140th Regiment’s Breakout to Watou, Wednesday 29th May- Thursday 30th May 1940

The withdrawal began under the cover of darkness at 21:30. Vehicles and equipment were smashed and the wounded were collected together and left with food and water. Groups of able bodied survivors, including men of the 140th Regiment,  assembled between Cassel and the Mont des Recollets and left with personal weapons and equipment and what rations could be carried.

The main breakout took place at midnight. Columns of troops headed in a North-easterly direction cross-country parallel to the D137 Road. Their retreat was covered by a rearguard of the East Yorkshire Yeomanry.  The soldiers of 140th Regiment had been, in effect, converted to infantrymen for their escape, having destroyed  their guns and equipment in Cassel.  They found their route illuminated by German searchlights and flares and, as the morning light emerged and an early morning mist started to lift, the men encountered pockets of German forces around the village of Winnezeele and the Franco-Belgian border and the majority were captured, or killed, in this area.

For the first time in the 1940 conflict, at this point there is no written record of 140th Regiment’s movements, Major Christopherson the War Diary author, had been left behind  injured at Cassel. There is also virtually no information available from other sources, although there is an account of Major Edward Milton, a senior officer of the 140th regiment, who was wounded and captured in this area.  His driver, Driver William Martin who was captured with him, eventually manged to evade his captors and escape via Marseilles in August 1940 having been marched to Cambrai and then sent by train into Germany as a POW. In 1941 Driver Martin was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Sadly, Major Milton died of his wounds in a German Field Hospital and is buried at Longueness Souvenir Cemetery in St Omer.

A large group of 140th Regiment’s men were captured in a column with Major Ronald Cartland MP after surprise attack by German Panzers just outside Watou in the morning of 30th May.  Along with Cartland, at least seven soldiers of the Regiment, including 2nd Lieutenant Graham Cook, Lance Bombardier James Hardy, Gunner Horace Nicholls, Gunner Sydney Vangrosky, Gunner Alfred Thorpe, Gunner John Duffield and Gunner Edwin Strahan were killed in this ambush . They were all buried in a temporary burial ground on the Houtkerkestraat about 200 yards North of Watou. They were reburied in 1948 in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Hotton.

One other 140th Regiment soldier, Gunner Frederick Hart, was killed on this day (30th May) and is buried at Nine Elms Commonwealth War Cemetery near Poperinghe, This site is a few miles to the East of Watou, although it isn’t known whether he had died of wounds sustained earlier or had managed to make further progress beyond Watou during the course of the day.

Gunner Eric Johnson was captured in Watou on 30th May, although we don’t know whether he was captured in this ambush.  My father, Lance Bombardier Eric West, also probably made further progress towards Poperinghe as his date of capture was 31st May 1940.  There is a family legend that during this time he had no officers with him and had encountered a German tank which he engaged with a hand grenade, but like most of his story it is impossible to confirm and was never really spoken about.


From ‘The Queen’s Own Worcestershire Hussars by D.R. Guttery

The weary garrison filed out of the town as darkness fell. The night was ablaze with battle, and the glare of the Very lights hindered the stealthy figures in their march’.

‘However, the various groups were all ambushed and only three officers and approximately 30 men made it to Dunkirk. Their sacrifice had not been in vain; the delay to the German advance allowed a formidable defensive perimeter to be established around Dunkirk and much of the BEF had already been evacuated’.