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My dad survived Dunkirk

Lesley and Geoff Lewis tell Claire Brine how Lesley’s father, Stanley Patrick, was the only soldier rescued after a torpedo attack

His ship was torpedoed. It was a wonder that he wasn’t killed

LESLEY LEWIS knew from childhood that her father, Stanley Patrick, had served as an Allied soldier during the Second World War. She understood that when he was 20 years old he survived a torpedo attack in the evacuation of Dunkirk. But she had no idea just how close he came to death – until earlier this year when she watched the Channel 4 documentary Dunkirk: The New Evidence.

‘I’ve always known that my dad was evacuated from Dunkirk,’ Lesley tells me. ‘He explained to me that while returning to England, his ship – which was the destroyer HMS Wakeful – was torpedoed, and consequently it was a wonder that he wasn’t killed. But until I watched the documentary in July, I had no idea that my dad was the only soldier to survive the attack. All the other 639 Allied soldiers who were on board drowned.’

The Channel 4 programme reported that HMS Wakeful sank on 29 May 1940. Just one soldier, who had been standing on the deck of the ship, survived. Lesley knew that the soldier in question was her father. She had the press clippings from 1940 to prove it.

‘I started contacting the newspapers and historians, asking them if they would be interested in hearing my dad’s story,’ she says. ‘I wanted to get his name into the history books. Since then, I’ve been astonished at the amount of media coverage we have received. My husband, Geoff, and I have talked about Dad in the Daily Mail, in local newspapers and on television. The phone has been red-hot.’

Geoff and Lesley

Lesley and Geoff (pictured) explain what they knew of Stanley’s war service before the recent revelations. 

‘When I was a young girl, I wasn’t overly interested in hearing my dad’s stories,’ Lesley says. ‘I know that sounds awful. I knew that he had gone to war when he was a young man and that he was evacuated from Dunkirk, but that was about it. He didn’t go into details with me. It was only when I started courting Geoff – who was interested in the subject – that my dad started to open up about his experiences.’

Geoff picks up the story: ‘I was 18 when I met Stanley, and it struck me that he had been called up to war when he was only a year older than me. I couldn’t help but wonder how I would have felt, had I been in his shoes. Would I have been ready?

‘In 1939 Stanley was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force. He was a truck driver in the Royal Army Service Corps. He took his work in his stride but was apprehensive about what lay ahead.

‘He told me that when he was driving to Belgium, he was stopped, commanded to retreat and head for Dunkirk. Driving there, he never felt so vulnerable. The roads were narrow and raised. He felt exposed.

‘When Stanley was just a few miles outside of Dunkirk, the roads became gridlocked. So he was commanded to destroy his truck, which he did. He removed the sump bung, drained the oil from the engine and then put a brick on the accelerator. When the engine revved, the vehicle was destroyed. No Germans could use it. All along the road, hundreds of trucks were abandoned.

‘Stanley made his way on foot to Dunkirk, teaming up with other stragglers. Then he spent two days on the beach, waiting to be evacuated.’

Lesley tries to describe the scene her father faced.

‘There was absolute pandemonium,’ she says. ‘Men doubted that they would ever see their loved ones again. Bombs were being dropped and many soldiers lost their lives. It was a case of every man for himself.

‘My dad took refuge in the sand dunes and dug a foxhole with his helmet. He watched as men stood by on the beach, waiting for the vessels to pick them up and take them back to England. When he felt the time was right, Dad started to make his way across the sand. He had spotted a destroyer and thought he stood a good chance of making it on board. By now it was dark. He waded into the sea, along with some other men, holding his rifle above his head.’

Stanley got into a small boat, which transported him and other men to HMS Wakeful. As the 640 soldiers climbed on board, they were all counted. But in order to save time, names weren’t recorded.

‘Dad was ordered to stay on deck while the other soldiers were sent below,’ says Lesley. ‘We don’t know why.’

‘It made him feel a bit hard done by,’ Geoff adds. ‘All he wanted to do was get his head down, have a rest and have something to eat.

But he was told to wait on deck.’

The ship set sail for England. Stanley was going home. But then, disaster struck. HMS Wakeful was hit by a torpedo from a German E-boat.

‘There was a terrible flash and explosion, and the ship broke in half,’ explains Geoff. ‘It went down in a “V” shape. Stanley slid down the deck into the water. The ship sank in seconds.

‘Fortunately, Stanley was a good swimmer. So he started treading water. He lost everything. All his equipment went to the bottom of the sea. The water was cold and his teeth were chattering. It was dark. He heard people splashing around him, but he couldn’t save them. He had enough trouble trying to keep himself alive.

‘After treading water for about 45 minutes, he was rescued by HMS Calcutta. He was stripped of his wet clothing and given a blanket and a pair of khaki shorts to wear. He told me that three things about his rescue stood out clearly in his mind. First, he ate a doorstep sandwich. Secondly, he had a mug of cocoa. Thirdly, the noise of the guns from HMS Calcutta was deafening.’

Stanley hoped that the worst was over. He mentioned to one of the crew that he felt relieved at the thought of going home. But then the crewman delivered some bad news. The ship wasn’t heading for England. It was on its way to Dunkirk.

‘So Stanley had to go back to hell,’ says Geoff. ‘The thought of it makes your skin go cold. He sailed to Dunkirk, stayed on board while the ship picked up more troops, then they all travelled back to England. He was home.’

After his experiences in Dunkirk, Stanley was deemed unfit for active duty. But he stayed with the army and spent the remainder of the war working as a cook. Later, he was stationed at the drill hall in Kettering, where his fiancée, Peg, lived. She was suffering with tuberculosis, so Stanley was allowed to move to be near her. They married in 1945.

‘But the memories of war were never far away,’ says Geoff. ‘Stanley had terrible nightmares. He dreamt he was back on the beach, with bombs exploding around him. He said that those days he spent on the beach were the worst ever.’

‘The war affected my dad’s nerves,’ adds Lesley. ‘My mum always said that when he came back from France, he was never the same again.’

In later years, Stanley and his family learnt that there were other men who survived the torpedo attack on HMS Wakeful. Some of the ship’s crew had managed to escape. But Stanley was the only surviving soldier – though he never knew it.

‘Historians knew the names of all the crew because they were documented,’ explains Lesley. ‘So they could work out who drowned and who survived. But none of the soldiers’ names were recorded. It’s so sad to think that some of their families never found out what happened to them.

‘The week after I watched the TV documentary, I went to Kettering Salvation Army, which is my church. We sang a song, which proved to be very poignant for me. The words are:

I was sinking deep in sin,

Far from the peaceful shore;

Very deeply stained within,

Sinking to rise no more;

But the Master of the sea

Heard my despairing cry,

From the waters lifted me;

Now safe am I.

Love lifted me, love lifted me,

When no one but Christ could help,

Love lifted me.

‘As I sang the song, I couldn’t help but think of my dad and how frightened he must have been on that night in Dunkirk. He was only 20 years old, tired, treading water in the cold sea and struggling to survive. He probably wondered whether he was going to live or die. I wondered if he cried out to God that night. I will never know.’

Stanley died in 1991. Lesley remembers him as ‘a kind man, who would have done anything for anyone’. She considers it a privilege that she had many years getting to know him.

‘Some might see him as a hero, but to me, he’s just my dad and he always will be,’ she says. ‘He was always ready to help people. He was hard-working. I’m so thankful that he came home from war – or I wouldn’t be here today, able to tell his story.’

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