A Soldier's view of the withdrawal to Dunkirk (1940)
The following account is that of Private Bailey a soldier of the Signals Platoon, 8th Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment.
In late March 1940, 144 Brigade moved to the Saar front. Outposts were taken over in front of the Maginot line, positioned between Algerian troops and the French Foreign Legion. Action was confined to patrol activity but there were no casualties despite enemy shelling; the Gloucesters were not so fortunate. One patrol replaced a Nazi flag with a red flag on a church spire in no-man's land. It was taken away as a regimental souvenir. After four weeks the Brigade was relieved by the 51st Highland Division.
On 10th May 1940, the German Army invaded Holland and Belgium. 48th Division advanced into Belgium on 14th May to Den Hoek south of Brussels. On the evening of 15th May, 48th Division was ordered forward to reinforce French troops but after marching all night a withdrawal was ordered to Bois des Soignes, returning over ground covered in the night. The next forty-eight hours involved marching mainly at night and resting during the daytime. Rather exhausted, the Battalion arrived at Ninove on May 18th having covered about 60 miles in two and a half days on one meal a day and four hours sleep a night. Outside Ninove there was a second air raid. At midnight orders arrived for a quick move to the French border. Surplus equipment was dumped and men were packed on to the Battalion lorries. It was a night drive and after passing through Tournai arrived at a village, Wez Velvain, on 19th May. Artillery was already in position sending over a heavy barrage in the direction of Bruyelle on the river Escaut, the sector now held by the Brigade. On May 21st a German barrage started to fall on Wez Velvain, resulting in many casualties in the Battalion, which was still in reserve. At dusk a move forward was made to relieve 5th Gloucesters at Bruyelle. On arrival enemy shells started to land at Battalion HQ. The line was held on 22nd May but at lam 23rd May orders were received to withdraw as quickly as possible. In the pale moonlight it was difficult, with ‘A’ Coy coming under fire. The Battalion marched until after dawn and crossed the French border, taking up positions in prepared trenches and dugouts. French troops took over the positions and on 24th May at 12.30am another march began. A rest was taken during the day but at 5.30pm it was once again on the move to Pont-a-Marq. By now the Battalion had withdrawn 200 miles.
Wez Velvain, Bruyelle and the River Escaut
At dawn on 25th May transport arrived for a move to Beveren and then on to Herzeele where defensive positions had to be taken up - the Battalion now facing south. May 26th was a quiet day but on May 27th air-raids began, some so low that the faces of air gunners could be seen. It was reported that German tanks had broken through. Battalion HQ was in the chateau at Wormhoudt with the Warwickshires ahead in the village. In the evening artillery barrages started. On May 28th heavy firing began and continued through the day. (It was on this day that about 80 men of the Warwicks, Cheshires (MG), Royal Artillery and at least six men of ‘D’ Coy of the Battalion were taken prisoner and killed by the Leibstandarte SS). There was a withdrawal to Herzeele where lorries had been emptied to carry as many men as possible but at Bambecque, three miles down the road, defensive positions had once again to be taken up. There were about 400-500 men left in the Battalion but the German advance had to be slowed. A couple of Bren carriers rushed back into the square at Herzeele and had a good shoot at the Germans now there.
May 29th, Battalion HQ withdrew to a farm house outside Bambecque coming under heavy shell fire with the rifle companies positioned round the village. The line had to be held to enable men to get away from Dunkirk and the beaches. Heavy firing started in many directions from light machine guns and rifles with artillery adding to the general noise of battle. Artillery support was one gun stationed behind Battalionn HQ. Enemy shells began to land near the Battalion HQ and overhead was the never ending roar of the German bombers. Machine gun and rifle fire was on three sides. ‘A’ and ‘D’ Coys had suffered many casualties and the survivors were arriving at Battalion HQ in small parties. Contact had been lost with ‘B’ & ‘C’ Coys but two men volunteered to go forward with the withdrawal orders. One man from ‘A’ Coy recounted how the tracks of a tank had gone on both sides of him. The men at Battalion HQ were now the only ones to hold back the Germans. The road to Rexpoede had to be held at all costs until 9pm so there were another three hours to go. The trenches in the orchard were manned, the cooks helping to line the hedges. About 100 men were now holding that road and it was just a matter of waiting for the assault. Heavy machine gun fire was being directed at the farm house. Bullets were ricocheting off the walls, flying in all directions. Tensions were building up waiting for the onslaught but the men were in a determined mood. So far it had been constant withdrawals but this point was going to be held until 9pm. The German army would find it difficult to get past this spot. Ammunition was strewn all round, bayonets unsheathed, Bren guns ready, even a bottle of whisky, just waiting, waiting to fire with everything. An endless hail of bullets came flying into the orchard - it was amazing there were not more casualties. Still no German attack and then at 8.30pm orders came to filter back into the farmyard. Firing could be heard almost all round the position but in between bursts up the road the men dashed out in sections of five and marched off to the rear, the last of them getting away by 10pm. It was a matter of plodding along through the machine gun fire until getting out of range. At the transport lines a light machine gun started firing across the road and there was a scramble to get through it to Rexpoede which was now burning fiercely, silhouetting the men in the bright red flames, the buildings in ruins. Just as some of the survivors of the battalion got to the crossroads, a German infantry column appeared at the other end of the street but a Bren armoured carrier opened fire scattering the Germans and enabling some British prisoners to escape.
Route taken by the 8th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment
The parties then made their way to Bray Dunes. One party sank into a ditch at a crossroads to check the route when a column of German tanks moved across their front - a matter of hide and seek. Hundreds of burning lorries were passed - horses running wild, some grazing quietly. One road was blocked by French Army horses. To get round them the parties had to scramble down the steep bank of the road and wade through three feet of water for two hundred yards. Men were becoming very exhausted and some needed assistance to get back up the steep bank on to the road, the Brigadier was giving a helping hand. A stretcher case was carried through on the shoulders of four men. It was a question of somehow having to keep going. On May 30th the beach at Bray Dunes was reached after a march of seven hours. There were about 100 men out of a battalion of 750 but eventually the number reached 150. There was no-one from ‘B’ Coy but later seven men from ‘C’ Coy arrived, some having had to stand up to their necks in water under a river bank to avoid being taken prisoner.
Three attempts were made to get on to rowing boats, one man succeeded by going up to his neck in the water. In this sector the Battalion seemed to be the only unit with discipline and organisation. It was decided to cordon off part of the beach, the men of the Battalion forming three sides of a square, with fixed bayonets, standing with backs to the sea. Volunteers then swam out to retrieve rowing boats abandoned away from the shore. Stragglers were given priority and passed through the cordon and once again the Battalion was allowing other men to go before them. At midnight rations were issued, a small tin of bully beef to ten men and five army biscuits each, the first issue for thirty-six hours.
May 31st, now without sleep for two days, shelter was taken in the dunes. Shells began to land but there was only one casualty. Down to the water's edge sat quietly on the sand, rifles across knees talking quietly to each other. Shells were beginning to drop at the north end of the beach but then as dawn was breaking, rowing boats could be seen approaching out of the morning mist. Embarkation on to the Glen Gower but it pulled into Dunkirk harbour to pick up many wounded. There was an air raid, a stick of bombs straddling the ship with a glancing blow but only four or five were wounded, then on to England berthing at Harwich where a meal was served by young Welsh Guardsmen. It was a great tonic to the men when a crowd of civilians gave them a loud cheer, their spirits were already on the way back up. So on by train to the militia camp at Derby where a good sleep and huge breakfast did wonders. Then a move to Bradbury Lines in Hereford before arriving at Kington to await reinforcements.
The Glen Gower loaded with troops from Dunkirk