First published in the Mail on Sunday on 24 May 2020.
One of 40 British troops who held off 500 enemy, his courage saved countless lives at Dunkirk – and won the war’s first Army VC.
IT WAS Britain’s lowest point of the Second World War. Amid scenes of chaos and desperation, and under a relentless assault from bombs, mortars and gunfire, our Armed Forces, helped by civilians with boats, were tasked with rescuing well over 300,000 servicemen from a small French harbour.
They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and, at the height of Operation Dynamo, as the rescue mission was called, no one showed more grit, determination and courage than Captain Marcus Ervine- Andrews.
In fact, he was the only serviceman to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for the Dunkirk evacuation, and he was also the Army’s very first VC to be announced during the 1939-45 war.
Yet, in many ways, Harold Marcus Ervine-Andrews – always known as Marcus – was an unlikely hero. He was the son of a provincial Irish bank manager, Cyril Ervine-Andrews, and his wife Margaret, and his Army career had been relatively routine for eight years as he carried out tours of duty in the Far East and India as a junior officer.
However, on the night of May 31/June 1, 1940, Ervine-Andrews displayed such courage that he would, two months later, be awarded Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. Just days before the 80th anniversary of his VC action, it is appropriate to recognise the full extent of his valour.
To start with, however, the circumstances of his courage need to be put into context. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France, which had earlier pledged support for the Poles, declared war on Germany.
As with the start of the First World War, the government sent a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France, but along with French troops, they opted to stay behind the fortified Maginot Line
rather than attack the enemy. Indeed, it was the Germans who made the next significant move in the land war, invading Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940. A month later, on May 10 (the same day Winston Churchill was appointed to succeed Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister), Germany launched its Blitzkrieg against France and the Low Countries.
On May 14, the Netherlands capitulated and the Belgian defences at Liege, Maastricht and along the Albert Canal were overrun.
From May 15 on, the main British Army was forced into a series of staged withdrawals towards the coast of northern France. As the situation worsened, May 26 was declared a national day of prayer, and a special service, attended by King George VI, was held at Westminster Abbey. The Archbishop of Canterbury called for prayers ‘for our soldiers in dire peril in France’. Just before 7pm, Churchill ordered Operation Dynamo to begin.
The first full day of the evacuation began on May 27, the day before Belgium surrendered. The previous day the Germans had captured Calais, which had forced the fleeing British troops to head towards Dunkirk and the area of coast running to the east.
The success of the evacuation – during the six-week-long Battle of France – was possible only because so many Allied servicemen, notably British and French troops, were willing to engage the enemy during the retreat. Without such a courageous stand, tens of thousands of British troops would have been massacred or taken as prisoners of war.
Nobody put up a more fierce resistance than Ervine-Andrews, then aged 28, and his men from The East Lancashire Regiment. On May 31, the regiment’s 1st Battalion, having earlier been forced out of Belgium, were north of Warhem, holding a section of the Canal de Bergues. This section ran parallel to the coast and some five miles inland from it.
I will allow the splendid citation for Ervine-Andrews’ VC (which incidentally misspelt his Christian name as ‘Harald’) to take up the story: ‘For most conspicuous gallantry on active service on the night of the 31st May/1st June, 1940. Captain Ervine-Andrews took over about a thousand yards of the defences in front of Dunkirk, his line extending along the Canal de Bergues, and the enemy attacked at dawn. For over ten hours, notwithstanding intense artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire, and in the face of vastly superior enemy forces, Captain Ervine-Andrews and his company held their position.
‘The enemy, however, succeeded in crossing the canal on both flanks; and, owing to superior enemy forces, a company of Captain Ervine-Andrews’ own battalion, which was dispatched to protect his flanks, was unable to gain contact with him.
There being danger of one of his platoons being driven in, he called for volunteers to fill the gap, and then, going forward, climbed on to the top of a straw-roofed barn, from which he engaged the enemy with rifle and light automatic fire, though, at the time, the enemy were sending mortar-bombs and armour-piercing bullets through the roof.
‘Captain Ervine-Andrews personally accounted for seventeen of the enemy with his rifle, and for many more with a Bren gun. Later, when the house which he held had been shattered by enemy fire and set alight, and all his ammunition had been expended, he sent back his wounded in the remaining carrier.
Captain Ervine-Andrews then collected the remaining eight men of his company from this forward position, and, when almost completely surrounded, led them back to the cover afforded by the company in the rear, swimming or wading up to the chin in water for over a mile; having brought all that remained of his company safely back, he once again took up position.
‘Throughout this action, Captain Ervine-Andrews displayed courage, tenacity, and devotion to duty, worthy of the highest traditions of the British Army, and his magnificent example imbued his own troops with the dauntless fighting spirit which he himself displayed.’
It was estimated that at one point in the battle, just 40 men from the battalion were fighting more than 500 German troops. Every hour that Ervine-Andrews and his men were able to hold their position was vital to the evacuation, although nobody will ever know exactly how many lives they saved.
In a tape-recorded interview with the Imperial War Museum, many decades later, Ervine-Andrews said of his VC action that there had been a heavy artillery attack on their position and that he and his men were so short of ammunition that they searched dead bodies for bullets.
‘We were able then to hold up the attack… we held them for quite a long time until we ran out of ammunition.’
The captain said he and his men fought under a heavy mortar and shell-fire. ‘Luckily I had some excellent men with me and we were able to do the job.
‘I took it on myself to do most of the firing, even though I say it myself I was an exceptionally good shot and my men knew it. They realised that it was much better that I should do the shooting rather than waste ammunition.’
He said that, during the evacuation, sailors threw weapons into the sea because they did not want them taking up space that could be used for men. ‘The ship was like a sardine box with men,’ he added. Sailors gave the soldiers oranges and chocolate because they had not eaten properly for days.
Sir John ‘Jackie’ Smyth, who served in the Second World War after being awarded the VC during the First World War, was present at Dunkirk and he was in no doubt that the role played by Ervine-Andrews and his men had been vital to the evacuation effort.
He later said: ‘For over ten hours, under intense artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, Ervine-Andrews and his company held their position…
Had he and his company not been so steadfast in repelling the fierce German attacks at this critical time it might have been even more difficult than it was to embark the last divisions of the BEF.’
Ervine-Andrews was able to depart from Dunkirk with the other survivors from his battalion the next day, June 2, on board HMS Shikari, an S-class Royal Navy destroyer and he arrived in Dover the following day. His VC was announced on July 30, 1940 and he received decoration from King George in an investiture at Buckingham Palace on August 6, 1940.
Ervine -Andrews served for the rest of the war, taking part in Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy that began with the D-Day Landings of June 6, 1944. He led from the front once again, taking part in heavy fighting outside the French coastal town of Caen.
Ervine-Andrews continued his Army service after the conflict ended. Eventually, he retired in the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel in January 1952, aged 40.
He had married Emily Torrie in October 1939, soon after the start of the war, and the couple went on to have a son and daughter. However, the couple divorced in 1952, the same year that he left Army service.
Originally from Cavan in Co Cavan and later educated at Stoneyhurst College, Lancashire, he faced hostility from the IRA when he returned to Ireland. This was because of the anger felt by nationalists to his long British Army service and so Ervine-Andrews decided not to resettle in his homeland.
Instead he moved to Cornwall, where he worked as a pig farmer and played a prominent role in the Bodmin branch and Cornwall Executive of the Royal British Legion.
In 1981, Ervine-Andrews got married for a second time (his first wife had died), this time in Cornwall to Margaret Gregory, who had a daughter from a previous relationship.
In his final years, he lived at Gorran, near Fowey, on the south coast of Cornwall. He died on March 30, 1995, aged 83. At the time of his death, Ervine-Andrews was the last surviving Irishman to be awarded the VC and today his medal group is on display at the Blackburn Museum, Lancashire.
The story of the Dunkirk evacuation has been told many times in books and films, most recently on the big screen in Christopher Nolan’s epic 2017 film Dunkirk which he wrote, directed and produced.
The Dunkirk evacuation had been a huge challenge. On the first full day only 7,669 Allied soldiers were evacuated, but by the end of the operation 338,226 had been rescued by a hastily-assembled fleet of more than 800 vessels. Many troops were able to embark from the harbour’s protective mole on to 39 Royal Navy destroyers, along with a smaller number of Canadian and French destroyers and a variety of civilian merchant ships.
So was Dunkirk a defeat or a victory?
In many ways, it was both: it was a defeat in that the British were retreating having been overrun by the advancing German forces. Yet it was a victory in that the British managed to get so many
Allied troops back to England so that they could regroup and live to fight another day.
On May 28, the second day of the evacuations, Churchill had warned the House of Commons to expect ‘hard and heavy tidings’. After the evacuation was over, Churchill referred to the outcome as a ‘miracle’ and the evacuation is sometimes called the Miracle of Dunkirk.
The British press presented the evacuation as a ‘disaster turned to triumph’ so successfully that the Prime Minister had to remind the country – in his famous ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ speech to the House of Commons on June 4– that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’.
There had been heavy losses too: between May 10 and the German armistice with France on June 22, the BEF ‘lost’ 68,000 soldiers, who were dead, missing, wounded or captured. All the British tanks, well over 400 in total, that had been sent to France were abandoned along with a mass of other military equipment.
Six British and three French destroyers were sunk along with nine other major vessels. In the nine days of Operation Dynamo alone, the RAF lost 145 aircraft including 42 Spitfires. However, the loss of life and military hardware could have been so much worse.
Whether historians decide to look upon the Dunkirk evacuation primarily as a defeat or a victory remains open for debate. What is certain, however, is that the bravery of Captain Ervine-Andrews
over that ten-hour period must never be forgotten.