Action at Wannehain. 19th-21st May 1940

The River Escaut, 19th May 1940
The River Escaut

Battle of the Escaut 

The British Expeditionary Force took up a new defensive position on the River Escaut (or Scheldt) a more substantial river obstacle that runs through Tournai and Ghent before joining the North Sea.

Ere/ St Maur

The Regiment took up position on 19th May.  It was on a ridge behind the Escaut between the villages of Ere and St Maur in Belgium, on the Rue du Chateau that connects the N507 and N508 roads near Wannehain.


It was here that after heavy shelling by the Germans, the Regiment sustained a combat death on 21st May.  Lance Bombardier Thomas Bennett of 366 Battery was killed, and three others, including Sergeant ‘Slogger‘ Slines, were wounded in the attack.  In addition, three of 366 Battery’s twelve guns were put out of action.

Thomas Bennett was a 19-year-old from Southwark, London. He was buried in a ceremony officiated by a padre from the Durham Light Infantry and is now interred in the Bruyelle Cemetery, adjacent to one of the main bridges carrying the N52 road across the river Escaut.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also records another casualty on the 19th May, 26-year-old Gunner William Davies.  Gunner Davies’s death is not mentioned in the War Diary and it is unclear whether he may have died of injuries sustained earlier, as he is buried with other members of the Regiment killed later in the conflict, at Hotton Cemetery, well away from the Escaut.

German advance 

The British fought valiantly along the line of the Escaut river, the bridges were all destroyed by Royal Engineers and there was desperate hand-to-hand fighting in that sector.  There were two VC’s awarded.  Lt-Colonel Brook’s ‘Grand Party’ describes a request from the infantry to position field guns (inappropriately in his view) to fire at point-blank range at German occupied warehouses on the riverbank.  He advised the use of shorter-range mortar weapons, to be told that the mortar platoons only had smoke shells and no high explosives were available to them.

Grand Party‘ also describes how the furious German assault with shelling, mortars and machine guns continually disrupted communication lines between the Regiment’s Gun positions and forward observation posts on the Western bank of the Escaut river.

Lieutenant Baxter, F troop 367 Battery

Lt (acting Captain) Ronald Baxter, commanding F Troop of 367 Battery,  described being in a forward OP (Observation Post) in woods at St Maur on 21st May during the intense German shelling that inflicted casualties on 366 Battery’s position at Ere.

He wrote ‘..I clearly saw the shells exploding amongst the houses [at Ere].  I heard later that some guns were lost and casualties suffered amongst the crews. Then the Germans gunners gave their attention to the wood I was in ……Now we were for it…’

Luckily Baxter and his two Gunners survived the onslaught by taking shelter in their pre-prepared slit trench.

140th Regiment’s HQ at Ere

The Regimental War Diary more detailed grid reference (H 912291) locates the farmhouse which served as HQ during the Escaut campaign, and the precise location of the two fields, about 300 yards apart, where 366 and 367 Batteries were deployed.

War time map showing Tournai in Belgium and Lille in France. The Franco-Belgian border is the black hatched line and the hamlet of Ere is just visible, marked to the South-east of Tournai alongside a railway track (now removed). 

2nd Lt Rowland’s Diary

Sunday 19th May 1940. ‘Arrived STEENHOOT 0100. No action. I was only one awake all night. Nothing to do. Woke Col [Odling] 5.30, left on recce. Led off RHQ 8.30 to STEINHOUT via LUST. Had to recce RHQ & established in school. Got everything set up then orders to move 15.30. Had drink with Col [Odling] in estaminet during air raid. TOURNAI burning badly as we went thro’. Terrific jam of vehicles. Badly policed. No map. Lost my way. Difficult to keep eyes open. Were following Col [Odling] -now no sign of him for hours.

Monday 20th May. After chasing about inside French border eventually reached WANNEHEIM. Packed with units and vehicles. Bed 0400 in truck. Rose 6.30 went to COUTICHES for maps. Dump disappeared. Found 5RHA [Royal Horse Artillery] saw Berke. Terrible journey back- roads packed with French (?retreating). Way back barricaded with anti Tk [tank] defences. Eventually succeeded in getting thro. Moved again to ERE near ESPLECHIN. RHQ in Farm. Considerabel enemey air activity.’

Tuesday 21st May. Day spent digging & reinforcing. Heavy firing both sides during night. Col [Odling] came & relieved me at 5am. Reported enemey breaking through N & also S. Attack heavy at ST MAUR. [?Jeffery] troublesome during night……Many traces of tanks. Casualities to guns & personnel heavy. 366 Bty did good work & inflicted heavy casualities.’

140 Rgt War Diary, National Archives

19th May 1940

‘At 02.00 hrs. the Regiment arrived at WANNEHAIN and bivouacked. At 08.00 hrs. I was sent to a recce. position for the Regiment in the area East of ERE. The Regiment followed later during the day and went into action as follows:- 366 Battery about H913288 and 367 Battery about H913292, with H.Q. in a farm about H912291’.

21st May 1940

‘During the day the Regiment went into action. The enemy heavily shelled the gun line and 1 Troop of 366 Battery had 1 man killed and 3 wounded and 3 guns put out of action’.

366 Battery was positioned on the field marked by the RA flag, Regimental HQ was the farmhouse in the right-hand image.

Satellite map, courtesy of Guided Battlefield Tours Ltd, showing 140th regiment’s two battery positions (366 and 367 Battery) and HQ in the farmhouse in Ere. The village of St Maur and the Escaut River is to the South.

367 Battery near Ere
367 Battery was positioned here with Ere church spire visible in the background

Lance Bombardier THOMAS BENNETT

Died 22/05/1940, Aged 19. Bruyelle Commonwealth War Cemetery. Son of William and Clara Bennett.