The Breakout (part 1 of 2)

The Breakout from Cassel, 29-30th May 1940

The Cassel garrison’s 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.

East Yorkshire Yeomanry

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 where the majority were captured, or killed.

Major Milton

There is no written record of 367 Battery’s movements after Cassel.  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 events when Major Edward Milton, a senior officer of the Regiment, was wounded and captured in the vicinity of Winneezle.   His driver,  William Martin was captured with him.  Sadly, Major Milton later died of his wounds at the age of 47 years in a German Field Hospital and is buried at Longueness Souvenir Cemetery in St Omer.

Driver William Martin 

Driver Martin was a POW and marched to Cambrai.  He was then sent by train into Germany.  He eventually manged to evade his captors and escaped back into France via Marseilles in August 1940. In 1941, for his daring in captivity, William Martin was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Ambush at Watou

A large group of 140th Regiment’s men were captured in a column led by Major Ronald Cartland MP after a surprise attack by German Panzers just outside Watou on the morning of 30th May.   Along with Cartland, at least six soldiers of the Regiment, including 2nd Lieutenant Graham Cook, Lance Bombardier James Hardy, Gunner Horace Nicholls, Gunner Sydney Vangrosky, Gunner Alfred Thorpe, and Gunner John Duffield  were killed in this ambush.  They were all buried in a temporary burial ground on the D17 Houtkerkestraat about 200 yards North of Watou.  This group appears to be the largest number of 140th Regiment casualties who died together throughout Word War Two, which together with the unknown number of artillerymen captured nearby, makes Watou a site of particular significance for the 140th Regiment.

 

Satellite image of the burial plot at Watou, courtesy of Guided Battlefield Tours Ltd. It contained the largest number of 140 Regiment casualties in one place, six members of 367 Battery killed on 30th May 1940 were buried here. All the British casualties were re-interred at Hotton Commonwealth War Cemetery in 1948.

 

 

The temporary burial ground, Watou.  A plot of land that was purchased by the Mayor of Watou in 1940 for the town’s military and civilian casualties and which has been left sacrosanct since. 

 

 

Roadside ditch directly opposite the temporary burial ground at Watou, a possible site for the capture and deaths of Major Cartland and his column.

 

Ronald Cartland, and all the British soldiers who died with him, were re-interred in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Hotton, Belgium in 1948.

 

Major Ronald Cartland RA, MP.  Photograph taken before departure to France in 1940 from ‘My Brother Ronald’ by Barbara Cartland.

Grave Concentration Report Form showing Ronald Cartland MP and the names of eight 140th Regiment Soldiers who were reburied at Hotton Cemetery in Belgium, courtesy Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 

 

There are two accounts of this ambush, that occurred at about 08.30 on 30th May while under cover in a roadside ditch parallel to the D17 road, Houtkerkestraat.

D. R Guttery wrote in his ‘The Queen’s Own Worcestershire Hussars 1922-1956:

Major Cartland, with Lieuts. Woodward, Hutton-Squire and Freeker, and some 50 other ranks, were suddenly spotted and pinned down by enemy fire in the ditches bordering a lane about 20 miles from Cassel. At about 8am three tanks converged on them. They were cornered and with no anti-tank weapons. As Major Cartland rose from the ditch he was shot instantly. Lieut. Hutton-Squire was some hundred yards away from the head of the column, returning the German fire. When he saw the situation he called to Sergeant Prosser: “They won’t capture me,” and as he ran off into a small plantation, he was chased by a German machine-gunner. A burst of fire told of his sad fate.’

Lieut. Derek Woodward, 209 Battery, Worcestershire Yeomanty, wrote an account from captivity on 4th January 1941 that features in Barbara Cartland’s book ‘My Brother Ronald. It says:

We were making our way about 2 miles east of Watou along a ditch bordering a lane, but we were not moving very fast as [the] mist was rising and the country was getting open. Ronald called me forward. While with him we saw German tanks going into action against other troops half a mile ahead. We decided to conceal ourselves, but later three tanks converged on us and we had to get up. As Ronald rose he was hit in the head by a bullet and [was] killed instantly. I was about five yards away with 50 men following. We were marched off [into captivity] immediately.’

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