May 21

Dunkirk – interviews with survivors

Churchill called it a miracle – and it was certainly that. Over nine days in May and June 1940, 240,000 British and 95,000 French soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk in France.

The allies had been unable to hold up against the sheer might and ferocity of the German blitzkrieg attack and had been pushed back to the sea with just a tiny defensive pocket delaying the final Nazi advance.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the start of Operation Dynamo, an audacious bid to evacuate as many weary remnants of the British Expeditionary Force as possible.

An 800-strong flotilla of Royal Navy ships, tugs, barges, paddle steamers and fishing boats was hastily assembled and radio appeals added the ‘little ships’  – sailing boats and pleasure craft – many crewed by their civilian owners.

From May 26th, under contrast and shellfire and air attack the boats and their crews returned again and again to rescue the British and French forces and take them back to England.

The operation ended on June 4th. 40,000 troops were left behind, many spending the rest of the war in prison but the rescue of a third of a million men was an amazing achievement – but no victory. As Churchill said: “Wars are not won by evacuations”

It did mean though that Britain had enough of an army left to fight on – and the phrase ‘Dunkirk spirit’ has gone down in history as typical of British refusal to give up in a time of crisis…

Back in 2004 the BBC made a three-part drama documentary about Dunkirk, with a superb cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, and I wrote a piece about the production for TV Times. I was privileged to interview two veterans from the evacuation, one Clive Tonry, a soldier, and Albert Barnes, a sailor, who went over to Dunkirk to help rescue members of the British Expeditionary Force…

Here are the interviews: 

The soldier’s story: Clive Tonry
Clive TonryClive Tonry Albert Barnes was just 17 years old when he joined the 48th Division Signal Regiment as a signalman in September 1938 after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

In January 1940 he and his comrades were dispatched to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. “We then spent the next few months on exercise,” says Clive, now 83. “It was what they called the phoney war.”

In May 1940 Hitler’s armies attacked Holland and Belgium then France. Clive and his unit were sent to the infantry brigade headquarters of 48th Division in Belgium where their job was to relay message to troops on the front.

As the Germans advanced, the allied line was pushed back rapidly. At Burghout he and his colleagues found themselves on the frontline. “Then the order came to destroy all our equipment and march to Dunkirk,” he

“It was 25 miles away and we could already black clouds of smoke,” he recalls “But nothing could prepare us for the scene when we got there – it was absolute chaos.

“There thousands of British and French troops milling around all over the place. Stukas were bombing and the Germans were shelling the beaches – it was very unpleasant.”

Clive was in Dunkirk for 36 hour before he managed to get away. “We formed up in orderly queues down to the waters edge and we were detailed off to go into the sea and get small boats,” he recalls.

“I went in with a couple of other chaps and we got a rowing boat which we brought back to the end of the queue. There we filled it up with twelve soldiers and then rowed it out to the minesweeper Leader.

“The Royal Navy wouldn’t let them stop completely as they’d be sitting targets so we had to jump onto scramble nets. You had to jump and hang on for grim death – I managed to do it but quite a few fell into the sea and were lost.

“Thank God those little boats did come for us – because there was no other way of us getting off the beach because the bigger ships couldn’t come in close.” The minesweeper took Clive and the other survivors back to

Two years later Clive was promoted to corporal and was later sent to train as an officer. He became an officer and went to Normandy with the 11th Armoured Division as part of the D-Day landings.

“Nobody had any thoughts of heroism,” he says. “They just thought they had a job to do.” He retired in 1972 – after 34 years’ services with the rank of Brigadier. He became a teacher and lived in Dorset.

(Brigadier Clive Edward Tonry OBE, born on 11th November 1920, died on 25th December 2010)

The sailor’s story: Albert Barnes
When 14-year-old Albert Barnes went to work on the morning of 31st May 1940 he thought it would just be another normal day. He was a galley boy on the London docks tugboat Sun XII.

Little did he know he was about to become part of one of the Second World War’s most famous episodes – and is thought to have been the youngest rescuer. From the Thames, the tug headed to Dover where it picked up barges full of fresh water and ammunition.

It then headed to Dunkirk where the evacuation was underway. “Being a kid of 14 I’d never even heard of the place,” he says. “When we got there it was an absolute nightmare.

“It was very frightening, particularly when the Stukas (dive bombers) came down. The place was a graveyard – there were bodies floating about and it was the first time I’d seen a dead body. It was horrendous.”

“We didn’t bring men back – we couldn’t get close enough because of our deep draft. Our job was towing ships off that had run aground then we towed them back home for repairs.”

Albert’s mother had no idea where he was as the tug’s owner had only told her was on government business. “When I got home nearly a fortnight later, she said: ‘Where the hell have you been?’

“When I told her she said: ‘Oh my God!'” Four years later Albert was back off the coast of France crewing a tug which helped tow one of the huge artificial Mulberry harbours into place on D-Day.


(c) Steve Clark 2015. All rights reserved.

Category: History
May 16

Why @asda @tesco @sainsburys & @morrisons should do the right thing over safer children’s fancy dress outfits

Fancy DressWatching television presenter Claudia Winkleman talking on BBC’s One’s Watchdog programme last night about the moment her eight-year-daughter Matilda’s Halloween fancy dress costume caught fire resulting in her being badly burned was heart-breaking.

Like most of us, Claudia had assumed that a fancy dress outfit bought from a reputable supermarket would be safe. One could reasonably assume that from a safety point of view such a garment would be treated as children’s’ pyjamas or a nightdress. They are, after all, sold in supermarkets in the same sections: clothing.

But, no, fancy dress costumes are classed as toys and therefore are subject to less stringent regulations when it comes to the risk of them catching fire. This is clearly wrong. As Claudia said on the programme, if a child is holding a toy that catches fire they can drop it. If it’s a costume that they are wearing this obviously isn’t possible.

Very clearly children’s’ fancy dress costumes should be tested to the same levels as nightwear and the regulations about this need to be changed. But we know that our systems for changing things like this often take too long – and action needs to be taken now.

‘Celebrating’ Halloween and trick or treating is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK (and seen by many, including myself, as one of those American imports we could really do without…). It has, of course, become a major money-spinner for supermarkets who have been driving its establishment as a fixture in British life in order to sell more stuff and make bigger profits. (the same could also be said of their new ranges of Thank You presents for teachers and attempts to Christmatise Easter…)

After watching Watchdog last night I tweeted this to the UK’s four major supermarkets:

They have all now responded:

So there you have it, Britain’s supermarkets have spoken – and despite the knowledge that regulations have failed to put child safety and welfare above profits. I would argue that they have a clear moral responsibility to go further than the clearly inadequate rules on fancy dress costumes are it is they should have pushed the whole Halloween party thing into the mainstream of British life. This “festival” takes place in the autumn and is meant to be about ghosts and ghouls so candles will always be around, when perhaps, in the past, non-Halloween fancy dress costumes and naked flames might have rarely come together.

The supermarkets should not hide behind the excuse of “we comply with current regulations” – that is not good enough. They should go further than this and only sell fancy dress costumes that would pass the same tests as for children’s nightwear. Make no mistake – the law on this will be changed, but supermarkets will already be buying stock for Halloween now so they need to change what they are going to sell now.

The first one that does will receive public acclaim, the thanks of parents and increased sales. So come on supermarkets, do the right thing… and do it now before another little child like Matilda gets hurt.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this piece, all four major supermarkets have confirmed to me, for a piece I was commissioned to write for the Daily Mirror, that they will not be withdrawing these fancy dress costumes from sale or testing them more stringently. 

Category: Uncategorized
May 15

In Olive Cooke’s memory, help someone to stop the tide of begging letters and phone calls

OliveI was really upset and concerned to read about the tragic end of the life of 92-year-old Olive Cooke, who had been receiving around 180 letters a month from charities and was plagued by phone calls. Her body was found in Avon Gorge on May 6th.

While I understand that charities need to raise money, persistently chasing people who have previously donated is wrong.

I think it’s important that we help vulnerable people to make the right choices about the organisations they give money to – and not just to the ones that pester most.

Here’s how you can help:

1) Help them to opt-out of unaddressed mail:

Royal Mail says: “Royal Mail is still legally obliged to deliver all addressed mail, which includes mail that is addressed “To the Occupier” (or with any other generic recipient information), as well as mail that is personally addressed to you by name. It is not possible for Royal Mail to separate material you don’t want from those you do want. For example: advertising offers or leaflets from material from Central and Local Government and other public bodies.

“Opting out from Royal Mail Door to Door stops all unaddressed items from being delivered by us (although we do work with Government to get a message to every UK address in exceptional circumstances). Election material is not delivered by the Door to Door service and is therefore not affected by this opt out. Opting out means no one at the address will receive unaddressed mail items.

“Please be aware that Royal Mail delivers a minority of the total volume of unaddressed mail items in the United Kingdom. The opt out will not cover any other distributors, who will continue to deliver unaddressed mail items. Opting out of Royal Mail Door to Door deliveries will not necessarily reduce by a significant amount the number of items you will receive, as there are other carriers in the market place.”

If you wish to opt out of receiving Door to Door mail items send your name and address details to: Freepost RSTR-YCYS-TGLJ, Royal Mail Door to Door Opt Outs, Kingsmead House, Oxpens Road, OXFORD OX1 1AA or email your name and address to us at: Royal Mail will send an opt-out form to your address which you will need to sign and return. Once you’ve returned this form, Royal Mail will stop delivering unaddressed items to your address within six weeks. The opt-out will last for a period of two years from the date that Royal Mail received the opt-out form. If you wish to continue your opt-out after the two-year period you can do so by completing a new opt-out form which can be obtained by contacting them by email at or via telephone on 01865 796964 or at the address above.

2) Help them to register with the Mail Preference Service

The Mailing Preference Service (MPS) is a free service set up 20 years ago and funded by the direct mail industry to enable consumers to have their names and home addresses in the UK removed from lists used by the industry. It is actively supported by the Royal Mail and all directly involved trade associations and fully supported by The Information Commissioners Office. Registering is free and can be done online by clicking here.

3) Help them to register with the Telephone Preference Service

The Telephone Preference Service (TPS) is also a free service and is the official central opt out register on which you can record your preference not to receive unsolicited sales or marketing calls. It is a legal requirement that all organisations (including charities, voluntary organisations and political parties) do not make such calls to numbers registered on the TPS unless they have your consent to do so. You can register here. The TPS will register mobile numbers but cannot stop rogue text messages. If you or a friend or relative received spam text messages you can report these to the Information Commissioners’s Office here.

4) Help them to go ex-directory

Going ex-directory will remove a number from printed and online directories. To do this you’ll need to contact your phone supplier. BT customers can click here, Virgin Media here and TalkTalk here.


Category: Uncategorized