Frank Hunt fought in the British army, survived the Battle of Dunkirk and served in the British Commandos — an elite fighting force formed at the request of Prime Minister Winston Churchill — during World War II.
Hunt joined the army in 1939, the year Hitler’s troops invaded Poland, marking the start of the war.
After the declaration of war on Germany, the small British army — “ill-equipped and unprepared” — was called on to fight against the Germans, who were mowing through Europe, invading and occupying every country in their wake.
The British army was dispatched to France to help hold the German advance.
“We didn’t have very good tanks at the time — we didn’t have very good anything,” Hunt said.
German Stuka dive bombers pummeled the troops from the air, while the tanks — armed with 88 mm guns — pounded the Allies on the ground.
The British anti-tank guns were no match for the German Panzer.
“You had to get right on top of them to put sticky bombs on the tank,” he said. “The bombs had a wooden handle and you’d smash it on the track of the tank and get the hell out of there. If you were unlucky enough to get hit by a bullet while carrying that bomb, you’ll be looking down on what’s happening from heaven.
“We were in a bad situation, the French had been Hitler’s secret weapon. He had a lot of French people who were being paid money to give him information.”
Hunt talked about a nearby home that was frequented by the German army.
“We had orders to shoot and kill every French person in and around the house. When they came out to hang clothes, we’d shoot and kill. It was cruel.”
“You just managed to look after yourself and your mates — and they would do the same for you. We killed a lot of French people — we shot women and children. We shot them because of what they were doing for the Germans.”
The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, as German troops pushed through to the English Channel, penetrating the Allied front lines. The maneuver separated the British Expeditionary Force, the French 1st Army and the Belgian army.
The Allies were surrounded, with no place to go but into the ocean.
The Battle of Dunkirk — the defense and evacuation of the Allies — began May 26.
“Someone had to stay behind to be the last to go out, to put up a fight. They lined us up and said, ‘You. You. You,’” Hunt said, pointing — demonstrating how the men were chosen. “I happened to be one of them they said, ‘you’ to.”
“We had rifles and machine guns and we dumped ’em in the ocean. We were guarding the beach with pick handles as weapons.
“The people in England — anybody who had a boat that could go across the (English) Channel — came over to pick us up. You had to wade out in water up to your chin … while they were bombing us. The Stukas could fly 50 feet from the water.”
He said they received cover from Allied aircraft, including American and Canadian pilots during the evacuation.
Hunt eventually caught a ride on a fishing boat.
“It wasn’t very big, but it moved pretty quickly and it carried a lot of people. It got us back to England.
“At Dunkirk, if they (the Germans) had enough boats to follow us over there, they could have taken England very easily.”
Just months after the men returned to England, the Germans launched “The Blitz” — a sustained bombing of London and 15 other cities in the United Kingdom that lasted nearly 37 weeks.
“People were living in the underground stations — they’d take their mattresses down there. They were bombing the hell out of us.”
After the events leading to the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill called for a force to be assembled and equipped to inflict casualties on the Germans and bolster British morale, according to historical accounts. Churchill told the joint chiefs of staff to propose measures for an offensive against German-occupied Europe: “They must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.”
“We were really pissed off with the Germans; I joined the Commandos. They paid a little more than the British army. The more you got paid, the more you got to blow up things.
“I learned a lot very quickly. They’d tell you how bad the Germans were, ‘Here’s what you’ve got to do,’” Hunt said, his voice trailing off. “It hurts. It lives with you forever,” he said, without going into specifics of what he was ordered to do to the enemy.
“Before I knew it, I was in Egypt.”
But the commando soon found himself in some big trouble.
“I got 56 days in jail. I hit an American officer. I hit ’im because I didn’t like his face. I could have been court martialed and shot.”
One day, Maj. Vladimir Peniakoff came to visit Hunt in jail and told him about a new outfit he’d founded — Popski’s Private Army, a British Special Forces unit attached to the British Eighth Army.
PPA was the last and smallest of the three main irregular raiding, reconnaissance and intelligence units formed during the North African Campaign.
Its official name was No. 1 Demolition Squadron, PPA and it was formed specifically to attack German Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel’s fuel supplies, in support of General Montgomery’s offensive at El Alamein.
Hunt, who was recruited because of his experience in the Commandos, was let out of jail early to join the elite fighting force.
“We were about two days short of catching Rommel,” Hunt said.
“It was interesting. It was exciting,” he said of his time with the PPA.
Hunt, who earned the rank of sergeant, said he had a good relationship with his men.
“They liked me because I would never ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do. I never said, ‘You. You. You.’ If you don’t volunteer, I’ll take your place.”
He was later deployed with the British army to Italy, where they joined forces with Polish troops to fight the Battle of Monte Cassino.
“There were two monasteries on the mountain,” he said. “We were positioned just below that mountain. The Germans were just yards away. They had the tanks dug in there.”
The British were armed with Thompson sub-machine guns, also known as “Tommy guns.”“The amazing thing was at nighttime, with all the bullets flying around and the bombs bursting, the nightingales would come out and sing.”
The British were dug into a cavern-type shelters, inhabited by no less than three men, Hunt said.
“Only one of you could sleep. One would walk (guard) close by, the other was there to chase rats away. One was watching out for the Germans, the other one was watching out for the rats,” he said, laughing.
They British weren’t able to move the Germans out because of how well they were dug in.
“One day we said, ‘Give up or we’ll drop gas and drop incendiary bombs and burn you out.’ That’s how we got past the Cassino Mountains … but we still had the Germans and the Italians to fight.”
By then, the American troops were moving along the Italian seaboard, clearing the way along the coast.
When the British army got to Rome, the Germans had already retreated, and the troops continued to Florence.
“The Germans had done so much damage to Italy, pretty soon the Italians were on our side,” he said.
When he returned home for a 28-day leave, his parents were relieved their son, who had been wounded in North Africa — “I got hit with a bullet in the leg,” Hunt said — was OK.
He said his parents were informed that he was wounded — but never received an update from the British military.
“My mom was a wreck,” he said.
Sadly, his mom had already lost another son — Hunt got the bad news when he returned home. His eldest brother, Albert James Hunt, was killed in France.
Hunt said he still has nightmares about the killings and the brutality of battle.
“The things I did were wicked, but it’s what I was trained for,” he said.
“There’s no necessity to have a war. Every person has a mouth. You can talk your way out of it. All that war is over is power and money.”
FRANK L. HUNT
DATE OF BIRTH: May 21, 1921
HOMETOWN: Ilford, Essex, England
RESIDENCE: Palm Desert
BRANCH OF SERVICE: British army; British Commandos; Popski’s Private Army, attached to the British Eighth Army
YEARS OF SERVICE: 1939 – 1946
FAMILY: Two daughters, Ann Smith of Simi Valley and Carol Symchak of Pleasanton ; six grandchildren; more than eight great-grandchildren.