Denis was born in 1913 in Morpeth, Northumberland and went to Sedbergh school. He joined the Territorials in 1937 and was commissioned in the Royal Engineers, going to France with the 50th Northumbrian Division in January 1940. After the long retreat from Arras to Dunkirk he got his men away in folding boats from the beach at Bray-Dunes.
Back in England the company were engaged in mine laying on the South Coast for the expected German invasion. In April 1941 the Division went to the Middle East and eventually fought in the Gazala battle in North Africa in 1942. The company was captured by a German Panzer Division. Denis was taken to Gavi and then to Cheiti in Italy, where he escaped by jumping from the train when being taken to Germany. After two months in the mountains he was recaptured and taken to Brunswick. In April 1945 the American Armoured Divisions were fighting towards Berlin and Denis painted the fires from the POW camp. Two days later the prisoners were freed.
In November 2000 Denis was recorded talking of his wartime experiences for the Centre’s oral archive. In the extracts below he talks of his memories of the retreat from Arras with his men towards Dunkirk, and eventual evacuation from there:
“Outside the farmyard where we were, were the endless, day and night, refugees going by. We were so sorry for them. I remember particularly three ladies pushing a small car and trying to find petrol so that they could get away. Another French chap was escaping with his family on a steam roller. …..We were sorry for them and they were going the wrong way anyway. They were going towards the Germans. Poor souls they were. It was sad and they got killed. One lot got, they shot them all. Not shot them. Machine gunned them …..
The role of Denis and his men was to slow down the pursuing Germans by blowing up bridges behind them as they retreated. He later painted a picture of his unit blowing up one such bridge at Krombeke on the Belgian border. Denis was ready to detonate the explosives placed on the bridge when:
“….. I was ready to press the thing except that an officer stood on the, a tank officer stood on the bridge and said he had tanks to come but sadly after a while, I went to ask him if we could blow the bridge. We were ready and he said, yes, I am afraid they are never going to come now. So he went away and we blew the bridge up”
Finally he arrived in the Dunkirk area:
“ I was detached at the time from the rest of the company and I was told to go to the Bray-Dunes. I came up over the embankment and there actually tears came to my eyes, because there the Navy had come for us and we didn’t believe that they could do that. There they all were, destroyers hammering away at the planes overhead. Bombers overhead and dive bombers kept coming down and there were other ships. Cargo ships and there were small boats as well and in to the sea they had driven long jetties at low tide, of wagons so people could go out and get in to the smaller boats and be taken out to the bigger boats or to the naval ships”
Denis organized the evacuation from the beach of the soldiers he was responsible for and …
“ …. by the end of the day I was alone in the bay but , I had left the doctor and the French interpreter who was a barrister…. and one or two REME characters and I had to somehow get them away. So I found an old motor boat. A big old motor boat lying on its side on the beach and I thought if we can get that in we might get away in that…. so we got this thing in the water and, of course, the barrister rowed the wrong way and the doctor couldn’t row either. After a lot of struggling we eventually got in to the breakers, but the wind was on shore and we couldn’t row it through the breakers. We were stuck and then two old chaps in a motor boat from the Thames I should think, came out and he held out a rope and he shouted row, row, and we really laid into it and we just managed to get a little bit nearer and he brought his boat back very courageously because his prop must have been just scraping the sand, and if he had hit his prop he would have been on the beach …. and then he threw the rope and on the second time we caught it, and he pulled us out straight through the waves. Straight to a minesweeper and the sailors just threw us on to the boat, on to the deck, and we just fell on the deck and laid down ..…. we just lay there fast asleep until they woke us up to tell us that they could see the white cliffs and we were home. I came back to Ramsgate”.
After the war Denis returned to his family and to Swinney Engineering, later becoming Chairman and Managing Director. At the age of 72 he retired and devoted himself to painting.
June 1942 after the Gazala battle.
Captured in Western desert by a sergeant major of the 25 panzer division.
We were hidden under a piece of corrugated iron.
Diary Extracts – Brunswick 1945
The art club is producing a book and John Dugdale has asked me to contribute. As he wants each artist shown in the book we all have to draw each other. “Smudge” Smith who is doing me starts tomorrow – fortunately he has a distinctive face but I cannot say that I am looking forward to the job.
Very feeble now and always cold.
slice of bread and ersatz coffee
” ” ” and three potatoes
Mint tea is provided but much as I need a hot drink I cannot get it down
Soup (cabbage barley or turnip)
Twice a week it has a little minced German meat in it.
By keeping still it is possible to live on this, though not possible to avoid thinking of food all day, but it does not provide any warmth. The heating system works only at weekends.
The lights go out every evening at eight because of the constant air raids, and we sit in greatcoats planning wonderful meals in the dark.
I have been gathering some clothes together for a camp near here of ORs who have walked from Poland.
They were marched away when the Russians attacked and walked for 40 days and sleeping in the open or in barns and eating bread. They are now in a very bad state without proper clothes or parcels.
The Allies are about 70 miles away, but they are still coming on.
If only the Russians would start now.
Noise all night but the rumours are that part of Brunswick is occupied by the American 9th Army. . . .
After breakfast I was out in the bathroom shaving when there was a shout. Some French workers ran along the road outside. Then there came a great moaning shouting cry and everyone ran out of the buildings.
I went out and ran up to the top of the camp, where hundreds and hundreds of prisoners were running to the gate shouting. Into the main gate came a small grubby American sergeant carrying an automatic rifle.
At the gate stood a Jeep which in an instant was covered with men like a branch under a swarm of bees.
Soon there were two thousand men round the gate making a high babble of excited talk, which was cut to silence by a double crash.
In an instant everyone disappeared but the mortars stopped and the party began again.
The Americans said afterwards that they did not know that the camp was here. They had seen the buildings across the plain and not liking the look of it they debated taking it to pieces. . . .
I went and touched the Jeep – just to be sure, but it was the smell of exhaust smoke that really got me.
Since the Americans came we have just eaten and eaten.
I cannot write of all the small things that mean so much to us. Just cutting a thick slice of bread, wonderful!
We cannot eat very much at one sitting, but on the other hand we are always hungry. Already I feel much stronger, and at last really warm.
Parties of officers have been out in the town collecting supplies all day.
The Russians are drunk already and chasing the population round. I do not blame them in the least after having seen how they were treated.
At Mooseburg (?) the Russians were put into the next compound to us when they were taken out of the train. They were locked in box cars for a month. One lot had not been fed for ten days and as they marched along they would dive down and scoop up water from pools on the ground. We threw them tins of food and they went for it like wild animals. Because of this their officers wrote a very good letter thanking us, and asking if we would send the food in bulk so that they could issue it properly.
‘These men are maddened with hunger’ they explained, ‘also some of them are from Siberia and are not educated’.
We did send supplies but the Germans soon stopped this. After that we arranged a piece of pipe through the wire and poured German soup through to them in bucketsful.
The Germans never went into the compound without their dogs, but one day a dog got in with out his keeper.
Soon after the Russians threw the skin back over the wire.
In spite of all that the Germans could do to them the Russians were never defeated, as the French often were. They worked so slowly that it was impossible to see any progress. When they settled in they were set to work cutting wood. So much of this was got through the wire to us under the nose of the sentry that the wood pile got smaller every day instead of larger.
Now they are free and at the moment in complete control of Brunswick.
The Germans of course brought women and children in the box cars as well as soldiers. Millions of Ukranians were packed in trains and have worked here as slaves for years there are 12,000,000 foreign workers here of whom about half are unpaid slaves like our ‘Russian grandmothers’.
At the top of the camp the Luftwaffe had a small workshop in which worked some of these Ukranian women. They looked cold and old shuffling about in rags.
They stand outside the wire now about a dozen women some old men and lots of children. They are completely silent.
Now they have clothes, food, everything, but for them I think it is too late. They do not seem to be able to smile.
Inventory of the Donation
- Book: Art in the bag (4 pages on Swinney, pp 32-35) published for the Oflag 79 art club, 1948
- Oflag 79 P.O.W. identity card including chest x-ray.
- German letter
- Large set of original artwork including 20 paintings and 14 cartoons