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.
Colonel Julian Fane (Daily Telegraph)
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.
367 battery, 140th Field Regiment
Captain Cecil Hood
Captain Hood’s dairy gives a vivid account of his part in the breakout. It reads:-
29th May 1940: ‘Spiked [destroyed] everything, walked out of Cassel. Held up and chased by tanks. Captured at 10 am with Lt M Rowland and Lt Budd at Winnezeele.
30th May 1940: ‘Held up by machine gun fire at 5.30am. Shared bully with Lorne [Capt MacDougall], captured 10am after being chased by tanks and machine gun fire. Was there with Rowley [2nd Lt M Rowland], met Blossom [Lt Budd] in Winnezeale, was allowed to go back quarter-mile to farm to fetch pack I had thrown away. To Watou by truck. 5.30pm to Steenyoord. Twenty officers from different regiments, one in each car. Six German Calvary officers in the one I was in, one played violin or accordion all the way. One spoke English. Eldest was 23. Spent night in half ruined estaminet.
Assembled in Watou town square. Marched to Hazebrouke on May 31st.
Taken to Arras by truck on June 1st, then marched to Lecluse. Taken to Cambrai by truck on June 2nd, then to Ardennes via Dinant to Avensnes. Rest at Chateau d’Ardennes, slept in the yard.
June 4th- marched to Rochefort- 6 hrs with no stop.
June 5th- kept in a field with 1000’s of other POW’s.
June 6th- marched to Champion de Barriere, slept in stables.
June 7th- marched to Bastogne.’
Gunner Frederick Hart
Another 140th Regiment soldier, 18 year old Gunner Frederick Hart, was killed at the time of the Cassel breakout (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 Frederick Hart’s grave at Nine Elms Commonwealth War Cemetery
Gunner Albert Smith
Gunner Albert Smith is recorded as having been killed on 29th May and is also buried at Nine Elms Commonwealth War Cemetery. Albert Smith was 21 years old.
Gunner Eric Johnson
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. After capture both he and my father were marched Eastwards to Stalag VIB, located 2 miles east of the village of Versen in North-western Germany, close to the Dutch border.
Gunner Leonard Stringer
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’.
Gunner Ernest Bradbury
Gunner Ernest Bradbury – taken at Dursley 1939-40. With thanks to John Bradbury
Gunner Bradbury took part in the breakout and was one of the very few of 367 Battery’s men to manage the escape to the Dunkirk beaches. It sounds as if his escape route was similar to 2nd Lt. Julian Fane; he described being shelled in woods (possibly Bois St Acaire) where several of his companions were killed. Upon his arrival at Dunkirk he described helping a soldier with a gruesome abdominal wound that the helped carry to a boat before his own rescue.
After Dunkirk, Gunner Bradbury served in North Africa and Italy in the 75th Highland Heavy Regiment and, having survived the war, returned to the Dursley area where he had met his future wife while acting as a driver for Lt. Durand. Durand had been billeted at Yercombe Lodge, then a private house and now a retirement home. His sons, Bruce, John and Alvin Bradbury, have lived in Gloucestershire ever since.
Lance Bombardier Eric West
My father, Eric West, now promoted to the rank of Lance Bombardier, probably made further slightly further progress towards Poperinghe as his date of capture was 31st May 1940. However, the site of his capture was given in his military record as Watou. 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.
After capture my father was marched with Gunner Eric Johnson to Stalag VIB in North-western Germany.
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.
Captain James Anthony Cartland
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.
Cpt Cartland’s grave at Zuidschote Churchyard.
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’.