98 Years Young
Dunkirk Veteran Remembers
His mates – a half dozen remaining from his platoon of 30 men – had already clambered aboard, but, as the driver of a purloined Peugot, Vic had to ensure it could not be used to advantage by the enemy before he abandoned it.
How on earth they could have used it with the beach almost deserted and everything within sight on fire, is still beyond his understanding, but one of the “redcaps” was insistent.
“I had to put my bayonet through the petrol tank, damage the coil, then pull out the rotor and throw it away,” he said, chuckling at the absurdity of it.
“I couldn’t understand it, there was nobody about, you could have spent the day there, enjoying the sunshine.”
Vic remembers with perfect clarity, every detail of his part in Operation Dynamo, the extraordinary evacuation of more than 338,000 British, French and Belgium troops from the pincer advance of the German Army through Brussels and the Ardennes Forest.
Now the British Ministry of Defence has written to Vic to say the French Government had appointed him to the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre national de la Legion d’honneur.
The rather beautiful medal arrived in the post.
It will go with the Croix du Combattants de l’Europe (Cross of the Fighters of Europe) issued by the French Government to veterans of Dunkirk.
Born in Manchester, Vic was 20 years old at Dunkirk, a conscripted carpenter, who was made an infantryman in D Coy, 2Bn, Lancashire Fusiliers.
He was with a platoon in a defensive position at Brussels when the German advances ensnared almost the entire British Expeditionary Force as well as French and Belgium troops.
Vic, now retired in New Farm, Brisbane, emigrated and made a home in Ayr, where he was, for many years, the “chippy on call” for businessman John Honeycombe.
He was visiting Townsville last month as John’s guest, and attended a surprise 98th birthday party in his honour at the Honeycombes’ city home.
Vic remembers the 220km eight-day retreat to Dunkirk through Mons, as though it was yesterday, although some details, including the name of the church in which they paused momentarily, and the priest who draped a rosary around his neck and wished him luck have gone.
From the moment they were given the order on May 28, Vic’s platoon began to retreat to Mons, and then to Dunkirk.
At first, it was a fighting retreat one section providing covering fire while another fell back, each leap-frogging the other while the enemy was kept at bay.
“We didn’t sleep,” Vic said.
“We couldn’t go to sleep for nothing, no way, and we never had any food, or time for food.”
Ammunition was also in short supply and soon they had none. Then it was simply a case of running for their lives.
They were about 10kms from Dunkirk when Vic and his mates – there were only seven by then – broke into a garage attached to a house.
“The boys opened the doors of the garage and I checked the car, a Peugot, and the key was in it,” Vic said.
“I thought: ‘Oh, boy’, turned the key and ‘bingo’, it started.”
Still being chased by the Germans, Vic, the only one in the group who could actually drive a car, jumped in behind the wheel and the others piled into, and onto it.
They were under fire from the Germans, but, with not a bullet between them, could not shoot back.
So, as scared as he had ever been in his life, he drove as fast as he dared the remaining 10kms or so to the beach, leaving their pursuers behind.
“The beach was half-deserted and there were a couple of little boats that had been sunk or broken up, but there was one ship that turned up at the right time for us,” Vic said.
They all scrambled aboard – Vic joining them after the small delay caused by the redcap on the beach.
Their first reaction, Vic said, was relief.
“When I got on board the ship, it was ‘Oh, fair enough, I’ve done it. I’m away… goodbye France’,” he said.
“I was tired… buggered. I really was tired, and I did have a little nap on the boat,” he said, deadpan, but with a twinkle in his eye.
Vic proudly wears a WWII Veteran badge on his collar and is amused when people think it’s a medal.
John Honeycombe (standing) and Victor Power
FUS H V Power aboard the BSA despatch bike he rode to distribute the daily code to nearby units
Vic enjoying his 98th birthday party
He’s officially an Australian now, but he would have been in Africa if not for the love of a woman – his wife, Margery.
“When I was demobbed, I went to an immigration club and I put in to go to Africa, New Zealand and Tasmania and mainland Australia,” he said.
“They wanted me to go on my own, stay for two years, then send me back home.
“That was the case with Africa, New Zealand and Tasmania. “The only place I could go with a family was [mainland] Australia, so that was it.”
Vic, Margery and son Elwyn (their daughter Wendy died very young) settled in Bathurst where Vic got work as a builder.
He was offered a position in western NSW, but he had his sights set on Queensland where it was warm, and finally, he got a job offer that took them to Brisbane.
They stayed for a time at the migrants’ hostel at Hamilton House at Breakfast Creek.
He got work with the Forestry Department near Kilcoy and, after the small matter of building accommodation for the whole family, he set about earning a living.
Wounded by shrapnel in the war (although he won’t tell you much about that), and hospitalised for about five months, he is paid an English war pension. “I am part of Veterans Affairs here, too,” Vic said, bemoaning the fact that, even at 98 years of age, he can’t get a gold card.
Vic thoroughly enjoyed his work with the Forestry Department, but all the while he dreamed of building his own house, preferably in, or near, Brisbane.
He found a block of land for sale at Redcliffe going cheap, and, while he waited for the opportunity to get down there to build his house, he built a scale model of the dream house out of matchsticks.
He did build the real house, and they lived in it for a time before the wanderlust took them, and they sold up and hit the road.
98 YEARS YOUNG… Vic cuts his birthday cake
Vic found work as they travelled and they stayed in their caravan, until, when Vic was working on the construction of the Gunpowder copper mine north of Mt Isa, Margery fell ill.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service flew them to Mt Isa, and later transferred Margery to Townsville.
Vic threw in his job and took the caravan back to Townsville where Margery was in and out of intensive care, then in and out of hospital.
She died in 1975. Vic, now alone, took a job inspecting houses for a builder.
He spotted another opportunity in the same line of work, inspecting new-builds in and around the Blackwater area and arranged to meet his prospective new employer at the post office at a certain time and date.
“I was there on the side of the road with the car and the caravan waiting like nobody’s business, but he never turned up,” Vic said.
Heading back to Townsville, he stopped in Ayr at a caravan park.
“It was getting late, so I stopped,” he said.
“Then I sort of got settled in and maybe a week, a fortnight, maybe a month passed, I don’t know.”
He enjoyed having a beer at a local football club, and, he started looking after the bar when they needed a hand, then was asked to manage the club.
And that’s where he met John Honeycombe at a function at the club.
Vic sold the caravan and moved into a flat and he mentioned the move to John, who started giving him work.
It was a funny relationship. Vic kept refusing to accept payment for the small jobs he was doing, John kept trying to pay him, and they became good friends.
That was in the 1980s when Vic was still young – “about 70”.
Other than Dunkirk, he has little to say about the war, and, almost as an aside, mentions his shrapnel wound.
It has never given him any trouble, nor has he ever suffered from “shell shock”, now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The only health problem Vic thinks is worth mentioning is trouble with a wonky heart.
“I had a heart attack about five years ago and that’s when I lost my balance and got this,” he said, indicating the walking frame.
Vic, who also has been diagnosed with leukaemia, was fitted with a pacemaker after the heart attack, and the doctor explained it would keep his heart working properly and prevent it from periodically stopping.
“That’s all well and good,” Vic said,” but how long will it last?”
The doctor said: “I reckon you might see 112”.
He just might, too.
Vic’s Legon d’honneur arrived in the post