140th Regiment in the Battle of Cassel, the final day. Wednesday 29th May 1940

The German forces did not attack after darkness had fallen on the night of May 28th, although considerable movement was noticeable in the surrounding country.

The town’s defenders had suffered significant casualties but at the same time an appreciable number of enemy tanks were lying derelict in open country. The Field ambulance HQ in the town centre  had received a direct hit from a Stuka attack resulting in several casualties, now buried in the towns’ cemetery. The villages of Bachinove and Zupytene had been captured by the Germans, with some survivors making their way back to Cassel.

A machine-gun platoon had reinforced the  junction with the 4th Ox. and Bucks, and a section of 140 Regiment’s  18-pounders  were positioned in the Ox & Bucks Battalion “keep” area in the town cntre.  2nd Lieut. Gerry French,  of the Intelligence Corps was killed by a mortar bomb, while on a mission to liaise with the artillery regarding the targeting of  a German position

On the morning of Wednesday 29th May, a heavy and sustained attack broke out again, preceded by concentrated mortar bombardment.  There were attacks from three sides simultaneously. In places defences were driven in and casualties mounted.

During the fighting of 29th May at about 10.30, and despite his better judgement, Major Christopherson was ordered by Somerset to fire on German mortar positions. He carried out this order with one gun, positioned on the D218 Road and firing over open sights, but retaliation from German mortars killed two men and Christopherson himself was injured. Christopherson’s injury meant he took no further part in the battle and  his war diary, written retrospectively after his return from captivity in 1945,  finishes on this day.

In spite of mounting casualties and ever-diminishing effective manpower,  the German forces did not manage to gain a foothold in Cassel. By midday the attacks slackened off and in the afternoon a 48th Division Royal Signals dispatch rider, who had miraculously managed to reach the town, arrived with the order to withdraw.

The fighting died down about 17.00 hrs. and it appeared that the enemy had withdrawn from their respective fronts. Movement could certainly be seen away to the north, but too far away to engage with fire. By now, Cassel had been severely damaged, but, apart from  occasional low flying German aeroplanes, all action had ceased.

After the order was received from BEF Headquarters that the garrison should withdraw that night and  try and make a rendezvous near Dunkirk,  Brigadier Somerset started to plan the breakout. He told his HQ staff to keep the news secret from the men as he realised that there was no realistic prospect of escape until nightfall. He identified the D137 road that headed North East towards Winnezele and Watou, and sent a detachment of the East Yorkshire Yeomanry to investigate the route.

Once the news of the evacuation had filtered through, the British troops had high hopes of being able to make a successful getaway. This was to be a fighting retreat and the soldiers were armed with rifles, Bren guns and grenades. What was not known then, however, was that this withdrawal to Dunkirk was intended  twenty-four hours earlier;  the delayed arrival of an earlier message now rendered withdrawal to the coast virtually impossible, as by now Cassel was completely surrounded and all approaches to the sea were effectively blocked by a German pincer movement at and around the Belgian town of Poperinghe.

Meanwhile, to the North of Cassel, the garrison of 14 men of the Gloucester Regiment under the command of Lt Cresswell at the le Peckel blockhouse were to hold out for three days of continuous attack, only surrendering when German infantry had overrun the blockhouse and all sounds of the battle to the south in Cassel had ceased.

After the conflict, and the German occupation of Cassel, there are archives of German photographs of abandoned 140th Regiment 18-pounders and equipment throughout Cassel, including Dead Horse corner on Rue Marechel Foch (by the Cemetery), in the Rue de Berges (where Major Christopherson was wounded) and in the Place du General Vandemme.

 

War Diary, The Final Entry, 29th May 1940.

An enemy attack was repulsed to the west of  CASSEL by the Infantry without the gunners being called upon for assistance. I was at Brigade H.Q. 145 Brigade. and was informed that a Signal Sargent from 48th Div. Signals had arrived telling the Brigadier that the CASSEL garrison was to retire at once to BERGUES  and that this message should have reached him during the night 28th/29th May.

The Brigadier [Somerset] decided that owing to the enemy having nearly surrounded his force he would not make the attempt until darkness. About 1030 hrs. the Brigadier asked me to harass the enemy mortars to the N.W. of CASSEL as they were giving the Infantry an unpleasant time. I pointed out to the Brigadier that although I was quite prepared to help, any firing done by the Regiment would bring down unpleasant consequences to his immediate surroundings but he pointed out that it would be a good thing to raise the tails of the Infantry a bit higher. I therefore took one gun with its detachment and fired on the mortars over open sights. Just as the gun had got the range other enemy mortars got the range of the gun and began plastering us. The result was that two of the detachment were killed and I was knocked unconscious’.

‘..The above is the end of my diary as far as I am able to give. The following are points which I think would be of use:-

At no time throughout the operations was the Regiment short of food and ammunition.

 I understand that on the afternoon of 29th the Brigadier ordered that all guns and equipment be destroyed and the dismounted Regiment to march with his Brigade. Most of them were killed or captured on the 30th.

N. Christopherson (Signature) Major, R.A.

20th June 1945