This is the Mona’s Queen packet steamer, and it was one of the hundreds of vessels that supported the evacuation of over 338,226 British, French, Belgian and Polish soldiers from Dunkirk in May – June 1940. One of those soldiers was Bernard Sparling, a 19 year old recruit from Heswall, England.
The Mona’s Queen was one of the first ships to make a successful round trip during the Dunkirk evacuation. According to Wikipedia:
“Under the command of Captain Radcliffe Duggan, she arrived back in Dover during the night of 27 May with 1,200 troops. The next day the ship returned to sea and was shelled off the French coast by shore guns but escaped damage.
Captain Duggan was temporarily replaced by Capt. Holkman following which in the early hours of 29 May, the Mona’s Queen set sail for Dunkirk from Dover loaded with water canisters because troops on the Dunkirk beaches were short of drinking water. However, the ship struck a sea mine outside Dunkirk harbour at 5.30am. The Mona’s Queen sank in two minutes.
Captain Archibald Holkham, who had taken over as Master, and 31 members of the crew were picked up by destroyers. Twenty-four of the crew were lost. Of the crew who died, 14 worked in the engine room. They included the Chief and Second Engineer. Seventeen of the dead were from the Isle of Man. The wreck is designated as a war grave.”
Bernard Sparling was evacuated from Dunkirk on the Mona’s Queen on 28 May 1940, having spent only a few months in France. In the below transcript he shares his experience in the run up to the evacuation.
“We were billeted in Tidworth Camp (Khandahar Barracks) in Wiltshire when the order came through for us to be sent to France. We sailed from Southampton to Le Havre – probably around April 1940. This was on a Manx Paddle Steamer because I remember the paddle wheel.
We had our proper uniforms by then and were beginning to look like British Soldiers. But we still hadn’t got proper army lorries. However, we did have five vehicles, 3-4 tonners. One was a banana lorry, green and yellow. This had been requisitioned from FYFFES bananas and around the sides and on top, it said FYFFES bananas in yellow. You could get 20 or 30 lads in the back. Eventually the logos were removed, but there were many lorries out there with company names like Fred’s Butchers, still on them.
We were then told that we were going to do battle with the Germans. We had re-equipped, we had some shells for the tanks and a rifle each with four bullets. I remember we had to sit on the wooden shell cases in the back of the lorry.
We came in at Le Havre and drove for some time. It was south of Dieppe when things were beginning to build up. We drove on to Caudebec en Caux – where we stopped at a farm. We stayed there for maybe a week, a fortnight. We were billeted in a big barn. There was straw over the floor and rats and mice to share our beds. One rodent tried to climb up my trouser leg!
We then moved on to near Béthune to pick up some ammo. This was a railway town and was holding fuel and ammo for the troops, so of particular interest to the Germans. When we arrived the CO told us to park our lorries around the perimeter of a large field, just on the outskirts of the town. We watched a group of Stukas lazily, circling the town. They just kept going around in circles and occasionally one of them would drop some bombs. Far more frightening than all the planes dropping all the bombs together.
As we drove into the town of Hazebrouk we saw bombed out buildings. There were one or two abandoned motorcycles on their sides, and obviously one rider had been shot. One motorbike had a hole on the cylinder.
We parked our lorries in the square and went into a local bar, there were half a dozen French in there, all there with a glass of wine in their hands looking very miserable. We walked in – cocky English soldiers. “Bonjour! C’est la guerre!” but they were just not wanting to talk to us. We just thought that they were ignorant. We didn’t realise, didn’t have a clue, at least we had some chance of an escape – they didn’t.
Then we saw a booze shop that had been bombed, with all the booze still in the window. One chap took a bottle of scotch. I got a bottle of liqueur. Still on the market today I think it was Cointreau– expensive stuff. We went back into the square, drinking this stuff. We passed it around between us. Not having very sophisticated tastes we thought it was awful.
At some point we drove to Évreux – we had to wait here for more lorries but they never came. We knew that the Germans were near. We just kept driving around trying to find a way out.
At Tournai we realised that things were getting really serious. I’m sitting in the back of the lorry, as we’re driving through the town, looking at all the buildings, the flames are coming across one side of the street to the other. We looked at each other and said “Bloody hell, this is getting a bit serious”
Whenever we stopped, the sergeant major who was a regular soldier and knew a bit more than we did, took charge. He was the only one issuing any instructions. The Sarge said “Right, it’s very difficult. The Germans are all around us. We’re trying to find a space to get through. We’re trying to get to the coast, somewhere to the west.”
We drove and drove. We’d drive one way, then we’d go back another way. The chap in charge said “They’ve sealed that gap, we’ve got to try another one.” On the way to Dunkirk I remember driving through Casel and Wormhout.
I remember driving along roads lined with Poplar trees leading into typical French villages, that had been bombed, There were disabled men coming out in the streets. Women holding babies. They were scared to death, crying and wailing and running into the fields. One woman was crapping in a hedge, scared out of her mind.
At the time, we thought that Hitler had persuaded Churchill to strike a deal with him as he had stopped the Germans from attacking the English line. But they were still bombing the villages and coast.
It was six or seven in the morning. I was sleeping in the back of the lorry. Then we saw the Sergeant, he said “We’re as close as we can get, we are a few hours walk from the coast. It’s every man for himself now, get out of your lorries and disable them, guns as well, then walk. (This led to the famous line when Bernard was asked why they threw away their guns he replied ‘you could run faster without a gun!)
The Sarge told us that we would eventually get to a port somewhere, of course there were no signposts. All the road signs had been taken down, this happened in the UK as well – no need to help the Germans
There were no officers to be seen. I remember the poor command of some of our officers and the army. Our commanding officers had scarpered. We didn’t see any command at all.
We were so ignorant. We had no idea what was going on. The shock of all those houses. The shock as you went through this crowd of people. That was Dunkirk.
So after a few hours walk, we eventually got to the port. I was with my mate, Tommy Bunn, little chap, married with a baby. Only 18. Office clerk for a coal merchant. Birkenhead. We walked along the row of dock bays, and we’re going down one mooring place after another wondering what to do. Then we sat on the bollards that they have at the dockside. Tommy said to me, “I feel bloody clem. We’ve hardly eaten anything since yesterday. Bugger the CO, I’m going to eat my reserved chocolate” (You had to have permission from an officer to eat it.) I was a bit reluctant but hunger won.
We ate our chocolate and then carried on walking along the docks when we saw this cruise ship, I believe it was the Mona’s Queen. There was a British sailor standing along side by a wooden plank. This sailor shouts “I’ve got space for only two more, if you don’t come now you’ve missed it, we’re ready to sail.”
It wasn’t even a gangplank just a board of wood. We stopped and I said “Come on Tom, let’s get on” he replied “I’m not bloody going on that thing.”
When I got to the ship the sailor said “Where’s your mate?” “He reckons it’s over-crowded,” I replied. Tommy walked on towards the beach where dozens of our men and some French soldiers had gathered. That was the last I saw of him – I tried to trace him years later, (even phoning people in Birkenhead with the name Bunn) but without success.
So I forced my way in. Men were standing shoulder to shoulder on the ship – all regiments and ranks. All you were allowed to take onboard was your side pack. Regardless of what you had in your backpack, you had to leave them. Backpacks were in piles all down the road, in the loading area. I managed to squeeze aft (left) and about ten yards down there was an officer there. About 25, 30. A captain. He’s standing there rigid. He was shaking.
I said, “Bit of a mess isn’t it sir?” He just stood there shaking the whole time.
I saw this other young officer, he was in tears, crying his eyes out. I asked if he was married, he said ‘Yes,’. I asked if he had children, he said: “Yes, maybe now I’ll have a chance to be with them again”.
Then the Germans started firing guns at us. From le Havre, the gun they had just couldn’t reach us. So you could see the shells bursting short of the boat. Even so, one shot shrapnel up and killed a lad at the end of the boat.
When we got near Dover – the white cliffs. I remember one old British bi-plane – where the pilot and co-pilot sat in line with a machine gun. These two guys with goggles on sitting in their open cockpit just waving at us. We shouted back. “Stop faffing and waving about! Go and drop some bombs on the Germans!”
As we got further across the Channel I remember seeing a few of the ‘Little Boats” heading to the French coast. Again we didn’t have any idea of the scale of what was happening. Some of the boats were flying the Union Jack. Again we didn’t realise what a brave thing they were doing. We were on our way to safety and they were heading to possible death. Sacrificing their lives to try and save others.”