What would you do if you were left behind by your troops as you were evacuating from the territory of the enemies who obviously wanted you dead? For Bill Lacey, who would happen to be the last man to ever escape Dunkirk, he did what perhaps anyone in the same situation would try to do: Survive. So he thrived all by himself in France for four months. This was his amazing story.
The Dunkirk Evacuation
The Dunkirk evacuation happened during World War II when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied Forces from the seaport of Dunkirk in France evacuated to England after Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries and northern France in May 1940.
Germany’s invasion began on May 10 when the German blitzkrieg attacked the Netherlands and captured the key bridges deep in the country, with the goal of opening the way for mobile ground forces. The Dutch assigned to defend the area fell back westward, and by May 12, the German tanks were on Rotterdam. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and her government fled to England on May 13, and the Dutch army surrendered to the Nazis the day after.
Hundreds of civilian boats and naval vessels were used in the evacuation called Operation Dynamo, which began on May 26. About 340,000 soldiers were rescued after it ended on June 4. Bill Lacey was not one of them.
The Man Who Was Left Behind
20-year-old Bill Lacey was one of the BEF backed up against the Channel. He was a rifleman in the Gloucestershire Regiment who also wanted to get back home, and he almost did. He was already aboarded one of the evacuating boats after fighting his way and escaping death with the Germans on the way. The last German soldier that he killed was with his bayonet. However, a wounded man came aboard, and he decided to give his space to him. He leaped off the boat and walked back to the shore, watching as the last of the boats left.
Soon after, German troops began flooding onto the beach, capturing or killing those left behind. He knew he had to survive, and his best chance was to run literally for his life.
In an article by Mirror, he recalled,
I could see German troops pouring on to the beach, so I ran in the opposite direction, towards the roadway, then crossed into a patch of woodland. My only plan was to head south in the hope that I might find British troops there.
He ran into the woods and left behind all his weapons, thinking he wouldn’t need them. He knew that his British Army uniform would definitely make him stand out in the French countryside, so he threw it away and stole civilian outfits.
He tried to be invisible in the rural French population, only nodding whenever a local would interact with him. He survived by stealing food either from the house or directly from the land and drinking water from streams.
According to him,
I discovered that in the countryside no one had locks on their kitchen doors. You just needed to be extremely careful, because the heavy latches that the French used made a terrible clunk as they opened… I would have to freeze in the dark, waiting to hear if I had woken anyone. Then I would grab what I could – bread, cheese, milk, anything baking in the oven – and run for it.
However, this did not stop his body from losing about 100 pounds, he was still starving.
The lowest point of his life was when he found what he thought was a can of beef, but when he opened it, it was just margarine. ” At that moment, I started to weep. Maybe that was my lowest point. But it passed. I spread the margarine across a handful of straw and ate that.”
Heading Back Home
It’s been four tough months trying to survive and not get caught, and Lacey was ready to give up.
If they shot me, I didn’t care any more. I just wanted this to end. I turned in the direction of Dunkirk, intending to find a patrol and turn myself in. I couldn’t carry on, I hope people realise why.
That’s when he found a small fishing boat on the French coast. Fortunately, he was raised in a seaside town in Devon, so he knew how to navigate a boat. When the night fell, he climbed into the boat and sailed his way to England. He sailed his way back home.
He arrived the next morning on a shore near Dover. Exhausted and disheveled, Lacey was arrested and taken to an Army base. When he told his story, the intelligence officer refused to believe him at first until they checked the local French papers and found stories of a British soldier on the loose who was stealing from farmhouses and about a fishing boat that vanished.
Lacey truly made it back home.