Somerforce in Cassel 25th May 1940

Saturday 25th May 1940

367 Battery joins 145 Brigade (Somerforce) at Cassel

The French army had managed to stall the German advance temporarily and so Macforce was disbanded.  New orders were given by Lord Gort to the commander of 145 Brigade, 46-year-old Brigadier Hon. Nigel Fitzroy Somerset, to proceed from his position in Nomain (south of Lille) to Cassel and Hazebrouck.  This ad-hoc force, 145 Brigade, was to form the ‘Somerforce‘. The situation was by this stage very fluid, the order to create Somerforce at Cassel was given at 15:00 hrs on the 24th May, and had followed a quickly rescinded order delivered at 07:00 hrs on 24th May for Somerset’s 145 Brigade to head to Calais.

Extract from Somerset’s War Diary describing orders for the formation of Somerforce at Cassel on 24th May 

Operation Dynamo

Unbeknown to its commanders at the time, Somerforce’s task was to hold Cassel at all costs in order to delay the German advance while the Operation Dynamo evacuation was underway at the beaches in Dunkirk.

Brigadier NF Somerset - ‘Somerforce’
Brigadier N.F. Somerset – Commander of 145 Brigade ‘Somerforce’

140 Rgt’s Arrival at Cassel

The men and equipment of 367 Battery 140th Field Regiment moved Northwards along the D933 road from Nieppe forest, via Caestre, to Cassel.

Cassel (to the left) and Chateau Masson/Mont des Recollets (to the right) as seen from the road from Caestre heading North

As they arrived, Brigadier Mason-Macfarlane, with a smattering of French anti-aircraft artillery, had been in command of the garrison.  Cassel had been heavily bombed with civilian and French army casualties and an itinerant civilian population that included many Belgian refugees.

The 140th Regiment’s War Diary describes the Regiment’s arrival at Cassel on 24th May and the dispositions of the troops. 367 Battery would have been one of the first B.E.F. units to arrive at the town, and as the main German thrust appeared to be coming from the South West, the Regiment’s supply depot was set up away from the main garrison at the village of Eecke, a few miles along the D916/933 road near St -Sylvestre-Cappel.

Apparently, some annoyance was expressed by the other artillery units that, by arriving first, the 140th Regiment had been able to choose the best available gun positions.

2nd Lt Rowland’s Diary

Saturday 25th May 1940. ‘Had to trace map for Col [Odling]…Busy day on phone. Top storey of Chateau [Masson] used as RHQ OP. Col [Odling] keeping very calm is spite of everything. 367 [Battery] not answering too well. Pity we haven’t got 366 [Battery] with us. Col Durant (Gp Cmd) called in morning. Capt Welsh, 2nd i/c of 5th RHA [Royal Horse Artillery]. They left 1 Tp attached to us. Col [Durant] now CRA [Commander Royal Artillery]’.

Brigadier Somerset arrives Cassel, 25th May 

Brigadier Somerset, en route from Nomain and shortly to take over command at Cassel, arrived at 06:00hrs on the 25th May.

Somerset’s War Diary describing his arrival at Cassel at 06:00 on 25th May 1940

1940 Map of Cassel and surrounding villages

Sketch map of Cassel and surroundings

Mont des Recollets- 140 Rgt RHQ

Regimental HQ was set up in the Chateau Masson on the D916 road, just to the South of the junction with the D948.  This house still stands and is now known as the Grande Maison Reception, an event and reception centre.  In 1940, it was also used as a Field Hospital, and some of the hospital equipment is still to be found on the upper floors.

Regimental HQ at Chateau Masson on the approach road to the South-East of Cassel, this was over-run and HQ had to be re-sited in the town centre.

East Yorkshire Yeomanry

Sketch map from East Yorkshire Yeomanry War Diary showing E.Y.R. positions on Mont des Recollets, 27-28th May 1940. North is orientated to the right.

140 Regiment’s Positions and RHQ, 25-28th May 1940

Satellite map of Cassel, courtesy of Guided Battlefield Tours Ltd, showing positions of Regimental Headquarters at Chateau Masson (marked HQ), and ‘F’ troop gun positions at HQ and at the D948 roadside – position (1), and two troops in the woodland towards the South – ‘D’ Troop (2) and North – ‘E’ Troop (3) of the wooded area representing the Mont des Recollets. 

The Regiment subsequently moved their guns into Cassel town itself, including the Central Place (4) and the Place du Gen. Vandamme (5).

‘F’ Troop’s Position

Capt Ronald Baxter was Troop leader of F troop, positioned on the main approach road into Cassel around the Chateau Masson.  His diary reads:

’24th May. Germans raid the town, unpleasant. Battery to take up positions on outskirts.  First area allotted to F Troop waterlogged.  Finally selected my Troop position, guns sited along a track leading to cottage. Dug in.  Part of ‘Mac’ force. M.T. to Eecke wagon lines. Took over cottage as Troop H.Q. Regimental H.Q. behind position. D Troop on left further back.  E Troop away on the right facing.  Jack May, Charles Bennett, myself, three Batmen, two drivers and two a/c’s took over cottage. Owner gone. A.A. gun mounted in field behind. Jack May’s truck parked outside, also Charles Bennett’s bike.’

The Chemin du Mt des Recollets track that leads to the Southern Gun position (‘F’ Troop) shown on the Satellite map.

‘D’ Troop’s Position

View from the Southernmost gun position looking to the South-East, Monts des Cats visible in the distance. I suspect this site was ‘D’ Troop and was most likely where my father Eric West was positioned.

‘D’ Troop Personnel

Troop Cmdr        Capt L. MacDougall

Troop GPO          2/Lt D. Budd

Troop Leader     2/Lt D.E. Waterman

Troop SM            BSM F. Goddard

OP Asst                L/Sgt  Munyard

No1                      Sgt L Mears

                              L/Bmbr Eric West

‘E’ Troop Position

View from the Northernmost gun position (E- Troop) at the Mt Des Recollets looking Northeast towards Winnezeele Church spire.  The Regiments’ C/O Lt Col Odling was injured here on 28th May. 

Somerset’s Garrison at Cassel

Somerset’s Cassel garrison consisted of two Infantry battalions, the 4th Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (OBLI) and the 2nd Gloucestershire Regiment, who were to form the core of the defence of the town.  The Cassel garrison also consisted of the 143 Field Ambulance Unit, the East Yorkshire Yeomanry, two companies of machine gunners from the Cheshire Regiment, various Royal Engineers and Major Cartland’s 53rd (Queens Own Worcestershire Hussars) Anti-Tank Regiment.  Major Ronald Cartland was a serving Conservative Member of Parliament for a Birmingham constituency, and had been a supporter of Winston Churchill during the appeasement crisis of 1938-9.

Brigadier Somerset’s first HQ was in the (now rebuilt) Town Hall, Cassel 

Unaware of the whereabouts, and the proximity, of the German panzers Brigadier Somerset set about organising the rather disparate forces now under his command.  His War Diary describes the allocation of infantry and artillery units throughout Cassel and the surrounding 10 mile front.

Somerset’s War Diary 25th May 1940

Somerset also made a decision to evacuate the remaining civilian population, who were suffering from a lack of food and living in considerable squalor under fire.  Suspicion remained about the possibility of ‘5th Columnists’ particularly among some of the Flemish refugee population, as referred to in the Gloucester Regiment’s War diary: –

Gloucester Regt War Diary 24-25th May 1940

German Halt Order- 24th May 1940

Fortunately the day before, 24th May 1940, after a British tank counter-attack at Arras that had made German commanders aware of the potential danger of outstripping their supply lines, Hitler had issued his ‘Halt Order’, thereby buying Somerset vital time to organise the defence.

Dead Horse Corner

British troops arriving at Cassel soon realised that the town had already suffered badly from aerial bombing.  Much of the town was badly damaged and the men were met with the grisly sight of a grimacing dead horse and dead French soldiers scattered across the cobbled road as they climbed the curving D933 road to the town centre, the bend on the road by the cemetery was dubbed the ‘Dead Horse Corner

‘Dead Horse Corner’ in 2019 

Cassel as a fortress

Cassel commands a hilltop position that straddles the D916 road, one of the main routes to Dunkirk.  Mont Cassel, at 250 foot, together with the neighbouring Mont des Recollets, is by far the highest and most prominent feature for miles around. During World War 1, the town had been successively the headquarters of Ferdinand Foch as commander of French armies in the North and of General Herbert Plumer as commander of the British Second Army.

Statue of Marechal Foch on the summit of Mont Cassel

Cassel was rapidly made into a tank-proof fortress.  Positions (mainly in town houses and outbuildings) were strengthened, windows were blocked, curtains and glass removed, roads were barricaded, trenches dug, and sandbagged positions were created.  These preparations, and the damage to property, created friction with civilian residents who were eventually ordered to leave and evacuated by bus.  French machine guns and anti-tank weapons and detachments were utilized to assist in the defence.

Machine guns, however, were often hampered by lack of good fields of fire; while the 140th Regiments’ 18-pounders found themselves limited owing to difficulty achieving sufficient elevation owing to the terrain.

Gloucester Regt and the Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

The town being divided approximately into two halves by a north-south grid line; the 4th Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry (OBLI) held the East of the D933/D218 junction; the 61st Gloucester Regiment held the Western sector, including the gentler slopes onto the Flanders plain.

Cassel looking north towards Dunkirk

Mont Cassel looking North towards the coast and Dunkirk 

Le Pequel Bunker at Hardifort

Later, on the 26th May, No. 8 Platoon under 2/Lieut. R.W. Cresswell was sent to occupy a partially completed blockhouse at Le Pequel about two miles out of Cassel on the D916 road to Dunkirk.

Le Pequel bunker, North of Cassel

Lt Cresswell’s heroic defence of this isolated Bunker position has become part of the legend of the Dunkirk story and the rearguard action at Cassel.

Picket villages, Zuytpene and Bavinchove

The rest of “A” Company was sent to occupy the village of Zuytpene, on the railway line to the West of the town.  A company of the 4th Oxford and Bucks was similarly sent out to occupy Bavinchove, to the South of Cassel with a station and level crossing at the junction of the railway and the D933.

Calm before the storm

The day of 25th May was relatively quiet, reflecting the pause in the German advance following the 24th May Halt Order.  It provided an opportunity for the Somerforce to continue preparations to defend the town.  The whereabouts of the Germans were still unknown on 26th May and the day was largely engaged in reconnoitering the surrounding countryside.

British Military map of Cassel 1940, with thanks to Barry Ross 

German Perspective

German situation map 26th May 1940. British fortifications at Cassel, which the Germans intend to circumvent by passing to the South (6th & 8th Panzer Army) and to the North. From ‘Dunkirk-German operations in France 1940‘ by Hans-Adolf Jacobsen

140th Regiment War Diary, National Archives

25th May 1940

‘From Regimental H.Q. we could see much shelling and bombing activity in HAZEBROUKE. CASSEL was again heavily bombed. At the same time there was a big battle going on to the South. I cannot remember any movement of enemy Infantry and Tanks being reported during the day in the CASSEL area.’

 26th May 1940

‘This was a peaceful day. There were some deserted French 75 mm. guns in CASSEL for some reasons unknown’.