The French First Army units to the South of the British positions were defending open ground with no river barrier. Under severe pressure, these French units withdrew further West, and it soon became apparent that the German advance was in danger of overwhelming the right flank of the British Expeditionary Force’s defensive position on the Dyle. In order to maintain the allied front, GHQ ordered the British 1st Division to pivot to the West from Sint-Agatha-Rode to a line along the River Lasne.
1937 map showing River Dyle and village of Rhode-Sainte Agathe
140th Regiment’s withdrawal began at 9pm on 16th May after an hour-long bombardment in response to a SOS signal. The entire Regiment, HQ and supply line withdrew approximately 60 miles to the West towards the River Escaut via the suburbs of Brussels, through Steenvoort, Ninove, Enghien and Tournai.
The Regiment’s withdrawal to the new position on the Escaut line contrasted with their advance six days earlier. Then the Regiment had been welcomed by the Flemish population as they headed towards the German invasion of their country, this being the second such invasion within twenty years. Now, the roads were littered with abandoned vehicles and a huge refugee crisis had developed as towns were being devastated by German air attack, particularly affecting Enghien and Tournai. Belgian refugees blocked the road and considerably delayed the British withdrawal.
2nd Lt Rowland’s Diary
Thursday 16th May 1940. HULDENBERG still. Heavy firing all night on both sides but more on our own. Eased up towards 5 o’clock this morning. Surprised we have received no [?meteors]. Col [Odling] keeping very calm, must be tired as he has had trying time. My batman Hind [see Biography Section] very good at milking, getting food & doing general mess duties. We dubbed him “the farmer”.
Friday 17th May. HULDENBERG. Quietish day but still air activity. Orders to move at 2200 hrs. Adj’s truck ditched but got it out. RHQ moved out first with 2 Btys. Got lost in BRUSSELS. Awful business on roads with refugees and civilian cars. Even K/D vehicles nose to tail / four abreast. Very nervous about air attack. Very bright night. No planes seen.’
Saturday 18th May. ‘Terrifying journey. Everyone lost or roaming about. However I led RHQ to BERGHEM where we arrived about 4 am & met Chris [Major Christopherson]. Z3 [Col Odling’s staff car] smashed on route. Adj [Capt Hood] slept in road on valise & I in truck. Woken up early by Chris [Major Christopherson] & had to do recce. Had coffee in house with Stephen Muir. Everyone rested as much as possible in morning. Suddenly got orders to move again & recce parties moved to STEENHOOT. People getting panicky & short tempered. RHQ very browned off. RSM doing nothing about it or anything else for that matter. Major Chris [Christopherson] seems to put all his jobs on me instead of going for RSM. Can’t follow why they keep on RSM who doesn’t know job.’
Wagon Line at Breucq
A new Regimental supply depot (‘Wagon line’) was set up in the hamlet of BREQUE, situated midway between Lille and Brussels, just off the modern N48 motorway.
140 Rgt War Diary, National Archives
16th May 1940
‘In the afternoon I was sent to report to the Commanding Officer Royal Artillery 1st Division and on arrival was told that we were required to withdraw and defend the West of BRUSSELS. At 20.00 hrs. the Regiment opened fire in answer to an S.O.S. and at 21.00 hrs. the Regiment withdrew from their positions’.
17th May 1940
‘At 03.00 hrs. the Regiment arrived at VEER BERGEN. The Regiment had been delayed coming through BRUSSELS. The Regiment did not go into action. At 19.30 hrs. I was sent off to recce. an area around STEENHOUT. I returned to the Regiment and at 22.00 hrs. the Regiment moved off and arrived at 23.59 hrs and went into action in the area between STEENHOUT and the main road ENGHIEN–NINOVE. The Regiment did no firing and contact could not be made with either the Enemy or our own Infantry‘.
Commonwealth War Cemetery, Enghein
18th May 1940
‘At 09.30 hrs. the Regiment again withdrew and went into action near PEPERENDAAL, with wagon line in BREUCQ some time during the day. The task of the Regiment was to cover the approaches to GRAMMONT. I remained during the day at the wagon lines. About 18.00 hrs I went forward to the gun line to bring the Regiment out of action as we had been ordered to retire through TOURNAI . The Regiment moved off at 21.15 hrs. and marched all night. TOURNAI was in flames and many bridges had been blown and the city had three lines of traffic in the main road.’
Tournai’s strategic position on the River Escaut, and the British troops streaming West through the city, made it the subject of intense German bombing from 16th- 23rd May. By the 18th May much of the city was ablaze, the fires had become uncontrollable until British engineers created firebreaks by demolishing buildings with explosives. Tournai was finally occupied by German troops on 24th May.
Tournai in 1940 and 2019. The city of Tournai has been faithfully restored and is a world heritage site with a cathedral, cloth hall, medieval bridges and houses. 1940 images courtesy of Guided Battlefield Tours Ltd.