“Walking wounded only,” was the disappointing response as the ambulance left Lieutenant Jimmy Langley of the Coldstream Guards on the beach at Dunkirk, still on his stretcher, just a few hundred yards from the evacuation point. He watched as the last ships left without him.
The Coldstream Guards had courageously defended the perimeter as the Germans attacked, losing 75% of their own men but enabling tens of thousands of others to make it to the ships. However, when it came to Langley’s turn, he was too wounded to go. The cottage he’d been using as cover had been hit by a German shell and the roof had collapsed on him. His left arm was a mangled mess that would soon have to be amputated and he was stuck on a stretcher that would have taken the place of four uninjured men on the departing ship.
The ambulance took him back into Dunkirk, to a large house serving as a hospital. He lay there worried that the Germans would shoot him; there were rumours that the Germans were taking no prisoners. But the first German officer he met saluted him and the German doctor safely amputated his left arm. Now he was a prisoner of war, hampered by his injury but still desperate to escape.
And escape he did. After many failed attempts, and a lengthy stay in a French prison, he eventually he made it back to England to be appointed liaison officer between Britain’s secret intelligence service MI6 and a newly formed group called MI9, organising the escape of prisoners of war, downed airmen and agents from occupied Europe.
On boats and planes from Gibraltar and Lisbon, heading into ports and airfields in Devon and Cornwall (primarily Falmouth, Plymouth and Dartmouth), there were over 10,000 such escapes during the Second World War.
From his little office in London, Jimmy Langley co-ordinated at least 3000 of these, overcoming the many logistical problems of guiding them into south west England with little if any, additional help. Each and every successful escape was a personal triumph, with Langley worrying about the fate of every fugitive and the welfare of every agent he sent into Europe to help the escape lines.
After the war, hundreds of survivors would talk of the momentous day they were recruited or rescued by the one-armed man.