Thursday 30th – Friday 31st May 1940
As the columns of 145 Brigade men crossed the Belgian frontier during 30th May a further 53,823 men were being evacuated from Dunkirk. The flat and relatively featureless Flanders landscape had provided little in the way of natural cover for the escaping soldiers. As morning broke, many of the soldiers congregated for cover in the Bois St.Acaire, a plantation of approximately 50 acres of dense forest off the D947 road about 3 miles to the North of Winnezeele.
The Bois St Acaire, near Winnezeele
The pursuing Germans were aware that the woods were being used as a hideout and surrounded the wood with heavy weaponry and then used megaphones to demand surrender of the troops within.
Some of the surrounded Somerforce soldiers and officers opted to continue fighting using their rifles, small arms and Bren guns, however the German forces were armoured and had overwhelming superiority. There was an exchange of fire, the woods were heavily shelled which led to further deaths before many British soldiers surrendered and were taken into captivity. Luckily, unlike the situations at nearby Wormhout and Les Paradis, apart from indiscriminate shelling, no massacres of the captured soldiers were documented.
2nd Lieutenant Julian Fane
Julian Fane was a 19-year-old officer with the Gloucestershire Regiment at Cassel. Fane took part in a documentary filmed by the BBC and his story also features in Sebag-Montefiores’s book ‘Fight to the Last Man‘. He was leading a small group of men and his group hid in the Bois St Acaire, where Fane himself was wounded in the arm. At 03.00 on the 30th May they left the woods and hid in a barn.
During the day, the Germans arrived and the farmer climbed up a ladder and whispered to them to stay concealed under the straw. The next night, 31st May, the group crept past an enemy bicycle patrol which was fast asleep under a hedge beside a canal towpath.
On 2nd June, after covering more than twenty miles of enemy-held country, the group reached Dunkirk. Fane was was blown into the street after a bomb fell onto a terrace house close to the beach. He had arrived just in time to be evacuated back to England.
2nd Lt. Fane received the Military Cross for his part in the fighting withdrawal and went on to a most distinguished service for the rest of the war. He died in 2013 at the age of 92 years.
Another 140th Regiment soldier, Gunner Frederick Hart, was killed on this day (30th May) and is buried at Nine Elms Commonwealth War Cemetery near Poperinghe. This site is a few miles to the East of Watou, although it isn’t known whether Gunner Hart died of wounds sustained earlier or had managed to make further progress beyond Watou during the course of the day.
Gunner Johnson & Gunner Stringer
Gunner Eric Johnson was captured in Watou on 30th May, although we don’t know the circumstances or whether he was captured in the Cartland ambush. It is likely that Gunner Leonard Stringer was also captured in this area, as his family are aware that he was captured in a German ambush while ‘hiding in a ditch’.
Lance Bombardier West
My father, Eric West, now promoted to the rank of Lance Bombardier, probably made further progress towards Poperinghe as his date of capture was 31st May 1940. He states on his Liberation Questionnaire that he was captured alongside Sgt. Major Goddard. There is a family legend that during this time, when he had no officers with him, he encountered a German tank which he engaged with a hand grenade, but like most of his story it is impossible to confirm.
My father’s Liberation Questionnaire showing his date of capture as 31st May 1940 in Belgium.
Captain Tony Cartland
Nearby to Watou, Major Ronald Cartland’s brother, Captain J.A.H. (Tony) Cartland was also serving in the British Army. He had been killed the day before his brother, on the 29th May 1940, holding a rearguard trench to the north of Ypres. Surrounded and outnumbered the Germans had signalled to him to surrender but he replied he would ‘fight to the last‘. Although wounded he fought on until killed by a rifle shot.
He was reported as missing until the facts of his death were established in February 1942. Captain J.A.H. Cartland is buried at Zuidschote Churchyard, about 12 miles North-east of Watou.
Operation Dynamo and the Little Ships
Meanwhile, at Dunkirk during the afternoon of 31st May, the Armada of ‘little ships’ had arrived and had begun the task of ferrying men from the beaches onto waiting Royal Navy vessels. A further 160,000 men were being successfully evacuated.
From ‘The Queen’s Own Worcestershire Hussars‘ by D.R. Guttery
‘The weary garrison filed out of the town as darkness fell. The night was ablaze with battle, and the glare of the Very lights hindered the stealthy figures in their march. However, the various groups were all ambushed and only three officers and approximately 30 men made it to Dunkirk. Their sacrifice had not been in vain; the delay to the German advance allowed a formidable defensive perimeter to be established around Dunkirk and much of the B.E.F. had already been evacuated’.