In November 1944, Mrs. Ethel Peabody of 58 Millers Road, Warwick, received the news she had been dreading for over four years. It was confirmation that her eldest son, Dennis, reported missing in Belgium after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, had been killed defending the retreating troops from the German ‘blitzkrieg’ advance, and so allowing 330,000 allied troops to escape from the beaches. She already knew that her younger son, John, aged just 19, had also been killed in action on the road to Dunkirk at around the same time.
Unlocking Warwick Secretary, Rick Thompson, said, “The human stories unearthed by our researchers Christine Shaw, Tricia Scott and Helen Fellows, remind us of the terrible sacrifices made by so many local families within living memory. In 1914, at the age of seventeen, Ethel had married William Peabody, a carpenter who had had served in the Royal Horse Artillery during WW1. William and Ethel had eight children, though two died in infancy. In 1933, at the age of 49, William died leaving his widow, Ethel, to bring up 6 children on an army pension.
The Peabodys were well-known members of the congregation at St. Mary’s Immaculate Catholic Church in West Street, Warwick. Dennis and John both acted as altar servers. They had attended the St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School which in those days stood next to the church; the building is now used as the Parish Social Centre and the school has moved to a larger building near Warwick Station.”
Researcher Helen Fellows said, “As soon as they were old enough, the boys went to work, Dennis, the eldest, at the Warwick Aviation Company, and John, the second eldest, at the Norman Engineering Company in Warwick. Dennis had become a noted middleweight boxer, and fought under the name ‘Kid Evans’. His middle name was Evan. His teenage brother was also a promising boxer. At the outbreak of WW2, Dennis joined the Gloucestershire Regiment while his younger brother, John, joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. They were soon serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France.
In 1940, the brothers were both posted as missing during the retreat to Dunkirk. Ethel had to wait five months before receiving confirmation that John had been killed in Belgium, but it was more than four years before the advancing allied forces could confirm to her that Dennis had also died at around the same time. The records show that he was killed in action at Tournai.”
Tournai lies to the east of Lille on the main road from Brussels to Dunkirk. The German panzer divisions advancing through Belgium were trying to burst through to cut off the entire allied army before the troops could escape from the beaches.
Conditions in Tournai in May 1940 were described by army despatch rider Owen Roland for the BBC’s People’s War Archive. “Heading against the tide of refugees, who were now blocking all the roads, I struggled to make my way through to the Belgium town of Tournai. The refugees were a pitiful sight and were using all forms of transport from horses and carts to wheel-barrows and bicycles to carry their possessions, their children and their elderly. As I approached Tournai a wave of German bombers came over with bomb doors open. I watched in horror as they let their bombs drop en mass. Within minutes the town was wreathed in smoke and the bombers had gone and many more terrified refugees were added to the swollen tide”.
The Gloucestershire Regimental archive has a log from a captain who recorded that ninety men had been lost during bombing at Tournai. Dennis Peabody may have been one of those. Or he may have died when 194 soldiers were killed as German aircraft bombed a convoy of lorries on the road to Dunkirk. Dennis is commemorated on the Dunkirk Memorial at Nord in France. His younger brother, John, is buried a few miles away at Esquelmes War Cemetery in Belgium. Both are commemorated at their church, St Mary Immaculate in West Street, and on the war memorial in Church Street.
When he was old enough, Ethel Peabody’s third son, Bernard, joined up despite the loss of his older brothers. He survived the war.