A Manager’s Story

John Mills in the 1958 feature, Dunkirk

When I first met Arthur in 1969 he was a man in his late fifties and a manager in a large department store. For five years he was my boss.

He’d seen better times in the retail industry, but he was still a very proud and capable man in his beautifully pressed morning suit and stiff white collar and regimental tie. His dark brilliantined hair was, in the style of the 1930s, parted in the centre and shone like his black, many times repaired, ancient shoes. He was also something of legend in the retail industry, having risen to the position of the manager of a large department store in the 1950s.

He gave off the aura of authority, with a fierce reputation for dicipline coupled with the ability to strip you to the bone verbally if you needed it. But that’s what you’d expect from a top sergeant in the Tank Corps who’d landed on the Normandy beaches in the first hours of D-Day, probably with a Senior Service fag clamped firmly between his teeth as he did so.

Four years earlier, in 1940, Arthur had been alone keeping his head down in a sand dune on the beaches of Dunkirk. He’d just smoked his last cigarette and was deciding what to do next.

As a territorial soldier of some experience Arthur had been drafted into the army as a regular at the first sign of trouble in 1939 and shipped over to France as a memberof the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in September. Their duties were to patrol the border between France and Germany and, as Arthur was repeatedly told, there wasn’t much of a threat of action as the Jerries would never get passed the heavily defended French Maginot Line. All was quiet until May of the following year when the Germans went around the Maginot Line and blasted their way into France. All hell was let loose, and within a few days Arthur, and several hundred thousand other regular British soldiers, were told to head for Dunkirk — it was everyman for himself.

My old boss was a fit man who, back in the 1930s, was a champion long distance runner and swimmer who, in his spare time, also did some semi-professional boxing.

After the news of the German invasion, Arthur, once the order had been given to head for Dunkirk, decided to go it alone and as fast as he could, and in as much of a straight line as possible: hadn’t he done it a hundred times across the fields and streams of the Black Country in competitions, and on orientering exercises with the yeomanry. After a quick corned-beef sandwich, and a farewell word to his mates the determined Private set off with a compass in his tunic pocket, and a nicked officer’s revolver tucked in his belt.

It wasn’t all straight forward of course, having to hide from German patrols on several occasions, and ignore desperate pleas for help from fleeing refugees. But he knew that if he didn’t stick to his resolve to get to Dunkirk, and quickly, he feared he might just start to panic, and Arthur didn’t panic much, not even when his boxing opponent had to be carried unconcious from the ring. He musn’t let the fear in.

He made it in less than two days.

When he saw the increasing chaos on the beaches closest to the town, Arthur headed a bit further north to a quieter stretch of beach where he burrowed himself into the side of a dune with a good view of the sea. He ate the last of some cheese he’d taken from the kitchen table of a deserted farmhouse, drank a little of the water he had with him and rested. He’d made it. Now what?

Arthur’s sergeant had said that once on the beach the navy would evacuate them back home.

Home? A small terraced house where his widowed mother still lived, not far from the steel works where his father had been killed by a red hot piece of steel shrapnel hitting him in the chest when a casting had fallen and splintered. Arthur’s father — who had fought and survived the trenches — was killed outright. The management and unions declared it an accident, gave Arthur’s mother a few quid, and that was that. Except it wasn’t enough for Arthur, who carried a back-pack of resentment against management and unions for the rest of his life. Oh, he would cover it well, very well, but it was always there; and in a strange way it was that resentment that gave him the strength of will to survive and out do all of those who tried to pull rank. I never saw him bettered by anyone. It also gave him the courage to get off that French beach as soon as a ship steamed over the horizon.

After two days of shelling by Stukka Bombers a Royal Navy frigate did come over the horizon. This was Arthur’s chance. He stripped down to his underwear and swam toward the frigate, but before he’d gone half a mile other ships had appeared, dozens of them: pleasure craft of all kinds. Arthur headed toward the nearest, probably doing the best time he’d ever achieved in competion, and as he was pulled aboard he vowed to return in a tank.

In those five years that I knew and worked for Arthur (I always called him Sir of course) my life changed as he taught me the ins and outs of managing departments in big stores, and of the necessary tricks one needed back then to keep things running smoothly.

After a few months I became his assistant manager (by which time he called me ‘Flash’), which meant we had coffee and tea together every day, always with a ‘wad’ (which is army parlance for a currant bun), and the ubiquitous Senior Service cigarette. Those coffee and tea breaks might last for an hour at a time as I listened to his life stories of working in department stores, of his years in the army, and of going back to France on D-Day 6th of June, 1944, in the first wave commanding a Churchill tank, and how he and his crew fought all the way to Berlin, recalling with a smile how, in a shelled-out French village, they stopped for a brew and a wad and, stepping out of the tank, were confronted by a dog and cat. The crew made a fuss of them and fed them, and as the command was given to move out, bundled the dog and cat into the tank.

When Arthur left the army in 1945 he took the dog and cat back to the UK with him where they lived with him and his wife until the mid 1950s.

After I left his store in 1974 I didn’t see him again until the late 1980s, and only then for an hour or two.

He was a dear, brave, troubled, and hugely generous man. And he did look a bit a bit like John Mills.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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