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On This Day

One Of Deal's Heroes Of Dunkirk

Written by: George Chittenden : 27 May 2020

This is the story of the Dunkirk evacuation and one of Deal’s forgotten heroes, Mr Nathan Cohen, of whom I would have known nothing, if it wasn’t for a newspaper clipping that David Chamberlain had kept and passed on to me and I thank him for that - The author of this article, Deal historian Stuart Smith.

Nat Cohen was born in Deal in 1911; he was educated at Sir Roger Manwood’s School, where he was acclaimed as a brilliant mathematician. He was also a great sportsman and a member of Deal rowing club. When his parents died, he took care of his younger brother and sister by running his families’ furniture business at 155 The High St, which was at the corner of Duke St and the High St, which is now part of the market car park.

With the arrival of the war, there was a large influx of Jewish Refugees into England and many ended up being housed in the old First World War camp at Stonar, where the Discovery park is now, and parts of the camp still exist today. He went there voluntarily and helped them with language and other needs, and then came the call for Dunkirk. He again immediately volunteered to help and was towed over to the beaches in one of the “Dunbar Castle” lifeboats, along with a number of other smaller craft. The “Dunbar Castle” was a passenger ship which had hit a mine near the North Goodwin sands in early January 1940, and some of the survivor’s had made it ashore to Deal beach and the boats had been left where they landed. (If you look on Pathe News archives, under the Deal Kent section, you will find many wonderful things, one of them being a picture of the “Dunbar Castle” lifeboats on Deal beach.)

When he arrived at Dunkirk, he was given four Royal Navy sailors as help, two of which were Newfoundlanders who had only been in the Navy five weeks, but he said “Their courage more than made up for their lack of experience”. He also said that he swore at them enough to make them good oarsmen and we all worked until we could not stand. They would row the boat to the beach, fill her up with troops and row back out to the larger waiting ships and this was done none stop until all the men were off the beach.

He describes “Destroyers continuously giving covering fire, as over our heads planes were fighting every where and then at almost regular intervals some would come in and bomb us, just for good measure.”

On his return to Deal he was a little overwhelmed by all the well wishing and backslapping and he committed to a friend “It is amazing the number of people who have suddenly taken an interest in my well-being, folk who haven’t noticed me for years and I find it nauseating. The blokes who stood on the beaches, waiting without a sign of panic and the sailors who manned the destroyers, working for days without a break are the real heroes of the show, I just went for a bit of fun and got it all for free too. A day trip to Belgium, no passport, no tickets---- I kept thinking am I going to wake up and I wasn’t even sea sick which is easily the most remarkable feature of the trip”.

After Dunkirk he joined the RAF and because of his mathematical skills became a navigator with 464 Australian Squadron. On a mission to bomb the Phillips Radio works at Eindhoven on December the 5th 1942, he was reported missing and never returned.

He is buried in Eindhoven General Cemetery. He wasn’t a boatman, but Nat Cohen was a man of extreme courage combined with immense modesty.

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