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The Great Escape

As screaming fans welcomed some of the big screen's finest talent to the red carpet for the world premiere of Dunkirk there was no shortage of star power on display.

The likes of Harry Styles and Tom Hardy may be considered heroes to the adoring teenage masses but a very different band of heroes were found walking alongside the famous faces at London's Leicester Square.

A handful of Dunkirk veterans shared the spotlight and while the magic of Hollywood wowed the audiences, the onscreen depiction was all too familiar to those who survived the miraculous escape mission of May 1940.

Among those present at the VIP event was 98-year-old Alfred Smith, a former driver in the Royal Army Service Corps.

On the day of the premiere the Southend native was whisked into the capital for a meeting with Prince Harry at Kensington Palace before moving on to the movie's debut showing.

"I got to walk the red carpet and there were hundreds of people clapping and cheering," he told Soldier. "It was a day I'll never forget."

But rewind a little over 77 years and Smith found himself experiencing another day he would never forget.
As a 20-year-old he received the call to join the Army shortly after the outbreak of the Second World and found himself travelling to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on Christmas Day 1939.
Based in the city of Angers in western France, he was tasked with transporting food, ammunition, fuel and other equipment to those who were taking the fight to German forces in Europe.

These operations continued at pace for several months until Smith celebrated his 21st birthday on May 24, which was when the reality of the BEF's perilous situation suddenly hit the young Serviceman.

"Our job was to go out with supplies and the Germans would always target us," he recalled. "That call could come at 0200 or 0300 and if it was night-time you were not allowed to have your lights on - we were driving in complete darkness."

"I'll always remember that birthday. We were parked near a French square, under camouflage netting, and as I walked across a German fighter machine-gunned me...Thankfully, I managed to escape and we got under way. I'd been given a map reference and was driving along a twisting road through a forest when I came round a corner and found a blown bridge blocking my route.

I stopped to look at my map in an effort to find another way when I saw someone coming up the bank with a revolver.

I grabbed my rifle but soon realised it was a British officer. He said I was lucky the bridge was down as the German Army was just down the road and I would have driven straight into them."

He then added "in case you don't know, you're surrounded so make for the beach".

Image from the Imperial War Museum

On hearing such startling news Smith turned his vehicle round and joined the BEF's retreat.

He headed back to his companyÕs outpost but his colleagues had already departed so the soldier continued towards Dunkirk - driving for two days without sleep before finally arriving at his destination.
"There were so many lads just standing around on the beach and there was no food or water," the veteran explained. "The film shows soldiers being lined up by officers but there were no lines and no officers where I was."

"It was a long, flat beach. You just hoped for the best and a lot of my friends were killed around me."
"The German bombers were going after the ships. When I arrived you could see some of the boats they had hit as the masts were sticking out of the water."

"But the fighters were attacking us. All we could do was sit there as there was nowhere to hide."

"I was one of the lucky ones who got away. You don't really think about anything at the time; you're just numb."

Read the full story in the August issue...

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