Arthur Willmott of the Dunkirk Rear Guard

James Perry, PhD

Soldiers waiting to be evacuated from Dunkirk

As the stars shone in the early hours of 3 June 1940, the coastal town of Dunkirk, France, lay in ruins, the victim of days of fighting and bombing as British and French soldiers fought to delay the advancing German forces.  In the dark of night that day General Harold Alexander performed one final sweep for any straggling soldiers, “Is anyone there?  Is anyone there?” he called out on his megaphone.[1]  With no response, he boarded a destroyer and sailed for Dover, thus concluding the evacuation of Dunkirk – codenamed Operation Dynamo.

For days smoke had hung over the area from the constant fighting and bombing as thousands of allied soldiers were evacuated from France to Britain.  Low clouds and poor visibility for aircraft had protected some of the soldiers from the Luftwaffe’s strafing, but the end was in sight for the defending French and British forces; the Germans would soon be there, and they would be prisoners of war.

A flotilla of civilian and military vessels worked tirelessly to ferry soldiers across the English Channel, leaving tonnes of valuable military equipment behind.  Meanwhile, a rear guard fought to keep the advancing German forces at bay, allowing as many soldiers as possible to be evacuated.  The Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, and Merchant Navy were there in the British army’s hour of need, to assist in their rescue, as were hundreds of small civilian boats.[2]

At 7am the next morning, the last of the ships set off leaving thousands of soldiers behind in France and several thousand dead.  Despite the losses, the evacuation of Dunkirk had been a remarkable success in the face of a near-total catastrophe.  Initially far fewer soldiers were expected to be rescued.  Some estimates put the number at 100,000 soldiers, but in the end more than 330,000 made it across the English Channel.[3]

Walking wounded British soldiers from Dunkirk disembarking in Dover, England.

The rescue, although a disaster in terms of the loss of men and supplies, was described as a “glorious evacuation”, that had “brought back thousands of our fighting men for a short period of rest and reorganisation before they had ‘another crack’ at the Nazis.”[4]

On the following day at 3.40pm, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood up in the House of Commons to deliver a speech on the evacuation of the British forces from Dunkirk, in which he declared:

“A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all.  The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops.  He was so roughly handled that he did not harry their departure seriously.  The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead.  We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory.  Wars are not won by evacuations.”[5]

British Prisoners of War at Dunkirk, June 1940

The miracle of deliverance mentioned by Churchill had indeed saved the British Expeditionary Force, but there was no deliverance for the 40,000 British prisoners who were then marched to various German prisons.  The stirring speech helped raise British morale, but there was a bleak future ahead for the nation and the British prisoners of war.[6]

Several Latter-day Saints were present at the evacuation.  Some, including George Fudge, were fortunate to be rescued and make it home.  One was not so lucky: Arthur Benjamin Willmott a third-generation Latter-day Saint.  The youngest of eleven children, Arthur was raised in the faith by his parents and attended Primary and Mutual Improvement Association activities because of their teaching and encouragement.  Arthur recorded, “I always went to Sunday School because I was instructed to go by my parents and so at the age of eight, I was baptised.  Time went on and I did my best to live the gospel and when I was twelve years of age, I was made a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood.”

In June 1933, the nineteen-year-old met James H Douglas, President of the British Mission.  During the meeting he was called to serve in the London District as a part-time missionary, which he completed faithfully.  Arthur remained worthy of the priesthood he held.

FallOfFrance03 Courtesy of Geoffrey Willmott.
Arthur while a prisoner of war, c. 1942.

When war broke out in 1939 Arthur was working as a railway porter and living in Tottenham, London.[7] Wanting to do his bit, he volunteered for the army and soon found himself as a Private in the Royal Sussex Regiment of the British Army.

In May 1940 Arthur and others in the various battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment formed part of the rear guard for the retreating forces in France.  Wounded soldiers were left behind as the soldiers kept retreating toward the coast.  The retreat soon turned into chaos as regiments became mixed up; French allies surrendered, and German forces overran the defending units.[8]

One day, while on a troop train, Arthur and his regiment were attacked by German soldiers and bombers.  They quickly got off the train, and during the process a finger on Arthur’s left hand was shot off.  He didn’t notice anything until one of his comrades told him.  The wound on his hand was bleeding profusely and shrapnel was buried into some of his of other fingers.  The wound was later bandaged but more of his fingers would be amputated later, leaving him with just the thumb and one finger on his left hand.

Through the efforts of Arthur and his comrades, the rear guard at Dunkirk put up significant resistance, delaying the Germans long enough to allow many soldiers to be evacuated.  They also destroyed valuable supplies and documents to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Germans.  Arthur and others of the rear guard were knowingly sacrificed to protect the larger army; they suffered intense shelling and aerial attacks as the German attacks sought to break through the lines.  As the final ships left, the port was further disabled to prevent German forces from using it for some time.  The miracle of Dunkirk was that so many had managed to escape; the British army would be able to fight another day.

After his capture in France, Arthur was marched to Germany.  Conditions were initially difficult as the Germans had not expected to capture so many prisoners.  A shortage of food meant soldiers often went hungry, but Arthur found his captors treated him well when they arrived at a prisoner of war camp.  Later in the war he wrote of his treatment: “We are treated very well by the Germans so we must not grumble.”[9]  But for sixteen months after his capture he was listed as missing in action; no one heard from him.  There was great joy amongst his family and the British Mission when news arrived that he was alive and well.

For those sixteen months he didn’t hear from any of his family or friends.  Then he found out that his older brother, Samuel, had died during the evacuation of Dunkirk, on 1 June.  He was an Able Seaman onboard HMS Skipjack, a minesweeper, trying to take soldiers back to Britain.  The ship, packed full of soldiers, was attacked by ten German dive bombers as it made its way back to Britain.  It was hit five times and started sinking.  The survivors of the initial attack made it to the water only to be attacked by machine gun fire from the aircraft.

The ship quickly sank, and the 19 crew and 275 evacuating soldiers were killed.  After receiving the news, Arthur soon realised that his family must have thought they had lost two sons early in the war.

Soon after news of his imprisonment reached the Church, the First Presidency (President Heber J Grant, and counsellors Reuben J Clark, and David O McKay), wrote to him:

“Dear Brother Willmott, we send you our greetings and offer to our Heavenly Father a prayer in your behalf that your life may be preserved to return in due course to your relatives and friends and that you will be valiant in the defense of truth and live always in obedience to the laws and commandments of God. … May our Heavenly Father bless and protect you.”[10]

While a prisoner of war, Arthur continued to be paid his army wages, but he had no way to spend it.  After re-establishing contact with a friend, Winifred Moore, via letters, he decided to send her the money to support her during her full-time mission.  Before the war he had grown close to Winifred, a young Latter-day Saint convert, in their North London branch.  In 1942 she was called to serve as a full-time missionary and was soon assigned to labour in the Bristol district.

Andre Anastasiou was the acting president of the British Mission during the Second World War when the Mission President, Hugh B Brown, and all the American full-time missionaries were evacuated.  President Anastasiou soon heard about Arthur’s status and sent him a letter on 28 October 1942:

“I was in Bristol last weekend, with Sister Winifred Moore who told me a great deal about you and, especially, was she happy to tell me of the money you have set apart for the missionary work. The Lord will richly bless you for your kindness of heart and faith. … Your father and mother and brothers are all well.  Your father is doing a very fine work in the London district Presidency and we see him often.  His generosity and sacrifice is most exemplary.  Your brother Albert H is one of the finest missionaries and every District President wherever he has laboured speaks most highly of him and his services. We pray for your safety and hope to see you home in the near future.”[11]

Arthur received the letter and yearned to be home.  He had been transferred to France in preparation for a prisoner swap in December 1941, but it was cancelled, and he was sent back to a German prisoner of war camp.

The money Arthur sent helped keep Winifred on her mission for twenty months. Through ‘tracting’, Winifred and her companion, who was a young lady that Winifred had introduced to the Church, brought large numbers of children to Primary events and classes.  As a result, she organised several Primaries in South West England including in Bristol and Weston-Super-Mare, regularly hosting ‘Lantern Lectures’ and organising activities for the children.[12]  It was Arthur’s wages and support from other friends that enabled Winifred to be on her mission.  During this time, she was also called as a member of the British Mission Genealogical Board and laboured tirelessly helping members to complete their genealogical research.[13]

FallOfFrance09 From Family Search.
Samuel Willmott, brother to Arthur Died on 1 June while evacuating soldiers from Dunkirk.

During his incarceration, Arthur kept himself busy by working in the German motor pool, along with several other prisoners of war.  He shrewdly performed poor repairs so the cars would keep needing attention.  He would also ‘find’ unnecessary repairs thereby keeping vehicles out of commission for longer and using up spare parts unnecessarily. It was his small way of helping the Allies while a prisoner.

Because he worked in the motor pool, Arthur was often allowed to test run vehicles for a short distance to ensure they worked.  One day he and a fellow prisoner took two motorcycles out for a test run and decided to make a run for it.  They had gone past their designated turn-around point outside the camp when they ran into a patrol of Germans.  The patrol wanted to know what they were doing so far from the camp.  Knowing German from night-class lessons he took before the war, Arthur explained that they had got a bit carried away, being such a nice day, and gone further than they had intended.  They turned around and raced back to the camp.

Arriving back at the camp before the patrol, Arthur felt inspired to report to the commandant that they had gone further than normal as they had been enjoying the ride.  Soon after the patrol leader arrived at the camp and reported that they had found two prisoners trying to escape.  The commandant brushed the report off and said Arthur and his fellow prisoner had just been taking the motorbikes out for a test run.  The narrow escape made Arthur avoid further attempted prison breaks.

Soon after, in the autumn of 1943, Arthur returned home to England on a prisoner exchange, and remained on light duties throughout the remainder of the war on account of his injuries.  For many years he wore a glove to cover his hand.  On 4 November 1943, a social was held in the North London Chapel for Arthur. “We are pleased to report that he is quite well and very happy to be back in England,” wrote the editor of the Millennial Star.  

After arriving home, Arthur reconnected with Winifred and on 19 April 1945 they were married at the Ravenslea Chapel in Wandsworth, London.  The two valiant members remained in the British Isles, working tirelessly in various callings in the Church, and were later sealed in the London temple in October 1958 with their son, Geoffrey.

The experience of being sealed in the London Temple set off a new chapter in the lives of the Willmotts.  They became avid temple attenders.  Not being very well off, they would often leave their north London home early Saturday morning on their tandem bicycle and cycle the 35 miles through London to the temple.  The journey took them at least three hours each way.  For years they faithfully attended the temple this way.  The bike proved constantly reliable when driving to and from the temple each weekend.

Later the family was blessed with a small Honda motorcycle that made their travel much more comfortable.

FallOfFrance01 Courtesy of Geoffrey Willmott.
Arthur, Winnie, and Geoffrey with their Honda motorcycle. Courtesy of Geoffrey Willmott.

Despite his experience of working on vehicles during the war, Arthur never had a car driving licence so could only ride motorcycles.  Eventually they bought a three-wheeled car, which he was permitted to drive on his driver’s licence; he was now able to take others to the temple, as well as complete the journey without worrying about the weather.

Eventually, Winnie was called as a temple ordinance worker and worked during the week at the Temple, while Arthur was at his regular work.  Later, they were both called as temple workers, and would be found cheerfully helping patrons on Saturdays, Arthur’s day off from his regular work.  For years they served together, valiantly making sacrifices to be at the temple, rain or shine.

Arthur had always been a quiet, faithful man.  He was active in the gospel his entire life and found great joy in performing temple ordinances for others.  The honourable veteran was loved by all who knew him; he was deeply missed when he died at the age of 71 in 1984.  Despite missing her husband, Winnie continued to immerse herself in Church service.  Earlier in her life, when seriously ill, she had received a blessing revealing that her ancestors had asked that her life be extended so she could continue doing their temple work.  For the next twenty years or so Winnie continued her lifetime work of gathering names and performing temple ordinances until her death in 2003 at the age of 90.

Many generations of Latter-day Saints can be grateful Arthur survived Dunkirk and remained true to his testimony despite the trials that surrounded him.  His faith and generosity brought much goodness into the world and touched the lives of many.  Together, Arthur and Winnie leave a legacy of faith and sacrifice for their family and for all Latter-day Saints to enjoy.

FallOfFrance02 Courtesy of Geoffrey Willmott
Arthur and Winnie Willmott on their wedding day, 19 April 1945.

[1] Sean Longden, Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind (London: Constable and Robinson, 2009), p. 2.

[2] Dover Express, 7 June 1940, ‘The Dunkirk Evacuation’.

[3] Shields Daily News, 5 June 1940, ‘Evacuation of Dunkirk is Complete’.

[4] Daily Record, 4 June 1940, ‘Do Your Bit For Boys From Dunkirk’.

[5] House of Commons Debates, 4 June 1940 vol 361 cc. 787-98.

[6] Sean Longden, Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind (London: Constable and Robinson, 2009), p. 9.

[7] The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1939 Register; Reference: RG 101/922C

[8] See Longden, Dunkirk.

[9] Undated and censored letter from Arthur Willmott to A. A. Willmott.

[10] Letter from the First Presidency to Arthur Willmott, 29 September 1942.

[11] Letter from Andre K. Anastasou to Arthur Willmott, 28 October 1942.

[12] ‘Train Up A Child In The Way He Should Go’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 104, No. 47 (1942), p. 752.

[13] ‘Bristol District Annual Conference’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 104, No. 25 (1942), p. 390.