Tonight on Channel 4 my latest piece of Television work will be broadcast, Dunkirk: The New Evidence. This will be the fifth time I have revisited Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo for TV, from Dig 1940 to Dan Snow’s Little Ships. The latest programme was partially inspired by the upcoming Dunkirk movie and it is amazing that the story of Dunkirk will suddenly be all over Hollywood, which will bring the incredible events of 1940 to a new generation.
Tonight’s programme, and all those I’ve worked on relating to Operation Dynamo, are special to me as my grandfather was at Dunkirk. Alexander Philip Marketis originally joined the Rifle Brigade in 1918, and after WW1 joined the regular army and transferred to the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was in Turkey in the 1920s (working on the war cemeteries in Gallipoli) and later in China and Hong Kong. He went onto the Army Reserve in September 1938; the photo below showing him with my grandmother, who was delighted he was finally home.
However, a year later the Second World War began and Alex was back in uniform. He spent the Phoeney War period in France, billeted with a French family called FACQ in the village of Mons-en-Pévèle between Lille and Douai.
I only discovered many years later that my grandfather spoke French (as I do), and he obviously got on very well with the Facq family, as he wrote to them and they wrote back via the Red Cross during the German occupation. That cannot have been a very common thing, and he must have had high regard for them, yet as I far as I know he never went back there to visit them after the war.
During the Battle of France his medical unit fell back towards Dunkirk and I know little of his part in that, except that he was evacuated out via Dunkirk with sickness. By this stage he was 40 years old, and very much an old soldier. The sickness probably saved his life as many RAMC men stayed behind at Dunkirk to look after the wounded who couldn’t be moved. Most became Prisoners of War. After Dunkirk he was discharged medically unfit but worked on aircraft repair in East Anglia for the rest of the war.
Sadly my grandfather died when I was young, so I never really had the chance to talk to him about Dunkirk, but growing up in the 1970s, as I have mentioned before on this website, much of our popular culture as children was dominated by WW2. I remember getting the Dunkirk transfers book by Dennis Knight (above), which when I showed by grandmother, brought back a host of memories about what had happened to grandad.
Comics played a big part in developing an interest in military history for those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s and the iconic Charley’s War was no exception. While the series was mainly about the Great War, Charley Bourne returned for WW2 and was in action at Dunkirk.
I first visited Dunkirk in the early 1980s with my father. We walked up and down the beaches and went to the war museum. Years later I often found myself back there as a Battlefield Guide, taking veterans to places where they had fought. Even after so many visits, I still find it a fascinating place and hope this year with the release of the Dunkirk film, what happened in 1940 will be brought back into sharp focus. Tonight on Channel 4, we do our bit to help explain some of the history. I hope my grandfather would approve.