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The Escape from Dunkirk - Garth Wright's Story

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posted on 2024-06-05, 19:35 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

Father & Mother - Dad was born on 13 August 1919. Dad served in the war - Garth Wright served 1939-45. Died in 2019 aged 99 - a well-known Dunkirk veteran in Plymouth, committed to Remembrance. Served in the Territorial Army, which he joined with his friends.

Born in Plymouth - brought up in Swilley and moved to Thorndon. Parents ran 'New Inn' Pub (now 'Elephant's Nest'). His friend was Ken Stephens, who owned a 250 Royal Enfield motorbike - dad's girlfriend was Dinah Stephens, who was Ken's sister. Another friend was Roger Palmer (known as 'Reg'). He has many friends who owned motorbikes; Peter Dodd and Harry Anderson who owned a Triumph 350 and BSA 350 Blue Star.

They used to go on day trips to Looe. Motorbiking was something he did before the war as a hobby - it brought about a feeling of comradeship and he enjoyed going away together with his mates. Once a year, he would go on a training fortnight paid for by his employer + was given a bounty of £5 from the Army (which was equivalent to 2 weeks' wages) and was given their keep as well.

As war with Germany was imminent, Garth had joined up and enlisted with the Territorial Army, 153 Battalion, which was part of the 51st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, based at Crelake Barracks at Tavistock. Was due to go on TA training course at Watchet, Somerset, on 3rd September 1939 - when war declared. Training as anti-aircraft gunners, shooting at old biplanes towing a sock - firing rounds with Baker Light and carrying smoke to identify the shot.

Took part in dance at Ambrosia factory, Lifton - went there on a motorbike with Dinah on the back. Returned home at 1 am - rabbit ran in front of the bike and both riders were knocked off - got home bruised and awakened Mum (grandmother). There was a telegram at home waiting for him - orders from the Army, instructing him to report to Crelake Barracks, Tavistock, at 6 am that same morning. So Garth packed his kit and went immediately to Tavistock to report for duty.

Billeted in West Street. Full week of training - Plasterdown Camp on the Moor (Dartmoor). One man was running behind a gorse bush with a cap on the end of a stick for target practice - this was the only training they had as they didn't get to go on the original training course at Watchet.

3rd September - was at a Tari Hall gathering with music. At 11 am the wireless was switched on for an important announcement - Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced that Hitler had invaded Poland and made a declaration of war on Germany.

Civilian lorries plus those travelling on tractors to Savernake Forest, leaving many pre-18-year-olds behind - joined by 25% of Reservists from the Regular Army to make up strength. Picked up 4 Bofors guns on the way. They should have had 12 - eight of their weapons made up of Bren guns and Lewis machine guns from WW1. There was also a supply of WW1-era bully beef rations which was still off!

Dispatch riders - picked up BSA 500 motorbikes and went to Avonmouth docks to board the Lady of Mann (Channel steamer) which took them to St Nazaire in France. Travelled one troop to victory. Dug gun pits at Mervill, and with every shovel they dug up WW1-era objects (from previous war).

Started off as dispatch rider to Regimental Headquarters/HQ at Arras. Wet and muddy in the area. Visited the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. There was jealousy between the two Allies and French soldiers were paid less than British troops. Learned to drive a truck after three months.

(There is a story entered here that concerns the German attack in the West which goes like this: "Drinking beer & French boy shouted 'Allemagne', or 'Germans' in French. It was an SS truck - lucky the SS didn't see him.")

Dunkirk 1940: West Mole was bombed every half-hour. Dug holes in sand (beach) with a tin helmet. During the day, Messerschmidt 109 and Stuka dive bombers attacked at half-hour intervals. Bofors AA guns were static and what was most dispiriting was that the sandbagged gun positions had taken hits and the bodies of dead soldiers killed in these bomb attacks were scattered around them.

Friend, Ken Stephens, leading field column into Dunkirk with 7 Troop. An enemy bomb blew up the front of the column which killed Ken and another friend, 'Tiffy' Hicks, was also killed.

Guns moved about, so Jerry's didn't know where they were. Radio and early comms sent with dispatch riders. The beach ran from Dunkirk to Bray Dunes in Belgium. There is a large photo of the Tavistock Battery taken before leaving for Dunkirk (unsure about this as the label on the photo says August 39').

Garth made his way to the beach where there were ships and destroyers to evacuate BEF. A call went out for stretcher-bearers and he volunteered - he took badly injured soldiers on board a ship named the HMS Codrington (destroyer). As he went to leave the ship to go back to the shore to gather more wounded, the CO told him to stay on board and this is how he got back to 'Blighty'.

He was on the run with HMS Codrington from Dunkirk to Dover on 30th-31st May 1940 (on that run, on 31st May, Codrington embarked 909 troops, and landed 440 at Dover - Garth may have been among this group).

Got a short break. Infantry were sent to Aldershot, and Artillery personnel (gunners) were sent to Woolwich. There they were given blankets and a meal and were allowed to shave and get some sleep. While in Woolwich he was asked if he had relatives in London and was given a 24-hour pass. Visited his father's brother (uncle) in Walthamstow - knocked on the door and uncle's wife (Ethel Baxter) said, "Oh Christ, it's Garth!!" Was taken to a local pub, but he felt like a coward because there were WW1 veterans in the pub who had been injured in the Great War - but they treated Garth like a hero.

It was there that he met his wife - she was a neighbour of Garth's brother-in-law. He had originally been a penfriend of the neighbour's daughter but she had met someone else while he was away. And so, he began writing to his future wife, Olive Abdy.

Members of the Dunkirk Veterans Association - made a key of Who's Who on the Tavistock Barracks photo. Written on the back of the photo is the word 'Ities' - a word used by the British to call Italians.

Served in Italy. Apparently fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino. Describe Monte Cassino as a 'bloody battle' - couldn't tell night from the day due to the floodlights, but the nightingales (birds) sang constantly.

Friend, Reg Palmer, was killed in North Africa. Germans (Luftwaffe) were strafing British positions and he was caught in the back while running with ammunition to reload Bofors AA guns. Peter Dodd was also killed in North Africa, at Taborbex. Garth was the only member of his friend group to return home. Went to Milan to be demobbed and then sent to Aldershot, where he was given a Trilby hat, a pin-stripe suit (which he wore on his wedding day in 1946) along with shoes and a Mac'.

Garth joined the Dunkirk Veterans Association in the early 1970s, and in 1972 was asked by a colleague with whom he worked on buses to get involved in Remembrance events. Became heavily involved in Remembrance Days, appeared on TV and newspaper interviews, Dunkirk Veterans Brass Band, Monte Cassino Society, etc. Garth remarked that the 'good side of the war' was that he got to see the world.


Item list and details

1. 1939 Tavistock photo in frame 2. Photo of Olive Abdy in uniform 3. Walthamstow appreciation certificate 01/07/45 4. Photo of Garth Wright in uniform 5. Painted birthday card from Olive 6. 31/05/1940 Evacuation of Dunkirk newspaper report (possible reproduction?) 7. Soldier's service / Paybook 8. Newspaper cuttings of Tavistock Barracks Pic x 2 9. Photocopy of G Troop photo 01/11/1939 10. Photocopies of Tavi Barrack Photo + Key of Who's Who 11. Dunkirk Vet Association Remembrance Wreath 1956 which names those killed (copy - some of his friends) 12. Airgraph letter home post-manc 5/5/1943 with transcription 13. Photo of Garth - possibly in Italy 14. Army Thanksgiving service for Allied victory in North Africa 15. Soldier's release book 16. National Registration ID Card

Person the story/items relate to

Garth Wright

Person who shared the story/items

Sonia Wright

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor


Type of submission

Shared at University of Plymouth, Plymouth on 15 November 2023.

Record ID

110920 | PLY023