Dunkirk hero from Lichfield joins Prince Harry to recall his escape at premiere
‘It is important to remember the sacrifices that were made. I hope it never happens again.’
The words of George Wagner, one of the last survivors of the Dunkirk evacuation who was just 19 when he was trapped on the beaches of northern France.
The 96-year-old shared his harrowing story at the launch of a new Hollywood film about the historic evacuation.
The bravery of Mr Wagner and others involved in the Second World War operation was remembered in London’s Leicester Square at the world premiere of Dunkirk.
Mr Wagner, from Lichfield, who was awarded the Legion D’Honneur, France’s highest military medal, walked the red carpet with Prince Harry after meeting him at an earlier reception at Kensington Palace.
Mr Wagner, who was sent to Europe in late-1939 with the Royal Engineers told how he seized his opportunity to get off the beaches as the Prince learned first hand about the 1940 operation to save hundreds of thousands of servicemen.
He was then given a private screening of the Christopher Nolan blockbuster, and said the sound of explosions brought back memories of the horror he faced.
He said: “It’s got bags of bangs, that’s what worries me is the bangs.
“It just reminded me when we were just outside Dunkirk we were mortared as we were getting away.
“Then they started to shell us and then one or two planes started to have a go. I was down below deck, there were six or seven of us and we were soaking wet and naked, our clothes were in the engine room drying out.”
When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced in September 1939 that Britain was at war with Germany, Mr Wagner, then aged 19, was caught up in the ‘fervour’ and saw it as an ‘adventure’.
He was first deployed to Belgium where ‘people came out of their offices to welcome us’ when he arrived in Brussels.
But when German tanks punched through French defences in the Ardennes forests on May 10, 1940, the British Army was forced into a retreat towards the coast.
George, who as a sapper was used to repairing river crossings and clearing mines, was instead blowing up bridges and laying explosives to slow the German advance.
“We blew up the biggest bridge over the Albert Canal in Brussels,” he said. “I don’t think they were so welcoming when we started to blow stuff up during the retreat.”
Things soon got serious for the troops on the road to Dunkirk as the Nazi onslaught intensified.
Arriving at De Panne, just across the border they were targeted by German mortar fire. Mr Wagner said: “I had never heard anything so loud in my life. The shelling got very close to us. Debris hit one of the other soldiers in our section.”
Eventually crossing into France and with their destination in sight, the truck Mr Wagner was in had to be dumped – but they eventually made it.
With the Germans surrounding Dunkirk, the only port left for an Allied withdrawal, military chiefs expected to get just 45,000 soldiers off the continent when Operation Dynamo began on May 26.
Salvation arrived late at night. Mr Wagner said: “I saw a Navy lifeboat and waded into the water. A naval rating asked, ‘Can you row?’ So I said ‘yes’. It filled up and we rowed out to a minesweeper.
“I took all my clothes off because I was dripping with sea water and they gave me a blanket. They cut up bread and cheese and that was beautiful. I hadn’t anything to eat or drink for a couple of days.
“It is important to remember the sacrifices that were made. I hope it never happens again.” At the premiere Mr Wagner joined Prince Harry on the red carpet to cheers and screams from crowds. He then met the film’s stars, including Tom Hardy, Sir Mark Rylance and Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Sir Kenneth, who plays Commander Bolton, said: “The survivors who have seen the film were very generous in their comments about it in terms of what a film can do, although it can never be a real experience, they seemed to admire it. George said he was there for three days and it’s very, very hard to imagine how you cope with that.”
Dunkirk is in cinemas on July 21.