Two weeks after the launch of the German Blitzkrieg in World War II, the British army was encircled and seemed doomed to be captured. King George VI called for a day of National Prayer on Sunday 26th May as plans were put in place to withdraw British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo. Crowds flocked to churches and cathedrals throughout the land to petition God in earnest prayer.
There followed a series of extraordinary events. First, Hitler halted the German advance just ten miles from Dunkirk. Second, a violent storm on the 28th May grounded the Luftwaffe and enabled troops to reach the beach. Third, a dead calm followed which enabled boats of all shapes and sizes to assist in the evacuation. Churchill had expected only 30,000 troops to be saved. In the end over 330,000 trained troops were rescued.
On 4th June 1940, a special train arrived at Wakefield’s Kirkgate Station carrying the survivors of 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards who had been successfully evacuated from Dunkirk just days before. The soldiers were dispersed to hastily-arranged civilian billets around the city. The people of Sandal, Walton and Portobello were delighted to welcome them.
On the morning of Saturday, 8th June, the troops were called to muster in the grounds to the rear of Sandal’s St Helen’s Church. At 11.00 am, the roll was called and it was established that, though many of their number had survived, some 48 were lost, 104 were wounded, 3 were missing and 20 were known to have been taken prisoner by the German forces.
The following day, on Sunday, 9th June, there was a Church Parade at St Helen’s where the soldiers showed the people of Wakefield that they were in “the finest regiment in the British Army”.
One person who witnessed this was Gerry Southworth, at the time an eleven-year old boy from Wakefield. Now a resident of Dorset, Gerry contacted Wakefield Civic Society at the end of 2016 to suggest that the Society erect one of its commemorative plaques to mark the events of 1940. The nomination was agreed and the plaque will be unveiled at a ceremony taking place at 11.00 am at St Helen’s Church on Saturday, 9th June.
Society president Kevin Trickett said “The Society’s growing collection of plaques tell the story of Wakefield’s people, its buildings and sometimes special events that happened in and around the city so we were intrigued by the suggestion from Mr Southworth that we should erect a plaque to mark the link between the withdrawal from Dunkirk in 1940 and the people of Wakefield. I am delighted that we have been able to take the idea forward. I would like to put on record our thanks to the Grenadier Guards who have contributed the funds to pay for the plaque and to Reverend Rupert Martin, Vicar of St Helen’s Church, for working with us and helping to make the project a reality”.
The plaque will be unveiled by Brigadier David Maddan, formerly of the Grenadier Guards, and Mr Southworth will be there to recall his memories of the events of 1940.
All are welcome to attend – there is no need to book; just turn up at the church in time for the start of the ceremony at 11.00 am.