Cassel aftermath, 30th May 1940 onwards

Aftermath of the Battle of Cassel, 25th – 29th May 1940

The eventual capture of Cassel on 30th May 1940 was of great significance to the German army, both as a strategic, and symbolic, victory.  Twenty-two years previously, during the Great War, the town had been under continuous Allied control and had been the headquarters for both Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander and Field Marshall Herbert Plumer of the British 2nd Army.

German solders atop Marshal Foch’s statue at the summit of Mont Cassel.

Foch’s statue in 2023

140 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery

Of the estimated 321 men of 367 Battery,  it is thought that 102 men were killed or wounded, 216 men  were captured and just three managed to escape to Dunkirk, although these numbers are not accurately recorded.

145 Brigade- other Regiments

The following Regiments also fought as part of Somerforce at Cassel

4th Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry – 670 men, of whom 85 were killed or wounded and approximately 500 men participated in the Breakout, most of whom were captured.

2nd Gloucester Regiment– 164 men, of whom 128 were killed or wounded and 36 were captured.

5th Royal Horse Artillery.

East Riding Yeomanry (E.Y.R.)

The Welsh Guards.

1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry.

TA Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment.

53rd Worcester Yeomanry Anti-Tank Regiment, RA.

1st Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade.

Royal Engineers & Signals.

War-time Photography

German soldiers were encouraged to take personal photographs during the occupation of France, and official German film and photography crews were attached to the forward units.  By contrast, photography wasn’t allowed in the British Army, which explains the emphasis on a defeated Allied army in many of the images of the 1940 conflict.

After the German occupation of Cassel, there are numerous images of abandoned 140th Regiment assets, particularly the iconic images at ‘Dead Horse corner‘, on the Rue Marechel Foch, the Rue de Berges, the Grand Place and in the Place du General Vandamme.

Apart from the iconic picture taken at ‘Ma Campagne‘ (which is also the subject of a painting by Howard Gerrard) for obvious propaganda reasons there are few images available of the German tanks that had been disabled by the B.E.F.

It is estimated, however, that the battle at Cassel in May 1940 culminated in the destruction of nearly 100 tanks and the immediate landscape would have been littered with destroyed German assets.

Cassel ‘then & now’ photos- taken from the South East showing the destruction of the town square in the 1950s

German Tank disabled at ‘A Ma Campagne‘ 

Disabled German tank on C301 road, close to the South of Cassel, 1940 [and 2019].

The Panzer 35, number 511, of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Company 1er Zug. It had been destroyed at the road leading to Saint Marie Cappelle  and Oxelaëre at an establishment called ‘A Ma Campagne’. 

Howard Gerrard’s painting. 

140 Regiment 18-pounder in Cassel (probably in the Place de Vandamme some distance away) – the image of a gun pointed through a disrupted wall features in Gerrard’s painting

The anti-tank gun responsible was probably this Worcester Yeomany 2-Pounder positioned about two hundred feet above (the damaged tank is just visible in the background) .

The Grand Place, Cassel

Grand Place, Cassel with newly arrived German staff cars and lorries

Cassel sustained considerable damage during the battle. The museum was destroyed with all its Flemish artifacts. Rebuilding continued until the 1970’s

Grand Place, Cassel with abandoned 140th Regiment Bedford truck in foreground

Abandoned 140th Regiment Guy Quad tractor surrounded by German soldiers

Grand Place, Cassel 

Grand Place, Cassel

Looking down towards Grand Place, Cassel 

The Collegiale Notre-Dame 

140th Regiment Guy Quads outside the Collegiale Notre-Dame 

Collegiale Notre-Dame in 2019

Place du General Vandamme

General Plumer’s Great War HQ building, Place du General Vandamme, Cassel in 2019 

General Plumer’s Great War HQ (top centre) and old Tram station (left) Place du General Vandamme, Cassel in 2019 

The same scene May 30th 1940

Place du General Vandamme, Cassel after German occupation in 1940- showing the old Tram station (to the left) and General Plumer’s Great War HQ building (to the right). The photographs show abandoned 140th Regiment gun tractors, a field gun and ammunition trailer. 

Old Tram Station, Place du Gen. Vandamme, Cassel in 2019

Rue Alexis Bafcop

Abandoned BEF transports, Rue Alexis Bafcop, Cassel

Rue Alexis Bafcop in 2020

Abandoned BEF transports, Rue Alexis Bafcop, Cassel (with colourised image)

Rue Alexis Bafcop in 2020

Rue du Marechal Foch

Rue du Marechal Foch, Cassel after German occupation 1940 and in 2019. Abandoned 140th Regt. Gun tractor, ammunition trailer and field gun with a German staff car passing towards la Grand Place.  B&W image courtesy of Guided Battlefield Tours Ltd.

‘Dead Horse Corner’

Dead Horse Corner, Cassel with an anti-aircraft gun in the foreground and a 140 Regiment 18-pounder in the background

‘Dead Horse Corner’ in 2019

Chateau Masson, Mont des Recollets 

British Prisoners of War and RAMC staff captured at Cassel in 1940.  We are flying a Royal Artillery flag at Chateau Masson in 2019.  Although the right-hand 1940 image may have been taken in the grounds of the Chateau, it’s also possible it was taken at an assembly point for POWs at Zuytpeene.  B&W photograph courtesy of Guided Battlefield Tours Ltd.

British POWs assembled at an unknown location in Cassel, 1940.   Image courtesy of Guided Battlefield Tours Ltd

RAF airman captive in Cassel, summertime of 1940

A local history of Mont des Recollets and the Masson family

At the end of the 19th century, Armand Masson bought the Mont des Recollets and used it as an industrial sand pit. Railways were built to allow wagons to transport the sand.  As mining ceased, the mountain reverted to being completely wooded.

Mont des Recollets seen from Mont Cassel, looking East

Masson was an architect in his spare time and had his house built in the Neo-Norman chalet style on the South side of the hill, ‘La Grande Maison’ and hence the alternative name Chateau Masson.

His eldest son, Jacques Masson, died in the Great War in 1917 on the Chemin des Dames.  As a memorial, Masson built a stone tower at the top of the Mont.  In January 1938, the statue was struck by lightning and destroyed.

During 1940-45, many air battles took place above Mont des Récollets.  After the occupation, Armand Masson’s grandson, Hubert Masson, joined the French Resistance.  He would watch for downed Allied airmen and picked up a number of them, who he put into contact with the Resistance network. Hubert Masson also photographed the nearby V1 and V2 ramps, notably at Eperlèques and Eight Streets Wood, and secretly sent the images to London.

Hubert Masson died in 2005. His sister, Clothilde Mason, holds the family archive and is the source for much of this local historical material (with thanks to Paul Leroy Damon).

At the time of the fighting, only the two Masson sons remained at Cassel, the daughters and parents having left for Normandy to seek safety with members of their family. They had left at the outbreak of hostilities and returned to Cassel several weeks later. Being alone, the boys had hidden with their friends in the cellars of the neighbouring mansion at l’Hamer Houck.

German troops were billeted in the houses of Cassel, and several of the officers lodged with the Masson family in Chateau Masson. The Germans only left three small bedrooms and the kitchen for the six members of the family.  Clothilde Masson recalls that the German soldiers were ‘very proud’ and ‘arrogant’.  Their dazzling victory over the reputedly best army in the world made them feel superior.  In spite of their arrogance, they were apparently respectful and they paid for what they needed.

Clothilde Masson recalls one of the officers saying ‘in a month we will be eating oranges in Spain’.  He was referring to Hitler’s project to occupy Gibraltar with Franco’s assistance, as part of ‘Operation Felix’. In fact, ‘Felix’ was never enacted because of Franco’s lack of co-operation, influenced partly by the pre-war Berard-Jordana agreement with France and partly by Franco’s obdurate personality (Hitler later famously stated he’d rather have his teeth pulled than have to meet with Franco).

In 1943, Rommel, as part of his preparations for the expected Allied invasion in the Pas de Calais, had the trees of Mont des Recollets felled by the Todt organisation and lined the area with anti-tank traps and barbed wire.

At the end of the war, the bare ground was reforested to its current densely wooded state by Mme Jean Masson.

L’Hamer Houck

L’Hamer Houck is one of the grand houses on the Southern slopes of Cassel. During the Cassel battle, one of German Field Marshal Von Bloemberg’s sons was killed by British forces in the grounds of the Chateau.

During the occupation, the house was used to billet German officers.

Chateau L’Hamer Houck

German Occupation of Cassel

A commandant was installed at Cassel in the Chatellerie de Schoebeque.  In the Great War that iconic building had been used as Marechal Foch’s headquarters.  It is now a local hotel.

The Cassel commander was an Ortskommandatur, a local and relatively junior commander.  He reported to the Oberfeldkommandtur based in Lille.  The Gestapo was also installed in the Chatellerie, dedicated to the location of Resistance fighters.

Chatellerie de Schoebeque in 2019

During the 1944-45 V1 bombing campaign against London, one rogue V1 turned around the hill from its mobile launcher and exploded there. Sadly, the explosion killed a child who was playing on the hill.  The Germans apparently imported Russian prisoners of war to complete the dangerous ignition process for the V1s.

Buildings destroyed by the 1940 bombardment could not be rebuilt until the Allied liberation in 1944. The eventual rebuilding of Cassel continued into the late 1970’s.

The Liberation of Cassel, 1944

Four years after it’s occupation, Cassel was liberated by advancing Polish Sherman tank troops heading from St Omer under the command of General Maczek on 6th September 1944.  The Germans had fled the city and the liberation was unopposed.

Cassel’s houses were covered with Allied flags . There were several spontaneous ceremonies in the Grand Place, at the foot of the War Memorial and the statue of Marshal Foch. The Polish forces crossed Cassel to head towards the Belgian border which they reached the same afternoon.

A few days later, they were  replaced by soldiers from the Czech brigade who installed a depot for armored vehicles in Place de Vandamme (then temporarily called Plumer Square).

Allied Sherman tank, Grand Place Cassel, 6th September 1944

Grand Place, war damage taken in 1946

Cassel Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery 

Cassel Commonwealth War Cemetery contains 70 graves from the May 1940 battle as well as later burials of RAF airmen 1940-45, and graves of soldiers (including Czech army soldiers-visible in the foreground) involved in the liberation of Cassel during 1944-45.

The plaques commemorating Somerset’s Gloucester Regiment and the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry were relocated to this cemetery in the 1990’s from their previous position in the Grand Place.

Cassel Commonwealth War Cemetery in 2020

Plaque commemorating the Gloucester Regiment, Cassel Cemetery

In proud memory of Brigadier The Honourable NF Somerset CBE, D.S.O., M.C., and the 228 officers and men of The 2nd & 5th Battalions, The Gloucestershire Regiment, who fought and died from Waterloo to Cassel & Ledringham covering the evacuation of the British and French forces at Dunkirk 24-29th May 1940′

Plaque commemorating the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, Cassel Cemetery

Dedicated to the memory of the officers and men of the 4th (TA) Battalion Ox & Bucks Light Infantry who fought and died from Waterloo to Cassel covering the evacuation of British and French forces at Dunkirk. 14th-29th May 1940