Defence of the Western Strongpoints; the Nieppe Forest
As the German Army Group closed in from the West, the British and French line of defence ran along the series of canals running North – South from Gravelines on the coast, West of Dunkirk, to La Bassee, over 40 miles to the South.
Behind this line lay a number of defended strongpoints, including Hazebrouck, Cassel and Wormhoudt. Hazebrouck was known to be a German objective and to the South of the town lay the Nieppe Forest. The British had defended the forest in the German offensive towards Hazebrouck in April 1918 and now were required to do so again. The Nieppe Forest was defended by three battalions of the Royal West Kent Regiment and a battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment.
British and French units were strung out thinly along the canal line, facing German forces which included ten German panzer divisions. The defenders gained some respite on 23rd May, when Hitler’s halt order forbade these divisions to cross the canal, although German infantry gained a number of bridgeheads on the allied side.
The halt order was lifted on the night on 26th May and the following morning German forces began major attacks all along the canal line. By 28th May panzer units were over the canal and pushing East in several places, with heavy attacks on Hazebrouck and the Nieppe Forest.
On 23rd May, 367 Battery and Regimental HQ of 140th Regiment under the command of Lt-Colonel C.J. Odling had been ordered to join the ‘Macforce’, commanded by Major General Noel-MacFarlane. Macforce was one of a number of ad-hoc forces put together by Lord Gort as he attempted to stem the German advance and act as a rearguard for his escaping troops.
The War Diary describes the move to join Macforce and the regiment’s arrival at the Nieppe Forest. There is no clear map reference of the regiment’s location in the wood, but the CO is noted as carrying out a recce of Merville to the South.
The Macforce was ordered North to form a defence around Cassel and the regiment moved to Cassel, via Caestre, on 24th May. The regiment’s association with Macforce was brief as, on the arrival of Brigadier Nigel Somerset’s ‘Somerforce‘ at Cassel on 25th May, Macforce was disbanded; its original purpose had been to protect the BEF’s southern flank in the event of a collapse of the French First Army, but as such a collapse never occurred, and so Macforce’s raison d’etre ceased to exist.
War Diary, 24th May 1940
‘The Colonel [Odling] rejoined the Regiment at FORET DE NIEPPE at 0300 hrs. The Battery was told to rendezvous in a small wood which was found to be a hopeless place and the Battery did not stay there but returned to the FORET DE NIEPPE. At about 0600 hrs. the C.O. and myself went off to recce. position near MERVILLE and at about 0900 hrs we were ordered to join an advanced guard and march through CAESTRE to CASSEL with a view to seizing the town before the enemy could reach it.
The advance guard and ourselves arrived by noon. CASSEL was heavily bombed but the Regiment suffered no casualties. 1 Troop of the Battery went into action about H 319578, 1 Troop about H 314572 and a third Troop about H 319572 and Regimental H.Q. was in the chateau in a wood about H 316572. The Regiment. was now grouped under 5 R.H.A. [Royal Horse Artillery] who had one Troop in action about H 316576.
I do not know where the other Troop was. Lt. Col. A.A.M. Durand, M.C. commanded the two Field Regiments. As far as I can recollect the zones allotted to the Troops were North Troop from about 270° Northwards and the two Southern Troops shared from 270° Southwards.