Quinnell Family History
In August 1939 or thereabouts, Sergeant William Quinnell was recalled to his Regiment, the Royal Engineers, together
with all of His Majesty's Armed Forces Reserves. He spent a short time at Rhyll, North Wales training some Territorial
Army personnel, then was drafted to France with the British Expeditionary Force. By 1st September his unit was stationed
just north of the Maginot Line near the Belgian border. He recalled that although they had their rifles they were issued
with five rounds of ammunition apiece because supplies were so short. War with Germany was declared on 3 September and
the supply system improved. By the end of the year they were stationed at the village of Longuenesse, not far from St.Omer
in northern France.
Bill's unit appears to have settled in well, occupying an old convent building and in off duty tune he would show old
films to his colleagues. I believe that he had acquired a projector for HQ, but also he showed films in the little cinema
at St.Omer where most of the men spent their off-duty hours in the cafes and bars. They got to know the French residents
quite well. I remember that when Bill took Geoff Pullum, our friend, and me to France in 1954 we called at one of his
old acquaintance who owned a cafe . We were welcomed so enthusiastically that it was clear they remembered Bill
and didn't want to let us go.
Back in 1940 at St.Omer there was a watchmaker who was British but settled there when he married a local girl he met
during the First World War. Bill wanted to give his father, of whom he was very fond and proud, a present of a really
good reliable watch. Mr.Quinnell Senior worked for the Southern Railway as a porter, priding himself on knowing the
timetable in detail so that he could advise travellers on catching their connections. Also he would announce arrivals
and departures as there were not so many loudspeaker announcements in those days. For this he said he needed a good
reliable watch. Bill, therefore, ordered a large pocket watch from the watchmaker and asked for it to be engraved "To Dad,
It was still early in 1940 and active fighting was taking place just north and east of St. Omer. Then the German Army
swept into and rapidly occupied the Netherlands, then attacked Belgium which capitulated with no resistance
and suddenly the order came to the British Forces to withdraw to Dunkirk. Bill knew that his Dad's watch should be ready
for collection and he wasn't going without it even though that meant a detour back to St.Omer. So with his motor cycle and
friend Jock in the sidecar he drove to the town, found the watchmaker busy packing to leave to try to get back to England.
He asked Bill for any English currency he might have which was £2., duly handed over and the watch was paid for.
The Germans were already occupying St.Omer and had set up a machine gun nest in the church tower which commanded the town
square. Not being aware of the situation, Bill drove through the square to get out of town when the Germans opened fire.
fortunately Bill knew the route well, having spent so much time in the town, and was able to escape down a side road
skidding as they went on a pile of horse manure, recovering, and roaring away scot free. One might have been excused
in thinking that this was one of Bill's tall stories, except that when we visited in 1954 Bill was able to show us the
corner where he skidded into the narrow road and the many bullet marks still on the adjacent walls. Jock in the sidecar
had been returning fire, the local townsfolk were fighting too. It was touching to see the many small plaques on the walls
around the town square commemorating the brave French civilians killed while resisting the Germans.
Bill and Jock made their way with the rest of their detachment and other army personnel towards Dunkirk. They were the
rearguard and arrived too late to be picked up from the beach by the Royal Navy. They were ordered to continue south to
le Havre and their orders were to destroy as many railway engines as they could in the railway depot there to prevent
future use by the German Army who were pursuing them. This done , they continued to the beach , hopeful that they would be
picked up. All this time the troops were being dive bombed by the German Stuka airplanes. One of the British warships was
leaving the harbour heavily laden with soldiers bound for Dover when it had to take evasive action against the bombing.
It zigzagged first to port, then to starboard, and this action caused it to list heavily to one side, then the other, and
many soldiers on the crowded decks and clinging to the ratlines (rigging) lost their hold and were flung into the sea.
The ship could not stop to pick them up and so they drowned. The memory of this dreadful sight affected Bill for many
years, so much so that some years later we made a special trip to le Havre, as he said, "to lay the ghost", and
fortunately it did.
Luckily Bill and his comrades were soon picked up and taken to Dover, and when he was able to get his leave he went
to see his parents as soon as he could. He was able to present his Dad with the watch, to the new owner's great delight,
and as far as we know he used it constantly for the rest of his life.
Subsequently this watch was given to Bill's daughter, Brenda.