The Dunkirk Evacuation: 80 years on

By David Bull and Duncan Holley time Tue 26 May History
Photo by Archive: Stansbridge (left) & Pearce, circled

On the 80th anniversary of the start of the evacuation from Dunkirk, club historians David Bull and Duncan Holley honour two Saints of the 1930s who were destined to miss the boat...

On May 27th 1940, the evacuation began, from the Channel port of Dunkirk, of more than 338,000 British and French soldiers. In the 80 years since, myriad recollections of what that legendary exercise achieved have focused on the heroic feats of their rescuers, from the volunteers in their small boats to the sailors in their destroyers – men like ex-Saint Robert Perrett, who made no fewer than seven crossings and whose story can be told another time.

What follows takes us in the opposite direction, however, tracing the fates of two Saints – Len Stansbridge and Ernie Pearce – who, for different reasons, had little hope of being on either the beaches or the harbour of Dunkirk to board a ship to England.

Having kept goal for the Southampton side that reached the final of the English Schools Trophy in 1932, Len had made his senior debut at the end of the 1937/38 season. But from then until the declaration of war in September 1939, he was very much the very occasional deputy to Sam Warhurst.

When the two keepers lined up for the squad photo (above) in that fateful summer of 1939, the recently-signed Ernie Pearce was in the picture – a young hopeful in a 29-man complement that manager Tom Parker had assembled. Fast forward a year and the two players would be together anew – as prisoners of war. 

Pearce Stansbridge
Ernie Pearce (left) and Len Stansbridge were PoWs together. The backdrop shows Len practising

Having played a bit for the Reserves in 1938/39, Ernie had enlisted in the Wiltshire Regiment and trained with them at Devizes. But he sailed for France with the 2/7th Battalion of the Queens Royal Regiment. Parker, who liked to keep in touch with his men overseas, wrote to Ernie on May 10th 1940, when his battalion was one of three Queens battalions near Abbeville, way south of Dunkirk on the estuary of the River Somme.

On May 20th, they came under a surprise Panzer attack that all but wiped out five of the nine battalions in its path. At the centre of the Queens’ ill-prepared defence, the 2/7th were the first battalion to be hit. The survivors would be captured. Ernie’s new address, for the purpose of receiving letters from his manager, would be Stalag VIIIB at Lansdorf in south-west Poland, not far from the Czech border.

Stansbridge would be in the same prison. Serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps, he was among the medical personnel necessarily left at Dunkirk, fully expecting to be taken prisoner. Badly wounded men who could not be ferried to the harbour, let alone board a ship, could not be abandoned. Some medics, working in a makeshift hospital, drew lots in order to determine who remained with those wounded men. Others were manning medical aid posts within a defensive shield of fighting fit men, 30 miles wide and seven miles deep. 

As the more seaward of those combatants gradually made for the ships, some of the married medics were ordered to join them, while some of the RAMC’s bachelors – men like Stansbridge – volunteered to stay.

Under Article 9 of the Geneva Convention, medical personnel could not be taken, and held, as PoWs: once they had fulfilled their obligations to their wounded charges, they should be released. In practice, this meant that, if they were lucky, they were deployed in the prison hospital, while the British and the Germans argued about an exchange of wounded men and their medical escorts

It could be that word of such negotiations in 1941 prompted manager Parker to write to Pearce about the prospect of Stansbridge being repatriated. If so, it was prudent of him not to alert Len’s mum, as the British pulled out of the deal, pleading an unfavourable imbalance of numbers. 

Parker letter

Whatever the explanation, Len was transferred, that year, to Stalag XXID, and to a new football team, pending an exchange of wounded prisoners, in Sweden’s port of Gothenburg, in October 1943. Len was detailed to escort a group of blinded men.

Stansbridge PoW team
Goalkeeper Stansbridge lines up with his new team at Stalag XXID

The Convention required that he would no longer serve overseas, so Len was “home”. On 20th January 1945, he stood in the Saints’ first-team goal for the first time since May 1939. Warhurst had injured himself, falling downstairs, and Len seized his chance to play a dozen matches in his stead. 

Warhurst accorded Len fewer opportunities in 1945/46, but then retired, leaving Len briefly to compete for the keeper’s jersey with a signing from Swindon – George Ephgrave, another repatriated PoW – until Ian Black arrived during the 1947/48 season.

Pearce had also returned to the Saints’ colours in 1945/46 – for half-a-dozen games in the Reserves – having left Stalag VIIIB in spectacular fashion. In April 1944, he cut off the little finger of his left hand. 

Pearce and Barbara
Pictured in 1950 with his wife Barbara, Ernie exhibits his self-mutilation

That guaranteed him admission to the hospital, whence a Czech nurse had arranged to facilitate his escape into the arms of Czech Partisans and eventually to Southampton.

A fuller version of Ernie Pearce’s story, with more photos, is available in Duncan Holley’s DAYS LIKE THESE. For details of this book, and of David Bull’s forthcoming SAINTS AT WAR, elaborating on 400+ Southampton footballers in World War One or Two, please visit hagiologists.com.

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