Dunkirk. The end of the ‘Phoney War’

The war took a turn for the worse. This was the end of the ‘Phoney War’. Jack was in a part of Normandy south of Dunkirk and thus not part of the retreat. He did not return to England until a little later.

Jack wrote:
Jack Donaldson in World War II9/4/40    Well, bang goes Denmark and most of Norway. The 6 o’clock news says a naval battle is in progress. I hope to God we swipe the buggers….I can’t help feeling rather pleased that things are moving. It must bring it nearer to an end and will infuriate Americans and all neutrals.

14/4/40    A letter to-day, finally clinching the farm. You’ve been terrific in snap and decision. It’s always right to go against the strong opinion of an expert. And if it’s wrong, we can probably sell at no loss. I do think you’re doing well.

Frankie wrote:
Frances Donaldson in World War Two‘10/5/40   Lavendon   Well now it’s begun and it’s difficult to know what to say.  We have said it all so often and you will know quite well how I am feeling.  The only thing we can do is to try to believe in our luck and go on attempting an ordinary life. Today I am simply shrivelled with nerves and misery but I suppose I will sooner or later get used to living in a real war.  O dear it still seems unbelievable that this could happen to us.  Try to write to me if only a p.c. with nothing on it.
I spend most of the day on my knees looking up places on a large map of France which lies on the floor.
22/5/40   I can’t really write to you because I daren’t even think of you.  I don’t know where you are or what has happened to you.  But just in case the posts still work, this is just to tell you we are all right.

British troops evacuated from Dunkirk
Battle positions, Dunkirk

(She wrote this in a letter in 1942: “I was going thro’ a drawer yesterday and found some letters of mine during the last weeks you were in France. They were all incredible and I wouldn’t have believed them except they were in my own handwriting, but there was one which was without exception the most awful letter I have ever read. Sweat poured down my back and even tho’ it was your property and not mine I burnt it. I would have liked to  have burnt them all but I thought you might be cross. I think I must have altered. I can’t imagine, under any stress of emotion, writing those letters to-day. But I suppose it was the most awful time of my life.”)

29/5/40   Lavendon   I got a letter from you today dated 22nd and posted on the 24th.  I leave for the Institute before the post arrives and it will give you some idea of what I have been feeling during the last 10 days if I tell you that Mary put through 3 telephone calls to try and get hold of me to  tell me the letter was there, though she knew I would be back at lunch time.  The days I feared most for you were the 20th and 21st so the fact that this was written on the 24th …..Your letter is a very funny one and I could not resist reading most of it to Mary and we both shrieked with laughter.  It is so immensely casual and says so fearfully little and, received in this devastating tension, unrelieved by having a job to do which has some bearing on the present events, it reads exactly like a letter from someone who is having a rather exciting holiday, say in the Pyrenees or sailing.  You are immensely matter of fact and apparently at that time any way have absolutely no idea of the sort of scenes which one’s imagination creates for one when one is sitting impotently in England.

Of course it is quite different for you, but here an announcer on the wireless says in parenthesis and quite casually that the Germans have dropped bombs and parachutists on hundreds of railway junctions. (Jack was working at railways moving troops and supplies)  The subject is never referred to again and no more light is shed on it.  But one knows one will hear no news of any sort, possibly for a month.  What was rather heavenly about your letter was your casual attitude that as you were very tired you would write me all details the next day – exactly as though one could count on a normal post as well as everything else.  It is very endearing to find you so unmoved.

Dunkirk map in 1940
Dunkirk and south west of Paris



The whole of my present attitude is based on the assumption that you are the south side of the gap (Jack was somewhere in Normandy, in line south of Rouen and Dieppe, not sure exactly where, but south of Dunkirk and the German army at that moment) and it is really rather heartless to be even temporarily relieved when one thinks of the people in the north.  But now it has really begun I find that all my emotions are used up for myself and I have nothing left to spare for other people.

The BEF back in England. Jack is still in Normandy, after Dunkirk.

30/5/40   I met 3 B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force) officers last night including Gordon Lennox. They were simply heavenly. So pleased with themselves and their men. Did you hear about the Labour Corps who were given one good officer and some rifles and held Arras for days. These three said whenever you saw a tin hat you felt safe for a minute until you lost the bloody thing. But they said it was the damnedest lie to say the Germans were not good soldiers. They were very funny about the Belgians who they said were never anything but an intolerable nuisance and very fast bicyclists in the wrong direction. They said they met Belgian officers driving out of Belgium when they went in.

Identity Card World War 2
Identity Card in WWII

(Returning in the train from London) The English are sweet today. All the B.E.F. who are back smile broadly at everyone they see and in this carriage are 4 other people, one soldier who may be B.E.F. and we are all offering each other cigarettes etc. We are all barricaded up on the roads and I have been stopped 7 times for my identity card.’

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A Woman's War