories of "Days of Hell" at Dunkirk - Finlay Marshall

When Dunkirk veteran David Wightman recently contacted Paul Gilson, our own roving reporter, Finlay Marshall was quickly engaged to meet with him at his home in Laindon.

They are a dwindling band of warriors these days. When they were young they had gone into what became the ‘phoney war’ landing in France to fight Hitler's fascist army. In early May 1940 the Battle of France began and within three weeks the British Expeditionary Force was retreating towards the beaches of Dunkirk.

David Wightman was a medical orderly with 125 Field Ambulance tending the wounded of the 42nd Division. Within three weeks the BEF was encircled around the French town and being bombed and shelled night and day.

Now living in Laindon David, 96, remembers: “On the beaches it was Hell. We were mortared, bombed and gunned with no cover at all. I was treating soldiers for shrapnel and bullet wounds and trying to get them evacuated. When the little boats came in they were trying to get the boys off in batches of 50 but that wasn't working and it became every man for himself. 

These troops, evacuated from Dunkirk, were given tea at Ramsgate.

“I soon realised that the seriously wounded would have to be left behind on the beaches. I could cope with the walking wounded but by this time dressing and essential materials were running out but, somehow we carried on regardless. For four days we were all over the place being bombed and shelled. We managed to get to the Mole at Dunkirk and queued for 72 hours before a boat came to lift us off. They took us to the destroyer HMS Malcolm which went on to Dover. They gave us a cup of tea. The wounded were taken away and the rest of us got on a train and eventually arrived at Newbury, Berkshire which is where I started from.” HMS Malcolm made a total of eight runs across the Channel with troops. David will be joining the Trust at events during this summer and is looking forward to a trip on Endeavour. "I don't know how I got to that destroyer and back then I didn't care. I'm just grateful that there was a miracle and we got home."

David proudly shows Finlay his many campaign medals
In civilian life David was a painter and decorator in his birthplace, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. Through a friend he took up first aid and joined the Furness First Aid group which along with medical skills allowed first aiders free admission to local cinemas and concerts. His skills meant that when called up in November 1939 he was assigned to the Royal Army Medical Corps.

After Dunkirk David was on refresher courses in Newbury. While on guard duty he met his future wife, Eileen Collings from Chadwell Heath, whose family had moved away from the east end bombing. In September 1942 David and Eileen married at Chadwell Heath.

The Army was not finished with David. He volunteered for parachute training and became a member of 181st Air Landing Division which in 1943 arrived in Tunisia. Issued with a .38 service revolver David was cleaning his when it fired accidentally, ricocheted off a brick and wounded his friend in the knee.

“I thought I was going to be court martialled but I got away with a telling off! I felt awful and I still get flashbacks to this day.”

Within a few days David was on the beaches of Sicily tending the wounded. Next he landed at Taranto on the Italian mainland by landing craft. Still upset over the shooting accident David cannot remember much of the campaign. By December 1943 he was back in England to prepare for D-Day.

Attached to the Light Infantry David and his mates were busy in France until September 1944 when they were withdrawn to aerodromes in Southern England.

With his mates he trained on Horsa gliders for his next mission – Arnhem, the bridge too far!

His glider, with two pilots, eight men, a Jeep and trailer plus a 75mm gun. On September 17th David landed on a sunny afternoon. After unloading the glider he tended the wounded many of whom had broken arms after their gliders crashed.

The medics moved on to Oosterbeek where they asked the owner of an old vicarage if they could set up a first aid post inside. The owner, Kate ter Horst invited them in. For eight days over 250 wounded paras were treated inside while her own family were hiding in the cellar. She found water, often at risk to herself from snipers; she read the Bible to the wounded and comforted them as the medics operated without the painkillers they needed.

She became known as ‘The Angel of Arnhem’ to the soldiers and was played by Liv Ullman in the film, A Bridge too Far.

David said, “I am very proud to have seen her in that house and to have talked to her. Surrounded by the noises of war she read books for them while the bullets were whizzing round the house.”

Eventually David and his mates escaped across the river and reached Nijmegan and safely returned home.

After the war he lived in Africa working as a painter and decorator for Standard and Chartered Bank until 1976 when he and Eileen and their daughter Brenda came home to Laindon.

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