A Catholic soldier from west Belfast saved my Protestant dad's life at Dunkirk... leading to them becoming lifelong pals when the war was over
Thrown together in the seas off war-time France, two young men found kinship that transcended division
My dad John Larmour never spoke to me about the war, and as a child I never asked.
Even as a teenager, and as I entered my adult years, the name Dunkirk and the year 1940 was a million miles away and of little interest to me.
I never really understood what my dad went through and the sights he had witnessed during his years as a humble World War Two soldier in the Royal Artillery, serving initially in northern France and then going on to courageously fight the Japanese - and malaria - in the steaming jungles of Burma.
As I sat silently last week in the darkened cinema and watched Christopher Nolan's epic blockbuster Dunkirk unfold on the big screen, and witnessed the sights and sounds of that awful event re-enacted for a new generation, I was reminded of the family story my mum relayed to me before she died, which I included in my book They Killed The Ice Cream Man, about the murder of my brother John, who was named after my dad.
She told me about two young lads in their early 20s always willing to take risks in search of new adventures. Two fresh-faced, innocent scallywags in a vast sea of faces, tossed together and out of their depth, literally this time, in the icy sea-of-defeat at Dunkirk. Holding onto each other in the lashing waves. Holding onto life. All around them the chaos of a dejected army in retreat. Stranded and surrounded and at the mercy of the advancing Germans and the dive bombers, who relentlessly and mercilessly targeted the almost 400,000 beleaguered Allied soldiers on the exposed beach and in the sea.
The angry sounds of war were in their ears and the cold of the heartless sea was in their bones. The youthful adventure of war that they had willingly and enthusiastically signed up for was now a bloodstained harsh reality as they willed each other to stay alive.
The dead and the dying littered the waves around them. They could see the flotilla of small fishing boats and private pleasure cruisers coming. The tiny bobbing rescue specks on the horizon brought a vulnerable mix of hope and fear to these two young soldiers on May 30, 1940, at Dunkirk in northern France.
They were just two among hundreds of thousands spread out, wading shoulder-deep for hours; a human oil slick across the surface of the sea. Some were old, many were far too young. All were afraid and far from home, a million miles from the comfort of terraced houses in streets across England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland north and south, and particularly their native Belfast. In the darkening hours most thought of loved ones back home: mothers, girlfriends, wives, their smiling children, as they swayed with the water that sucked at their thoughts. The words of Vera Lynn singing in their heads: "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when." Those comforting memories of home, not diluted by the distance between them, warmed the frightened and weakening men from within and helped give them the strength to hold on, to stay alive. Sadly, too many only had those last memories. They never would meet their loved ones back home again. Not in this life.
The sea threw them together that day in 1940. It chose them well. My dad, Private John Larmour, a Protestant from the Shankill Road area of Belfast, and Sergeant John McCann, a Catholic from the Andersonstown area of that same city.
They were two young men who didn't care about religion or politics. They just wanted to live and go home to their families. They saved each other from drowning that day. Two young men who would never forget that they owed their lives to each other, and wouldn't allow petty sectarian bigotry to spoil something so important when they managed to find each other and meet up again after the war back in Belfast.
Even as they grew older and lived through the years of bitterness and sectarian division that ripped our society apart, they never allowed it to tarnish their unique bond. They met regularly in pubs in Belfast and remembered and understood the true meaning of friendship.
These two men hugged each other as brothers whenever they met and maintained that 'Band of Brothers' friendship until they died.
My dad was the first to die and, as I hugged his lifelong friend John McCann at dad's funeral, I could see that he was visibly heartbroken.
Sadly, our society labels people because of their religion or where they were born to help keep us divided. I'm glad my dad and John McCann showed it doesn't have to be like that. They showed by example that day in 1940 at Dunkirk that there is always a better way.
When my dad was finally rescued by one of the little ships that came across the Channel from England, he had already discarded his rifle and boots and all his sodden and heavy Army uniform to stop himself from sinking and drowning. The civilian boat owner placed a blanket over him to keep him warm as they headed away from the pandemonium and terror that was taking place on the beach behind them. My dad brought that blanket home with him and my mum kept it to remind her of the day he was saved by his new lifelong friend, John McCann, at Dunkirk.
Now, 77 years after that day at Dunkirk, and with the new movie that shows the horrors behind that miraculous World War II evacuation, I hold that old blanket with its frayed tassels. I also clutch my dad's Dunkirk Medal, relatively untarnished by those long years since he was awarded it.
The memories come flooding back of two young Belfast scallywags who, in the midst of war, chose friendship over sectarian bigotry.
Unlike those who murdered my brother John and broke my mum and dad's hearts.
George Larmour is the Author of They Killed The Ice Cream Man (Colourpoint)
A victory from jaws of defeat
The evacuation of British and Allied soldiers from Dunkirk was hailed by the German high command as an outstanding victory, while Winston Churchill described the events leading up to it as a "colossal military disaster". But he later called the rescue of thousands of troops "a miracle of deliverance".
It took place over 10 days from May 26 to June 4, 1940, and during that period an incredible 338,226 Allied soldiers were taken from the beaches of the northern France town back to Britain.
A British Expeditionary Force was sent to France in support of that country's army after war was declared on Germany following its invasion of Poland.
The Wehrmacht, aided by three Panzer tank corps, tore through French defences and surrounded British, French and Belgian troops.
Fortunately, the German advance was halted because of fears that marshy land in the area would be unsuitable for the continued used of tanks, and orders were given to the Luftwaffe to try to prevent the evacuation of the trapped Allied troops from the beaches.
Support for the beleaguered soldiers came from the Royal Air Force, which undoubtedly saved many lives, but because most of the dogfights with German aircraft came well offshore or high above the clouds, the soldiers thought the RAF had abandoned them.
A flotilla of more than 800 boats ranging from destroyers to hundreds of pleasure craft, fishing boats, yachts and lifeboats was mobilised to lift the stranded soldiers from the beaches. The small craft were used to ferry the troops to the larger vessels lying offshore.
While wartime censorship prevented the British public being told of the perilous plight of the troops, the declaration of a national day of prayer on the first day of the evacuation gave an indication that things had gone seriously wrong.
On that first day of the evacuation some 7,669 men were rescued, rising to a total of 338,226 by the tenth day.
During the fighting, the town of Dunkirk was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1,000 civilians.
It is estimated that for every seven soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk, one member of the BEF was left behind.
In all, the BEF saw 68,000 men killed, wounded, missing or captured from May 10 until the surrender of France on June 22.
For many of the French soldiers, evacuation from Dunkirk only delayed their eventual demise as they were killed when they returned to their homeland to continue the fight against the invader.