Christopher Nolan’s epic new film Dunkirk has struck a chord with movie goers across the UK.
After two weeks in the cinema it has taken more than £30 million and still sits on the top of the film charts.
The story of the Dunkirk evacuation, which saw a flotilla of small civilian vessels assist in the rescue of stranded troops from France in 1940, is ingrained in Britain’s psyche.
But Nolan’s film has brought the near-miraculous rescue of more than 300,000 British, French and Belgian troops from the beaches and harbours of northern France to a new generation.
One man who experienced the horror of Dunkirk at first-hand was Flying Officer James ‘Jas’ Storrar.
Born in Ormskirk on June 24, 1920, his family had run a veterinary practice in Chester since the early 18th century and he was educated at Chester City and County School.
In October 1938 he joined the RAF on a short service commission.
‘Jas’ Storrar, as he was always known, was a teenager when war broke out. He immediately volunteered for the RAF and flew missions to protect the troops of the BEF as they were being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk.
By mid-August of 1940, Storrar had already been credited with nine kills and was a relative veteran when Germany launched its massive bombing raids on Britain.
Storrar was with No 145 Squadron, based at Tangmere in West Sussex and flying Hurricanes, when he and his fellow pilots were called into action to support the evacuation.
The war hero, who died in 1995, aged 74, recalled his experiences many times over the years and was a valued contributor to a number of books about the conflict.
At the time of Dunkirk he was just 18-years-old.
“I knew it was a catastrophe for the Army and towards the end when they were using the small boats, the thing that struck me was the pall of smoke from the oil tanks at Dunkirk,” he told aviation historian Chaz Bowyer.
“We never flew down very low because it didn’t matter who we were, we got shot at. The people on the ground, whenever they saw an airplane, thought it was a Jerry and let fly: understandably, for there were not very many of us.”
Altogether, more than 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo. The Luftwaffe was met by 16 squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who claimed 38 kills on May 27 alone while losing 14 aircraft.
The RAF continued to take a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week, but soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them – as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches.
As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.
“We usually stayed between
8-10,000ft to keep out of range of light flack,” remembered Storrer.
“The average length of a sortie was about an hour and a half to three quarters, which meant you used pretty well all your fuel, even at normal throttle opening, without bashing it about a bit.”
Despite the RAF’s untiring efforts, the Luftwaffe’s bombers seemed to have unfettered access to the skies over Dunkirk to the men on the beaches awaiting passage home
On one day alone, Stukas, Heinkels and Dorniers dropped 15,000 high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs on Dunkirk harbour and the approaching fleet of British ships and boats.
The challenges piled on the RAF over Dunkirk cannot be easily overstated. Inexperienced pilots had to fly across the Channel to face vast swarms of enemy aircraft, with many flown by experienced pilots.
Their outdated tactics made it difficult to effectively engage the enemy and when their formations broke up the green youngsters found themselves on their own, fighting for their lives against five times their number or more.
“Once we got to Dunkirk, squadrons operated individually and continued to do so,” confirmed Storrar.
“There were no wing leaders, only squadron commanders, and they did what they liked and one would then detach sections.
“Once you saw something, you started to act on your own.”
After Dunkirk, ‘Jas’ continued to have an eventful war. In November 1940 his squadron sailed to Takoradi on the coast of West Africa, aboard the aircraft carrier Furious. It then flew the “stepping stone” route across Africa to Egypt.
On one occasion bad weather forced him down in the jungle from where it took him two days and three nights to walk more than 70 miles to the Firestone rubber plantation near Monrovia in Liberia.
In 1943 he returned to Britain and aged just 22, he received command of No 65, a Spitfire squadron flying bomber escorts and fighter sweeps over France and the Low Countries.
He later commanded Nos 165 and 234 squadrons and in 1946 was posted to Italy to command No 239 Wing, equipped with Mustangs.
The next year ‘Jas’ was offered an extended commission, but opted instead to study veterinary science at Edinburgh University.
He later joined the family practice which is still going strong on Tarvin Road in Chester, with the sixth generation of Storrar vets continuing to take care of Chester’s pets being the latest James Storrar.
A tribute to Jas Storrar, written when he died, highlighted his record of 15 confirmed kills as a pilot in the Battle of Britain as well as describing him as “a giant of a man.”
“Well over 6ft tall, he was barely able to squeeze into the cockpit of his fighter,” it read. “Over the years he retained something of the flamboyant style of a Battle of Britain pilot. His jackets were lined with red silk and his Jaguar XJS 12 bore the registration JAS.”
In 1949 he joined No 603, a Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadron, and resumed flying and he went on to command No 610, the County of Chester Auxiliary Squadron.
The 610 Squadron offered former regular pilots such as ‘Jas’ the chance to continue flying after they left the RAF. He was the squadron’s last CO when it was disbanded in 1947, but not, according to legend, until ‘Jas’ had flown under the Grosvenor Bridge in a Hurricane.