BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY 1939-1945
On 28th May, 1940, King Leopold of the Belgians surrendered unconditionally to the Germans. Thus the British Expeditionary Force's left flank was exposed and the gap on its southern flank had not been closed by concerted action. An attack southwards by the B.E.F. from Arras and northwards by the French from Amiens was staged, but never took place. The French did not march.
To prevent the encirclement and capture of the whole of the B.E.F., evacuation from the Continent at Dunkirk was ordered. This was a triumph for the little ships—destroyers, launches, yachts and motor-boats—helped by the magnificent protection of the Royal Air Force and prolonged and unusually calm seas.
27th May.—For the subsequent three or four hours there was no change in these dispositions. Movement was hazardous on account of shelling, machine-gun fire and sniping from houses just south of the Comines road, i.e., between Regimental headquarters and D Company.
To the north of the road Captain Jephson's party, with some of the Brens of the carrier platoon, were continuously in action with parties of Germans, who brought up three or four machine guns and a mortar on the high ground across the ravine. Their position along the railway was subjected to accurate fire from all these weapons as well as from artillery, and one Bren was put out of action by a mortar bomb.
After suffering about twelve casualties, small-arms ammunition began to run out, but one of the reserve trucks from B Echelon arrived up the road at the critical moment and fresh supplies were sent across.
Meanwhile, there was no further news from the three forward companies or from C Company. Regimental headquarters had been observed and was subjected to some fairly accurate shelling but sustained no damage. Direct hits were being registered from time to time upon the farm buildings round the aid post.
A report was sent off to the 143rd Infantry Brigade during the morning; but the general situation was apparently so obscure that no intimation could be given in reply of the movements of the 4th Division or of formations to the north.
In the absence of any further instructions, the small force comprising headquarters remained on the railway and around the farm buildings.
By about 1330 hrs. fire had slackened considerably. The enemy who had been sniping with light machine guns and rifles from the house south of the road had ceased and movement across the open ground was less hazardous.
Captain Jephson had been badly wounded in the hand and arm and, together with the other casualties from the railway, had been successfully evacuated. Major Colvill had been slightly wounded by a shell splinter earlier in the day.
By 1400 hrs. there appeared to be a distinct lull, although there were some Germans close up to the posts in the houses immediately north of the Comines road occupied by some of the carrier platoon and Serjeant Robey's platoon of C Company.
At that juncture Captain Edmunds appeared with news of D Company which, it appeared, had missed the tide of the German advance and was more or less intact, except for some casualties at the outset, including Second Lieutenant Paul Cooke, killed whilst getting a Bren into action from the window of a house.
It was apparent that the attack had penetrated to the north, though the extent could by gauged only by watching the light signals fired by the advancing Germans.
At 1430 hrs. the commanding officer decided to withdraw headquarters and D Company to a position covering Warneton, in view of the lull in the situation about Mai Cornet, and the threat to the bridgehead implied by the penetration of the attack past the left of the Regiment.
Orders for the withdrawal to Warneton having been given, to start at 1500 hrs., the commanding officer went to reconnoitre the position chosen. When passing the church at Bas Warneton he met Major Richards, of C Company, with some of his company headquarters. From him it was learned that C Company headquarters had in fact been established since the previous night in a building about six hundred yards north-west of the position held by Regimental headquarters on the railway.
The two forward platoons of this company had been on the north-east side of the ravine near A Company headquarters. At about 1400 hrs. Major Richards had looked out of his headquarters to find a posse of Germans in the garden. Company headquarters immediately opened fire and killed several of them before finding cover in a ditch. Major Richards was slightly wounded by a grenade splinter, but was able to carry on. Lieutenant Clutterbuck had last been seen dodging amongst the buildings of company headquarters firing his revolver and was presumed to have been killed. The remainder of company headquarters were able to withdraw under cover and collect at the church.
On arrival at Warneton the commanding officer was met by Major Brunker from headquarters, 5th Division, who explained that he had been sent to organize a Brunker Force from stragglers for the protection of Warneton bridge during the passage of the 4th Division from the south. Several sections of Royal Engineers were already digging feverishly on the ground which had been chosen for occupation by the Regiment.
The withdrawal of headquarters and D Company from Mai Cornet was carried out without loss and new dispositions were taken up covering the ground to the east and north-east of Warneton, with the mortar platoon under P.S.M. Rowland on the south bank of the River Lys trying to get contact with the 6th Black Watch of the 12th Infantry Brigade.
The commanding officer went to headquarters, 143rd Infantry Brigade, accompanied by Major Brunker, and reported the situation at Warneton. In the absence of any stragglers, the latter officer returned to the 5th Division.
There was some shelling during the late afternoon and continued sounds of fighting a couple of thousand yards to the north, but no attack upon Warneton developed.
At 1900 hrs. the 6th Black Watch, with a field company, R.E., supported by a few light tanks of the 13th /18th Hussars, counterattacked astride the railway towards Comines whilst at about the same time the 3rd Grenadier Guards counter-attacked from farther north towards the ground which had been held by A and B Companies of the Regiment.
As the light tanks reached the houses on the north side of the road at Mai Cornet they found Serjeant Robey with two sections of his platoon of C Company, some of whom were wounded, still holding his post. His presence had been unknown to Regimental headquarters. He himself had made several attempts to get across during the attack to report, but was driven back to cover by fire. He accordingly held his post, unconcerned by what was happening, until the counter-attack appeared.
For his gallantry Serjeant Robey was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Darkness was descending whilst these counter-attacks were developing. Losses, particularly in the 3rd Grenadiers, were heavy.
Regimental headquarters were established in a small house with cellars beside the railway some three hundred yards west of Warneton station.
The early part of the night was noisy. There was much shelling and machine-gun fire to the east of the main road Warneton— Ypres when the several counter-attacks were consolidating in close contact with the enemy; but no further tactical moves affecting the Regiment took place. Regimental headquarters and D Company were shelled intermittently.
28th May.—Dispositions were adjusted with the arrival of further troops, including Royal Fusiliers, in the Warneton area. D Company shifted a short distance to the north whilst the composite company moved out to positions west of the main road, giving depth from the east and covering the expanse of open ground to the north and north-west.
There was some intermittent shelling of movement. The commanding officer went to an advanced dressing station upon the medical officer's instructions and was evacuated thence. Major E. C. Richards, O.B.E., assumed command of the Regiment at about 1030 hrs.
The enemy started shelling Regimental headquarters quite early in the day. D Company held a line facing the enemy, and the composite company a line covering D Company's left flank. Apart from considerable and accurate shell fire, nothing much happened.
While operations were proceeding at Comines and Warneton B Echelon transport, with which were the greater part of the vehicles of the Regiment at this tune (and, in fact, ever since the evacuation of vehicles from St. Maur it had been found impracticable to have more than the mmimum number of vehicles forward), moved from Croix-au-Bois-Quesnoy to a field near Ploegsteert and later to Mount Kemmel.
On the morning of the 28th May Captain Blyth, who was then in command of the transport, was sent for to the 143rd Brigade headquarters and told of the decision to evacuate the Regiment to Dunkirk. All vehicles were to be emptied and used as troop carriers and an embussing point was given at Messines. Captain Blyth went on to Regimental headquarters and, having arranged details with Major Richards, returned to carry out the orders. The vehicles were duly emptied and assembled at the embussing point, not without some difficulty, as the route ran forward counter to a considerable amount of traffic. A military policeman lent by brigade was most helpful.
The embussing time fixed was midnight and this was kept to. Regimental headquarters withdrew under heavy shell fire, the building being actually hit. Some enemy were seen working round our right flank, and the withdrawal was sniped and fired on with tommy-guns. Captain Hill's company followed Regimental headquarters and covered the withdrawal of D Company. The Regiment then marched to Messines and embussed.
29th May.—That night and most of the next day the Regiment moved through Poperinghe to Stavele 4473. The congestion on the roads during that move was appalling. With British troops of all kinds were mixed French artillery and other formations. A red glow like a big Very light in Messines and Poperinghe preceded artillery fire. Luckily there was only one attack from the air which was made after passing Poperinghe by daylight, but no casualties were caused in the Regiment.
It was 0700 hrs. before Major Richards reached Stavele. Most of the day was taken up in rounding up the Regiment, as the column had been broken in the welter of traffic, and in reorganizing.
A position at Beveren was occupied that evening. In his searchings and reconnaissance Major Richards ran into part of the Belgian Army which had just had their King's instructions to lay down arms and were surrendering.
Apart from a little shell fire, nothing happened that night, during which the Regiment withdrew, again using its mechanical transport.
30th May.--Just south of Houthem 4080 all the mechanical transport, except for a few vehicles which we were allowed to keep, were destroyed and the Regiment marched into the Dunkirk perimeter. This was an area intersected with dykes, with sand-dunes between it and the sea. The Regiment moved into a wooded area on these dunes. Companies were given areas, all-round defence was organized, and, with the useful addition of tools collected from the roadside as we marched in, slit trenches were soon dug for all.
31st May.—It was a day of tense excitement, fine and clear; enemy aircraft were constantly over. Some of our Spitfires appeared occasionally and drove the enemy off. Some delayed action bombs were dropped near the Regiment's area, but there were no casualties.
Orders and counter-orders were received about embarking. The original plan was that this should be done at La Panne from small boats, and Captain Blyth went to reconnoitre the beach. Eventually it was decided that the Regiment should embark from the mole at Dunkirk harbour and orders were received at 1800 hrs.
All Bren guns, carriers and ammunition were collected for use by rear parties. The few remaining vehicles were rendered useless and the Regiment marched off. Our progress was delayed by the preceding brigade. Major Richards refused an offer of transport, as he wished to keep the Regiment together. We marched nearer nine than four and a half miles, as we had estimated the distance. Dunkirk was being shelled and bombed.
The Regiment spent the night on the mole. Sounds of an attack on the perimeter were heard and some bombs were dropped.
1st June.— It took four hours to move four hundred yards along the mole, the men being closed up and three abreast. Once more, by the grace of God, no bombs fell on the serried ranks of the Regiment. As dawn was breaking, someone must have woken up with a start, for destroyers rushed alongside the mole and we were all doubled aboard. Many of the Regiment found themselves in H.M.S. Worcester and the remainder in the Maid of Orleans. Hostile aircraft flew over as we sailed across and received a warm reception from the ships' anti-aircraft defence. The crossing took only a few hours.
The Regiment, now split up, landed at Dover and was piled anyhow into trains. We were told that we were bound for Aldershot and therefore assumed that it would be a simple matter to collect the Regiment again on arrival. As it was, at about 1900 hrs., the first train with four officers and ninety-three other ranks arrived at Porthcawl. During the night other parties arrived in the neighbourhood, but where they all went to it was impossible to find out. The Regiment embarked nine officers and three hundred and twenty other ranks.