The ordeal that led to a musical career

Brian Fahey in 1940



Brian Fahey in 1964




Brian Fahey—a picture taken in 1940, three months before he was left for dead.
In 1964
For many years arranger and conductor for Shirley Bassey, Brian Fahey recounts a terrifying wartime experience

With other disorganised and bewildered members of the BEF, Lance-Bombardier Brian Fahey fell back on Dunkerque in May, 1940. As gunners in an anti­tank regiment, he and his comrades were immedi­ately sent with their gun to a position at Wormhoudt, twelve miles south. They were to help cover the mass evacuation.

They ate and slept for a couple of uneventful days, until on Tuesday they heard firing in a wood in front of their gun site. An infantryman clutching a Bren gun plunged through the hedge telling them that the Germans had broken through. Sent back for transport, Fahey was cut off from his pals. An army lorry came roaring down the road and he ran along­side trying to jump on when the Germans opened up with small-arms fire. The truck was set on fire and came to a halt. Brian took cover in a ditch with other survivors. He had been wounded in the leg.

The Germans rounded them up and marched them across the fields. They came to a thatched lean-to in a corner of a meadow and the Germans herded them into it. There were about 120 men from various units and they supposed that they were being allowed to shelter from the rain.

The Germans made a circle around the hut and tossed a couple of hand grenades in among them. A captain walked out to protest and was shot at once. There were moans from the wounded, prayers and curses. The Germans were shouting outside. One came nearer calling out: "Raus, funf!"

Five of the British eventually walked out and faced a line of five Germans with rifles aimed. An officer counted "Eins! Zwei! Drei! Vier! Funf!"— and for each order there was a shot and a man fell.

It was obvious that the Germans intended to murder them all and Fahey determined to get it over with rather than suffer the agony of watching. Here's what happened—in his own words:

I struggled to my feet and a lad about nineteen with a Birmingham accent helped me. We shook hands and took our places. He was at number four, I was at number five.

The officer gave the command. "Eins"! A shot. After what seemed an eternity (in reality, about two seconds), "Zwei!" and another shot. It was sur­prisingly easy to show no panic. I could only stand on my good leg so movement was impossible. The situation was so hopeless that it was almost a relief to think that it would soon be over.

"Drei!" The third rifle fired and despatched its victim. I tried to concentrate my thoughts on my past life and on my family.

'Vier!" The fourth rifle fired and I saw from the corner of my eye the boy with the Birmingham accent fall. My mind was buzzing with half-remembered sights and sounds. My father practising the 'cello; the cricket nets on the middle playground at Colfe's; the smell of the fats and rags and bones in my uncle's Marine Store at Margate.

'Funf" It was just like a sharp blow from a fist in my chest that knocked me over. As I hit the ground everything left my mind except the sen­sation of raging thirst and the certainty that I was dead.

When I opened my eyes I saw the grass and the khaki of my battle-dress. The thought gradually came to me that I was not dead. I lay perfectly still and strained my ears. There was no sound, I raised my head from my arm and felt the pains in my chest and leg. My spectacles were close by and unbroken and that seemed more important. I put them on and looked at my watch. It was four o'clock. The massacre had taken place at noon.

It was raining heavily and Fahey crawled to the shelter twenty yards away. It took him three hours. He had broken ribs, a perforated lung and any movement of the right shoulder brought intense pain. He couldn't move any part of his left leg.

In the lean-to some were still living. They told him that after shooting a few groups of five the Germans abandoned that method as too slow. They advanced on the hut firing machine guns until there was no more movement, then they left. Many had suffered horrible wounds and those not hit had saved their lives by acting dead. The unhurt departed with a promise to return with help.

Fahey lay down with his head resting on a corpse and managed to get his field-dressing out and apply it to his chest wound. His shirt and jacket were saturated with blood. Yet his thirst seemed more painful than his wounds and for the next 48 hours he had bouts of delirium in which he could see fast-flowing rivers, fountains and waterfalls.   The wounded talked among themselves quite rationally at times. There were fifteen still alive.

Wednesday dawned. A few had died in the night. One man had found a clip of bullets and was holding one against his temple trying to detonate it. Another man, with a stomach wound, took up a filthy bucket and went for water. He didn't return. There was a period of collective delirium when they all heard the ration truck grind up, smelt frying bacon and waited and waited . . .

At midday on Wednesday, Fahey climbed to his feet and went outside. He found the dirty bucket by the dead man who'd gone for water and managed to scrape some mud into it. Back in the hut, they sucked it.

During the night, Fahey prayed for death but on Thursday morning he was still alive. So were five more. At midday, he heard sounds of voices out­side and called out. German soldiers came and Fahey expected with relief to be put out of his misery. One spoke to him in German, then French. Fahey told him they were English and needed water. The soldier proffered his own water bottle.

Then an English-speaking officer came and their wounds were dressed and they were cared for. He assumed that they had made a futile stand and when Fahey told him what had really happened he was horrified. They had been captured, he explained by SS troops, advancing too quickly to take prisoners. He was deeply moved and ashamed. It was then that Fahey was first aware of the bad feeling between the Wehrmacht and the SS.

Doctors and medical orderlies arrived and their wounds were re-dressed and they were taken away in an ambulance. It was the beginning of five years of captivity.