Museum of the Manchester Regiment
The Men Behind the Medals

Alfred Yates

Alfred Yates :

Alfred Yates : Dunkirk Medal

Dunkirk Medal

Alf, as he was known, grew up in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire.

Between January and March 1935 he married Amy Wycherley. They had 3 children that we know of; Jean in early 1936, Bryan in mid 1937 and Alfred in late 1940.

In the late 1930s the family lived at 4 Bradgate Street in Ashton. Alf worked for the London and North Eastern Railway at Guide Bridge Station near Ashton.

Alf joined the 9th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment on the 27th January 1937. This was a unit of the Territorial Army (TA) based in Ashton. TA soldiers kept their civilian jobs and homes and trained as soldiers during evenings and weekends, as well as an annual training camp lasting around 2 weeks. Alf's service number was 3529112.

The 9th Battalion became a mechanised machine gun battalion later that decade. This job involved supporting infantry battalions by providing extra firepower with their Vickers Machine Guns. It required specialist training. The battalion also had access to more vehicles than a normal battalion, which meant that soldiers needed to be trained as drivers and mechanics.

Vickers guns were operated by teams of soldiers. Alf was the Number 1, or team leader, on his gun. His great friend Roy Beeley was his Number 3. Many years later Roy wrote a letter to Alf's son Bryan. In it he described their experiences together during their service with the 9th Battalion during the Second World War.

'Alf and I were called up together and slept in the next bed to each other for 4 years. First at Portland House, then in Newcastle, to Newbury in 1940 and then to France... We were always together and 'mucked in' with everything, even money, we even used the same toothpaste. We could not be separated and were noted for it: 'Where Alf went Roy went as well'.

'Every Friday night in England it was always egg and beans, cost 6 pence out of our 7 shillings per week. We played cards a lot, win or lose we always divided everything. If he had 5 shillings I got 2 shillings and 6 pence and vice versa'.

After their training in the UK Alf, Roy and their comrades were sent to France in April 1940. They formed part of the British Expeditionary Force planning to defend against an expected German invasion. This period was known as the 'Phoney War' due to the large armies, and the lack of fighting.

The Germans invaded France and Belgium on the 10th May 1940. Despite the best efforts of British and French forces they were quickly overwhelmed and forced back to the Channel coast.

Alf and his comrades used their machine guns to try and hold the Germans back as the British retreated. Between the 27th May and the 4th June most of the British forces were evacuated from the town of Dunkirk. Twenty one members of the 9th, including Alf and Roy, were not so lucky. They were captured on the 27th May and became Prisoners of War.

'When we were captured in 1940 we were not two yards apart, we thought they were going to shoot us so we held hands and said a little prayer. Anyway he turned out to be a good German officer and sent us behind their lines.

'Then Alf and me were put on a barge in Holland to Germany. This was after we had been walking with 1000 or more prisoners for 4 days and not a bite to eat - a drink of water yes. Anyway we managed to pinch or scrounge we always divided.

'From Germany we were sent to Poland in cattle
[railway] trucks, once again nothing only 6 Belgian biscuits to last us 3 days and only allowed out of the cattle trucks for 1/2 hour a day, you can guess what for.

'We arrived in Poland and put in a large fort, but we got something to eat and drink, a bowl of soup (50% water) and a loaf of bread between 8 men.

'Then our luck began to change. The Germans were building a large canteen for the officers and they wanted bricklayers etc. That's where Roy and Alf came in. We told them we had always worked together in England in the building trade. As you know I was a bricklayer. Anyway everything turned out pretty good for Alf and me; extra food for working. This lasted for 3 months till the canteen was completed.

'We got a transfer to Danzig
[now Gdansk in Poland] as they wanted building workers. Over 250 miles away, once again in the cattle trucks but a bit better than the 1st time, we got bread and coffee twice a day till we arrived in Danzig on Saturday afternoon.

We were given Sunday off to settle in and pick our beds, once again next to each other, where we were for the next 3 1/2 years'.

Alf and Roy had arrived at Stalag XX-B near what was then Marienburg in German East Prussia and is now Malbork in Poland. This town was around 30 miles from Danzig.

'We both started again working in the same working gang. I was put in another gang from Alf but I managed to change over with a Scotsman who wanted to be with his mate - it went unnoticed as we were both bricklayers, so Alf and I stayed together and worked together for the next 3 1/2 years, still sharing everything even Red Cross Parcels when we got all that time we were together we never once fell out over anything.

'I was always very keen on boxing and fought over 50 fights in the camp and Alf was always in my corner. He was no fool himself but short of breath, but he taught me a few tricks. It ran in Alf's family.

'We both sat together in the camp when bombs were dropping all round us in Danzig. On a Saturday night in 1942 two British planes were shot down and the funeral party was held in our camp. Eight of the crew were buried in Danzig.

'After that things carried on the same. When winter came along building had to stop because of snow and frost. Believe me it was cold. We then had to go out in small working parties to clear the streets and roads and we always managed to stay together. We had to march 10 miles a day leaving the camp at 7:00 every morning till 5:00 at night or till it was dark.

'Sometimes we got a good guard who turned a blind eye, but some bad ones as well. But we soon sorted ourselves out; we used to watch which guard was detailed for each party and then run for the best ones.

'We were always pleased to hear from home and we read each other's letters, ... I was a non-smoker so if we got any cigs I always gave mine to Alf. Sometimes I used to swap with the cooks extra food for cigs. This was agreed between Alf and I and the food was divided between us.

'In 1944 I was sent with 20 more building trade workers to another camp. Your Dad tried to get on the same party but failed thanks to a B------ of an English Sergeant Major. He was worse than the Germans. A shake of hands and a few tears and we were parted till the war was over'.

We don't know anything about what Alf did during the rest of the war. Germany surrendered in May 1945 and British Prisoners were released. Alf was demobilised on the 4th November, but he had been back in the UK for some time before then.

In around 1943 Alf had been able to send a photograph to Amy, showing Alf and Roy with 5 other Prisoners in Stalag XX-B. The photograph was later published in the Ashton Reporter newspaper.

Roy returned to Ashton 'about a week' after Alf. He arrived home on a 'Friday at 8:30. Saturday morning at 10:00 I was at your house in Bradgate Street... For the 6 weeks we were on leave we went out together nearly all the time.

'When our leave was over we both went to Leeds for 6 weeks. But I was transferred to the Royal Engineers in London and Alf was demobbed, but we still kept in touch...

'When I was demobbed in 1946 I still went out with Alf and your uncles...we used to meet in the King Bill, or the Spread Eagle, also the Ashton Hotel the new one and later in the Warrington in Cockbrook...

'Well Bryan, your Dad was the best pal I ever had and I had quite a few'.

Roy died in December 2000, aged 80.

We don't know much about Alf's later life. The Dunkirk Medal was instituted in 1948 by the town of Dunkirk (Dunkerque in French) to recognise the soldiers who had fought to defend it. It was made available to British veterans from 1970 onwards.

Alf's medal was donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in July 1999. He was also awarded medals by the Army to recognise his service. He is likely to have received the 1939-45 Star and the 1939-45 War Medal. He may also have received the 1939-45 Defence Medal and the Efficiency Medal.

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Trustees of the Manchester Regiment Museum & Archive and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council