A Conversation With Clive Kemp, Dunkirk Veteran

For the release of Christopher Nolan’s 2017 war-epic, ‘Dunkirk’ a special screening was held at Cineworld Jersey in honour of the veterans of our island. One such man, present at not only Dunkirk, but also the London Blitz and D-Day was Clive Kemp. 

A guest of a honour at the Friday night screening, Clive took the time to sit down for a chat with me the following Tuesday to speak about his thoughts on the film and his storied history with war.

With me was Simon Watkins of Seeker Publishing & Distribution, who last year put out a book on Clive’s life called ‘Stinkers Nine Lives: From Dunkirk to D-Day and Beyond’**

All images copyright John Liot.

Clive Kemp


Now that you’ve had a bit of time to think about it, what was your impression of the film (Dunkirk)?

It was very good. It was a typical British film, rather than an American film. It was truer to the events than the yanks put on.

It was true to how it was. There were odd things that I could pick holes in, like, the Spitfires, we never saw one! But, having said that, the dogfights made it a bit more exciting, if that’s the right word, but if it had been true the troops would have been shouting, ‘Hurray!!!’

If you remember, one of the Tommy’s said, ‘where are the bloody Spitfires?!’ That’s exactly what I said. I didn’t see one Spitfire at all.

Do you find that you watch a lot of programmes about war?

If there’s a war film that comes on, a film of our war, yes I watch it, only to pick holes in and see it for truth.

So it’s almost that curiosity just to see it and say, ‘that’s not how it actually was’.

Yes, that’s right.

So where does Dunkirk rate in terms of representation on our war?

I think it gets 10 out of 10. I had brand new hearing aids in Friday night and they were a bit loud, so when the bloody bangs went off I jumped up! And some of them were unexpected, weren’t they? Everybody jumped. But I would say it’s 10 out of 10.

(Simon) When you were at Dunkirk, were you ever thinking, ‘We might not get out of here’?

To be honest, we didn’t know what was happening until we were engaged in it. Nobody ever said anything. I’ll tell you the story… I was 19 years of age, volunteered for the army, got in, got sent to Northern France in the BEF (British Extraditionary Force). I was in the Royal Engineers, we were sent right up to the borders of Belgium to build landing strips so our Spitfires didn’t have to go all the way back to England to refuel and rearm. But before we’d finished these landing strips the Jerry’s broke through. Well, we were told ‘the Germans are through Holland, they’re coming through Belgium, get out, quick!’ So all we did was get on the lorries and down the road towards we didn’t know where, till there was a stop for some reason and they said, ‘we’re going down to Dunkirk’. All the troops were down on the beach and when we got there they’d sorted them out in lines – at first it was just a rush for any boats – some of the men did take charge, and if there was a little boat then they could let a dozen people go. We never got on the beach; we were on the sand dunes. We had a Canadian Major, and he disappeared for an hour or so, then he came back and he said, ‘I’ve just volunteered, as many as want to, to go down the docks – there’s work for us to do down there’. But the docks were getting bombed. ‘You can come or you can stay here and take your chances’. So about two dozen of us went down with the Major and we got the job of carrying the wounded and getting them brought down as far as we could on the docks - as many stretchers as could be (taken). We’d help a bloke to hop along, and things like that. All sorts of wounded there were. And then, they bombed the docks, bombed it completely. After that, we went on the mole, and then they started bombing that. One ship’s Captain said, ‘right you boys, we’re pulling off, get aboard.’ So we got aboard, and I lay down on the deck and I think before the boat had left I was asleep. Next thing I knew somebody was kicking me in the ribs saying, ‘Come on, Kempy, we’re in Dover’. 

From then on it was good going for us, the people in Dover were pleased to see us back, we were heroes, (though) that’s a word we don’t believe in. The heroes are the ones that are still in France. 

They gave their lives.

We then got put on a train and ended up in Edinburgh to recuperate, we were a little ‘bomb happy’ to say the least! We were only there 3 weeks, then the Blitz started in London and we were sent down there to do all sorts of jobs. I’ve had Dunkirk, the Blitz and I’ve had D-Day. I’ve had my war.

How do you feel about the recognition of what yourself and others went through?

This is another thing, there was talk at the time that we should’ve had a medal from the British government, but Churchill said, ‘We don’t give medals to defeats, only for when we win the war’. But the French government (points to his medal covered jacket), that’s the Dunkirk medal, they gave that and (this one) that’s the Légion d’Honneur, that’s France’s highest one.

It’s a common truth that men of my father’s generation and his father before him didn’t talk about the war after they returned.


We never spoke about it. 

Odd times at work I’d take my coat off, roll up my sleeves – I’ve got a tattoo – and people would say, ‘Were you in the Navy?’ and I’d say, ‘No, in the Army’, but that was it. It was only when we retired somebody suggested that we make a D-Day Association. Then people learnt that there was an association, and people started asking us what we did during the war, and it’s only since then that we’ve spoken about it.

Why do you think that is? Was it a conscious effort not to talk about it?

We went to do a job. We did the job and then we came back – simple as that.

What I find quite interesting is we had several men at the film screening who had just come back from duty in Afghanistan, and I feel like now it must be standard protocol to see and speak to trained professionals about their experiences, especially those dealing with PTSD, whereas with your generation that wasn’t a thing.

We had nothing. We came back to nothing. There was nothing for us and we didn’t have all these psychiatrists, which they have now, we just had to get on with it. I had a young family, I’m a family man, and I think I got over what I saw fairly quickly. I used to wake up at night sweating, perhaps (for) 18 months, I don’t know, I didn’t time it, but it didn’t last for years and years. I was a happily married young family man and I was back home.

(Simon) Do you think your experiences in Dunkirk made it easier or harder for you in D-Day?

Made it easier, I think. We learnt something, not to be bloody stupid and run into it.

And your experience helped you?

It helped me and it helped a lot of my mates. I dunno if it was because I was from the Channel Islands or what, but these units were made up of people from Manchester, from London, from Sheffield, but they always seemed to want a plumber or pipe-fitter, which was me, so I got put in with them. None of them had been put through Dunkirk or anything like that, so I could give them tips for what to do when the shit was flying. I think I saved a lot of those lives.

So we were on the boats (at D-Day), rocking about, everybody had been sick all over the place, and then the word was, ‘Go!’ We were on a ship with a big ramp, the ramp went down – we were promised a dry-shot landing – my bloody landing, I jumped off the ramp and came up to *here* in bloody water, I hate cold water and I can’t swim! I’ve got a heavy gun - you mustn’t get your gun wet - and the officer on the ramp says, ‘Come on, Kemp, run!’ I turned round and gave him a mouthful! Ha ha ha!

We were told to get up on the beach and run up the land and off the beach, but as I got off the ramp I saw a gun flash coming from a window of a house not far away. It wasn’t shooting at me, it was shooting across me, shooting the other lads. So I got my gun and emptied the pan of bullets into that window and they either stopped, or I shot him, I don’t know, I didn’t stop, I was off after that.

Did you ever volunteer for anything that in hindsight was maybe a bit foolish?

I did a lot. They used to say, ‘never volunteer’, but I always put my hand up first. I was always a mad brain, put it that way. The thing I shouldn’t say, but I enjoyed my war. I enjoyed it.

What was it like being an Englishman on foreign soil during those times?

Coming from Jersey I spoke a little French, mostly schoolboy French. Our Major said, ‘right, you come along with us, Kemp’. There were two trucks to make our way to the bridge and he said ‘any French people stop us, you talk to them’. You know, when we landed, the French around the coast of France – the farmers hated our guts. Could you imagine? They’re under the Germans, and the Germans are not doing anything to them, and we come, drive through their farms and, you know, they think it’s our fault there’s a war. We were told, ‘never go out alone, always go out in twos and threes’.

War must’ve been difficult for you at such a young age then?

The war doesn’t stop because I don’t want to go. You’ve just got to bloody go. I am one of the softest… it’s a wonder I didn’t cry on Friday night. I cry at children on telly, the ones at Great Ormand Street, and yet, over there, I was a different animal. 

Dunkirk, I went in as a boy and overnight I was a man.

I saw what I had to do.

I was a man quick; a man with a boy’s brain. - Clive Kemp


**Copies of Clive’s biography, ‘Stinkers 9 Lives’ available at Waterstones

13 Reasons Why

Here goes, * deep breath, shakes out fingers * it
took 13 hours of Netflix binging to arrive at a point where I can comfortably,
confidently say that ‘13 Reasons Why’ is….. 

© Netflix

…a captivating TV show, with some interesting characters,
smart world-building, escalating episodic development and also features a pretty decent
soundtrack to boot.

It’s also dangerous.

13 Reasons Why is a dangerous show that uses an extremely
delicate subject matter as a jumping off point for the sake of teen drama and
doesn’t have the decency to speak to its audience with the slightest amount of
forethought that suicidal teens may be watching.

Going into Episode 1 I had already heard the rumbles of
dissatisfaction from several psychologists and members of suicide prevention
groups taking a vested interest in the sudden popularity of the show. They
spoke to how the series didn’t accurately highlight the realities of teen
suicide, worse in fact, it glamorised the notion that a deceased person will
get their revenge on the people they feel had done them harm. This is
inherently the biggest problem with 13 Reasons Why, but also the very reason it
has become such a global talking point.

As a TV show, it’s engrossing, as a tool for helping people
understand something challenging, it’s vapid.

© Netflix


For the sake of dramatisation characters forego making
important and mature decisions you should be pushed towards doing in the real world. Whilst this of course makes sense for the
development of a fictional TV series, the show voids itself to use this as a valid
excuse because too many people will be looking towards this series for answers
and guidance. Teen suicide isn’t a popular topic in mainstream media, this is
why 13 Reasons Why has become so widely viewed. But with that it carries a
responsibility other shows don’t have. AMC’s Breaking Bad, for instance, didn’t need
to show the reality of meth addiction because we’re accustomed to, and aware of drugs and crime as
a pretty standard subject matter for films and TV shows to go towards. 

doesn’t represent hard drugs in popular culture, but right now 13 Reasons
is the poster-child for teen suicide..

In 13 Reasons Why the parents are bit-parts to their
children. They aren’t developed as much as their offspring, even Hannah’s
parents don’t really get much effort put into how destructive the loss of a
child in this situation is. In fact, through it all, with increasing money problems and
impending lawsuits on the horizon, they remain collectively strong in the face of adversity.
Whilst this in itself isn’t ‘wrong’, you have to understand a show like this is
treading on thin ice by showing any kind of positivity in the wake of such a
tragedy. If you were thinking of taking your own life, (and your parents weren’t
contributing negative factors towards this), then you’ll want to know you can go
your way and they’ll be fine afterwards. The idea you’ll harm your parents as much as
you’ll harm yourself is an important distinction to make when talking to
someone about the effects of suicide. Though curiously, you could argue that
the parents of a child lost to suicide could watch this show and get the
subconscious message that they can persevere through similar hardships, but to
that I’d say quite bluntly, if you have children, you shouldn’t be getting
important life-lessons from a Netflix series. Because whilst an adult would
ideally have the wherewithal to know and look for resources to help them
through difficult times, a tween, teenager or young twenty-something is still
very much in the throws of hormonal disruption and uncontested introspective
conclusion. Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and executive director of a national
suicide prevention organisation in America, who was actually asked by Netflix
to review the show for them from a medical standing and give his impressions
(he recommended the show not be released), poignantly spoke on why this show is
dangerous for teenagers. Simply put, Reidenberg said many teens aren’t watching
shows in the living room with their families anymore, they’re watching them
alone, on a tablet or laptop, in bed, in the dark. Whilst that set-up may
improve on the immersion of your viewing experience, it does nothing for your
ability to process complex information internally, especially if what you
witnessed has caused any kind of distress or conflict. When we absorb media as a collective
we share the experience, we are also much more able to normalise what we have
seen. When we watch alone the experience lingers longer. It’s like watching a
horror film on your own vs watching with a group of friends.


© Inc

So the problem becomes that a lot of teens are watching this
show, in a manner which heightens their intake of information, with very few,
if any, diverging forms of media speaking about the same subject matter to
provide or give wider context. This means that the show is, in many situations,
settings itself up as an audience member’s only gateway into this subject
matter, and it presents itself through its script and filmmaking as a show with
character reactions to be taken as truthful to real life. Now what makes this
show ‘dangerous’ is when it becomes this to people looking for guidance and
answers to do with their own thoughts of self-harm. Throughout the 13 episodes
of the show there isn’t sight or sound of a therapist or a trip to the doctor
to ask for help, the people who’s professions it is to prevent such events taking place. The school counsellor is actually painted as a reason behind
the suicide, despite coming across as a consistent source of help and care, yet
also as fallible as any real person. In the show, parents aware of what their
children are going through, who are spoken to in not much more than riddles,
elect to go with a steady stream of ‘don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll be alright’ responses, for the sake of
giving the adolescent character the freedom to advance the story outside of their house. When, I feel/hope, in reality a caring parent would go, ‘something’s wrong, I know a girl from your school recently took her life and now you’re acting out of sorts, I’m concerned
for your safety, we’re getting you help. I’m sorry if it’s ‘lame’ to talk to your
parents, but we love you and this needs to happen.’

© Netflix

The show goes through great lengths to make the point that
suicide prevention is as simple as having good friends. But the reality is that
friends in a cinematic universe go through neat character arcs and exist solely to
react to the protagonist. In the real world, even your best friend has their
own shit to deal with. Whilst it’s nice to think that a subtle frown on your face will
cause a friend to ask how you’re doing, to take time out of their day to be
with you and persist to let you get some difficult stuff off your chest, the reality is,
those kinds of conversation are difficult to commit towards for many - even when they’re directly in front of you. They can be near-impossible metaphorical
mountains to climb for people who are scared of the kind of intimacy and
vulnerability those conversations illicit. But this is why counsellors exist,
why you can pick up the phone and call the Samaritans, why you can see your GP,
why you can go to group talking therapies. If you can’t speak to people within your inner-circle, which is often the case for the aforementioned reasons, there is a greater, larger circle of people you haven’t met yet able to help you. 

I learned this in a more painful way
than most, but you can’t rely on your best friend to save you. You have to find
the strength and willingness to help yourself. In the end, a friend you expected
to do more can’t be an excuse for you to not do enough. This is a
crucial point that 13 Reasons Why fails to take responsibility for. Instead, Hannah’s death is causative of her friends inability to be nicer and more patient towards her, to be
there when she needed them, and in some circumstances, to flat out ignore her hostile request to be left alone. It makes for painful and engrossing storytelling,
but it makes for lousy advice. It wouldn’t be the show it is, with the viewings
it has, if Hannah got help from a professional, or by speaking candidly to her
parents about how she was feeling. It’s not stylish or dramatic enough for a ficitonal character to go to therapy, or ask for help and receive it. But that is the
real world, that’s the reality teenagers, and people in general, should be
aware of. There are accredited strangers willing to help you when things are difficult; it
is their calling to do so, they’re literally available 24/7. Not just paid therapists, but aforementioned
‘helpers’ that are a phone-line away just to be an ear for you to speak to. (Did you know, you can ask the Samaritans to call you back if you’re worried about the cost of a phone call with them?)


In 13 Reasons Why, a teen’s
suicide is justified due to high school kids being terrible to a girl whose only crime was looking
for friendship in the wrong places, and specifically one event that takes place to her which we can
definitely accept would have caused severe PTSD. But more effort is put into following
the development of an extremely elaborate and far-fetched plan to make those who wronged her
feel bad, rather than spending any
sufficient (or responsible) time cementing the notion that whilst things were
difficult for this character, she definitely had access to so many resources that could’ve
kept her alive. This is going to sound horrible, and whilst I mean it to sound
blunt, I don’t say it without sympathetic real-world awareness; 13 Reasons Why
isn’t a show about a girl failed by the system, but about a girl who is failed
by herself. If we want to aid suicide prevention we can’t allow it to become a credible means of self-expression or the answer to dealing with adversity. If we normalise suicide we make it more accessible to vulnerable people. A fictional 17 year old in a dramatised version of an American
high school may not be aware of what help she can receive for mental trauma, I can concede that that much is realistic, but
the show’s writers are not so ignorant, and end up displaying a different kind
of ignorance by keeping such information away from the story and by association, the audience. The script chose
to focus on the importance and significance of one’s peers when dealing with
depression, but consciously ignored the many other outside factors that keep
people like Hannah in the real world alive.

Whilst 13 Reason’s Why isn’t a public service announcement
about teen suicide, you have to believe that the show’s writer, (and I’m aware
it’s based on a book, but I’m not sure if it’s a direct translation onto
the screen or if it’s been changed considerably) wants to use this show as a
preventative measure for teen suicide. The show, I feel quite passionately,
fails to do this. Whilst Netflix is presenting itself as opening up the
conversation about self harm in the mainstream and getting the world talking
about teen suicide, I can’t help but feel it sounds a bit like Coke trying to justify
selling soda because it got people talking about how bad sugar is for you.

- John 

If you need someone to talk to, know that we live in an age where you are never truly alone. There are so many people putting unpaid hours of their lives towards helping people like you feel less alone for no other reason than they want you to feel better, and there are those who have spent a lifetime in education to gain the skills necessary to get you to transform your life from void of vitality to full of it. Don’t be scared to put yourself out there and seek help, change begins with you, don’t wait for someone else to save you first.

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