Firsthand account from Sussex sailor of Dunkirk evacuation

Sidley sailor John Purfield made five trips to Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo in the Second World War and, speaking to the Bexhill Observer in 1940, he said he would be ‘glad to get back out there’.

Monday, 1st June 2020, 1:25 pm

To mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, his son, Anthony Purfield, has sent us a cutting from the Bexhill Observer dated June 15, 1940, so John’s story can be retold.

Anthony explained: “Someone at Bexhill Museum sent this to our family. Being the 80th anniversary of Dunkirk, I thought people might be interested.”

The Dunkirk evacuation took place between May 6 and June 4, 1940.

John Purfield after the war, when he was serving in Malta

John, who was 18 at the time, was the son of Mr and Mrs H.D. Purfield, of Arncliffe Terrace, Turkey Road, and he had joined the Navy before the Second World War started.

He was in the Battle of Narvik, part of the Norwegian Campaign, and then became involved in the evacuation.

Relating his experiences, John said: “I was on a destroyer at the Battle of Narvik for about an hour but when the fun really started we had to drop out of it. On the way back, in company with three other destroyers and the battle cruiser Renown, we met the Scharnhorst and the Von Hipper.

“It was more or less a running fight, as they were trying to get away all the time and we couldn’t keep up with them.”

John Purfield with his wife Eileen, who me met in Malta

Young Purfield made five trips to Dunkirk in a destroyer which helped to evacuate British troops. On the first two trips, his ship was packed but after that, a ship was sunk in the harbour mouth and the soldiers had to wade out to the boats.

He continued: “On the second trip, we were attacked by six German bombers; after they had dropped their bombs, they machine-gunned us, injuring six of the crew.

“All the soldiers we took off were pretty cheerful. They were worrying about the fags they had to leave behind more than anything else. All I could do was to help the doctor with the wounded, as my arm was poisoned and I had it in a sling.

“We had one girl try to get aboard dressed as a Tommy.

The cutting from the Bexhill Observer dateed June 15, 1940

“Dunkirk was in flames when we left; shells were still falling.

“One or two dogfights were going on in the air and chaps were coming down in parachutes.

“The beach was littered with German and British planes.”

Jack’s parting words to the Observer were: “I shall be glad to get back out there.”

After the war, Jack was sent to serve in Malta and it was there that he met his wife Eileen Purfield. They had four children, David, Anthony, Mary and John.

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