Dunkirk


On September 1st 1940 the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles received its orders to mobilise.  Within three days two hundred and eight reservists had arrived from Armagh and the first of the air-raid warnings were sounded, though, of course, no bombs were dropped.

The chief anxiety of the Commanding Officer was the lack of transport.  A week later the Battalion left Parkhurst for the concentration area where it took part in divisional exercises near Maiden-Newton.  Between spells, digging took place night and day.  On October 3rd the Battalion entrained at Sherborne, de-trained at Southampton, and, seven hundred and seventeen strong, went on board "Mona's Queen"-a small, elderly Isle of Man boat, appallingly crowded and with no facilities for supplying hot meals.

The crossing to Cherbourg was cold, wet and rough.  Many of the men were seasick, but recovered sufficiently to take part in a salle de fete two miles from the docks shortly after their arrival.  That evening the Battalion entrained again and, after a night journey, detrained at Silly-le-Guillaume, marching thence to Parennes.  The billets were comfortable, but somewhat scattered.  Major-General Montgomery, Commanding the 3rd Division, paid a visit; the Battalion was not destined to remain there long.  It entrained a few days later for Templemars, which it reached on October 12th.  Once again the billets were good, but scattered.

Two days later came the final move before May 10th.  This was to Lezennes-a suburb of Lille, chiefly notable for the astonishing labyrinths of ancient underground passages which were said to extend all the way into Belgium.  One or two reconnaissances were made at an early stage, but it was soon decided that they were not only dangerous in themselves, but, in action, could prove a real deathtrap.

A medieval fort which, in the course of years, had become a large green mound, was soon flaunting the Regimental flag and acquired the name of Ulster Fort.  So great was security, however, that when war correspondents called on the Battalion they were not allowed to use the word ULSTER-this, in spite of the fact that the Franco-Belgian frontier was no distance away and many agents were able to cross from Belgium into France and back without any proper supervision.

The weather was cold and wet, which made digging operations east and west of Lezennes an unpleasant task.  The first official visitors to the Battalion were General Viscount Gort, V.C., the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Gloucester, who made an inspection.  Heavy rain continued.  So did the digging.

Now came the first casualty to the Battalion on active service.  Rifleman Borza was found dead in his billet suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.  The first air-raid warning which the Battalion had in France occurred three days later and officers and men noticed that the French sirens were different from the British variety, and the warning sounded more like the All Clear.  General Georges, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces on the Western Front, paid a visit the same day.  Happily enough, he was followed by the first issue of battle-dress to the Battalion.

There were more air-raid warnings on November 4th.  Then, on November 11th, the anniversary of the official end of World War I, all leave was cancelled in view of a report that the Germans were planning to attack Holland and Belgium.  Almost simultaneously a letter from Brigade, marked " Urgent," and " Secret," was received by the Commanding Officer.  On being opened it turned out to be an announcement that Miss Gracie Fields, the comedienne, was to entertain the troops in the neighbourhood.

The next V.I.P. to inspect the Battalion was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff-then General Sir Edmund Ironside.  The inspection took place at Ulster Fort.  The weather was still rainy, though occasionally there were fine days.

Football and digging alternated during this peculiar period.  Now came the inspection by His Majesty, King George VI, on his birthday (December 6th), and the Battalion was delighted when the Monarch remembered Second-Lieutenant Charles Sweeny, whom he had decorated with his Military Cross in a Dorset field shortly before the Battalion left for overseas.  He also showed warm approval of the Royal Ulster Rifles regimental flag on Ulster Fort.

Next day a Lieutenant reported from the London Irish Rifles on the new exchange scheme.  From now onwards the weather began to get cold and there was a read touch of winter about the three days' divisional exercises -at Frevent.  By Christmas, when a party for three hundred and seventy-five children was given by the Battalion, the frost had set in with a vengeance.  The roads were as slippery as glass.  The first officer casualty occurred on January 7th, when Captain P. J. Ashton was accidentally killed.  A silver thaw set in towards the second week of February, followed by snow and more frost.  The start of March saw a Brigade exercise.  By this time, leave to the United Kingdom was well under way.  The weather was still cold and the waiting period before the balloon went up became more and more tense.

Shortly afterwards the Battalion took over some extra frontage, which involved further digging in the cold, wet and windy weather.  On April 14th the plot thickened.  The Battalion was put on short notice to move east.  But any question of flurry among the young officers was immediately eliminated by Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld.  Clad most incorrectly in his black Rifles' greatcoat, he said: " It would be just typical of Hitler to attack on a Sunday." Then, turning to the P.M.C., he continued, " I hope there is going to be no stupidity about luncheon." Nothing came of this " flap." Instead, night driving exercises took place.

On May 2nd, Lieutenant-Colonel Whitfeld was appointed A.A.G., G.H.Q., and Major F. Y. C. Knox took over command on May 6th, being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.  The next three days were spent in long Company marches, which were to prove of value very much sooner than anyone expected.  Considerable air activity occurred during the night of 9th/10th, and some damage was done on local airfields despite much noise from the ack-ack guns.  In the early morning of May 10th, the Duty Officer was approached by scared French civilians, asking whether he had heard " it " on the wireless.  " It " was the official news of the German invasion of Belgium and Holland received at 8 a.m.  Fifteen minutes later the Battalion was put at four hours' notice to move.  The drill for this had been rehearsed frequently and everyone knew what had to be done but there were, nevertheless, some hurried references to " PLAN D," which was unearthed from Captain J. Drummond's safe, and gave the details of the projected move into Belgium.  The new C.O., in particular, was seen to be specially interested in the document, while the more impetuous young officers felt that they ought already to be metaphorically galloping up to the frontier "without this awful delay."

During the morning a conference was held at Brigade EQ, when Brigadier W.  Robb, M.C., gave his final orders for the move forward and confirmed that the Battalion would be responsible on arrival at Louvain for the defence of the two main routes leading into the city from the east.  Alternative plans were discussed in case the Germans forestalled the Battalion in Louvain or were met somewhere west of the city.

That evening the Rifles moved off in troop carrying lorries and crossed the frontier into Belgium about midnight.  During the night and the morning of the 11th, sad-faced groups of Belgians gazed listlessly as the column passed by, many of them doubtless thinking of similar columns of khaki-clad men on horse or foot in 1914-18.  (The C.O.  and his driver, Lance-Corporal Loughlin, and batman, Lance-Corporal McCann, had a very different welcome when they traversed the same route with 21 Army Group on September 3rd,1944.)

The move forward via Roubaix - Oudenarde - Alost and north of Brussels was uneventful except that some debris caused by bombing had to be cleared from the route near Alost before the column could get through.  It was the first time that the younger members of the Battalion saw what a bomb could do.  A railway engine was hanging crazily over a viaduct and the bodies of three Belgian civilians lay sprawled nearby.  The Rifles spent the remainder of the 11th in the woods about two miles west of Louvain, while reconnaissances of the defences to the east and west of the city were carried out.  That night the C.O. reminded the officers that they were going into war and that their promotion, or the reverse, would depend on their individual effort.  This was the first time since 1918 that the 2nd Battalion had operated as a Battalion, as opposed to operating in company strength, and many lessons were learnt.  Refugees were beginning to crowd the roads to Brussels from Louvain and further east, and the Rifles had their first experience of seeing the aged and the very young being pushed along on wheels while those fit to walk trudged painfully under loads of household chattels.

At 11.30 on May 12th, after watching the city being dive-bombed, the C.O. with Tactical H.Q. and "A" and "D" Companies moved into Louvain to occupy the prepared defences along the main railway line on the east of the city.  Battalion H.Q. and the two reserve companies moved later to positions west of the town.

On the way into Louvain the first of many alarmist reports was received.  Most of these originated miles behind at Corps or Division and were passed on without proper investigation.  All, without exception, were proved to be false.  This one was to the effect that the enemy was using gas; even the type of gas was known -chlorine.  One officer rubbed protective white powder on his hands.  It was not possible to stop this alarm becoming known and most of the Battalion arrived in Louvain wearing respirators, much to the astonishment of the few residents who were still there.  The reason for the smell was that a factory making electric batteries had been hit.  Subsequent alarmist reports of parachutists, arrows pointing at H.Q.s, enemy dressed as nuns and infiltrating German columns, were usually buried at Battalion H.Q. and did no harm.  They were, perhaps, a natural phenomenon at the beginning of a campaign, but no better method could be devised of lowering morale.  More care in sifting information before passing it on would have avoided the possibility of causing alarm and despondency.

The front allotted to the Battalion was about 2,200 yards in length and extended from the cemetery, inclusive, on the right, to one hundred yards north of the bridge over the main Diest - Louvain road.  The other main entry into the Battalion position was over the railway by the bridge on the Tirlemont - Louvain road.  The approaches to this bridge had been heavily bombed on May 11th and 12th.  Both bridges had, of course, been prepared for demolition by the Belgians.  They were big, heavily constructed affairs, and written orders for their destruction were hurriedly produced.  The sappers put in additional explosives just to make certain, and Major G. H. K. Ryland and Major Reid, commanding "D" and "A" Companies, rehearsed the drill for the final order to blow, which was not to be given until our own troops had all crossed, OR until the enemy had arrived.

The position was an interesting one.  A boulevard ran along most of the western side of the railway, which, on the south of the Battalion front, was in a cutting.  Section posts could only be dug along the top of the bank.  On the north, where the railway was on an embankment, the posts had to be sited within two or three feet of the rails.  Fields of fire nowhere exceeded fifty yards and in the railway station and to the north dropped to fifteen or twenty yards in places.  The station, where Lieutenant P. B. Garstin's platoon had an unusual battle later, provided some difficult defence problems, which had to be solved.

Moreover, on the extreme left of the Battalion a platoon position had to be perched on top of the bank where the near railway line acted as a rifle rest and the only method of access to the position was by a stout ladder with twenty-four rungs.  This delectable spot was overlooked at a range of twenty yards by a tall building on the other side of the rails.  It became known later as the Bala -Tiger post in honour of the subalterns who commanded it in turn Lieutenants Bredin and Lieutenant W. D. Tighe-Wood.  The siting of reserve sections and platoons was not an easy task in such a position and on such a wide front, and the final result must have greatly resembled the " thin red line " of the 2nd Battalion at Mons in 1914.
                         Lieutenant "Bala" Bredin                                             Lieutenant "Tiger" Tighe-Wood

On the right of the Battalion were the 2nd Lincolns, old friends who were to fight many actions on one or the other flank of the Battalion throughout the war.  On the left was the 7th Guards Brigade.  A cyclist unit of the Belgian Army arrived sometime during the 12th and insisted upon moving into unoccupied section posts along the Battalion front.  They were very welcome but neither then nor at any later time could any information be obtained as to how long they proposed to stay.

During May 13th many units of the Belgian Army withdrew through the city; the Battalion defences were improved, mines laid and patrols sent out.  Information from the east was remarkably scanty, but heavy fighting was thought to be in progress some miles away.  The few inhabitants still left made up their minds to go or stay.  The Belgian Liaison Officer searched for would-be quislings and refreshment for the Officers' Messes.  As ' for the troops, they learnt how much, or how little, could be said on a Field Post Card and handed in many for despatch.  Regimental-Quartermaster Serjeant Cadden, with a party of men, rejoined the Battalion from leave in U.K.  after an adventurous journey, which included an unpleasant road accident, on their way up from Lille.

The C.O. and Second-in-Command, with memories of the 1914-18 war, knew roughly what to expect within the next twenty-four hours or so; the remainder of the Battalion allowed their imaginations to tell them, but all waited confidently for the arrival of the Hun.

Throughout the early part of the 14th the withdrawal of Belgian units and some British recce. elements along the two routes into Louvain was almost continuous.  A regrettable accident occurred on " A " Company's front, where a Belgian ammunition lorry drove through a fence surrounding a small anti-tank minefield on the side .of the road and blew itself up, killing one N.C.O.  and wounding five men.  The lorry caught fire and exploding ammunition caused a thoroughly successful roadblock for the next two hours.  Fortunately, a nearby street led directly to the southerly bridge which coped successfully with the added traffic.  One casualty was caused by bombs dropped round Battalion H.Q. by low-flying enemy aircraft.

In the afternoon traffic began to thin out and by 1500 hours, as a result of much questioning of the withdrawing units, it became reasonably certain that all our own troops and the Belgians had gone through.  For an hour the deserted city was quiet until two very loud bangs indicated the destruction of the bridges.  Shortly afterwards two Germans in a motorcycle and sidecar slowly rounded a bend in the road and ran into an accurately placed burst from a Bren.  First blood to the Rifles.

By dusk the same evening the Battalion was in contact all along the railway line and the enemy was trying to find a soft spot somewhere.  The troops were introduced to the noisy spandau and to cleverly ranged mortar bombs which fell much too accurately on the forward posts of both companies and the Belgian cyclist unit.  After dark there was a tendency to continue firing rifles and Brens whether or not a target was visible, and for a short time some ammunition was wasted.  However, nerves were very quickly got under control, and. before the night was halfway through, both companies were as steady and reliable as their fathers and uncles had been twenty-five years earlier.

An interesting development during the evening was the withdrawal of the Belgian unit, which, it will be remembered, was interspersed throughout the two companies.  This was done as a result of sudden orders from higher authority, at a time when enemy mortar fire was particularly unpleasant.  At about 2100 hours each section ran back fifty yards, leapt on its bicycles, and disappeared, leaving at least twenty dead along the front.  This somewhat unusual operation was accepted quite calmly by the Rifles.
Belgian cyclist unit in 1940

By midnight several attempts to penetrate the line had been made by the enemy.  Each was repulsed, but a Company- Sergeant Major and one Rifleman were reported to be missing, presumably captured.  At 2300 hours it was decided to move " C " Company (Captain A. W. Ward) into the city to be available for counter-attack, and next morning " B " Company (Lieutenant R. A. Davis) also moved up into position in reserve in Louvain.  Battalion H.Q. opened at the Town Hall at 05.30 hours.

Dawn broke on May 15th with enemy artillery shelling the Battalion area.  After heavy fire the enemy penetrated the position at the railway station, but an immediate counter-attack quickly restored the situation.  Apart from intermittent shelling and mortaring the day passed quietly except at the Bala-Tiger post where there were some short but fierce engagements in which the platoon inflicted considerable casualties on the enemy, mainly by using hand grenades.  Corporal Gibbons, in particular, displayed conspicuous bravery in these actions.  On two occasions he broke up attacks on the platoon post by moving to an exposed position on the flank and opening fire with a Bren on the enemy forming up behind some railway wagons.  He also rescued, under heavy fire, one of the platoon who had been wounded on the railway line.  Corporal Gibbons was, unfortunately, killed later in the day.

The 7th Field Regiment, in support of the Battalion, did some magnificent shooting in these and other actions, and the Battalion mortar platoon, firing from the centre of the city at their maximum range of sixteen hundred yards with O.P.'s in houses overlooking the railway line, also gave prompt response to all calls for assistance.  A heartening sight during the day was Captain M. L. Cummins riding through the streets on a white horse when visiting the Battalion Antitank Platoon.  Lieutenant H. G. J. Coddington's two-pounders were well dug in and their crews most anxious to fire their pieces at worthwhile targets which, however, failed to present themselves.

During the late evening an S.O.S. was received at Battalion H.Q.  from " A " Company to say that the enemy was infiltrating through a gap between them and the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards.  There was some confused fighting in this area during most of the night, but by dawn on the 16th the situation had been fully restored.  Captain Ward was severely wounded in the late evening and Lieutenant Garrett took over command of " C " Company.

In the railway station the Rifles held the entrance, together with the subways and one platform (barbed wire was nailed to the sleepers), while the enemy held the other platform twenty-five yards distant., Every now and then Lieutenant Garstin would dart up from a subway, fire a burst from his Bren and dash away again, only to reappear somewhere else and repeat the same manoeuvre.  The enemy also held a lofty embankment and the houses which surmounted it.  Other Boches took up positions behind the railway wagons at a point where there were five or six sets of rails.  From this cover they threw grenades, sniped, and directed machine gun fire, which smashed the glass roof of the railway station, sending cascades of glass splinter on the Rifles.  German machine gun fire penetrated down the boulevard leading to the station and on one occasion both Lieutenant Garstin and Lieutenant Bredin, with their men, were completely cut off.  Lieutenant Tighe-Wood distinguished himself by firing his rifle from various points, pretending to be at least a section in himself, while Lieutenant Codrington saved an anti-tank rifle in spectacular fashion.


Rifleman Robert Fulton (7011706) - KIA 16 May 1940

On the second day the enemy, after heavy artillery fire, penetrated the station yard, but were slung out within the hour, the Rifles counter-attacking with grenades and Brens.  No further attempts were made by the Boche to advance at this spot.

The most unpleasant post was unquestionably the narrow trench in the cinders and slag on the embankment which was commanded by German snipers in a warehouse opposite.  At one moment, enemy fire was striking it from both front and rear and no internal sounds emerged.  It looked as though all the occupants had been wiped out.  But suddenly Lieutenant Bredin's voice was heard, followed a moment later by his Bren.  The slit trench was never abandoned until the order to withdraw from Louvain was received.

The communiqué issued by G.H.Q. early on May 17th, stated, briefly enough, that " the B.E.F. are in contact with the enemy and fighting is in progress.  Attacks on Louvain have been repulsed."

About 0800 hours the Divisional Commander, Major-General Montgomery, arrived at Battalion H.Q. to express his appreciation of the way in which the Battalion had occupied and held Louvain.  During the remainder of the campaign the same officer gave clear proof of his belief that a Commander should be seen frequently by his troops.  His presence in the Battalion's area always acted as a refreshing tonic.  Colonel Rufus Lorie also visited the Battalion at Louvain.

The situation on other parts of the front must have deteriorated gravely during the day.  In the afternoon the C.O. was called to an " 0 " Group at Brigade H.Q. at which orders were issued for the withdrawal of the Brigade.  In fact, of course, the terrific German attack on the French line between Maubeuge and Sedan, was already causing grave risk of the B.E.F. being left in the air, though neither the C.O. nor any member of the Battalion had much knowledge throughout the retreat of what was happening on other parts of the front.  At this " O " Group it was obvious that one or two officers were suffering from lack of sleep and it was no surprise to learn the next day that the Brigade Major had been replaced by Major Pat Preston from 2 Lincolns.  Orders were issued for the withdrawal of the Battalion that evening by march route to a point two miles west of Brussels, a total of twenty miles on paved roads.

The move out of Louvain was successfully accomplished without any indication of the withdrawal being given to the enemy, even from the Bala-Tiger post.  The carrier platoon, under Lieutenant J. C. S. G. De Longeuil and Serjeant McConville, had its first experience of acting as rear party covering the withdrawal, and helped to drown any noise by moving about the streets while the forward companies were disengaging.  By 2230 hours the last troops were clear and the long march began.  There was no follow-up by the enemy and a last glance back at Louvain from the hills to the west, showed nothing on that dark, still, summer's night, except the occasional shell burst in the city.  There was no sign of any fire burning, contrary to the subsequent German statement that British troops had set fire to the famous University Library before their departure.

Some of the riflemen were rather sorry to go.  They felt that they had more than held their own, and the Battalion doctor, Captain Patterson, was certain that his professional knowledge, already enhanced by his stay in the city, would benefit greatly by further experience.  On the afternoon of the day of departure he had nearly been shot as a spy when fixing notices to the Regimental Aid Post, and an hour later had delivered a Louvain woman of a child in the cellar beneath his post.

By 0600 hours on May 17th the Battalion was passing through Brussels after what had proved to be a very tiring night march with all weapons up to anti-tank rifles.  For the first time men had been seen sleeping on the march, but all were very keen to look their best as they passed through the Capital, and so spruced themselves up as best they could.  There was little doubt that Major-General Montgomery had suspected from the very first that a retreat by the B.E.F. would be inevitable; for which reason he had insisted that all the Battalions in his Division should train themselves to the highest pitch of physical fitness by lengthy route marches before the emergency occurred.

The Brussels trams had already stopped running and, although the stations were besieged by civilians, the last trains had gone.  About 0900 hours there was a welcome halt for two or three hours, after which troop-carrying lorries arrived and the move westwards was continued, to the accompaniment of some enemy bombing.  The Battalion was directed to Leeuwergem, nine miles away and four miles south of Alost, but much refugee traffic and other troop movements delayed both the reconnaissance groups and the Battalion,and it was not until 1830 hours that the position was more or less occupied.  However, at 0500 hours all the bridges on the front had been demolished.  


Leeuwergem bridge shortly after being demolished (photo supplied by Steve Pearce, son of L/C C.R.A. Pearce of 4 Troop A Squadron 15th/19th The Kings Royal Hussars whose tank was knocked out during the fighting in Assche, on the afternoon of May 18, where he was wounded and taken prisoner)


A few minutes later two light tanks appeared near the eastern bank.  Both were quickly recognized as British, and shortly afterwards the crews set fire to them and scrambled and swam across the river to safety.  Beside the river was a large fish factory, and in trying to help the crews, Captain E. D. D. Wilson fell in and found himself up to the armpits in decaying fish and slime.  A new pair of trousers were obtained later on, but the jacket remained with him and although he got used to it, nobody else did, and shunned him whenever possible.


Abandoned tanks referred to above from 15th/19th The Kings Royal Hussars (one from FHQ B Squadron and the other two from 1 Troop B Squadron and 2 Troop B Squadron) -  Globus fish factory can be seen through the Teralfene rail underpass (photo supplied by Steve Pearce)

About 0700 hours, contact was made with enemy motorcyclists and light tanks.  By this time all ranks were beginning to suffer from lack of sleep and it was perhaps considerate of the enemy that no attack was pressed home during the day.  There was, however, considerable shelling of the Rifles' position, which caused casualties.  " A " Company H.Q. got off lightly when a shell came through the roof of their building and failed to explode until it had reached the unoccupied cellar.

Once again bad news from other parts of the front caused a sudden summons of the C.O. to Brigade H.Q. late in the day and the issue of orders for a further withdrawal.  This time the Battalion was to move "under its own steam" on wheels, no less than thirty-three miles.  No troop-carrying lorries were available.  Non-essential stores were to be dumped, and as many men as possible carried on the Battalion transport.  Fortunately, the civilian motorcars, lorries, motor cycles and one hundred and twenty bicycles, which had already been commandeered in the neighbourhood, made this a comparatively easy task.  The other, less welcome aspect of this withdrawal was the fact that the Battalion position was not to be vacated until 0800 hours on the 19th in broad daylight.  One or two officers who had studied the battle of Le Cateau and other withdrawals in daylight from close contact with the enemy, were inclined to think that this was tempting Providence a little too much.  However, there was not much time for thought.  Orders were given by candlelight in a stuffy little room at Battalion H.Q. and after plans and maps had been fully studied and Company Commanders had moved off in the dark to give their own orders, it was almost time for the withdrawal to begin.  Shortly before dawn on the 19th, Battalion H.Q.  and "A" and " D " Companies, under command of Major Benson, slipped away quietly.  Lieutenant-Colonel Knox, with a small tactical H.Q., " B " and "C" Companies, and one company 2nd Lincolns and one Machine-Gun Platoon 2nd Middlesex under his command, waited, somewhat impatiently, for zero hour to arrive.

At 0800 hours all was quiet and platoons and sections withdrew in artillery formation, in most cases across the open, without at first receiving any marked attention from the enemy.  Later, artillery fire in the shape of air burst shrapnel caused three or four casualties and hastened the move of the Companies to the rendezvous where many varied vehicles and bicycles awaited them, and where little time was spent in loading up and getting on the move.  Amongst the vehicles used on this journey was a bright scarlet 20-ton Belgian lorry of immense length.  Lieutenant Davis proved to be able to drive it, though it was perhaps fortunate that the Belgian roads were long and straight.

Refugees and other troop movement delayed the first part of the Battalion on the move back, but " B " and " C " Companies had an almost non-stop run and the Battalion found itself complete by about twelve noon in Tieghem, six miles S.W. of Oudenarde.  It was not long before the usual brew of tea was produced and sleepy-eyed, unshaven faces were buried in large mugs.  Very few of the Battalion could have had any sleep during the previous seventy-two hours, and many were beginning to learn how long they could keep going if innumerable cups of "char" were forthcoming at the right time.  Billet reconnaissance parties were called for shortly afterwards and hopes were high that the Battalion might get a night's sleep under cover.  However, after a brief meeting between Major-General Montgomery and Brigadier Robb, at which the C.O.  was present, it became abundantly clear that there were "no troops-none-none at all" between the Division and the advancing Germans, and the Battalion was ordered to take up a position near Bossuyt facing N.E. along the Courtrai-Bossuyt canal and S.W. along the River Escaut.

This position, part of which was in bare open meadows, was occupied by about 1830 hours and most of the night was spent in digging and improving the defences.  At dawn on the 20th, German troops were seen at several points on the slopes east of the river.  In spite of their presence, however, it was a comparatively quiet day and some much-needed sleep was obtained in intervals between work on communications and buildings.  Another spate of rumours was received about enemy dressed as refugees and British Staff Officers, but by now the only effect of these false alarms was to raise the already high morale of the Battalion.

The 21st and 22nd continued warm and sunny and the enemy, though attacking relentlessly and successfully against the French, failed to press home any attack on the Brigade front.  During these two days the Rifles discovered that retreat had certain compensating advantages.  Cream, eggs, butter and champagne were to be had for the asking in a countryside not yet ravaged by war.  One officer shaved in hot gin.  On the morning of the 22nd orders were given for a short withdrawal of twelve miles to Tourcoing during the night 22/23 and by midnight the now well known withdrawal drill had been put into effect.  Reconnaissance parties under Major Benson, moved off to the new position at dusk.  253 Field Coy. R.E. undertook the marking of the main route back.  The Anti-Tank Coy., with some sappers, manned the unblown bridges which were not to be demolished before 0330 hours if no enemy appeared.  Reserve Companies and M.G. platoon withdrew at 0100 hours and the carrier platoon, as usual, covered the withdrawal of the forward companies, which disengaged at 0230 hours.  Halfway to Tourcoing the three carrier platoons were brigaded and defended the line of the main Courtrai-Coyghem road between the latter place and Guezenhoek until 0500 hours.

The enemy once again made no attempt to follow up and the new position in Tourcoing one mile west of the Belgian-French frontier was occupied shortly after dawn.  The day was spent in preparing and improving the defences.  "B" Company found itself m a large cotton warehouse where the very considerable risk of fire, added complications to the siting of weapons to shoot through windows and loopholes.  Roadblocks were constructed; patrols failed to gain contact with the enemy; the weather was perfect; reserve companies bathed in a local stream.  On the 24th Padre I. D. Neil discovered a train loaded with N.A.A.F.I.  supplies abandoned near Lille and returned with welcome refreshments; while Captain N.  O'D. Grimshaw, who had been left behind with a small rear party on May 10, succeeded in finding the Battalion and reporting for duty, which was no mean achievement.  Captain R. B. Allman had time to check on the Battalion transport and the orderly room staff confirmed that casualties up to date were one officer wounded, ten other ranks killed, thirty-four wounded and eight missing.

On the 26th patrols still failed to find the enemy.  At 12 noon in the main square of Tourcoing General Montgomery decorated Lieutenant-Colonel Knox with the D.S.O.; Lieutenant Garstin with the M.C.; and Serjeants Henderson, Baudains, Kiely and Corporal Martin with the M.M.  One of the recipients of the M.M.  was marched in front of the C.O.  for some alleged offence half an hour later, and was awarded a Severe Reprimand.  On his exit from the Orderly Room, Major Benson said to him: "It must be unique to get the M.M. and a severe rep. on the same day," to which the N.C.O. promptly replied, "As a matter of fact, Sir, I didn't deserve either, so I'm about quits on the deal."

During this lull in the fighting it is interesting, in the light of later knowledge, to see how the battle as a whole was going .  .  .  On the north the Belgian Army and one French Division were still holding the line of the Lys Canal under heavy pressure, but further south the line of the River Lys had been penetrated at a number of points and a large wedge had been made in the front from Courtrai north-westwards towards Roulers.  During the 26th, Menin, only four miles north of the Battalion position, was captured.  The following extract from the Belgian Official Account of the Campaign gives a graphic description of the situation on May 27: -

" The last reserves, three weak regiments, were committed.  Somehow or other we managed on our own to maintain contact with the British, but the enemy was determined to break down our resistance which was delaying him and causing him considerable losses.  Our troops held along the whole of the front.  They fought their ground, yielding only step by step under the repeated assaults of an enemy supported by an overwhelmingly large air force; they inflicted heavy losses to the enemy.  The gunners emptied their ammunition limbers, firing point-blank and blowing up their guns when they were about to fall into the hands of the enemy.  Despite such heroism, by about i i o'clock large gaps were made on the front north of Maldegem, in the centre near Ursel, and to the right near Thielt and Roulers.  The enemy advanced by infiltration.  In the Thielt region 6 to 7 Km. of the front was left undefended; the enemy had only to pour through to reach Bruges.  At about 12.30, the King telegraphed the following message to General Gort: 'The Belgian Army is losing heart.  It has been fighting without a break for the past four days under a heavy bombardment which the R.A.F.  has been unable to prevent.  Having heard that the Allied group is surrounded and aware of the great superiority of the enemy, the troops have concluded that the situation is desperate.  The time is rapidly approaching when they will be unable to continue the fight.  The King will be forced to capitulate to avoid a collapse.---

At about 2.30 p.m.  the French liaison authorities were told that:

"Belgian resistance is at its last extremity; our front is about to break like a worn bow-string.  The losses were heavy.  Belgian wounded were pouring into the hospital units which were already overflowing; many of the guns lacked ammunition.  The Belgian Army could no longer offer organized resistance.  It had its back to the sea.  The arc of fire narrowed down; thousands of refugees and the local population were wandering in a restricted area entirely at the mercy of the enemy guns and aircraft.  More than three million people were crowded into less than seventeen hundred square kilometres.  Many of them were homeless.  Food was beginning to run short.  The Army no longer had access to a railway.  The roads were congested and traffic had great difficulty in moving.  At 5 p.m.  King Leopold decided that an envoy should be sent to the German Command to ask for an armistice between the Belgian Army and the German Army.  His decision was at once communicated to the French and British Missions.  At 4 a.m.  on May 28, firing ceased along the whole of the Belgian front."

On the south, the situation was almost equally perilous.  The Germans had reached the Channel coast on May 22 and by the 24th were hammering at hastily occupied defences near Gravelines within fifteen miles of Dunkirk.  At 1030 hours on the 25th the Secretary of State for War cabled to General Gort predicting the re-embarkation of the B.E.F.  On the 27th the St. Omer-Bethune line was smashed.  Douai and Valenciennes were occupied and the B.E.F. was left near the apex of a rough triangle about fifty miles from the sea.  The northern side of this triangle was due to collapse at 0400 hours on the 28th, while the southern side was reeling back and could not be expected to exist much longer.

It was perhaps fortunate that the Rifles had no knowledge at all of what was happening except on their immediate front.  The tranquil halt at Tourcoing had allowed everyone to make up lost sleep and it was a surprise when Lieutenant A. F. Ruxton arrived at Battalion H.Q. at 1900 hours on May 27 with a brief warning of another impending withdrawal.  It was here that the Battalion began to eat into its reserve rations as no supplies could be delivered that night.  As the situation on the flanks of the withdrawal route was most uncertain, Brens and anti-tank rifles were to be carried by the men and the Battalion would, if necessary, fight its way back.  The withdrawal began two and a half hours later to the accompaniment of some shelling which knocked out two of the Battalion vehicles.  The move was one of 18 miles to Boesinghe, four miles north of Ypres, covering the west bank of the Yser canal.

Route finding on secondary roads at night with an unusual assortment of transport, including still serviceable bicycles, and with the inevitable intermingling of units, was no easy task.  The fact that no vehicle was lost for more than an hour or so throughout the retreat speaks highly for Lieutenant R. W. Gordon, who did most of the route marking, and for individual skill in map reading.  Drivers seemed to acquire a sixth sense which somehow led them to Battalion H.Q., even though they found themselves entering farmyards and having to reverse before they could proceed on their way.

After the usual sleepless night, but with no interference by the enemy, the Battalion arrived in the half-light of May 28 and spent the morning digging in.  The enemy was soon in close contact and artillery and mortar fire caused some casualties amongst our forward platoons.  During the afternoon two small attacks developed against "D" Company (now commanded by Lieutenant Bredin) and part of "C" Company.  Both were beaten off and a section of supporting Vickers M.G's.  of 2nd Middlesex took considerable toll of the enemy.  "D" Company stretcher-bearers, led by Bandsman Ellis, did some very good work in extricating wounded from exposed positions.  Platoon-Serjeant-Major Wilson, commanding the left forward platoon of "D" Company on the canal bank, kept his men particularly cheerful throughout the day, and the Company cook, Rifleman Crowe, was most indignant when he was slightly wounded while cooking dinners.  The Battalion was not to sec much of Boesinghe as it was ordered to withdraw again that evening four miles to the west to a position covering Woesten.

It was at this stage that the Battalion ran out of maps.  On May 10 the Intelligence Officer had started off with a truck full of maps which were meant to cover all likely operations of war which the Battalion might be called upon to perform, but no-one had visualized a retreat of ninety-five miles in a few days.  In the event, a quarter inch map was found from somewhere for the C.O., and the remainder of the Battalion got along astonishingly well without maps for the rest of the campaign.

Shortly after leaving Boesinghe heavy artillery fire was heard descending on what had been the Battalion position, probably the prelude to an attack, as it was not long before contact was established in the Woesten area which was occupied at 0430 hours on May 29.

The day spent at Woesten was one of the most unpleasant experienced by the Battalion.  There was no anti-tank obstacle behind which to shelter.  The position was on a forward slope with little or no cover available.  No attack was pressed home until late in the evening, but artillery fire was fairly continuous and, although really good slit trenches were dug, there were a number of casualties.  Battalion H.Q. received a direct hit which knocked out six men.


2 RUR soldier getting some rest in his trench during rear guard duty at Dunkirk

Orders were issued during the day for the next withdrawal, to Bulscamp three miles south of Furnes.  The move was to start directly after dark on May 29, but rear parties were not to vacate their positions until 2100 hours.  All non-essential stores-blankets, packs, officers' valises, greatcoats and groundsheets-were to be dumped to make room for the men in the ever-diminishing transport.

Preparations went forward quietly, documents, kit and clothing were reluctantly destroyed, and all was ready well before dusk.

Unfortunately, the enemy was also ready.  Shelling increased, machine-gun fire became more intense and determined attempts were made in the evening light to infiltrate into the Battalion position.  After companies had begun to thin out, at about 2030 hours, the, enemy attacked in earnest and there was confused and almost hand to hand fighting amongst the forward sections which continued, however, to hold out until the appointed time.  A section of the anti-tank platoon had been left in action as late as possible and the two guns were unfortunately captured just as the forward companies withdrew.  Some of their crews, fighting to the last, were also taken prisoner.  One weak forward platoon on the right of the Battalion front was heavily engaged, and by 2100 hours the enemy had succeeded in getting round both flanks.  There is little doubt that the platoon would have been killed or captured but for a splendid action on the part of a section of the 2nd Lincolns carrier platoon.  In he failing light the three carriers moved forward and subdued the enemy's fire for a few minutes until the platoon was able to disengage and mount the carriers which then withdrew.  The Battalion Carrier Platoon again formed the rear guard and Lieutenant de Longueuil and his men had a hectic few minutes with all weapons firing before they were finally able to pull clear and start the twelve mile march north-westwards.

The main Ypres-Furnes road which the Battalion was to traverse was intensely congested with troops from almost every Division of the B.E.F. and certain units of the French Army.  Six miles northwest of Woesten the road crossed the Yser Canal by an important bridge.  The whole of the route was within range of enemy guns.  The Battalion vehicles, in blocks, were intermingled with those of other units amongst the slowly moving mass of transport.  One officer rode a commandeered horse to get a better view.  There were frequent halts of varying duration during the first few miles,' and on arrival, at the canal about midnight, it was discovered that the bridge was destroyed and the R.E.  pontoon bridge had been shelled and was burning.  Heavy calibre shells were still bursting around and the scene, indeed, was not a cheerful one.  With the help of the C.O.'s.' quarter inch map, it was decided to move on a minor road and hope to be able to cross at the first bridge shewn which was three miles to the west.  This was an anxious period, but all went well.  The bridge was found intact and little time was lost in crossing it.

The remainder of the night was spent in spasmodic movement and many long halts.  Officers sent forward to find out why the double-banked column could not get on frequently came across drivers slumped over the steering wheel sound asleep, and a clear road ahead.  It took six hours to cover twelve miles, but Bulscamp was eventually reached in the early dawn by part of the Battalion.  Small groups of vehicles, guided by signposts, continued to arrive during the next hour or so.  A few men, under Captain R. A. Davis, were the last to come in, having overshot the mark by six miles in the dark and travelled as far as the coast.  Here, Captain Davis was told he must embark with his men at once on a nearby destroyer, but knowing that there was still a job of work to be done on land, he retraced his steps and quickly found Battalion H.Q.

By 1000 hours on May 30 the Battalion position had been reconnoitred and the eternal digging begun.  It was difficult to find suitable ground in which to site section posts as the surrounding area had been flooded and water was found a foot or two below the surface in most places.  The front was a wide one and was held by " B ", "C' and "D" Companies forward and " A " Company in reserve.  Battalion H.Q. established itself in a farm with a good view of the surrounding flat country.  The farm's owners had fled and numerous refugees in residence decided to live in the cellar.  For the first time during the retreat the Q.M.-Lieutenant Henniker-arrived at Battalion H.Q. without the complete day's rations and with no prospect of providing any more.  This, however, caused little inconvenience as each Company had already given practice to its team of milkers, fowl catchers and pig killers.  Major Benson, after establishing H.Q. lay down in a feather bed for a five minutes' smoke and was awakened two minutes later to find the bed on fire.

Apart from shelling, the Battalion had a quiet day, though on the right the 1 K.O.S.B. had some severe fighting during the afternoon.  The gravity of the overall picture was, however, brought home by the message from the King, received by the Commander-in-Chief and forwarded to the Battalion.  It read: -

"All your countrymen have been following with pride and admiration the courageous resistance of the B.E.F. during continuous fighting of the last fortnight.  Faced by circumstances outside their control, under a position of extreme difficulty, they are displaying a gallantry that has never been surpassed in the annals of the British Army.  The hearts of every one of us at home are with you and your magnificent troops in this hour of peril."

Considerable air activity over Bulscamp in the direction of the sea portended the worst for May 31, though it was heartening to see two enemy aircraft shot down by British fighters.  Early on the 31st the worst did happen.  Orders were given at a Brigade conference for the final withdrawal to the beaches and re-embarkation that night. 

The conference lasted a long time and was interrupted by occasional shell bursts nearby.  It can readily be imagined that the orders were far from stimulating.  The British Army was being swept out of Europe after barely three weeks fighting-if it did get out.  Plans for all eventualities were discussed in great detail.  Efforts were to be made to embark the whole of the 3rd and 4th Division during the night, but nothing was known about what shipping was available except that the Royal Navy was on the job.  Present position had to be held until 0230 hours on June 1.  Reception camps would be formed on the coast near La Panne where men would be put into groups of two hundred and guides would lead them to the top of the beach.  Here the Division Control Staff would take over and guide the groups to temporary piers and thence to ships.  Embarkation was to cease at La Panne at 0400 hours and troops arriving after that time were to go to Bray-Dunes.  The troops were to march.  All transport was to be destroyed, breech blocks removed, and mortars rendered useless.  Brens, rifles, anti-tank rifles, and 100 rounds of Small Arms Ammunition only were to be carried.  Walking wounded, only, would accompany the Battalion.  Telephones and all unnecessary equipment were to be destroyed.  Rear parties were to hold their ground firmly until the appointed time-there were to be no counterattacks.  Finally, if the plan proved unworkable the troops were to make their way as best they could to Dunkirk.

The C.O's timetable for withdrawal was: -

2110 hours.  Q.M. and Padre, key N.C.0's. and men under command of Major Ryland.

2115 hours.  Battalion H.Q.  (less Tac. H.Q.) and H.Q. Company.

213o hours.  "A" Company.

013o hours.  Company H.Q's.  and reserve platoons of "B," "C" and "D" Companies.

013o hours.  Tactical Battalion H.Q.

0145 hours.  Thin out forward platoons.

023o hours.  Rear party under command of Captain R. R. B. Dickinson.

During the afternoon and evening of the 31st enemy activity greatly increased, particularly on the front of 1 K.O.S.B.  At one stage there was a danger of a break-through on the right of the Battalion and "A" Company in reserve was moved to a better position to meet this threat.  Artillery fire became much heavier and the rattle of machine guns on the Battalion front was grim evidence of the speed with which the advancing enemy troops were coming up.

In the early stages of the withdrawal all went according to plan.  Rear parties finally disengaged at 0230 hours just as the last troop of the 7th Field Regt. R.A. fired its last shell.  Bridges were intact on the road to La Panne, though shellfire was continuous and heavy, particularly in the area of the bridge at Adinkerke.

From the moment of arrival at La Panne the plan broke down.  The town was ablaze and the whole area and beaches under heavy fire; the reception camps could not be found and the Control Staff which was to have regulated movement had ceased to exist.  When the C.O. arrived with Captain Drummond it was obvious that La Panne was not a place in which to loiter.  A move was made to the beaches where it was decided to wait for dawn.  The plan had not allowed for a Battalion rendezvous to be selected and there was no hope of collecting even a part of the Battalion in the dark.  There was no sign of any shipping, though large numbers of troops were standing about hopefully in the sea.

2 RUR awaiting evacuation from the beaches (IWM)

"C" and "D" Companies were at one stage down to fifty men apiece, so they linked up and, following the instructions of the C.O., exchanged abandoned anti-tank rifles and Brens for their own rifles.  In a very short time this body of men was better equipped than ever again.  One or two officers, including Lieutenant Gordon, got across the Channel individually in mine-sweepers; Lieutenant Garstin was in a ship which was bombed.  Fortunately for him he had just removed his wet clothing and was therefore able to squeeze his way through the porthole and swim to safety.  Others were less fortunate.

Lieutenant Bredin and "D" Company found an Isle of Man steamer, the captain of which announced that he could not take the whole party; he was, however, over-persuaded.  Everything was very ship-shape except for one dead man sprawling on the gangway.  Lieutenant Bredin, having seen his men aboard, went into the saloon where he found a steward in a white coat.  "Have you any beer?" he asked.  "Yes, but you cannot have it until we are three miles out.  You can have some tea, though," was the astonishing reply, for bombs were falling all round the ship.

After dawn the rest of the Battalion gradually found itself.  Part of H.Q. Company, it was learnt later, had embarked during the night, and `A" Company had already moved on towards Dunkirk.  The remainder now set out on the same route of eleven miles through soft sand.  There was considerable enemy air activity during the march.  Troops were so tired that they almost laughed at the Messerschmitts even when they were machine-gunned.  Most attention was paid to ships standing off shore, a number of which were seen to receive direct hits.  Near Bray-Dunes the Battalion had a long halt at an improvised pier to which it was hoped some of the shipping might venture in.  

2 RUR waiting on improvised pier of lorries to evacuate Dunkirk during low tide (IWM)
Those shown believed to be: Left and right foreground Captain Garratt (Works Officer, D Company) and L Cpl Delaney (CO's driver). Middle left and right centre, 2-Lt Sturgeon (A/Carrier Officer, C Company) and Lt St Maur Shiel (Intelligence Officer with HQ Company). Bare headed in centre, Lt Col Knox DSO. At the back, 2-Lt Carberry (B Company). Photo taken by Lt H E N "Bala" Bredin MC (A Company).

The hope proved vain and the march, of one of the few formed bodies of troops seen during the day, was continued.  Dunkirk was now visible under a large cloud of black smoke; enemy aircraft arrived every few minutes; a few British machines were seen about once a hour; French and British A.A. Gunners filled the sky with bursting shells, and the now weary but still cheerful Rifles trudged on through the sand.

The Mole at Dunkirk was reached eventually, at about 1100 hours, and a few of the leading troops were embarked on a destroyer found alongside.  

E-Class Destroyer H.M.S. Esk that rescued 1,000 French troops from T.S.S. Scotia

The remainder of the Battalion could not get on board as the destroyer pulled away from the quay and set off at once at full speed in response to an S.O.S. from mid-channel.  Forty minutes later those on board below decks were wakened by the ship scraping alongside what was thought, at first, to be Dover pier, but was found, after staggering on deck, to be the S.S.  "Scotia," 10.000 tons, on fire and sinking.  Hundreds of French troops were on the burning hulk and in the sea around.  The ship had received a direct hit about an hour earlier and many anxious eyes scanned the sky for German bombers during the period spent alongside, rescuing all those still alive.  No time was lost in getting up speed when the last Frenchman had been squeezed on to the crowded deck.  The rest of the short journey was quickly over.  As the troops disembarked at Dover the captain of the destroyer, who could not remember when he had last slept, was handed a signal ordering him to return at once to Dunkirk.

After a short wait on Dunkirk Mole the rest of the Battalion was embarked on a destroyer and had a swift uneventful crossing.  A few adventurous spirits crossed in smaller craft and it was not until a week later that the Battalion, after re-assembling in Somerset, was able to assess the surprisingly small casualties incurred during the campaign, which were: Killed 34, Wounded 70, Missing and Prisoners, 70.

Near the end of the first World War, in October 1918, the 2nd Battalion had fought its last battle against the Germans in the vicinity of Courtrai.  The Battalion was then attacking, morale was high, and the training and discipline of all ranks were up to standard.  In May 1940, over the same countryside against the same enemy, in one of the most ill-fated campaigns in the long history of the British Army, when every day brought bad tidings, and when almost every night was spent in slipping away from a victorious enemy, the Battalion continued to display doggedness, discipline and cheerfulness.

There was no spirit of defeat when the Battalion disembarked at Dover.  Every Officer and Rifleman was convinced that the Battalion had fought the Hun to a standstill when it was allowed to do so.  No section had lost an inch of ground or withdrawn a second before the appointed time.  The "Dunkirk Gallop" may have been a military disaster of the first magnitude, but at the close of the campaign the 2nd Battalion, with enhanced reputation and invaluable experience, was ready and anxious to set about the task of preparation for the day when it could again give battle to the enemy.



Oral Account of BEF and Dunkirk
Imperial War Museum recorded oral testimony of Major General H E N 'Bala' Bredin CB DSO and Two Bars MC and Bar can be found at:

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80011874

Reel 1 - Belgium/France with 2 RUR.

Reel 2 - Dunkirk with 2 RUR.



Little Ships - The Miracle of Dunkirk

Dan Snow retraces the role of the Royal Ulster Rifles through the war diary of one member of the regiment in the documentary.

The regiment formed part of the rearguard tasked with buying time for the soldiers trapped on the beach.

However, at the last minute the Rifles' order to fight to the last man was overturned and they had the chance to try to make it to the beaches and hope for evacuation.

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