MEN OF STEEL - HAZEBROUCK REMEMBERED By Steve Berridge
(An Article I originally wrote in 2007 and was published in "Ham and Jam" the newsletter of the Royal Green Jackets Association, Milton Keynes Branch and the "Somme Bugle" newsletter of the Somme Branch of the Royal British Legion in 2009)
May 2007 saw the unveiling of a new memorial in the Northern French town of Hazebrouck. The memorial was erected to honour the 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry who along with supporting units held the town during the chaotic withdrawal to Dunkirk in May of 1940 against the onslaught of the German 8th Panzer Division.
When the Territorial Army was doubled in April. 1939, the original Bucks Battalion was formed into two battalions, the 1st and 2nd Bucks with headquarters at Aylesbury and Slough respectively. The original Battalion had companies at Aylesbury, High Wycombe, Slough and Marlow, with detachments at Wolverton, Chesham, Princes Risborough and Woburn. When the duplication was completed the 1st Battalion covered the northern area of the county, with companies at Aylesbury (B Company), High Wycombe (HQ & D Companies), Wolverton (A Company) and Princes Risborough (C Company). Therefore in the main, apart from some later reinforcements and drafts the battalion was made up of a great many local men from what is now the Milton Keynes and North Bucks area.
The Battalion embarked for France in January 1940 still being part 145 Brigade of the 48th (South Midland) Division, as it had been since its early days. The other battalions in 145 Brigade were the 2nd Glosters and the 4th Battalion, The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (TA).
On May 10th 1940 The Germans launched their Blitzkrieg, ultimately resulting in the Fall of Holland, Belgium and France and leading to the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) withdrawal to Dunkirk. It was in late May during the setting up of the Dunkirk perimeter and the setting up of a corridor to Dunkirk through which the BEF could withdraw, that the decision was made to protect the south west of the corridor by setting up strongpoints around the main towns and villages between Bergues (just outside Dunkirk) and La Bassee (a town approximately 40 miles from Bergues).
On the 24th May 145 Brigade were given the task of holding the town of Cassel (approx 15 miles from Bergues) but on the way to Cassel the Brigade was also given the task of defending the important road and railway junction town of Hazebrouck (approx 6 miles South of Cassel).
As the Bucks were the rearguard unit it was easier to detach them and they were given the task of defending Hazebrouck.
The 1st Bucks arrived in Hazebrouck on the 25th May and during the day were greeted by strafing and bombing raids by the Luftwaffe.
On the morning of 27thMay the battle for Hazebrouck started. All the Rifle Companies were engaged by midday. The battalion had to contend with tanks, artillery, mortars and further strafing and bombing raids by the Luftwaffe along with enemy infantry assaults. At 2030hrs enemy infantry supported by tanks broke through D company’s position and managed to push towards the town centre and battalion HQ. The general picture then became one of a series of platoon battles as the Germans managed to infiltrate between companies and then platoons until by nightfall the Rifle Companies had been effectively overrun albeit at heavy cost to the enemy in infantry and tanks. Some sections and platoons managed to extricate themselves and withdraw under cover of darkness.
This now left Battalion Headquarters and HQ Company to continue the fight from their positions around the“Orphanage” the next day.
From first light on 28thMay the enemy continued to infiltrate the remaining Bucks positions, by early afternoon tanks were shooting at virtually point blank range into the buildings held by the Bucks Battalion but the defenders held on through a major attack at 1300 until at 1430 a lull in fighting ensued. During this lull it was agreed by the Command element of the battalion that with the Rifle Companies now overrun and that the remaining elements of the battalion were no longer holding up the German advance that the survivors should attempt to breakout and head for the Coast that night.
At 1630 heavy artillery started to rain down along with mortars and very soon the BHQ buildings were ablaze and collapsing. The remaining members of the battalion took to the gardens, but with tanks and infantry now upon them the survivors had little choice but to surrender.
The defence of Hazebrouck was over.
Of the battalion who fought at HAZEBROUCK, ten officers and around 200 Other Ranks’ succeeded in getting back to England, of the remainder, 70 were killed in action, died of wounds or died as Prisoners of War, 10 officers and around 226 Other Ranks became Prisoners of War.
The Battalion received a rare compliment from the enemy themselves. In a German broadcast it was stated that: “the defenders of HAZEBROUCK not only delayed the advance, but resisted in manner truly worthy of the highest traditions of the British Army”
Further praise came from the Chief of Staff of the opposing German Panzer Division: - “They were tough all right - group after group did their utmost to hold their positions - they were men of steel”
During this action members of the 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion gained 1 DSO, 3 MCs, 1 DCM, 8 MMs and 12 MIDs.
The 1stBuckinghamshire Battalion returned to France on D Day, 6th June 1944.
The modern building on the site of the Orphanage where the memorial plaque is situated. The original building on this site was held by BHQ, HQ Company and elements of A Company during the battle.